It was my first time taking part in Gravel Worlds this summer in late August. Nestled in Lincoln, Nebraska, this event is quickly becoming a classic. While BWR has its vibe and SBT has its own high-country Colorado essence, Gravel Worlds has maintained a refreshing alternative in the sense that it’s very much how gravel used to be. Back when a gravel bike was whatever you could cobble together, and the riders lined up at the start were more laid-back and easy-going. I loved it.
Now, onto the race itself.
The week leading up to the race was full of sun, scorching temps, and no indication that it would be any different on race day. But in the early hours before the start, a massive storm system settled in to drench the course for 7-8 hours. Luckily, the athletes on the Long Voyage 300-mile overnighter had begun their race the day before and had managed to skirt the weather. For those of us starting that morning, race organizers decided to kick the race start back a few hours to allow for the system—and its potential for lightning and thunder—to abate. As luck would have it, the system did indeed move on to the east. But not before dumping several inches of rain on the dirt roads north of Lincoln.
Everyone had probably experienced a ride in wet conditions. But the dirt roads of Lincoln? Nebraska has its special kind of adversity.
One of the wonderful things about Gravel Worlds is that the majority of the event takes place on dirt. No 50/50, no 70/30. It's closer to 90 percent gravel, and 10 percent pavement—nary a car in sight. Lots and lots of corn (Nebraska is the Cornhusker State) and soybean fields (the fifth-largest crop in the country hails from here). Riders left the expo, hung a hard left onto a road, and it was only a half mile before we were out onto the farm roads that would make up the substrate for the day.
Feeling my oats, I was jockeying for position on the dirt after navigating the early lineup, and I'm so glad I did because once we hit the dirt, it was… different.
Many of us are familiar with most types of wet soil, and what it becomes when it gets wet. It usually turns into… you guessed it: mud. Of that, there are different types. You’ve got your good consistency mud, which just slops around, might get a little loose, and flicks up onto your jersey. Then you have your heavy clay soil. Those at Unbound this year will remember this from “The Mud Section” that was borne from a previous day’s rain. While that one may not have been a true clay, it was enough to get that “peanut butter” thickness that requires a paint stirrer stick. If you didn’t have one, the mud would cake onto the tires and bog down drivetrains. Game over.
Gravel Worlds was different.
Sure, a couple of sections necessitated a paint stirrer to get caked-on mud off the frame. Lucky for me, my Ultimate G2 doesn’t have much problem flicking mud off (and I didn’t even put PAM cooking spray on my frame as some did). Got mud scraping along between the chainstay and tire sidewall? No damage, no problem. Gotta love titanium for that.
But the majority of the course was a different kind of mud. A little mud + a lot of sand. What would you call it…sud?
Whatever it was, it was slow.
In that first mile, I was tucked into a leading paceline, but the sand mixed with dirt was almost fully saturated with water, lifting grains and creating about a quarter inch of slop you had to ride through, not over. Riding along wasn’t technically difficult, but good golly, it was hard work, probably another 10-20 watts of effort required. Not what anyone banked on. It became apparent there would be no record times that day; it would be a slow slog.
My friend James had the perfect description of the experience. “It was like riding over Velcro.” That was it; imagine trying to put down good power, and have it all sucked right into the dirt as you slog along feeling like your tire pressure was at 11 PSI. For example: I was 15 miles in and feeling flat in my rear tire. I stopped to fix it (causing me to lose my place in the lead group), squeezed the tire, and nope—no flat. It was just bogged down in that soppy mess of sandy dirt.
That would set the tone for my day. With the group lost, I rode the remainder of Gravel Worlds solo. Across the finish, it was time for a post-ride beer (love events that provide those!) and a donation to the local NICA club cycling team for their bike wash—money well spent.
Will I be back for Gravel Worlds? It lacked the pizzazz of some events with big sponsors, massive activations, huge pro purses, and the like. But it had a soulfulness that not many events have anymore. Whether it was race director Corey Godfrey running around ensuring things were operating tip-top or Jason Strohbehn being at the finish to issue every finisher a high five and a hug (and a champagne bath for those category winners), that was worth so much more. All on a great course with zero cars and lots of good vibes at the aid stations and through the rider corps. And that is worth more than all the pro fields and big sponsor actions any day. To answer the question: yep, I'll be back. Even if it's wet again.