Justin McBride, a native of Northwest Illinois, is one of FBC’s favorite riding friends. Justin, who has been steadily making his presence felt in the world of gravel racing, joined us for a recent bikepacking trip in Wisconsin’s North woods. His easy-going nature and ability to have fun on the bike conceal a fierce competitive spirit underneath, giving us something to pry at in a chat with him around the campfire on a chilly night. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
FBC – When did you first start cycling?
JMc – The first time was, my brother got his training wheels taken off his bike, and I wanted to be just like him so I took mine off and actually rode my bike without my parents or anyone supervising.
FBC – That is awesome! Like many people you probably got away from cycling as a teen. What brought you back to biking as an adult?
JMc – My best friend Jake Huber got into riding bikes and I wanted to do something to get in shape so I followed his lead and started riding a little bit more.
FBC – Did you have a bike? Did you borrow one?
JMc – I had this crappy Two hundred fifty dollar big box sporting goods store bike. It was a 26-inch mountain bike, and next I bought Jake’s Specialized Sirrus road bike because he upgraded to a Vaya. About three years ago I was riding the Sirrus in the training rides leading up to the Gravel Metric (the gravel race created and run by NCC/Axletree in DeKalb IL). After a few tries with that I said there was no way I could ride that thing 60 miles so I upgraded to a Salsa Warbird.
FBC – Before getting into the grave scene, what kind of riding did you do?
JMc – Gravel. it’s always been gravel.
FBC – Even before gravel became a thing?
JMc – Yeah. I pretty much grew up riding gravel. If we wanted to go see friends we rode gravel roads. So, it didn’t intimidate me so much as it might some people. I liked how NCC back then was bringing gravel onto the scene. I didn’t see myself as a roadie. I didn’t see myself as a mountain biker, but maybe in gravel I had a fit.
FBC – You started off in Gravel cycling, but in the more recent past it’s clear you have become more serious about it, right? Tell us about the past year.
JMc – This past year I have gotten a little more serious about riding, and my intensity I would say has gone up. In January (2018) there is a race in Dubuque, Iowa called the Triple D. My friend Stu Garwick of FBC had signed up but couldn’t ride Triple D, so he offered up his spot to me. I was kind of interested in it anyway and so I took his spot and went and rode it. Pretty awesome, I would say: it was the first long distance winter riding I had ever tried.
FBC –You did pretty good. You actually won the race
JMc – I did somehow. I actually don’t know how, but I pulled it off, again, with the help of Stu. The whole ride was, well, surreal. I remember the last pit-stop, and I walked in there and we’re signing in to the checkpoint and the guy who’s in front of me, we’re neck-and-neck pulling into the place. I walk in and say to Stu, “dude, my effing feet are Fa-Reezing! I couldn’t feel my hands or my toes. And Stu’s like, “Dude, you gotta GO! You gotta GO! Take off! Take Off!Take Off!”
Stu – That guy made a move on you at the checkpoint; he signed in then quietly left hoping you wouldn’t notice. He’s a time trialist, and he hadn’t been able to shake you on the easy part of the course, but now you were heading into the technical part of the course where he would be at a disadvantage.
JMc – Right. After that it turned into single-track, and that’s where I got him. Just put on a move and kept going.
FBC – Your next event was Land Run 100, the well-known and highly competitive gravel race in Oklahoma. Tell us about that.
JMc – Went down there with Stu, Bill Leibman and my friend Jake. I went there with high expectations to try to podium and also to see where my fitness level was leading up to Trans Iowa. My fitness was nowherenear where it needed to be. I blew up around mile 90 trying to get at least in the top 10 of single speed. Didn’t happen. So that was a disappointment, but the Land Run event is phenomenal: Those guys that put it on, the town of Stillwater, everything about it is top-notch. I’ll keep going back to that.
FBC – Moving on to Trans Iowa, did the experience at Land Run experience influence your training for TI? (Trans Iowa is a 340-mile gravel race in Iowa. It does not actually cross Iowa; it’s a loop but the 340 miles is about the width of the state.)
JMc – Very much. I started hitting the indoor more; get up in the morning and ride the rollers for 40 minutes, come home from work and ride another hour. I upped the effort outside as well, riding over a hundred miles of gravel on weekends, which was the most intense I had ridden all year.
FBC – At Trans Iowa, you got a pretty good result. Tell us about the race.
JMc – I signed up because of friends Allison Zmunda and Bailey Newbrey. Allison was putting posts out about how she had signed up for Trans Iowa. I, being a stupid naïve person, thought, well, if she can do it, what the hell, so can I. I sent my postcard in on a Sunday and thought to myself if I get picked, OK, and if not then maybe next year. I got picked, and then realized shit had to get real and I started training. The ride itself, this was way beyond anything I ever thought I was capable of doing. I thought there was no way I could make it that far, that long that duration - Ever. But then as things transpired, I kept making it farther and farther into the race. I kept feeling good. Kept feeling like everything I had done leading up to it was working. I wasn’t burning myself out. The plan I took into TI was basically go 13, 14 miles an hour on average; not try to do 15, 16 but try to maintain that 13 to 14 average. With single speed it’s a little more difficult I think because you have the hills to play with, but just try to maintain. I think it was at mile 240 in Montezuma Stu Garwick found us somehow, and there was a little beacon of light. He was there with spirit and encouragement and helped a lot of people, not just me. We were averaging about 13 miles per hour at that point, but shit went downhill after that. Through the night it sucked. I called Stu to tell him I wanted to quit. (Stu says he was asleep). Had another competitor threaten to throw my phone away if I ever touched it again. So, I just kept going and rode on in. That ride was amazingly tough, awesome and then completely stupid all mixed into one giant day and a half of riding. As we were riding we were getting updates from the camera guy about where we were, and so I knew I was at least in the top 5 overall and top 3 single-speed. I finished 4thoverall and 2ndsingle-speed.
FBC – Were you satisfied with that result?
JMc – Yes. I was pretty pumped about it.
FBC – Guitar Ted, the founder and promoter of Trans Iowa, has announced that after 14 years this was the last time for the event – there will be no more Trans Iowa races in the future. How do you feel about that?
JMc – I think everybody’s got to move on to bigger and better things. Seems like Guitar Ted has done his deal with Trans Iowa. I can’t imagine trying to do something like that, year in and year out. Just from my limited exposure helping FBC with the Ten Thousand and Dust at Dusk, trying to put on a race of that length with a different route each year seems daunting. I think what he is doing is right. He is also talking about doing single-speed championships this coming year so I am stoked about that.
FBC – Do you regret the fact that you won’t get the chance to go back next year to claim the single-speed title at Trans Iowa?
JMc – No. I think that doing Trans for the first time and being able to finish was more than enough. And to get 2nd single-speed and 4th overall was just icing on the cake.
(FBC – Note from CX Magazine: Just finishing Trans Iowa in the allotted 34 hours is an impressive accomplishment. In 2018, only 19 of the 95 starters finished before Sunday's 2 p.m. cutoff.)
(FBC update note: The Trans Iowa race is no more, but a similar 340 mile race called Iowa Wind and Rock has been created in Winterset Iowa. Justin is signed up in the single speed category. Race date April 20 2019)
FBC – I think Coast-to-Coast, the 210-mile gravel race across Michigan was the next event this Spring. How was that?
JMc – I went to Coast-to-Coast with my buddy Troy Edler who talked me into it. The terrain started out flat and fast on about the first 100 miles. But the second half turned into this phenomenal b-roads, single-track, forest roads, sandy mess. Amazing!. The second half of the whole race I couldn’t stop smiling. I went into this thing thinking I just came off Trans Iowa; I can definitely podium in this race. And I was definitely wrong. There were some fast-ass people. And I was not geared right: too low for the fast flat part. After 50 miles I rode it just to have fun, and it was pretty awesome. Troy finished third in his age group.
FBC – Next up was Almanzo, the 100-mile “mother ship” of gravel racing in Southern Minnesota. Did you ride that to compete or just for fun?
JMc – At Almanzo I’d say I did a little bit of both. I was still feeling strong from Iowa, so I would say I was competing for the first 80 miles and then I just rode the last 20 in for fun. I did a little more Instagraming than I should, a little more picture taking, having a little more fun than pure racing.
It was a good race; it was competitive, I finished decent I would say for how I was riding. I finished right around 7 hours. Racing I try to average about 7 hours for a century, so that was good.
FBC – Following Almanzo you did the Ten Thousand race hosted by FBC and Comrade Cycles, 126 gravel miles with 10,000 feet of climbing.
JMc – And that’s when all the wheels fell off.
FBC – The wheels came off for just about everyone. It was the first hot day of the year and temps got up in the mid 90’s. Plus, you had a mechanical in the early going.
JMc – Yeah. Flat tire, bent rim. Struck a big rock in the middle of the road. I rode hard to the first water stop and then decided to fold up the tent where we had the choice to take the shorter 75-mile route or do the full 126. I know my way around that area well so I decided to just make my way back to town. It was really hot and I eventually called it at mile 72, just 2.5 miles from the finish. I called Troy to pick me up. I was cramping really bad, couldn’t drink water, felt like shit, couldn’t do anything on my bike at all. I knew I was in a bad spot. That was probably the toughest day I’ve experienced riding a bicycle.
FBC – It was tough for everybody. Of the 130 riders who started the day, only 8 finished the full 126 mile course. Some had to call it at the water stop 34 miles in; most did not finish what they set out to do that day.
JMc – It was hot AF. At one point I texted Stu because there were people blowing up all over the place. People were really struggling. It’s the hardest most scenic race, route, ride I’ve done all year.
FBC – After that, you passed on Gravel World Championships to do Day Across Minnesota (DAMn). What was that like?
JMc – I hated missing Gravel Worlds. I had kinda begged to get into DAMn so I felt obligated to do that, not knowing it was on the same date as Gravel Worlds. You all went out to Gravel Worlds. I do want to go and support that ride since I had met the promoters, but the dates conflicted and I went up to do DAMn. It was pretty fricken awesome. It was a great race. 240 miles. It started in Gary South Dakota and went all the way across Minnesota to end up in Hager City Wisconsin. The race is like most others with a time limit set at a 10 mile an hour average pace for, in this case, 24-hours. There are three control points you have to reach within the 10-mph pace or get pulled from the race.
I did 23rd overall and 3rd place in single-speed. Pretty respectable. I was hoping for a win in Single speed. The guy who won single-speed was 2nd overall. He averaged 19 or 20 miles an hour, so he was spinning his brains out. The guy is an animal; he’s really good at ultra-races. I rode with the 2nd place single-speed finisher Ben Oney for a while but he is a strong single-speed endurance rider and ending up not being able to hold his wheel for long.
FBC – How do you average 20 miles an hour on a single-speed?
JMc – I have no idea. The guy just tore up the whole course. I can’t imagine averaging 20 mph on a geared effing bike.
FBC – What is the course terrain like?
JMc – The course is kind of like Coast-to-Coast in Michigan with the first half very flat. We started at 12 pm Friday night and rode thru the night and all-day Saturday and finished Saturday evening. The first half, even though it was flat, it was interesting because you were riding gravel, at night, in Minnesota, which meant sand and big rocks, and big long trains of people to navigate around. So, the first half was exciting because of that. The terrain, not so much. And the second half on the east coast of Minnesota is hilly like our driftless region with lots of big hills up and down. It was simply amazing. Every side road you looked down you wanted to turn off and keep riding and riding because it was awesome. The guy who puts it on, Trenton, is top-notch. The whole race is really well done; something I would definitely do again. But it would be a tough call between this and Gravel Worlds every year.
FBC – Justin, you have had an impressive year. What are your goals for next year and beyond?
JMc – I really like the long-distance stuff, so I think anything 200 miles plus is where I’m at. DKXL (the ultra 350-mile race held in conjunction with the regular Dirty Kanza race) is on the list for next year. Land Run, as I said before, is such a great event I’ll keep going back for that . Epic 150 in Missouri is on the list. Also, I want to do Alexander (the 380-mile companion to Almanzo in Southern Minnesota). I would really like to do Tour Divide next year, with a target of getting it done in sub 20 days. If I can swing it with work, I would like to be there for the grand depart in 2019.
Best of luck in the coming year. Thank you for spending time with us and we all look forward to joining you on your training rides.