Dust and Metal: A conversation with Elisabeth Reinkordt
I sat down to chat with Elisabeth Reinkordt who most recently dominated the Women’s Gravel Worlds Single Speed category to see what it takes to be a World Champion on the gravel road, tips on getting started, and some places to travel to enjoy the gravel road ride scene.
The Gravel Worlds was held again this year in Lincoln, NE and you participated. How many years have you participated?
I did my first attempt at Gravel Worlds in 2010. Going in, I didn’t really plan to finish — I’d only ever done 50 miles of gravel in one shot, and only done maybe one or two century rides. I made it 105 miles, opting to cut the course and ride back to the finish. I was having serious hydration problems — I had no idea how to pay attention to electrolyte intake, was drinking plain water, and just became like a sieve for water…
In 2011, I was more prepared. That was the year known as the “mud year.” It rained a lot the night before, and several MMRs were just muddy messes. Lots of walking. But I finished in the last group with Kim Carveth and Scott Ideen. I finished in 2012, too, also in just about the last group to finish. I was riding with Ben Swift, who was the Fat Bike winner, and I was bound and determined to keep him from dropping out.
In 2013, I decide to change things up. I’d been toying with the idea of a single speed conversion on my ‘cross bike for a while, and as the summer progressed, I decided to go for it. My War Axe is made with dropouts to handle either geared or ss setups, so it was an easy choice from that perspective. Plus, I was looking ahead to cyclocross season, and wanting to go to the Single speed Cyclocross World Championships — another totally tongue-in-cheek, unsanctioned event — which are happening in Philadelphia in December. I made the switch to single speed a couple weeks before the event, did a 50-mile test ride, and went for it on race day, the first & only female single speed finisher.
Can you describe exactly what the Pirate Cycling League is?
Describing what exactly the Pirate Cycling League is challenging. On the one hand, it’s sort of a loosely organized collective of cyclists in Lincoln who are gravel road riding enthusiasts. The group “hosts” a couple rides each year — from the Tour of Dirt Roads and the Lincoln-?-Lincoln rides in the spring, the Ponca Ride (one way from Lincoln to Ponca State Park, 155 miles later), to the signature Gravel Worlds in August. Most of the hard work and organizing is done by a couple key people, with others stepping in and volunteering for this or that. The events are all free and don’t require a racing license. Are there official members? Nope. There’s very little (if anything) that’s official about it. And there are people all over the country that have ordered the PCL kit.
How many years has the Pirate Cycling League been putting out the challenge to become the World Champion of the Gravel?
Before it was called Gravel Worlds, the big August ride/race around Lincoln was called the Good Life Gravel Adventure. I think it was in 2010 that it was first called Gravel Worlds, the idea being that there ought to be a pinnacle event in the growing field of gravel road racing, and that it would be funny if a group called the Pirate Cycling League put it on. Like, how less serious a group could host something and call it a world championship? And offer a jersey with stripes on it? Not that the course isn’t challenging. It is. It’s relentless — 150ish miles of constantly rolling hills, steep climbs, and, generally, oppressive heat and humidity. And it draws riders from all over the country, from coast to coast. It’s also a very professionally put together event, in light of its being all-volunteer and free to enter. In many ways, I think it’s perfectly appropriate for the discipline. To me, gravel road racing is both an individual and a collective challenge. It’s about being self-sufficient in remote places.
How can a claim be made to be a World Champion Event if the race is not sanctioned by an international governing body?
I’d venture to guess that if it were sanctioned by something like the UCI, the grit would vanish. My sense is that the gravel thing emerged as a breath of fresh air from sanctioned events. As much as I love having Gravel Worlds in my hometown — and this year, actually starting and finishing on my family farm — I do think it would be cool to see it travel around to other states putting on gravel races.
Can you make comparisons to the gravel races in Nebraska vs. Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota?
I’ve done the Almanzo 100 in Minnesota twice now. It’s a pretty incredible event. Huge rider turnout — you never get the remote and isolated feel you do on something like Gravel Worlds. The climbs there are tough, but there are really long flat sections, too. You’re basically climbing out of and descending in to river valleys. I love the spirit of the event, though, and race director Chris Skogen’s message to riders to go home and start their own events.
I did my first Dirty Kanza this year, kind of on a whim, picking up an entry from a friend who couldn’t go anymore. It was so windy, which made for a really tough race. The terrain was just kind of mind-blowing — native, open grassland. The difference at Kanza that I found interesting was the checkpoint support. My riding buddy and I went in without a support crew, planning on using convenience stores and packing enough — and we would’ve been fine — but some other riders we met just couldn’t believe that, insisting we use their support. I think that changes the race, too. If you know you’re going to see your significant other who has all your favorite things being kept cold, and a chair for you to sit in, well, that changes things. That’s a comfort advantage for those with the means to have a support crew.
I’ve never done TransIowa, though I’ve gone along to do support twice. I’ve toyed with the idea of signing up, but I think it falls in a totally different world than the rest of these events. It’s so much longer, and so much smaller, that I wouldn’t put it in the same category as other gravel races. I guess part of it to me is the idea that you can have fast, competitive cyclists and more casual cyclists both able to challenge themselves and finish an event, and I don’t think that’s possible with TI.
The other event worth mentioning that I think has the potential to be a Worlds-worthy race is Odin’s Revenge, held in west-central Nebraska. It’s REMOTE. I tried counting houses along the route and forgot to keep doing so at one point, but it was maybe 20 in the first 100 mile loop. And never a town. That would have to be worked out in terms of refuel, but I think the course would be so worth it. It’s river valley, canyon lands, big climbs and descents, and gorgeous landscape.
You are signed up to ride at the SSCXWC which is in PA this year. It’s now a traveling event that was put together by a small group of people in Portland a few years back. Also, a non-sanctioned event with an dynamic of riders much like the gravel scene. What do you plan to take away?
I think the comparison to the evolution of SSCXWC is a good one. I’m looking forward to attending and seeing how they go about passing the torch from one city to another. I think the Pirates have learned a lot in the past couple of years, and I think it would be pretty much imperative that, if the event travels, the new hosts have at least participated in and better yet, volunteered to help with the event here. There are so many little things to think about that make a big difference for riders, and any participant can list off those little details that made a difference. This is something where I think the PCL really excels — great oasis volunteers, surprise roving oasis spots with awesome, enthusiastic Pirates handing out ice, beer & snacks, perfect cue sheets, beer & food at the finish — these make the event memorable. So, I think it would behoove any other community looking to host Worlds to think through how they’re going to put it together, who they can call on to help, etc. Come watch what the PCL does, see how much love and hard work goes into it, and then get creative. Another part of what makes Gravel Worlds and the PCL special is Lincoln. Here you are, having this long gravel race just skirting the edge of a fairly large Midwestern city. Yet, except for check in the night before, you’re never in town. And the cycling community of Lincoln gets into this fairly obscure event, too. So many local riders participate, either by riding or by offering to help. So I think that would factor into the success of the event in another location, too. Does the community have the ingredients necessary to put it together?
If you could chooses host city for Worlds, then where might it be?
Wow, good question. I have no idea! Somewhere with a strong cycling community, killer gravel and MMRs just outside of town, good food and beer…but mostly, people running the event who know how to put on a solid event.
I was hoping you would say Budapest.
HA! It would be really cool to see the event take place outside of the US…I know (because I’ve seen a video) that there’s a group of riders in Germany that’s totally into gravel racing. My dad is a German immigrant, and I grew up speaking German…how cool would it be to do Gravel Worlds there? That would be awesome.
The Gravel Worlds event has no entry fee. As a rider where you compelled to donate towards their cause regardless? (There is a donate button on the bottom of their site)
This year, I donated a lot of time to help out with the event, from entering data from the postcard entries into a spreadsheet to run check-in to working with my parents, who provided the start/finish location this year. I’m a broke grad student right now, so my time was easier to donate than money. But I’ve tried to give at least a little when I’ve gone to the free races I’ve attended.
What characteristics as a rider do you feel set the “gravel riders” apart from other events formats?
There’s definitely a different attitude in gravel devotees, though it’s hard to put a finger on just what it is. An adventurous spirit, for sure. Being ok with the possibility that a whole lot of crazy things might happen in the course of the day, and you’ll be on your own or with your riding buddies to deal with them. Your bike might break and strand you somewhere without cell phone service. You might have a stand-off with a cow. You could very well decide to take a nap in a ditch. You might, in the course of the nap, realize you’re so worked that you’ve been lying on top of a tiny cedar tree that’s digging its needles into your backside (this happened to me at about Mile 108 of GW this year). You could get caught in a wicked storm, suffer through headwind for hours, or risk serious dehydration and heat exhaustion. I think you have to be ok with the uncertainty of a long day on the bike. You can go in with a plan and the best of goals, and absolutely everything could change in an instant. You don’t know what all the roads will be like — for most riders, it would be next to impossible to scope out the whole course ahead of time.
There’s a lot of stubbornness required in the face of all this, too. The attrition rates on these events can easily be upwards of 30 to even 50% — what’s going to keep you in the game? Can you fight the voice in your head that’s telling you how awesome it would feel to throw in the towel, get a ride home, and shower with a beer? I think this is one of the biggest things that keeps me going. I know how to ride within my limits, not burning out too early, taking enough breaks so I can make it to the finish line.
If someone has interest in getting prepared and signing up, then what sage advice would do have now that you have some rides and a world championship under your belt?
I did a couple “gravel survival” clinics leading up to the event this year — and I’m pleased to say my attendees did really well with making and meeting their goals! I see there being three key elements in preparation. One is putting in the miles. Get out and ride, even when the weather sucks. Try out the things you’re going to be eating and drinking on the ride. Find your pace zone, and train in it. Know when and how often you need breaks, and take them. The second is your gear and nutrition selection — what are you going to wear, eat, and carry with you? Again, try it out ahead of time, and keep on top of your hydration and nutrition. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. You have to eat and drink consistently and deliberately. I watch the clock on my bike computer, and even if I don’t feel like I need to, each hour I make sure I’m eating something. The calories just…evaporate. Same goes for hydration. If I’m not drinking enough, there will be problems. Big problems. When you get tired, all this gets harder to remember. Which brings me to the third thing. Mental preparation is huge. How are you going to react when things get frustrating? Are you going it alone, or riding with a buddy? If you’re riding with a buddy, talk about your plan in advance — what happens if one of you has a mechanical? If things get rough? Are you pulling equal weight, or riding with each others’ relative strengths in mind? Finally, do you have a bailout plan in place? I think it’s pretty critical to choose the right person for this job. Talk to them ahead of time. Tell them what it means to you to finish/reach your goal. Make sure this person can deal with hearing you sound out of it/crazy. And that they are able to judge between you calling and whining and just needing a little extra motivation and when you really need a rescue.
For more information on gravel events in and around Lincoln check out: