Tour of Hermann is a two-day gravel stage race held around Hermann, MO. Day one features three 30ish mile loops, and day two follows with two 50ish mile loops. For those of us preparing for Dirty Kanza, the weekend promises a very reasonable entry fee ($40 for two days), a great training opportunity, and the chance to gauge progress to date. Last year TOH conflicted with the Ava Brown Memorial 5K, but this year it fell a week earlier and I was free.
I spent Friday night celebrating my birthday with my family, and once the party was over I started getting things together. Since I’ve been considering taking my new mountain bike to Kansas for this year’s DK, I’d intended to take it along to Tour of Hermann. This plan fell apart when I went to change my rear tire, which has a jacked up valve that I didn’t want to have to fight with during the race if I flatted, only to realize too late that the tires were set up tubeless. Since my experience with this is hearing my friends debate the benefits, I returned my mountain bike and its newly flattened rear tire to the garage and only packed the cross bike. In retrospect, just putting in a tube and taking the MTB would have been a good move for the weekend.
I headed out of town a little before 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and pulled into the Stone Hill Winery in Hermann with plenty of time to get checked in, get ready, and socialize. I ended up parking right next to the Sonas, my friends Steve and Mickey were just across the lot, Susy was there taking pictures, and of course there were tons of other familiar faces. I was moderately nervous because I didn’t have anyone there to ride with, but since Chuck and I had ridden parts of the route last year, I was at least a little familiar with the impending pain.
|Pre-race, just look at that happy face. Photo credit: Susy Stephens|
I toyed with what to wear, but in the end I decided to go with a light baselayer under my long-sleeved jersey and tights over my bike shorts. I wore a hat but left off the jacket. I was a little cool before the start, but my rule of thumb is that if I’m comfortable before a race I’ll be too hot during. Right around 9:00, race director Jeff Yielding said a few words and then sent us down the hill and onto our first loop. We zipped through town, across the Missouri River bridge, and onto the Katy Trail. I’ve barely been on a bike in the past two weeks thanks to adventure camp last weekend (still working on that report), but I felt pretty great early on.
Pedaling down the Katy Trail, I saw a familiar white jersey ahead of me. Is that a Virtus jersey? Oh, wow, maybe one of the guys took pity on me since they knew I was going to be here on my own! Who could it be? I pedaled faster, eventually catching up with Bob. “Hey, you look like a guy I know!” Though I’d been fine with being alone, I was delighted to get to ride with one of my friends. We talked our way down the Katy Trail and onto the turnoff.
As we started up one of the first climbs, a pretty gentle once compared to the hills that awaited us, a girl in front of me waved me ahead. “You know, you’ll probably just be passing me right back,” I warned her, knowing that I’m not nearly as strong on hills as I’d like to be.
“I like it quiet,” she replied pointedly.
Ooooookay, then. I’ve always found the bike community, especially gravel grinders and mountain bikers, to be a really friendly, welcoming group, and if anyone was going to be rude, I guess I’d expect it more from one of the strong riders. Instead, the top riders and racers I’ve met have been nothing but friendly, encouraging, and welcoming, and probably the rudest thing I’ve heard is from a girl who’s slower than me. Go figure.
I’m on my bike to have fun, and I’ve never left a ride without having a conversation with a new person. Though that wasn’t about to change, Bob and I yo-yo’d for a while with Library Voice, and I felt uncomfortable every time we passed. Eventually we pulled away and didn’t see her for the rest of the day. That didn’t stop me from repeatedly relaying the story, though, and I had plenty of time to do that at the top of the first big climb.
|Coming from a downhill and loving it! Photo credit: Susy Stephens|
|…and there’s the uphill. Photo credit: Dan Singer|
I know that I’m beginning to change because for the first time I’d looked at the roller coaster-esque elevation profile with anticipation rather than sick dread. We’d bombed down a big paved hill that I remembered riding last year
with Chuck, and since it led into a monster hill I barely touched my
brakes. Though I had to walk at least half of this climb last year I made it the whole way up on Saturday, though Justin made passing me look easy. Catching my breath at the top, I had the chance to meet John, who I only knew from my blog’s facebook page, and David, whose stlbiking.com forum question I’d chimed in on, in person. It was really nice to get to ride with and talk to the guys for a while until the next big(ger) hill, which I did have to walk part of, spread things out again.
I missed my mountain bike gearing for sure — I think I’d have had less walking to do on that bike — but I wasn’t unhappy with how I felt on my cross bike, and now that I (semi)enjoy riding downhill at least there’s a payoff for all that uphill work. Conditions were great: the sun was shining, temperatures were comfortable, and the gravel was well-packed. I wouldn’t say the first loop was easy, because I definitely had to work hard, but it was fun. Towards the end of the first loop my “MawMaw hip” started to act up, so I planned to make a quick stop at the car, stretch it a little, and quickly get going.
In reality, my transition left a lot to be desired. I dragged myself up the hill to Stone Hill Winery, privately grumbling about why the race couldn’t be headquartered at Stone Valley Winery or Stone Plain Winery or Stone Anything-That-Doesn’t-Require-An-Uphill-Finish Winery, finishing my first 28 miles in 2:13. Strava shows my moving time as 2:08, so I only lost 5 minutes to stopping, catching my breath, etc, during that first loop. Not bad.
Twenty-five minutes of wardrobe adjustment, food resupply, and general time wasting (though no stretching, which was the one thing I really needed to do), I was following a couple guys back down the hill and to roads south of Hermann for loop 2. Unlike the few spikes starring in loop 1, the elevation profile on this section looked more like a comb, and it let you know right away what you were in for with a 400+-foot paved climb right off the bat. I remember feeling like I’d been riding forever, then looking at my Garmin and realizing I was only a mile into the loop.
The guys ahead of me stayed in view for a while, but I never quite closed the gap, and my hip had started aching almost immediately. Make it ten miles, then you can get off the bike and stretch, I told myself, but as we plowed into a long stretch of deeper gravel, a break at the 5-mile mark suddenly seemed much more appealing. I watched my rabbits pull away as I laid down on the ground, stretched my hip, and started again.
|Couldn’t have been a much prettier day. Photo credit: Dan Singer|
As I passed Dan, the photographer on course, he asked if I was doing OK. It turned out that the guys ahead of me must have noticed I’d dropped off and asked him to look out for me. Pretty cool of them, since they didn’t even know me, but pretty cool people are more the rule than the exception in the St. Louis area bike scene.
The rule for loop two seemed to be big hills and thick gravel. My comfort level with gravel is way higher than it used to be, so I was ok from a handling standpoint, but pedaling was a lot more work. So were the uphills, even the ones I walked, but the downhills were an absolute blast and just scary enough that moderate terror would temporarily replace discomfort as my primary feeling.
Other than the hip, I didn’t feel too bad, but the mental negotiations regarding loop three had already started around the midpoint. If you ride loop 3 you can skip the second loop tomorrow. If you ride loop three you can eat whatever you want tonight [frankly, that was a done deal no matter what]. I would have been perfectly happy to call it a day after loop two except for the little matter of Dirty Kanza looming in just under two months. Riding up a hill, though, I went to downshift, heard a weird crunchy sound, and got nothing from my rear derailleur. That was going to make the remaining uphills fun.
My downhill ride satisfaction index soon took a steep plunge as well. A section of gravel had washed away towards the bottom of a pretty big hill, leading to several crashes over the day. A man waved me down as I approached the hill, warning to go slow because there had been a crash at the bottom. I eased down to see Justin, Mike, and John among a group waiting with a girl who had hit the washout and gone down. I felt terrible for her, but since there was an ambulance on the way and I didn’t have any skills to add to the situation, I went ahead after a few minutes.
|Not the girl, but the spot of the washout. Photo credit (and victim): Charlie Patterson|
Seeing someone crying and bleeding on the ground takes the fun out of downhills, and I was pretty cautious for a while. That, combined with my limited shifting and achy hip, made for some slow going. Within a few miles, the group who had stayed with the injured girl caught up with me. Some of us were walking the same hills, so it seemed like every time I looked back at the riders behind me we were the same distance apart. After a little bit of this, I decided it was silly to ride together alone and just waited at the top of the hill until John caught up. This was my best move of the loop, as company made the remaining miles much nicer.
As we rode, I told John about my shifting woes, and he offered to look at my bike when we got back. We got to talk training and about the OGRE and the previous years of Dirty Kanza…all the things that make my husband’s eyes glaze over. With good company and, eventually, a lovely paved stretch, the end of loop two flew by, and before long we were approaching the climb back to Stone Hill. I’d worried that I wouldn’t be able to ride the hill without being able to downshift, but the combination of an audience of winery visitors and the announcer’s table gave me the incentive to stay on my bike. I checked in at the registration table with about 30 minutes left before the cutoff to leave on lap 3. My Garmin measured my moving time as 3:13; in addition to the 25 minute transition between laps, I left another 17 minutes or so on the course
John came over to look at my bike, and he and a guy from Kentucky who just happened to walk by and strike up a conversation (and who just happened to work at a bike shop!) were able to get my bike fixed up enough that I could ride the next day. More signs of just how awesome bike people are. Neither of these guys had never met me in person before, and both were willing to spend a decent chunk of their time to get my bike in order. I was really touched.
Of course, the biggest impact of their help was that now there was no way I was going to skip out on the first loop the next day…and I won’t lie: while I’d been disappointed to “not be able to” ride any more (because, let’s be honest, I could have ridden my bike as a singlespeed and finished up the day), I was also relieved to have an excuse to not ride that last loop. My mental game needs improvement if I want to finish Dirty Kanza, no question.
|Ready to start day 2, slightly smaller smile than yesterday. Photo credit: Bob Jenkins|
A delicious meal of Mexican food, chilly night of camping, and huge biscuits and gravy breakfast later, I was right back in the Stone Hill Winery parking lot, grudgingly getting ready to set off on a 50-mile loop. I wasn’t really sore, just tired, and my legs were dead. Had I not owed it to my good Samaritans, it would have been really easy to just hang out at the winery and relax. Instead, I fell in next to Team TOG/Monster Bikes Jim, and as we started the first, long stretch of Katy Trail together I told him about the girl from Saturday who’d been so bothered by my chatter.
And suddenly, there she was in front of us. I pointed her out to Jim, and we talked nonstop as we rode in her draft. It was glorious. I’m, admittedly, a talker, and even I was pretty tapped out on conversational topics by the time she gave in and waved us ahead of her on the trail.
|This is during the Katy Trail stretch, and despite the flat, easy surface you can tell I’m already not feeling great. Photo credit: Dan Singer|
I’d warned Jim that I was dragging and that I was totally cool with him not waiting on me. He stuck with me for the 20 miles on the Katy, and I quickly started trailing after we turned off and started what I remember as a fairly gentle climb that was way harder than it should have been. When I’m tired, any incline seems like a mountain.
|Random stretch of gravel road|
Before long, I’d dropped off the back of our little group, and I was really content to just ride at my own snail-ish pace rather than try and keep up with other people. The downhills were still fun, and I walked a lot of uphills. I did my best to stay on top of my eating and drinking and promised myself that at/after mile 30 I could get off the bike to take a short break and eat something. The “short break” ended up being almost 15 minutes, but it kind of gave me a new lease on life for a while.
|Eating + off the bike = happiness|
Overall, I think this section (loop 4, for people who were doing the whole race) was easier than my second loop on Saturday but less fun. Of course, I was also in a “get through it” frame of mind instead of the “isn’t this a fun adventure” mindset of the day before. And my gosh, I was tired. I for sure didn’t want to make any wrong turns, so with no one to follow I looked long and hard when I arrived at a confusing intersection.
The sign pointed left on P; the arrows painted on the highway pointed right. I assumed a painted arrow was more reliable than a movable sign, but there were two arrows: one for loop 4, and one for loop 1. I’d ridden loop 1, and I had no memory of riding this stretch of road, leading me to wonder if the markings were from a different routing last year? Mickey had made up his own cue sheets and emailed them to me. I hadn’t gotten around to printing them out, but they were still on my phone. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been following along, and in my fatigue-addled mind, I read the sign for the road I was on as the name of the road I was turning onto, which would have had me turning left.
Instead, I followed the painted arrow and went right, hoping I didn’t commit myself to climbing hills I didn’t have to ride. Thankfully I’d chosen correctly, as was confirmed by the group that passed me after having made the wrong turn earlier. We started up a big, paved climb, but my low gears started slipping as the hill got steeper and I ended up having to walk. It was frustrating to walk something I didn’t have to, but I was just grateful that the fix, which the guys had warned me might not hold out the entire loop, had held as long as it did. And those certainly won’t be the last hills I walk.
Towards the top of the hill I passed a church I recognized from last year’s ride with Chuck but not, despite the road markings for loop 1, from the previous day. Still baffled by the fact that I had no memory of a stretch of road I’d apparently ridden while still feeling good, I shot down the gravel hill. Because it was a pretty straight shot into a big uphill (and because the previous day’s crash was a more distant memory…and because I’d reached that point in the ride where my fear of crashing is balanced by the knowledge that an ambulance ride means not having to pedal any more for the day), I was more excited than frightened to glimpse 39mph on the speedometer.
…and then I was walking uphill again. Oh joy. There was one more downhill back to the Katy Trail, and then things leveled out and all I had to do was make my way back into Hermann and one last trip up that hill to the winery. Once again I made it back before the cutoff, this time with a whopping ten minutes to spare. Aaro, who supplied seriously entertaining all weekend, was trying to convince finishers to do wheelies. I waited until I was on flat ground to do mine, laughing at the credit card vertical I managed, and then I was finished. What a good time.
|Another awesome shot by Dan Singer. You can see my right hand exaggerating how far I got off the ground.|
|3/5 loops…room for improvement|
And just like that I have another goal race. I’d love to come back
strong enough (and, um, with a bike well-maintained enough) to finish
the whole thing. As it was, I had a great time riding, met some awesome people, loved the course, and though I only rode about halfway I did get to be there cheering when Mickey and Emily both finished the entire 200-mile weekend. Awesomeness.
|Photo credit: Dan Singer|
The finishing trophy was a jar of gravel, filled to a level equivalent
to the percentage of the race you finished. Mine? Slightly over half
full, which just leaves plenty of room for the memories.