David Holst is a husband, cyclist, and does the social media for Underwood Cycling Club in Omaha. When he’s not summiting 14ers in Colorado he’s rocking sales and marketing in the insurance industry. He’s also been on the podium at several Iowa Gravel Series races, including Preparation Pisgah. He’s fast.
Most of what happens in gravel races is not seen by anyone else. Whether the race is 50 miles or 200 miles most riders will spend the majority of the race alone. Pedaling over punchy hills and past green fields to get across the finish line. Races often have multiple make or break points and some of those biggest contests are decided within.
I went back to Pisgah, Iowa to try and duplicate my podium finish from last year. It was about 20° warmer at the start this year and much drier. The gravel was dusty and the dirt was loose, tire eating silt. The start line featured a handful of very strong riders that I’ve raced against many times already this year. Even though this was only a 55 mile day I knew it was going to be a difficult time.
From the end of the neutral start there were attacks going and power was high. We had a lead group of six on the way to the Preparation Park lookout point when Travis Loewens and I got distanced from the front four riders on a gnarly downhill. There comes a point in almost every race where a voice in my head says “Just let them go up the road. Ride your pace and be comfortable instead of working so hard.” This was make or break point number one. I didn’t want to give up my quest for a second podium finish that easily. Travis and I rotated turns for a bit until my legs came back around and I didn’t feel like puking anymore. I set the dial to the upper end of my tempo zone and pedaled on to the southern loop of the route hoping to pull front group riders back in if they fell off.
I could see that one of the front four riders had stopped at the mile 25 aid station but was still about 100 seconds up the road. I hit Kelsey Ave, a B road section with four steep, unrelenting climbs coming one after another. This road was the best packed dirt we’d see all day but each hill is deceivingly steep. Just getting through that stretch seems to burn a match. Along the next gravel sector I saw Seth Marek on the side of the road plugging a flat. I hate gaining position on mechanicals but that’s also part of gravel racing and I’ve been on both sides of it. These races are self supported, stuff goes wrong and you have to find a way to overcome it and get back on the road.
Seth was back on the bike quickly and not far behind me. I could see third place now about 60 seconds ahead. This was my second big decision point of the day. I could let Seth catch on and work together to catch third place but I knew Seth had been crushing criterium racing all summer and with 12 miles of river bottom flat roads coming up I didn’t want to take a chance at letting him catch up just to gap me off there like in every criterium race this summer. I dropped into my aero bars and pursued the third place rider alone, closing the gap ever so slowly on each of the the climbs. I finally caught third as we were riding into a flat section headwind and I stepped the wattage back up when I turned north and got the wind at my back. I opened the gap until I couldn’t see a rider behind me anymore.
If you’ve never ridden in the Loess Hills, the roads are steep. If you’ve never ridden in Pisgah, they are maybe the steepest in the Loess Hills. As I was trying to keep opening the gap to riders behind me I hit 138th Trail, a 300’+ climb out of the valley and up into the lush canopy of the Loess Hills State Forest. Just before you reach the top, 138th Trail has a B road coming off the south side of it called Fulton Ave. Fulton Ave takes you even higher and steeper into the bluff until you’ve climbed about 350’ from the river valley below. The average grade on the way up is somewhere around 10% but it feels more like 20%. If you took a poll, I’m guessing this would win almost unanimously as the most difficult climb in the Iowa Gravel Series.
I was suffering, cramping, drenched in sweat and the poor cameraman likely heard guttural noises of pain and swear words coming from my mouth for the whole 7+ minutes it took me to climb that monster. I got over the top and my legs were severely cramping. The reward for conquering Fulton Ave is a long and gradual downhill B road. I was hoping I could soft pedal, drink a lot of electrolytes, and be rid of my leg cramps by the time I hit the climb on the other side. That didn’t happen. Like most dirt roads on the 2022 route there were silty sections. When you hit those sections at speed the only way to keep it on two wheels requires you to engage your leg muscles to help balance and steer. When I got to the bottom and tried to climb out the other side my legs were locking up worse than they have at any race before. I physically could not pedal and I had to get off my bike.
I also couldn’t walk without cramps grabbing my legs so I sat in the middle of the road shouting in pain and anger as my leg muscles spasmed and locked up on all sides. I was so angry that I had worked my way back up to a podium spot that I had so badly wanted to attain and now I was going to lose it to leg cramps just 47 miles into a race. In my panic and misery I remember saying to myself, “You had a podium spot. How could this be happening?” I debated calling my wife and taking a DNF because I didn’t think this was going to end. Things were dark and I was really in a bad place mentally. I sat there for what would be 110 seconds but it felt more like 110 minutes.
Then I hit my third and final make or break point of the day. I realized I still hadn’t been caught by anyone behind me, the gap I had worked so hard to establish was holding! Despite what my mind was telling me this wasn’t over yet. I took a few deep breaths hoping that relaxing my mind would help me relax my legs. I stood up and while still getting some cramps in my legs, I found I could pedal enough to climb up the hill without the full lock up I had been experiencing just two minutes before. I took it easy and kept the wattage bearable for the last few miles of the race, constantly watching behind me hoping it wasn’t going to come down to a faceoff for the finish line. I could feel every individual muscle in each leg lightly cramping as they engaged through my pedal strokes. It was a strange and painful feeling that I hope I never experience again.
I crossed the finish line in 3rd place, securing my second podium finish in two years at Preparation Pisgah. I share this blog post not to celebrate a 3rd place finish but to illustrate that it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. More often than not I, and I’m sure many others, lose in those key moments and only time, toughness, and experience can really help us overcome them and better prepare for the next time. Even across shorter distances the race isn’t over until your wheels roll over that final timing mat. There is so much that happens in between the lines that nobody else really gets to see. Every rider has their own story of success or failure when they roll across that finish line. Whether your definition of success is snagging a top spot, staying on the bike all the way up 138th Trail, or just crossing the finish line you’re sure to drive out of Pisgah with tired legs a good story.