We were grateful to get the invite to the Rapha Prestige Midwest event last weekend. It was awesome just to be able to ride this great course, but it was even more fun that we put in the fastest time. Scroll down to see a gallery of images from the event by Lucas Marshall.
We have our good friend Tobie to thank for the invite, he was one of the course designers and local experts. In addition to the invite help, Tobie also gave us the inside line on what equipment choices would be ideal for the conditions -- cross bikes with wide tires were his recommendation.
Our team rolled into northwest Illinois on Friday for a short pre ride, and wow, holy heat and humidity. The course was wonderful though. The topography was very Wisconsin, rolling terrain with flowy roads that follow the contours beautifully. The gravel was nice and smooth -- fast in most places, but had some rough patches that kept you on your toes -- especially on the fast downhills.
At dinner, we compared notes and agreed that this was going to be a great course for us. The climbing wasn't as hard as what we have around Omaha and the gravel was less chunky. Plus, we realized that the high heat and humidity would give our team an advantage over teams visiting from the mountains or coasts.
Teams began to gather at the start line at 6:30a on race day. Rapha had their espresso trailer setup and were serving premo roast. The vibe around the start was great. Rapha did a great job of selecting teams, lots of charisma and strong legs. Bike choices varied significantly. There were some teams with full-on self-contained adventure-style gravel setups, others with aero road bikes and 25c tires -- the majority were in line with our choice of cross bikes with file tread 33c tires.
The format of the day was for 25 teams to start at 3 minute intervals starting at 7. Our team rolled out second to last, seeded near the top likely because we have a cyclocross world champ on our roster. We started with a solid plan -- we knew that the race wouldn't be won in the first two hours, but it could be lost in the first two hours. Teams that went out too hard were going to suffer big time late in the race. Little did we know that despite our conservative plans, we would make most of our gains in the first two hours.
We organized right away into a single pace line with a slow rotation, 3-4 minute pulls at the front at a moderate pace. If we started to go too hard then Ryan would ding his bell and everyone knew to take it down a notch. If you weren't pulling then you were hiding from the wind and recovering. We understood that we were racing the course and not the other teams, so stay focused on riding our own race.
We overtook the team that started in front of us right away. They had missed an early turn and lost 3 minutes. It was another 20 minutes before we passed the next team. That happened on the first fast gravel descent. Our team was flying through anything technical without even touching our brakes, we barreled past a team that was gingerly navigating the rough gravel on road bikes. We felt bad for them, but we were smiling because that was the first true indicator that we had made the right equipment choices.
In the first 35 miles we passed five or six more teams, wishing them well as we kept our controlled tempo. As we approached the first gas station for refueling, we rolled up on Tobie and the Axletree team grinding up a long climb. We were super stoked to see our good friend riding strong.
As we crested the climb we were shocked to see that just ahead were the bulk of the rest of the teams -- they had all clustered together at the same pace during the first third of the ride. We got to the gas station first and did a quick refuel as a complete mob descended on the stop. The only team to do a faster stop than us was the Trek team riding some bitching new aero Madone and Emonda road bikes with 28c tires. We rolled out of town right after them and passed them within a few miles when we got to the first gravel section -- a wicked fast descent that seriously favored cross bikes.
We kept our tempo high and passed the remaining two teams ahead of us over the next 20 miles. Now we were setting fresh tracks for others to follow. We had smiles on our faces, and even though our legs were a little heavy, we kept our steady tempo and coordinated strategy rolling. The terrain kept getting better and better. The climbs were wonderful and the vistas from on top of the ridges were unbeatable.
At mile 75 fatigue was starting to catch up to us and we were getting a little worried that were blown through the refueling stop too fast. But then fate smiled on us, Dave Wilcox from Rapha had setup a small aid station at the bottom of a long gravel descent. He gave us cold water, a couple of Cokes, some potato chips and granola bars. He has no idea what a life saver he was. He breathed new life into our team.
After a few more punishing climbs, we dropped into the Mississippi River valley for a 12 mile stretch of relatively flat rollers into a headwind. We got into TTT formation, took our speed up to 20 and just hammered out the miles. Everything was flowing great...and then it wasn't.
We took a sharp left back up into the hills, the wind became a non-factor, the sun came out with a fury as we ground our way up some brutal gravel climbs. The energy was starting to fade and we had 30 some miles yet to ride. We had a rolling team consultation about where we were all at energy wise - Jordan and Lucas were the strongest so adapted to taking more pulls and ensuring that Mark and Ryan were hanging in at a good pace up the climbs.
Five miles out from the final gas station we came across a wooden bridge that was closed. We had to hand our bikes across a gap and scurry over fencing in order to cross. It was nice to be off the bike, but it broke our momentum. We (Ryan) elected for a slightly longer break at the final gas station to get a little extra food and soak our heads with their hose before setting off for the last 20 miles of rolling paved roads.
We kept a great pace for the final stretch, despite Ryan going way into the pain cave. We rolled across the finish line and were greeted by applause by the small Rapha contingent. We got in so fast that we beat the whole finish setup -- no cold drinks for us but plenty of shade to chill in and share stories.
The hero of the day was our Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration mix. We powered through bottle-after-bottle of the stuff and that was the key to avoiding cramps and keeping power to the pedals. We learned at the post-ride party (great time by the way) that many of the top teams used the same fuel. Make note that you should too if you are ever doing a long ride or race in the heat.
What a great time. Rapha put on a great event and everyone who attended was friendly and fun. The after party was super chill and everyone had a story to tell. We are super grateful for the invite and really proud of what we were able to accomplish. It was a great bonding experience for the team and provided memories that will last a lifetime.