Full Disclosure: Bobby Wintle (creator, promoter, and the all around face of The Mid South) and I have known each other and been friends for quite some time. These views are my own and obviously may be biased based on my personal feelings. The best part of this country is that we are all entitled to our own opinions. I appreciate you taking the time to read mine.
It was supposed to be a celebration. It always is. The atmosphere has historically been unparalleled from almost anything I’ve seen in the sport of cycling and I’ve seen a lot. You can’t fake what Bobby puts in to this event, the sport, and the community. His passion and the support from the team around him are what makes this event the best gravel race in the country. On top of that, this was a new step forward as what is now The Mid South rebranded in even further support of that community. We as participates joined the Who’s Who of the industry and elite race community to experience it all. But, things changed. Quickly.
We all funneled in to Stillwater, Oklahoma in the days leading up to March 14th. This delineation is important. Days. When things in the World and our Nation, we’re changing by the hour. #socialdistancing wasn’t even a thing. On Thursday the 12th, the tone of a Nation took a hard turn. COVID-19 was beginning it’s spread at an exponential rate. Within hours, Bobby and the race crew were outlining precautions to curtail the possible spread. But the show was still to go on.
As I said, things changed by the hour. By Friday the tone was much more serious. As we arrived in downtown Stillwater, there were no handshakes, high fives, or hugs among thousands of racers, families and support crew. Partly due to rainy weather, partly due to the pending pandemic. What was to be a rider’s meeting and concert extravaganza was a group of maybe a couple hundred standing with distance between and the occasional touching of elbows to greet each other as warmly as possible. After picking up my number and less than 20 minutes of roaming around, I left to retire for the evening.
As I prepared my dinner, I scrolled social media and saw the first people calling for the race to be canceled. People I consider my friends and colleagues, screaming from their digital soapbox that all of us who intended on racing the next day were selfish, inconsiderate and just about every other negative connotation. When in fact, the cycling community that was there was the opposite. We did care about our fellow cyclists and the town of Stillwater. I had already washed my hands and used hand sanitizer more than 10 times in the hour since I arrived. I made the decision (as did many) to not congregate at the venue. We had rented an AirBnB in lieu of staying in hotel with masses of others. We had brought food and committed to eating in as a way to avoid some crowds. That evening I packed my bags with the intention of riding the 104 miles entirely self supported in an effort to minimize contact with other riders or the folks that do graciously volunteer their time in support.
In my mind, the risk to myself or the community was minimal at that point. Riders from areas in the country that had already seen the devastation of the virus, in large part stayed at home. When I left home, there wasn’t a confirmed case in our area. The risk of me transmitting to other racers or the people of Stillwater was minimal since I came from an area where there hadn’t been any infections. There hadn’t been a confirmed case in Payne County, Oklahoma. There were 1,896 total confirmed cases in the United States at that time. There are risks in everything we do in life, including riding a bike. My opinion was that the risk was worth taking. The majority of the risk that me and most others were taking was in traveling to the event. That was done well before any calls for cancellation.
Bobby and crew were taking as many precautions to protect us all as they could. Additional hand washing stations were noticeable from years past. Hand sanitizer was literally everywhere you even had the opportunity to stop. Bobby had publicly sworn off his famous finish line “Bobby Hug”. As we lined up the crowd was noticeably smaller. I’d estimate that the delayed start had less than half of the previous year’s attendance. People were spread out to give each other their personal space. 6 feet or more before the guideline was such.
As we rolled out, the storms from the previous night continued to be relentless. Less than 15 miles in, it was evident that the day was going to be much less about a race and more about shear will. My choice of competing in this year’s race on a singlespeed, looked to be fortuitous as I rode past hundreds strewn across the roads with broken derailleurs, dropped chains, and those attempting roadside repairs. Those lucky enough to ward off mechanical disaster were fighting their own mental demons in an effort to keep moving forward.
Somewhere around 3 hours in as I made an valiant effort up a short but steep hill, I heard a loud POP! After a brief Oh Shit! moment, I realized I was still moving forward. In the days conditions the area’s signature red clay mud clung to every surface of body and bike. I figured a small rock had momentarily become lodged in my drivetrain and worked its way out. But nonetheless, onwards.
At this point I feel the need to state that I don’t ride many of these big events with a computer any longer because once race day comes, I can’t necessarily change the speed at which I’m going. The fitness is what it is and the conditions are what they are. If I feel good I push harder. If I feel the need to pace myself I do just that. When I see the finish line, I’m done. Pretty simple.
As I rode in to the halfway point, I could tell by the day’s light that I was well behind my predicted schedule. There is a bit of smooth pavement that allowed me to collect my thoughts. Just then I felt some sort of feedback coming from my drivetrain. I probably felt it a few miles earlier but wrote it off to the conditions. I coasted, looked down and wiggled my foot side to side. My heart sank. I know my equipment is well maintained and a single speed is a pretty simple machine. I soft pedaled to town with the thought of attempting a fix. When I stopped to put a wrench on things, it was all tight. As expected. Unfortunately that meant a bigger issue. The carbon crank arm had come unbonded from the aluminum interface with the cranks spindle. Sound technical? Well, just know there is no roadside repair for such an issue.
Just then I saw my friend Danny and he informed me that he had been one of the unfortunate to lose the mechanical battle with the conditions. Just an hour earlier I had seen what I thought was my buddy Will’s bike on the back of one of the famous rescue Jeeps suffering a similar fate. I wasn’t quitting. I have never quit a race in my life. I’ve conquered longer miles, more elevation gain, mixed disciplines of cycling and running and now was attempting a course that I’ve previously beaten, but with one gear in some of the most epic conditions I’ve ever faced. All of this in an attempt to find my personal limits.
If the crank arm literally fell off, I had the number to call for help.
So I headed out of town. Alone. Many had called it quits in Perkins if they had made it that far. I settled in for the second half of the day which is arguably the harder than the first. Things got difficult. The morning rain let up and turned what was once was a sloppy mess in to what seemed to be thousands of suction cups between my tires and those red dirt roads. Every pedal stroke caused further failure of that crank arm. “Wobble, Wobble…Wobble, Wobble”. I went stretches of time with out seeing another soul. Going deep in to a mental dark place while shoving mud covered gummy worms in to my mouth in an attempt to dig my way out of an equally physical dark place.
I’d remembered some of the scenery from the previous year. I knew I was probably 25 miles from the finish. I buried the thoughts that those miles would likely take me two and a half hours. Any sun there was had started its descent. The climbs get steeper and more frequent. The crank arm was getting worse which required me to dismount and walk some sections in order to limp it to the line. But I was moving forward. One inch, one foot, one step, one mile.
About that time I lost any semblance of what time or distance was. The sky was just different shades of dark and grey. Every stretch of road looked the same. As I trudged up what could have been the 40th or 400th roller, a gentlemen came past and said “10 more miles!” Hell yeah! I was going to make it. Even if I had to pedal one footed, I could do that for 10 miles.
As he rode out of sight, I found myself in a bit of company. I briefly talked Thai food with a guy from Iowa. I encouraged a young man that was running some of those climbs in road shoes and soft pedaling the backside as he nursed a makeshift singlespeed to his own finish. Just then, I saw what is in my mind the “famous” Welcome to Stillwater sign at around 5 miles to go. It gets smoother from there. The paved surface and gradual descent are the reward for the previous 99 miles of periodic torture.
As I cruised through town in almost dark conditions, I rounded the familiar corner with a noticeably smaller but probably more enthusiastic cheering section congratulating me. I saw Bobby, as I dismounted and we locked eyes knowing there shouldn’t be any hugs regardless of how proud we were of each other for getting to that point. We tapped elbows and posed for a picture. My day was over. 11 hours, 4 minutes. Yet again, I had finished.
As I look back at photos, I see the photos of Bobby with his arm around some people at the finish. Even though I haven’t seen the photo, I remember him doing the same to me as we posed for a photograph. In those pictures, some people look like it’s an awkward exchange. Others look like it’s welcomed. In the weeks that have passed, I have read interviews, listened to podcasts, looked at all the pictures. I hear people (most of which who weren’t there) call his announcements of expanded precautions “lip service” and “literal bullshit”.
But that’s Bobby. That’s The Mid South. I can’t see how you can have the kind of passion and energy that has made the event what it is and expect that the man responsible for so much of that can just turn it off at the flick of a switch. It’s impossible and shouldn’t be expected regardless of his best intentions.
I know that I wasn’t the only one taking a few extra precautions. I never rode side by side with anyone. I didn’t see anyone else do so either. Yes, the attrition rate contributed to this fact. No, I didn’t see a single snot rocket all day long. Yes, I washed my hands more that weekend than I probably did the entire month previous. No, I didn’t hang out for any more than five minutes after I rolled through the finish line. No one was trying to “pull a fast one over”. Based on the information of a much, much less dire situation on that day, we all made a decision to participate or not based on what we felt was acceptable. So before you get all holier than thou, just look in the mirror and think about all of the things in your life that you have done. Many of which have selfishly put you or others at risk of harm. Then, think about all the experiences and lessons learned that have come from those actions and look forward to becoming a less judgemental, stronger and more experienced person.