Michigan Gravel Races Series: The Divide Recap

3T The Divide Q+M Cycling

Count yourself lucky; how many people get to say they’ve been to Manton, Michigan?

As I sat scrolled through the ‘gram in the parking lot before the race, a chap in the GMC Sierra next to me was talking on the phone.

“I’m in Manton for a race. No, MAN-ton. It’s by Cadillac. No, I don’t mean Mesick, Manton!”

Apparently, this little town isn’t getting the recognition it deserves. Now in it’s fourth year, the race has finally hit the 200 racer mark, and we mean literally hit it; it was stuck at 199 until the timing company realized they weren’t counting the second person on the only tandem, so really, we all have to thank Mike Clark or Caat Tahy for making the drive.

And a lot of out-of-towners found the village, even as it was torn in two by a rather ambitious construction project. It was incredible to see a big contingent from Ann Arbor Velo Club make the drive north, and see plenty of riders from Grand Rapids on hand, too. In fact, the imports were far and away more plentiful than the locals, which speaks to just how big gravel is south of Cadillac.

I’ve been lucky enough to make all four editions of The Divide, and for a good reason. That reason is simple; it’s a great race. The 50-mile course has 4,200 feet of climbing, which is almost as much as the Cherry-Roubaix has in nearly twice the distance. It’s hard, it’s always hot, and there’s nowhere to hide. Riders can’t sit in the whole ride and then pop out for glory in the finale on that course, and each ascent puts someone else out the back, each descent puts a handful more riders shaking their heads and coming home in ones and twos.

This year, we had riders do a lot of different things, so I ended up racing The Divide solo. Last year, Danny and Al went full shake’n’bake and dominated, and with the team having all three past winners in the squad, there was a fair bit of expectation to keep the winning streak going.

For the first hour, I traded pulls with Nate Williams in an effort to just keep the race going. No one was in a hurry to try anything, and it wasn’t until the first climb up Cote 35 that we really saw too much change in the composition of the group. That dwindled numbers down to around 10 riders, and a few more were distanced on the Colline de Pins shortly after.

After that, it was just four of us, with Nate and I still splitting the workload. I felt great, but I’ll admit, it’s intimidating to see a rider barely sweating and riding mouth-closed with myself and the other two riders, Nick Stanko and John Nesberg, we really starting to sag.

Finally, somebody bobbled on fast, rough downhill just after I’d let Nate get a nice little gap. I was across in flash, and as the road flattened and turned, we looked back to see we had a good ten seconds back to the other pair. Nate was jacked: “Let’s drop those guys, come on!” he shouted.

He was going, and I was going, but his going was much, much faster, and he rode off rather easily. We saw a few flashes of his jersey for another mile or two, but the race was in his back pocket and had disappeared up the road.

After getting reeled in, I relaxed for a bit before hitting the chasers pretty hard on a few climbs, and ultimately all three would end up riding back into town alone, each a few minutes a part from one another. That’s certainly the blueprint for this race and it seems like every year, the race blows to bits well before the finish. My neck always seems to hurt after this race, likely due to the near-constant looking back to see if anyone is slowing clawing their way back into touch.

If there’s an image I could relate about The Divide, it would be that of a brief moment every rider experiences on the way back to the finish in downtown Manton. Manton has a thriving Amish community, and you’re as likely to see a horse and buggy as a Ford Focus on the dirt roads in the area. Just a few miles from the line, the local Amish Church sits at the lip of the penultimate hill of the race. Each year, two or three dozen of the Amish churchgoers line right-hand side of the road, in dresses and bonnets and plain black slacks. At first, they offer an almost silent gaze;  later riders report a more spirited applause. But the contrast of their lifestyle and leisurely pursuits to the exhausted recreation of hobby cyclists is almost hilarious; it’s just that nothing is too funny after 4,000 feet of climbing.

We’ve got a big break before the next Michigan Gravel Race Series event in September. Don’t worry, we’ll find plenty of cool things to do between now and Uncle John’s Dirty Ride on September 8!