A constricting cyclocross season has left a lot of us with unexpected free time this Labor Day Weekend. (More on that later.) Fortunately for us, though, that Sunday is the original grassroots gravel adventure, the longest running gravel race in the Midwest, the breathtakingly beautiful and so-hilly-that-epic-doesn't-describe-it Colesburg Back 40.
"It started 29 years ago with a group of mountain bikers in the Dubuque area," explained Race Director Michelle Carithers. "They would go on an annual trip to the Hayward-Cable Wisconsin area to compete in the Chequamegon 40 MTB race, with its Birkebeiner's rolling hills and sketchy, chunky fire roads. So to better prepare, they looked for the area that best mirrored the Chequamegon race."
"The climbs, views, and descents are some of the best in Iowa."
– Ryan Jacobsen, Corridor Devo Junior Cycling Team
Set in the amazing Driftless Area, the Colesburg 40 is still quite true to its grass roots origin, even as it evolves with the times. This year, for the first time, the race includes a 100-mile option Carithers calls 'Iowa's Hardest Hundred.' "My hope was that it would draw more of the distance racers," she said, "and honestly, I truly believe it is the hardest. OMG it's challenging. I've ridden all the tough climbs, but it would take me 2-3 days to complete the entire 100 miles!"
"The Colesburg 40 has the biggest, nastiest climbs I've ever ridden in Iowa, gravel or paved." – Cole Ledbetter, Iowa Gravel Project
Iowa's Hardest Hundred
"Back in the day there was only the 40 and people talked about it like it was epic," said Sugar Bottom Bike's Nate Kullbom, the Course Director for the upcoming Core4. "I did the 60 last year and thought that distance was perfect, but since they are offering the 100 I gotta try it."
"The 40 is hard, the 60 is tough and the 100 is spot-on with its claimed 'Iowa's Hardest Hundred,'" said BIKEIowa's Scott Sumpter.
"I’ll have to get back to you on if it is, in fact, Iowa's hardest 100," said Kullbom. "I think the hardest 100 miler will be Driftless 100 in that same general area, Core4, or Colesburg."
"The descents are windy and technical and will have you testing your skills."
– Nate Kullbom, Core4
"As far as the routes go," said Carithers, "everything stems off the original 40 mile route. I've tweaked it here and there, but it's mostly the same. The 40 is the history of the race." Other options are 25 and 60 miles, "not a cake walk" and "if you like to be tortured," respectively. All include Level B and C roads, and the brutal climbs that characterize the Driftless Area.
"A beautiful course, some brutal hills, and a cold beer at the end with no extra fanfare."
– Vanessa Curtis, Iowa City Cycling Club
Years ago the Colesburg 40 was largely known through word of mouth. Now registration is on BikeReg.com. "I've worked hard over the last couple years to help grow attendance. That meant going to a lot of other races to race and bring awareness. I also volunteer at other races to help out and basically be a familiar face. I wanted food available for the racers after the race. I'm a huge fan of supporting local so I asked the local 4H group if they'd set up a booth. I mean who doesn't want to support kids' activities, right? We'll also have a sort of DJ there for announcements and to play music. And I'm making a podium with a cool backdrop as well as custom title belts for the winners of the 100."
"It's a true grass roots event with a super relaxed vibe. The race is set in a major farming community and that's why I changed the name to the Colesburg Back 40. I wanted to keep the original 40 in the name and "back 40" is a common phrase land owners use. It only seemed fitting."
"I love the paper-plate race number grassroots vibe." – Scott Sumpter, BIKEIowa
The race's organization is all volunteer, and proceeds go to the community of Colesburg. "I put together a group of advisors to help me make decisions (Ross Lemery, Lisa Mormann, Cory Rood, and Mark Stender)," said Carithers. "All of them are well known in the cycling community and they bring a lot of knowledge and experience to the table. I'm blessed to have them."
"It doesn’t get prettier in Iowa than the Driftless." – Kimberly Breuer, Cedar Valley Cyclists
"As far as volunteers, over the years many are friends who may not be in race condition for some reason or another. Some are spouses of the racers, and community members. Last year I had my father sweep and my mother was stationed at an aid station.
"I will lead out all four races, riding my Harley. The back of my shirt will say 'Queen of Pain with a twist of Fun.'" We can't wait!
The Colesburg Back 40 isn't going to compete with corporate gravel any time soon, but that's okay. Instead, it's a reminder of what "grass roots" actually means, and why we fell for gravel in the first place.
Register today on BikeReg.com.