This ride had been a goal for me for over a year now. I registered last year along with a few other teammates, but life things got in the way, and we had to cancel. This year, teammate Matt Schmitz and I made plans to check out the Northwoods gravel. Before this year, the only century I’d ever completed was in kilometers, and I’d never ridden further than about 62 miles on gravel (yay Barry Roubaix!). Matt signed up for the 108-mile distance, and with some encouragement, I decided to jump on the gravel century bandwagon as well. You can always count on teammates to help you talk yourself into doing something that seems a little crazy.

chilly morning rollout, we employed a mostly successful layering strategy

I was excited and a little terrified about riding 108 miles on gravel. I planned a few long rides in advance to help expand my comfort zone and get ready for the distance. Big thanks to my teammates and a special shoutout to Jean Marasigan for helping me plan long rides to get some miles in my legs. Along with Jean, Jen Groen, and Adam Overberg, I completed a slightly accidental century on mixed surfaces a few weeks before The Bear. A combination of Garmin glitches, enthusiasm, and peer pressure got all four of us from Chicago to Wisconsin and back on Easter Sunday. After that ride my legs felt like noodles, but I recovered well, and had a new level of confidence to bring with me to the Northwoods.

smiles for miles... about 108 of them...

The day of the ride started off with temperatures close to freezing, so the first fifteen or twenty miles were spent alternately commenting on the gorgeous forest scenery and struggling to open packaging for ride snacks with numb fingers. Thankfully, as the sun came up, the frost and clouds burned off and the temperatures rose by a good twenty degrees. We were happy to see the first refill station up the road at about 33 miles. I stripped off my legwarmers and we continued on feeling good that we were already almost a third of the way through.

One of my favorite things about gravel riding is the friends you make along the way. Matt and I rode along with a few other folks over the course of the day, sharing groad stories, offering encouragement, and banding together to sort out the right turns to take when GPS and course markers confused us. There were all sorts of riders participating in this race, from serious crushers who left us in their dust and finished hours before us, to one 108-mile entrant who had never ridden further than 40 miles, but clearly had no doubt that he would make it to the end and have fun doing it (we were happy to discover after the race that he did make it!). When we weren’t riding with other racers, it was great to be out there with a teammate to help remind each other to eat and drink regularly, to pace ourselves, and to complain with about how tired our legs were and how much our butts hurt by the end of the day.

At about 50 miles, we passed a gas station that served as a second aid station. We stocked up on water and snacks and headed back out after a short rest. It’s amazing what some spicy peanuts and M&Ms will do for your morale when you’ve just finished riding about 5 miles of muddy, washed-out B-road with so many rocks in places that there is no ‘good’ line, and you have to rumble your way down the descents.

TFW you're in serious need of some sponsor support: i.e. a bottle of Carborocket and a can of Half Acre

At around 75 miles, I started feeling increasingly unfriendly toward any and all hills, and it weighed heavily on my mind that every time I descended, it meant I’d have to climb back up that elevation sooner or later. However, as much as I was feeling fatigued, I could tell that I was recovering in between the hills, doing a good job keeping myself fed and hydrated, and that I was going to finish all 108 miles of this ride, barring anything wacky. The realization that my preparation in the days and weeks before The Bear was turning into successful execution, hill by hill and pedal stroke by pedal stroke, was just what I needed to keep me smiling as we ticked down the miles to the finish line.

Our finish time was approximately 8 hours and 55 minutes. I say approximately because the ‘results’ for this ride are low-tech, in the form of a notebook where you sign your name next to the time of day you crossed the line—more of a measure to ensure all riders make it safely back than to generate standings. The first male and female riders across the line for each distance get handmade trophies, and the rest of us get a discount on dinner at JARS (Jane And Rick’S), the local restaurant that serves as home base for the race. We headed back to the rented house that we shared with members of xXx Racing (thanks for sharing!), and cooked up a delicious dinner, which would have been tasty in the first place, but was absolutely delectable after 108 miles on a steady diet of energy chews and bars. 

Did I mention that the house we stayed at was part of a farm?! Protip: skritching a pony schnozz is an important part of a successful post-race recovery routine.

Matt and I agreed that this ride is definitely something we’ll be back again for next year. The route is full of gorgeous scenery, with farmland, birch woods, and rivers all featuring in the landscape. The organizers of the ride did a great job of making everyone feel welcome in true Midwesterner style, and giving us all a safe, fun, and challenging day on the bike.