The Story of Two Bottles

The dust has settled from Gravel Worlds 2016 and with that came some self-reflection and a story.

The Story of Two Bottles
In May of 2012 I started a new job with UNL Housing and in turn met Shari Rosso and Paul Belz. These two fine people are why I dove into the deep end with biking. Shari was continually bugging me to log miles for the National Bike Challenge and later to do Tour de Nebraska with her group of misfits; they masquerade as Team Just Sayin' (don't be fooled by their fancy kits).
But first, Paul wanted to take me mountain biking; I said sure! So, I rented a mountain bike from UNL Outdoor Adventures for the weekend (I only owned one bike at this time, I know… shocker) and met Paul at Wilderness Park. He showed up with a full-suspension beauty of a bike and rode it down a set of stairs and through the single-track like it was smooth tarmac. I puttered along behind trying to not hit a tree (mission accomplished.) For me, that day ushered in a new era in my cycling career. I realized biking was hella fun and not just for commuting across campus. I ended up buying 3 bikes in 2012. Road, Mountain, and commuter. Need I say more? Actually yes I do, because during that year I bought my first water bottles. You may be thinking... why do we care?! Well, one of those bottles was a leftover from that year's Gravel Worlds. At that time, I had no idea what that was, but after looking it up I felt like a badass every time I used it. It soon became my favorite bottle. I was not worthy of this bottle. The idea of Gravel Worlds seemed insane. Riding on gravel? Riding 150 miles? Who the hell are these people?!

My well used Gravel Worlds bottle and Brand new 2016 bottle.
I ended up riding with some of them at the 2012 Cycle Works July 4th MTB ride at Branched Oak lake. I thought it was insane, not just because they ripped like none other, but because they commuted from Lincoln all the way to Branched Oak on their bikes. Did I mention they were riding Cyclocross bikes on a mountain bike course? They were that good. I was a fish out of water. Think I got two laps in and called it quits. One of them wished me a safe trip home and thanked me for riding with their group. “ride with us again!” pfft. Like I could ever get on that level.

Years passed, miles ticked by, and we are back in 2016. Having started racing cyclocross the previous fall and completed some collegiate road racing in the spring I came to the realization that I was actually in good shape. Who knew?! The computer nerd whose doctor was worried about high cholesterol had put his doctor’s mind at ease. Take that artery plaque.  Well, hello there calf muscles. You look lovely. I should wear shorts more often.

I don’t remember what made me sign up or what made me put Gravel Worlds on the bucket list, all I know is that registration opened on April 1st. I didn’t want to be a fool, an April fool, and miss this opportunity; I signed up as soon as registration opened. I kept hoping that this wasn’t some joke that just took my money. April 2nd came and I was still signed up. Phew. Not a scam. The pirates didn’t get my booty. (Gravel Worlds is hosted by the Pirate Cycling League, keyword “Pirate”)

As with everything I do, Gravel Worlds was preceded with a lot of research. Fire up the Google machine, we’ve got work to do. What is the best gravel bike? Best tires? What do I need to carry? How do you ride gravel? Are there other events around here that I can use for preparation? Am I going to die? The internet gave me answers to all of these questions, except for the last one which depending on who you ask could be a definite yes or no. “Well, we all die at some time”… although if Trump becomes president that final day could be tomorrow... now or never, I thought.

With the ever looming Trump-pocalypse on the horizon I spared no time getting the equipment I needed. By May, my Giant TCX cyclocross bike was outfitted as a sexy gravel bike fooling some gravel veterans into thinking I had experience. “Nope, this is my first gravel group ride and second time riding gravel… ever” Next came June, it was time for my first gravel race, The Good Life Gravel Gran Fondo in Malvern, IA. Some of you may remember the story, I know my mother does. I think there is a permanent worry line on her face from that one. Sorry mom, you still look no older than 29.

For the unaware, the GLGGF was a little ditty that went something like this. Start race. Ben, you’re going too hard. It’s a race you idiot, get to racing! You’re supposed to be in heart rate zone 4-5; it’s a RACE! It’s getting really hot. Why am I no longer sweating? CRAMP. Ow. Well, it’s only like mile 45, let’s push through. CRAMP. Ok, this sucks. CRAMP. *drinks last bit of water* crap… 7 miles to go. Hello farmer Greg, can I have some water? So, your brother died from heat exhaustion? So, I pretty much have heat exhaustion? *gulp*. Can you take me back to the start/finish? Thanks.

Good Life Gravel Gran Fondo, before I started cramping up.

I think what separates me from most people is that I actually learn from my mistakes. I hate repeating history. Also, I make A LOT of mistakes, which is why I do a lot of things well. So, what did I screw up at the GLGGF?

Nutrition and pacing.

For nutrition, more electrolytes and salty foods (I really like pretzels now). I had 48 oz of Gatorade the entire day during the GLGGF, when you take into account the almost 256 oz. of fluid I drank that day, about 19% of that had replacement electrolytes. Just like Shakira's hips, these numbers don't lie. Trust the numbers, they are your friend. (says the engineer) What did I change for GW? I'd say about 75% of the fluid I put in my body during Gravel Worlds had replacement electrolytes. I had about 3 bottles of Gatorade and at least 2-3 bottles of Camelbak Elixir electrolyte hydration, the rest being water. The Camelbak tablets have a little fizz to them when they dissolve, tickles my mustache. I like that. I think they rock, but cost about $0.88 per bottle, ok maybe I'm being a bit of a cheap-ass. Yes, I did just calculate how much they cost per bottle. It's $0.875 for those that are morally against the rounding of numbers. #AllDigitsAreSignificant

Moving on to pacing. In short, I went too hard and too fast at the GLGGF. My average heart rate (HR) for the 57.1 miles and 4 hours of was riding was 173 bpm. That put me in HR Zone 4.4 for the entire day. If you don't understand HR zones, essentially that means I was working hard.

For Gravel Worlds, the goal was to stay in zone 2-3, with the exception of big climbs where I could peak at zone 4. This strategy worked well and I was able to maintain it the entire day without problem. Average HR for Gravel Worlds was 151 bpm, much more comfy. That put me in HR zone 2.78 for the entire 145 miles. My Garmin Edge 810 helped a lot with that. Being able to look down, see your HR zone, and make adjustments was invaluable. Not to mention it did all of the navigation for me! Although, who needs GPS when you have BPS? (Ben Positioning System, aka what my family calls my uncanny sense of direction and navigation)

What did I learn from Gravel Worlds?
My body is not my mind.
This can go two ways. First, my self-perception has lagged behind my fitness. I was never athletic growing up, although you may be fooled by my stint as a Varsity bowler in high school. Impressive, I know. I've never thought of myself as someone that was physically fit. I wasn't slow, but I wasn't fast. I was somewhere in the low-middle of the continuum. I wasn't thin and I also wasn't obese. Picture a 15-year old with a beer belly. Thick would probably be a good adjective (whatever that means) The point is this, I now realize that I can do more than I think I can. I'm not the "thick" kid anymore. My body composition has changed a lot over the past few years as I started cycling, but how I view myself has not. This is my next step. Reconcile how I view myself with my physical self. Not looking for sympathy with this, just stating it like it is. I've got work to do.

Second, your mind will tell you to stop, but it doesn't know what you are capable of. At mile 93, Kyle asked me how I was doing as I sat at the oasis, head hung low, drinking yet another bottle of water. My response "sad". I was in a funk. My legs felt heavy, I had been battling a headwind for over 20 miles and I still had about 60 miles to go. I kept telling myself "these are near prefect conditions, if you can't do it now, you won't do it later". With some encouragement I got back on the bike, had an energy gel, put on some dope-ass tunes (check out The Main Squeeze), and put my head down and got the demons off my back. By mile 100 I had worked out of my funk (with the help of The Main Squeeze's funk and Paul/Ben). Around mile 110 I was feeling amazing. I was doing it! I could finish this thing! Whenever I was riding alone I would belt out the song lyrics to the neighboring corn stalks. They were a tough crowd, but that couldn't kill my spirit, I had a sold out crowd! The point? Get out of your head.

Some closing thoughts
If you don't think things change, if you don't think people change... you are wrong. This was me in 2008, at age 15, trying to do a 50 mile ride to complete the Cycling Merit Badge for my Eagle Scout. It took over 8 hours, but I did it with the help of Elliott and Derek.

This was me after finishing Gravel Worlds. Riding 3 times the distance (on gravel) in 1.6 times the duration. Again with the help of others. David, Erik, Paul, Ben, the rest of the Omaha crew, etc. yal were awesome.

The biggest difference between the two photos? My hair is fleek as hell now. Just Sayin'

Thanks for reading and thank you to everyone that has been a part of my story; past, present, and future. If this article goes well, I'll write up another with a blow-by-blow of my Gravel Worlds 2016 experience. I'll link it somewhere around here.

Update: I wrote the sequel!


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Shari! Although this makes me question your standards. ;)


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