Gravel Worlds traces its roots to 2008, back when it was known as the “Good Life Gravel Adventure.” 2019 saw the 10th anniversary of it in its “Worlds” format. For those not in the know, the World Championship designation is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. After all, this event is presented by the Pirate Cycling League. Their very attractive and professional website is peppered with pirate language. There are pirate swords on the line. If you ask me, what better way to stage a World Championship? In addition to the full 150 mile/10,000 feet of climbing race, there is now a “Privateer” 75-mile option and a 50k “Buccaneer” distance p/b Chamois Butt’r. Gravel Worlds is strictly self-supported, but the 150 includes two stocked checkpoints and more oases than you can shake a stick at. It turns out that that becomes important in mid-August.
Like all things in gravel lately, Gravel Worlds has grown. I rolled into Lincoln, Nebraska on Friday early evening just in time to catch the end of the Expo, which featured well-known vendors like Lauf, Chamois Butt’r, Mohn Standard, and Shimano, as well as local shop Cycle Works. Packet pickup was easy-peasy and full of neat things that I’ll actually use, like a mug and a spork. The spork, in particular, has generated much excitement and conversation in my household, including important questions like, “Is it really a spork if the fork and spoon parts are at different ends? Oh, and there’s a serrated edge knife on there too. Should we call it a sporkife? Knispork? How about multi-tool for my mouth?”
Anyway, the interesting part starts on Saturday morning, after I drank too much hotel coffee and shoveled some food into my mouth with my new sporkife (we’re going with that.) We lined up in the dark for a 6am start, and several people stopped to ask me if I was recovered from 24 Hours of Cumming, to which the answer was definitely no, because I decided that running in the mountains for a bunch of days would be a good way to recover from a 400k gravel bike race. I was, however, hoping that Gravel Worlds’ 150 miles would feel quite short and comforting after 24 Hours of Cumming. The catch is I was riding single speed this time. Don’t worry, I changed my gearing after Dirty Kanza. 42×18 seems to lead to fewer near-death experiences while still providing both simplicity and suffering.
Per my usual takes-forever-to-warm-up style, I let the super fast kids go, watched the sunrise, and found myself riding a nice steady 15mph pace to Checkpoint 1, which is just what happens when you heave your bike uphill at 10mph and fly downhill at 20-some mph over and over again, because this course is all rollers. A pirate-y rollercoaster as far as the eye can see. And corn. Lots of corn. More corn than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s kinda green and pretty to look at though.
Things that were said to me during the early miles of Gravel Worlds:
- “I can’t decide whether you’re really strong or really crazy.”
- “I didn’t know they made single speed Specialized Crux’s” *
- “Unnnngghhhhhfffff.” **
* They don’t, I have a White Industries Eno hub, and pulled all the shifty parts off it.
** Ok, this last one was said by me, going uphill.
The roads were almost entirely hardpack and in great shape (unlike in Oklahoma right now, where thanks to several rounds of flooding, it looks like small bombs went off in random patterns all over the place, and you still have to be careful not to fall into a sinkhole.) It was Type 1 Fun all the way into the first Checkpoint, where I collected pipe cleaner #1, peed in an actual bathroom, filled water and ate a pickle from the well-stocked snack table, because if an opportunity for a pickle presents itself, you should always take it.
Shortly thereafter, the fiery rays of the sun started to beat down upon us with a fury, and I take back all the nice things I said about the corn earlier because it turns out that corn provides NO SHADE.
Apparently the blood was all being shunted to my body parts and not to my brain by mile 78-ish where this picture was taken, because I have NO MEMORY OF THIS CORN. It’s not like it’s subtle. It’s significantly taller than me and possibly heavier. So now I’m concerned. What else happened during in the Nebraska cornfields that I’m entirely unaware of? A UFO could’ve landed in front of me around mile 90 for all we know. Is that an alien life form behind me? (OK that I know the answer to – no – it was a super cool dude also on a SS from Omaha that I suffered with for a looooong while before he drifted behind me and then suddenly WASN’T THERE ANYMORE when I looked back for him, and I probably talked to myself for at least a few miles before realizing there was no longer anyone there. I sincerely hope he was not abducted by the Children of the Corn. PM me, dude.)
Those 80-90-100ish miles were some of the hardest. The headwind, the rising heat. Fortunately there were an abundance of oases that at minimum had water and friendly volunteers, and occasionally had scout troops selling Gatorades and sodas and candy and all sorts of other things that it’s only acceptable to consume in mass quantities during very very long hot bicycle rides or if you’re a 12-year-old with an annoyingly fast metabolism. These miles are where you start chunking things… ride to the next checkpoint, the next turn, that tree in the distance, that rock on the ground, oh wait there’s a lot of rocks, and another rock…or wait, are those the marbles that I’m losing?
Anyway, the second Checkpoint came at mile 132. Which is only 18 miles from the end. I collected my second pipe cleaner. This is my one piece of feedback for the Pirate Cycling League. Pipe cleaner colors. They make gold and silver sparkly ones, you know? I will ride to the near-collapse point to obtain a sparkly gold pipe cleaner, but tan and red… On a semi-related note, there’s a growing pile of slightly crumpled pipe cleaners in my bike room (the room that normal people call the “guest bedroom”) which I recently realized is an abnormally high number of pipe cleaners for an adult to have randomly laying on their bedroom floor, which led me to wonder if the gravel racing industry will end up single-handedly supporting the pipe cleaner industry. Discuss below, please.
Back on topic, a very nice volunteer at Checkpoint 2 invited me to sit down, which I decided was a bad idea, but I did sip some Coke and spray some sunscreen over the portions of me which weren’t covered with dirt. Then I bumbled my way out of there before any sitting down could happen because getting up is hard. Leaving Checkpoint 2 riders were treated to about 10 miles of hero gravel and some tailwind and just when you were so close you could taste it… it. got. ugly.
You know the stretch I’m talking about. It was approximately miles 140-148. Turn the corner and nothing but one long gravel road of giant rollers. Back into the headwind. Now, this is not much different from the rest of the course, but it felt worse here for some reason. I passed a dude standing over his bike with his head on his handlebars. I yelled at that dude because we were literally three miles from the finish. But I get it, you may be 3 miles away but there’s no civilization in sight and at least three more big hills that you can see right in front of you and you’re baking in the sun. Souls were crushed on that road.
The pavement did eventually materialize and I spent maybe half a mile trying to follow my Garmin when I should’ve just followed the helpful “FINISH THIS WAY” signs on the road. There was not a lot of fanfare pulling in, but there were chairs in shade and ice towels, which sure beat the complex plan of “lie on the ground immediately” that I had formulated in the past hour. I believe I told the nice people there that they could just wake me up in that lawn chair the next morning because I wasn’t moving (mind you, this was only late afternoon on Saturday.) But after some interval of time that was probably longer than socially acceptable but shorter than the next morning, I did get up and find friends and then find food. It helps immensely that Schillingbridge Tap House is at the finish line. Pizzas and chips and salsa were ordered. Emphasis on the salsa. If you’re a salty sweater and have ever eaten salsa with a spoon after a particularly long ride, raise your hand.
The awards ceremony was pretty well-attended, particularly since it can be viewed from the bar patio. The overall male and female get a sword which is possibly the coolest prize in gravel cycling. I do maintain that the individual category winners should maybe get scabbards or some other form of baby pirate sword. I feel like you can gracefully retire once you have a pirate sword displayed on your mantel.
Festivities continued with a raffle that went on for a very long time simply because there was literally a stage-sized pile of free stuff to give away, lots of drinking and eating of second pizzas on the patio (I definitely did not order a second pizza, take half home, wake up at 4am in a hotel room, eat it, and go back to sleep. Nope, that definitely did not happen.), and enthusiastic cheering-in of riders who continued to arrive well into the evening. Most of them looked remarkably fresh, so I can only assume that they knew something I didn’t, like where to take an air-conditioned nap somewhere along the course.
Thus concludes Gravel Worlds 2019. We’re entering (have already entered, really) an era where there are too many choices when it comes to which event one goes to. Everyone will have to pick and choose, and I genuinely believe there are no “right” or “wrong” choices – just ones that are more “right” for you. I can tell you that Gravel Worlds still very much has a grassroots feel, if that’s your thing. It will kick your a$$, if that’s your thing. There are pirates and swords on everything, if that’s your thing. And there’s a whole lotta cornfields… if that’s your thing?
Big thanks to the guys behind the Pirate Cycling League for a swashbucklingly good time!