We’ve done this before, but Illinois is not totally flat—or maybe it is. Tucked into the northwest corner of Illinois and southwest corner of Wisconsin is a hilly region called the Driftless Area that was untouched by the most recent glaciers. The resulting landscape with beautiful hills and valleys is a hidden gem of a place to ride.
While Wisconsin is mostly paved thanks to the dairy industry, the Illinois Driftless has gravel roads meant for exploring. The Ten Thousand gravel event (we covered it in 2018) took place over Memorial Day weekend. Craig Bryant reports from the experience.
by Craig Bryant
If you’re looking for 10,000 feet of climbing in a century ride you might look to the Colorado Rockies, the island of Mallorca or maybe Italy’s Dolomites. Then again, maybe you’ll head to flat-as-a-pancake Illinois to ride in a swath of land straddling Wisconsin and the Land of Lincoln the glaciers never razed.
The region is called the Driftless. There are no pancakes in sight, just hill upon hill of gravel and dirt.
The annual northwest Illinois gravel adventure called Ride Ten Thousand took place there Memorial Day weekend, offering up three sizes of adventure: 50, 75, and 130 miles, the last of which carries riders over a seemingly endless 10,000 feet of climbing.
The recently anointed (by yours truly) Capital of Midwestern Gravel Roads, Freeport, Illinois [Ed. note: Also home to one of the all-time great high school mascots, the Pretzels] is home to the ride and its host and primary organizer, the eponymous Freeport Bicycle Company (Chicago’s Comrade Cycles also ensures plenty of Chicago riders make the trip).
While there’s no fee to ride the event, FBC and Comrade peeps along with what seemed to be dozens of volunteers treated the riders like royalty from early morning right on through when the last of the riders rolled in.
If you’re not up for riding the Ten Thousand, come for the cookies and baked goods—race organizer Stu Garwick’s mom sponsored the whole thing with a huge supply of fresh cookies and bars.
As for the terrain, it’s punchy hill after punchy hill of well-groomed farmland roads with the occasional hold-on-tight brand of washed out dirt road descent that might make yours truly consider wearing a diaper next year. The riding is not for the faint of heart.
I rode Specialized Pathfinder Pros (tubeless 38s at 45 psi), and they were a great tire for the job—wide enough to hold me in place for the 45+ mph descents and fast enough to roll through the 20 or so miles of pavement connecting us to all the gravel highlights.
While Ride Ten Thousand isn’t technically a race, there was an overall winner this year and his name is Justin Royster, a Chicago-based graveleur riding with the Union Cycling Team (he also took the best time in 2017). Justin powered a 17+ mph average for a moving time of 7 hours 29 minutes this year. The top female finisher, Kimberly Breuer of Waterloo, Iowa, turned in a 9-hour 26-minute ride with both a smile and an average speed of 13.8 mph.
As for me, my ride time of 8 hours and 5 minutes featured a leisurely 40 minutes of breaks at the makeshift water stops along the route (supplemented with plenty of gels, thanks to Justin McBride and his Gu Energy Labs sponsorship).
I met riders from all over the place. The Panaracer/Stan’s NoTubes p/b Bicycle X-Change elite racer Kae Takeshita was there loosening up the legs for last weekend’s Dirty Kanza 200. JP McCarthy, of SRAM road product renown, was a great partner to ride with for a couple of hours too. A couple of hundred other riders came and went during the day—some for leisure, others for training and building up for the next competitive event.
That gets me thinkin’ … maybe, just maybe, Hillinois has the makings for some formal gravel races to complement the Midwest classics season roster of Rough Road and Barry-Roubaix (remember Gravel Metric?). [Ed. note: Southwest Wisconsin’s Dairy Roubaix is another option]
It’s a beautiful cycling destination regardless, and the essence of Ride Ten Thousand is unequivocally non-competitive for good reason: you come for the gravel and stay for the hills, but you really do it all for Stu’s mom’s cookies.