This was the 3rd year for the Almanzo 100, a great 100 mile gravel road race organized by Chris Skogen of Rochester, MN. The number of participants has grown each year it has been held. On Saturday, May 16th, 88 people started the event. Rick Blackford and I arrived at Chris' house late Friday afternoon and hung out for a while, chatting with other racers and grilling up some food on a grill in the back yard. We also took this opportunity to get our race packets. Chris' devotion to this event was apparent after looking at our race packets. Each packet had our name on it and contained: the first set of cue sheets, a professionally printed photo with the event sponsors logos down one side, an embroidered patch for this year's race, an invitation to another ride later in the fall, rules, maps to the support town. Also included was a personalized note from Chris for each rider, whether they were a past entrant or a first timer.
Rick opted to head back to the hotel and get his bike ready, while I decided to take a tour of Rochester with Chris and some other local riders. We headed to Bicycle Sports and met some other people and then headed out in a light mist through some local bike paths, and to look at the first couple of miles of the course including the first big hill. It wasn't particularly steep, but it was a long steady grade with a false flat towards the top. It was obvious that this would break the group up quickly come Saturday morning. Back at Chris' house, more riders were showing up to get their packets, and set up tents in the back yard. Rick and I headed back to our hotel, about 2 blocks from the finish line around 9. While I prepped my new Salsa La Cruz and equipment for the morning, Rick ordered us each a brisket sandwich from the attached Famous Dave's as a nightcap. Rick set the alarm for 6 and we were quickly off to sleep.
Saturday morning we packed all of our extra stuff in my truck, grabbed a shower and breakfast, then headed to the shop a bit early. The temperature was in the low 40s with the windchill making it feel like 34F. The winds were forecast to be steady out of the NW at 15 - 25, with gusts approaching 35 all day. I opted for the standard black Rasmussen kit, supplemented by arm and leg warmers, the team wind breaker, cycling hat and a thinner pair of Specialized gloves. I snagged a couple of spare CO2 carts inside the shop, and after some quick announcements, Chris was leading us through Rochester and out of town. Once we hit the gravel, he peeled off to the side and the race began. As we began the climb up the first hill, familiar faces started picking up the pace. Charlie Farrow and Joe Meiser motored past me and the group of 88 quickly broke into a core of 16 contenders, with another 9 of us hoping to claw our way back into the group. As I reached the apex of the climb, I had to turn the pace down a bit to recover, and that would be the last I would see of many people for the rest of the day. I headed east on flats and over some decent sized rollers and towards St Charles averaging nearly 20 MPH. I then crossed under I-90 and then turned west for the first taste of the Minnesota winds. Even on the pavement, the headwinds were a lot of work. I noted the effort required to push a 36x19 into the wind and worked to catch a rider in front of me so we could work together. I caught one rider on a Surly LHT and worked with him for a while, but lost him heading west on a climb. After passing through Pilot Mound a few miles later, I met up with a rider I met in the hotel that morning and we proceeded to try and work together for a bit. Our group of two became a group of three for a while. However, whenever the third rider's turn to pull came around, he would gutter us so we couldn't draft off of him. After dealing with this for a couple of miles, I decided to let him and the other rider go and just ride my own pace, rather than deal with whatever issues he had. At this point I had caught back up to Rick Blackford, who had made the initial break, but had to back off as well. Rick was busy watering some roadside trees, so I gave him a quick shout and continued to ride on.
A steep grade sign (on a gravel road?) indicated we were getting into the meat of the first section. A long, steep and rutted decent gave way to the beautiful Bear Creek valley. Corn and clover fields along the valley quickly gave way to steep forested hills on either side of the creek. It was a break from the wind, and I was able to let my mind relax and take everything in until the climb out a couple of miles later. After a bit of a flat section, I was once again descending down into the valley of Deer Creek. As I navigated a 20 MPH corner, I found myself staring at the 100' wall of stone that suddenly filled my view. This area was definitely the most scenic of the route. I'd like to head back sometime just to ride this area and really take in the views. A few minutes later and I was at the checkpoint in Spring Valley. I had ridden the first 65 miles in just over 4 hours and was feeling pretty good. I opted to take a short break at the local convenience store to refill my water, grab something solid to eat and try and hopefully find a group to work with for the last 38 miles, as the route took us north and west back to Rochester.
The group I wanted to ride with took off, and about that time I saw Rick Blackford sitting on the side of the road near the checkpoint. I asked him how he was feeling and received no reply. After a couple of minutes of careful questioning, he said that a combination of leg and stomach troubles was really wearing on him mentally and physically. I suggested that it would pass, as it had for others during TransIowa a few weeks earlier, and that he should take his time at the checkpoint. He had 6 hours to ride the remaining 38 miles. Even if he stayed at the checkpoint for an hour and took a nap, he should still have plenty of time to finish. As much as I hated to give him the option, I told RIck that if he decided that he couldn't keep riding, he could call me for a ride in. I was hoping the offer would convince him to at least keep moving and that he'd feel better once he had some rest and started pedaling again.
I headed west into the winds, hoping that I could get find someone to share the pain with. There was a rider coming up behind me, but he wasn't making much headway. After a few miles of fighting the wind it was time to stretch my back and hamstrings out and put some food in my system. By this time, the guy behind me had caught up and we rode together for a while. He was having some issues on the uphills too, and then I noticed that he was riding a road race bike with 25 mm tires. We rode together for a while longer and then he dropped back on a long uphill. The next 20 miles were more fighting against head winds with a short break supplied by a bit of tarmac for a couple of sections. About 10 miles from the finish, a gust of wind came along and soon I was sprinting across a corn field chasing my cue sheets. Thankfully, they each caught on a clod of dirt that was sitting in between the rows of corn. That ended the excitement for the rest of the day. Five miles from the finish, we turned east on a fresh, wide shouldered stretch of asphalt. A long, well earned descent at 35 MPH descent was followed by some urban navigation and a turn onto the finish street, 8 hours and 12 minutes after I started.
I'm really happy with how things went this weekend. Rick Blackford finished 20th and I finished 23rd, so I felt it was a good showing for Rasmussen Bike Shop, especially with the conditions that we were handed. I went in shooting for a sub 7 hour finish time, but with the wind, the weather, and a new bike, I'm pleased with the time I posted. My food and drink strategy for the event worked out well, and I learned a few things about the bike that will need to be changed before I head to Kansas at the end of the month for the Dirty Kanza 200. I am definitely planning on racing this event next year. There should be a new course, and new challenges, and the event organization is absolutely top notch.