Podium at South / Rodeo Pro Gravel
Words by Jake Aisenbery. Photos by Wil Matthews and 241 Photo
The Mid South or as we have heard in the following week ‘The Mud South’, lived up to all expectations, and in fact if there wasn’t mud, I feel we would have missed out. The days leading up to the race were filled with uncertainty. Headlines filled with COVID-19, the crashing markets and social distancing were all on our minds. The nine-hour drive from Colorado was no exception to reality as we could have been convinced the world was ending. However, all was well rolling into our hotel late Thursday night and we were certain this is were we need to be.
Harp, Brett, Grant and I all rolled out Friday morning on the SRAM group ride; finally, our first taste of the famed roads surrounding Stillwater. Chunky, loose gravel was encountered and not what was expected. Later we did hear that this is not what we would experience on race day and was only typical of the roads close to Stillwater, everywhere else was dirt and clay. I can’t say this put us at ease with an inch of rain forecasted the night before the race. Sloppy conditions were going to be abundant.
Race day began in dark, cold numbing conditions accompanied by heavy rain. Having raced two mud races in the previous season, The Burleigh County Cup and Gold Rush Gravel Grinder, I knew how much this was going to suck, but I kept that to myself. Attempting to kit up and getting the bikes ready in the cold rain was task number one, barely successful at that; I think we all forgot something by the time we left the truck. We all met up with Jonathan Baker minutes before the delayed start of the race, figured out our support situation and made some last second bike fixes (I totally credit Bakers podium finish with me tightening down his headset!). All of us had the mentality to make the best of the conditions, try to place yourself well and get to the finish line. The call was made to line up, this thing was going down.
After some motivating words from race creator, Bobby, we headed out into ominous conditions. The entire team was somewhere different in the pack of a thousand riders – some followed what I assume to be Gravel Racing Tenet #1 which states “If you want any chance in hell to do well at a mass start event, you line up front row”. Maybe I should have listened to the Gravel Gospel. Attempting to make up positions before the ‘gravel’ began was a near futile attempt; riders spanned from shoulder to shoulder of the road. And just like that we hit the mud. Vision, or lack thereof, was one of the first difficulties of the day. Fortunately, the rain would clean off your lenses as soon as you removed yourself from the mud spray of the rider in front of you. 5 minutes into the race, the pack had fractured, and you could see two groups up the road. I knew this wasn’t coming back, so I just focused on choosing clean lines, nutrition and maintaining consistent power. I just hoped my teammates were having a great ride a few minutes up the road.
The rain eventually quit, and the mud began to set up. Fortunately, the change in road viscosity had little effect due to equipment that didn’t want to quit. Overall, I was incredibly happy with my equipment choices; the Rodeo Labs Trail Donkey likely had more mud clearance than any bike on the course and never once did I have to stop and clear mud from my fork or chainstays. This meant I could keep cranking away on the pedals and avoid any dreaded hike-a-bike. The tires too; I was completely surprised with the Challenge Gravel Grinder 36c Handmade ability to shed mud and provide predictability in the sloppy conditions. The only issue I had all day was a front derailleur cable slip and cause the loss of my big ring, luckily for me the Perkins mid-point was a saving grace and the gents at the SRAM tent got it back working for me. Here I also caught word of Jonathan Baker being in the lead group – that news relit the stoke.
The second half of the race certainly slowed down and I found myself talking to any and all riders around me just to lighten the mental load and physical suffering. It is really amazing what a little conversation can due to lift spirits and motivation when the race has completely gone to shit. The slog continued but the finishing line was not beyond reach – at least the temp warmed up five degrees! I rolled into the 80-mile oasis surprised to see Grant, he invited me to take a seat next to the fire, but I declined and kept rolling. Following the race, I found out he had gone down and tweaked his wrist. He may have not finished the race, but he still rode himself back to the finish line. Still a badass in my book. The road beyond the 80-mile oasis was littered with broken riders, many fell victim to the inevitable bonk others mechanical issues or just a break in mental fortitude. I was just happy to avoid all those issues. About 5 miles from the finish line the fatigue set in, but the end was so close there is no sense in letting up. I crossed the finish line, elbow bumped Bobby, chugged a beer and shared some stories and smiles with those around me. Hearing Baker had taken 3rd was just the perfect news. Rodeo Labs was on the map!
Somehow the COVID crapstorm didn’t matter at that moment. The overall elation to have survived 105 miles of mud was a feat that made a virus seem irrelevant (I know, I know). Happy to be done, have a teammate podium and most of the team cross the finish line was a successful showing from the Rodeo Labs Pro Gravel team. I was proud to be included.
I can’t thank The Mid South coordinators, volunteers, vendors and participants enough for providing an event of this caliber. It will be a day that I never forget. I feel a day in the mud was what we needed in the moment; The photos of the event have been a welcomed distraction of the reality that has encompassed our daily lives since.
Editor’s Note. Between Two Wheels, the cycling podcast, sat down an interview with 3rd place finisher Jonathan Baker. It covers background on Jonathan and his thoughts on the race as well as the controversy on whether Mid South should have been held at all as the Covid epidemic gained strength in the United States. You can listen below:
Additional images by Wil Matthews, 241 Photography, and the Rodeo Pro Gravel Team