Monuments of Gravel
Yep, there is that red Oklahoma mud that you were...

Commentary: High spirits and muddy ground at The Mid South

It's been a long, strange trip for many who are in Stillwater for The Mid South gravel race, but spirits are high even as mud is likely.

On Thursday, Bobby Wintle, co-founder of The Mid South, agreed to cancel his legendary finisher hugs

Yet warm embraces are still happening in downtown Stillwater, Oklahoma this weekend. The race formerly known as Land Run 100 has always been a bit of a gravel family reunion, and it’s just too hard not to hug your family members. At the Mid South IPA release party on Thursday night, I watched countless people shrug as they decided that elbow bumps just weren’t cutting it.

It’s not to say that people have arrived here cavalier and unconcerned. In fact, there will likely be a palpable difference in numbers at the start line on Saturday due to people who’ve decided to stay home. When I asked event manager Sally Turner how many requests for deferrals she’d received so far, she wasn’t quite sure.

“But I have 350 unread emails in my inbox since sending out the latest update Thursday morning, so I’m assuming that those people aren’t coming,” she said.

The race organizers announced yesterday that they would honor anyone who requested a deferral to 2021’s event amid concerns about traveling during the COVID-19 outbreak.

During our drive out to Stillwater, we kept getting pinged with text messages of people from Colorado who were opting to stay home. A friend from Mississippi who had been sick but was feeling better told me he had to make a tough call. Some guys I met from St Louis said their buddies from Bloomington, Illinois had driven halfway to Oklahoma yesterday and turned around when they got to St. Louis. In some ways, everything seemed to be spiraling out of control, until we arrived here.

As soon as we arrived, the conversation switched away from COVID-19 and onto another pressing topic: mud and rain.

“We’re worried about mud, and weather, yep.”

Chris and Kevin, two riders from St. Louis, definitely had the forecasted inch of rain on their minds, and Chris had already changed his tires accordingly when we met up. He arrived in Stillwater on Teravail Cannonballs; after a quick switcharoo at Wintle’s District Cycles, he’s on Teravail Terreno Wets for Saturday’s race. Kevin came prepared with 33 millimeter rubber.

My buddy Andrew, from Ellijay, Georgia, isn’t worried at all about the mud.

“I’m riding a Salsa Fargo that can take up to 3.os, so I’ve got clearance for days,” he said.

The course, at the time of writing, is dry and fast, much like it was for the past two editions of the The Mid South. Purple clover blankets the roadsides, and the dogwood trees are pregnant with white blossoms. However, we’ve all seen what’s approaching on the weather apps. There’s a 100 percent chance of precipitation, plus wind and cold conditions starting Friday afternoon. So long, spring flowers.

Robert, who lives in Boise and has attended every edition of The Mid South except for one, is racing the Double: a 50-kilometer run on Friday and the 100-mile bike ride on Saturday. As a mid-pack rider, he said the worse that the weather is, the better his chances are of doing well due to perseverance and attrition.

“You know how an event’s just an event but it becomes epic when it’s epic?” he said.

I checked in with some bicycle industry friends to get their take. Curt from Chamois Butt’r said that his crew was packed and ready to go when “everything blew up yesterday.”

“We talked about it, said probably the thing they shouldn’t do is have the expo, because that’s where people congregate, shake hands, so we’re just kinda measuring it,” he said.

Chamois Butt’r usually has an expo tent where fans spin a wheel and receive mini packets of lotion. Alas, it’s not happening at The Mid South. The company opted to leave the spin wheel at home this time.

Freddie from Industry Nine also drove to Stillwater and said that if flights had been involved, he and his team likely would have opted to stay in North Carolina. Like many people, including the race organizers, Freddie felt that the race’s outdoor staging made it more appealing to attend.

“This is a race where everyone is outside, the expo is outside, it’s a lot different than something like if there was still an Interbike,” he said.

Industry Nine is hosting the DFL party on Saturday night, and although the party celebrating the last finisher and the official end of the race is usually held at a pub in town, “I think we’ll just set up outside,” Freddie said.

Spirits were high at the Mid South IPA release party at Iron Monk Brewing Company on Thursday night, especially as the crew from Salsa Cycles dropped their new aluminum single speed, the Stormchaser, while Wintle banged out some AC/DC on the guitar. For someone who’s spent the last few days in constant contact with city and county officials, and has been forced to make difficult decisions about how to proceed with the race in light of recent events, Wintle still managed to bring the level of stoke we’ve all grown to expect.

As always, he was the most positive presence in the room.

“We’re gonna make the best damn lemonade on the hottest damn summer day with the shittiest looking lemons,” he said.