Tips From The Back Of The Pack

wpid-FxCam_1272290632827.jpgSome race for the glory of the podium.  Some race for the thrill and challenge.  A lot of us are just racing the cutoff times and for the satisfaction of a strong DFL* finish.  I am a one of those types who tends to live in that neighborhood of riders that cause checkpoints to be staffed until the very last minute, a place called The Back Of The Pack.

The Back Of The Pack isn’t a glorious place, but it doesn’t have to be without its good times and fun.  I’ve put together a few tips and tricks here to help those of us BOTP’ers be more successful at last place.

  • Ride your bike: You don’t have to have a personal coach or even a HRM (although monitoring heart rate/power is pretty helpful for distributing physical resources during long distance riding), you really need to simply ride your bike. Ride as much as you can, take a rest day or two here and there.  If you are planning to do a 200 mile event, work your endurance up by riding longer hours in the saddle. Once you can put in a couple 80 mile or more days in a row, you can probably finish that DK200.  The main point is that if you don’t ride your bike, you aren’t going to be any good at riding your bike.
  • Navigation Is Salvation: If you are off the back and relying on cue cards for direction, PAY ATTENTION to what is going on around you.  Riding solo, or even in a group of folks who are having their own struggles, can end poorly if you aren’t practicing the three R’s for yourself: Reading the Cue Card, Remembering The next turn or sequence of turns, Reacting to the landmarks.  It’s easy to sit on someone’s wheel and hope they are navigating properly, but face it: self supported means you are on your own. Too many times racers have taken wrong turns and added to their race mileage because of trusting the person up front, not having a proper light to see road signs, or simply spacing off.  Remember that these events are difficult enough without adding to the challenge with your own personal bonus mileage.  Pay attention to navigation at all times.  Getting lost sucks.

READ, REMEMBER, REACT. Learn it, Live it.

  • Conserve Energy:  It’s REALLY tempting to go hard off the line.  This is probably one of the biggest fails.  You’ve prepared for your event, your legs are feeling fresh, and there is a veritable Excitement Buffet buzz buzzing around the start line feeding your confidence level. The signal happens. It’s go time. Do you:
    • A) Take off like a jackrabbit with the lead pack and blow up shortly after starting?
    • B) Stick with the middle of the pack until you can’t maintain pass and drop off the back or
    • C) Ride your own pace?

It’s always best to ride at your own pace, especially if keeping up with whatever group you’ve opted to ride with is draining your physical resources. Ride smart and if you are feeling fresh at the half way or past, kick it up and burn it on in!

  • Know What To Wear: Some of these events span the course of 24 or 36 hours, and you will see temperature drops and possibly erratic weather changes.  This kind of goes back to riding your bike. When you are doing said riding, do some in shit conditions. Make note of what clothing/shoes/gloves/eyewear works for what temperature/conditions.  I have a mental log of temp ranges and which base layers/outer layers/socks, etc work within those ranges.  I also do a stupid thing I call Training Cold, which involves long rides in cold weather being purposely under-dressed for the conditions (I pack extra layers in a seat pack for safety sake – in case my mom is reading this). This prepares me for sudden unexpected weather changes out on the road when maybe extra warm gear didn’t get packed, or I just don’t feel like stopping to layer up.  My point is DON’T OVERDRESS, if you are super warm and toasty on a 30 degree 4am starting line, you will sweat out in 5 miles. I see folks out on 50 degree days on the bike trails with full on winter gear, helmet covers, lobster claw gloves, and it’s kind of ridiculous. These fine folk are probably not going on a century ride like that, but still.   DON’T OVERDRESS. Sweating out/overheating is a sure fire fast track to failure.
  • Don’t Over Pack: The more weight you are carrying on your bike, the more you are pushing up hills. If you are riding gravel, you are most likely pushing up a LOT of hills, and if you are just fit enough to pull a DFL or back of the pack, an extra pound or five can be enough to wear you down more quickly.  If you are riding a 5-6 hour gravel event do you really need to pack a spare tire?  If you have a drop bag option at the mid point, do you need 6 water bottles on your bike?  Take a good look at what you are using during training. What do you use on the regular? How far are you riding? How far is the event? What are the conditions of the gravel?  Are your tires up to the task? How much food do you really need to carry?  So many questions that can be answered by a pretty simple formula: If you didn’t need it for 100’s of miles of training/preparation, you probably won’t need it for a 100k event.  This subject deserves a post of its own.
  • IMG_5743

    Bring some comfort er…food

    Bring a few comforts: Yes, don’t over pack, but bring something that motivates you or can comfort you if you pull out. I bring a flask of Wild Turkey 101 on almost every long ride, and on TIV8 I packed that and some Marlboro Reds (yes, I once in a while have a smoke with my whiskey. It’s a terrible habit and I know it).  When my ride went south right out the gate (cold, rainy 4am start, mechanicals from mile 10 on, etc) I reached a point where it was do or die, try to squeak through CP1 or hang a right on the highway and tailwind back to town. I had some whiskey and a smoke, weighed options, and made the hard call to drop out.  You don’t have to drink or smoke, I might be a little extreme, but bring one of your favorite candies or a picture of your family, or an iPod with your favorite playlist, or whatever will comfort you when the chips are fucked.

  • IMG_6658


    Pick The Right Bike: Obviously, if you have one bike for everything, take that bike. Beats walking 100k.  If you have some options, pick the one that is most comfortable, is geared properly for the amount of climbing, and has the proper tire for the terrain.  You don’t need to try being a hero and ride your loaded fat bike through 100k of climbing, I’ve seen it happen and it wasn’t pretty. I’ve also made the mistake of trying too much climbing on a bike geared for flatter riding (or better climbers), and that kicked my ass entirely too fast.  Come to think of it, I didn’t do great on that bike riding a flat course either.  It was a rough year… Ride what you are comfortable with, could be a Cross Check, a Fargo, a Routt 45, a vintage steel Bianchi, a Beargrease, whatever it is run what gets you to the finish without fighting you the whole way there.

  • PICK THE RIGHT TIRE: OOOOOOWEEEEEE this is a doozy.  We have a 100k gravel race here in Central Iowa called CIRREM.  It’s held around the end of February and it has seen weather from 15 degrees and somehow raining (that year was really weird), to 60 and sunny with a mild breeze.  It’s generally known to be a shit show. On some of the more nasty years, the week leading up to the race has social media buzzing with the query “what tire should I ride?”  If it’s 25 out and the roads are a fresh sheet of ice, don’t try riding slick 28’s. (or old chewed up Michelin Mud 35’s, I did that year and ended up with a cracked rib from wrecking on the ice about a dozen times)  If there is a ton of fresh rock on the road, also don’t ride 28’s. In fact, just don’t ride 28’s on gravel unless your power/weight ratio is in the Pro Peloton range. A file tread 40mm 700c tire is pretty solid choice for any condition, as you can work the tire pressure to adapt to conditions.  Similarly, 650bx47 handles most any gravel condition. Two true “do it all” tire sizes for everything but gnarly single track or ice riding.  If it’s sheets of ice, and you are super cereal, pick up some lightly studded cross tires or bring out the MTB for something more substantial and grippy.  Also, take into consideration that more voluminous tires will provide a little extra cushion, which your arms and back will thank you for on ultra distance stuff.
  • Know when to say when: The best tip I can give is to know your limits.  Riding past your limit is part of endurance racing, indeed, but there is a vast plain of physical and mental badlands that lie somewhere after that 4th or 5th wind.  Know your own personal signs. Dropping out isn’t a crime, but injuring yourself is criminal if you knowingly take things farther than acceptable “too far.” Have an extraction plan (or know the shortcut back to the civilization), means of communication, also see “Bring A Few Comforts” above. I’ve definitely taken things too far and spent weeks recovering from making that mistake, don’t be that person.  Live to ride another day.

Know when your ride is over, even if it’s not the end of the race. 

This is in no way a comprehensive lesson on “gravel racing,” but if you follow these words, it might help you achieve that DFL finish you’ve always wanted!

Until next time, ride your bike!


*DFL: Dead Fricken Last. If you aren’t familiar with this term, good for you pal.

Lords Of Chaos: CIRREM Ride Report.

Saturday, February 25 marked the 4th running of the gravel bulls known as CIRREM.  All weather leading up to the race (CIRREM is a 100k gravel race held in South Central Iowa, if  you didn’t know) was optimal.  The winter had been mild, the roads were a dry hardpack, almost like riding on pavement.  By all accounts it was going to be a super fast race to the finish line.  All of that changed on the Thursday prior.  Momma Nature decided to treat CIRREM like she treats most yearly sporting events in showing her best at being worst.  Wet snow fell, followed by a very sunny and mild Friday…a Friday which had participants frantically seeking out advice as to what tire would be proper for the unknown race conditions.  Amid all of the Facebook speculating I decided to talk a bunch of trash then follow up the trash talk with taking a ride out to the country on the Vaya for a first hand look at the course.  Wow.  Incredibly bad conditions ranging from ice-filled ruts to snow drifts over the road to pure peanut butter mud and more could be found all within one mile.  I turned back after a few short miles. Saturday was going to be rough.

I awoke early Saturday morning to finish race prep and found the Vaya with a flat rear tire.  DAMMIT.  This is a bad sign, but I got things changed out, finished cleaning and lubing the bike, packed my gear and headed towards the Cumming Tap.   I drove part of the course, just to check the conditions…they were even worse.  During the course of Friday it looked as thought the county had decided to plow the wet snow into large sheets of ice.  Sweet.  The Tap was alive with racers picking up packets, chatting, and grabbing a bite from Bob’s breakfast spread (btw, those mini bagels saved my butt out there).  One of the things I really love about racing, and cycling in general, is the friendships forged with people of the same mind.  It’s a great community and I am very happy/proud to be a part of the whole thing.

Nine am rolled around and I decided it was time to get geared up and check out the bike.  Suited up, Camelback on, hopped on the Vaya and checked the shifting, made some small adjustments then waited for the start…or for the urge to drink some of that Four Loko I had stashed in the van…mmmm.   9:55 and everyone was in formation ready for our LEAD OUT?  New for this year was a lead out start around the initial 1.5 miles.  What?  No holeshot?  Okay, we wound our way south then up to cross G14 (where an SUV almost took out a few cyclists.  I can understand how hard it was to see 100 people on bikes crossing the road.  thanks for honking) and we were released to go north on 30th.  Things were a little sketch on the north side of the hills, and when we came to the “wheel eating bridge” (come on, they are 10″ planks…just pick a line and ride it) many of the front of the pack stopped and walked, effectively inch worming the entire field and almost causing a few accidents in the middle of the pack.  The turn to go west on Adams was icy, and I saw the first of many wrecks at the intersection.  People were sliding out and crashing each other.  Awesome.  I rode on trying to get further up front to find a fast group to ride with.  Mile 6…I went down pretty hard.  FUCK!  This is where the real cursing began as I realized my rear tire was a little to “used” for the conditions (and I had a brand new set sitting at the shop waiting for me).  I was riding in BarMitts, which kept me from freeing myself from the bike.  I went down elbow, shoulder, head.  I got back up, dusted off and continued on with some sharp pains in my left elbow and knee.  It’s okay, still in the “warm up” section of the race, everything will loosen up in a while.  The ice was making it difficult to climb hills, I had to get all the way down in “easy peasy” to get any traction to spin up.  Then, thanks to my gift of economical downhill gravity use I was in danger of smashing through other racers whom were insistent on braking all the way down the descents.  This is a hard reality for me, I am just okay at climbing, good enough to get up the hills…but downhill I have a distinct advantage.  If the road is clogged shoulder to shoulder with people braking I cannot take advantage of the momentum while going up the next hill.  This is also a symptom of riding alone almost all the time.  If I rode/trained with other people, I would have known what group to get in with at the starting line instead of searching out from the back of the pack.  I will work on this racing error in the future.

I got in with the Mables for a few miles, they were riding a conservative pace in a group of about 5 or 6.  I sat back and rode off the back of their group, not to draft, but for pacing.  Dave went down, then a we saw a few more crashes.  My knee and elbow were feeling sore, and my goddamn camelback feed tube was a little iced up (whoops, my bad again) so I decided to stop and have a little snackiepoo.  Goodbye Mable group, but I figured I would catch up with them somewhere on Old Portland road and this hydration issue would become a real problem in the next 10 miles if not attended to.  Hopping back on the bike, I felt refreshed and totally jacked up on the Caff thanks to a power gel.  THEN GUESS WHAT HAPPENED?

I had been having trouble with the icy road conditions all day, but was holding a 14mpg avg with stopping, etc.  I felt that it was a good start and could be improved upon in the time when the sun softened up the top layer of permafrost and the roads became peanut butter.  Then it happened…Mile 17 I went down like a _______(enter your own joke there).  Hands caught in my Mitts, I took the spill at about 21 mph on my left side, landing “chicken wing” style with my arm tucked into my ribs.  I bounced on the ice and felt a snap in my rib cage.  NOT GOOD.  I got up, “focused” my bike, aka threw it into the snowy ditch, and checked myself over.  Yep, all there…and the rib thing didn’t seem to hurt, not any more than my knee.  I pulled the Vaya out of the ditch, straightened out the stem, apologized for the abuse, and took of again.  I felt like I was getting so far behind, and also thanks to the gel, that my adrenaline was rushing and I felt little pain.  It was a pretty easy 5 or 6 miles to the first really bad hills, and I was hell bent on making some time before the climbs.  I made the right onto OPR, blazed down Cemetary Hill aka “The Wall” (thanks for not making us ride up that this year) and hit my top speed of 41.3 mph.  I passed a few folks and headed towards the first of many bullshit climbs…then it happened.  at mile 21.85 I got out of the saddle to climb and almost fell off my bike.  Ribs decided to let themselves be known, and I stopped.  If I couldn’t climb out of the saddle then the race was over for me.  I stopped, took stock of the situation, almost cried (the thought of breaking ribs just two months away from TIV8 was a bit too much to think of) and decided since I didn’t know the extent of the damage that I would drop out, get a sag, then go get examined to make sure I wasn’t putting myself in danger of collapsing a lung or further injuring myself.  The rest of the field that was left passed me by as I made the call back the the Tap.  Nick Larson stopped and gave me some ibuprofen.  This race was over.

Mile 22, the end of my CIRREM.

Hector from the Tap found me perched atop Cemetary Hill (I got bored and walked a little), scooped me up and drove backwards looking for anyone else in trouble.  Not one rider was left behind me.  Nice job.  We got back to the bar and found the others who had gotten injured and were forced to drop.  That ice was a real MF out there.  Took down a good amount of racers.

I ate some BBQ, then decided to just hang out with some friends from out of town that I never get to see.  These ribs would make it a few more hours on their own, and every beer helped nurse the pain.  Actually, seeing good friends is what really nursed the pain.

Things loosened up out on the road and everyone from first place on down was covered in mud.  Awesome.

I think I made it home eventually?  Sunday I took a trip to the hospital where I was diagnosed as having bruised ribs.  BEST NEWS EVER as I was waiting to make the call on the next two upcoming races.  I am still able to ride and still in the game.

What did I learn from this year’s CIRREM?

  • Do a better job at choosing tires, in fact I am ordering some 38c studs for next winter… just in case

  • If it is anywhere near 32 degrees, put the feed tube warmer on the GD Camelback.  Duh.

  • Even if I can’t hang with the lead group, at least start with them so I am not stuck behind people.

  • Bar Mitts probably saved me from a broken wrist or collar bone.  If I had been able to get my hands of the bars faster it could have been a disaster.

  • Never forget your flask.  I forgot mine, it’s always good to have on hand in case you have to wait for a sag.

Other than the wrecking and positioning I had the proper nutrition before and during, and was dressed perfectly for the temperature.  I wasn’t riding a borrowed bike this year, which was a big plus, and had no major mechanical problems aside from a little shifting issue here and there.

Overall I would say it was a good run, and I wish that I had been able to finish the ride.  It was great to have the opportunity to see some good friends, I can’t wait until next year.

Until We Meet Again, CIRREM…


if you made it this far, go grab a brewski…you deserve it.