Updated: October 2, 2020
Note: Originally, this story and video included the old name of the 200-mile gravel event held in Emporia, Kansas. At the time, we did not realize that the name was a racial slur that is offensive and hurtful to the Kaw People, who are native to that region. This story and video have since been edited to eliminate that slur. We regret our ignorance and apologize for any harm it might have caused.
I’ve always looked out to the east, where the Earth’s curvature is pronounced, and wondered. Living at the base of the Rocky Mountains, in Boulder, Colorado, sometimes feels like being at the edge of a vast ocean. Well, at one point in geological history, it was, but now Eastern Colorado is a sea of grass. I wanted to see what was out there.
With little warning or time to prepare, I stumbled upon an opportunity to immerse myself in that unknown swath of plains. I had a chance to ride my bike to Kansas.
My friend Alex Howes posted something coy about the route on Instagram. “Plotting a long bomb,” he wrote in the caption. I texted to ask if he was really doing what I thought he was doing. He was. I asked what I meant to be a leading question: “You doing it alone?” His reply: “That’s the plan for now.” Then, “Want to come swap turns for 12hrs?”
I had about four days to get ready. I was in, 100%.
Alex set out to do this ride as an ode to the famous 200-mile gravel race in Emporia, Kansas. Due to the pandemic, the race was rescheduled to September. He wasn’t sure what the rest of the season would hold, so he wanted to take on a big adventure, riding gravel for about the same distance as the event’s 200 miles. Having originally planned to do the race this year too, I was on the same page.
It’s unfair to classify Alex as a roadie. Yes, he is the reigning road national champion and a finisher in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and Vuelta a Espana, among many other prestigious races. But he has the spirit of a mountain biker. I first crossed paths with him at a cyclocross race more than 10 years ago when he was a development rider on the Chipotle team. As long as I’ve known him, he’s found ways to get off the pavement. Last year, he finished fourth in Kansas. He attempted the 200-mile Fat Pursuit fat bike race in Yellowstone last January. In March, he was set to race the week-long Cape Epic mountain bike stage race before the pandemic changed everyone’s plans.
No, Alex would not be the weak link on this or any other gravel bike ride. He’d be towing along me, a solid all-around rider, who was respectably top-100 in Kansas but certainly not a finely tuned specimen. A pro cyclist I am not.
The challenge was about 207 miles, about 90% gravel, and 4,000 feet of climbing. Thankfully, he was willing to take a relaxed approach in this ride to the end of Colorado. His advice: Pack a lot of snacks and a water filter. Fortunately, he was able to bring the latter.
On the day of the ride, I met him on the Boulder Creek Path in the center of town at about 6 a.m. after he endured a freezing-cold ride down from his home in Nederland at about 9,000 feet. A few bonus miles — I guess he is a pro rider after all.
Although the suburbs around Denver and Boulder are densely packed in, we were surprised to quickly leave the pavement behind. In about 20 miles, we were out in farm country. After about 30 miles, we came across a wild turkey roaming near the road.
Once we crossed Interstate 25, then I-76, the wildlife was even more abundant. Partridges startled out of the grass, soaring away. Prong-horn antelope glided across the grass, flaunting their status as North America’s fastest ground animal. Jackrabbits, turtles, birds of prey, and songbirds all lined the desolate gravel roads.
Not a car in sight on the empty gravel roads of Eastern Colorado. Photo: Spencer Powlison | The Pro's Closet
Some roads were hardly roads. On a few occasions, Alex brought us to an abrupt halt, realizing his GPS was telling us to turn. A pair of tire tracks through the prairie seemed suspect, but we followed the route and found ourselves on wild little trails that cut through tumbleweeds.
“Watch out for rattlesnakes,” Alex advised. “No really, man, I’m serious!”
Fortunately, that was one animal we did not encounter.
I’d always dreamed of a brisk tailwind when I thought of riding to Kansas. However, on this day, the prevailing westerly winds never came, and a mild but persistent headwind slowly eroded our pace. For the first 100 miles, it was tolerable but disconcerting.
Around 140 miles in, I came unglued. We were midway through a straight stretch of road that was about 40 miles long with a block headwind. Food wasn’t tasting good any longer. I swallowed my pride and sat in on Alex’s draft. This was starting to feel like a slog. Thankfully, we happened upon a water spigot at a farm silo where we could fill up and take a minute. Though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, soaking my bandana was a minor refreshment that went a long way toward boosting morale.
Stopping for water in the middle of nowhere. Photo: Spencer Powlison | The Pro's Closet
Finally, we turned off that horrible stretch of County Road 30, but the respite from grueling eastward travel was short-lived. In another 10 miles, we made it to Vernon, one of only two towns on this 140-mile stretch of the route, the second being Hoyt. And calling them “towns” is a stretch.
We were wise to pack so much food and a water filter because after we left the pavement behind, there was nowhere to stop. Hoyt did not have a convenience store. Vernon didn’t have a gas station.
I was prepared in terms of nutrition and hydration, so the desolate route was manageable. I had not planned for the darkness, though. We were far too cocky in estimating our finish time. We wagered that we’d arrive at the state line around 6:30 p.m. Between the two of us, we had one headlight and two tail lights.
The sunset was beautiful, but it meant we'd be finishing in the dark. Photo: Spencer Powlison | The Pro's Closet
Fortunately, the roads were empty, as they had been all day long. The single headlight was a bit dim for the sandy gravel we encountered toward the end, but we made do, avoiding catastrophe. Despite enduring a 13+ hour day, the sunset was certainly a worthy reward.
In the pitch-black prairie night, we rolled up to a small plaque, fenced in to keep out cattle, around 9:15 p.m. This was the official end of our ride and the meeting point of Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.
This ride was an epic. It seemed a fitting tribute to gravel racing, though it differed in so many ways from the real thing. We’d never be able to capture the excitement, inspiration, or pure agony that every single rider feels in a long gravel event. But the spirit was there. We found our way through the prairie, self-propelled, self-supported, through the highs and lows. And there were even a few beers at the finish.