A gravel ride is a very emblematic experience. It serves to tell you a lot about yourself in some expected and unexpected ways. A night gravel ride makes it all the more so. This was my first for both.

Perhaps a bit about the details of the experience itself before sharing what I learned through the experiencing of it.

Somewhere around 300 riders out for an evening ride through 54 miles of country gravel roads. As a friend of mine from Axletree said, "I'm very sure Waterman has never seen this much lycra."

First, and foremost, if I had something other than words to use in order to show my gratitude and thanks to the crew at Axletree for hosting the Night Bison, I'd most freely give it. They did an outstanding job selecting a route, organizing all the details, and generally putting together an incredible event. If you ever get a chance to ride something they organize, don't think twice. Do it.

And thanks to the drivers of those very large trucks hauling many tons of grains who didn't hit any of us at the start as we clogged up an important part of their delivery route. Especially to the trucks with those giant spikes on their wheels that look way more significant when spinning by only a couple feet away from you. We appreciate how very straight you can drive those rigs.

One last quick pre-ride point. It was clearly articulated from the start that this wasn't a race. Yet it was hard not to acknowledge some of the same race-type feelings as we all lined up for the start of the ride. I think when you get 300 riders together in one place, it's pretty much an impossibility to take all the race out of the riders. And that was one of the coolest parts of the experience.

You made it what you wanted to make it. If you wanted to try to cross the line that wasn't actually there first, cool. Do that. If you wanted to ride in the group right behind that group pulling each other along to get done first, awesome. Do that. If you wanted to just take a nice pedal through a beautiful evening and awesome sunset, you can do that too.

For me and the Cycling Republic group I signed up with (David, Chris, Art, and Brian), we just wanted to make it back to Pub West on time before they stopped serving dinner. We knew we would be hungry when it was over. That knowing was something I didn't know I would know as well as I ended up actually knowing it.

To get the ride started, we were all herded into general position along the road at 6:00 PM whereupon the Axletree folks started rolling out with a couple hundred folks trailing for an evening in the country.

A fantastic gravel course route and/or the boundary lines containing enough corn within to feed our state and a few of our neighbors.

The first couple miles were spent with the group playing mostly the role of accordion as parts separated and then came speeding back together with sounds and squeaks and a musical lilt to it all that felt mostly in tune. And that was before there was any gravel.

We found the gravel a short way out of town, and once we did, everyone settled in to find a rhythm suitable for the next several hours.

If you've never done it before, riding on gravel is a unique sensation. Essentially, you are floating on top a layer of rock that sits over a solid underlayer of firmed Earth. Though the feeling of floating can be more accurately described at times as squirming. It takes a little time to relax and realize every small unbidden movement of your bike does not mean you are about to slide out and bounce your way down the road like a pinball bringing many others along with you. You have to relax.

You have to give your bike enough freedom to move as it wants to keep it upright while providing enough guidance and control to keep it from going where you don't want it to. Like into the corn. Or the rider next to you. Or the table of Twinkies set up somewhere around mile 40. There's a balance of freedom and control that you become comfortable with and come to really enjoy.

And enjoy it we did. For our part, our small team had mostly informally planned to stay together. The plan formally fell apart shortly into the ride when the massive line of riders hiccuped and pulled Chris up into a group of speedy riders where he settled, never to be seen by us again. He did text when he finished to let us know he was safe and finished and heading home after an impressive 2 hour and 49 minute ride. Awesome work, Chris.

Chris just moments before we lost him to the abyss of legs churning faster than ours were.

Art, David, Brian, and I spent our first 40 minutes together passing and being passed by others as we tried to find a pace we could reasonably target. Right around the 45 minute mark, Art made a move to get around a group in front of us, and in our effort to follow and keep pace, David and I forgot to remember to check back on Brian. It was one part because looking back into the sun and dust at that point made it impossible to see the riders just behind you and one part because we were bad teammates and maybe one part because we didn't really know what in the world we were doing, but whatever the reasons, they added up to we lost Brian.

Once we realized we were a man down, Art won the "best team rider" award for the evening and set off on a search and rescue mission. He shouted up to us that he would find Brian and join back up with us ahead. And that was the last we saw of Art and Brian for the ride.

Post-ride follow up with them brought stories of having no map, taking a turn or three off the course, catching on with a group that went ahead and stayed together really nicely as they veered off onto paths unknown and not on the course, and a few other obstacles that had to be overcome before finally and with great relief turning into the Pub West parking lot to celebrate their success. I'm not positive, but rumor has it they were responsible for the consumption of 20% of the snacks at the Point of No Return.

And their experience brings up an important point that I didn't realize would be as important as it was. As important, if not arguably more important than making sure you are prepared for a flat, download the route on your GPS before setting out on the ride. Because unexpected things happen on gravel. Especially on gravel at night. And most especially on gravel at night surrounded by pretty much only corn. In such situations, it's always good to know the route you should be traveling to get you back home. Especially if you paid for the food and drink add on to your ticket.

About 45 minutes after Art peeled off to play the role of life boat, David and I realized we were likely going it alone from that point forward. We had the course loaded on my GPS, we had spare tubes and sealant for any tire troubles, and we were just turning East to enjoy the last of the evening's light.

Special thanks to the Axletree folks for ordering up a perfect transition from day to night.

That's when the lesson of the ride let itself be found.

Of all the things I expected for this ride, the one I didn't anticipate was the feeling of being alone. Because I knew that I wasn't, but then as the last of the light faded, I realized how very much I was.

There is nothing like being enveloped in the darkness and vastness of open country to bring the grandest sense of perspective.

There are few places where one can feel more supported than on a ride into the night with mostly 300 strangers who are all pulling for you to succeed. The deep and complete camaraderie seen in the stream of riders checking to make sure another stopped on the side of the road is ok. The support seen in families willing to stay up late around a bonfire along the side of the road to cheer on a race hoping for all winners. The generosity of a church to open their bathroom doors to a nervous, spandex-clad legion of riders and then offer them nutrition and water as they depart for the upcoming ride.

You will ride with close friends and, at times, even entire strangers who will be willing to cheer with you. To suffer with you. To laugh with you. To endure with you. To hope with you. But in the end, you are the only one who can do what has to be done to make you accomplish the challenge. You alone have to do the work.

I think that's the greatest allure of sport. There is a simultaneous pulling together and pushing apart. For all the cheering and teamwork and sense of community, and you would be hard pressed to find a tighter more supporting community than that found with cyclists, there is an intensely personal sense of individual triumph in the accomplishment. That you were able to do what had to be done to get you to do it.

For some, it is the triumph of the first 10 mile ride. For some, it is the triumph of a full Ironman (an admirable insanity I could never accomplish). For us, it was 54 miles of gravel and pavement and brilliant night air and sunset and darkness and surviving those final 5 miles where David pulled me along mercifully to the best lukewarm pizza I've ever eaten.

As we shivered our way back to the van wondering just how the night had gotten so cold so fast, I celebrated the triumph. Of what we had accomplished. All of us.

Entirely alone, together.

The Night Bison. If you have never, you really should.

7 Comments

  • Cycling has provided a lot of great memories, friendships, and challenges for me throughout the past couple decades. Night Bison 2016 marks a spot that I will remember as a fantastic experience. It really reminded me of the true beauty of where we live and the inspirational people that share the sport. The more I learn about what Axeltree does, the more I like. Thank you.

    • I absolutely could not have said that any better, Dave. It really was an exceptional experience. I look forward to more Axletree rides ahead.

  • You managed to capture so much of what is great about this ride with your words and photos. We hope to see you all again next year!

    • Thanks, Morleigh. Our group can’t wait to return next year, and it’s our goal to show in greater numbers. More people need this experience in their lives.

  • Awesome writeup. It certainly was an amazing experience and I’m thankful for people like Axletree that organize events like this. It was the most fun I’ve ever had on a bike ride. Ben is being very humble. From the time we lost Brian and Art, to those last 5 (hungry) miles, I tucked in very close to him for the ride. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have made it without his help…and the extra protein bar I scored from the local church before the race.

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