My first change was up front. I love my Jones bars, but I learned at the Chequamegon that they weren’t great for trail riding. I swapped them out for the pair of flat bars that Ben Doom put on the bike when he originally built it up. After about ten hours of riding, I can tell that the flat bars are much better for twisty-turny trail riding. I’ll put the Jones bars back on for next winter’s training and racing, when I want an upright cruising position.
The bigger adjustment was changing from a 2x gearing setup to a 1x setup – the SRAM X1 system. I’d had all kinds of trouble with the bike’s original 2x components (loose crank arms, rattling bottom bracket, crummy shifting) and I’d started to worry about a major mechanical failure. Tom at Downtown Bikes swapped out the old stuff for the new system while I was traveling last week, and After three hours on the new setup, the 1x seems to be a lot better in all these areas. My connection to the bike through the cranks and BB feels rock solid, and the shifting across the cassette is smooth and quick. I’m eager to see how the system performs at the Maah Daah Hey 100 on August 1 – and in my other races during the rest of this "off-season" and over next winter. I’ve gotta say, too, that the 1x feels pretty pro.
Since the Crashquamegon a couple weeks ago, I’ve taken it pretty easy – daily sessions at the gym, but no long rides till today, when the stars aligned such that I could spend the whole day out in the Buffalo. I picked out a route over some of my favorite roads, aiming to hit some new MTB trails for a an hour of trail riding before an easy ride home.
As luck would have it, the ride took place in amazingly great conditions – cool early but rising to about 80° F, a cooling westerly breeze, bright sunshine, a crisp blue sky. Through I hammered the hills as hard as I could, I took it easy at other times. I wound up with 63 miles in my legs over 5:30 of ride time and soaked up some great views.
This is narcissistic, I know, but dammit, I love them all.
While very eager to do races in the future that will get onto this list, here is the current top ten, in descending order:
10. The Lutsen 99er in June 2014. Not especially demanding physically, this race was my first mountain bike race. If nothing else, the sheer quantity of mud made this one memorable. I’d do it again, for sure! 8h 44m, 282nd of 421 finishers.
9. The Royal 162 in May 2014: At 165 miles (the 162 miles of the course, plus 3 bonus miles after a wrong turn), this was my longest-ever ride – so far! Though conditions were pretty good, this was just a long freaking way to ride bikes. Thank god Derek was there for company. 14h 23m, 39th of 51.
8. The Almanzo 100 in May 2011: (part I | part II | part III) My first gravel-century race, run in cold, wet conditions that made the riding slow and dirty and tough. I loved it as an event in its own right and as my introduction to ultradistance racing. 9h 8m, 80/150.
7. The Heck of the North in September 2014: The distance – 108 miles – wasn’t that bad, and the course was great, but my rear derailleur blew up at about mile 80, so I had to do some jury-rigging to convert my Salsa Vaya to a singlespeed and then limp in to the finish. 9h 55m, 139/174.
6. The Inspiration 100 in September 2013: Another gravel century, but run in temps above 90 and a heat index near or above 100. Heat exhaustion was a major factor, but I still managed a fast (for me) time: 7h 7m, 22/78.
5. The Cheq 100 in June 2015. This was a very hard race of attrition in which I didn’t get the result I wanted (a finish in the full 100-mile race). Pending my race in North Dakota in August, the Cheq now my #1 “off-season” goal for 2016. 10h 45m, something like 20/30.
4. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2015: Coming in well trained, decently rested (two weeks after #3, below), and very, very eager, I rode what I think is my best race here in pretty much perfect conditions. 19h 30m, 26/77.
3. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in January 2015: I worked so freaking hard at getting this race right. I tested my clothing, gear, and bike, I thought incessantly about my race strategy, and I trained like mad. It paid off with a solid effort and a finish of the full 126 miles. 26h 25m, 30/39.
2. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in March 2014 (part I | part II | part III): Run along the Continental Divide where Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana meet, this was my first race at any kind of altitude. What the elevation didn’t take out of me, the brutally slow snow did. I couldn’t finish this one, getting pulled off the course at 100 miles by the race director after 32 hours of racing. I’d say this was the low point in my personal history of bike racing, but I drew a lot of motivation from my “honorary finish.” Not only did I return the next year to ride smarter and faster and to finish (see #X above), but I’ve treasured the connections I made to this race’s people and land.
1. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2014: my first and still the hardest fatbike race I’ve done. I’d never done race of longer than about 12 hours, but this one took me more than 24 hours, thanks in large part to temperatures that infamously ranged from -20° to -40° made the riding difficult, to say the least, but I stuck it out, teaching myself that I could do a lot more than I thought I could. 29h 9m, and a top-ten finish – 7/30.
I was only snuck into the race after I mused to a friend that I didn’t have any races on my calendar between the Almanzo in May and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in August. As it turns out, he knew a guy who could get me into the Cheq, and another friend, Galen, happened to be going up there to volunteer.
Things having fallen into place quite neatly, I headed up north on Thursday with Galen. We planned to camp each night and help set up the course on Friday. I’d race on Saturday while he hung out, and then we’d do a bit of riding on Sunday before coming home.
Our leisurely drive ended at a lovely little campsite at Two Lakes Campground in Drummond (just a couple miles up from where we saw a bear crossing the road!). The spot was idyllic, dominated by greens and blues and very quiet except for loons.
On Friday morning, we helped set up a chunk of the course (which had the added benefit of acquainting me with a gorgeous and fun piece of the trail)
and then did some riding on the infamously hard Rock Lake Trail, a savagely difficult stretch of rocky, rooty singletrack. It was as hard as anything I’d ever ridden, and I was riding it with fresh legs in good, dry conditions. If I do say so myself, the Buffalo looked awesome:
For various reasons entirely under my control, Friday night was less restful than it should have been, but I was up and moving by 5:30 a.m. to get to the race, driving over with JB, a fellow Northfielder. Just as forecasted, a heavy, chilly rain started falling about a half hour before the start. By 7 a.m., everything – roads, trails, riders, bikes, gear – was thoroughly soaked. But off we went!
The opening few miles are on a gravel road, so we were not only wet but muddy even before we hit the needle’s-eye opening to Rock Lake. The single-file line of racers jockeyed as we moved along the singletrack. I let quite a few people pass me when I either bobbled an obstacle or pulled over to let them through. I was not enthused about giving up spots, but I could tell that I was in for a long day – my bike computer was showing an average speed of well under 6 mph – and I wanted to conserve every bit of energy rather than go hard just to keep a spot for five more minutes. When we reached a super-steep rocky drop called Wall Street, I was amazed to see many riders take the A-line down the drop rather than the easy dirt B-line. I took the B, and was pleased to scoot around unscathed. Discretion and valor and all that.
As I wound my way through Rock Lake, other racers became fewer and fewer. A couple friends like JB went by me, and I pulled back a couple people who’d gone out too hot, but I was pretty much on my own, and happy enough about it. That’s not to say I was happy, exactly. In addition to the oddity of my hearing aids popping and buzzing from rain getting into my ears (and my consequent fretting that they’d die on the ride), I was uncomfortably filthy, the mud was already causing the Buffalo’s drivetrain to act up, my front brake suddenly stopped working, and my tires were proving to be terrible in the mud.
And I was crashing a lot. I went down at low speeds and at slightly less low speeds. I went off the bike to the right, scraping my legs on the chainring and chain, and off to the left, trapping myself under the Buffalo. I went over the bars more than once, including one idiotic time when I simply steered into a tree and then flew into it when, sure enough, the tree stopped the bike. Just as I started thinking seriously about how I could lessen the chance of an irreparable bike problem or of breaking an arm or leg, we came off Rock Lake and I had a short respite in which to eat, drink, and calculate that I was on pace for a 21-hour finish of a hundred-mile race.
This was an impossibility. I didn’t have enough food or water to race that long, and I didn’t have any lights to ride at night. As I thought about my options, I came up on my friend JB, sitting in the grass at a road crossing, his face covered in blood. “I hit a tree,” he told me. “My nose is broken.” I dug out my phone to find the number for the race director, who’d need to know JB was dropping out. (As it happens, that was a fateful move, as my phone got soaked and stopped working later that day.) As JB organized himself to head back to the start, a couple other riders pulled up, talking exhaustedly about dropping out. One even claimed to be hypothermic, which struck me as odd given that the temps were in the high sixties and that he was wearing a long-sleeve jersey and knickers – all coated in mud and muck.
I headed back onto the race course as they were leaving, and at around that point the race became as blurry and indistinct as the view through my filthy sunglasses. I rode the Buffalo for at least eight more hours after that point, but I remember only little moments in the race. For one thing, the course is so complicated and my knowledge of the trails is so thin that I have little or no idea where I was at any particular time. The only constants were my efforts to get over the muddy, mucky trails, to focus on making the turns, to strive to enjoy the sound of the rain in the trees and the sight of the weak light through the trees, and to try not to crash over and over. In between the usual array of earworm music, dumb but profound sayings popped into my head, like how success is often just rising one more time than you fall. In this race, this was literally true!
At some point, a racer caught me from behind. We talked for a bit about conditions. She said she’d heard that many people had dropped out. I corroborated this. She said she was wondering if we could switch to the shorter, 62-mile race at the spot on the course where the two races diverge. I said I didn’t know for sure, but had heard as much. We traded a bit of intel about the track ahead of us: a short gravel-road section, then a really tough loop around mile 30. She headed off up the trail away from me, leaving me to consider my options. Since I was only getting more concerned that I might wind up with a broken bike or body, I started to really like the idea of switching into the short race, especially if – as seemed likely – that meant that I would still get in a solid ten or more hours of hard riding.
Amidst all that, I enjoyed the swoopy fun of the Danky Dank and Esker trails, which were challenging but not obscenely so. I did not enjoy Hildebrand Loop, which is rated as “Very Difficult” and might better be rated “Very Effing Difficult.” Racers who must have been the leaders of the 62-mile race caught me in this section, as did a number of others like my friend Finn Sunboo. I crashed my way through the loop, walking plenty of hard sections, including the dicey, wooden “No Hands Bridge” over a creek running into Hildebrand Lake. Relieved to get off Hildebrand, roughly a third of the way into the 100-mile course, I decided to reward myself with the Red Bull I’d been carrying in my frame bag. I eagerly dug it out, almost tasting the sugary fizz. The can was, however, empty: it had been punctured in one of my crashes and all the caffeinated elixir had dribbled out into my frame bag.
Expletives were uttered here, and I decided to definitely shorten my day by switching into the 62-mile race. Now, though, I had to make it to the course split and then ride 20 miles after that to the finish. Back out on a gravel road, my chain, which had been creaking and catching all day, finally jumped off my biggest cog and lodged itself very, very tightly between that cog and the spokes. I needed a good 15 minutes, or maybe more, to fix it, in which time drivers in two passing trucks asked if I needed help. Nice folks, Wisconsinites!
Getting the chain back in place was in some ways the last test of the day, because the rain stopped around then, and after the repair had a long, fast gravel-road section that my computer suggested would end at or near the magical course split. I hammered the road, feeling very much at home in the big ring, head down near the Buffalo’s bars. The rollers and sweeping curves carried me past mile 35 and on to 40. Just as I started to wonder if I’d somehow made wrong turn, I came across a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the edge of the road. “Almost to the checkpoint!” he shouted as I rolled past. I pushed a bit more and got there: a pop-up tent, some muddy trucks, and a few volunteers wading through the soupy mud. I tried to make my stop quick, first confirming with the race director that I could in fact switch to the 62-mile race, then drinking a Coke and devouring some sugary food.
I dunno how long I was stopped, but I felt refreshed and relaxed when I took the Buffalo back onto the course. The trails were now a little drier than they had been in the morning, and these particular trails were also much more fun to ride: aerobically challenging, but technically just right. In the woods, I realized that I could hear birds singing for the first time all day, and that I was really dripping sweat – also for the first time.
I enjoyed the work of trying to punch the climbs – including the ascent to the course’s high point – and then letting the Buffalo run down the descents, including some truly amazing corkscrewing descents that got less and less frightening with each turn. I stopped crashing, and even went long stretches without putting a foot down. More racers caught me, including some 100-mile racers who were now hours and hours up on me. But I felt like I was on the home stretch. The trails – now the long northwesterly Ojibwe (or Ojibwa, depending on the sign!) – continued to be much more fun than work, and far easier to ride than those early in the day. I almost – almost – regretted that the race was coming to its conclusion, and then looked down at my filthy legs, my muddy bike, my clanking chain, and thought, “Naw, a hundred kilometers will be fine.”
Around the time my computer said that I’d gone about 55 miles, my fatbiking friend Wisconsin Mark caught me. He was shocked that I was ahead of him, since I am way slower than he is (even through he’s 18 years older than I am), and then very relieved to learn that he was actually about 40 miles ahead of me, having done the full 100-mile route. I tried to hang with him as we wound through the trees toward what had to be the road section to the finish, but he got away from me.
Then suddenly I saw his red jersey on a switchback ahead of me, riding out a descent that was paralleling a road and thus had to be dropping to the end of the Ojibwe Trail. A few minutes later, the Buffalo took me down that descent, under a nice little archway, and out onto the gravel road to the finish in Cable. I put the bike into the biggest gear that was still working and pushed as hard as I could, seeing Mark off in the distance. When the gravel turned to pavement, I knew I was done. A couple more turns and I pulled into the finishing area, completely and thoroughly worked.
My friend Galen met me with a grin and a few words of sympathy. All told, I logged a solid 100 kilometers in a pathetically slow but brutally hard 10:45, good enough for 18th place in the “metric” field. Notably – and leaving out the complication that some of us stepped down from the long race to the short one – only 35 out of 131 starters finished the 62-mile short race (a 27% completion rate), while only 63 of 130 (48%) finished the 100-mile long race. (Even weirder, the winner of the short race needed 8:05 to do those 62 miles – almost ten more minutes than the winner of the long race needed to do the full hundred!)
At the afterparty, Galen offered to loan me his car so that I could head home early on Sunday while he and another Northfielder – neither of whom had raced – did a bit of fun riding. The drive home was slow and easy, and included way too many stops to take on and let out food and drink. I got home in time to have a great Father’s Day, which was perfect.
Two days later now, I am sure that I will be back to try the race again in 2016. I’ll definitely approach the race differently, in big and small ways. Assuming I can maintain my endurance base, I will have to orient my training around the challenge of singletrack. I need to get much more practice on true singletrack trail, for one thing. I also need to practice handling rough trail – logs, rocks, mud – when fatigued, which is a very different thing than handling obstacles fresh. I’m lucky in these respects to have some fun local singletrack to ride now – and to have the Maah Daah Hey as a goal and a gauge, exactly 40 days from today!
I’ll definitely also need to figure out how to eat and drink on a mountain bike. Unlike either fatbike or gravel racing, a MTB racing seems to offer very few opportunities for eating my preferred “real foods,” like trail mix and jerky. I survived the Cheq on energy chews, but I could kill two birds with one stone by using an energy drink that provides water and nutrition at the same time. And I definitely need to use water bottles, not a Camelbak bladder in a frame bag! (I dislike wearing a backpack, but maybe I need to go in that direction again anyhow…)
I’m even feeling a perverse pride in having some of the ugliest legs in Minnesota right now, thanks to all those crashes. They’ll heal.
This was a long and wonderful early-summer weekend that included errands, playdates, birthday parties, plenty of ice cream, the first trip to the pool
and two good bike rides, one each evening.
Saturday’s outing was Vivi’s first on a new-to-her Trek mountain bike – a bike she loathed right up until I brought it home (at the suggestion of my bike shop’s owner, who knows from selling bikes!). Once Vivi saw the bike in all its 24″ glory, she was ready to rock, and so we did:
We rode a short gravel hill near our house and then tooled around on some paved paths in the next subdivision. She loved the bike’s speed, and Julia loved that the new bike helped her keep up.
Even though the girls had a very full day today, they still wanted to ride this evening, so off we went again, this time to the local MTB trails. Julia cruised the trails like a pro, and Vivi did a great job handling the bigger, faster bike through the tight twists and turns. She only watched as Julia rode her favorite drop, though:
They even fell for a little reverse psychology I used them to goad them into riding a little hill. The sign doesn’t apply when your motor is lungs and legs.
On the way home, Vivi’s saddle loosened to the point that she couldn’t ride comfortably, so I had to do some trailside jury-rigging by moving my seatpost and saddle to her bike. Shimmed with a bit of inner tube, she was able to ride home on my Brooks C17 saddle and Moots Cinch seatpost – a truly ridiculous situation, given that the saddle is worth more than her whole bike, and don’t even get me started on the ti post.
Since her seatpost wouldn’t fit in my bike’s downtube, I had to stand up the whole rest of the way, which made the last mile’s sprint through the rain even more challenging than otherwise!
All in all, this was an auspicious start to the summer.
Aware that not everyone can, say, bike around the world or row across the Atlantic, Humphreys advocates breaking out of the everyday rut of home and office with “microadventures” – short trips that go from “5 to 9″ (after work one day until mid-morning the next) and that get a person out into nature, even if it’s just an overnight in a nearby park. I love the idea, which provides a name and a rationale for an activity that I’d already been doing to some degree. Michael and I have already done a few microadventures – one together, several separately or with others.
Saturday night, I went microadventuring while the girls were at a sleepover. I didn’t want to either overthink the outing or get overly ambitious, so I packed up my bike with some minimal overnight gear, grabbed food and drink from the kitchen, and took the scenic route out to a local county park. I stopped for plenty of pictures.
Once at the park, I made my way down a rough trail through the woods – surprisingly tall and green here at the edge of what should be tallgrass prairie.
I set up a little riverside campsite (being sure to tuck the Buffalo into a safe spot), got a fire going, and had dinner and a couple beers.
As much as I like being around people, I relished being by myself, listening to the birds and the river.
The night was pleasingly restless, and included being awoken once by something crawling around the campsite. In the morning, I had a little campfire breakfast in a light rain and enjoyed more river views.
Then I packed up my stuff and rode home down a slick road, soaking up the green scenes
and spotting some damp old junk.
It was wonderful. I look forward to doing it again soon.
I had to work late today, which meant I rode home around 7:30 and saw a very different Northfield than I do when I ride home just after 5: slow strolling students on campus, lawn mowers and dog walkers and stray skateboarders, wide empty streets, a golden yellow haze over the fields
and just for mystery’s sake, a hot air balloon drifting east of town.
I dunno if that many bike riders name their bikes, but I know a few who do, and I have named my last three bikes. My first gravel bike, a Surly CrossCheck, never earned a name, but my blue Salsa Mukluk fatbike was "the Beast," because it was a beastly machine that could go anywhere and looked (I think) a little scary, with those big tires seeming to be giant black paws. My Salsa Vaya gravel bike is "Giddyup," because it’s got a lot of get up and go – which is true even if I don’t ride it enough.
My favorite bike, my silver Salsa Mukluk, is "the Buffalo," a name that took me a long time to choose – or which took a long time to choose the bike. Quite a few people have asked me about the name – including several strangers at the Almanzo last weekend who rode up next me and asked, "Is that the Buffalo? Are you Chris Tassava?"
Despite or because of the weirdness of having strangers recognize me and my bike, I thought maybe I should explain the name.
I bought the Mukluk from my friend Ben, who’d built it up for himself a few years before but hadn’t had time to really put it to use. He gave me a great deal on the bike, so I snapped it up. Riding the nameless bike for months after I bought it, I thought about its many wonderful qualities and waited for the right moniker to emerge. My daughters lobbied for "Beauty," partly as a complement to the Beast (though I no longer owned the Beast) and partly because they’re girls. Honestly, the bike is pretty. Dressed in its blue and gray frame bags for winter racing or bikepacking, the bike looks, I think, like it’s wearing a comfortable, functional uniform.
Without the bags, the bike shows off all of its unpainted silvery titanium – definitely the bike material that’s easiest on the eyes.
Despite all that, "Beauty" didn’t fit. Not that one can’t define beauty in many ways, but to me, the bike was too burly and too aggressive-looking to be "Beauty." Then, on a long training ride last fall, with the bike dressed in its all bags and laden with most of my winter-racing gear, as I ground my way up a long, messy gravel climb, it hit me: "the Buffalo."
My mind was primed for this revelation. I’d just read an article somewhere about bison. Most people know about the bison’s near-eradication in the 19th century, and also know the bit about how Indians used "every part" of the bison, but the animal itself is as fascinating as its history. It’s the largest North American mammal, the only survivor of the megafauna that thrived tens of thousands of years ago but that were almost all killed off by humans when they migrated out of Asia.
The bison survived because of their unique physical characteristics. They’re massive, but their physiology enables them to thrive in a wide range of conditions – hot southwestern deserts, temperate grasslands, lowland forests, mountain valleys, Alaskan swamps – and of course, the dry, windy grasslands that run up the center of the continent, which was where I live and where I would largely be riding the bike. A bison is fast – able to run up to up to 25 miles an hour. A bison is nimble – able to jump over fences that are six feet high or ditches and holes longer than their body length. A bison is tough – able to move dozens of miles a day in the right conditions (not to mention to survive the white mans’ guns). And a bison is very pleasing to look at, in a wild way.
My fatbike, too, is fast, nimble, tough, and above all adaptable – good on pavement, great on gravel, excellent on dirt, and of course phenomenal on snow. With those rationalizations in place, I just had to make sure the name was right "Buffalo" is a laden term, with pedants loving to point out that the American bison isn’t a "buffalo" like the water buffalo of Africa. (This is true, but also dumb, since the French explorers didn’t give the name to the weird humpbacked cattle they saw on the plains because they looked like water buffalo.)
But "the Bison" didn’t sound right, and "Tatanka" (the Lakota word for "bison") didn’t seem right coming from a white guy. Growing up, I’d always used the label "buffalo" for bison, which mattered to me because riding bikes – especially fatbikes – can be a pure, childlike pleasure. And "the Buffalo" just sounded right when I said it. The name fit all the more because I’d installed some weird curved handlebars that looked – from above and behind, which was my view of them – a little like a horned bovine head. Within a few hundred yards of gravel road, the nameless fatbike became the Buffalo, and the Buffalo has taken me to some cool places.
Saturday, I raced the Almanzo 100, the huge gravel-road bike race that’s been held in southeastern Minnesota for many years now and that is arguably the biggest, best-known gravel grinder in the country.* I’ve done the Almanzo every year since 2011, when that year’s muddy, cold, rainy edition got me hooked on gravel racing.**
This year, I was woefully undertrained, with a 40-miler standing as my longest ride since the Arrowhead at the end of January. In addition, this was the first time that the Almanzo was going to be run by someone other than its hardworking founder, Chris Skogen. No longer able to stage the event on his own, Skogen had turned the race over to the city of Spring Valley (a few minutes south of Rochester, MN) and a Minnesota bike-store chain. By all accounts, they did a great job running the whole show: the 380-mile Alexander, which starts on Friday night and rambles through Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota; the 162-mile Royal, which adds 62 miles of gravel in far-southern Minnesota and northern Iowa to the Almanzo course; and the main race, which this year set something like 1,000 racers loose on a 101-mile course in and around Fillmore County.
While I was looking forward to racing again after months “off” and to seeing the course in all its springtime glory (Skogen’s course is a work of art), I decided a couple weeks before the race to approach it like a really hard training ride. Without enough miles in my legs to make them race ready, I’d still ride as hard as possible, but I wouldn’t aim for a particular time or a place (apart from “today” and “not last”). I’d also give myself a couple other challenges by riding my fatbike, rather than my sadly-neglected gravel bike, and by going self-supported: no drink or food at the aid stations and no purchases at convenience stores. These challenges – and the prospect of a solid day on the bike – ensured that I was in a good mood as I waited for the 9 a.m. start in Spring Valley, having seen my friend Scott off on the Royal two hours before.
Finding a spot in the start area, I realized that I occupied quite a bit more space than most everyone else. The Buffalo was laden with me, a few pounds over my idea racing weight; a 2.5-liter water bladder in my frame back; and 4,000 calories of trail mix, gels, jerky, and assorted other treats in my bar bags. From the gun, I focused on riding a steady pace that was maybe a half-notch past sustainable. True to the Almanzo’s rep as a race full of newbies, the first few miles were littered with lost water bottles, scattered cue sheets, and riders fixing flats. I was pleased to see that the Buffalo’s tires – 4″ Maxxis Mammoths – let me roll as fast as anyone around me on the flats and straights. In the corners, I could confidently take inside lines that I wouldn’t even try on a gravel bike, and on the downhills? A freaking divebomber. On the first big descent, I jumped onto the rough gravel at the far right edge of the road and roared past the two lines of riders in the open lines on the road itself. 40 mph of exhilaration.
Of course, pulling 40 pounds of bicycle up the climb on the other side of that descent was less fun, but my low gears and those giant tires helped me grind away at least as fast as the riders around me, and then we were back on the flats and rollers.
A bit later, the course’s first really tough climb, Nature Road – maybe the most picturesque spot on the course – was very nearly fun: find a low gear, get my chest down in the stem, and turn the cranks. In between interesting spots like that climb, I chatted a bit with other riders, including my fatbike-adventuring friend Minnesota Mark, who was crushing the course on Rosalita, his gorgeous titanium Salsa El Mariachi. Folks on gravel bikes wanted to talk about my bike and why I wanted to ride the Almanzo on a fatbike, while folks on mountain bikes (or the occasional other fatbike) wanted to talk about my tires and whether I’d done any other fatbike racing. I met a couple other Arrowhead racers and several wanna-bes. I exchanged fist bumps with any fatbike riders I could.
The Almanzo course can be divided into four sections increasing intensity: 40 miles to Preston, 25 miles to the second checkpoint at Forestville State Park, 15 miles to the water crossing, and then 20 miles to the finish – a section that includes two huge climbs. While I was enjoying the cruise to Preston, a few of my fellow Northfielders came past me. I caught them at the first checkpoint, hung out for a bit (turning down offers of water and Coke), and headed out en masse. Those damn gravel bikes easily pulled away from me on the paved climb out of town, but I was spending some good time with the Buffalo, so I didn’t mind.
I spent most 30 miles to Forestville riding alone: getting small for the headwinds, sitting up to catch the tailwinds, eating and drinking regularly, and setting up little games – pushing hard to that telephone pole, trying to catch that guy before the next corner. More than a few times, I was surprised to recognize a spot on the course that seemed out of place – a corner that I remembered being later in the course, a hill I could have sworn we descended earlier. I guess my previous 400 miles of Almanzoing hadn’t fixed the course in my head well enough.
Riding along the valley floor toward the Forestville checkpoint, I encountered the single most annoying racer ever: a guy tooling along with a stereo on his handlebars, blasting some sort of rap. I like rap, and listen to it a lot – on my headphones or on earworm radio, not through a tinny stereo on my bike. I was happy to let him get away from me and take his music along, leaving me to absorb the peace of the green hills.
At Forestville, many racers were in full recovery mode – eating hot dogs and chips, having beers, napping – but I wanted to get in and out quick. I refilled my water at the spring, ate some food, and downed a good carb/protein shake. I also ran into the guy who was my R.A. during my freshman year in college. Peter and I have been in plenty of the same races, but had never actually connected. It was good to say hi to him, chat for a few minutes about the race, and then get out of there. I was tempted to have one of my two Red Bulls, but I refrained, promising to have one at the water crossing (and saving the other in case of a bonk).
The 15 miles after Forestville are always the most painful of any in the race. My legs are dead, the excitement of the start or even of the crowds at Preston is absent, the tiredness of the racers at the checkpoint is contagious, my eating and drinking is off track, and I’m dreading those two big climbs in the last 10 miles. But pedaling has so far always worked to keep my bike moving, and so it did again. Up the paved climb out of the park, down the swoopy fun of Maple Road, and then out again onto the flats and rollers that weave on toward water crossing at the bottom of Orion Road. I started to gather up racers as we neared that spot, and others started coming up from behind me, so a good group of us went down Orion together. When we popped out at the creek, I paused for a second and then tried to ride right through. I made it halfway before a big rock stopped me. Hopping off, I hustled the Buffalo through the water and up onto the opposite bank.
I stopped there for a minute to enjoy the feeling of the icy water on my legs, to watch other racers negotiate the creek (many did so only after removing their shoes and socks, a bit of delicacy that I can’t even), and to guzzle that promised Red Bull. When the empty can went into my frame bag, I got back onto the bike and started the rough, fun climb up Orion Road from the creek. 15 miles to go. Three women on mountain bikes rode up near me, chatting the whole time and trying, I think, to set up a rendezvous with someone else on course. I was happy to reach the top and pull away a little. I consciously tried to stay light and loose, readying myself for those last climbs. The stretch from the top of the Orion Road to the first and harder of the last two climbs – the infamous Oriole Road – is actually pretty easy, and easier this year thanks to some tailwind. Feeling decent, I rolled past the now-standard aid station slash kegger in Cherry Grove. A few miles later, when I made the left-hand toward the base of the Oriole climb, though, I felt myself tensing up. I had to get loose again. Roll the shoulders. Flex the hands. Do some neck circles. Find a nice low gear. Unzip the jersey. At the sign that says “Oriole Road,” turn right and set the dial on “max effort.”
I have never walked the hill, and didn’t want to disappoint the Buffalo by walking it this year, so I dropped as low onto my bike as I could. Some stolen glances showed that the hill was a steep son of the devil and that the slope seemed to be covered with racers walking their bikes. Mostly I watched my knees cycles in and out of view and the gravel pass under my front tire. I could sense when I passed other racers, but I couldn’t hear anything over my breaths and heartbeats. Abruptly the pedaling got easier. Looking up, I saw that I had reached the top of the first ramp. There was plenty of hill still to climb, but the hardest part was over. I bore down again, passing a few more people, winding through the gentle curves, and then emerging suddenly at the crest. Ahead of me, two little girls were giving away bottles of water to other racers. “Want some water?” the taller one asked me. I said please and thank you and downed all of it in two gulps. A violation of my rule about self-support, but my god, delicious.
I sat up to relax my back but kept turning the pedals. Five more miles of rollers rolled past, and then I was taking the twisty descent to Masonic Park, where a small creek rushes along a gorgeous rock bluff. The bridge over the creek starts the race’s last big climb: nowhere near as severe as Oriole, but taxing with 95 miles in the legs. Here again were quite a few walkers, some of whom I passed for good, others who caught me after the top of that hill, almost within sight of Spring Valley.
From the high points on that home stretch, I could see dozens of riders strung out on the roads to the finish. Just before the turn off the last gravel road and onto a highway that runs right into town, two guys came past me. Knowing we’d have a headwind into town, I fought to stick to them. When we turned into the wind, the work paid off by giving me a sweet wheel-sucking position behind them. We cruised around a few singletons and small groups, then missed the turn into the finishing zone. Whether the corner was poorly marked or we were too gassed to correctly read our cues (and/or notice the giant arrow that others later told me was spray-painted on the road), we wound up weaving through city streets and popping out on the wrong side of the finish line. I ducked back around and rolled through the chute at 8:36.
Given that I was on the Buffalo, that I rode (almost entirely) self supported, and that I spent very little time at stops, I was pretty satisfied with this time and my place (406). Hanging out and chatting with friends like Ryan the Giant and Bonnie the Trashtalker, I concluded that my Almanzo bodes well for other races I’ll do this summer, especially the Maah Daah Hey 100 trail race in North Dakota on August 1, which – being a new race for me – I’m considering the main focus of my off-season. And I had enough fun on the fatbike that I might ride the Buffalo at the two gravel races at the end of the summer – the Inspiration 100 and the Heck of the North.
I say “arguably” because several other regional races draw pretty well, and the Dirty Kanza 200 in Kansas seems to have a “biggest and baddest” reputation.
Sunscreen, water bottles, helmets, and away we went. I marveled at how easily and quickly we zipped past the pool, which had been a distant, hard-to-reach destination even just last summer. (It’s not quite a mile away.) The girls being older, bigger, and excited-er was already paying off. A few minutes later, we arrived at the very nondescript start to the trails. Vivi was surprised to see a simple path in the woods (I think she was expecting something grander), but she gamely followed Julia onto the trail, who had been racing ahead of us throughout the ride over.
Taking up the third spot in our little group, I was initially worried that Vivi – who’s often only tolerates bike riding, and had only ever ridden on sidewalks and streets – would hate the tight, twisty dirt trail. Worry: unfounded! She rode carefully but steadily through the first set of corners, popped up off her seat to negotiate a few short rises, and even leaned into the early downhill corners. Not to say she was a natural, but she was pretty close. She wanted to chase down Julia, too, which helped a lot.
I hung back a few yards, at first calling out a few instructions but soon just enjoying the sight of the two of them – or at least G, since J was usually out of view up front – zooming through the trees. They both stopped to walk the two trickier log obstacles and to guide their bikes through one very tight spot that I can’t even ride, but they crushed everything else. I was so happy and proud of them!
Before I knew it, we were zooming around the baseball fields and racing down the flat two-track along the river, which they found a little boring. I was surprised by this, so we headed to some of the trickier trails in the back. Julia was excited to try a fairly steep dropoff, which she rode smoothly – and over and over:
As Julia tried a few other accessible pieces of elevated trail, though, Vivi started to have a hard time, perhaps due to seeing her sister ride stuff that she herself didn’t want to attempt, and perhaps also due to needing a snack. Hangry, she starting crying and yelling about how much she hated biking, and how the trails were boring and stupid.
Trying to curtail this ugliness, I urged them back along the trials to the start, where – as I had promised in the morning – we hit the convenience store for ice cream. After the sugary treats, some water from their very own bike bottles, and a few minutes of rest, Vivi was raring to go again. We hit all of the front stuff again and tried out some of the technical sections in back, including a twenty-foot section that includes a sharp left hand turn, an off-camber descent over some roots and loose dirt, and then a sharp righthand turn away from the river.
With enthusiasm still high but energy levels waning, we spent a long time practicing – "sessioning," as they say – a short but steep little drop that, ultimately, both girls mastered. Vivi spent a good five minutes nerving herself up to try it the first time, but once she did it once, she did it again and again – taking turns with Julia, who alternately encouraged her sister ("Come on, girl! You got this!") and hit the drop at higher and higher speeds.
I wanted to the outing to end on a pretty high note like this one, so after a good number of attempts (and one little crash by the elder in which she bent her brake lever and scraped her legs – yes!), I turned them toward home again. Julia just had to see the Spine, an infamously tough obstacle that she heard about at school from her mom’s supervisor (what?!), so we checked that out. Though they couldn’t ride much of the obstacle, they were intrigued by the idea of learning how to do it over the course of the summer. Being a guy, I just had to show off for the cute girls, so I gave the Spine a go and surprised myself by cleaning it for the first time ever – right in front of the girls.
That couldn’t be topped (at least today), so we headed home from there. The girls literally rode away from me when we passed through the front singletrack section for the last time. I had to work very hard to get close enough to snap a photo!
By the time we rolled into our garage fifteen minutes later, we’d been out in the fresh air for nearly four hours, and spent a solid 2:30 riding. The girls were exhausted, ravenous, and dirty, but after resting, eating, and bathing, they both told me that they were eager to go back next weekend. I can’t wait. I don’t think I’m going to get tired of riding bikes with them anytime soon.
I’ve been a parent for almost 11 years now, but I’m still surprised at how big, important moments come out of nowhere. Sure, a lot of big, important moments are carefully scheduled (somehow, my calendar shows me attending Julia’s fifth-grade graduation ceremony on Tuesday!), but many aren’t. This morning, for instance, I casually mentioned the idea of going with one or both girls over to the new singletrack bike trails at Sechler Park, a short but challenging few miles of track that Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails, our local MTB club, built last year.
Having spent hours and hours on the trails in the fall, over the winter, and now this spring, I’ve cut my crashing down from “constant” to “occasional,” which led me to think that the girls might be able to handle many of the trails – especially the “front” section nearest town and the doubletrack “road” along the river in the back.
Vivi was busy today with her BFF, but lo and behold, Julia got very excited by the idea, and so off we went. She was stoked to have a real water bottle in the cage of her new (to her) bike and to wear a pair of my bike gloves. I could barely keep in front of her on the couple-mile ride through town to the trails. When we arrived at the trailhead, I gave her a few pointers, reassured her that she could and should walk any sections that seemed too tricky, and told her I was so happy that she’d even been interested in coming out. I left unsaid that I was bubbling over with excitement at having one of my kids sharing one of my favorite activities with me.
Then we hit the trails. Though the first stretch of trails – from the trailhead to the baseball fields in the middle of Sechler – is almost entirely flat, the track is very tight, with many sharp corners, innumerable spots where there trees are just slightly wider than a rider’s elbows, and a good number of technical features like log bumps and bridges. I am myself the furthest thing from smooth on this section, but I can ride it pretty cleanly now.
On her first try, Julia rode these trails pretty much as cleanly as I do after hours of practice – railing the corners, riding easily over some low obstacles, crossing the bridges without a thought, and intuitively pedaling hard up some steep bits. She did, wisely, dismount for some of the bigger obstacles, but she handled everything else with aplomb – and maybe a few shrieks.
After negotiating the front section, we rode the doubletrack out to the far end of the park, rested for a bit (and talked about how old she’ll have to be to ride in the 100-mile Almanzo gravel race), and then headed back to the start. After a quick break for fizzy water and granola bars from the gas station, we did the whole route a second time. She crushed it again:
More than once, I was riding ahead of her at a reasonably quick pace, turned to see where she was, and found her right on my wheel, looking for all the world like she was about to make a pass and drop me like a brick. As we neared the end of our second circuit, I sped up so I could get a picture of her hitting the bridge near the trailhead. I rode away fast, but still barely had time to dig out my phone before she cruised through the trees, effortlessly glided up the ramp onto the bridge, rolled over the bouncy little span, dropped back onto the dirt, and whipped past me.
It was just a bike ride, but it felt like a big, important bike ride. I can’t wait to take her back there again soon, and to take Vivi along, too.
I had to leave the Buffalo at the shop for a week while a defective part was replaced, which would have sucked except that a) the part was warrantied, and Tom, my LBS guy, only charged me for the labor needed to install the new part, and b) Tom let me use his shop bike, a Surly Ice Cream Truck, while the Buffalo was fixed.
The Ice Cream Truck is a wonderfully crazy machine: trail-ready frame geometry, candy-blue paint, and most importantly, massive 5″ tires. The ICT was loud and slow on pavement and sidewalks, but on any other surface – grass, dirt, sand, gravel – the bike took off. It was a rocket on straightaways, but really showed off in corners and on sharp ups and downs. Riding this thing, I easily railed tight, loose corners in the local singletrack park and rolled joyfully up and down steep banks – technical stuff that I could not handle on the Buffalo. For the first time, I could see how frame size and geometry could really make a difference in riding experience – a fact that I knew, but had never really experienced.
In short, I had a blast riding this bike. I was almost (almost) sad to give it up on Friday when the Buffalo was fixed, but I was also eager to take the Mukluk – with its expedition geometry – back to the singletrack to see if any of my new skills translated to the bigger, less nimble bike.
Today was just one of those days that went right. Perfect weather. Lots, but not too much, to do at work – including doing off a few to-dos that had been to for too long. A hard workout at noon. Some Carleton silliness: free root-beer floats at the library.
A task at the end of the day that turned out to be easier than I thought. Wonderful floral smells in the humid spring air. A great bike ride home, seeing a half-dozen friends and acquaintances and met a new fatbike. A gorgeous sunset. A pleasant few minutes with the girls when they got home, jazzed up, from tae kwon do. Now, a good new book to read and a delicious beer…