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.