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With snow on the clay gravel roads and a race-day forecast of well below freezing, Payson McElveen is feeling good. The Red Bull athlete has twice won at The Mid South, including the last time it was held in 2020, when rain soaked the course and painted riders and bikes the color of the clay-heavy mud.
“The motivation is good. No idea how the legs are feeling,” McElveen said. “The big question is the weather at this one. It seems like this has become a traditional dice role in terms of what you’re going to get, which is fun. It’s a good hard man’s, hard woman’s race.”
This year, race organizer Bobby Wintle predicts the caliber of riders on the new, 103-mile course will set a record time for the gravel race that has been held since 2013.
Other men on the start line include Colin Strickland (Meteor-Allied), Ted King (Cannondale), Pete Stetina (Privateer), Adam Roberge (Jukebox Cycling), Ashton Lambie (Gravelnauts-Lauf), Kiel Reijnen (Trek), Brennan Wertz (Scuderia Pinarello), Tristan Uhl and Josh Berry (Giant), and Ethan Overson (Cinch).
“There are probably 12 to 15 people who could win, especially if it’s a fast day and more tactical,” McElveen said. “There are some folks that have really been able to stretch their legs a lot in the early season, and I would tap those folks as being ready, especially if the conditions are faster. So folks like Pete [Stetina] and Brennan [Wertz] and Adam [Roberge] have raced a few times this year. There are so many potential winners. There’s real depth now, which is fun and exciting. I think we’ll have a really fast lead group.”
Pete Stetina pre-rode the final 50 miles of the course on Thursday and said the crushed gravel roads on that latter half were running fast. He predicted that the snow wouldn’t affect that part of the course.
There is a two-mile section of single- and double-track at about mile 25 that could serve as a pinch point, and portions of the gravel roads where the clay content is high could add mud pits in spots. Racers will have to wait to see what Saturday has in store.
With the temperature predicted to be below freezing at the start, Wintle has offered a clothing drop for all racers at the neutral support stop at mile 42.
“It’s an old school battle, regardless of what the field is,” McElveen said. “It’s a hard course, but it’s also just an interesting time of year. And so, yeah, in 2020 we had very challenging conditions in many ways. Yes, 2019 was fast, but we actually had really cold conditions at the start as well. We were wearing all kinds of layers. I think 2022 is going to upstage that yet again.”
It will be so cold, in fact, that McElveen said he will likely start with just a single bottle. Often at gravel events, some racers will consider hydration packs in addition to two bottles on their frames.
“I’m always surprised by how little you drink when it’s that cold out,” he said. “So I’ll probably start with one bottle, which it sounds insane to do one bottle for 40 miles. But for me, at least, if I try to force hydration when it’s really cold, I just end up having to pee a lot. So it just doesn’t seem like my body’s using it.”
Tires are always a major consideration for gravel racers, and McElveen was debating between a slick tire like he’s used in the past and the small-knob Maxxis Rambler.
“I’ll probably go slick again. We’re going to drive around Friday and check out the roads,” he said. “I’ll have another wheelset with me to kinda just test and compare slick versus the Rambler. The dirt composition out here is so sticky that a knobby tire just becomes a slick almost immediately anyway, which is why I ran a slick in 2020. But we’ll see; we’ll do a little trial and error. And then, then you just have to take a guess and not second guess yourself.”
Tires, clothing, hydration, bike components, and of course fitness all play a part in the race equation, but McElveen says there is another big factor that can determine the winner from the front group at The Mid South.
“At the end of the day, it can come down to who can have the best mindset when things are going sideways,” he said. “If the conditions are really volatile, the race is not going to go smoothly for anyone. So then it’s just, who can deal with that the best?”
The Mid South is Saturday in Stillwater, Oklahoma. You can follow the race on The Mid South’s Instagram, and read VeloNews for complete coverage of the men’s and women’s races.