December 3, 2016, marked the third running of the Iceman’s Challenge, a gravel race and endurance ride from the Talbert Ranch in China Spring, Texas. This year, the ride consisted of an 82 mile race and 82, 61, 48 and 31 mile non-competitive “pursuits.” I completed the 82-mile pursuit event.
The ride organizers bill the Iceman’s Challenge as the “Road to Hell Gravel Adventure Race and Pursuit.” I suppose a little hyperbole is necessary to get people to pony up registration fees and drive 20 miles northwest of Waco to the small town of China Spring. But, an Iceman? On the road to Hell? Okay, so it was in December . . . but in TEXAS—not a place I’d expect the “Iceman” to even have relatives. Maybe he travels down from Canada to oversee his challenge?? And why would the Iceman be on the road to Hell? Not the place I’d be going if I were an Iceman. Maybe I’m overthinking this a bit. It’s all just a bit a good-natured puffery to hype the extremeness and adventuresome aspects of getting out of your warm and dry bed early on a Saturday morning and riding your bike on gravel roads with a bunch of similarly minded folks.
Turns out it was pretty darn chilly for this Southerner. But on this early December day it was cold AND wet. It was 48° at the start in China Spring and the temperature only got as high as 51° which I realize is still very moderate compared to the conditions bicyclists tolerate up north. I tip my helmet to my Strava buddies Lou, Mark and Gary (and all the others) who reside in Indiana, Illinois and Pennsylvania respectively and deal with much lower temperatures including snow and ice on a regular basis. The rain started the night before and the forecast was 100% for rain on Saturday. It was pouring when I left the hotel in Waco to head to China Spring and it pretty much rained through out the day making for a wet and muddy mess.
I would not normally worry about dressing appropriately for cycling in 40° temperatures but I was worried about getting wet and not being able to stay warm. Thankfully, I stopped by Society Cycle Works the day before and told shop owners Jason and Jenny about my weekend plans. Like any good businessman, Jason suggested a rain jacket which I did not own. This is actually a little embarrassing because I knew the forecast called for rain but I intended to ride without a true rain jacket. I planned to wear my Giordano FormaRed Carbon Lightweight jacket which is an amazing piece of kit and has been my bread and butter winter jacket for several years. The fabric is DWR treated so it probably would have done a decent job of shedding rain but it was a good idea to have another layer of insurance. The jacket that Jason suggested is a Sugoi Hydrolite model. It’s extremely lightweight so it didn’t add any meaningful burden but it definitely helped keep me dry and became the primary barrier for the stream of mud my rear wheel directed at my back throughout the day.
Due to a combination of factors, I was not ready to start with the rest of the 82-milers. First, it took longer to drive to the ranch from Waco because of the rain. Second, the parking arrangements at the Talbert Ranch were not ideal. The only parking for riders was along the gravel road inside of the ranch. Since I arrived after most others, I had to park a long way from the starting area. And lastly, I was not well prepared and needed to make two trips from the car to the starting area. The lesson I learned is to get to the site earlier and plan better so you can be ready when you leave the car the first time. By the time I started, it was with the 31-mile riders. The 48, 61 and 82-mile riders were already on the course.
I naively believed that I could make up time and catch some of the 82-mile riders. For the first 20 miles or so, I passed many riders but I think most of these were on the shorter routes. I remember reaching an intersection with signs posted for all of the other routes instructing riders to go left but my direction was to the right. After that, I didn’t see another rider until fewer than five miles from the end. In the town of Meridian, I passed a convenience store with two muddy bikes parked outside so I thought that there were at least two riders behind me but no one ever passed me on the course.
If I had to use one word to describe the ride it would be solitary. For almost half of the 82-mile route, the terrain was much like the photo below. For miles and miles there were very few trees, rolling terrain and grassy ranch land, bisected by crushed limestone gravel roads. I’ve always enjoyed being a witness to the weather and I could see it well under a huge Texas sky that seemed low enough to touch. Besides not seeing other riders, I saw very few vehicles on the gravel roads which is understandable as this was a good morning to stay inside where it was warm and dry.
The only other other time I saw people was when the route went through the small towns of Meridian, Clifton and Valley Mills. In Clifton, I was surprised to find the only rest stop on the course staffed by the helpful daughter of one of the riders at the event. Turns out that she and her sisters planned to stay at their grandmother’s house in Clifton while their dad did the ride. They decided that she could be involved in the event by setting up the rest stop where she served some delicious cinnamon apple rice bars that she made herself. She told me that the last rider had been through about 20 minutes prior and she was curious about riders behind me. I told her about the two bikes I saw in Meridian so maybe she should expect at least two more visitors. After being off the bike for about 10 minutes, I started to get cold. It was time to leave and I shivered for the next few miles until my body temperature increased.
From Meridian to Valley Mills, the terrain was more hilly and forested as the route entered the more elevated sections of the Edwards Plateau, the predominant geologic feature of Bosque County. There was one particularly steep section that was very rocky but I chose to walk the bike over it due to the rain.
The ride organizers were using an application called Racejoy to track riders and it required you to install an app on your phone. The app tracked my location constantly and it gave voice updates every 5 miles which I found helpful. Unfortunately, this was too much of a burden on the battery of my three-year old iPhone. With the combination of Racejoy, Garmin Livetrack (which also maintains a connection with the phone) and me stopping to take photos, the phone died around mile 40 after I stopped to take a photo of another low-water crossing (there were lots). As I continued on, I began to worry that I had no means to communicate with someone in case of a problem. Neither the ride organizers nor my wife would know my location but at this point there was nothing more I could do.
The bike performed flawlessly as did the turn-by-turn directions from my Garmin 820 until about the last 20 miles when the turn instructions got a little flaky. The unit displayed turn instructions but the street names did not match the route. It seemed that the unit was displaying instructions from earlier parts of the route and not updating to match the current location. The Garmin map, however, continued to show the highlighted route so I could clearly see where to turn. The ride organizers did a great job of marking the route with both signs and color-coded arrows spray painted on the ground. It was reassuring to be able to match the Garmin map directions with markings on the course. The Garmin battery got low in last 10 miles and it switched to its power conservation mode. This feature works really well as the unit continues to function but blanks the screen to save power. The screen comes back on if you stop or press the button on the left side of the unit.
Seven hours and thirty minutes later, I finally arrived back at the Talbert Ranch barn. One of the ride stewards seemed glad to see me as they had lost track of my position when my phone died. It was good to finish but my bike and I were a muddy mess. Thankfully there was a hose outside of the barn for rinsing bikes. But how would I get my mud-free bike back to the car which was separated from me by more mud and gravel? I carried the bike through the mud but when I reached the gravel I decided to ride it staying on the grass next to the road and carefully dodging cow patties.
Back at the car, I had to change out of my wet, muddy clothing so I could get back to the barn for some food, beer and warmth. Mud was on everything and everything I touched became muddy. I shoved all of the muddy stuff into my gear bag to deal with once I got back home. I secured everything else and moved the car closer to the barn now that many others had left the ranch. Back in the barn, there was hot jambalaya, red beans and rice and baked potatoes with all the fixings. Additionally, there was a tasty IPA on tap. After eating, I was still cold so I sat next to a fire for a few minutes, sipping my beer and chatting with one of the ride organizers. I asked how many riders participated and she indicated that there were 79 who rode and she estimated that about one third of those who registered did not show.
Back at home on Monday, I spent several hours cleaning my bike and clothing. The bike was relatively easy but my clothes needed to be hosed off to remove the caked-on mud and then soaked in water to loosen the remaining dirt from the fabric. Then I washed everything three times in the washer. The next day, the car interior needed a complete cleaning as well.
In addition to the lessons I learned about doing a better job in planning for road trip rides, I’m also thinking of purchasing some additional gear. First, I’m considering buying a small camera so I don’t have to rely solely on my iPhone for photos. It would need to be small enough to fit into a jersey pocket and be able to take photos at least as well as the iPhone. Second, it would also be a good idea to carry a small portable charger for long rides when the batteries in the various gadgets run low.
Third, it would also be nice to have an additional place to stash this stuff beside my jersey pockets. I’ve always been somewhat of a minimalist when it comes to carrying items on the bike but after participating in a couple of these rides and seeing what others are using, I’m beginning to warm to the idea of getting either a top tube or handlebar pack to store my phone and other small items. This would likely be a handy storage location as you could reach the items quickly without having to dig them out of jersey pockets. If anyone has a suggestion for this type of pack, please let me know in the comments below.
This was an enjoyable ride and given the temperature and rain, a good test of my own endurance but it would have been more fun riding with others. It turns out that there is a Spring-time version of this ride with similar routes called the Hell of the Southwest Gravel Pursuit ride. I might be game for a return trip to Waco and China Spring in April 2017. Have you ridden in this part of the world or have similar experience on gravel? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.