Since 2013, cyclists have converged on the small college town of Stillwater, Oklahoma, for the Land Run 100. It’s an early season gravel race that allows riders to test their legs on the state’s red clay roads. More often than not, conditions have been cold, wet and ludicrously muddy, which makes this 100-mile race longer and much more grueling than the distance might suggest. Only 40 percent of starters finished, on average, in the 2013-2017 editions. In the pursuit of product testing and in hopes of better weather, BikeRadar staffers Ben Delaney and Josh Patterson tried their luck at this year's race.
- Gravel galore: the weird and wonderful from Land Run 100
- Fast on gravel - Vittoria's Corsa-inspired Terreno Zero
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
Every racer's toughest opponent at Land Run is the weather. When these roads become waterlogged, they turn from hardpacked dirt to brick-red putty that sticks to tires and mangles drivetrains in a matter of minutes. Clay-clogged bikes are a frequent enough occurrence at Land Run that riders are given small paint sticks with their race packets to scrape mud from their tires.
In preparing for this event, we kept a close eye on the forecast, hoped for the best and planned for the worst.
We arrived in Stillwater with Surly Singleators and spare derailleur hangers in hand for roadside singlespeed conversions, should the forecast change and our drivetrains succumb to the mud. Our just-in-case kits also included heavy gloves and waterproof jackets. Thankfully, the weather was ideal. Mild temperatures and dry roads made the race go by quickly.
Vittoria used Land Run to showcase its new Terreno Zero tire. This addition to the Terreno family of gravel treads is intended to be the fastest of the bunch. It uses the smooth center tread found on the company’s Corsa road tire with ramped hexagonal side lugs to provide a bit of traction when cornering.
Along with this new tire, we rode Vittoria’s new carbon wheelset, the Elusion Carbon Disc. This soon-to-be-released wheelset has an internal width of 19mm and a depth of 30mm. They were a suitable match to the 37mm-wide Terreno Zeros.
Canadian bicycle brand Opus supplied the framesets for this endeavor. We rode modified versions of the company’s Spark 4 AE.In its stock configuration, the Spark 4 AE comes with a budget-friendly kit that includes a Claris eight-speed drivetrain with an FSA 48x32t crankset, tubeless-ready alloy wheelset with 700x33 Vittoria Terreno Dry tires, as well as racks and fenders.
In addition to tubeless tires and carbon wheels, Ben's bike was outfitted with a Shimano Ultegra drivetrain and brakes. Josh made due with a slightly more pedestrian build that included the stock drivetrain and mechanical disc brakes.
Josh Patterson’s take on Land Run
Usually, features such as this are an opportunity to showcase high-end frames and components. Who wouldn’t want to run the best gear possible if given the opportunity?
However, there’s a lot to be learned by riding budget components, too. Yes, Claris is heavy and doesn’t shift nearly as well under power Shimano’s premier groups, but for the price, shifting was surprisingly crisp and it was entirely reliable — both of which are testaments to Shimano's ability to trickle down tech to the masses. The 48/32t FSA gravel compact is a great gearing option. I had all the range I wanted for the punchy, repetitive hills. (Land Run was essentially 106-miles of hill repeats.)
The Terreno Zero tires were fast and free from any punctures. If I were to do the race over again, I would opt for the Terreno Dry, which unlike the Zero, has a low-profile center tread and larger side knobs. The route was 90-percent dirt and gravel and 10-percent of pavement. For races that have a higher ratio of pavement to dirt, the Terreno Zero would be a good choice.
As far as the race itself, I used Land Run as a tune-up event for the 200-mile Dirty Kanza. As I often find myself, I spent most of the day in the netherworld behind the leaders and ahead of mid-pack. This gave me plenty of time to catch-up with old friends and make new ones along with way. It's a testament to the burgeoning passion for gravel that I was able to ride with people from a dozen states and three different countries.
Being a native Kansan, I've been racing gravel since my early days (because what else are you going to do in Kansas?). While gravel races have grown from a few dozen participants to thousands, the camaraderie and focus on racing to achieve your own goals remain unchanged. I'll definitely be back again... if it's dry.
Ben Delaney’s take on Land Run
Although I’ve ridden gravel for years and raced a number of road races with gravel, I had never done a bona fide gravel race before Land Run 100. It was a blast!
I was familiar and in favor of the hydraulic Ultegra drivetrain with a 46/36t crank, but the frameset, wheels, tires and saddle were new to me. (The wheels and tires are yet to be released.)
The Selle Italia Gravel is part of the Novus family, and is basically a Specialized Power shape but with a hefty layer of gel padding. It’s generally a bad idea to put on an unknown saddle before a multi-hour event, but the Gravel didn’t do me wrong. I was able to ride in a low position, trying desperately to draft faster riders, without any numbness during the race or saddle sores or other issues after.
Although I was a little skeptical of the ultra-minimal tread, the Terreno Zeros generally felt good to me. They rolled relatively fast, and I didn’t slip or slide in any of the corners, although they did squirm a bit in loose gravel.
Crucially, running the tires tubeless at about 35/37psi, I didn’t flat. For a dry course, I’m not sure the full 37mm width was needed, but on the other hand, I doubt I would have gone any faster on a skinnier tire.
Frankly, I was more worried about what to do for hydration than the particulars of the bike setup. Josh and our friend Nick Legan advised that while there was a checkpoint at mile 50 where you could leave supplies, the front group wouldn’t be stopping. So, very much against my roadie sensibilities, I donned a Camelbak Chase pack with a 50oz bladder in addition to my two big water bottles.
And sure enough, the group of 10 or so riders I was with blazed straight through the checkpoint, with most of them grabbing a musette bag on the fly from friends or significant others.
While I was a little envious of these guys not having to carry all their water for the day, I was also happy to be self-sufficient and not have to stop.
I ended up 11th. While the winner Mat Stephens and Canadian cyclocross champ Michael van den Ham were off the front from about the halfway point, our chase group of eight riders was of mixed motivation. A couple of us were happy to just roll through and finish top 10, but a couple guys, in particular, Brandon Melott, were downright salty that they had missed the winning move. (Melott had to stop to pull a stick out of his wheel on a technical section where Stephens and van den Ham went clear.)
The end result was Melott attacking myself and Jacob Lasley right out the back, and himself off the front to finish third. In the closing miles, two young brothers and one of Stephens' teammates blew by Jacob and me – there goes our top 10, dang it — but we were grateful for each other’s draft on the crawl back to Stillwater.
Before Stillwater came into sight, I slurped the last of my Skratch from the Camelbak, and my pockets were filled with empty wrappers from GU gels, chews and a Snickers.
Coming across the line with Jacob, we were both bear-hugged by Land Run 100 race promoter Bobby Wintle, and cold waters and cold beers were thrust into our hands. When is the last time that happened at a road race? To me, by a race promoter? Exactly never.
In retrospect, I really would have changed just one thing: stop at the chaise lounge for a picture. Plopped smack on the gravel road around mile 80 by Salsa, the chaise provided one heck of a photo op. At the time, I was head down in the chase group, and we sailed on by. But Stephens and van dem Ham stopped. Josh stopped. My friend at VeloNews Spencer Powlison stopped. And now they’ve all got photos that are much cooler than an 11th place on a results sheet that no one cares about.
Land Run 100 is a fantastic event. Thank you to the Wintles, Vittoria and Opus for letting Josh and I come play.