Editor’s note: This summer we are covering four big gravel races: Land Run 100, Wild Horse Gravel, Dirty Kanza 200, and SBT GRVL. This coverage is made possible by sponsorship from Canyon Bicycles, Saris bike racks, Pactimo apparel, Stages Cycling, Quarq TireWiz, Vittoria tires, and Zipp wheels.
Bobby Wintle’s hand was battered. His swollen palm was creased and saturated with red dirt, like the Oklahoma landscape all around him. His chest was bruised and tender. And still he paced in circles, with the energy and alertness of a spooked cat.
You might think Bobby had been on the losing side of a barroom kerfuffle. But, no, he was just a bike race promoter, doing what he does to greet each rider that crossed his finish line. His hand had become a worn catcher’s mitt simply because he high-fived each finisher with such vigor that it may need to be surgically repaired. (Well, that’s an exaggeration.)
His chest was aching simply because he must — must — give a bearhug to everyone, rider and runner, that crosses the line. Next time you consider donning your hydro-pack for a gravel race or ultra-marathon, think of Bobby’s pecs. You may think twice.
Bobby Wintle is race promoter of Land Run 100. That is to say, he is the combustible fluid that powers Land Run to such success, a happening worth traveling for, an endurance challenge that ends in a warm embrace. Just add a spark and watch him burn for 14 hours and then some.
This year, Bobby introduced the race with a bit of screaming-loud music, and what I imagined was a cathartic speech about what has been on his mind for months. There was pain in the air: Kelly Catlin had recently taken her life, and others closer to his heart from the cycling community were struggling in some way or another. But he made very clear, there were people there to help. For the almost 1,100 starters, there would be pain on the playing field, and each rider would come home with a story to tell of varying degrees of agony, triumph, or sorrow. Yet we were all in it together. And there would be hugs.
“Bury that pain in the dirt,” he implored us.
A booming cannon blast set us rolling from downtown Stillwater. We pedaled into the high-beams of the sun’s early morning rays with the “Top Gun” soundtrack stuck in our heads from the pump-up tunes blasting from the PA system. There’s nothing quite like a pack of anxious, energetic gravel cyclists cavorting over a wavy midwestern landscape. Get the heck out of the way.
Today, the cavalcade was filled with professionals and professional amateurs, as well as more than a thousand other cyclists of all stripes and colors. Up front, each rider had his or her chamois in a bundle. Gravel racing is, now, officially fast.
Though I’m deep in the midst of a cycling-soul-searching journey, there’s one thing I remember how to do: go out too fast. In fact, I’m currently tailor-made for this hallmark trait of the master’s racer. Before the race, I repeatedly told myself I should deeply consider relaxing at the start, relaxing in the middle, and relaxing at the end — that I should contain myself.
Oh boy, did I go out hard.
Hey, that’s Ashton Lambie… I want to do a feature story on him because he’s a world record holder on the track and seems like a compelling character guy. I’ll stick on his wheel!
Oooh, the early crux is coming, with its rough terrain and steep climb. Better move to the front. Hey, look, it’s Ted King and Payson McElveen. Wow, Ted has a strange beard!
I bet you can guess what happened next. I spent the next hour trying not to vomit off my bike. Group after group passed by and I could not lift the pace, because if I did a wave of nausea would come over me.
Hey, there goes Spencer … Have … a … nice … ride … Spencer.
Phase two of my journey through Oklahoma’s rutty red landscape brought me to a much happier place.
I love solitude. My attraction to this metaphysical state is only heightened when I’m able to find it even though I’m surrounded by a small-town’s worth of people. It also helps to be in a post-nausea dream-state.
I’ve heard Oklahoma has more than 300 species of grass. I spotted some. If only I was an agrostologist, I could have counted the varietals. Instead, I tried to eat something, tried to lift the pace, gawked at the prairie houses and the birds of prey, watched for roadside dogs, and contemplated joining the next big group that came by.
Several passed but I didn’t have the gumption to break from my seclusion. How could I appreciate the soil, the surroundings, the lonely landscape if I had my head down staring at another rider’s wheel? Well, I couldn’t.
But how could I make it home before dark at this pace? Well, I couldn’t.
That’s when the choice became obvious. The solitude, though lovely, needed to be set aside. Time to be social, to use the flock to gain momentum, to become a component of a collective vehicle in need of relief.
Liquor and relaxing
Phase three of my Land Run experience was filled with unexpected treats. If you’re the type that doesn’t find the thrill in racing, if solitude isn’t your thing, surely on-course margaritas and velvet-covered sofas should bring a smile.
At its core, gravel racing is supposed to be fun. Heck, every type of bike race is meant to be, first and foremost, fun. Right now, gravel events are leading the charge at blending zany enjoyment into competition and challenge.
Vittoria Tires went classic: Roll right up to their Oasis, grab a margarita or perchance a splash of whiskey, stick your head through the placard and have your picture taken. Wow, darn refreshing.
A few dusty miles up the road and a string of roadside signs let you know what was about to happen. Rehearse a stance in your mind and prepare to take your position. Salsa’s “Chase the Chaise” invites every race participant to strike a pose for the cameras: take your place, with or without companions, hear the shutter click, know that your dirty mug is now memorialized for eternity, and you’re on your way.
After a nice break from the action, there’s the inevitable realization that there are still miles of relentless, momentum-sapping rollers to come. But there’s one more treat that keeps you going.
That is, of course, the thought of a bearhug from Bobby, who has no doubt been waiting for you — yes, you! — for the past six to 14 hours just to squeeze you, high-five you, maybe even whisper in your ear how stoked he is to see you. If you think you burned some calories during Land Run, just think of the energy expended by this tiny turbine of a man. His swollen hand is waiting for you; his chest is hankering for a hug. Dive across the line, feel his warmth against your chest, and the cool chill of a can of beer in your hand.
You made it.
Long live Land Run.