GETTING ON THE PONY
The unknown of embarking on any new adventure comes with some amount of nervous anticipation: Am I prepared for this? Did I remember to pack the shoes? How about the helmet? Got the fuel and hydration on board? How many layers are right for the weather? Tires got air? Check. A commitment to gravel race events takes some prioritizing and organization along with a dose of courage and gritty determination to mount your bike and trust in your training and equipment, along with the nerve required to ascend and descend long and challenging hills. Gravel can be unpredictable, but racers are attracted to it because it’s guaranteed to provide challenge and offer some degree of suffering for both newbies and gravel veterans alike.
MEETING AN MGRS COOL KID VETERAN
Emily “Hambone” Mileski is an MGRS veteran and her horse is a Salsa Warbird. I happened to meet Emily at the Lowell Classic because she was kind enough to serve as the “pony express” and deliver a new thermal jersey I ordered from GRBC. Sporting some fancy round sunglasses, Emily has a warm and welcoming smile and helpfully volunteered important apparel tips so that I wouldn’t overdress for the race. I kindly thanked her and said goodbye only to run into her again after the race and learn that Emily placed 3nd in her age group and 9th overall! I instantly understood this MGRS Cool Kid was a force to be reckoned with, so decided to circle back with Emily by phone to learn more about her gravel story.
Emily is from Grand Rapids and has lived there all her life. She has always enjoyed physical challenges and was a roller derby girl for several years which explains a lot about her gritty racing desire and power legs. Introduced to gravel in 2017 by an endurance cyclist and friend, Emily’s first ever experience was Barry Roubaix in the rain and she quickly took to racing in the mud. The year 2017 was also the inaugural year for the Michigan Gravel Race Series and Emily’s strong showing won her first overall that year followed by 3rd place in 2018 even with a broken hand, caused by an accident at the Dirty 30 on her Redline bike—hence the new, shiny (and sometimes muddy) Salsa Warbird. But the Dirty 30 sketchy spill didn’t stop her in 2018. She got married to Mitch on a Friday and raced in the Barry Roubaix the very next day—broken hand and all—on a “Just Married” Tandem with Mitch and achieved 2nd place! While very humble, Emily “Hambone” is obviously a badass woman.
So I asked Emily what she thought about the MGRS racing community and Emily said, “The people here are really inclusive and being part of the community really spoke to me. The women are especially welcoming and supportive of one another. We’re genuinely encouraging and proud of how everyone has done and seeing their hard work pay off. When we push ourselves and finish a really tough ride there’s such a sense of accomplishment. But it’s hard to explain until you’ve experienced it yourself.” Emily added, “For me, I really like racing because I have a sense of focus and really hone in on what’s in front of me. I’m competitive against myself and do the best I can do. And it’s a beautiful way to see the countryside.”
Returning to my own first race experience at the Lowell Classic on April 6th, I got psyched out and promptly dropped on the very first monster of a hill after the bridge; so, I just treated the race like a hard training ride, trying to avoid getting lapped by the 50 milers—which I did of course—to the encouraging words of the grinding pack like “Good job!” and “You’ve got this!”
I also enjoyed the long unobstructed views, especially on a sketchy terrifying descent with a sharp right turn which I WHEW managed. It was a surprising first event experience in the country absence of grinding gravel and chatter around me but abundant with cows mooing, frogs croaking, birds singing and crickets doing their thing. Along with hill climbing, lots of hill climbing. And, I was absolutely relieved and exuberant to cross the finish line in 2nd place for my age group!*
*In the spirit of full disclosure, there were only two people in my age group, which goes to show that life is more about showing up + the determination to go the distance.