The Midwest is generally not known for starting worldwide trends.
In the bicycle world, however, the Midwest is the epicenter of the fastest-growing segment of bicycling: gravel riding.
With the region’s many thousands of miles of lightly traveled, rural gravel roads, it is a natural, homegrown cycling evolution. One can ride safely and serenely for hours in the countryside, taking in sights, smells and sounds without ever seeing a car.
As humans are prone to do, “gravel grinding” competitions have developed to test speed and endurance. On almost any weekend, a cyclist can find an event to attend.
340 miles of gravel
The Iowa Wind and Rock (IAWAR) race is the pinnacle of endurance gravel grinding. It runs out of Winterset, Iowa, on a weekend in mid-April. This year it happened on April 23-24.
It is the most challenging early-season ultra-gravel race in the United States. It covers around 340 miles (approximately the width of Iowa) of gravelly hills, typically with 29,000 feet of climbing (the height of Mount Everest).
The course is secret and changes every year. It is navigated solely by cue cards (e.g., “Mile 169 – Turn right at 340th Ave”). It is self-supported, no outside help is permitted, and you must carry all your supplies with you or purchase them at one of the few commercial locations along the way. You must average at least 10 mph to finish within the 34-hour time limit.
There are two checkpoints. You start with a set of cue cards, and if you make the checkpoint time cutoff, you get the next set of cards to be able to continue. If you don’t make the cutoff, you can call for extraction from the route or ride back to the start.
This year, 53 riders traveling from as far away as Alaska and Florida participated. The field was down from the normal 125-rider cap. The weather was forecast to be especially horrible, so many riders decided to sleep in: Winds were forecast at 25-30 mph with 50 mph gusts and thunderstorms all day.
The wind and rain year
I’ve ridden this race each of its four years. I missed a checkpoint by five minutes the first year and hitchhiked 50 miles back to Winterset; there were six finishers.
The following year was extremely cold. Being from Minnesota and used to the cold, I was OK, but the cold killed my electronics. I spent a lot of time looking for batteries to charge my odometer so I could follow the cues. There was one finisher. I came rolling in well after the cutoff as an unofficial finisher.
Last year my bike derailleur broke on one of the infamously nasty level B backroads in Iowa. I got an early out at mile 45.
This year was my year.
I’d made it my goal to finish this beast within the time limit. Since November, I’d been training daily, putting in hundreds of hours and thousands of miles.
Anticipating the wind, I did my best to be “aero” to lighten the effort. I wore my tightest clothing, nothing flapping. I wore a helmet cover to close off the watt-sucking ventilation holes. My tires were carefully selected for minimal rolling resistance and air drag.
We rolled out of Winterset at 4 a.m. The wind was already howling. I was riding with my buddy, Rob. Last year sleep deprivation and fatigue took its toll on him; he got lost and had to abandon the ride. He and I had a pact to work together to break the wind and keep each other awake and on course.
The wind only got worse after the sun rose. We either headed into it, or the crosswind blew our bikes out from underneath us. At one point, on some sketchy gravel, I did find myself blown across the road dangerously close to the ditch.
Two hours ahead of the cutoff, we rolled into Checkpoint 1 at mile 92 in the town of Russell, Iowa. Optimism abounded. After a quick refuel at the local convenience store aptly named Last Chance, we rolled onward.
Still, we were working our way up through the field. Many of the riders started too fast, and it was satisfying to chase them down as fatigue took its toll. We picked up a third rider, Leonardo from Brazil, now living in Colorado, and he further lightened our drive into the wind.
We soon dropped down into Missouri and rode six miles of level B backroads before jumping back into Iowa.
One thing about Iowa races that is relatively unique is the use of level B backroads. These are dirt roads with no gravel; basically, tractor paths. On a good day, they are deeply rutted and barely rideable. On a bad day, they are full of mud that cakes to tires, jam up drivetrains, and must be walked. Thankfully, the Missouri section was mostly rideable except for about a mile. Otherwise, our two hours of checkpoint cutoff margin would have been eaten up.
Waiting out the storm
We had a tailwind and mostly blew up to Corydon, Iowa, to Checkpoint 2 at mile 170. We got our finishing set of cue cards for the final 170 miles and rode off to refuel at Casey’s convenience store.
The local sheriff had tasked the Casey’s cashier to inform us that tornadic thunderstorms were expected to roll into the area in the next few hours after sunset. Given the atmospheric energy driving the wind, that seemed to be the icing on the cake for the day.
It started to get dark. We elected to take our chances with the storm, hoping we could pick our way safely through.
We rolled west toward ominous black clouds. The rain started slowly, just a sprinkle. The wind died down for a bit. Perhaps the danger was overblown.
That optimism was soon dashed. The wind picked back up with a vengeance. The rain was horizontal, driven directly at us, stinging the face.
The lightning that started in the distance was now all around us. A bolt struck a few hundred yards away, catching our attention. We all wanted to finish this race more than almost anything, but we didn’t want to die. It was time to find shelter.
It wasn’t too long before we sighted a barn close to the road. We rolled in dripping wet. Others had made a similar choice and were huddled about in the dark recesses between machinery and horse stalls. We kept quiet with lights dimmed, hoping that the farmer wouldn’t be alarmed and come after us with a shotgun.
The storm took its time rolling through. Our two-hour margin was gone. We were now about 30 minutes behind. We rolled out of the barn around 12:30 a.m.
Unfortunately, the stiff wind had shifted and was now out of the northwest – just the direction we were heading. The roads were slow and mucky.
Skidding to a stop
I was pedaling hard into the wind when, suddenly, a rock kicked up and jammed in my derailleur. Before I could stop pedaling, I heard the sickening sound of metal ripped from metal. My rear wheel locked up in a split second as the derailleur fell into the spokes, and I came skidding to a stop. The riders behind me swerved but stayed upright.
I quickly assessed the situation. The mangled derailleur was tangled up in the spokes. The chain was wrapped around the axle and bent in multiple places; there was no way to shorten it to kluge together a single speed. Unfortunately, I have experience in this area from last year.
My race was over at mile 192. I had one bar of signal on my phone. I texted the race directors my status and bid the others adieu. Rob’s friend, Laura, had graciously agreed to serve on the extraction crew. She got my call around 1:30 a.m., about 70 miles away.
I started walking back along the pickup route to keep warm and otherwise enjoy the spectacular, post-storm night sky with the sounds of coyotes howling in the distance.
By the time Laura arrived, I had come to terms with my misfortune. After all, I’m 67 years old; I’m beyond lucky to have the circumstances and health to ride a bike at this level, let alone to ride in the presence of all of these superb athletes.
Ultimately, six hardy souls pushed through the night to finish back at Winterset before the 34-hour time cutoff. Just as admirably, three others knowing they would not make the cutoff, persisted in unofficially finishing several hours later.
I should mention that the unicorn is the mascot of the race. This is probably born of the idea that one might see a unicorn vision in a period of deep fatigue. This year the course roughly formed a unicorn outline.
A challenge is not a challenge if the outcome is a sure thing. Perhaps next year will be my unicorn year.
About the author: John Jarvis moved to Eden Prairie 24 years ago with his wife, Kathy, and five children. An ex-pat position in Ireland had ended, and Bloomington’s Detector Electronics, where he still works, had a need.
John has been an avid cyclist since before the first OPEC oil embargo. When John arrived in Minnesota in January 1998, it was in the middle of an Alberta clipper, and the temperature was 20 below zero. He figured his cycling days were over. Little did he know that the area was a hotbed of cycling. While summer cycling is incredible, he has since learned about winter and bicycle commutes all year long.
In addition to commuting, John enjoys testing himself on the bike. He describes himself as “mostly a transportation cyclist but with masochistic tendencies.” Last summer, he competed in the 1,200-mile Trans Mni Sota Wheel Race through Minnesota and the 630-mile North Star Bicycle Race from St. Paul to Canada and back.
For more on gravel racing
- Peruse a calendar list of gravel-riding events in Minnesota.
- Learn more about the Iowa Wind and Rock (IAWAR) ultra-endurance race on its website.
- A play-by-play recap on this year’s IAWAR race is on its Facebook page.
- A story on Cyclingnews.com explains the popularity of gravel biking.
- The Heywood Ride in Northfield is later this month. Jarvis says the gravel road ride is the successor of the Almanzo.
- Jarvis notes two resources on gravel bikes: Quality Bicycle Products and Otso Cycles.