From above it doesn’t look like much. At least to a cyclist. It’s a patchwork of crops that stitch an agricultural blanket over the earth for every mile in every direction. Patches of brown and green tack onto one another and the dirt roads run in straight lines. From the ground it’s flat through the horizon and the cornstalks manage the view; it’s one-third road, one-third crop, one-third sky.
We shut off the car and walk into North Central Cyclery in DeKalb, Illinois. We’re a few days early and are here to meet the route builder for the Prestige, Chad, and Tobie, who helped Rapha put the event together with Axletree, the shop’s advocacy and events wing.
We shake hands and look at bikes, same thing we always do every place we ever go. It’s incredible there’s always more bikes to look at.
And then someone says it. “Why’d Rapha decide to come here?” No one knows why, really. It’s not an expected dot on the cycling map, we all agree. The organic answer — we’re here because you’re here, as Rapha Continental rider Ben Lieberson once said wonderfully — is certainly true. We look around the room.
There is a vulnerability in sharing one’s place like this. In saying to visitors “this is what matters to us. This is our very best. We hope you like it.” But real riding is as much where you find yourself as it is where you could be. And here we were. And it was raining. On the crops, on the dirt roads, on everything for miles. The rain that falls so hard all one can do is talk about it until it stops.
One hundred and fifteen miles in the middle of America’s Great Plains. Ten thousand feet of climbing.
There was a genuine concern among us that this wasn’t going to be hard enough.
And then we rode a few miles of the course in the Illinois midday sun on the eve of the Prestige. The cornfields exhaled wet air onto our skin, laden with the humidity of the heavy rains the day before. The roads were a rolling sauna; every bottle was dry in an hour of riding and the loose dirt climbs — climbs in the folds of the land rather than upon it — had us standing and sitting and stand-sitting.
There was now a genuine concern among us that this was going to be too hard.
We need more water on the course. We need a secret water stop at mile 70. Tell everyone to bring a third bottle, or else they can’t start.
We made lists. Sent a group e-mail. Put 40 extra gallons of water in the cars Rapha would have on the road. What once was trepidation over difficulty was now a fear of the roads and the day that waited for the Prestige teams. We had assumed, and assumed wrong. We had assumed that since this wasn’t what most would see as a riding destination that it could be pushed over.
Alarm clocks hit at 4:45 on Saturday morning and it was time to make coffees, eat, shuffle out the door. Cars trickle in with riders from Chicago, Colorado, and further afield. The course was noted as gravel heavy, and bike selections reflected as much; cyclocross rigs are in equal number as road bikes.
Few of the visitors, even those from a couple hours away in Chicago, have ridden in the Driftless Area of the Midwest. Teams paper-boy on the day’s first long climb.
While a bulk of the surrounding land is flat, the Driftless is the land the glaciers didn’t iron out. Ten miles away the only topographic distinction is a silo, barn or church, while here the roads ribbon up and over the rises and wind through the river valleys.
It gets hotter and hotter in the roads that cut trenches through the cornfields because the crops push humidity out, making the air heavier and more dense. It’s bathwater hot. We pass through the whispering stalks for hours on end, hearing the breeze make its way through forest of corn around us, and the shadows of clouds high above move quickly, like ships leaving us behind. Hawks fly low enough to provide a welcome distraction.
Some teams stop on the lawns of houses along the way and fill their bottles from hoses. There hasn’t been much traffic all day long and the most threatening thing we see is a dog that barks but doesn’t bite. Some go through 10 bottles and some 15 or more. Those gallons of extra water disappear in the afternoon, about the same time as the cramps come for some. The last 30 miles prove to be the longest, and where the heat exhaustion wrings people out.
Most teams lose a rider due to the heat. After the end of a long day like that there’s a feeling of getting through something rather than beating it.
Hours separate the teams coming in. Harvest Racing is fleetest on the day, though the teams that spent hours longer in the wet, still heat were no less gallant.
Twenty bags of ice later — we were buying ice for the ice at that point — the beer the teams brought to share was ready.
The cold of the lake hit us as we jumped in, eager to wash the salt and heat from our skin. It never felt more like summertime as fireflies joined us later on the lawn when evening landed. A bottle of bourbon made its way through the group, though it didn’t last long.
Cycling is a give and take. At its most pure, it’s an offering of person and place to others.
This is my place. These are my roads. I’m giving the best of them to you. I’m giving you what I can.
We give ourselves. In pulls and help changing flats. In half a bottle of water that’s too hot to drink but it’s all we have to share at that point. When we’re at our best, we give all we’ve got to the rider next to us. We’re the same rider then, going fast or slow, but going together.
The gentlemen of the Midwest offered their roads to all of us, and we took every inch we could. We worked through the patchwork together and dipped in the water, happy to be finished. Happy to be here.
From above, it may not look like much. But from the ground, it looks like all you need.
Finishing information for the 2015: Prestige United States Midwest
|Start Time||Team||Number of Riders finishing||Full Route?||Finish Time||Elapsed Time|
|7:00||Half Acre Cycling||2||Yes||18:22||11:22|
|7:03||Stay Rad Adventure Team||3||Yes||18:41||11:38|
|7:09||KZEB (RCC 1)||4||Yes||17:15||10:06|
|7:33||Ten Speed Hero||3||Yes||–||–|
|7:36||Dirty Harry’s Bicycles||4||Yes||16:11||8:35|
|7:39||Mosaic Cycles Bespoke Ballers||4||Yes||16:22||8:43|
|7:42||The Pony Shop||3||Yes||16:09||8:27|
|7:51||Gentlemen’s Grouse and Poodle Society||4||Yes||16:48||8:57|
|7:57||Herman Miller||4||No||16:39||8:42||8:00||Turin Bicycle Chicago||2||Yes||18:22||10:22|