Sunday, February 21, 2021

Trans Iowa Stories: A Look At The Scene In 2015

Pre-Race Meat-Up for T.I.v11 Image courtesy of Tim Bauer
"Trans Iowa Stories" is an every Sunday post which helps tell the stories behind the event. You can check out other posts about this subject by going back to earlier Sunday posts on this blog. Thanks and enjoy!

In this post I will try to give some context to Trans Iowa's place in the niche of gravel cycling circa 2015. 

As Trans Iowa v11 rolled around, the event had survived a decade of evolution. By v11 this event had hit its stride. It was 'peak-Trans Iowa', if you will. The stature and status of the event would never be higher, and the way that it was produced was at, or very nearly at, its pinnacle. All that said, Trans Iowa was a big deal in the world of gravel events for strange reasons. I thought it might prove to be a good time to give you- the reader- some context for where Trans Iowa fit into the gravel scene back then.

From about 2010 until the time of Trans Iowa v11, a period of only five years, gravel cycling blew up into a huge force to be reckoned with. No longer could this genre of cycling be ignored by the cycling industry, the organizers of Pro and semi-Pro cycling in the USA, or the mainstream cycling media. It was obviously a segment that was growing rapidly and showed no signs of slowing down. 

Throughout the time period from 2010 - 2015 I was constantly asked how many gravel events there were in the USA. My tabulation of a gravel calendar was unique, at that time, and so I suppose that was one reason I was asked so much about this. Looking back, the number of events mattered since it was a barometer of sorts for those in the industry and in the media to help them get a pulse on gravel cycling's popularity. Another barometer of this growth was the attendance at the DK200. I was there to see it have barely enough people to fill a cheesy motel parking lot with riders in 2009. Six years later, the DK200 had three solid blocks jam packed with riders for its 2015 edition, which I was a participant in. The exponential growth of that event was another indication that gravel cycling was - or already had - taken off. Finally, USAC- the road cycling sanctioning organization in the USA, was suffering steep declines in membership. It was widely reported that by 2016 they had figured that membership fees had declined by over one million dollars. Most of those former license holders were likely now riding unsanctioned gravel events.

So, it didn't take a genius to see that gravel events and gravel cycling in general was on a serious upswing with seemingly no end in sight. (The pandemic of 2020 did put the brakes on this finally) Trans Iowa, being arguably the first gravel event of the modern gravel era, in contrast to all the growth, was now being seen as a quaint, old time event. Yes- Trans Iowa had its legendary status fully cemented into history, but it was not 'up-to-date' in terms of what many thought a gravel event should be. 

Maybe the reason for that, one could say, was "The DK200 Effect". That event set expectations from the media, and then the riders affected by that narrative. The expectations were fairly common for GPS files of courses to be given to riders ahead of the event, and aid stations, big finish line parties or productions, or both, were expected by those coming to that event. Trappings like chip timing, podiums, fancy number plates, and commemorative jerseys and apparel were almost a foregone conclusion if you were going to have yourself a 'big event' experience. 

Now, of course, that did not explain all the hundreds of gravel events which were popping up everywhere, but most all of those were not seen as being anything worth mentioning by brands, media, and those on social media who were looking for affirmation from their various groups. That said, it was the ground floor events which propelled the gravel scene to its heights we know it to be at now in 2021 and beyond. But in 2015, this was not a perspective many had yet, if anyone did. No, events like Trans Iowa were falling off the radar and seen as for only the most hard-core of gravel cyclists. 

Trans Iowa was then a spectacle. Something that people marveled at and wanted to see, but not what they wanted to actually participate in. The characters that came and rode in the event's latter years were seen as oddballs. Freaks of nature that were incomprehensible to the average person. As an example, winning the prestigious Dirty Kanza 200 was seen as a feather in one's cap, but winning Trans Iowa? Well, who cares? 

The gravel scene was hard for traditional race culture to figure out.

So, in terms of the 'gravel scene'', Trans Iowa was the 'red headed step-child'. It was too weird, too arcane, and too hard to wrap your mind around for it to have captured the imaginations of the populace. There was no real reward to covet that was tangible. No one was going to give the riders that completed the challenge a contract, an endorsement package, and they never went on to be major influencers, long-term brand ambassadors, or well known social media icons. (Although some tried it) As one long-time Trans Iowa rider put it, (and I am paraphrasing his actual words here) Finishing the DK200 makes you feel like a rock star, finishing Trans Iowa makes you feel like a monk. And let's face it- most people don't want to feel like a monk that has reached his goal, and many have no idea what that would be anyway.

 But there was something about Trans Iowa that struck a nerve. There was a desire for such an event and that 'something' motivated a few folks to offer alternatives. Once Trans Iowa started to wane, and after it ended, there seemed to be a void there. Obviously the "Iowa Wind and Rock" is Trans Iowa's direct offspring. Similarly, the Spotted Horse Ultra-Gravel event is very much in a Trans Iowa vein. And, ironically enough, even the 'big time' events started to add very "Trans Iowa-like"additions to their events. Homages to the oddball TI, if you will. The DKXL being one of the first, and now "The Long Voyage" at Gravel Worlds being one of the latest to mimic a Trans Iowa-like distance, at least, if not the entire ethos of Trans Iowa.

If you came and rode in Trans Iowa, especially from about T.I.v10 onward, you did the event for reasons most worldly folks would never understand. And the event was geared towards that, intentionally and by accident. It was never going to be the darling of the gravel scene. It was more like the mysterious distant relative no one really knew, but had heard about at family reunions. Some were drawn to Trans Iowa's unique and bizarre nature and had to have a taste. But most were just mildly curious, never wanting to really get to know it, were satisfied just to talk maliciously about it, and certainly never would ever think about riding in it. 

I cannot say why, but I think all of the preceding points went into the fact that most Trans Iowa riders were repeat attendees. Certainly, we had new riders every year, but most never returned after one try. This accounts for why that, over 14 editions of the event where approximately 1400 unique individuals could have participated, (based upon my rough calculations of roster limits, volunteer exemptions, etc), only 530 unique individuals ever toed the line for the event. That isn't many, and shows you why I feel Trans Iowa was an odd-duck in the gravel cycling world. 

So, when it comes to any accolades for this event, I am always humbled and thankful, certainly, but Trans Iowa also most certainly was not a 'popular' event, nor did it seem to appear that it should ever have had the influences over the gravel scene that it did have. So I am always a bit amazed that people still sometimes even care about this event, to know about it, and to want to read its stories. Legendary? Maybe. Mysterious? Possibly. A Spectacle? Most certainly. All perhaps why this event sparks the imagination of some people.

Next: Five Minutes To Spare


Ari said...

Having participated in a couple handfuls of TransIowas I ended up going to DK200 in 2011 to try something “different”. It was the year of the intense heat and the hail storm. I had this Transiowa mentality in me and ended being a finisher. I was wrecked but had come to the finish line. I distinctly remember riding to the hotel thinking to myself “this is nothing compared to Transiowa. I never finished a Transiowa but will forever cherish the fact that I was part of the TI family. Thank you GT for a great post.
Slender Fungus Cycling Association

Guitar Ted said...

@Ari - "...a couple of handfuls of TransIowas" is putting it mildly! An understatement to be sure! Thank you for all the years of support, help, and for still championing the event. More than all that, Thank You for being a friend!

Ari said...

@Guitar Ted
You know very well a lot of us have become lifelong friends. That’s what TransIowa did and that is something that not many events do.

MG said...

@Ari – Amen.

blooddoc23 said...

The reason that there weren't more unique participants, was because the event was so hard to get into. I tried for 5 or 6 years (I kind of lost count, and along the way was getting old) to get in and finally got in on the last one. You made it pretty exclusive and it had the effect of upping the desirability and mystic. The demoralizing thing was to read about how people would not show up and not notify you after all the work you put in. It was such a cool event! I would have been there year after year with bells on, if I could have gotten in earlier. A waiting list would have been nice, but I don't blame you a bit for trying to keep it small. It was the kind of event you dreamed about all year, at least for me. So glad I got to try one. Thank you! There had to be a lot of people out there like me.

Guitar Ted said...

@blooddoc23 - Hmm.... You must have started trying to get in at about the same time it was getting harder to do that. I used to do a waiting list, but after v8- (I think it was) I stopped because I had a waiting list the year before and everyone I contacted on it declined and we ended up not having a full roster anyway, so what's the point in a waiting list? And the no-shows, as you said, not to mention those who signed up and dropped out a month or two later.

Now- to be fair- many of the drop outs that happened had really good reasons. Job changes, health issues, etc. But there were a LOT of drop outs on rainy years with no explanation. Like within two weeks of the event.(Hmmm.......) A waiting list would have been worthless to fill those spots. And the waiting list just didn't work anyway most of the time. Almost everyone that did pick up a spot on the waiting list never showed up either, which is something I bet a lot of people never knew. I am thinking only a few folks on that list ever did come to Trans Iowa. Like less than ten.

I understand you were frustrated and that maybe there were "a lot of people out there like me", as you said, but my experience- and the numbers- show me differently. Sure- there were a few folks like yourself, certainly, but I am fully convinced that number is quite low.