And just so you don’t think I’ve gone all girly on you after one, ONE gushing post about a pink bra, let’s talk about gravel.
The Great Godfrey (that would be Corey) asked me a few questions about what “gravel family” means to me. I started thinking of answers to the questions he’d listed but then immediately got distracted (squirrel!), lost in the memories a dozen stories that would illustrate my gravel family and I wanted to tell them all! Don’t worry, I won’t. But I will tell a few, starting with my introduction to Gravel Worlds in 2017.
In January 2017, when it was time to sign up for Gravel Worlds, I have no idea what I was thinking. I mean that literally, I can only think that in my January mind, I figured by August I’d be “back to normal.”
Why wouldn’t I? The previous summer I’d been having so much fun riding bikes, getting stronger, meeting new people, and embracing life with a truly zen sense of “fuckit.” As in “Fuckit, I’m not going to worry about fear or what other people think or self-consciousness. Life is good and I’m jumping IN.” But that was before cancer. And that was before I lost Michelle and Mike and the girls. And everything changed after that.
I know I did some riding that summer, once chemo was done in May and I started to feel stronger. But what height of arrogance, to assume I’d be “normal.” Still, Gravel Worlds was something I’d heard spoken in almost mystical terms. My friends had done it and I wanted to be part of it. I’d ridden some gravel, though nothing close to 150 miles. My good friend Scott Redd offered to ride it with me. At the time, I didn’t know what a gift that was — I do now. To give up your potential finish to ride as support for another rider is an enormously generous gift. I mean, it’s huge.
The weather was perfect – a bit cool to start with some fog that quickly burned off. We both had bike computers, but Scott navigated. I focused on pedaling. We both had plenty of food and water, but Scott reminded me to eat. I just turned those pedals. Early on, we caught up to friends when they stopped to change a tire or linger at SAG, but before too long, it felt like everyone who owned a bike in Nebraska had passed us. I still had legs, but I felt so tired. I thought the hills would never end. Sometime after mile 50, I watched our average speed drop into single digits, and my speed up hills drop to a toddler’s age. And then, Lordamighty! There was Malcolm, and the best Coca-Cola I’ve ever tasted. It was hot by then, so we sat in the damp grass in the shade of the general store.
I was quiet as Scott messed with his phone. He asked how I was doing and I was honest: I was hurting. “We have a few options,” he said. We were about 75 miles in; we could push on to the next checkpoint, we could quit and call a friend’s wife for a ride, or, option 3. He hadn’t been messing with his phone, he’d been plotting a route back to the start, it was about 10 miles, could I make it? We’d be DNF’d, but we’d be finishing the ride under our own power. I’m not sure I can explain how much that meant to me at that moment.
(You might notice the picture isn’t of a Coke. Nope, once we made the decision to ride back to the start, I hobbled back into the general store for some Rocky Mountain Spring Water, and let that salty, frosty goodness slide down my dusty throat with a few pulled pork sliders from the barbecue joint next door.)
As we left Malcolm, we turned onto a street that just happened to be the same name as Michelle’s street, and I was overwhelmed with the feeling that she was there with me. I felt calm, that I’d made the right decision, and so incredibly grateful to have a friend like Scott who would make that ride possible for me. And that made all other rides seem possible.
Over and over again I have felt the love and support of ride organizers who welcomed me, fellow riders who shared tips and motivation, and friends who get up early and stay up late to cheer me on.
At 2019’s Gravel Worlds, I rode 17 hours to reach 121 miles before calling Bob about 1 AM at the finish line. He’d driven from Omaha that evening to wait for me, and said he’d just sleep in the truck til I finished, if I wanted. I figured at my current rate, it would be another 4 hours to finish. I’ll pretend it was for Bob’s benefit that I called it, but I was well and truly depleted. After he picked me up, we returned to the finish with a few minutes to spare before the last rider rolled in. It was an honor to yell our heads off at close to 2 in the morning for 2019’s DFL, Scott.
Do other sports have this much joy in lifting each other up? I don’t think so. I don’t see it. Maybe it’s the mud that gets up our nose, the rocks in our hair, and the dirt ground into our knees as we stop to scrape mud out of a cassette with a paint stick. Sure, it’s a race for the top riders, but for most of us, it’s something else. Maybe it’s a conquest, crushing a personal goal, overcoming fear, or maybe it’s just a solitary, crunchy ride away from pavement and cars (but not the occasional seasonal farm equipment). Maybe it’s redemption.
What does “gravel family” mean?
I’m writing this on International Women’s Day, so I’ll close with this story, and this picture, which I love. When I first saw it, I’ll admit, the first thing I noticed was how big I’ve gotten. For all the fucks that breast cancer gives you, the final insult is that for some people, the chemo messes up endocrine systems and we gain weight at a shocking pace. It’s completely demoralizing.
I looked at the picture again and decided, fuck that. My body may not look like it used to look, but it did what I needed it to do. I rode 100 miles of Flint Hills gravel and I just flat-out refused to quit. I walked a lot of hills, I stopped for a lot of breaks, and I hurt so bad, but damnit, I made that last damn hill, pedaled through Emporia State University campus, and turned onto Commercial Street to see the blocks of cheering fans lining the finish line chute. Do you know about the finish line chute? It was my first one, my first finished gravel race, and I’m still a little emotional about it. From a block away, I heard Jim Cummins call out, “Coming in, a 100-miler, from Omaha it’s ANN GENTLE,” and the crowd goes bananas. I had come to Emporia by myself, I had no one with me. And I had to be one of the last 100-milers still out there — I think the 200-mile winners were already in! And yet, and yet… those yells and cowbells and hands hanging out for high-fives were for me. The women of DK were there, screaming my name as I rode toward them down the gauntlet, and finally I started to realize I had done it, and then the sight of Kristi and Treva jumping up and down, then hugging me, handing me a towel from an ice-filled horse trailer and a chocolate Gu Roctane recovery shake.
I’d gotten to know Kristi and Treva and SO many bad-ass men and women during DK’s spring training camp. I met first-place DK finishers, FIVE TIME DK finishers. people who raced the Tour Divide, and riders of the new 350-mile DKXL. I mean, these are truly elite riders, there to share knowledge and ride with us. And never did one person make me feel like I didn’t belong. I was embraced and welcomed and jumped into the gang.
The gravel family is a special group of crazy. Once I started lining up at those starting lines, I learned that I’d see some of the same riders at many events, and then we’d become friends, and would soon have more in common than we have different, just by sharing this joyful crazy thing. We are a family, a family that suffers and celebrates, a family that shares gear tips and beers on bridges and we’re a family that comes together to lift each other up. Yeah, there’s some stiff competition for those top podium spots, and I’m not knocking it. I’m just waiting to get so old I’ll have my own age category and then I will SWEEP ALL THE RIDES!
Just kidding. In all seriousness, it’s no secret to anyone by now that I am going to be at the back of the pack. Do the podium people treat me any differently? They do not. This is gravel, where all are welcome, everyone rides, and if there’s someone holding a chocolate recovery shake or sleeping in their truck at your finish line, you’re a damn lucky soul.