Remember way back in March when the Michigan Gravel Race Series kicked off with Melting Mann? We were so young, so hopeful, so thrilled at the chance of improving weather, a whole season of fun, and the chance of maybe, just maybe, making a run at the series title.
That feels so very long ago. On October 27, the final gravel event of 2018 caps off what’s been a grueling race season that’s put riders from all over the state on some of the most unique gravel courses in the country. We’ve got a darn good thing going in the Mitten when it comes to riding dirt, and this year’s MGRS line-up has proven that there’s a little bit of everything on offer around here.
The Lowell 50 is a rather fitting finale for a series that’s offered a dash of everything, from the singletrack sections of Lord of the Springs to the sandy seasonal roads and hills of The Divide, it’s a bit of a return to more traditional gravel at Fallasburg Park. Lowell’s claim of being a ‘classic’ road race is certainly fair, and this race, along with the Barry-Roubaix, has helped drive and build the popularity of gravel racing and riding over the past decade.
With no trails on offer and without the five hundred foot climbs we’ve just seen at the Michigan Mountain Mayhem Gravel Grinder, the pitfalls at Lowell are traditionally a mix of positioning, weather, and luck. With a stiff but often not selective climb in the first five miles, it’s often a bit of a mess in the opening hour of races, with different combinations of riders getting up the road, getting reeled back in, then trying their luck a second, third, or fourth time. Teams with a handful of riders have excelled here, using their numbers to ensure representation in the move and then allowing teammates an armchair ride in the bunch. Any squad with three of more riders that can find the right move often spends the second half of the racing hoping the move sticks, or eagerly awaiting their shot at a counter-attack or fresh legs in the bunch sprint.
The weather, too, plays a big factor at Lowell. Most of the race winds in neat right angles through acre after acre of corn and soybean fields, and with most produce long-since harvested, there’s only a mile or two of the course that offers any protection from the wind once the peloton leaves the relatively cozy confines of Fallasburg Park. The primarily northwest wind means riders slog with a strong breeze on their shoulders in the middle third of the race, just as the early moves have either gone, or the bunch is tired and licking its wounds with a move still to clear its grip.
It’s a type of racing that riders like Mike Simonson and Al McWilliams excel, using the crosswinds to break up the bunch or control affairs if they have a rider up the road. Last year, it was Cody Sovis and Sean Kickbush. flying the flag for the team. Cody spent most of the day in the lead group setting a solid tempo to discourage attacks on a cold, windy morning. That let Sean stay in the wheels, setting up a huge move in the final two miles that saw him briefly fly clear. Caught just before the finish, he gutted out a bunch sprint and settled for fourth place behind Tom Burke, Matt Acker, and 2017 MGRS winner Alex Tenelshof.
This year, Tenelshof is looking to take top points against Nick Stanko in order to defend his title, although Stanko has been tough all season long and seems to have developed more tactical nous as the miles have stacked up.
Instead of a wheel size debate, it’s simply about tire selection for Lowell, with plenty of riders happily opting for 28s or even 25s over the years, risking just a bit of flat protection and perhaps giving a bit in the soft mud that can develop in corners or low-points on the course. Assuming nothing changes, the word on the street is that a slick 30-35mm tire would be ideal, which was the tire of choice for plenty of riders at this spring’s Rogue 100, the longer-distance brother of Lowell 50, run by the same organization.
You can check out the course and all of Cody’s vital signs from the fall race right here.
Registration is open, and note there isn’t a day-of option, so if you’re interested, pull the trigger.