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Forget the rainbow jersey, there’s a different kind of booty to be won at Pirate Cycling’s unofficial Gravel World Championships. Defending champion Alison Tetrick brings us the swashbuckling tale of navigating her way through the choppy waters at this year’s 150 mile (241 kilometre) gravel race.
The road may seem to go on forever, but if you are doing it right, the party never ends. Welcome to the unofficial Gravel Worlds. It was time to set sail again as the endless roads of Nebraska beckoned me with a siren’s song.
I have never considered myself much of a pirate. A cowgirl, yes, but a pirate no. At least both characters wear boots but let’s be honest, the ocean kind of scares me. There is so much that is unknown and the depths are endless. Haven’t you heard of Davey Jones’ locker? I felt like I was headed there but instead of setting sail into the ocean, I was pointed straight into the plains of Nebraska.
Sometimes we just have to be a pirate on a bike. If you need to shiver me timbers, or whatever they say, you might as well be on two wheels and have a bike party. Bike parties never stop. Gravel roads go on forever. The glory, jewels, and personal accomplishments abound.
In this case, the booty was a sword. A legit sword. Ahh, don’t get me started on the winner’s sword. I was fixated. I needed it so badly. I tried to ignore it. Don’t look at the sword!
But still the sword spoke to me. It resonated within my soul. Never show a pirate the loot before they’ve conquered the course. It’s a distraction. Even now it makes me digress.
Setting the compass toward the sword
This year has been long and full of life changes and adventures. Yes, I have been everywhere and yes, I am a bit travel weary. It has been race after race of defending a title only to have a sinking vessel in the end. Dethroned as the Queen of Kanza, was I going to have to lose my pirate swagger as well?
As I boarded the plane to Lincoln, Nebraska, I did so with dread. I knew I needed to walk the plank at Gravel Worlds but was I ready? Could I muster the courage and strength? No was the answer that seemed to keep rolling in on the waves. I couldn’t find my sea legs. Nevertheless I thought I might as well go to plunder, support a thriving community, and really, just ride the 150 miles. Might as well keep moving.
Truth be told, I was struggling to find my race face. I mean, we all have to put our bibs on one leg at a time right? Sometimes that is the hardest part, just getting to the start line. Not to mention it starts in the early morning blackness at the cruel hour of 6am. Would that black night turn into foreboding red skies at morning, that bring the shepherd’s warning?
I needed a theme song. We all need a theme song, right? Especially pirates. I had to pull out my favourite Texas country artist, Robert Earl Keene, for a little motivation to find my cowgirl style of piracy. Humming “the road goes on forever and the party never ends” seemed apt. Sure, why not.
I had a little pep talk with Kristi Mohn. She might be the true Queen of the Kanza, as she runs the race, finished top ten and gets more women on gravel every single day. Mohn is the true pirate between us. We decided to gain strength with each other and just get after it. We were going to hoist our sails and tackle the course.
Win, lose or draw we would be proud of the effort entailed and make it an experience to remember. That was our race face. It was how we dug up our inner pirate so it could whisper chants in our head that felt like they’d whipped in on a wild ocean breeze. “Yo ho, haul together, hoist the colours high. Heave ho gravel grinders and racers, never say we die.”
It was going to be big girl chamois time whether we liked it or not.
A melody in my heart, an awakening of the soul
Nebraska gravel is reminiscent of a beach and our bikes are the ships. The gravel is like small polished marbles that look smooth but can offer an unexpected undertow. You can walk barefoot on it. I have. I tested it out with my feet as I stayed up through the darkness cheering on the last finishers.
I know this gravel. It knows me. But, will it reveal the X on the map that leads me to the sword? Bring me the horizon. Bring me the sword. It was time. It was dawn. I can’t tell you if the sky was red. It was dark. It was time to race.
The race beginning was fast and aggressive, with only the lights on our bikes leading the way. They flickered in the early morning dimness like lanterns. Mist rose from the corn fields and the sun sneaked from behind the looming darkness slowly and gently. And then, fire in the hole!
A break of men went up the road, and I made the selection of the lead group. It was like riding in a convoy. I became so centered. I became so open to the noise, the sound, the feel. The churning of the pedals. The crunch of the gravel. The rhythm of the breathing. It felt like we were rowing a boat along the ocean.
Instead of grumbling and desolation, I had an awakening of the soul. You can’t blame it on the rum, you can blame it on the moment where I let go of control and was raptured by the bike. I had a melody in my heart. It was a song that oozed from my depths. This was unexpected. I found serenity in the suffering. I sang, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends…” The Nebraska plains rolled into the horizon like a constant set of waves. The momentum was continuous. I don’t think my singing was appreciated, but I believe that ultimately we were all humming the same song. We found our commitment. We found our day. This was a cause that was far from lost.
Even though I was a bit marooned in the last few miles, I finished with a record shattering time that averaged 19.6 mph for over 150 miles with 10,500 feet of climbing. The sword was mine.
The sword defined this year and this event. I found focus and joy in riding my bike with an incredible community that has banded together through some tough times and stormy waters. They found strength in the sword and Gravel Worlds. I was awarded the QOM jersey by a family that has lost so much yet found joy in sharing the passion of the bike and their home roads. We cried. We hugged. We just knew this was a moment to celebrate life, bikes, and resilience. It gave me a purpose to be there. I do not wear this crown or take this sword lightly.
This is the year of the sword. This is the year to find strength that you didn’t know you had. We all do these events to challenge ourselves and find something on those open roads. You are the captain of your own ship, regardless of whether you like it or not. My boat is mine and we all can weather the storm as long as we adjust our sails. We can find joy in the travel, even if the result isn’t what we wanted. Pirates are still going to explore and capture the day because they can and we are still going to ride our bikes all day because we can.
You better believe that I am going to use this sword in the best of ways. It has already worked on the group ride. I wish I had known how effective it was before. I would have spent more time shouting, “bring me all the crowns at the top of the hill and stay orderly, or you will walk the plank”. Even though mayhem and madness is the name of the game on the group ride, mutiny is not an option when you’re wielding the sword.
This was my Gravel Words. We all set sail on the gravel seas as pirates and adventurers. The thing about gravel, is it is quite like the ocean. It is consistently changing, unpredictable. If only the seas were gravel, maybe I would be a sailor. But for now, I will stick to the gravel and brandish my sword. It turns out not all treasures are silver and gold, some treasures are the experience and connection. Or a sword.
And yes, I will take that sword but even without the sword I wouldn’t replace this day for anything. Whether you are a pirate or a cowgirl, keep those gravel roads endless and keep that bike party going. Make it fun. Make it yours. Make it the year of the sword.