This year marks the state of Nebraska’s sesquicentennial, 150 years in the union. What better way to celebrate this than heading to Lincoln, Nebraska, to ride 150 miles of gravel across the bumpy plains that make up the eastern part of the state? At least, that’s what Chris thought. Kelly and I were just dumb enough to agree
Words: Ben Edwards Race
Images: Michael McColgan

The date was set: August 19, 2017, 6 a.m. Gravel Worlds. World champions have been crowned at this event since 2010 and, while the UCI may not agree, the riders who’ve earned rainbow stripes here are the cream of the gravel crop. The event is organized by folks from the Pirate Cycling League, complete with “talk-like-a-pirate” race instructions, so they have no qualms about commandeering rainbow stripes for their own purposes.

The route is approximately 150 miles—exactly 151.9 miles according to our Strava file. But don’t worry about the mileage, it’s the climbing that gets you: 11,000 feet. Eastern Nebraska and its famed Dissected Till Plains are not flat. Every foot of those 11,000 feet is earned with repeated, endless, maddening 200-foot kicks in the teeth.

The gravel itself is fairly tame. Most if it’s hardpack. Most of it—there was that section a few miles after Valparaiso when we turned left into a quagmire of gravel that the locals knew was coming and twisted the throttle hard, annihilating what was left of the field. But most of it was hardpack, so flicking your bike from line to line was not too demanding.

The three of us were each very different riders with very different expectations on very different bikes. Here’s our story of the 2017 gravel worlds. This is our Nebraska Three-Way.

TALE OF THE TAPE
I’m Ben Edwards, 45, and a fairly big rider. At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, power-to-weight ratio is not my strength. Peak watts I can do: 90 seconds over a power climb I’m pretty comfortable with. As much as climbing 11,000 feet can agree with any 180-pound rider, I thought Gravel Worlds’ climbing would agree with me.

Kelly Pasco is a Nebraska native, 52 years old and a svelte 140 pounds. He calls his body “climbing friendly”—which is funny, because as a rider who has turned myself inside out to try to hang onto his wheel on climbs, I’d call it more “climbing sociopathic.” Growing up steeped in Nebraska gravel, Kelly is very comfortable with less-than-ideal traction. Tires breaking free is nothing new to him.

The third member of our de facto team was Chris Van Syl. At 6 feet tall and 190 pounds, as a young rider he envisioned himself as the South African Sean Yates, a rouleur with a big engine, so he eyed the 11,000 feet of climbing with the same trepidation I did.

THE EXPECTATIONS
I tried to keep the expectations low. I knew the field would be stacked with talent and my summer had involved a fair bit of travel for work. I told myself I just wanted to be there when the race-winning move went. I did not plan or expect to go with it.

While cagey with his training partners, inside, Kelly knew what he wanted. “I was riding to be over-50 gravel world champion,” he admitted later. He wanted to return to his hometown from the race as a conquering hero. He was racing for a rainbow jersey.

Chris went into the event without much in the way of expectation. He had spent many years off the bike and in recent years has used specific events to motivate his riding. Last year, it was our Peloton Gravel Mob, and this year it was Gravel Worlds that caught his eye. He tips his cap to the organizers for the name. “Naming it Gravel Worlds def caught my eye,” Chris says. “Nothing else about the ride would make it stand out from everything else on the calendar.”

THE TRAINING PLAN
My training plan could best be described as muscle memory. I’ve ridden farther and climbed more during my days on the bike. I hoped that would get me through. With a busy summer of travel, my longest ride was five hours and 100 miles, with about 6,000 feet of climbing. I focused on a lot of repeats on punchy rollers and tried to ride in the heat of midday. Many friends assumed I was keeping my big rides off of Strava. Sadly, there was no secret training.

By the time the Gravel Worlds plan materialized we were many weeks out from race day. Kelly already had a good base built up, with a typical week for him being 12 to 16 hours with lots of gravel and lots of climbing. He calls California the land of milk and honey, where 100-mile rides on the coast in a comfy 70 degrees were useless preparation for Gravel Worlds. “Growing up in Nebraska I know how brutal the weather can be,” he says. “In August it could be 100 degrees with 95-percent humidity. That’s what I was worried about.” Kelly upped his hours and looked for inland heat with six weeks to go. Three weeks out, he knocked out a seven-hour day in triple-digit heat with 9,000 feet of climbing. “Many friends saw my Strava post and commented with some version of ‘you’re stupid,’” Kelly remembers.

A big part of Chris’ plan was loosing about 10 pounds before race day. He backed way off on the beer and did multiple six-plus-hour rides, with his longest at 130 miles along the coast. He was pleased with himself until Kelly pointed out that 70-degree coast rides are pointless preparation for Nebraska heat and humidity. Chris then started climbing inland in a black winter jersey on the hottest days he could find. I saw him do this. It was not pretty.

THE BIKE CHOICES
The fact that I had the perfect bike in my quiver was one of the major reasons I agreed to this hair-brained scheme. During the spring I had built up a 3T Exploro with SRAM Red eTap. There has been a lot of talk about eTap builds for gravel, and SRAM would rather have seen me on a 1x group, but I love eTap and wanted the tight gear ratios of a 2x system over 150 miles of rolling terrain. Most of the eTap/gravel concern arises over tire clearance. The front derailleur battery does limit clearance significantly, but with the Exploro’s 650b compatibility a 40mm tire can be run if volume is necessary. With some intel, I discovered that most of the parcours was hardpack, so big volume was unnecessary. In the end, I rode a 33mm Schwalbe X-One Speed TLR on a set of Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3 TLR 700c wheels. I considered two component choices key to the ride: my Speedplay SYZR pedals and the RedShift ShockStop stem. The pedals gave me a stable, road-like platform for the eight hours of riding in gravel, while the ShockStop stem smoothed out the chattering descents, keeping my hands happy with 20mm of elastomer-dampened travel. Regardless of bikes, I won’t ride gravel without these two components ever again.

Kelly, as the owner of a bike shop, has a lot of great bikes to choose from. He opted for the Salsa Warbird, a bike he considers one of the best gravel bikes on the market. The combination of comfort out of the wishbone rear end and the stiff bottom bracket kept him comfortable over the entire 150 miles, but it also had the performance he wanted to race aggressively. With a third bottle cage, Kelly also felt comfortable racing without a hydration pack.

Of all the things that stood out to Chris on his Devinci Hatchet, it was the front shifting of Ultegra Di2 that seemed to make his day easier. “Once I dropped from the pack I was no longer big-ringing over the climbs, and I made endless shifts on the front, all faultless, faster and more precise than I could with mechanical.” A self-described tire geek, Chris had the same intel I did—hard and fast—so he opted for the WTB Exposure in 34mm with 40psi.

We all rolled the dice on tires, assuming it would be dry and knowing, if it were wet, only the fat bikes would be on the right tires. Both Kelly and Chris rode with tri-bars, which I could not stomach from both a cultural and stylistic viewpoint. I was in the minority, as tri-bars seemed to be on almost half the bikes and a good portion of the front group. No one pays me for race results so I don’t imagine ever running tri-bars in the future, although both Kelly and Chris felt they were a good choice.

ON BIKE NUTRITION
I had heard the race was basically self-supported, so I planned on carrying almost everything I needed without a hydration pack—not so easy for a 150-mile day. I had four packs of GU Chews stuffed in a Profile Design box on the top tube, each with 160 calories in them, four water bottles—two behind my saddle and two on the frame—and three of those had GU Roctane with 250 calories per bottle. I stuffed in my pockets another 1,000 calories of GU Roctane to mix on the road at one of the three oasis points. I do like real food as well, but it wasn’t until Mile 20 that I realized I had left my four mini ham-and-cheese sandwiches back in the car. When we blasted though the first rest stop at 45 miles I was worried I would be in calorie trouble. That was compounded by the fact that eating in the tight field, averaging well over 20 mph in gravel, was very difficult. I cursed the top box endlessly. It was too narrow and I had stuffed too much in it. Pulling the gels from it in the field was harrowing to say the least.

Luckily, as the field shattered after the first stop, the small group I was in stopped at the next two oases. We did not stop long, but just enough to refill bottles with GU Roctane, stuff some trail mix in my mouth and hop back on the bike. I credit the GU Roctane for keeping me going. Those 250 calories per bottle were easy on the stomach and easy to get down in the heat of battle. I won’t do a self-supported race like this again without a better solution to fuel in the saddle—likely a hydration pack.

For Kelly, Gravel Worlds was really new territory. His rides typically average one to three hours and he’s a water-and-banana guy. On the day, Kelly began with a bottle from a local Ojai brand called Boku. He mixed it up with the brand’s protein, Super Food mix, Super Fuel mix and a special mushroom mix, which he sipped throughout the race and credits with keeping the hunger knock at bay. For quick energy and hydration, he also relied on GU Chews and four bottles of Roctane, although at Mile 120 he hit the root beer, pickles and bananas! “I feel like I nailed my nutrition. If and when I do this again, I will do the same,” Kelly says.

Chris had good luck with his on-bike storage plan: a Revelate Gas Tank. It provides a lot of space and Chris stuffed it with GU Chews, energy bars and two vials of Hot Shot anti-cramp. His old-school storage technique, jersey pockets, was not as effective, because he lost his banana in the first 5 miles on a fast, chattering descent. Even the third bottle stored in his pocket was not easy to get to on that terrain. He had enough calories on board to complete the entire ride without stopping, but unlike myself and Kelly, he needed to stop at the first oasis for hydration. In the future, Chris says, he’ll opt for more storage out front and a hydration pack so he could roll though the first stop with the rest of the field.

THE RACE
My race could best be described as unforced errors. Error No. 1 occurred at a quick portage at Mile 20. As I hopped off, I kicked out the bottles stored behind my seat. It took only 30 seconds to grab them and reseat them, but the group of leaders was gone and I had to chase for some time, burning match after match, to regain them. After blowing by the first rest stop at 45 miles, the field was obliterated when eventual winner, Colin Strickland, attacked. I took two pulls to help try and bring him back. Bad idea. I found myself gapped on the next few rollers. Strickland—and a few other riders that managed to bridge—got away, and a chase group of about 12 formed. I spent another 6 miles chasing solo. I finally bridged to the chase group and felt enormous relief. I had burned more matches than planned, but I was in a good place with about 85 miles still to ride.

Then error No. 2 occurred. I clipped a lip of rock-hard gravel changing lines due to a lapse in concentration and went down. I hopped up instantly, but my chain was jammed and I had to kick it free. Again, just a few seconds, but the gap was there and I was chasing all over again, wasting energy. I clawed back to the group, which had now split, to within 10 seconds. I rounded a turn after them and my iPhone began chirping in my pocket. I was off-course, having lost sight of the group for just a moment; they had turned down what looked like a driveway. I had not loaded the unmarked route on my head unit, assuming I would always have riders in sight. Unforced error No. 3.

I had seen Alison Tetrick, eventual women’s winner, early in the race and rolled up to say hi. All she said in reply was “sorry, concentrating.” Those words rang in my ears as I was once again chasing. There’s a reason she’s a pro, and it’s more than a big VO2 max. I eventually chased back to a good group that shrank and swelled as the day progressed. Sometimes we were four, sometimes six or seven, as riders were dropped or caught. Until 10 miles to go, when that small group fell apart due to pure exhaustion, we were a solid team. In the end I finished in 17th overall, in 8:07:35. Without the unforced errors I’d like to believe a top 10 would have been doable. What struck me after the race was my moving time versus overall time. In 151.2 miles, with a crash and two rest stops, I had only spent 4 minutes and 35 seconds off the bike.

Kelly would also find the Gravel Worlds’ learning curve steep. We had both assumed there would be plenty of riders to follow and did not make route navigation a priority. Kelly hung with the lead group until the infamous Strickland attack blew things apart. Kelly took a tough line into some thick gravel and had to watch the riders that stayed left stream away in the hardpack. Despite the wide-open vistas, riders quickly got out of sight, and without navigation Kelly was reduced to searching for tire tracks to stay on course. He eventually found himself in a group with Tetrick and got a front-row seat of the battle between her and the entire Panaracer Team as they tried, unsuccessfully, to help their rider, Kae Takeshita, beat the Queen of Kanza. Kelly eventually lost hold of that group thanks to a strategic error at a water stop.

Underestimating just how fast riders were moving through the stops, he waited in line for water, took a pee and then looked at a deserted water stop and his group 500 yards down the road. Kelly’s last 25 miles would be ridden with a childhood friend he hadn’t seen in years, both drawn home to Lincoln by the appeal of Gravel Worlds. Kelly would finish 31st overall, in 8:30:23. While his quest to be Master’s Gravel World Champ was not successful, he did ride to seventh in his category. “I chose tubeless 30mm tires, 35psi in the front and 38psi in the back,” Kelly says. “I felt my handling skills could make up for the tire size. I was right except for the 10 seconds I got caught up in deep gravel. Maybe I could have done better and maybe not.”

Right out of the gate, Chris was on the back foot. The start was fast and, for the first hour, in the dark. It was faster than Chris anticipated and he hadn’t been in a big peloton for quite a few years. He knew he was burning matches early and he lost the lead group after the quick dismount at Mile 20. At Mile 50, Chris started to cramp, paying for the nervous energy that masked just how hard he was going over the first two hours of racing. With 100 miles to go, he began to wonder, “Am I going to make it? All that training, all the talk, all the excitement… Then I started thinking, Well, with more than 100 to go, it’s just going to be a long day!”

Cramping was making it tough for Chris to even grab onto small groups that began to roll by, and without the Hot Shots he’s not sure if he would have been reduced to walking. But by Mile 80, at the first of two mandatory checkpoints, he began to come back to life, those long training miles on hot days beginning to emerge. Chris ended up being on the gravel 9:47:37, longer than he’d planned for, and finishing 70th overall. “I barely made top 20 in my age group, and I had hoped for better…to be honest, way better. I did think that with my training, and gauging my training rides with partners, that I had a better ride in me. I guess I was wrong!” Chris’ time would typically have been good enough for top 30 at Gravel Worlds, so that’s some indication of just how fast the 2017 edition was.

GRAVEL WORLDS AGAIN?
This is a great event and one I’d be happy to do again but, honestly, I don’t know if I’ll go back. There are so many other great rides out there I have yet to do and despite the unforced errors I had a good day on the bike. My goal was to be there when the race-winning move went. I was—and I even took a few ill-advised pulls to try and bring it back. Mission accomplished.

For Kelly, it was a nice return to his roots. “I have ridden those roads for years and I still go back and ride them. It was a well-organized, fun event that is epic. I don’t think I’ll do it again, there are so many events to do, but Gravel Worlds should be on your bucket list of gravel races.”

Chris, the ringleader of our Nebraska adventure, was unequivocal when asked if he would return. “Hell, yes! I have unfinished business! When I first looked at the event—150 miles on gravel, with 11,000 feet of elevation—it reminded me of an [Afrikaans] saying back home, ‘Dit vat ‘n man op ‘n perd, nie ‘n kont op ‘n kameel nie,’ or, roughly translated, ‘It takes a man on a horse, not an asshole on a camel.’”

From issue 71. Buy it here.