Don V. Kelly
The Cuban Gravel Crisis, It Ain't For Wimps
I love cycling and have never been afraid of a good climb. I've done the 138-mile version of the Vino Fondo with over 10K feet of climbing. I have ridden the Triple Bypass five times and the Double Triple Bypass once. While on annual trips to Colorado I have made sure to take on Mount Evans, Independence Pass, Loveland Pass and Pikes Peak. Last October (2015), I went to Taiwan and finished the famed Taiwan KOM Challenge, a timed bucket list cycling ride if there ever was one. On Saturday morning rides with my fellow BB-63 Cycling buddies, we can get 4,000 to 6,000 feet of climbing in our long rides with no problem. In short, I am not easily discomfited by hills or mountains.
This past October 16th, I did something slightly different - my first formal gravel ride. This ride did not involve traveling across the country or the world. Instead, I went to Cuba to get my cycling fix. Cuba, Missouri that is. Right in my big, beautiful Missouri backyard. The ride was the Cuban Gravel Crisis. Having ridden a bit in Missouri, I expected the ride to be "kinda hilly" and a good "test" gravel event for the new Niner RLT 9 2 Star gravel bike I bought this past August from the nice folks at Maplewood Bicycle. Going in to the CGC, I was pretty confident that me and the new Niner could muster a little over six-hour finish. (Insert derisive laugh track here.) After all, since the beginning of May I had completed 20 centuries. I had been practicing my gravel skills on the Katy Trail (including a 108-mile ride) and I had 3/4s of a year of riding St. Louis-area hills in my legs (plus some Colorado mountain riding last July). The day before the ride, I jokingly told my friends that I was going to "Krushchev" the competition and finish the CGC so fast the organizers would dub me the "Missile of October." (Right, I know corny humor, but at least historically relevant.)
Let me tell you that what I had mentally prepared for and what I experienced were two different things. And of all things, in doing the 100-mile version of the CGC, this asphalt-loving roadie ended up climbing nearly the same amount as what the Triple Bypass and Taiwan KOM Challenge offer. Except, instead of long, smooth asphalt climbs, I got to enjoy the ultimate gravel experience - a relentless barrage of steep, sandy and gravely hills.
As its name would suggest, the ride starts in the town of Cuba. Riders head west out of town and then proceed north. Once you start heading north, the "fun" starts. For the next roughly 50 miles, riders travel north through the figurative heart of Missouri. They then loop back to Cuba over the ensuing 50 miles. The ride offers a stunning mélange of: open gravel roads cutting through farms and fields; completely canopied, dark tunnel-like gravel roads; or in-between open-top, tree-lined gravel roads. One really gets to experience the most bucolic of scenery. You want close-up cows (which I have found every gravel cycling publication exalts as part of the religion of gravel cycling). The CGC has 'em. You want other close-by farm animals, like roosters, hens, horses and sheep (maybe a goat, all I know it was big white and fuzzy and would not turn around to look at me when I passed). The CGC has those too. You want turtles and snakes on the road sunbathing on an unseasonably warm October day. We had those too. (Ran over two of the smaller snakes, but fortunately missed the 4-1/2 foot black snake.) There were also lots of road dogs. (I have concluded that gravel road dogs are much more laid back and polite than their asphalt road counterparts. There were no bike-chasers and some never even moved out of the road when riders would move past.) We crossed over a handful of streams and passed some beautiful lakes and ponds. Even had to dismount and carry the bike over a very shallow stream - a true gravel experience. OK, that's the aesthetic part. Back to the hills.
The ride also has plenty of climbing. The first forty miles had an array of climbs that were taxing, but not too demanding. However, by mile forty, I could tell those hills were cumulatively taking a toll on my legs. More significantly, as I was quickly learning while I was climbing on gravel, those hills were taking a toll on my upper body. Gravel climbing ain't asphalt climbing. No steady metronomic pace up a hill. It is grind and steer, grind and steer, grind and steer. All done in the name of trying to find the firmest path up the climb.
Miles 40 - 60 were much harder. During this part of the ride, it was one gut punch after another. I could sense leg and body fatigue setting in on the steeper hills. Near mile 60, for the first time in any ride I could remember, a thought flashed in my mind that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. It was genuinely that fatiguing. I and another rider with me found one of the hills during this leg of the ride non-negotiable by bike - the sandy gravel was just too deep and loose. On this hill, we had to walk up about 150 feet to where the hill started to level off and the ground firmed up enough to mount our bikes.
Suffice it to say, I had a new appreciation for gravel riders due to the realization of the upper body work it takes to navigate through gravel. This is particularly true for deep soft gravel and sand, which this year's edition of the CGC had plenty of. Fortunately, over the last forty miles, though the number of hills did not seem to decrease, the severity of the grades seemed to. That was fortunate as at mile 87 I started to experience what I have not experienced in the past 11 years - flashes of cramping in my right calf and inner left thigh (as best I could tell under the circumstances, my left Sartorius muscle). This made exerting on the last 15 miles of hills a bit tricky, but I staved off any major cramps that forced me to stop.
I rolled in to Cuba, placing 12, with a time around 7 hours-45 minutes. 21st century completed. Most importantly, I rolled in with a great appreciation for gravel riding and the riders who do it. Compared to the way one feels after a taxing asphalt ride, after finishing the Cuban Gravel Crisis I felt like I had just grappled with an angry gorilla. My necks, biceps, triceps, lat muscles and shoulders ACHED. How tired was I? I was so tired, I eschewed the free post-ride craft beers for the participants and opted for two A&W root beers instead! I NEVER turn down a chance to try a new craft beer! Damn you, CGC! Nevertheless, when my friend Steve W. asked me via text immediately after the ride if I would do the ride again, I said without hesitation, "yes."
Thank you Cuban Gravel Ride. I had a blast. I will be back next year, if only because you owe me a craft beer.