El Camino 105: The Texas Gravel Adventure, which started five years ago as a leisurely ride through the pines, drew about 300 cyclists to Palestine Saturday for a tough back-roads grinder. Professionals and amateurs from other states were in the mix.

The 105-mile and 65-mile races started at 7 a.m. and wound south of Palestine to back roads around Elkhart and Grapeland in a half-day trek. The first finishers returned to Old Town at about 12:30 p.m. An easier 35-mile race started an hour later. 

The gritty race combined high-tech with country charm, starting in Old Town Palestine and winding south over hilly paved streets and highways.

Aristeo Rodriguez, the race’s organizer and emcee, plans to double participation in next year's race. He wants to draw back as many of this year's participants as possible – and spread the word to other serious athletes.

Colin Strickland, the top finisher in the competitive 105-mile race, breezed in first with a winning time of 5 hours, 24 minutes (5:24:40). Mat Stephens of Dallas followed 6 minutes after with a time of 5 hours, 30 minutes (5:30:44). Chase Collins rolled in third at 5:40:24—a 15-minute gap from Strickland’s first place finish.

The ladies brought serious competition, with Lauren Stephens of Dallas placing first among the female competitors and seventh overall. She finished in 5 hours, 52 minutes (5:52:07).

Among men and women, the 105-mile race offered two equal prizes of $1,000 for first place; two $500 prizes for second place; and two $250 prizes for third.

“If y’all saw those ladies on the course, oh my goodness... they roll!” Rodriguez said during the prize ceremony.

Stephens, who races professionally, said she will return to El Camino next year if she can schedule it. 

Abby Shalekbriski rolled into Old Town with a time of 6 hours, 43 minutes (6:43:43), earning the second spot among the women and 23rd overall.

Dawn McDowell finished third among the ladies and 31st overall with a time of 7 hours, 5 minutes (7:05:35). 

El Camino began five years ago, but not as a competitive race. After four successful runs with an average of 80 participants each, the race fell off last year due to a lack of leadership. 

Rodriguez, who lives in Tyler, realized the potential for continuing El Camino in Palestine and embraced the project.

Mat Stephens, who placed second in the men’s category, said the course offered “a good mix of black top and gravel.” One stretch of road— reduced to sand due to lack of rain—was not possible to ride through. “Everyone was walking [their bikes],” he said. 

Nowadays, even a dirt and gravel bicycle race benefits from technology. Racers channeled a GPS signal to their smartphones, or mounted a small cycling GPS to their handlebars that directed their journey with voice commands or a map. 

A computerized finish-line camera captured each racer’s finish time and instantly posted each racer’s time and rank on its website, itri365.com, as cyclists rolled past the finish line on East Crawford St. 

Lauren Stephens said equal cash prizes for male and female athletes is not new in cycling, but has become more common in the past three years. 

Winning cyclists also received custom-made medals fashioned by local sculptor Orlando Guillen of Crazy Turtle Art. Guillen, who works at Killion’s Collision, used metal from a damaged vehicle from the City of Palestine to make the medals. Guillen said using materials from a city vehicle makes the medals truly authentic.

Tourism Director Mary Raum said she hopes the hand-crafted medals will encourage the athletes to share their memories of the race—and return to race again.

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