“Back in December I got wind of a new ride in Michigan that some crazy cats were putting together. It sounded like just the sort of thing I dig. As some may remember, I crossed Indiana a few years ago on my bike. This was different. This was a gravel(ish) event which has been my sickness the last couple years. Crossing a state is a big deal, no matter what form of bike and the chosen surface. Taking this on would be monumental and there are a ton of factors.
A short time after learning of the proposed event I started talking to some friends during winter rides and sharing my intentions. After a bit of coercing, much to my surprise, I actually had some interested parties. I was so excited (and a little nervous) about the idea of a road trip, and the potential glory and satisfaction that could come from this.
As time drew nearer and the winter drug out, more of my riding buddies were asking questions and doing research. Each of our schedules and intentions had changed for one reason or another and several of us opted for the 100 mile loop, but one lone individual from our group stuck with the original plan-the entire 213 mile traverse from east to west across lower Michigan. That is his story to tell, and I certainly hope he will share.
Preparations were made, logistics worked out and we all set out for our respective destinations. Many questions swirled as closing hours waned. What will weather be, what will road conditions be like, what bike, wheels, tires, etc, will be best suited?
The alarm went off at 6 AM and I groaned to myself a bit, but then it dawned on me. 200 miles away, my friend and intended riding partner, Mark, was toeing the line already. With that, I put my mindset in check-this is gonna be tough, but it could have been a lot tougher!
Rain showers and cold temps loomed as the start time approached. With anticipation and a little anxiety we all performed our morning rituals and gathered at the starting location.
After brief organizer announcements the 100 mile loop riders were underway. As always the group sorted itself out in the first handful of miles and our group of six became spread out and two of us found ourselves chasing the lead group through some rolling hills just outside of Ludington. This would be the last we would see of our potential paceline companions for some time.
My friend and fellow Misfit, Stan would drag his feet to keep me company as we wound our way towards the halfway point. We encountered the usual friendly dogs, lots of deer tracks, and beautiful countryside. I was a little frustrated due to some issues with my new Garmin but an update from my friend Mark would leave me hopeful for his 213 mile journey-he had reached the first checkpoint and was looking good!
Somewhere around mile 30 we came to a technical, twisting downhill section of deep sand and rock that was partially washed out. A rider I had been chatting with was forced to stop suddenly in front of me and I found myself scrambling to unclip, which subsequently left me lying on my side in the sand. Damn those pedals are tight!
Remounted and underway, we found our rhythm and settled into a comfortable pace. The weather was warming into the 60s and skies were sunny. Stan, myself, and another Misfit, Jose had yo-yo’d together a bit and then we came to the 40 mile mark. We had heard there was a bit of water across the road but it would be passable. Now, personally, I love a water crossing, as a matter of fact, I was watching the miles tick down on the Garmin with anticipation.
When we got to the scene I realized, this was a game changer, not in regards to safety, but skill.
I saw bike tire tracks entering but I tend to err on the side of caution. Jose and I headed off to the timber and trudged our way through the thicket and eventually mud, muck, and ankle deep water. This would go on for about a mile. The water was icy cold but it felt good, refreshing, especially after the earlier miscue left me a bit sandy.
We wrapped up the first half and regrouped at the 55 mile checkpoint. I urged Stan and Jose to go on as they were faster and I can’t stand the feeling of slowing down other riders. I was fighting back some stomach issues and knew I would have to grind out the second half on my own. Our friend, support crew and fellow Misfit, Erik, is no stranger to endurance sports and was crucial to me heading back out onto the course. Without him pushing me I may have thrown in the towel. Having gotten a second update from Mark, my mood was optimistic.
After getting back out there, my legs found new life on the winding snowmobile trails and forest roads. The fast, flowy, hardpack base was a nice change of pace and the views along the rivers helped take the mind off of the aches and pains.
I was truly in my happy place, twisting turning forest roads, not a house or car in sight. Occasional streams and marshy areas, clear-cut patches of timber punctuated the thick cover and allowed me to make an evaluation of available daylight. But there it was, a sign… What’s this? It has a Salsa logo. Ahh, the Chaise lounger awaits. There she sits, next to the trail and alongside the red Salsa van, a sheet preserving its velvety goodness. I exchanged pleasantries with employees eyeing their watches as I passed by. I cruise on knowing that was reserved for a crowd that would soon arrive.
It was somewhere around mile 75 I would come to a large hill. I ground it out and made a quick pit stop. I remounted my bike, settled in and was preparing to make a long, fast descent and that’s when it all came into focus.
I heard a fast approaching sound, a car maybe? Certainly not a rider…it was exactly that.
Tall, lanky, and tightly-tucked in what appeared to be a skinsuit,he passed me like I wasn’t even there and he was gaining speed on the gravel descent-likely 40mph in the aero position! Nerves of steel.
A couple of quick calculations solidified in my mind, he had to be the first 210 rider. I knew more would soon catch up and it motivated me to pour it on.
It was in the closing mile that I would be caught by a four person train of bikes, one of which a fatbike, and they were cruising along at 20+mph. I pounded the pedals for all I was worth to catch the back wheel of a young lady at the tail end. We would cruise into the park as a group and I heard the course Marshall yell “great job Amanda”.
“Panda”? I thought! No way! It was indeed! In my excitement and exhaustion, I almost dumped my bike into a sand berm in the finishing chute. How embarrassing! Luckily she was too busy cruising to victory to even notice me.
I was greeted by my group at the finish line and was relieved and proud of my finish. But there was one more of our group to finish. Mark would come in with a very respectable time despite darkness, rain and difficult course conditions.
As if the amazing course wasn’t enough, the route designer and one of the race organizers Matt Acker, actually came over to introduce himself to our group. That was a great way to end my ride and just another example of why I love the gravel scene. Not only will I be back, but I would strongly urge others to go for the experience as well. What an amazing weekend!”