It’s the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. It’s over 400 riders singing happy birthday while trying their best to stay warm. It’s a refugee camp where a grocery store once stood. It’s camaraderie. It’s dish gloves in place of riding gloves. It’s the taste of the road. It’s finches – five of them – following you along in their own merry way. It’s muck thrown everywhere. It’s Chris Skogen. It’s gravel. It’s free.
It’s the Almanzo.
I get up and start collecting my things for the race. The night before Chris Skogen was kind enough to give me a packet and number despite my lack of foresight with registration. #441, I try to find some meaning in it, but fail and decide it’s for the best. I pin it to my right sleeve. A classy information packet – this is an endeavor many people have put good effort into. The typical pre-race jitters show themselves but only for a moment, I’m not here to see a number by my name at the end.
My teammates gather their things and soon we’re downstairs having breakfast. I chat it up with Dave, Chelsea, Bobby where the main topic is the fact that the weather took a turn for the worst last evening. Waking up, we’ve come to find the ground soaked and the skies less than welcoming. While we’re having our breakfast the 162 riders are already out and riding. My mind’s preoccupied with where Josh Kruck might be in the course – after his amazing performance at the Ox Yoke the week before I’m certain he’s doing just fine in the rain and cold. Only later would I find out that he was already stuck in one gear and still was pedaling along. Jeez. We pedal in circles in the parking lot of the hotel. Everything is packed and we’re set to go. Eric, Heather, Ben and I head on over to the High School in Spring Valley to see the show.
One rendition of Happy Birthday by the group and Chris gives us the final speech. He thanks us all for coming and as he finishes I feel the rain pick up just a tad. I clip in and head out with the group. After a short road section it’s a right turn and the gravel starts. Immediately the muck starts flying and people are looking for fendered compatriots to ride behind. The front group gets started and doesn’t slow up – I drop back in favor of saving myself. My teammates are up with the front, they’re here to get this done and I hope eventually I’ll meet back up with them. As we hit the first climb, I pull off to the side and ready the camera. It’s apparent that people have taken Skogen’s words to heart – there is a constant flow of ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Do you need anything?’ coming from the group as they pass by. I reassure them that I’m just fine and take a few photos of the group passing. Every now and again I’ll recognize a face, but it’s hard as they’re already pretty caked with gravel/sludge mix.
The funny thing is, everyone is still smiling.
I make my way and stop frequently, finding that getting out from behind the bars allows me to enjoy the scenery without being worried about how much more is left. Every mile or so I’d pass a group that’s stopped for a flat, some food or a break. The route is gorgeous. It is a route planned by someone who loved the area and knows it well. The rolling farmland, the forests and creeks all bring you back to a simpler time. Except for a few trucks here and there, the roads are mostly ours. The climbs are challenging and rewarding. Groups are forming at the tops, riders catching their breath. Only 10 miles in now, but with the weather it feels so much more. The phrase I keep hearing is “No shame” – as in, there’s no shame in turning around and calling it in. As I see a few turn around when we hit Highway 16 and head back to Spring Valley the phrase repeats in my head. No desire to join them, yet.
Eventually I find my teammates. Heather has had an unfortunate flat, but it’s allowed me to catch up. Ben starts talking about quitting and I mention I’ll probably be pulling off shortly. Eric and Heather are determined to finish and we start upping the pace to get it done. My skinny tires skip from hard packed line to hard packed line. Taking the corners fast, the wet gravel allows them to dig in giving me extra traction – lines I would never take on a dry day. A silver lining to this weather. We’re doing the passing now, but it’s a bit too much for me. We hit a corner and I stop for more photos/oreos. They head off and later I learn that the cold finally got to Eric and he ended up in an officials car. Heather as well, but she made it to the 65 mile point then called it in. Ben, even with his heart firmly out of it, found it somewhere along the road and was the only one of us to finish. All of them gave it everything they could and I am proud to say they’re my teammates.
I catch up with Peter and Gene and begin to work with them. They’re both looking good and taking their time – veterans, indeed. Their company was more than welcome, and quickly talk turns to the AGRS and the good that’s come from it. More simple beauty surrounds us as we make our way – no one tells you that you have to ride in Spring Valley.
You have to ride in Spring Valley.
We finally make it to Preston. The check-point is just up the road from here, but Preston seems to be the place many are turning back or getting a ride. After hitting the bridge and running into Eric and Greg, I head over to the local grocery store. It’s like a refugee camp – riders milling about shivering and trying to get warm. Still, smiles all around. Jokes exchanged and stories given, attempts at trying to find a lost compatriot or two. The familiar smell of powdered hot coco fills the air with something else – fried chicken. I grab a piece and scarf it down. With the cold I didn’t realize how hungry I had become and soon my outlook improves but my resolve fails. I’m done for the day and need to find the quickest way back, no need to be a hero. Greg and his lady are kind enough to allow me to join them and shortly after purchasing a new pair of gloves and polishing off some hot coco we’re well on our way down 16 to Spring Valley. We see a few others making their way, their faces telling the story with greater specificity than their mouths. Shell shocked, but glad to have made it however far. No shame, only a feeling of thankfulness for being apart of something so great.
As we pull in, Eric calls and lets me know he’s coming. Heather is still somewhere out on the course and Ben is just about deciding that it’s time to answer the call and finish the Almanzo. After cleaning up we head on over to A&W for some root beer and food. Eric and Heather tell of their own routes back to the finish, but the topic quickly turns to how to get back here and ride this again. I can still taste the gravel and pick bits out in between bites of chili-cheese fries. I think of the hundreds of other stories being formed still, at an event that you don’t even need to pay for, just send a postcard. As simple as start here, end there and make it as fast as you can. Horrible weather, road conditions, whatever else aside – I believe this is the heart of Almanzo. There’s no pretension, there’s no ‘inner circle’ of winners, you’re all winners.
No shame. All glory.
It’s the Almanzo.