Henri and Me. Trans-iowa v.13

Great photos by Jon Duke, words and other photos by Dan Hughes

In 1903, Henri Desgrange envisioned a race that would circumnavigate the pentagon of France; a new style of race that would be so difficult that only one person would finish and be declared the winner. This is how the Tour de France was born, inspiring other race promoters to create their own grand tours over the years. Desgrange also eschewed technological innovations, prohibiting riders from using improvements like aluminum rims and derailleurs until their use in the peloton had long been established elsewhere. In short, Henri was an innovator that ran his race his way and if you didn’t like it, well…tough.

For these reasons I’ve often thought of the promoter of Trans-Iowa as the “Henri Desgrange of Gravel.” But his name isn’t “Henri”. Heck it’s not even “Ted” (as in “Guitar Ted”). It’s “Mark.” But I digress…let’s move on.

Trans-Iowa, now in its 13th edition, was originally a cross-state race that started on the western border with Nebraska and ended on the eastern border with Illinois. Roughly 330 miles of gravel to be tackled all in one-go, with no outside support, no maps, no GPS allowed, and no reroutes or relaxing of time cuts if conditions were less than ideal.

Henri Desgrange would have loved it.

The most recent editions have been a gravel lap in the neighborhood of Grinnell IA, keeping to the same rough distance, but with the benefit of not having to transfer back to your car on the other side of the state. The event is known for taxing the riders to their limits with some years when no one finishes.

To be honest, it’s a race I didn’t ever want to do. Full disclosure: Mark does things with his event that, as a rider, rankle me. Starting at 4am so you have to burn your light both in the morning and overnight. No maps or GPS allowed, just cue sheets that lead to challenging route finding in the wee hours of the morning when my mind is addled. No reroutes if the roads are unrideable. All things that add complexity and extra layers of stress to an already tense endeavor.

But you know what? None of that matters. It’s Mark’s race. He runs it the way he wants to. And if you want to toe the line at the event that inspired the Dirty Kanza, and Gravel Worlds, and countless others, you do it Mark’s way. Full stop.

Last year I was lucky enough to get into the event via Mark’s lottery, but unlucky enough to crash about four weeks before the event (breaking multiple bones) and missing the start. This year I reapplied and once again was graced with an opportunity to start Trans-Iowa. And while last year’s conditions were considered ideal by many, this year’s were widely regarded as exactly the opposite. While driving up to Iowa through the pouring rain and near frigid temperatures I couldn’t help but rue the fact that I might have missed out by one year on the chance to have a good result at T-I.

Before I go further, I should perhaps explain why I wanted to go to Iowa in the first place. I mean, if I disagree with some of the aspects of how Mark runs his race, and if the distance is farther than I’ve ever ridden, and the conditions were promising to be apocalyptic, then why bother? Simply put, you can’t consider yourself a gravel racer if you haven’t toed the line at Trans-Iowa and even though I’ve had success at events like Dirty Kanza and Gravel Worlds, the opportunity to test myself at the grandfather of all these gravel grinders was too great to ignore. Moreover, there was the tongue-in-cheek “gravel triple crown” of winning a DK, a Gravel Worlds, and a T-I to consider. And with my advancing age, time was running out for more epic adventures.

So it was Iowa or bust.

I drove from Lawrence via Des Moines so I could stop at our Shimano rep’s house and arrange a rescue plan if the need should arise, and then it was on to the Grinnell Steakhouse. The “Meat-Up” was a typical pre-race meal, with nervous racers eyeing the weather and trying to psyche themselves up for the coming effort. I had the good fortune to sit at dinner across from Derek and Andrew from Colorado, two individuals that were absolutely certain that they were going to finish T-I. “We can’t be near anyone that has any negative thoughts about tomorrow. You’re good for finishing, right Dan?” Uhhh…yeah?

After a dinner of steak, steak soup, and steak salad (side note: I will gladly pay the extra $3 at the Grinnell Steakhouse to have someone else prepare my steak) we adjourned to the adjoining conference room to hear from Mark. He was gracious, complimentary, and aware that while the assembled riders might look fondly on him at the moment, there would be periods of time during the race that we would curse his name. Very prescient.

We got our first set of cue sheets, and everyone got out of there. The 4am race start was going to come very early. Side note: of the 120 people signed up, roughly 75-80 showed up for the pre-race meeting. Overnight I think a further few thought better of taking the start, leaving just over 70 toeing the line the next morning.

My alarm went off at 3am and I rolled out of bed to get to the start. The forecast was for rain and temps in the mid 30s to low 40s. Oof. In some ways this was daunting, but in other ways it made things like dressing simpler…just wear everything you brought. For me that was a pair of normal bib shorts, a normal weight long-sleeved jersey, leg warmers, a thin waterproof jacket, and wool socks. Throw in a pair of lightweight gloves, a pair of neoprene gloves, a medium-weight cycling cap, a cycling rain cap, and I was set. Not much else to think about. Of course I would think about it a lot in the overnight hours, when I couldn’t wrap my hypothermic mind around why I didn’t bring more clothes, but for the moment I was banking on a “light and fast” ethos.

Mark "Guitar Ted" Stevenson gives the racers their last minute instructions.

I rolled from the hotel down to the start, sponging light off an unknown rider in front of me so that I wouldn’t have to burn any of my own batteries, and before I knew it we were assembling for the start. I spotted previous T-I champs Greg Gleason and Walter Zitz, former DK200 champ Corey Godfrey, and top-5 DK200 finisher Matt Acker. Mark gave us some last minute instructions and we were off.

Riders leave Grinnell for 330 miles of gravel goodness.

Full disclosure: as this was my first T-I, I had no idea what kind of pace to expect, but my hopes were pinned to the idea that “it’s 300+ miles, how fast could they go? They can't be going that fast.” Boy was I wrong. Right out of the gate Gleason and Zitz were pushing the pace and with the prevailing cross-headwind I was left scrabbling for wheels and trying to hide in the dwindling pack.

This pace continued until the first B-road somewhere between 10-15 miles in. For the uninitiated, a “B-road” (or what we call a “minimum maintenance road” here in Kansas) is simply a dirt road, usually with some heinous ruts and less than ideal surfaces. Until it rains. Then that B-road is transformed into a glorious pit of derailleur-eating peanut butter mud. Simply riding 50 feet into one in these conditions often means the end of your day. Thankfully our group was comprised of seasoned gravel racers that knew the best course of action was to dismount and dive for the ditches (still in the pre-dawn darkness) in an attempt to keep the bikes rolling and our feet relatively mud-free. We emerged from the 1-mile slog unscathed and remounted to continue the ride.

The remaining miles to the first checkpoint at mile 45-or-so were uneventful as we were being pushed by a fairly strong cross-tailwind for much of the section. The sunrise was magnificent and short-lived, but at least it wasn’t raining. Yet. The five of us (Greg Gleason, Walter Zitz, Matt Acker, Jackson Hinde, and myself) all pitted together, picked up our new cue sheets, and rolled on.

Rolling into the first checkpoint. Me, Greg, and Walter. Matt and Jackson just behind.

About 10 miles down the road we came upon the hamlet of Melbourne and spying a city limit sign, took it upon myself to sprint for the prestigious win. “Isn’t that how you messed yourself up last year?” Greg Gleason reminded me. Touché Greg…and absolutely correct.

Another B-road somewhere around mile 65 seemed much longer than the normal 1-mile segment, but we all suffered through.

20 miles down the road, Greg rolled up next to me and asked almost in a hushed tone:

“Dan, I have to ask, what are you going to do when it starts raining?”
“I have another set of gloves and a different hat” was my cavalier response, “and maybe it won’t rain.”

Greg just smirked and rolled away. Had I been truthful in that moment with Greg and had I known what was to come, the more correct answer would’ve been: “I’m going to suffer like a dog when it starts raining and question every decision I have ever made.” But I didn’t know that then.

Stretching the elastic.

Somewhere around the 100-mile mark, the elastic in our little group seemed to fray a little, but we kept close to one another until we mutually decided to stop for supplies in Madrid at mile 105. Greg got some intel from the clerk behind the counter of the Git-N-Go that the rain was imminent. I swapped out my gloves and hat and we rolled away from Madrid on the High Trestle Trail, a spectacular rail-trail that passes over the Des Moines River at a height of some 130-feet. It would be awesome to go back sometime and ride it in a non-race situation.

Shortly thereafter, with the rain beginning to intensify, our little group splintered for good with first Jackson Hinde and Matt Acker dropping back and then eventually regrouping with Walter Zitz after he suffered a flat at about mile 125. That left 2-time champ Greg Gleason and I to soldier on towards Adel where a momentary navigational error saw us off-course by a block. Thanks to Greg’s quick thinking, we quickly regained the course, which was fortunate as there were racer spotters on the next corner and had we simply cut off that one-block square, we likely would’ve been DQed. We both remarked how lucky we were.

Leaving Madrid via the High Trestle Trail.

Shortly after leaving Adel, around the 140-mile mark, and with 190 miles to go on paper, Greg and I were suddenly separated. I don’t know if it was mismatched loads, differing pedaling styles, or what that led to our split, but I do know it was not intentional or malicious. We simply were climbing at different speeds and the hills were getting ridiculously big. Suddenly I was on my own.

Somewhere in the intervening 53 miles to the second checkpoint I plugged my battery into my computer as it was dying quickly (mile 155), rolled through the town of Winterset without stopping (mile 164), and then happened upon Mark and Matt Gersib on the edge of a B-road at mile 177-or-so. To be fair, calling it a "road" is generous, it was a mile or more slog through the Ed Jensen Marsh. Ankle-deep frigid water with no easy line to push the bike took a lot out of me and I limped the remaining miles to the Cummings Tap and Checkpoint #2 at mile 193.

Rolling Solo.

Upon reaching the oasis of the Tap, and hearing from Mark that the remaining miles were primarily into a raging 20mph headwind, I decided that the smart move would be to wait for Greg (and anyone else) so that we could battle the wind together. I went inside the bar and ordered a frozen pizza and someone was kind enough to buy me a beer. Over the 40 minutes that I sat shivering in the bar, I ate most of that pizza and somehow convinced myself that it would be foolish to squander whatever lead I had amassed. So I left. I jokingly told the checkpoint volunteers that I had left a $100 credit for the next riders at the bar (in an attempt to slow their roll), and took off on my own. At this point I was a scant 17 miles from the furthest distance I had ever ridden, with 140 miles to go (on paper).

Somewhere about 15-20 miles down the road, in the town of Indianola, Mark and Matt came by again in their car as it was getting dark (and still raining) and I asked them about how far back the chasers were. “They’re still in Cummings at the Tap” Mark yelled out the window. Still at the Tap?? That was like 17.7 miles ago! Was I really out in front by almost 20 miles??

My cue sheet game will need work before I attempt T-I again.

In that moment, my race strategy changed completely. I went from charging up the hills to dumping the chain to the little ring and easing off the throttle. The night was dark and full of terrors (Ha! Game of Thrones bonus reference!) and I wanted to conserve everything for the push to the finish. Also if they caught me, I wanted to have something left to duel with in the closing miles. So I meandered through Indianola without stopping and headed out into the night.

Important side note: the last time I rode through the night on what I assumed was an epic and macho ride, I ended up in the hospital with four broken ribs, a broken scapula, and a broken collarbone. My executive function seems to evaporate with fatigue and by the time I reached the next B-road at mile 225 (and 9pm) I was scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of intellect. I looked at the cue sheet and noted that when I crossed 210th St. on Nevada Rd., the next turn was only a mile down the road. I could gut it through a mile of B-road. No problem. Imagine my surprise in reaching 220th Rd. only to find it was ALSO a B-road. Not one mile of ankle-deep water, sideways rain, 36 degree temps, and raging winds…TWO MILES! BONUS!

I stood on the corner of 220th and Nevada and cursed Mark Stevenson’s name to anyone who could hear me. Which turned out to be no one.

I got through the B-road and continued on through the night. A navigational error added about 3 miles to the total, but I got back on the course where I left it, and kept plugging on towards food of some sort.

Normally I don’t really go to Wal-Mart for anything, but the 24-hour variety of the one in Pella was a godsend at 3:45am. I grabbed a sandwich, a bag of Reese’s minis, and a fruit drink of some sort (why?) and proceeded to shiver uncontrollably for 40+ minutes. I don’t think that poor bench in the customer service area will ever be the same again. I got out my phone and checked messages, most of which were encouraging, and one that freaked me out. It simply read “Don’t let Greg catch you.” What?? Where was Greg? Was he right behind me? Had he passed me while I luxuriated near the hot-air hand blowers of the men’s bathroom of the Pella Wal-Mart? I gathered my things and left ASAP.

On the way out of town I spied Mark and Matt and pulled over to ask them for a race update, specifically if Greg had slipped by somewhere. While Mark was under no obligation to tell me anything (what would Henri Desgrange have done?), he did tell me that he didn’t think I had slipped to 2nd place.

Back in the daylight.

A couple more B-roads cropped up between mile 280 and 300, but I was smelling the barn at this point in the race. The winds were still high, the roads were as soft as ever, the hills were huge and non-stop, but dawn had broken. I started playing the mental game of equating the remaining distance with known rides (“come on Hughes, it’s only 40 more miles, that’s barely a Lone Star Lake lap, you can do that standing on your head”). The only problem was that 40 miles at 10 miles an hour was still FOUR MORE HOURS. Ugh.

And I was convinced I was being chased down. I SAW Greg Gleason on the horizon. Or it was a dark spot on the road. Or a dog. I don’t know what the hell I was seeing, but I KNEW it was Greg and the hubris of a solo break of that distance only to have it overhauled in the last few miles…well that would’ve been poetic irony. In the end it wasn’t Greg, but it provided the necessary motivation to tick off the final miles. The last 10 miles was straight into the wind, but at this point I knew I was going to finish.

Headed for the barn.

I cruised into the finish at Lake Nyanza Park, and directly into the arms of the man I had cursed at in vain, disagreed with on gravel principle, generally given short shrift to, and thanked him for creating a beautiful event that tested me to my core. Mark “Guitar Ted” Stevenson. A man that did everything his way whether you like it or not. And as it turns out I did like it, a lot.

I was gratified to have won in epic conditions, against strong riders like Greg, Walter, Matt, and Jackson (all of whom it was an honor to turn the pedals with). I was happy to be in safely. But mostly I was happy to be off my bike and headed towards a warm bath and warm bed...things I had dreamed of non-stop in the overnight hours. I was done: physically, mentally, emotionally.

Let me take a moment to briefly mention the concept of the "Gravel Triple Crown." I don't know where I first heard of the idea of a single rider notching wins at Dirty Kanza, Gravel Worlds, and Trans-Iowa being something worth titling, but I know that in the aftermath of my T-I win, my good friend Rebecca Rusch had this to say:

"Is the 'Gravel Triple Crown' something you just made up so you could give yourself another title?"

My response to Reba was straight-forward: "Firstly...fu#k you. Secondly...of course I made it up. And as the next most likely rider to accomplish the same, you should do it so that it totally legitimizes my claim." I firmly believe that the Gravel Triple Crown is an artificial construct, but for the moment I'm going to roll with it.

Let me close this lengthy race report (almost 10 words for every mile pedaled!) in this way: Guitar Ted, if you’re reading this…thank you from the bottom of my heart. While you don’t know me very well, beneath my veneer of "all-business racer", I am a softie at heart. My tears at the finish were totally in character for me.

I think it’s what Henri would’ve wanted.

For the bike nerds (of which I am one) here are the details on my ride: S-Works Crux Evo with Lauf Grit suspension fork (30mm of undamped, ugly as hell travel, but it works). SRAM Red 10 speed drivetrain (50-34 & 11-26). Trigger Pro tubeless tires, 38c up front, 33c in the back for better mud clearance. Roval SCS carbon hoops. SWAT box for spares, Bandit roll under the Specialized Power saddle for more storage. Three bottle mounts. Quarq power meter. Light & Motion Imjin front light mated to a 6-cell battery (Sol 250EX light on the helmet for cue reading). Garmin Edge 820 with Goal Zero Flip 10 battery backup. Two Revelate Mountain Feedbags up front to hold food.