The Alexander 380. The little known big brother of its famous baby sibling Almanzo and the middle child, the still popular but slightly less known Royal. These three races make up a trio of notorious gravel rides in southeastern Minnesota. The Almanzo is 100 miles, the Royal is 162 miles, and the Alexander is 380 miles. Three. Hundred. And. Eighty. Miles. On gravel, unpaved roads, and with a few minimum maintenance roads thrown in just for kicks. The route travels through the driftless area of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, back to Iowa, and finally back north to Minnesota.
I had no business attempting this event other than the fact that I am utterly stubborn and in general like long distance suffering. Am I fast? No, not really. Can I churn for a really long time? Yes, if you compare me to most of the population. (I don’t hold a candle to the ultra endurance athletes, don’t get me wrong, but I’m on my way.
I hatched the idea back in December, furtively viewing the Alexander website and looking at the route, telling no one of my thoughts. The obsession became persistent, and the drive to sign up for something truly absurd was overwhelming. In January, I filled out my postcard and sent it in, posting a shot of it to Instagram. (Instagram is the safer place to share news like that — my dad and other adults that fear for my safety and wellbeing don’t check my posts there, at least not frequently, so it bought me some time to start training and figure out how to explain this to others.)
I marched up to the bike, loosened the seat post clamp, wiggled the seat around where I wanted it, and began tightening the bolt. All of a sudden I heard a sickening “snap”.
The months passed and I practiced night riding, gravel descents, cue card navigation, meticulously creating and then following a route blindly on my Garmin, riding in inclement weather, riding late at night and then riding a bunch of miles the following morning at the crack of dawn .. you name it, I tried it. The only thing I failed to check off my list was riding in cold rain. I racked up a decent volume of miles considering I’m a single mom with a full time job. Biking is “just” my hobby, after all.
The week leading into the Alexander saw me on two different trips, one for work and one for personal reasons. Sleep was scarce, as was time to get my things prepped. On Thursday afternoon I started scrambling around getting things lined up. I decided to create the infamous “kit grid” on my living room floor, and thought I had everything I needed and more piled up. I went out to the garage to make a final adjustment on my saddle height (because clearly it’s a good idea to change your saddle out a few days before the Alexander .. but to be fair, the “new” (700+ miles in) saddle I had tested had recently started making my left leg to numb during rides).
I marched up to the bike, loosened the seat post clamp, wiggled the seat around where I wanted it, and began tightening the bolt. All of a sudden I heard a sickening “snap”. I jerked my head down to see what had happened, and I had snapped my seat post bolt. The head came off, but the body of the screw was still embedded in the clamp. I immediately felt the flush of panic on my face. I ran over to the tool bench, grabbed a vise grips, clamped it on the exposed threads, and carefully began turning to remove the stub of the screw. Lucky for me, part of it was poking out the other side and I could just barely access it.
After much swearing and phone consultation, I decided to take the bike into my LBS. The helpful mechanic told me to walk across the parking lot to Ace Hardware, buy a bolt from them as it would be better quality, and he’d install it. I got the bolt, returned, and then we figured out that the clamp was stripped. Eff. The seatpost clamp was a custom item, specific to that brand of bike, and they had nothing in stock. The wonderful mechanic proposed trying to re-thread the clamp, and then insert a bolt with a nut on the end to keep it secure. Aha! Bike fixed. I eyed the exposed end of the bolt warily. I asked if he had a way to grind it down, explaining that with the size and girth of my thighs they tended to rub on anything near or on my seatpost, and I had holes bored into my flesh in the past. He understood, also not being a “typical” slender cyclist himself.
I raced home, having lost two hours to the ordeal. I decided I would pile up all of my things and deal with the organizing and packing of bags later. Scooping up everything into the car, I was off. A few of the other riders contemplated getting dinner together that night, but I opted out and instead went to the hotel. I piled my gear into a massive, disheveled mountain on the bed and began the sorting process. As I sorted through my things, I simultaneously had a growing sense of dread and an eerie calm. Juxtaposed were thoughts of “WTF have I done?!” and “well, what’s done is done – all you can do now is go ride your bike in the morning.”
There were two other women riding in the Alexander out of the field of just over a dozen. We talked ahead of time about riding together, with our general goal to stay together as long as it made sense. We thought we’d be better off in a group — well, the two of us that were closer to rookie status DEFINITELY wanted company out on the course. We talked a little that night, prepped our gear, and then fell asleep. Surprisingly enough, I actually got a few hours of sleep and was confused when my alarm went off at 3:45 the next morning.
We got ready and headed to the start. Rollout was at 5 AM, and our motley crew banded together for one of the race officials to take a photo. And just like that, we rolled away. No starting gun, no spectators, off into the darkness. We were only a few miles in when a wave of melancholia hit me. I was dead tired, and feeling miserable. The stress of the week was ever present and had taken its toll. I wanted to turn around and go back to bed SO BADLY. Sleep seemed more appealing than riding my bike all day, and I was shocked at how close I was to bailing. I told myself that I had trained too much, wanted this too badly to give up now. I made myself a deal – if I rode 50 miles and still wanted to quit, I could.
As the miles rode by, I began to feel better. I knew in the back of my mind that I would. With my increased focus on endurance riding and staying in the saddle for hours, the usual hour it took me to warm up in the past had grown to something closer to two hours. We girls stuck together, me, Pamela and Leah. (And, I use the word “girls” decisively here and not in a diminutive sense — to me, it implies a camaraderie, a fierce loyalty usually witnessed between adolescent girls.)
We tended to leapfrog each other. Someone would feel good and surge, someone else would fall back for a while. The front folks would pause down the road from turns to make sure we were all on course. If we wanted to stop for a bit, we did, without worrying we’d slow anyone else down — the other two would keep rolling. Our pattern of who led and who lagged assumed a rotation of sorts. As far as I could tell, in those early miles our paces were about perfectly matched.
Slowly, as we rode along, the world began to gain color as the sun peeked over the horizon. I could now see the dew and mist gathered in the valleys and watch the color creep into the landscape. I have to confess that I had never experienced a sunrise on the bike before this. Heck, I may have never in my life sat deliberately and watched a sunrise. I’m typically always moving, always busy, moving or doing something, or I’m asleep. Biking is semi-forced meditation and calm for my mind, and I love it for that.
I started my mental strategy of asking myself “can you keep moving forward right now?” My mind would respond with things like “but I’m tired, it’s too far, I won’t make it, the hills are too big, what if my lights don’t last all night…?!!?
We turned off our lights and churned on. I started my mental strategy of asking myself “can you keep moving forward right now?” My mind would respond with things like “but I’m tired, it’s too far, I won’t make it, the hills are too big, what if my lights don’t last all night…?!!?” “Hey, you there on the bike. Yeah, you. I didn’t ask about that shit. I asked if you could keep moving forward RIGHT NOW or are you done?” “Yeah, I guess I can.” And thus became the pattern to my thoughts. Questioning myself, alternating with observing the scenery, being awestruck at how beautiful things were, and when my mood dipped I’d run through my questions again.
Prior to the ride I had scrutinized the route and figured out the most logical places to stop for refueling. I noticed that the ride could be split into a series of “metric centuries”, or approximately 62 miles, between aid. This was a great way to break it up, and at the end of our first metric we rolled into Kwik Trip. I love Kwik Trip. I treat that gas station like a cult, seeking it out when I travel. I was shocked when we rolled up and some of the guys were still there at their refueling stop. I thought for sure at our leisurely pace we had been dropped and never would see them again. Huh.
I ate, drank, ate some more, and briefly turned on my phone to send a text letting loved ones know I was at my first designated stop. I got a text message from my boyfriend saying that there was a storm approaching, and that it would be ok to hole up for a while if I wanted. Crap, I thought. Remember how I mentioned before that I had never ridden in the rain this season? I had ridden in the rain once the summer before, a forced excursion on a warm day just to see what it felt like. I knew the weather had forecasted cold rain for our Alexander, but I was somewhat in denial that it would happen. I checked the radar and convinced myself that the biggest cells would continue north of us, and that we’d only get a light sprinkle.
Since we knew rain of some kind was coming, we decided to batten down the hatches before we left Harmony. We were unsure if our headlights would hold up in the rain, so we stashed those away. I put my phone in a waterproof case (aka, a trusty Ziplock freezer bag) and put it back in my pack. We rolled out of town and the caffeine and pizza hit my system. I got an extra jolt of energy and the three of us chatted for a while.
My Garmin stopped giving me cues at this point, a glitch of the system once I went briefly off course. I pulled out my cue cards and realized that my analog bike computer, installed just for this ride as a backup system, was also not displaying data. I glanced down and saw that the wheel magnet had slipped to the outer edge of the wheel, rendering the device useless. I was now without a decent means of navigation, and I could see the dark storm clouds ominously rolling in on the horizon…