2016 was my third year doing the Almanzo 100, on my third bike. I had finished it on my 29'er in 2014 and my cross bike in 2015, this year I would do it on my carbon Farley 9.6 with a 27.5+ wheelset. While I struggled last year on some of the big hills with my bike's gearing, this year I thought shouldn't be a problem with my Farley's 1x11 drivetrain. I was feeling good about the race even though I hadn't trained as much as I would've liked to. It would be a fun, but challenging day of riding with a lot of old friends and some new ones.
After working with the Penn Cycle crew in setting up the finish chute at Willow Park, I headed back to the hotel to relax a bit, grab a bite to eat and get my bike and gear set up for the morning. The only thing that had me a little nervous was the strong winds that were forecast for raceday. I knew I could do the miles and the elevation gain, but the wind would make a challenging race a bit tougher.
With a good night's rest and some breakfast I was ready to head to the Spring Valley Community Center to get some video of the roll-out of the Royal 162 and to chat with friends before the start of the Almanzo 100. Our group of friends (Velo Lush) lined up for the start and we all rolled out together at the sound of the starting gun. The fast guys in our group (you know who you are) pulled ahead on the roll-out and I stayed back with Sarah and Michelle who were riding their first Almanzo 100.
The winds were pretty strong out in the open areas and I was looking forward to rolling into Preston to take a break, eat something and get some more water to last me until I reached Forestville.
A brief stop in Preston was my plan where I fueled up on snacks and chatted with Pat from Penn Cycle who hooked me up with a whiskey coke before I took the climb out of the Valley. I was still feeling very optimistic about the rest of the day. I knew there were a lot of hills ahead of me and my 1x11 drivetrain made climbing them much easier than the year before on my cross bike. Because of this, I wasn't so much worried about the hills but rather the consistently strong winds that took a lot out of me as the day went on.
Riding on 27.5+ tires made the downhills very fast and fun allowing me to make up some time from the long, slower climbs. I hadn't experience any cramping in my legs yet which was due to keeping hydrated and taking a Saltstick capsule every hour to replace my electrolyte salts. This was a nice change from my previous two Almanzo 100's where I had intermittent leg cramps.
Somewhere between Preston and Forestville I would end up rolling from time to time with my friend Drew. I would pull ahead or he would do the same but we would manage to end up riding together for quite a few miles as we chatted to dull the sound of the crushing gravel beneath our tires. By this time I was in need of a break, some more food and was looking forward to the stop in Forestville.
As I pulled into the checkpoint at Forestville and got off my bike, I could feel the inflammation in my knees and lactic acid burn in my quads. I ate, drank and talked with Pat and Andrew from Penn Cycle for a little bit. I was starting to feel a little drained from riding in the wind for so long. Pat asked me if I was feeling OK and I told him I was starting to get worn out. He asked me if I wanted a ride in the Penn Ambulance and I told him I'm going to try to finish this thing. I knew I only had about 34 miles to go and I didn't want this to be the first year I didn't finish.
The next ten miles to Cherry Grove would be the toughest of the day for me. The winds started to pick up even more out in the open and it felt like the temperature, most probably the wind chill, was beginning to drop. Somewhere in the middle of this ten mile stretch I was passed by some fast riders on a tandem bike who said "hi" to me, It was Tina and Joe Stiller who were doing the Royal 162. I recognized them right away and said "Hi Joe and Tina". They were moving at a pretty good rate and climbed the hills quickly sending them out of my view in a short time. I continued on my way but the winds were very demoralizing.
By the time I reached Cherry Grove and the Riding Gravel oasis, I knew my day was over. I had tried to eat and drink enough to keep my energy up but the strong winds kicked the shit out of me and I knew I didn't have it in me for the final 25 miles. I didn't want to take a DNF this year but my energy stores were spent and I was getting cold.
I had no cell phone reception so I asked Ben from Riding Gravel to give Pat a call to see if he could pick me up. It turns out that Teri who was recording the results at the finish line had become very ill so Pat and Andrew had to take over for her. It would be some time before one of them could pick me up. So I sat in the Cherry Grove Community Center and had a couple of beers while trying to warm up. It felt good to be out of the wind. I chatted with another group of riders who's day was also over and they were waiting for their rides. The wind was really rough on them and a major factor in their decision to drop out.
A Cherry Grove Community Center volunteer by the name of Ross asked me if I had a ride back into town and I told him "eventually". He said he could give me a ride to Spring Valley after he dropped off some trash he had in his truck from the oasis. I thanked him and he returned a short while later where I loaded my bike into his truck for the ride back. We swapped stories about this and last year's Almanzo. He thought us bikers were crazy to do that kind of distance on gravel with all of the hills, but loved to hear our stories. When we got into Cherry Grove I slipped him some cash for the ride and thanked him once again. He was happy to help out.
I had gotten back to the finish line while several of my friends were still out on the course. I was able to be there to record video of them as they came across the line. The first two were Erik and Aj. They looked physically and mentally wore out. Aj proceeded to collapse on the ground and rest for a little bit after a very tough day out on the gravel.
Next across the line were Tina and Joe who passed me miles back. They were greeted with cheers and hand claps by those gathered at the finish.
Sarah, who I had started the day off riding with came across the finish before I could get any video of her first Almanzo 100 finish, so I had to settle for a photo. Great job Sarah!
The most emotional finish was when Michelle came across the line at her first Almanzo 100. She has only been riding since last October and had come along with me and many other friends on several gravel training rides leading up to Almanzo. She had a lot of determination that day and it paid off. Way to go Michelle!
And finally, Drew was the last of our crew to cross the finish line. We were all proud of each other's accomplishment on that long tough day. I had mixed feelings about taking a DNF for the first time at Almanzo but I was glad I was able to be at the finish to capture the moment and cheer on my good friends. I am already looking forward to next year and the challenges it may bring us. A big "Thank you" goes out to Spring Valley Tourism and Penn Cycle from all of us for keeping this iconic race alive and free.