The sky brightened a bit and we were buoyed by a light breeze out of the south. The cue sheets had us heading generally west and the sun would soon warm our backs. Surface conditions varied in stretches between large, loose aggregate and packed ones that could almost have passed for pavement.
The combination of fog and dry gravel coated the front surfaces of the bike with a fine limestone cake. My first real swig of sports drink, taken in the half-light, earned me an obstinate mouthful of it. Ordinary spitting and a rinse of clear water were futile, so I ended up scraping my tongue mostly clean on the back of my right glove.
A brief nature break separated me from my crew and afforded me a chance to scope some of the other participants. There was quite a range of bicycles and people, from skinny twenty-some-year-olds on cyclocross bikes to big guys on Salsa Fargos. As we rolled along, I popped the occasional morsel in my mouth, snapped photos, and exchanged pleasantries with the other riders. Unspoken though it may have been, there was an understanding back here, in the non-animal echelon, that we had just barely begun to ride. The sun now peeked its big, bald head over the horizon and commenced its hunt for the remaining fog.
Steve, Grant and I were reunited at Checkpoint Alpha, 54 miles into the race. We had beaten the 09:30 deadline by just over 90 minutes. Walking around and stomping a bit brought the feeling back to my toes after more than three hours of wondering whether frostbite had set in (it hadn't.)
Here we met our first confirmed drop of the race. Two-time TI veteran Jared told us that his knee was cooked and asked whether we wanted any of his remaining supplies. Racers are not allowed to accept outside assistance, but are allowed to accept whatever other racers are willing to offer. I thanked him for a peanut butter, banana, raisin and jelly sandwich and ate it on the spot. Cue sheets were swapped out, computers were reset, volunteers were thanked, and we were back on the road within 15 minutes.
The three of us rode together then for a while. Road conditions had improved quite a bit, and smooth stretches were especially welcome on the descents. The first minimum-maintenance "B" road was, thankfully, dry and fast. Unlike many B roads, this one had quite a stretch with no grassy shoulder. Had it been raining, this clearly would have been a mudbath.
Soon came a little burg named Melbourne, and after a bit of non-debate (Grant was almost out of water) we went off-route to resupply at a highway convenience store. Here I made my first candy bar purchase, first application of chamois cream in the men's room and fielded the first bemused questions from the locals.
"How far? 325 miles? On a bike? In how many days?"Back on course, our pace picked up and a young man named Connor tentatively joined us. Steve got up a head of steam and I hung with him for a while until I realized that Grant had dropped back quite a bit. Feeling a little taxed, I slowed and Steve and Connor pulled steadily away; Grant caught up and we settled into a more conversational pace. We passed through State Center (the Rose Capital of Iowa) without stopping. Back out in the country, the dodging of farm machinery began in ernest.
Before long, we came upon Steve, stopped in the left-hand ditch. We asked if he was okay, and he replied that his rear tire was a little soft and that he'd catch up. We played leapfrog for a while with Troy, a fellow Triple D racer from Dubuque, chatting when the opportunity presented itself.
Mormon Ridge road was one of the more scenic parts of the course, beginning with a long, gradual climb and cutting a curvilinear diagonal across its section. Verdant by comparison to much of the rest of the landscape, Grant mused that it almost made him want to go back to being a Mormon. Almost.
I don't remember how we got separated, but Grant got to Eldora first. Once in town, I had to ask where to provision.
"Back two blocks and to the right about a block, there's a Fareway."Rolled up to find a few bikes already parked out front. The door of the Fareway grocery confused me. I stood in front of it, waiting for it to open, but it just stared back. When in doubt, push. How quaint.
Luck would have it that Grant and I met up in the beverage aisle. He held up a couple of bottles of Gatorade and asked what I thought, since he had no source of electrolyte. I thought that would do. We also bought a half-gallon of V8 and some water.
Back outside, we had a protracted conversation with an octogenarian on a Rascal scooter about the race and its route. Sharp though he seemed, he pushed back his VFW cap and wondered aloud why we hadn't gone through Marshalltown and why we didn't really know where we were headed next. I wondered to myself whether he might have been sharper than us.
After brief debate, Grant and I went and got a couple of deli sandwiches at an old drugstore on the town square. We sat out front watching the course for any sign of Steve, not knowing whether he was even still in the race.
After polishing off the V8 and sandwiches, we saddled up and got underway. Passing Troy with a wave, it didn't really register that his "have a good ride" greeting meant that he too was dropping out. Maybe a mile north of town, we hit gravel again. We had gotten into town just before 14:00 on Saturday. It was now almost 15:00. A whole hour.
The gravel out here was mostly smooth and fast. Around 16:30, Grant complained that something was going on in his belly; a flutter up around his diaphragm that hinted at nausea. Though I didn't know it at the time, this was his first experience with Gatorade. Gatorade is loaded with sugar, which his digestive system was beginning to reject.
A little while later, we stopped and Grant drank a bunch of the plain water I had in my bottles. We emptied one of them and filled it with the Gatorade from his Platypus drinking bladder. I tolerate it pretty well, so it was resolved that it would serve as my hydration until we reached the convenience store two miles past checkpoint Beta.
We turned east, and the light wind came at us now from the one o'clock direction. The terrain here was flatter, so Grant settled into my slipstream and we kept a slow to moderate pace. We took a breather at Q and 160th, and he showed me his determination to continue:
...so, continue we did.
Somewhere out here, maybe on 150th, or maybe not, we came across Connor. He told us that not only was Steve still in it, but was somewhere out ahead of us. It was resolved that we would try to meet him at the next checkpoint.
This was a long stretch, especially for Grant. He worked on drinking more plain water and on eating; he began to feel better, but was definitely not feeling himself.
More farm machinery, more dusty motor vehicle traffic, and the shadows began to lengthen. Connor joined us on and off, and we counted down the miles to the second CP one cue at a time.
Just before sundown, we turned onto the rutted B road that would take us there. The erosion here ran perpendicular to the course of travel, so we had to cross the 6- inch deep, foot-wide rills with caution. Then we arrived.
Steve was waiting for us at the checkpoint with news that there was a stabbing pain in his knee and that he was dropping from the race. He sat on a grass bank, next to the little cemetery, with a number of others waiting for their respective rides. The end of the line.
Connor was there too and I returned to him the sunglasses I had found out on the last B road. He and Steve offered us food, and we accepted. Grant lent Steve his phone to call Nate, since Steve's had no service. It turned out that the next convenience store was not two miles from here, but ten. Not great news.
Steve arranged to have Nate meet him in Grundy Center, four miles north by freshly-paved road, and we watched him roll away. Grant joked that it wouldn't take much convincing for him to drop out right there. In retrospect, I should not have brushed this comment off so hastily.