One of the appealing aspects of gravel events is that at their core, they truly are run-what-you-brung events. If you are looking for an answer to the eternal question, “what is a gravel bike?” The answer is the one you are riding.

Cyclocross Magazine contributor Dave Mable of Iowa adheres to the gravel bike ethos. Earlier this month, Mable tackled the CIRREM gravel race outside Des Moines, Iowa on his trusty Trek Superfly singlespeed. Although the Superfly is technically a mountain bike, it also doubles as Mable’s cyclocross bike on the occasions he steps inside the barriers and joins the racing.

Mable’s other gravel bike? A tandem. Although technically a mountain bike race, the Chequamegon 40 (official pronunciation, per Mable: “Chwammy”) held in northern Wisconsin every September shares some gravel event qualities, and accordingly, Mable and his wife Dee have tackled the race on a tandem each year since 2002 (they have also done Leadville four times in tandem on a tandem). Said Mable, “I understand where the power has always come from on the tandem. I steer the thing, that counts for something, right?”

With Iowa on our minds here at Cyclocross Magazine after our chat with Guitar Ted about the gravel scene and the announcement that the Jingle Cross World Cup returns in 2018, Mable shared some thoughts on riding a singlespeed on gravel in early March at the definitely-not-flat CIRREM with 6,300’ of climbing.

Jason Uhlenhake and Tyler Loewens crest one of the CIRREM hills. © Jeff Corcoran

Jason Uhlenhake and Tyler Loewens crest one of the CIRREM hills. © Jeff Corcoran

Early Season Iowa Gravel

CIRREM is a 100km, 65-mile gravel race held in Iowa’s Madison County (yes, that Madison County) at the end of February most years. Organizers moved this year’s race to the beginning of March because of excessive ice. The course features a lot of gravel and over 6,000 feet of climbing, so it is a gravity-defying task for a field of riders whose only gravel experience thus far is probably on the Mayan Jungle Expansion in Zwift’s Watopia.

The event’s slogan is “hesitation is devastation,” which undoubtedly applies to the ride, but also applies to just getting registered. CIRREM fills up quickly every year despite its early season date, so if riders delay in getting registered, they might be devastated to find they do not get to bike 60+ miles in Iowa’s unpredictable late-winter weather.

Registration opens on Black Friday, and a large contingent of Iowans, Nebraskans, South Dakotans and Minnesotans, knowing they will be tired of being cooped up come late February, jump at the chance to register for the race.

“This is an annual thing,” said Mable about the race. “No matter what kind of shape I’m in, I do it, as long as I get in. Dee must get in—she’s won the thing before—so it’s a must-do for her, but there are limited spots and it sells out quickly. They open registration at 8pm on Black Friday. I actually left a hockey game to go home and get us registered once.”

Despite his zeal for registering that one year, Mable admitted he is not that excited about getting signed up for a February gravel ride. “At 8 p.m., I’ll click the link and hope it’s open. If it is, I’ll slowly get Dee registered. Then hit. Re. Fresh. Hoping it would be filled in the meantime.” He concluded, “Ugh, it’s been open every time.”

Dee Mable has won CIRREM before,. © Jeff Corcoran

Dee Mable has won CIRREM before,. © Jeff Corcoran

In our Q and A with Guitar Ted, he said that one of the appeals of gravel events is that they are challenging yet accessible. The 6,000+ feet of climbing definitely scream challenge, and then with the varied weather conditions, it is no surprise CIRREM is a draw for hardy Midwesterners.

How much of a role does the weather play for CIRREM? The results page on the event website lists temperatures, wind speeds and gravel conditions.

Mable said this year’s conditions were pretty good. “It was a lovely, 55-degree day, a bit windy, but warm and dry. It was a great day to savor the miles on my Superfly.”

Perfect roads, however, have not always been part of the ride. “It’s on gravel, it’s usually in February,” he said. “It usually goes regardless of weather. It’s rained, snowed—both one time!—ice, wind. The 30-degree day with full sunshine was one of the worst; it gradually melted the roads and the gravel and ice turned to cement on our bikes.”

One Gear, A Lot of Hills

Mable headed for the hills of CIRREM, as he always does, with his 2015 Trek Superfly Singlespeed. (Or as he calls it, the “Superflyyyyyyyy”)

“People think I’m crazy for riding this in races like CIRREM with its 6,300’ of climbing in 100K and Almanzo with a million feet of climbing in 100 miles, but I love riding it” Mable said about the Superflyyyyyyyyy. “If you’re comfortable on a bike, that’s the right bike.”

Mable rode his Trek Superfly singlespeed at CIRREM. photo; Dave Mable

Mable rode his Trek Superfly singlespeed at CIRREM. photo; Dave Mable

With his wife Dee riding her own bike at the event, he would have to provide all the power—and his normal steering—himself. Mable went with a 32-18 gearing combination to help him power up the hills.

“This is one of my favorite bikes, ever,” Mable said about his Superfly. “I love the simplicity of the single speed. I never miss a shift and I’ve learned how to maximise momentum. I actually climb faster on this than on a geared bike because I work hard to keep my momentum up.”

I have seen brave souls tackle the Dairy Roubaix in southwest Wisconsin, with its climbs that push 15 percent at times, and if I am honest, a singlespeed would not be my first choice. And probably not my second or third, either.

Mable said at CIRREM, the hills were rideable, even if it took a lot of grunting and the occasional paperboy. “I struggle on the extra steep ones, grunting as I struggle to turn the pedals over,” Mable said. “Sometimes I tack back and forth across the road. I actually gave myself permission to walk three of the hills, but I never did.”

Dave Mable rode his singlespeed at CIRREM. © Eric Roccasecca

Dave Mable rode his singlespeed at CIRREM. © Eric Roccasecca

With a 32-18 gearing, the bigger challenge was the downhills. “The course is hilly,” he said. “Very steep hills. It’s good riding the singlespeed. I usually get dropped on the downhills—dang big rings—then pass people on the climbs.”

Mable has some experience riding gravel on bikes other than your traditional geared bike—tandem, singlespeed, maybe there will be a penny farthing or bike share bike in his future? I asked him if he has any advice for tackling a very hilly gravel ride on a singlespeed.

“First, love gravel,” he said. “Momentum is your friend, so you should keep it going as long as you can up each hill. Your gears are usually going to be too big or small, so learn to spin and especially learn to grunt effectively. Finally, learn to love riding alone because it’s pretty tough staying with geared bikes because of that whole big ring / little ring thing.”

CIRREM Superlatives

Despite feeling—and riding—Supafly Mable does not have a Cinderella story of winning CIRREM that befits the spirit of the season. “I’ve had my fastest time at CIRREM on this bike, but also one of my slowest,” he said. “This year was one of my slowest.”

Mable’s wife Dee took second in the Women’s race. She finished about a minute behind Lisa Vetterlein of Des Moines, who took the Women’s win. Heather Poskevich of Polk City took third to round out the Women’s podium.

The Men’s race was a good one, with six riders within 10 seconds of each other at the front. Brendan Hardy of Iowa City beat out Jonathan Wait of Council Bluff and Nebraska interloper Mark Savery of Omaha.

Rafal Doloto of Omaha won the singlespeed category and finished 13th overall. Unlike the geared riders at the front, he finished a few minutes ahead of Kyle Sedore of Des Moines. Greg Grandgeorge of Polk City won the 50+ category.

Top ten results for each category are below.

Photos provided by Eric Roccasecca and Jeff Corcoran.

Women's Results: 2018 CIRREM Gravel Race

1314Vetterlein, Lisa4:14:39Des Moines, IA
2222Mable, Dee4:15:16Urbandale, IA
3256Poskevich, Heather4:16:22Polk City, IA
4305Trane, Ani4:29:29West Des Moines, IA
5308Uscilowski, Loren4:35:03Des Moines, IA
6124Bethea, Cathleen5:12:50Iowa City, IA
7274Roccasecca, Katherine5:27:26Ankeny, IA
8309Uthe, Amanda5:34:31Urbandale, IA
9119Becker, Barbara5:49:46Des Moines, IA
10133Buell, Lee6:37:00West Des Moines, IA

Men's Results: 2018 CIRREM Gravel Race

1184Hardy, Brenden3:19:18Iowa City, IA
2319Wait, Jonathan3:19:19Council Bluffs, IA
3278Savery, Mark3:19:19Omaha, NE
4266Reichardt, Randy3:19:24Des Moines, IA
5312Ventling, Adam3:19:26West Des Moines, IA
6324West, Brian3:19:29Winterset, IA
7323Wenzel, Bryan3:20:54Iowa City, IA
8195Hoogendam, Ian3:21:28Minneapolis, MN
9229Mathews, Casey3:22:15Iowa City, IA
10219Loewens, Travis3:30:47Omaha, NE

Singlespeed Results: 2018 CIRREM Gravel Race

1156Doloto, Rafal3:35:44Omaha, NE
2281Sedore, Kyle3:38:15Des Moines, IA
3248Osborn, Jeff3:45:54Clive, IA
4149Costello, Jordan3:50:28Johnston, IA
5126Blackford, Rick3:57:57Des Moines, IA
6123Bethea, Jim4:07:21Iowa City, IA
7321Webb, Taylor4:29:28West Des Moines, IA
8143Child, Mark4:55:15Des Moines, IA
9201Jones, Brett5:03:39Adel, IA
10111Aspenson, Brett5:03:45West Des Moines, IA

Men's 50+ Results: 2018 CIRREM Gravel Race

1174Grandgeorge, Greg3:33:51Polk City, IA
2117Bartels, Mike3:38:57Papillion, NE
3237Metz, Tim3:44:11Sioux Falls, SD
4172Gleason, Greg3:47:39Sioux Falls, SD
5116Bandstra, Mike3:56:17Des Moines, IA
6125Betters, Kevin3:56:20West Des Moines, IA
7220Loomis, Shawn3:59:22Ames, IA
8171Gawley, Mel4:00:12Ames, IA
9202Jones, Randy4:06:35Ames, IA
10155Dilger, John4:12:14Garwin, IA

Fat Bike Results: 2018 CIRREM Gravel Race

1331Wrabek, Aaron3:54:11Ankeny, IA
2301Sumpter, Scott5:06:38Ankeny, IA
3275Rourk, Tim5:29:45Johnston, IA
4121Benson, Kurt5:31:37Des Moines, IA
5231McCoy, Andrew5:31:38Des Moines, IA
6133Buell, Lee6:37:00West Des Moines, IA