A few months ago, familiar with and in full support of the ladies #ssgravelcrew who had kicked tail at gravel races across the greater plains, my friend Lauren and I looked at each other and thought, We should do this. Also, full disclosure, I admired their grit and have bought a few bandannas because they are freakin’ GREAT bandannas, and I say this as a #bandannaenthusiast and flagging scholar.
She’s the co-captain our no-drop, all-nonsense, sort of fake bike team: LIFE LOL. When the Ill Kanza gravel event came up on our bikey social media calendars, we agreed we’d be there, somehow. What leg should we sign up for? we asked ourselves. Given that Kansas, Illinois might as well BE Kansas, Kansas, we figured we’d sign up for 47 miles. Go big or stay home.
Saturday morning came and I ran late. By 6:30 I picked up Lauren and her Crux. Was it supposed to be 6:30 am? No. However, I’ve somehow managed to show up late to Bike the Drive and helped 25,000 people have a good time, so. I had faith in us. As we traversed the highway I’d often brushed off as some Big Ten trap to nowhere (except to see Modest Mouse, duh), Lauren and I continually asked each other, Are you nervous? Naw. Yes. Maybe.
“You know what?” she said. “At least we know biking is suffering.” Which is true!
Is this the face of suffering?
Look, I love riding my bike. I love the sneaky suffering. Tiny purgatories of constantly letting my pennies bleed away from me for whatever new thing I “need”, the longing for that bike you want but will never, ever be in your size on CraigsList, your bum knee and saddle sores and callouses and falling down. Whatever it is, the deeper down the biking hole you fall, so, too, will a little rain. And that’s great!
By the time we hit Kansas, my lead foot had not made up for all our lost time. Although we’d changed at a gas station outside of town, our bike camping and touring instincts had us double-checking we had everything. I, in particular, needed to make sure I had at least seven different granola bars at hand at all times. Even though we saw other participants tuning up their bikes near us, by the time we hit the registration, the rest of the racers were lined up at the start.
What do we do? I asked. Lauren said we should just take off but I refused. Both of us are former event coordinators and by gum, I will not participate in an event where I should probably sign a waiver. We had already found our numbers and forms by the time one of the race volunteers appeared.
This is gravel.
The actual racers took off before we’d gotten our numbers. But so what? We headed out with some cue sheets and maps clipped to my handlebars and the wind whipping about us. In the first few miles, we both started yelling like goons, “GRAV-ELLLL!” when we hit some cute small rocks on a country road. Both of us are familiar with riding on unpaved roads, but what really determines a “gravel race”? we wondered.
I won’t lie: I once spoke with a friend who talked about a gravel race in Western Illinois where the MO was basically terrible, terrible winds in the flatlands in a giant square of gravel. Which… sounds like a mean trick you can play on city folk to get $20 a pop and collect a tidy profit. Yeah, I’m a jerk and a cynic.
But we hit the first few miles with a bunch of wind at our faces and kept up a nice clip. However, I’m some sort of poor-kid’s version of a retrogrouch and truly enjoy my cue-sheets and so….
We overshot the route seven miles!
HOWEVER: we rode through the village of Ashmore which had some super ~spooky~ Halloween decorations and when I knew we were lost, a very kind woman assisted us who said we were cool for doing this, because she wouldn’t! She did, however, give us the wrong directions. As we turned onto a cool gravel road that had nothing to do with the Ill Kanza, we found a beautiful pumpkin patch in the sun, untouched by anyone.
DECORATIVE GOURD SEASON, EVERYONE.
After I got us back onto the right track, we found the gravel. As we drove earlier, I told Captain Lauren: look, we might hit some climbs, and I will get off and walk. And you should feel free to move along, but you should know I believe in no one left behind. Captain Lauren told me she was worried about skidding out and falling, which I then began to worry about, but we had at least established some rules. No one left behind. Take it easy. Keep it cool.
We determined three levels of gravel:
Level 1: Unpaved road with a smattering of tiny rocks.
Level 2: Actual gravel, so, small rocks?
Level 3: Rocks. Just a road of rocks.
This is just a bunch of rocks, right?
Ill Kanza is a great event if you’re someone who wants to figure out what gravel riding is which was me, to be honest. When I think gravel, I think about the last few miles on my first tour to my friends’ farm, where the sound I kicked up beat, you’re here you’re here you’re here. I think about gravel and I think about washing the tomatoes and knowing when someone comes in for their vegetables.
So we made our way ahead. The trees crossed over the roads in sweet, shady tunnels and we didn’t see many other souls. I remembered being on bike tour: we need to eat, we need to drink, and I love to look at all of the things that are out in the world. I don’t think I ever want to do a ride or race where I can’t get an eyeful of what I’m pedaling through. But we were good captains: we stuck together, we did not fall, we sort of caught up, ate an energy waffle, got lost but figured out which way to go. Also energy waffles beat all other energy snacks.
Somewhere outside Kansas.
Ill Kanza is full of a lot of gravel that anyone curious can definitely traverse. Lauren rode a Cannondale Crux. She reported the borrowed bike meant lots of bumpy sensations, but she was definitely nimble. I rode my touring bike, the Jamis Aurora, and was happy riding steel, as I mostly envision myself as the tiny, bulky horse patiently making its way through. Having ridden this bike on off-road tours before it worked great.
After meeting some pretty curious animal friends, curving through the shadows of massive threshers, deciding we’d both rather be fire trucks than John Deere tractors, we leapt back onto pavement, thrilled at the smoothness and moseyed back into town. We were welcomed with delicious beer and cheerful organizers and participants. With some fried pickles in our bellies, we talked to the organizers who were pleased with the turnout and the incredible, +70 degree weather. Kansas is a farming town and also dry, but we can tell you the Tryptich beer is great. We also really enjoyed the playground, because see-saws are essentially playing bodily harm roulette.
As an intro to gravel riding, Ill Kanza is a great event. I spotted all kinds of bikes in the park when we were done, and although I’d be loathe to encounter some of those deep rocks on road tires, this would be a great way to use what you got and have an October adventure. I can even point you in the wrong way of a wonderful pumpkin patch.
Carmen Aiken bikes around Chicago as a commuter, advocate, rabblerouser, writer and even printmaker since she moved back in 2009. After being involved with the Big Marsh Park project, she found out mountain biking is pretty fun and has added it to her touring and adventuring habits. Her work has been featured at The Billfold, Streetsblog Chicago, Story Club, Miss Spoken and can be found at https://goo.gl/R5KJdb. She'd love to talk touring with you.