|The Westside Dirty Benjamin bike race is part of a series of gravel races in Minnesota.|
It's free. You register by mailing in a postcard.
The bike shop salesman is standing next to a set of matching glass doors as he motions for me and my friend to step inside the room with him. He has something to show us.
I walk past the display of carbon-fiber racing bikes and into a room that looks as though it might be where King Arthur would keep Excalibur. It is spotless and sparse. A few simple, stylish shelves line the walls.
On the shelves sit bike parts: handlebars, wheels, frames. They look like works of art on display with simple gallery lights illuminating them.
He reaches high up on a wall and carefully grasps a ceramic wheel, handing it to me with a sly smile. I reach for it. It’s not that it’s light; it’s that it almost doesn’t have mass. As if its weight would be a negative number.
How much would something like this cost, my friend asks.
Six, the bike guy says. (Later, in the car, my friend explains to me that six means $6,000, not $600.)
As I stand out by the counter at the shop waiting for a friend to buy some things in anticipation of tomorrow’s Westside Dirty Benjamin gravel road bike race, I see at the counter a man who is dressed like a mannequin in a fancy suit store. He is starched, tucked and trimmed. Nothing is out of place. He is checking his email on his iPhone while he waits to be rung up. And next to him on the floor sits one of the wheels we have just seen.
Outside in the parking lot, a black Lexus with sleek, spotless bike racks is parked.
As we drive away from the carbon-filled wonderland I feel a strong desire for stuff. I must have a new bike. I must have new cycling tights. I must have a new helmet.
|Start of the Westside Dirty Benjamin|
The next morning, I sit at the starting line nervously looking around at the slick bikes and riders with tree-trunk legs all wearing kits from the various cycling teams they belong to. I nervously adjust my clearance rack helmet and wait for the start.
As we are led out of town, I try to tuck myself into the back of the lead group and hope that maybe this time I can stay with them. And I do, for a mile. And another. I’m in the peloton and feeling good. This may not be so bad. Maybe this time.
And then there is a hill. And another. And I can feel my legs are being tested and it’s mile, what? Six out of 107? And over the third hill and I watch the pack slip just out of my reach. I try to hang on. And then they are a bit further away. I can still see them after the next turn. Still in reach.
But after the third turn there is nothing in front of me except empty gravel farmroads. I’m off the back.
Soon, another group chugs up from behind and I jump on. Everyone is intense and grinding away. No talking; just pedaling. I climb aboard, trying to do my part in the front but, again, sensing that I’m exerting more than I should be this early in the ride.
Somewhere in my mind I can hear the voice of Chris Skogen. He is the king of the gravel rides in Minnesota, having started the first of the gravel races, The Almanzo 100, in 2007. The night before that race a month or so ago, I told him I was nervous about how I’d do (I didn’t finish).
“Lower your speed, lower your expectations,“ he said.
At the time, I nodded and smiled, but didn’t really get what he meant by this.
Grind. Grind. Grind. This is no fun I’m thinking and feeling as I try to stay with the group. Don’t look at the odometer. Don’t do it. But I do. Crap. That can’t be right.
Heading up a slow grade in a large pack of riders, we pass what appears to be just another side road. But just in front of me, one rider on a mountain bike with commuter tires turns right as the train keeps going straight. I see him look back, confused.
I fall out of the pack and circle back to where he is. And my ride changes.
And it doesn’t just change because I am now going the right way while the pack is pushing down the wrong road in spite of the fact that several people try to tell them not to.
It changes because that’s where I meet Paul and start riding my own race.
|My riding companions, Paul and Mark.|
Like me, Paul is in his 40s with a daughter in middle school. Like me, Paul is a little tired at this stage of the race and seems content to be riding at a spirited but reasonable pace. Soon, we pick up a guy named Mark, who also seems content to ride at a pace that allows for some conversation.
We're all hurting, to be sure. But the ride becomes easier. We take turns pulling but for the most part we ride side by side. I become aware of the landscape and the beautiful day.
After the midpoint my legs start to feel stronger and I find myself wanting to ride with a little more pace. I regrettably leave my new friends behind. Eventually I find myself riding with Eric.
"Wow," I say to him, "You sure have a lot of cool Banjo Brothers stuff on your bike."
"That's because I am Banjo Brothers," he replies. "I co-own the company."
Riding with Eric is like riding with bicycle royalty in Minnesota. Eric and his partner's company sells smartly designed bike bags of all sorts. "We are a couple of ex-corporate types in self-imposed exile from the cubicle farm," their website states.
|Eric, co-owner of Banjo Brothers, built up his own '80s-era Fuji bike. |
Of course, it is decked out in the finest Banjo Brother's gear.
(He has a head, but hey, I'm no photojournalist.)
Eric studied to be an engineer in college. Growing up he didn’t have the money for fancy bikes, so he learned how to do all his own maintenance and keep his old bikes working well.
We work hard as we ride, but not so hard that we can't talk as we’re moving along. I ask Eric if he ever tries to race out front with the lead pack. Never, he says. That’s just not my thing.
I’m hurting but I also feel like I’m getting stronger toward the end of the ride. Maybe it’s the company. We ride with one group, pass them. Not intentionally. They just were going a different pace.
From behind us comes a rider named Steve who is decked out in the kit of one of the Minneapolis cycling teams. He stays with us and we begin to ride together, working our way over the final steep hills as our wheels sink into the fresh, soft gravel.
With about five or so miles left to go, we are on paved roads and Steve begins to accelerate. Eric and I try to stay with him as he powers into the headwind on one of the only stretches of busy highway of the day.
“God bless you, Steve,” I shout at him.
“Hang on,” he shouts back.
Each of us takes our turn in the front, passing one rider and then another. Only a couple miles to go. We move past one last pack of riders and then begin the final stretch along a twisting downhill to the finish. We all push as hard as we can, moving along near 30 mph.
As we near the finish, Steve, who is in the front, lets up and we come alongside him.
“Let’s finish together, guys,” he says, as he gives us each a fist bump.
I finish the Westside Dirty Benjamin 60th out of 129 riders.
Part of me will always want that better bike. Part of me will always feel like if I worked a little harder, I could stay with that front group. But I’m not sure I like that part of me.
For the moment, I’m no longer thinking about whether I can put together the funds for some carbon fiber rocket (I can't). I’m wondering instead if I can learn how to fix up my 1983 Trek using my own skills.