“It is from the bystanders (who are in the vast majority) that we receive the propaganda that life is not worth living, that life is drudgery, that the ambitions of youth must he laid aside for a life which is but a painful wait for death.” – Hunter S. Thompson
I went to Villisca early Saturday morning to ride SWIGG. It was my very first gravel grinder. It was blowtorch hot. Humid, too. Conditions were, in a word, dangerous. My plan was to ride the long course, 103 miles, but my plans changed pretty quickly.
If I was smarter, I might have sat this one out, but I’ve been waiting so long to race on gravel that wasn’t really an option in my mind. Today was the day. Villisca was the place. SWIGG was the race.
So I rolled out of town to the east with about 40 other hearty souls at 8:00 AM. The sun was already up. It was already hot. Two miles later we turned left and headed down the first B road. Wow. Gravel racing. Me.
I don’t often participate in organized rides and so whenever I do it all feels pretty special. This was no exception. It took less than a mile of riding these B roads for me to know that this was going to be a lot of fun. It was also going to be a lot of work. When I got in, I looked at my Garmin and realized I climbed almost 5,000 feet over 55 miles. That’s almost 100 feet per mile. These weren’t gentle rollers. They were work, compounded by the brutal unrelenting heat.
Eddy Merckx first gave voice to the idea that working on a bike is a good thing. This is my ethos, too, one I developed way back in high school cross country and have never forgotten. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s how I’m wired. It’s never going to change.
“Don’t buy upgrades. Ride up grades.” -Eddy Merckx
If they ever come up with an official T shirt for SWIGG, I hope they find a way to put Eddy on it. I found myself thinking of him as I cycled, usually when I was going uphill at about 3 mph. Bombing the downhills at well over 30 mph, not so much.
By the time I reached Corning (mile 30), I was hooked. This was a completely different experience for me. It was more like hiking through wilderness than riding a bike. Many of the B roads were overgrown with grass. It gave it a special feel, like I was in my own private national park. Southwest Iowa is deceptively beautiful. Most people never get off the interstate. They have no idea.
Speaking of beautiful, I want to give a shout out to the people of Villisca. I’ve lived just about everywhere and so I know how insular and closed off so many small towns can be. Not here. Not in Iowa. It’s the people that make this state so special. They’re so welcoming and genuinely glad you’ve decided to share a little of your time with them in their town. It took a lot of miles across a lot of America for me to figure this out, and now that I have I’m not letting go. This is my home, and every time I come into a town like Villisca I can’t help but smile at who we are and how we treat each other. I wouldn’t trade it for all the mountains and beaches in the world.
SWIGG was an exceptionally well organized event. Kudos to race director Cory McAlpin, his family, Corey Phillips and all of the volunteers who had our backs out there. The unrelenting heat was brutal and they made the right calls all day long, from providing water at mile 30, 41 and 51 to closing the long course and letting everyone finish the short course when it became clear that 100 miles on a day like this was a suicide mission. Ironic that this mostly non-supported, you-are-responsible-for-you race had better support than most big entry fee events.
In the end, I wasn’t fast at SWIGG, but neither was anyone else and it didn’t really matter. I finished on a day when a lot of other really good riders didn’t. I was pleased with my effort and I won’t ever forget this experience. I can’t think of another time I worked so hard. I can’t think of another time when I was so mentally invested in just getting in. This is all good. Hard work is not the enemy. Hard work is the validation in believing that life gives back in direct proportion to what we give. I can’t remember another day when I gave so much. I can’t remember another day when I got so much back.
Thanks Cory. Thanks Villisca.