Words by Coach Ronaldo Romance Jr. and photos by Team Brooks
(Gallery Photos are 95% disposable film cams that I handed out to the team. Felt like it captured the inner “race” pretty authentically; and the medium was pretty fun in a “trip to the water park” “safe grad night” sorta way)
Booming Billowing Blooping Blurping Gravel.
Even with DK getting as much coverage as the TDF, I trust the pace of the news these days has left your mind blank of such cognizance once again. That’s good, as my memory of competing in the event 2 years ago has also been selectively erased, perhaps that’s why I reluctantly agreed to participate in this particular edition.
So gravel, it’s huge. PRO road racers with alternative racing programs have the corresponding races hotly contested by the best racers in the world, a true shift in the euro profesional racing model. The end of “road” has arrived, and as Bran Stark would say, “it’s exactly how it was always going to happen.”
With this trajectory, team racing is inevitable, and so is big corporation pocket stuffing. This is all totally fine, really. I LOVE that Taylor Phinny and his peers are influencing cyclists to get off the road, even if it’s just to KOM all over their top tubes on a dirty climb. This being said, it’s important that we keep the small brands that have created this niche relevant and seen by the masses. One of the few remaining plus sides of social media is that we have more reach than the big companies, something the burgeoning MTB industry of the early 90s didn’t have the luxury/distraction of.
A TRUE grassroots team with grassroots ethos. Could a team be put together and floated to compete in the “worlds premiere gravel grinder” now owned by Life Time Fitness without the backing of a 500 million dollar corp? We just needed an established brand for a title sponsor with products that are beautiful and long lasting… something that we would all use anyway… something that tickles the taint in just the right way…. enter Brooks England.
May 5th 2019
Bregan (Brooks): “hey ronnie, you know that gravel team idea we brainstormed about? Brooks wants to do it for the Dirty Kanza this year.”
Me (Ronnie): “Wow, that’s great news! Short notice, but great news! So I’m the manager right?
Bregan: “You have to ride it again too, part of the deal with Brooks.”
Me: “Fuck you Bregan! Ahem, sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. Let me drop a few DM’s (thats industry talk)”
And with that the team philosophy was drafted and submitted to Brooks for approval. The collection of brands that rounded out the look were friends of mine, or folks who I’d worked with in the past. All top notch.
Brooks England: Saddles, bar tape and $$$$
Crust Bikes: Frames “Bombora”
Velocity USA: Wheels (those are important!)
Ombraz: Italian sunglasses
Team Dream: merino wool bibs, socks, caps
Topo Designs: shirts/jerseys
Ultradynamico: tires and SPEED
Team philosophy submitted to Brooks – with a few edits ;) :
“Gravel racing” is nothing new; but it is to thousands of ex roadies and “Muscle and Fitness” subscribers who are GPS laser-guided to the backroads, escaping the ever present, often times deadly distracted automobile buzz of primary roads. It was a matter of time before these quiet rides through the countryside became races.
eBikes aside, gravel gurgling is the big boom right now in the bike industry, and it’s getting countless folks out into the countryside where they can perhaps look inward and reevaluate their hectic lives. That being said, the look and pedagogy of this “new” sport has been heavily borrowed from the road; Lycra clad, carbon fiber, aero bars, 700c wheels (corporate rock).
BROOKS Cool Breeze Gravel Gliders (still working on the name) is something entirely different. We ride to relax, we RACE to be the MOST relaxed. What does that mean?? I don’t know, but we are out there reevaluating our lives mostly. What IS winning for team BROOKS? Looking good. This is an art installation after all. In addition to this, we want to represent true grassroots in a sport that is undergoing a rapid corporate takeover as it grows in popularity. This team represents the power of small brands when they join forces. Alt Cycling.
A reflection of the bicycles they ride, team BROOKS are life long cyclists; not here to just grind gravel and move onto CrossFit state champs next season. They are here to explore the spiderwebs of trails and dirt roads that crisscross the countryside. To show up at seminal events such as Dirty Kanza presenting an alternative to the plastic gravel paceline. Looking good, feeling good, and having a good time. 200 miles of it. Isn’t that the point??
Steph Ortega @stepho_ owns and operates a cycle courier company in her home town of Los Angeles. She is a talented artist who enjoys the easy listening sounds of Dio and Judas Priest. Voted “best hair” in high school (Coach Ron is admittedly jealous of her getting such a personally prized superlative).
Leo Rodgers @slimone1000 is a para-athletic cyclist from Tampa Fl. Not sure if anyone has attempted this event with no prosthetic/one leg before; Leo could be the first. Acknowledging the cliche in the word “inspiring”, Leo is just that; inspiring, not the cliche part. By trade, Leo is a bicycle mechanic and tracklocross champ, by way of PRO motorcycle mechanic and racer.
Matt Crust @crustbikes @afewsketchymoments is the Australian time bomb one man show behind Crust Bikes; the most up and coming bike brand in New Jersey. Also our bike sponsor.
Anton Krupicka @antonkrupicka is a world famous ultra runner and 2X winner of the Leadville 100. He is renowned for his perpetual bare chest and deep tan. Coach Ron connects with Anton spiritually. Anton might actually place well. That would be a bonus!
Coach/Manager Ronnie Romance @ultraromance @ultraromance_mach2 etc. Ronaldo needs no introduction. He is the #1 bicycle installation artist in the world; here to safeguard cycling for future generations.
The plan going into this ride/race is to stick together as a cohesive team. If Anton has the legs to make the moves, he will be sent up the road. This is his first bicycle race of this size and scope, but endurance is his profession, so with a little coaching, we could have a top 100 on our hands. That’s 100 outa 3,000!
Steph also has a very realistic chance of favorable placing in their age group. Leo’s participation in this team leaves me beyond words. It will be exciting to see him out there. As for Matt and Coach Ron, there is little chance their fragile bodies and minds can endure; but they will look GOOD.
RACE DAY SYNOPSIS:
Anton takes off from the gun (he has aero bars), and Leo chases through the dusty, heaving masses of muscle and machine. Steph, Matt and myself settled into a steady rhythm, no catching Leo until mile 60. Here we found Leo cramping, struggling up a steep climb, as this as where things began to morphing from the “Florida flat” he was used to. We rest for a few moments in the shade and share cheeba chews when I notice a beaming smile coming our way from the opposite direction. It’s Lael 290 miles into the DKXL that had started the previous afternoon. “GO LAEL!” I yell like a teenager at a Blind Guardian concert. Well, perhaps I’m projecting with that reference. Regardless, back on the bike.
After the first check point resupply, Matt got back on the bike and chased after Steph. I do believe the two of them spent the rest of their day/night alone out there in the rolling green Kansas countryside. After resting the leg at the first checkpoint, Leo and I decided to stick together and see what we could make of it all. Anton was hours ahead now, riding/flying with Sarah Swallow.
As the miles ticked by, I took great amusement in watching Leo steam roll up the steeper climbs passed folks who looked to be raisins in the sun, at the end of their metaphysical limits. Once Leo would pass they’d have a “WTF??” Moment and hastily attempt to get back on their bikes and ride. This happened over and over and over. So entertaining as the back end of the field by mid afternoon was more of a boneyard grave march. Was easy to picture 80 milligrams in.
Even with this supreme showing of strength and agility, it was evident that Leo’s mind was operating at a different wavelength than his increasingly cramping and fatiguing leg. The climbs on the far end of the course were loose and steeper than you’d ever give Kansas the credit for containing. Leo had to slump his body on the top tube and “scoot” up a pitch if it got too steep to ride, and this all really began to take it’s toll. We kept uttering “there are a lot of folks out there doing a lot worse than us!”; referring to the elective mini war zones people were subjecting themselves to out there. Lights out all around us.
With steepness and looseness comes some AMAZING scenery. Things I never saw south of Emporia (this year went north) during my first attempt. Rolling green hills, old oak trees, quaint stone walls, and perfectly maintained stone farmhouses dotting the horizons. Everywhere you looked it was green and bright blue. What a day to be out on the bike. 90 degrees is hot for some, but perfect conditions for a coupla lizards from Florida (Leo) and various snowbird locations (me).
By mile 120, it was evident that we needed to start looking for the shortcuts. Luckily, I’d planned ahead for this, and had already mapped out a number of options. This wasn’t the first time I’d cut the DK200 course after all. No sir. We found a B-line on the map and went for it. All was good for a while as the last of the golden sun gamma rays peaked out from behind the rolling green hills. Then we hit the mud. Deep mud. This presents a whole new set of challenges to someone with one leg. After 130 miles of grinding/gliding, Leo’s leg had to now hop himself and his bike through peanut butter mud; a sight I won’t soon forget. Luckily that was the last of it.
We now had eyes on the beaming flood lights of Emporia, the “Emerald City” as other shelled riders were referring to it as. Alas, still 35 miles away and no other shortcuts to take. Without knowing the mileage to go, these lights sparked Leo to ride harder than ever, passing more and more people on the course, and causing me to burp up my Lara bars/cheeba chews.
Passing the last checkpoint, it felt like we were there, but we weren’t, this was a miniature emporia, vacant at this hour. Didn’t stop Leo though; his leg whirling through the night as the stars (maybe in our heads) burst out of the night sky above. 20 miles to go. GO LEO!
We caught up to some faster folks Leo had been riding with in the beginning, they were all thrilled to see him, and tried to utter a few words of encouragement. Leo politely entertained their awe, but the focus on the finish was clearly all consuming. GO LEO!
“Emporia City Limits” the sign reads. If it were possible for Leo to ride any faster, he did it here. By now, I was holding on for dear life. When the finishing straight showed itself to us, Leo wound up for the sprint and blew my barn doors off. The crowd was going wild, and he high fived everyone he could before collapsing over the line. Anton was there, so was Sarah Swallow, Lael, and Rue. All looking fresh 2 deth like they’d just gone for a light jog in the morning, not hammered and won a 350 mile race (in Lael’s case). Surround yourself with people who challenge you. That’s my take away.
To follow up on Steph and Matt: Matt was found wandering the course alone in the blackness of night, all out of his “dandies”; vegan marshmallow super food (he’s no in Peru getting his teeth fixed. That’s not a joke). Steph kept her pace, and finished all 200+ at 1:30am. We greeted her after waking the next morning, it was as if she had also just gone for a jog. Impressive.
If you’ve enjoyed this art installation and article, and would like to see more of this type of thing represented in the sport/lifestyle, then please voice your support. It took some convincing to get Brooks on as the title sponsor, and it would be great if we could continue this model and get this team to a bunch of events on the calendar this season and beyond.
From Wikipedia; “Grassroots movements are associated with bottom-up, rather than top-down decision making, and are sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures”. Bikes! We can do this!