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.
** (Back then, I wrote a loooong summary that I see now set the tone for my long-winded race reports: Part I | Part II. I wrote a much shorter report on the 2012 race, and apparently nothing much on the ’13 or ’14 races!)