Peter Stetina finished just off the podium....

Groad Trip: Racing The Mid South, aka The Mud South

Beer-can shims, peanut-butter mud, and mud-puddle bike washes. Racing in Oklahoma was wild.

Sometimes you have the glory, and sometimes you have the story. Let me tell you, The Mid South was very much the story, with some near-glory thrown in for good measure.

First, I want to address my decision to attend The Mid South given the COVID-19 pandemic. In the days leading up to the event, the messaging was not clearly conveying that the virus posed a significant threat in the U.S. Paris-Nice was still happening, and for every person attending a bike race there seemed to be another staying home. I wasn’t sure what was an under-reaction and what was an overreaction. Lastly, I was raised in the bike racer culture where you start every stage despite illness and sometimes broken bones, so it’s not in my nature to voluntarily skip races!

Once we’d flown in, the seriousness of the situation became more clear. Flying and passing through airports was probably the riskiest portion of the entire event, so we decided if we were going to have to do the air travel part to get home anyway, it didn’t make sense to skip the bike race. We used elbows instead of handshakes, washed our hands, and did our best to practice good hygiene.

Should the race have happened? I believe so. One weekend before and all of the registrants would have attended, one weekend after and the authorities would have shut it down. I can’t imagine the organizer’s dilemma: putting your heart and soul and a year’s worth of planning down the drain based on conflicting information. Personally, I am glad I attended because who knows when the next race will be! Knowing future events may be postponed or canceled made this all the sweeter and I think everyone there really made an effort to soak it all in.

The group hit the dirt just two miles into a 100+ mile day. Photo: Wil Matthews

The night of the race the temperature dropped 20 degrees and we received an inch of rain. This made every rider second guess their equipment as the infamous Peanut-Butter Mud was on the menu. We’d all experienced fast and dry conditions during pre-rides and now had no idea what lay beyond town limits. I flip-flopped like a politician and finally, at 9 p.m. the night before the race, Big Tall Wayne (my mechanic) and myself could be found eating takeout Thai food in the hotel room while taking turns trying to modify and seal new tires.

I’d decided to go as narrow as possible, 32c IRC Serac CX tires, knowing that while I may suffer on the bumpy stuff, clearance between the frame and tire was the only thing that would matter. Wayne made some genius hacks to the bike: polishing all the parts to aid in mud clearance and taping aluminum-can shims neatly around probable mud-gunk points so as to save the carbon frame from having holes rubbed through it.

We started off under wet skies and the race unfolded as I’d hoped. My skinny tires proved to be the right call, it seemed I was cutting through the gunk just a bit better than everyone else. The roads were so soggy and slow that you had to earn every pedal stroke. Brakes didn’t matter, just coast for a few seconds and you’d stop fast enough.

Pete Stetina prepared to dismount to cross obstacles after leading the way across an otherwise out-of-use bridge in the early miles. Photo: Wil Matthews

Coming into Perkins at the halfway point of the race and site of the only support zone, there were five of us in the lead group and no one’s bike sounded too happy. In true graveler’s spirit we struck up a gentleman’s agreement: We all decided to take our time, get our bikes clean, deal with whatever we had to deal with, and then we’d regroup on the other side and open the race back up. I love that spirit and the camaraderie we had.

Mile 60 marked one of the gnarliest sections of course, a ravine crossing followed by a rutted run-up and a steady rise. I made my move and — in what seemed like slow motion due to our speeds — eventually dispatched everyone. I knew it was early but I could see behind me with the conditions there was no cohesion. The five of us were now in for a 40-mile time trial, staggered one behind the other. I poured it on and soon had a 2-minute gap on second place.

Pete Stetina attacked after a stream crossing in the race, in the red, Oklahoma mud. Photo: Wil Matthews

Here is where my story really began, though. The red Oklahoma mud is unlike any other I’ve encountered. As the rain stopped and the day warmed, it was the perfect recipe for that red PB; the mud started to dry just a bit and thicken.

I was amazed how a fleck of red on your tire or frame would coagulate on itself, morphing into a baseball sized chunk in seconds. I was listening to my bike all day, but in one lapse of concentration, as I was eating a bar, I took a softer line and, crunch, my rear derailleur caught a gob that wrapped up and around my cogs. No warning sound or anything!

I got off so fast I actually saved it from shearing but the hanger was horribly bent. By the time I was moving again my 2-minute lead had become a 1-minute deficit. My day became survival: When I could find a gear that wouldn’t skip I’d pour on the power in a vain chase until it eventually started skipping again and I’d have to stop and find another one.

The gunk-up issues continued to plague all of us. If you pedaled a few feet too far your bike became a 70lb red weight. Stubbornness doesn’t pay off here and you cannot just pedal harder. I learned, slowly, that it was better to dismount earlier and hoof it.

There were times I could see Payson McElveen in the lead only 300m in front of me, but due to us walking through slop he was actually minutes ahead. Talk about purgatory!

I remember a water crossing in the last 20 miles was like an oasis, my bike was so locked up I completely left the race mentally for a minute and just bathed my bike in the water, repeatedly dunking it and wiping mud off moving parts. I rolled into town in fourth place, not what I had come for results-wise, but bike racing isn’t just a power contest, and that’s why it’s so fun.

Smelling a win and then missing out only makes me hungrier though: I look forward to the next race with vigor, eager to make amends. However, due to our quarantined situation it looks like I’ll have to wait longer than I’d like. A lot longer.

At the time of writing, the State of California has put a “Shelter in Place” order into effect. I’m taking the time to slow down a moment and make some alternative plans around content creation. I’ve got a few media projects in the works that I hope will help keep that flame of motivation burning for myself and readers.

Currently, our lawmakers still encourage outdoor exercise so long as one adheres to strict social distancing etiquette. Like at The Mid South, I will continue to ride until it’s deemed illegal. But I am doing so responsibly — ALONE. Fortunately, the bike is a great companion.