Rider Highlight: Meet Robert Ellis Gravel Guru and Enthusiast

SE:  Want I to talk to you about gravel cycling in the Midwest,  and about the Trans Iowa.

RE: Cool.

SE:  Tell me about your cycling routine and your training during the year.

RE:  I do base miles in the winter on gravel and on the road.  And I try to work on some endurance for spring gravel events. After that I pretty much try to concentrate on road racing until the fall and then cyclo-cross racing as long as the weather holds.  If I get lucky with my schedule and the weather, I can race cross right to the end of the year.

SE: What got you interested in riding gravel?

RE: The sense of adventure. Just seeing what is on the other side of the next hill. Riding country roads is  just this fun journey. You can see so much more of the world. I love being outside in wide open spaces, and looking at natural beauty without a lot of people around.  I really enjoy watching the weather and seasons change. I’m not sure what it, but riding out in the country makes me very , very happy. It’s relaxing and fulfilling!

SE: How long have you been riding gravel?

RE: Probably 7 or 8 years.  I used to only ride road. I remember turning off on some gravel  roads and just seeing how far I could get before I had a flat. I remember the fun of just choosing a line and trying to make it to where the road would turn into pavement again.  I know that sounds crazy, but it was fun. Some of this insanity was brought on by the monotony of road riding. I had a bunch of flats in those days. I bought tougher and wider tires and then just gave over to the urge to buy a cross bike.  That’s where the fun really began.

SE:  So you have done some gravel events. Which ones have you been too?

RE:  I live in Springfield MO so I’ve done mainly  Midwest events. I’ve done, more than once; Mid South, Unbound Gravel, Gravel Worlds, Gravel Nationals,  the old Cedar Cross, Odin’s Revenge (which was just spectacular and is no more) and most recently, my only attempt at  the Trans Iowa. I’ve ridden some of these events singe speed, but not the Trans Iowa, in my book that required gears. I will also point out that my list pales in comparison to some of my friends from around here who have consistently done  5 or 6 different events a year for several years. I did the Belgian Waffle Ride a couple of years ago and loved it. I highly recommend that event! I’m going back. I have to pick, and choose these events very carefully due to my work schedule.

SE: So how do you choose one event over the other?

RE: It’s tough.  I have a very busy work schedule and I have to plan these events months ahead.   It’s also very important that I be honest with myself about my life manageable.  I have always been guilty of biting off more than I can chew, and that tendency has generally served me well, to a point.  So I have to be careful with my time management and balance work family and fun. Cycling is and addiction to be sure. It’s interesting how riding helps me be more productive and feel better, and stay out of a funk!  For me it’s a definite happy pill. But you have to stay balanced and grounded.

SE:  What are your goals for these events?

RE: Basically to place as high in the masters’ mix or general mix as possible.  I know I don’t have what it takes to be on the podium at the bigger events. At the end of the day I want to be able to look at some ride data and know I’ve had good performances and beat some of my personal bests.  That’s what feels good for me. I’m truly glad for some of these people who can lay down these herculean efforts. They seem to be held out by race promoters as the ideal. But in my book that’s a whole other class of rider and that hype doesn’t really inspire the common cyclist.  We are all there for different reasons. I’m happy where I am and I strive to just keep getting better. That gets harder to do in your 50s, but I’ve been able to get stronger. I thank Coach Adam and SE for that.

SE:  What has been the most important thing about preparing for these events?

RE: I try to the best of my ability follow the workouts of Coach Adam.  He keeps you focused on what’s important and within the confines of your life. He gets it, and he writes a workout that can be done.  I think the most important work outs I’ve for distance gravel are the 24 minute endurance with 6 minute steady state, and the ones that have longer intervals, like 14 to 20 minute threshold intervals.  Periodization and recovery is also very very important.

SE: So tell us about the Trans Iowa.

RE: Trans Iowa was a self-supported, 340-plus mile gravel event  that has been held last weekend of April. It’s basically a giant circuitous loop around Grinnell Iowa. The ride started at 4 AM on Saturday and finished at 2 pm on Sunday, so 34 hours to get it done.  You have to maintain a moving average of 10 mph to finish on time, or it’s a DNF. The distance is supposed to equal the distance riding across Iowa. The navigation is run solely off of cue sheets that are handed out at the beginning of the race, and  at each check point (CP). Navigation and decision making is a big part of the ride. The first CP is around 40 to 50 miles in, and the second is usually around 200 miles in. If you can’t make the CP on time then there will be no cue sheet for the next leg and your ride is over.  The event is really well represented on social media, and Mark Stevens blog Guitar Ted productions.

SE: So what got you interested in the Trans Iowa?

RE:  I first heard about it from some friends who had gotten in. I followed some sites on social media and started getting excited.  I think I was drawn to it because of the overnight dynamic and the cue sheet navigation. I’ve always had decent endurance and I really thought this was something I could do and I might excel.  Also my sister lives up there and she agreed to be my SAG. So it seemed like a perfect situation for me. You register by sending in a post card to the race director Guitar Ted. It took me 5 years to get in! Five years!  In fact this last post card I thought, if I don’t get in this year that’s it. I’m getting too old. But I got in this year and so set my sights doing the Trans Iowa last fall.

SE: So you have been thinking about this for a long time.

RE: I have. And that’s one of the fun things about doing an event like this is thinking about the prep. There is so much to consider. Like your fitness, race strategy, nutrition, hydration, gear, clothing and all the details within each category.  Lack of prep in any of these categories could make or break a ride.  I kind of became obsessed and I would think about it every day several times a day for months.  It really got in my head. But in a way, it was kind of an elixir for the mind. For me, thinking about the prep and anticipating the event was one of the most enjoyable parts of the whole experience.  It literally kept me entertained for months during a long cold winter. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

SE: How did you get yourself organized for the race?

RE:  I went on some training rides, took some experience from past events, talked to some people who have done the event.  I tried different combinations of gear, cockpit set ups and bike computers. I made a check list of all the things I might need.

SE:  What about pre-race? What went on?

RE: I drove up Friday before the race was to start early Saturday. It’s about a six and a half hour drive.  I had my bike pretty much packed and ready. As always there were a few last minute tweaks. It was a nice drive up there. The first official event was the mandatory meet up at Grinnell Steak House. That is a great place. You choose your steak and cook it yourself on the grill. I’m avid barbequer so this was fun! There I met all the other racers and the volunteers for the event. I saw a few people who I have ridden with before and I also made some new friends.  It seems like we all had in common our perceived lack of training due to cold nasty weather on the weekends all winter. That meet up was a lot of fun. Guitar Ted called us up, gave us our bib numbers and we got a bag of cool swag!

SE: Tell us about your gear.

RE:  I had a Bar-Yak clip board for cue sheets, Princeton-Tec  Apex Pro lights on cockpit and helmet. That’s a great light by the way. You can change out those lithium batteries and they will last 12 hours. For computers I used the Wahoo Element to record data and the Garmin eTrex 30x for mileage and navigation. That will last 25 hours on one set of lithium batteries.   I strapped on two Revelate water bottle holders on both sides of my stem plus I had the usual water bottle cages on the seat tube and down tube. I had a Revelate top tube bag for batteries quick food and money. I put a Revelate tangle bag on the top tube and the Revelate Viscacha seat post bag on back. I took four  25 oz water bottles and two 35 oz platypus plastic bottles for the back pockets. I had tubes, a patch kit, pump, CO2 cartridges, duct tape, spare light and dry socks.

SE:  That’s a lot of stuff!  What did all that weigh?

RE: Yeah it is. And I’m embarrassed. That was a big rookie mistake and maybe a symptom of a obsessive compulsive disorder. I didn’t weigh it before the race because I thought it might demoralize me when the going got tough.  But since then, fully loaded with water, food and everything I’ve weighed it and about 15 pounds. In retrospect, big mistake!

SE: So tell me about the rest of your bike.

RE: The bike is a first generation 62 cm aluminum Niner RLT cross bikes with Shimano disc brakes.  I ran Black Label Reynolds wheels with tubeless 38mm Teravail Cannonball tires. I have a Ultegra group 1 x 11 with a 11-36 cassette, which was plenty.   I have a stages power meter on the crank arm.

SE: What about nutrition?  What food did you bring?

RE: I’ve read and heard from Grant that you can only absorb 200 to 250 calories and hour.  So on an event like this you’re are going to have a caloric deficit within the first hours of the ride.  I brought 2 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I had made night before. I had made these rice chocolate chip treats out of the Feed Zone Cookbook at home before driving up, and those are outstanding by the way.  I also brought protein powder , enough for 3 shakes. I had 6 different Nature valley bars and 3 Clif bars.

SE: Wow that’s a ton of food.

RE: Yes probably too much, considering there was plenty to eat at convenience stores.  All that food weighed about 4 pounds. And I didn’t come close to eating half of it.

SE: What about the weather? What did you wear?

RE:  The temperature was about 35 degrees at the start.  There were some times that it was in the high 20’s. It warmed up to about 60 later in the day. My base layer was a wicking t-shirt, then a long sleeve nylon base layer over that, followed by a team kit with short sleeve jersey, arm warmers and a long sleeve jacket and leggings.  On top I wore a Giro zip up vest. I also had brought some shoe covers that I ended up not using. I was pretty pleased with all that, because I could shed layers as the weather warmed, put them back on as it cooled. In the “heat” of the day I was down to the base layer and kit, with bare legs.  Overall, I was very comfortable.

SE: I know there was a 4 am start. What time did you get up? How did that affect your prep.

RE: I had everything all prepared and laid out the night before. That was tougher than it may sound,  I stayed up an extra hour getting the bike ready. Again over-thinking over-planning and indecision was a problem for me. I got to bed by 10:30 and that was way too late. I kept waking up and checking my phone for the time. I didn’t sleep very well.  We had to be there and lined up at 3:30 am, so I got up at 2:50 am. The hotel where we stayed had coffee prepared for us at that crazy hour, bless them.  That morning I ate a hamburger bun, a boiled egg and had a cup of coffee with sugar.  I was not in the mood to eat but knew I had too. It was just a short ride to the start in down town Grinnell and I was there right on time.  The start was in front of the bike shop, Bikes To You in down town Grinnell. We were checked off a list, handed our cue sheets, a few announcements were made and we were off right at 4am.

SE: Ok tell us about the start and the first part of the race.

RE:  There was a neutral roll out through Grinnell and we followed a lead car until we were well out of town.  I could tell right away that there was a group hammering behind the lead out car and I’m sure they were doing  over 20 mph. At that hour I was in no mood for that and neither were a lot of others. So pretty quickly the group got spread out.  I was probably mid pack. While we were still in town I hit some horrible pot hole in the dark and it jolted me pretty hard. Not fun, but no harm to my bike. There was nearly a full moon so it wasn’t as dark as it could have been but it was still hard to see details of the road. The first thing I noticed when we hit the gravel was this choking dust that was  kicked up by the lead car and the riders ahead. That abated after a while. It was pretty cold but I was comfortable on the whole. After the first hour it and warmed up pretty quickly.

SE: How did you feel?  

RE:  At first really strong and really good. The hills started right away and honestly I was climbing them effortlessly. It seemed like I would surge ahead on the hills.  I had a goal of keeping my power under 280 watts but in the excitement I was topping out at over well over 500 watts on the steeper hills and sustaining 400 watts for periods of time. To put these numbers in perspective I came to this race heavy. 205 pounds which is about 10 pounds overweight for me.  But at this point I was excited and I felt good and I wanted to get some miles behind me. Of course this wasn’t sustainable but I didn’t think a little of this would hurt me. So I kept a pretty good pace for the couple of hours. I thought this would not be a problem. Check Point 1 CP was right at 44 miles.  

SE:  How was the scenery?

RE: It was beautiful! There was a bright setting moon that really  lit things up and made the hills and the road glow. In less than an hour there was a gorgeous red in the east before the sunrise. The furrowed hills of Iowa were luminescent in the early moonlight.  I saw a farmer out on a field on huge pieces of equipment before 5 am. Some of that gorgeous red I saw in the morning was from dust. I noticed the first subtle red in the eastern sky about 4:50 am. When it got light, there were a bunch of cool old barns, silos, old houses and farm steads. In those early hours the whole experience was pretty exhilarating,  and most of all I had a lot of hope for the rest of the day ahead and the whole ride.

SE: How long did you feel that well? When did you make Checkpoint 1?

RE: I averaged right at about 13 miles per hour overall. I made it to CP 1 before 7:30. So, I made it 45 minutes early. The first leg of the journey was basically east. But, before Checkpoint 1 the course turned to the north, and I began to feel the first of the stronger north winds to come.  It was 38 degrees at CP 1 with some wind. I got my next set of cue sheets, ate a quick snack and headed out.

SE: What happened then?

RE: The course took off to the west more or less. Fairly quickly, we came upon a convenience store, in Brookly Iowa. I stopped there and topped off my water bottles. I was starting to feel tired. I got a Mountain Dew, which may have been a mistake. I bought a slice of breakfast pizza, which was great! I didn’t stay there long. I pretty quickly took off on the course again. There were quite a few people coming as I was leaving; so, I felt good about my position in the race.  But I could tell I was tired and I knew I had a long day and night ahead.

SE: Can you describe the next  three hours?

RE: The course carried on west and then turned north. This is where the problems began. I could tell I had not eaten enough. I should have been eating in those early morning hours. And then as the course turned north, the wind started blow right out of the north, with maybe just a little east in it.  I would estimate it was blowing at least a 15 mile per hour. This coupled long hard tough hills with fresh gravel made the going very tough. With all that rolling resistance it seemed like every direction was up hill or into the wind. I didn’t check at first, but I know my average speed during that time must have dropped precipitously.  I made a few big mistakes in this time period.

SE: Like what?

RE: I met up some people and we tried to get an echelon going or at least some kind of rotation into the wind.  It does not work that well on gravel, or hills. I noticed I was having to push over 300 watts continuously to keep up with this group.  That wasn’t smart. After a while I was dropped. All the while I was getting more hungry and tired. In retrospect I wasn’t eating and drinking enough.  The humidity was very low and it was super dry and dusty. I started to notice that I just didn’t feel good.

SE: What time was that?

RE: Somewhere between 10 and 11 am.  I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I felt super exhausted and just slightly nauseous and kind of sore all over. It’s hard to describe.  But I could tell I wasn’t drinking enough. There were a lot of long stretches into the wind and hills where I had to hold over 300 watts just to keep the bike upright. I would look down and be dong 4 or 5 mph.

SE: What did you do about it?

RE: I drank the Mountain Dew that I had and ate some of my food. I felt quite a bit better and was able to make my way again. But in all honesty I never really felt that well the rest of the day.  I felt better when I took breaks, but that was cutting into my average speed. There was also a lot of dust. The gravel was freshly laid and deep . There was a lot of rolling resistance. It was really tough.  Also the dust caused me to wheeze and cough some. The director told us to wear a scarf over our mouths, but I didn’t bring one.

SE: What happened then?

RE: The leg south into North English was pretty and hilly. This didn’t bother me so much as we did have a following wind at that point.  There was a lot of big farm equipment. There was some huge stuff that looked like it was right out of Star Wars. There were SUVs and trucks speeding down those gravel roads and kicking up a lot of dust.  At one point I was bombing down this hill as a truck crested the hill in front of me. I had to get off my line and turn my wheel into a bunch of fresh deep gravel pretty quickly to get out of harm’s way. My wheel got caught up in the grave while I was braking and I had a crash and fell on my left side. I was ok and my bike was ok, but it was pretty demoralizing.  I hurt my left hand and it was gouged up and bleeding a little. It was tough to grip the handle bars. I’m sure the people in the truck thought “look at that guy just fall for no reason” as they sped by. But it was them that ran me off the road into a bunch of deep gravel. It’s hard to stay upright when you are braking and turning into stuff like that. This little mishap did not help my overall effort but it wasn’t a day stopper by any means .

SE:   How were you feeling in the afternoon?

RE: Mainly whipped.  Kind of in survival mode.  It was around 80 to 90 miles from the first convenience store to the second,  which was in North English. I could tell I wasn’t quite right in the head. It may have been the early start time.  I get that way some times in the heat at endurance events. But it really wasn’t hot. I ran out of water. I was tempted to go up to some spickets in some farmers’ yards,  but I didn’t want to get dog bit.

SE:  So how did it all end up for you.

RE:  I stopped at a grocery store in North English and got some food bought a gallon of water and filled up all my water bottles, ate a sandwich that I bought.  I started riding again but I was hurting pretty bad. There was a 3 mile up hill road right into the wind. After that the route turned east again and then I hit the toughest gravel of the day right around mile 135.  It was all very deep and freshly laid. There were no lines. I couldn’t make more than 9 or 10 mph in that stuff. That’s when my mind started working on me.

SE: How so?

RE:  I was rationalizing why I should quit.

SE: What went into that decision?

RE: I did the math.  At my present rate of speed I was not going to make CP2 by 11 pm.  I was going to have to ride 65 miles in 5 and a half hours and I didn’t think that could happened with the way I felt and in that kind of gravel.  In cycling, the numbers don’t lie. I knew we were getting toward Iowa City, and I knew there would be more and more fresh gravel, more “maintenance”.  I started feeling guilty about being a burden to my sister who would have to drive over from Grinnell to pick me up in the middle of the night. I called her and she said not to worry about it, but I felt bad about that. She gets up very early in the morning with her job and didn’t want to disrupt her week. It started to make me feel too self-indulgent. I also started thinking how much I hate that feeling of extreme fatigue. I get to experience that all the time with my job, and it’s such a lousy feeling.  I knew I could have ridden on but to what end? I was going to end up, in the middle of nowhere at night in the cold and be fully wrecked physically. All this coupled with the fact that I hurting, and exhausted. And also the realization that I wasn’t even halfway done with the ride made me feel like the smart thing to do was to stop.  Honestly, I could have ridden on for several hours but I knew wasn’t going to make the CP2. I kept remembering that saying “your body is a temple” listen to it. So at 5:30 I pulled the plug. I was 141 miles in. I called Guitar Ted and I was a DNF at that point. I thanked him, he was gracious and that was that.

SE: How did you feel  then? What happened?

RE:  I called my sis and she was on her way. I hung out there for about an hour and a half until she picked me up.  As I sat there by myself in wind and started to get cold again so I put my layers back on. It was really very beautiful there.   The birds were singing like crazy even in the evening. Spring was springing! There was so much to see and hear there. Several people rode by who were continuing the ride.  They all stopped and asked about how I was and asked if I needed anything. That was really nice. There is a kindred spirit at these events that you don’t get in other cycling disciplines.   I gave people some of my supplies.

SE:  What were the after effects?

RE: I was very tired and slept a lot more than usual for about a week.  I was sore for about 5 days. I was sore in the neck and calves. I started riding regularly again the weekend after.  I noticed I was weak on the bike. I got dropped at a couple of regular fast group rides where I usually can pull. I can tell my power was way off. It has taken me almost 3 weeks to get my legs back into any kind of form.  

SE: So how do you self-assess what all has gone one.

RE: I’m a big believer in learning from an experience and taking what is good from it,  growing from it and moving on. So looking back at those 5 categories I mentioned.

  • For fitness, I was lacking. I just hadn’t done the log rides under my belt this season to know how I was going to feel after 8 hours of riding. I had done a couple of centuries and a bunch of shorter rides  but it wasn’t enough.
  • For ride strategy: I went out way  too hard, didn’t conserve or ride within my own pace several times during the day and that really wiped me out, and it was an unnecessary  waste of time.
  • For nutrition, I over packed and didn’t eat enough early on.  
  • Hydration; didn’t drink enough early on. It was cold and I wasn’t thirsty,  until it was too late. I ran out of water in the afternoon and that was kind of my own fault as I didn’t fill my second platypus thinking there was no way I would drink that much. Again I wasn’t thirsty.  That was a biggie!
  • For gear, I was pleased, maybe could have used a little wider tire with lower psi. But again I was way over packed probably 15 pounds plus. You really feel  that after a while. Clothing, was just right.  I should have shed some layers earlier in the day I think to prevent so much sweating which probably contributed to dehydration.    My stuff was soaked with sweat.

SE: So looking back what where the high points and the low points?

RE:  Low points, my crash, feeling nearly bonked, feeling very tire, realizing I packed too much, self-defeating thoughts, and most of all learning after the race learning  that this was to be the last Trans Iowa ever. If I would have known that I would have rode on into the night. Highlights, the meet up at Grinnell Steak House, great scenery,  the gravel family, saw people whom I have ridden with in the past and met lots very nice riders from all over the county. The people who do these events are very supportive and encouraging. I also really enjoyed looking at every ones different gear and set-ups,  and getting to talk to them about it; I got several good ideas and learned about new products. I also really enjoyed getting to see my sister. We had a great visit!

SE: So with all these gravel events under your belt what advice can you give.

RE: Oh I could talk for hours but I think right off the top of my head I would say:  

  • Drink almost a full water bottle every hour, but do not drink too much Gatorade or Scratch Labs  or you will end up behind some tree resenting your bib shorts.
  • Eat 200 to 300 calories an hour somehow, some way.
  • Careful of what you eat in the heat.
  • Do not eat Mexican food the night before the race, no matter how much  peer pressure is applied.
  • Really do stay to the right on gravel roads because vehicles will come right down the middle at a high rate of speed.
  • Drink no more than one beer the night before.
  • Try to stay out of threshold power zone when at all possible, unless you are just going to fall over for lack of momentum.
  • Don’t bomb hills too hard because there is always some treacherous loose gravel and ruts at the bottom.
  • Just get off the road and off your bike for big trucks and equipment and let them go by.
  • Make a list of everything you will need, pack it, weigh it and then try to cut that weight in half.
  • Have your bike ready two nights before, not one.  Start prepping a week before.
  • Enjoy the scenery and the people.
  • Don’t take it too seriously and have some fun.  If you just race race race, that will take the fun out of it. This is gravel!

SE: So what’s next?  

RE: A few road events this summer, then Gravel Worlds masters 50+. I would like to try the overnight riding again, maybe next year if they offer Unbound XL  we shall see. I know the Trans Iowa was not my shining moment on a bike but I learned a lot and I’m hopeful it has set the stage for doing some longer endurance events. Someday I want to try a multiday event and maybe some bike camping.

SE: Thanks for sharing your experience!

RE:  You are welcome.  It was fun to relive it.  And I mean that. Overall I had a lot of fun!