By Logan Jones-Wilkins
Ah, nothing like the chirping of alligators in the morning.
A chorus of those spooky songs called out from all directions as I rode down a desolate gravel road about 30 miles west of Palm Beach, Florida. I was searching for a suitable place to take care of my pre-race pee before the 5AM start of the Sugarcane 200.
I believe I have never been as alert as I was then in the pitch black, fog drenched predawn hours, waiting for a gator to strike me down while I was in a decisively compromised state. Fortunately, for me, it was a successful mission. The gators would need to find a different breakfast. However, that was not my only stress inducing bathroom break for the day.
More on that later.
As the clock approached 5AM, a gaggle of fellow psycho’s began to congeal at the “start line” awaiting the long day of pedaling. Among the field of 100 riders was a pervasive attitude of relief. Up until the start that morning, there were questions of whether the race would even happen due to a disgruntled water company and threats of police intervention. However, through some quick re-routing and crossed fingers, the race was a go and we all could do the sick, twisted, masochistic activity we all payed for: ride 200-miles in the sandy, swampy, sweaty, windswept sugar-cane fields of south Florida.
For the first hour, the group meandered drifting through the soggy darkness as rabbits, racoons, and rats ran death defying races through the peloton. It was pretty special to see the nocturnal side of Florida wildlife. Roosting spoonbills in the shrubs alongside the narrow gravel roads, an occasional owl on the prowl for its breakfast (or dinner, I’m not sure how an owl would characterize its meal schedule), the periodical splashing of a gator descending into the murky canals. All fleeting moments captured in the periphery of the collective illumination of 100 lights.
As dawn broke on the horizon, my cheapo 300-lumen light that I had been nursing through the last half hour cut off just as the full picture of the foggy sugar-cane fields came to light.
I am not big on routine. As a general rule, I think routines can stifle creativity and problem solving. I love to go through my days all loose-y goosey with a fluid agenda. My body, however, does not agree. It has ridged protocols that must be met and can rarely be negotiated. As the light made its first streaks across the sky, an ominous feeling began to grow inside of me. It started as a call of nature, but quickly escalated to a blaring scream of necessity. At the 30-mile water stop that most riders steam roll through, I made a rapid b-line to the bathroom.
It wasn’t more than a minute, but it turned to be decisive. Out of the rest stop was a run-up with a bottleneck as the race went up the Lake Okeechobee levy to the path on top. Upon leaving the bathroom, I looked up and could see that the leaders were not waiting around for those who had been caught “napping.” Fortunately, I was able to use my extremely limited cross skills to ride the pitch and crack on in pursuit. Sailing down the path, I made my way through the field until I saw the small lead group up ahead, just visible through the heavy morning fog. With no one to help, I set off in pursuit. Despite my efforts, they vanished into the mist and the prospects of a long 170 miles of solitude started to weigh on me. I clung to a shred of faith as I soldiered on through the mist at a heart rate that was far too hard for someone with 7-8 hours of riding ahead of them.
About 20 minutes into my chase, I caught a glimpse of a red blinking light through the mist. Then came more blinks. Then silhouettes. Then the 20 or so bodies and bikes that had survived the first onslaught. The gravel at this point turned to saturated, inch deep sand that made closing the last 20 seconds of the gap last an eternity. Again, my mediocre cross skills saved me as I powered through the sand to reach the group, 18 miles after they had left me on the levy.
With the wind at our backs, the next hour was roaring fast. 25 mile per hour pace-lines through sand, mud, and puddles. Little digs slowly cut the group down from 20, to 15, and then 12. Around mile 75 the course changed direction into a stern crosswind and a strong acceleration forced what turned out to be the decisive split. Ted King, Dylan Johnson, Tim Mitchell, and Jeremiah Bishop drove foreword, as the 7 remaining riders fractured apart in their wake.
We were *only* 4 hours in, but for the last two hours I had been flirting with some irresponsible intensity granted what was to come. I was somewhat relieved to be distanced by the older much more experienced gravel dudes, while also having four very capable partners to rotate with.
Our little pain trained rolled well for the next 20 miles and came into the mile 104 turn-around while the leaders were just finishing their pit stop. I was feeling fine and ready to take on the next hundred miles.
Scratch that, I was feeling ready to take on the next fifty miles. Farmers were angry. Cops were called. It was a whole thing. The finish was now at mile 150.
I would like to say I was disappointed, but I wasn’t. In retrospect, it would’ve been neat to check off a double-century. However, at the time 50 more miles sounded juuuuust right.
10 miles later, those 50 miles became more than enough, as I succumbed to premature efforts of earlier in the day. It was adios to my amigos and hello to more solitude. 40 miles of hot, sandy, headwind lay before me, as I nursed my way down the long straight gravel track that cut a white line through the surrounding wetlands. The fog had now been replaced by the sun and the vast treeless expanse of the surroundings became clear.
Oh boy, did I feel small.
What had been mud on the trip out was now dry sand that impeded any notion of momentum. Paired with a 10 mile per hour headwind, it was nothing short of brutal. But, as with most brutal things, this came with an equally powerful drive to complete it. After the six-hour mark, I managed to capture a trance like rhythm to drive me forward. I moved from one reference point to the next with a clear mind set on singular goals. Simple phrases and pictures ventured through my conscious as the never-ending roads ahead became less of focus and more of a backdrop for the machinations in my mind, brought on through this supreme state of suffering.
It was terrible. It was magical. It was spiritual.
As I closed into the finish, I slowly returned to reality. With it came the discomfort in my hands, hips, knees, and feet paired with the satisfaction with doing something to be proud of. I had a special feeling coming through the grove of tree to the impromptu finish, one that is normally absent from the finish of a road race: pride in finishing.
At the end of road races, there is seldom joy from just completing the distance. All feelings of positivity or negativity are entirely linked to placement. While gravel is still racing, it felt different. From a results perspective, 12th place was well bellow what I was hoping for. Even though this was my first gravel/endurance race and I was 5 years or more the junior of those in front of me (Jereimiah Bishop has been racing professionally for as long as I have been alive), I was quietly confident in what I could do. Nonetheless, I came across the line feeling fully satisfied. It was the fight that mattered, the grinta. The race is a day that I can look back on with both a smile and a hard lesson to learn from.
Even with all the changes and uncertainty, the Sugarcane 200* was quite the race. The gravel was challenging, the lack of elevation inspiring, and the heat draining. It has all the ingredients for a fantastic race if they can take care of the administrative issues. I’m looking forward to the changes they will make for the 2021 edition and I hope to return. I would definitely recommend others consider it in the future, it is worth the trip.
In terms of the Donkey, what a ride! It felt ridgid and the power transfer was stellar. It ate up the sandy tracks like nobody’s business and did brilliantly on terrain that is quite different from its standard habitat. Don’t be fooled by the geometry, this donkey can run!
Up next, my return to home roads for the Pantani Ride Sunday, February 9th, in Charlottesville, Virginia. I hope to see you all there!