Sometime last year, I made the decision to push the comfort zone. Doing as many cyclocross races as possible, riding longer rides and starting to dedicate myself to strength training. This past Saturday, I pushed way beyond my comfort zone, not so much on the bike itself, but life in general.

When given the choice of a crowded room of mostly strangers or stranded on an island, I’d take the island every time. Every personality test I’ve take over the years has had me on the extreme introvert end of the extrovert-introvert spectrum. As a kid, I could keep my head buried in anything without a care in the world or have the need for attention of others. As an adult, I still get nervous meeting people I don’t know or in situations where small talk may be needed. Maybe that’s why I fell in love with cycling as I can be alone, exploring the world, free from the obligation of social interaction. 

One of these is not like the others.

When the offer was made by a cyclocross friend to meet up with a group of people from another city (Madison) for a ride in another state (Northern Illinois), I normally would save said “Thanks!!” and would come up for some excuse not to go. Not this time.  

There is a little town called Leaf River that a gravel ride starts and finishes in called the Fall Flocker. From what I understand, there are multiple different distances from 30ish miles on up. It was about a 1:40 hour drive from the Milwaukee metro area. 

I couldn’t sleep well Friday night. Garmin Connect rated my sleep as poor as my nerves likely kept up tossing and turning. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. when the alarm was set to 7:30 a.m. After my usual pre-ride breakfast of oatmeal, I hit the road down south. As I approached Leaf River, I could tell my heart rate was climbing. As I pulled onto the main drag, I saw all the cars with bikes and knew I was in the right spot. 

There were a few familiar faces, like Kristin who told me about the ride, but I was the new kid that is just starting 4th grade at a school where everyone knows each other. I was dying inside but knew that once we started the nerves would go away (or so I thought). I introduced myself to some people (sorry, I don’t remember everyone’s names) shook some hands, and we were off. 

My plan was to ride the 50-mile route. I’ve been riding 50-60 miles on Saturdays as my training for The Bear. It was definitely a stretch goal. Leaving town was a steady incline then a right turn into a 15-20 m.p.h. headwind. By the time I got to the split for the 30ish mile and longer mile rides, I changed my mind about the 50-mile ride. There was no way with the elevation and wind that I was going to keep my effort where I wanted on the ride. I saw Kristin and Connor make the turn on their single speed bikes and made the decision to join them. 

Thanks to this crew for the awesome day.

Once we got back into the headwind, we worked as well as we could to get through the wind taking pulls at the front—almost like the pro peloton in the Flanders. I was in my little ring on the flat road to give you an idea of how windy it was. At the end of the road, and before the turn North and out of the headwind, the make-shift sag wagon was our first stopping point where we could take a small break, chit chat and refuel. Again, it was nice to chat with strangers and I was a little more at ease. 

Once we turned north, there was this steady climb that was about a half-mile. It looked steeper from a distance and was going to be a test. I can do short climbs, but sustained climbs not so much. I was even more concerned about the single speeders, but I probably shouldn’t have. Watching them ride up that hill was awe inspiring to see and gave me optimism that someday I will be able to do that. 

The rest of the ride was kind of a blur. Everyone had a smile on their faces. I don’t recall what we chatted about or anything like that. I remember the various on- and off-bike dance moves, the goofy selfies that I tried to take (still not good at it) and the final sprint in downtown Leaf River (put out my best 5-second effort in 2022).  

This bike was perfect for the day.

Once we got back, we took a breather, and it was decided to do another six-mile loop. It was supposed to take us through an old farm road. It went from gravel roads, to cattle grates, to a dirt road blocked by an electric fence. So much for the rest of the adventure. We turned back and returned to town to complete our ride and have a post-ride meal at Fibbers (which is for sale by the way). I could have eaten everything on the menu but landed on mozzarella sticks and an Italian beef sandwich and numerous glasses of Coke and water. More conversation with some of the others that flowed into Fibbers and talked about all sorts of different things. 

My legs were shot. I was exhausted. I was brain dead. It was the biggest effort of 2022 according to my power file. None of it mattered. I had the time of my life. It was one of those days that I will remember for a long time. If I didn’t overcome my nerves, I wouldn’t have had this experience. I now have a few new Instagram and Strava friends as well.