I took the day off today to do a medium-length gravel ride, just letting the legs know that I’ve got big plans for them over the next four months – starting I hope with heavy training mileage over the next six weeks. Today, I just wanted to hit some of my favorite gravel roads east of town. To get a little more out of the ride, I rode all the hills twice, which turned out interestingly in that I rode each hill better the second time than the first. Getting a little descending practice was fun too. What wasn’t fun was a very achy back, but even that hardly detracted from the solid outing or the gorgeous autumn sights. I’m lucky to have enjoyed them.
Roster day is my fourth most-favorite day in the annual Arrowhead cycle:
5. Submitting my application each year.
4. Seeing the next race roster.
3. Seeing all the Arrowheaders on the Sunday before the race.
2. Starting the race.
1. Finishing the race.
After following the AH for about five years, having now raced it twice, and looking forward to a third attempt in January, I found this year’s roster especially interesting.
First, according to my review of the bike results from 2005 to the present, nine riders who finished on the podium in previous years will be racing again in January – six men and three women:
Jason Buffington (Minnesota; 2nd in 2011 but skiing in 2016)
Dan Dittmer (Minnesota; 3rd in 2011 and 2012)
Charlie Farrow (Minnesota; 2nd in 2009
Leah Gruhn (Minnesota; 3rd in 2012, 2014, and 2015)
Todd McFadden (Minnesota; 1st in 2013 and just 2s out of 3rd in 2015)
David Pramann (Minnesota; 2006: 1st in 2006 and 2008; 3rd in 2007 and 2010)
Jay Petervary (Idaho; 1st in 2014, 3rd in 2015)
Tracey Petervary (Idaho;1st in 2014 and 2015; 2nd in 2012)
Svetlana Vold (Minnesota; 2nd in 2015)
(I welcome corrections to this list!)
Second, none of the Alaskans who have reached the podium at the AH in previous years are apparently coming back to race this year: Jeff Oatley (1st in 2010 and 2011, 2nd in 2013), Heather Best (1st in 2011), Kevin Breitenbach (1st in 2012, 3rd in 2013), Tim Berntson (2nd in 2012 and 2015), Peter Basinger (2nd in 2010).
Third and interestingly, last year’s winner, Jorden Wakeley (Michigan), isn’t coming back to try to defend his title. (Or at least, he isn’t yet.)
In other words, the bike race seems pretty wide open! Place your bets anytime over the next 96 days. (Odds are very good that it’ll be snowy, somewhat less good that it’ll be super cold.)
At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.
I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.
Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.
Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.
On Friday, I helped chaperone a field trip by Julia’s sixth-grade cohort to the amazing [River Bend Nature Center](http://www.rbnc.org/) in Faribault, a half-hour south of Northfield.
Across the girls’ years of preschool and elementary school, this was maybe the tenth field trip I’ve taken to RBNC, and it was fun – orienteering, hiking, “fun challenges” like firestarting, archery, and slack lining, and generally being outside on a beautiful fall day.
We even got to see some goats that the land managers are using to control buckthorn!
Walking around all day, I decided I wanted to come back asap to ride on the trails, all of which are open to bikes and free to all users. Lo and behold, Julia was into it too, so we headed down this afternoon with our bikes.
Saturday’s weather was somehow even better than Friday’s, heightening our enjoyment – 70°F, breezy, sunny. From the parking lot, we headed to the remote trails on the south side of the Center, which we reached after going through a tunnel *and* over a bridge across the Straight River.
Just on the south side of the river, we hit a long hill that Julia needed to work hard to climb. She made it up without stopping, though, and after a short break we tooled around on the flatter, easier trails that ran to the far edge of the Center’s boundary. The narrow trails and changing foliage were beautiful.
Descending back to the river, I was happy to see Julia rip a couple steep downhills with no worry and considerable ease: she’d push her weight back, level her pedals, and then just drop in. Amazing.
Back on the northern side of the river, we headed to the Center’s big and gorgeous restored prairie, an expanse of browns and yellows draped over a gentle rise to the northern edge of the property. Riding now mostly on grass trails, we worked our way up to the Center’s high point, where (after a stiff little rocky climb) we enjoyed a gorgeous vista to the south:
A herd of buffalo would have improved this view, but I was more than happy to have spent 90 minutes riding with my favorite sixth grader. In true cyclist fashion, she was even game to take a couple laps around the parking lot area to bump up our mileage to exactly 8 miles. Not a bad afternoon’s work. I’m eager to go back again soon.
This year was the fourth time I’ve tackled the Heck of the North, Minnesota’s biggest last-season gravel race, and the most fun I’ve had riding this event. With my gravel bike now someone else’s gravel bike, I decided to ride the Buffalo again, and felt pretty sure that the fatbike would be a good machine for the race’s infamous no-road sections – miles and miles of super rough grass trails that are better suited to hiking, ATV riding, and (in winter) snowmobiles than to bikes.
Sunny and cool were the watchwords of the day: perfect riding conditions, after two consecutive years of tougher (or borderline awful) conditions. The rollout was fast and fun – a long loop out from and then – after a nice taste of some of the day’s trails – back through the start.
The fatbike was, as I hoped, wonderful on the roughest stuff. I didn’t have to dismount on any trail section (except for a creek crossing late in the race), and whenever we hit grass, caught and dropped riders who were riding lesser bikes – gravel machines, rigid MTB bikes, front-shock MTB bikes, even full-sus MTBs. The trouble, such as it was, came on the gravel and especially the pavement roads. I just had too much wheel to push! More than once I’d gap a group on a trail section, then have them sweep me up and drop me on next road. Oh well. I was having fun, feeling good, enjoying the day, and amassing some good training for my winter races.
I did get to ride, on and off, with my friend Minnesota Mark, rocketing along on his gorgeous titanium Salsa Warbird. A few hours in, after riding side by side for a while, Mark got away from me on the approach to another trail section. Just before we reached it, the leaders of the shorter “Half of the Heck” came blasting past us, then promptly took a wrong turn that put them onto the full-distance course instead of keeping them on the Half route. We laughed when we passed them back a bit later, standing in the middle of the trail and reading their cue sheets in confusion.
A little more yo-yo riding with Mark – and the always-humbling moment in the race when I encounter the leaders heading back north, a good ten miles and an hour ahead of me – brought us to a ruggedly fun singletrack trail down to the midway checkpoint in Lester Park at the north end of Duluth. Good bike citizens, we stopped at the start of this trail to stand up a race marker that had blown down in the easterly wind. This was, I didn’t know, the race’s way of telling me that things were gonna be different after the checkpoint.
I caught up with my friend Michael L. at the check. He’d had a brutal race in 2014, so I was happy to see him feeling and riding well this year. After several years in which many Northfielders came up for the race, he and I were the only racers from the 55057 at the Heck this year, so I had to take a photo of our bikes resting at halfway.
Michael and Mark left the checkpoint before me, so I set out a goal of catching them. I couldn’t hang with any of the gravel-bike riders (or the tandem riders) who came up on me after the checkpoint, so I assumed that my goal was out of reach. This assumption seemed well grounded when I started to hit some of the easterly stretches of the course, heading right into an increasingly strong headwind.
But the headwind was bad for everyone, and it helped me track Mark down again. He took some great pictures of me as we approached the hill where, last year, my bike literally fell apart.
This year: no problem. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crested that climb – after which Mark dropped me again for what I expected to be the last time, and we headed into the what seemed like at least 99 miles of easterly riding into the goddamn wind. The first and worst section was on a paved road. I watched Mark and some skinny-tired brethren head off up the road, steaming along in a unit. I could only aim the Buffalo into the wind and pedal, feeling slower and heavier as fractions of the miles ticked by on my computer. Oh god, I wanted some tailwind or just a crosswind.
Eventually the pavement gave way to the gravel of Fox Farm Road. Getting a bit foggy from the day’s effort, I’d misinterpreted the directional cues and thought that Fox Farm Road would get us out of the wind. Nope: it was just a “turn” off the easterly pavement and onto more easterly gravel.
I had had all I could take to that point. As soon as I hit the gravel, I stopped and laid the Buffalo down on the weedy shoulder. Take a leak. Down my Red Bull. Swallow some water. Stretch out my back, insanely tight. Pop a gel. Remind myself that riding bikes on a gorgeous fall day is a privilege and a mystery. Remind myself too that the Heck is a stepping stone to harder work this winter. Pick up the bike. Get back on the bike. Start pedaling in.
Fox Farm was indeed more headwind, and some intermittent washboard surface, and a false flat that rose and rose and rose at 0.05%…
As they always do, the break, the self-pep talk, and the Red Bull paid off. My pain in my back disappeared and didn’t come back till Sunday morning. The weight in my legs dissipated. The “oh shiiiit” attitude vanished, too, replaced by thoughts of riding this bike in these northwoods in a couple months at the Arrowhead. I even started reconnecting with other riders, which was both pleasant (company!) and pleasing (caught you!). Seeing just what was left in my legs, I pushed as hard as I could up each of the remaining hills. Each time, I had to sit down at the crest, muscles and lungs burning. Then, just a few minutes later, the burning died away and I felt good again. My no means was I riding fast, but I was at least riding hard.
And lo and behold, after what looked – on the cue sheets – to be the second- or third-to-last trail section, I came up on both Mark and Michael. It felt great to have fought back to them, and even better to think we could ride together for the last 10 or 15 miles – much of which would be trail, out of the wind. Thank the goddess.
From the previous year’s race, I recalled that the last trail sections were mostly flat but also pretty wet – bogs here, creeks there. A small group including Mark and Michael and me hummed along nicely through these stretches, taking turns leading into this bit or that one, but mostly riding together. Feeling good, I took a couple digs but couldn’t get away. Others dug too, but mostly came back.
Then, weirdly, the group fell apart. One guy tried to get away, and I went after him. I caught him and went past him without feeling too bad, so I decided to just put my head down and go as hard as possible to the finish. It felt so good (as I had near the end of the Inspiration a month before) to just focus on putting every bit of energy into every single pedal stroke – again and again and again. I couldn’t quite bridge back to a fellow fatbiker who’d escaped from our group a few minutes before, but I felt good about not limping into the finish, about finding a meaningful level of effort after 105-some miles.
After one last road crossing, I made the turn into the finish area, bunny-hopped the finish line (because why not?), and then literally collapsed when I tried to get off the Buffalo. I had no legs left, which was just where I wanted to be.
Mark and Michael rolled in a few seconds later, looking equally happy with their efforts. Someone who remmebered me from the previous year’s race and who had read my stories on fatbiking brought me a Coke, knowing that I love that poisonous shit. I chatted a bit too with my friend Charlie Schad, whom I’d seen in the lead group. He said he’d finished on the podium and that our friend Ben Doom had won on a late breakaway. Somehow knowing that these guys had done so well made me feel even better about the day’s work. I know the Buffalo felt good – dirty from bars to hubs and carrying not a little bit of the trail on it.
Today’s The Heck of the North was my nineteenth century-length gravel or snow bike race. Somewhere toward the end of the event, I passed my 2,000th mile of century racing. A few thoughts that worked their way through my neurons during the event:
Compared to other great gravel races, I find the Heck especially appealing because the terrain and the sights are so reminiscent of the U.P. – the reddish gravel, the jagged rocks, the endless forests of mixed leafy and evergreen trees, and of course the glimpses of the Big Lake.
It hurts a lot to ride into a headwind, but headwinds hurt even more, somehow, when you get out of them and discover that your legs are dead.
I think my girls would love to ride big parts of this course, especially the two-track trails through the woods.
Being more diligent with my nutrition (200 calories an hour, every hour!) has paid off very well at the Inspiration and now the Heck, both in terms of maintaining good output throughout the race and being able to push hard in the last hour.
It’s also great to have a kit that just works right – shoes, socks, base layers, tights, jersey, hat, gloves. No fussing, no mussing. Comfortable all day.
I don’t think any other gravel race requires less use of the brakes. Maybe I’ll take mine off next year to save some weight.
Red Bull, properly administered, is a hell of a PED.
Fatbikes are good on dirt and great on snow, but they’re pretty damn awesome on grass, too. The softer the better.
Relatedly, I wish I had a dollar for everyone who told me, “You sound like a car!” when I rolled up on them during the race. 4-inch tires at 30psi are no joke. (The cash would have defrayed the costs of my post-race beers, for sure.)
Gravel racers are, as a group, pretty friendly and chatty folks, but Heck racers are especially so. I’ve never had so many good conversations with old friends and new acquaintances. (But it was still nice to ride my fatbike faster than some of them!)
Saturday, I rode in my favorite gravel race: the Inspiration 100, run on the great roads through the beautiful lake country outside Alexandria, Minnesota. I know and like the race directors (and keep buying bikes from ’em!), which is a bonus, and they keep letting me in the race, so I keep doing it.
I approached this year’s race with a little trepidation. Work and domestic responsibilities kept me away from my bike for much of the summer, and I learned what that means at the Cheq 100 and Maah Daah Hey. But I did get in a couple decent-length rides in the month before the Inspo, and I worked damn hard at the gym all summer, and I made a few important tweaks to my bike, and I knew I’d feel comfortable on the course… I was in short reasonably sure that I’d be able to finish, and even dared hope that I could race hard all day.
This turned out to be exactly what happened – helped along by great companionship with Bruce and Scott on the drive up north, by a restful night at Charlie’s place near the start, and most of all by incredibly beautiful conditions: excellent gravel, a blue sky, moderate winds, and comfortable temperatures. Even at the start line – where I was the only racer on a fatbike (knife to a gunfight?) – I thought, “Yeah, this is going to happen.” I’d found out on the drive up to the race that I seem to have been admitted to the Arrowhead 135 in January, which provided a big jolt of motivation to race hard. But too, I enjoyed the laid-back vibe of the race, chatting with some other riders that I’d met at various other events and finally shaking hands with a guy I’d admired and raced with but never met.
From the gun, the field rode away from me, but I settled into myself and focused on enjoying the ride.
I was very careful to eat and drink correctly, I stopped to stretch my back when needed, I took a few minutes to take a picture of a course-side sight I’ve always wondered about
and I focused whenever I could on chasing hard – a task made easier by the course’s long vistas and the day’s superb conditions. (I caught this guy.)
Here and there (like after a relatively quick stop at the convenience store around mile 55), I rode with another racer or two, but mostly I made my way through the backmarkers, almost all of whom, I was pleased to see, were on regular gravel bikes – machines that, all things being equal, should go a lot faster than a fatbike with 4-inch tires at 20psi.
From one perspective, these catches were satisfying in kind of a lame way (who cares who’s passing whom?), but from another perspective, they also signaled to me that yes, I did still know how to race bikes, and that yes, what training I’d been able to do this summer had paid off. I was especially pleased to find (contra the Maah Daah Hey) that I could actually attack the climbs, which are short, punchy, and frequent on this course.
And while the rollers were a known quantity, the course’s two most (in)famous bits were going to be challenging in a new way. This year, the dudes who run the Inspiration decided that we’d ride the course in the reverse of the direction that we have the last three years. This meant that the race’s two “feature sections” came well into the race: a rough, washed-out “minimum maintenance road” at mile 66 and an even rougher grass two-track between two farm fields at mile 95.
I was looking forward to these secteurs, both because I love rough terrain and because I knew that the Buffalo is the best possible bike for them. Hitting the MMR in a small group of riders, I immediately and completely dropped them. It’s a wonderful feeling to not have to choose a line through the rocks and sand and tree branches, to be able to just ride the hell out of it. I worked over those two miles, pushing as hard as possible, and popped out at the end feeling pretty trashed but feeling good about the effort (and the gap).
Over the next 25 miles, I recovered and prepared myself for that second feature section, which I knew would be shorter and easier. I was feeling physically pretty good as mile 95 approached, but my mental focus was wandering badly. For instance, while I knew (from earlier in the race) that the mileage on my GPS was different by 0.7 miles from the distances on the cue sheets, I could barely do the addition or subtraction to figure out where the turn onto the grass section would come up. “The cues say it’s a right turn at mile 94.3. Does that mean my GPS will read 93.6 or 95.0 when I get there?”
To remedy this, I took my secret weapon: a super tasty, super-caffeinated gel. As I was washing it down, mile 94.3 went by and suddenly I was no longer seeing other racers’ tracks in the gravel. Son of a bee! I had missed the goddamn turn onto the two-track! I hit the brakes and doubled back to the corner where, sure enough, the trail ran off into the weeds. Yes! I turned right and started riding. Within a few minutes, though, the trail I was on ended – in someone’s yard. No matter! I rode around the edge of the lawn and picked up the trail on the other side, only wait… This wasn’t a trail, or even a path; it was just the open space between two rows of corn! Fuckityfuckityfuck.
I buffaloed through the corn and walked my bike back to the gravel road along the edge of the field. A quick check of Google Maps showed me that I was somehow about a mile and a half north of where I needed to me, and heading – had I not stopped – away from the finish line, which even my foggy brain could tell was probably not what you should be doing when you’re 89% of the way into a race.
Hop on the bike. Ride back to the corner where it looks like I had taken a wrong turn. Sure enough, here are my tracks from when I missed the turn in the first place, and here are my tracks making a right turn off the road and down the trail.
Oh wait a second! I had been heading the wrong way, so I should have made a left turn, not the right turn that the cue sheets indicated for jerks riding in the correct direction.
Sure enough, 40 pairs of bike tires had clearly made the correct turn, and I finally followed suit. The grass two-track was fun and easy to ride on the fatbike, especially as the caffeine soaked in. I caught a couple racers whom I’d caught much earlier but who had – in a very unsportsmanlike way – snuck past me while I wandered the corn fields, then a couple more who stopped at an impromptu aid station where the two-track ended – just about ten miles of more or less straight-line riding from the finish, all into a mild but insistent headwind.
Several rolling hills and maybe a mile ahead, I could see one rider – just a speck. I decided to try to catch him. I didn’t think I could, or would, but I knew that a chase would make those last miles go by more quickly.
Find a bigger gear. Keep the cadence high. Stand on the uphills. Find an even bigger gear to push on the downhills. Downshift again on the flat. After a couple rollers, distinguish his jersey from his helmet. Upshift, crank, stand, upshift again. Another roller or two and I could see the color of his jersey – a dot of orange.
Burning throat. Spit trickling out of my mouth. Keep the pedals turning. From the top of another roller, see him just a few hundred meters ahead – approaching what I guess (now that my wrong turns had totally fouled up my GPS data) is the last rise before the turn to the finish.
Push my biggest gear on the descent. Downshift for the flat. Make out the words his jersey now. No more downshifting. Get up on the pedals. Zoom past him on the rise, nodding once, and push as hard as possible to the crest. No – not the highway, just another roller, but at the top of the next rise, I see high-speed traffic. Pavement! Downshift once before my thighs explode, but stay standing. Watch for the shimmery black ribbon of the asphalt. Right turn, upshift for the downhill to the finish line, but don’t coast!
I crossed the finish line a few minutes before my quarry, and had maybe even had a sip or three of Lollygagger before he cruised through the finish area and one of the race directors told me that he’s 20 years older than me and just survived prostate cancer.
Okay, so maybe the chase wasn’t quite the victory it could have been, but still! Lying there in the grass, and then later stuffing my face with bratwurst and another beer, I was pleased to have put in that particular effort, and to have worked hard all day. The 2015 Inspiration wasn’t my fastest race, but it wasn’t my slowest (or a DNF) either, and most importantly the event confirmed that I am ready to kick off a big autumn of training for the winter’s races. It’s going to be fun!
This year’s Inspiration is, though, the penultimate edition. Because it’s not easy to put on a free gravel race, the RDs have already announced that the 2016 event will be the last one. The race date is already set: Saturday, September 10, 2016. Registration opens on July 1. If you have any desire to do a great gravel race, this is the one to choose.
The girls were busy all Saturday with a friend – a.k.a. our third daughter – so I hopped on the Buffalo and headed out to get a few miles in my legs. The Inspiration 100 is in exactly two weeks, and while it’s too late to really train, any riding now will help minimize the pain of being in poor shape.
I wound up getting a solid 40 miles, mostly on gravel roads but also on the two trails our local MTB club has created. The newer, more challenging trail at Caron Park midway between Northfield and Faribault was damp but rideable and fun. I rode two laps on my way south to Faribault in the morning and two more on my way back to Northfield in the afternoon. As a neophyte mountain biker, I’m still amazed at how exhausting pedaling at 5mph for an hour can b, especially when you’re constantly confronted by hub-high log obstacles. Oof!
The trail riding was even slower than it might’ve been because after a few pedal strokes, I had who knows how many ounces of mud and leaves packed into the treads of my Maxxis Mammoth tires. They’re great on gravel, but terrible on dirt.
As usual with gravel rides, the scenery was great. The clammy gray clouds in the morning accented the verdant fields and woods, and then the afternoon sun made the summery greenness into a visual roar. Riding the gravel shoulder of a long stretch of paved road early on my route, I collected quite a bit of pollen, which I then carried all over Rice County.
Just doing my bit to help the bees.
Since I was trying to ride continuously, I only stopped to take a few pictures, which meant I have just mental snapshots of the three surly wild turkeys who didn’t want to clear the road, of the dozens of lean horses and fat cows in the pastures, or of the many tiny wood frogs that hopped away from me. But I had to stop to take a shot of this gigantic hawk, looking down on me with a predator’s cold gaze,
and of this free-range vacuum, standing enigmatically along the highway just outside the city limits.
All summer, the girls have been enrolled in a mountain biking class sponsored by our local MTB club and run at the new trails that the club built right in town. Though I can’t say every class went smoothly or that the girls loved every second they spent in the classes, they did learn a lot about riding and dramatically improved their skills, developed their endurance, and built their confidence.
The culmination of the class was an overnight trip to the massive MTB trail system built on abandoned mines at Cuyuna, in central Minnesota. Cuyuna is a fabled place for Minnesota mountain bikers and fatbikers, the place you go for the toughest trails and the best scenery. I had never been up there, so I hoped that the girls would both show the skills to successfully ride there and the enthusiasm to go "up north" on a little adventure.
By the middle of July, I could see that they had both: serious abilities on the trails and great eagerness for riding. In addition to the class, we rode several times on our own over the last few weeks, outings which they both loved. And then they crushed some tough challenges at the last regular class, which they described as "the most fun thing ever!" on the ride home.
The scene was thus set for a good trip to Cuyuna. Shannon was rightly concerned about both the practical arrangements and the girls’ safety, but I mostly allayed those fears – and some of the girls’ – and headed out on Thursday morning along with six other kids and five other adults, including the class leaders. The three-hour bus ride to Cuyuna was enjoyable, despite the need to give half our seats to a big rattling collection of bikes:
We arrived up north without any problems and almost immediately headed back into town to ride at a "pump track" – a compact system of dirt trails with undulating terrain and banked turns that are laid out so that good riders can get all the way around without pedaling – only "pumping" their arms and legs. None of us could pull off that trick, but everyone had a blast riding around and around and around on the track. I loved watching the girls loving the riding – and rapidly getting better at the unusual techniques needed to conquer the track. Julia crashed once, but was back riding within a few minutes. Whizzing past me, they shouted, "This is so much fun!"
After about an hour of pretty continuous riding, we adjourned for ice cream at Dairy Queen. Back at the campground, we set up our tents and took a short out-and-back ride on an easy stretch of the regular trails, getting a little of Cuyuna’s famous red dirt on our tires.
Everyone cooled off with a swim at the campground beach,
then we destroyed a delicious dinner prepared by one of the instructors and his wife – folks who have serious camp-cooking chops! Throughout, I tried to let the girls enjoy themselves and handle things largely on their own, which they readily did: being smart about riding and swimming, choosing good dinners, making their own sleeping arrangements… It was fun to see.
Friday morning, everyone woke up eager to hit the trails. I stayed behind while the other adults went for an early ride on some more challenging trails, but all the kids were great – getting dressed, eating good breakfasts, riding their bikes around excitedly. Finally, around 10, we headed out for a loop that would include three different "easy" trails. The wild card was the weather: as we started, the temps were already near 80° F with very high humidity. I gotta say that I was nervous as hell about whether Julia and Genevieve would be able to ride so much tough trail in such heat and humidity.
Fifteen minutes in, I knew they would. Without any problem, we roared en masse to the start of our loop, and got right to it: red-dirt trails that wound through young birch groves, tricky but manageable ascents and descents littered with loose rocks and stubbornly immobile roots, narrow passages overlooking beautiful lakes…
Wisely, our ride leader stopped often so kids could rest and drink and eat – little pauses that kept everyone energized and focused. Whenever he or the other instructor, riding last in our file, asked if everyone was having fun, the kids shouted, "Yes!"
We weren’t even deterred by a few bee stings when we inadvertently posed for a group photo on top of a beehive.
Julia got a bad zap on a finger, but soldiered on! I rode as much as I could right behind the girls so that I could watch them buzz along the trails, blonde ponytails poking out from under their helmets. Near the end of the ride, I finally stopped wondering if they could climb that nasty slope, ride that tricky descent, or rail that loose corner. The answer was always "yes," so I just settled in and enjoyed the sight of them loving the sport I love too.
The ride ended too soon for me (and I suspect for the other adults), but at just the right time for the kids – 90 minutes and about seven challenging miles of riding. The girls were just tired enough to sit for a nice photo of us – with a loon on the lake in the background!
An easy paved ride back to camp brought us down from the high of the ride to our last few activities: a quick lunch, a bit more swimming, and then of course packing up. The bus ride home was sweaty, but pleasingly quiet and relaxed.
Though we haven’t been back on our bikes since returning, the girls are excited to go to some of the more local MTB trails before school starts, and I am too. I am elated to have them riding the trails with me!
On big trip out to the Maah Daah Hey, Galen and I traveled deep into the buffalo heartland, where two hundred years ago millions of bison roamed. My sentiments on bison still need to be gathered up and put into words, but my depth of feeling can be suggested by the how much bisoniana I gathered. Below is some of it. (I did not get pictures of the bison in either unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park [$20 is too much for a drive around the park!] or of the signs for various housing developments in Watford City, North Dakota: Buffalo Hills, Blue Bison, Bison Meadows, Bison Run…)
Going out with my fried Galen to the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands near Medora, North Dakota, I figured I’d be in for a tough race. I expected the weather to be hot and the singletrack trail to be as challenging as the trails at the Chequamegon 100 in June, and I also knew that – thanks to a busy summer that ate up my usual time to ride – that I wasn’t in the very best shape for riding.
By then, a damaged derailleur had been keeping me out of my two climbing gears for a couple hours, my legs were empty, the temperature had risen to a furnace-like 100° F, and I had just started the third leg of the race, which included the most and hardest climbing. I hate quitting, but the call was a good one. Turns out, 70% of the competitors in the long race did the same thing. The race video says that the MDH is “the raddest race in the baddest place,” but you could flip those adjectives around and summarize the event just as accurately.
So while I didn’t finish, I’m eager to try the race again next year with better training, a better race plan, and a bike that’s better suited to the trail. (My sincerest apologies to the Buffalo, but this isn’t your thing.)
In the meantime, I’m going to savor the experience and especially the amazing scenery. I’d never been to the Badlands, and I found them jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sitting on a bike seat always makes a view at least twice as good. The coolness started before the start, when race director extraordinaire Nick Ybarra quoted a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt (a local hero in western North Dakota, where he ranched before going into politics back east):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This was an inspiring way to wait for the gun, looking west toward a nearly-full moon setting behind the buttes.
The first few miles were rolling and slow as the field separated. I stopped at one point to admire the last glimpse of the moon before it disappeared behind the buttes.
Not long afterwards, we started up a long switchback climb, one that other riders had promised would take 15 or 20 minutes – two or three times longer than the longest climbs here in southern Minnesota. A film crew was shooting the race from a helicopter that zoomed deafeningly up and down the course, and the chopper hovered overhead for a few minutes to get what must be gorgeous footage of the glinting line of riders zig-zagging up the side of the hill.
The Buffalo’s new X1 gearing was more than up to the ascent, which ended in a fast, fun section of prairie singletrack – much more familiar terrain, though our prairie here doesn’t end in sheer 100-foot dropoffs.
For the next while, the trail swooped up and down, always following the tall 4×4 posts that marked the trail. The high prairie sections were frequently interrupted by cattle gates: heavy metal gates that had to be swung up and out of the way, then dropped with a huge clang after passing. Not a part of Midwestern riding!
These flat, fast sections all eventually dove down into the arroyos that created the real drama of the race. Some of this drama was visual – stunning overlooks and amazing moments like when I riding west with the rising sun behind me, then turned sharply left away from a ravine. My shadow momentarily leapt out from beneath me so that my head was fifty feet away on the far wall of the ravine. Breathtaking.
The arroyos also created physical drama. They were often full of evergreen shrubs that the climate assured would never be trees but that smelled wonderful anyhow. We could ride down into and up out of most of the arroyos, but not all of them: one had such steep walls that we had to skid down and clamber up.
Whether up high or down low, the views!
Though the terrain varied almost minute by minute, the rutted singletrack was constant: grooves about six inches wide and anywhere from an inch to six inches deep. Any wobble caused a pedal strike or a slap of the Buffalo’s derailleur against the side of the groove – or even a crash if the front tire snagged the edge. I took a couple undignified but minor falls, and somewhere in this section bent my derailleur hanger, which led to one or two dropped chains.
These delays aside, I was surprised to hit the first aid station (at the amazingly-named Scairt Women Road) fairly early – well ahead of my schedule. I gassed up quickly, lubed the Buffalo’s chain, and got back out on the trail feeling strong.
The heat was mounting, though, and the trail soon entered some very dry areas – desert, basically. The trail now often traced the buttes, with a steep wall up on one side and a steep drop down on the other. Whenever the terrain went down or stayed flat, I continued to make great time, blasting along at speeds well over the pace I needed to maintain for a daylight finish. I even zipped through the infamous “Devil’s Pass” section- a few hundred yards of trail between two steep drops on either side. This section is like something out of a movie – like maybe the MDH promo video (see 1:20-1:30 for the Devil’s Pass).
Tight switchback turns were a dime a dozen, and sand or rocks in the apex of the turns made them extra tricky. Playing it safe, I would put my inner foot down and tap tap tap my way around the corner, leaning away from the drop on the other side. This kind of riding was new and scary and exhilarating. Coming out of shaded areas into the sun, I could feel heat radiating off the eastern and southern faces of the buttes. I rode past patches of prickly-pear cacti and even – once – honest-to-God cattle bones lying along the trail!
Whenever the inclines steepened, troubles occurred. Either from wear and tear (the trail was heinously dusty) or more bobbles (the gully trails continued), my derailleur began acting up more and more often, until I could not get to my two granny gears at all without the chain slipping off the biggest cog and getting jammed between the cog and the spokes.
I tried to tamp down my frustration at losing huge chunks of time when I needed to stop to put the chain back onto the cogs. I’d done harder stuff than this in harder races. But my frustration almost boiled over into anger when the chain actually snapped, just as I started a long hard climb. I’d thought to buy a couple master links for my new chain just the day before at the bike shop in Medora, so I could actually make the change and get going, slowly, again – but still without those two valuable lowest gears, and dreading the inevitable next big climb.
Watching the mileage tick by on my bike computer, I knew I was getting close to the second aid station, which – another rider had told me – came after a stiff climb on the far side of the Little Missouri River. I thought I could sense the river because the landscape began greening up, becoming more like the area near the start, which had been right on the Little Missouri. I saw some cattle meandering through the damper landscape, and when I didn’t see cattle themselves, I saw many of their leavings: cow patties right on the damn trail.
Here, the terrain was flatter again, too – floodplain. I crossed a trickle of water named Whitetail Creek, a sad little watercourse made sadder for flowing around the bloated carcass of a fawn. After a little more pedaling, I arrived at the Little Missouri. A couple other riders were on the bank, taking off their shoes and socks, but I decided to just get on with it and walked right into the warm, muddy water. I first pushed the Buffalo and then hoisted it onto my shoulder when the water came up to knee height.
The crossing only took a minute or two. The trail resumed in a beautiful cottonwood grove that provided the first real shade all day – which was pleasant, since by now the temperatures must have been near a hundred degrees.
Riding away from the river, the cottonwoods ended where the promised big climb up to Aid Station 2 began – a long, steady grunt along the face of a bluff that must have been visible from the floodplain. The ascent was tough but feasible, even with a malfunctioning bike and increasingly dead legs. I was still pedaling when I popped out at the top and rolled past reached the timer’s tent. She welcomed me in and warned that I had arrived just 45 minutes before the time I had to leave. Thanks to all the delays from fixing my chain, this was far less time than I’d hoped to have in hand, but the number was still manageable.
Making my way to the shelter where volunteers were handing out food and drink, another volunteer stepped out to greet me. “How’s your bike working?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think the derailleur hanger is bent. Can’t get to my two granny gears.” “Well, I can take a look!” Past him was a bike mechanic’s station, complete with a bike stand and a big set of tools. “You go have some food and drink and I’ll see what I can do.” Before I could even really assent, he had the Buffalo up in the stand and was starting to examine the wonky der.
Smiling folks at the refreshment tent provided me with Cokes, ice water, and some food – and a handkerchief that had been soaking in ice water. Thrown over my head, it felt fantastic. Adhering to Jay Petervary’s directive to always do two things at once whenever you’re not riding, I ate and drank while restocking my backpack with supplies from my drop bag, then tried to rest in the shade, looking out over the Little Missouri.
Also resting in the tent was Scott J, a racer whom I’d met for the first time at the start that morning. Scott was the star of “The Push,” an amazing short film about the Arrowhead 135 fatbike race in the blizzard-marred 2013. I’ve watched “The Push” dozens of times, drawing inspiration from how Dale had ridden and pushed his bike through the storm that hit during the race to finish in 52 hours.
Of the Maah Daah Hey, though, Scott said that it was the hardest race he’d ever done and that he was quitting.
This gave me pause. One of the toughest racers around, dropping out? Before I could think too much about it, a timer announced that the cutoff time was only fifteen minutes away, and that anyone intending to continue needed to leave a.s.a.p. From the other side of the checkpoint, the bike mechanic called to me. “149, let’s talk about your bike!” We talked for a bit about the Buffalo’s problems: he’d straightened the derailleur hanger and adjusted the cage, which had been twisted, and felt decently sure that the bike was ready for the second half of the race – including, right away, the 25-mile section that included the course’s toughest climbs and that would be run under the day’s highest heat.
I decided I needed to give it a shot. I thanked the mechanic, hurried through the rest of my prep (grabbing two cold cans of Coke), and mounted up. For about ten minutes of rolling climbs, the Buffalo worked fine, even in the low gears, and I felt decent. Then, on one steep ramp, the derailleur started clanking again. I shifted out of the granny and found that I couldn’t pedal the hill. Get off the bike. Start hiking. Feel the heat pouring down from the sky.
On the downhill, I remounted and rode till the next climb, which I rode as far as I could in a medium gear. Shifting down to my granny, everything started clanking again. I hopped off and checked the time. I was now about half an hour out from the aid station – just far enough that turning around would be futile, since the crew would probably have been packed up by now. So I walked that uphill and rode the downhill, then repeated it.
After hiking one long grassy climb that I could have ridden easily with a functioning bike, I stopped in a tiny patch of shade to consider my options. I could see a gravel road – one of the many new roads cut into the grasslands to service new oil wells – in the near distance, but I had no idea where it went. Comparing the mileage on my computer to the course map, though, I figured that I was about three miles from the next checkpoint.
I figured that if I could make it there – even walking – I could abandon and get a ride back to… somewhere. I took a pull of water (already lukewarm) and some food and started riding. As I paralleled the road, a truck came up on me. The driver slowed and shouted, “You okay?” I shouted back, “Nope! Bike’s screwed up.” Pulling over, the driver turned out to be the race director, Nick. After we determined that the Buffalo had reached its limit and that its rider was pretty close to his, Nick loaded my bike in the bed of the truck. My day was over.
For the next couple hours, I toured the course with Nick and a couple other riders whom we picked up, including one guy who thought he had a dislocated shoulder and my Twin Cities friend Ryan, who had a bloody face after a hard crash. When we stopped at the third aid station, the one on the end of the hardest stretch of the course, I saw at least a dozen racers sprawled out – sleeping, resting, dropped out, preparing to go on. Carnage, at least as bad as anything I’d seen at the Arrowhead in quite the opposite weather.
Though I still felt some pangs of disappointment over dropping out, I felt better about the decision when I saw just how far gone were some of these racers – and, more jealously, what kinds of bikes they were using. Not a fatbike in the bunch, and lots of full-suspension mountain bikes. Every few minutes, a racer would come down off the hill into the aid station, and they too would be on light trail bikes. Drinking water and eating potato chips from Nick’s truck, I made some mental notes on what I would need to come back and finish the race in 2016.
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.