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.
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.
For some reason, Genevieve has been calling me “Dadode” (“dad-oh-dee”) for a while now. Cute, though inexplicable. Now Julia is calling me this, too, and Vivi has come up with a parallel pet name for her mother.
Kids: not only are they short, but they’re weird and speak another language.
Genevieve made a whole bunch of birthday presents for me, and probably enjoyed watching me open them as much as she had enjoyed making them. What a kid. Though they were all good (and though getting a $5 bill from your daughter is a little weird…), the best one by far was a book of poems she’d written over the week before my birthday – one per day. Here are two. Amazing.
I was shivering at the predawn start line of JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit on January 10th – not from cold, since it was already 20 degrees, but from eagerness to stop anticipating the event and start racing it. I had been looking forward to this moment since I DNF’ed in the first edition of the race, in March 2014. Getting pulled from that race by Jay Petervary after 34 hours and 100 miles of riding had been tough to take, though I knew I could not have gone any further or faster with the bike, legs, or lungs I had then…
Standing with the Buffalo on the start line of the Arrowhead 135 on Monday morning in International Falls, I was bubbling with excitement – eager to get going. I had not been on my bike for more than about 20 minutes since the end of the Fat Pursuit, exactly 14 days before. Everything had gone well during that period: physical aches and pains disappeared, excitement for riding had returned, appetite had been good. Even race arrangements had been easy to handle: Shannon and the girls were happily on their own for a couple days and I’d driven up to I-Falls with my racer friend Jerry B and his friend Peter.
Still, though my body and mind felt fine, only the race itself would show whether I had recovered enough to work well at the Arrowhead. And aside from fitness, would I reap any gains from the confidence of finishing the Fat Pursuit – arguably a tougher race than even the Arrowhead?
Anticipating faster conditions than last year’s Arctic ride, I set a goal of finishing in 24 hours – five hours (about 20%) faster than my finish in 2014. I would need to average six miles an hour to reach that mark. With “six mph six mph six mph” running through my mind, we hit the trail at exactly seven.
After the usual initial scramble for positions in the tracks, most of the field – 30 or 40 or even 50 riders – settled into two big trains, which then merged into one. We blasted down the Blue Ox Grade out of I-Falls for about ten miles, a bubble of light in the predawn blue black.
I saw a couple big crashes, went into the ditch once myself, overheard a great deal of inane chatter (if someone gave me a dollar every time I heard someone ask ironically, “Are we having fun yet?” early in a race…), followed wheels, watched Charly Tri finish a nature break and blast past me on his 2-pound superbike, and occasionally jumped out of the track to make frantic passes through the fresh powder. Those short bursts helped keep me warm in the 20-something temps, against which I had worn a pretty skimpy kit: thin gloves and hat, no insulation layers under my tights or jersey, a light vest. When I could, I glanced down at my computer to check my speed: 10 mph, 12 mph, 14 mph when I passed someone. Gravel-racing speeds, for me.
Then came the course’s first turn, a sharp left onto the Arrowhead Trail proper. I was shocked that I was close enough to the front that I could still see the fast guys: defending champ Jay Petervary, fast rookie Jorden Wakeley, Charly. As always, the turn was a chaotic moment as racers bailed left and right to eat, drink, adjust air pressure, or just get out of the frying pan. I went through, connected to my friend Mark S. We chatted a little, figuring out the locations of other racers we knew and talking trash – each telling the other that his rear tire looked flat. The dark sky lightened a little with a dim gray dawn.
As the field spread out, the track grew softer and my tire pressure really did start to fail. I struggled with it for too long, watching one racer after another pull away from me and feeling some pain in my back from the heavier pedaling. Finally I hopped off and aired down both tires, gulping water and trail mix. I’d broken one of Jay Petervary’s rules – “be disciplined” – in waiting so long to adjust my pressure, so I was careful not a break another – “always do two things at once if you’re not riding.” Getting back onto the bike, I immediately sensed that the tires were now too low. Shit! I decided to ride a few minutes to see if I could adjust, but soon after the US 53 crossing at mile 19, I bit the bullet and pulled over again to air back up. “Be disciplined. Always do two things at once.” Trail mix in my mouth. Mini-pump on the tire’s valve. Chew, chew. Pump, pump. Swallow, swallow. Pump, pump. Squeeze the tires. Squeeze again. When the tires were about halfway back up where they’d been at the start of the race, I was satisfied. I stretched my back a little and got on the Buffalo to see if I could chase anyone down.
Though I only made a couple catches, everything finally felt just right. The tires were rolling well, I could eat and drink regularly, my backache dissipated, the snowy trail was beautiful, and the conditions were great – light snow falling, a gray sky hanging low overhead, and practically cozy temperatures in the twenties. When I felt myself getting a little too hot, I took off my hat and gloves. Almost instantly, I cooled back down to a comfortable level.
The miles rolled past easily and quickly. I whooped to myself when I saw that I’d gone over 35 miles on the trail. Now the race was just a century! A couple minutes after that, I hit the road crossing just before the first checkpoint, the Gateway General Store, and rolled down the spur to the store itself. A few racers were going the other way, leaving the checkpoint. I exchanged shouts of encouragement with women’s leader Tracey Petervary as she headed out, pleased to be just a few minutes down to T-Race, and even more pleased to be at mile 37 already. I was working far less hard than I had in 2014, and going much faster. I was more than an hour ahead of that year’s pace.
Leaning the Beast in a resting spot, I hurried inside to buy a Coke and some beef jerky. I stood at a table to down these refreshments, taking a couple breaks to crouch and stretch my back some more. A race official recognized me and joked that I didn’t have last year’s ice beard. Fine with me! Coke tastes better when you’re a little too hot than when you’re borderline hypothermic. Mark S came in as I readied to leave. We promised to see each other on the trail. After just 11 minutes, I was back on the trail, now – thanks to cutting a half hour off my stop – 90 minutes up last year’s pace, and well ahead of a 24-hour finish.
Soon after Gateway, steep, short hills start to break up the flat sections of the trail. Eventually the trail becomes almost all vertical: climbs that are tough to pedal up and descents that try to knock you off the bike.
I managed to ride many more of the ups than I had the previous year, and channelled my Fat Pursuit self to plummet through the downs. Somewhere around mile 50, Mark S caught me again, and we agreed that it was a perfectly excellent time to start walking the hills. The snow was badly churned by other racers, and I could feel in my legs that riding was no faster than walking even though it burned more energy. Too, I could eat and drink as I walked uphill, but not as I rode uphill. (“Always do two things at once if you’re not riding.”)
I hadn’t seen any snowmobiles since my stop to air back up, hours before, but around one corner, just after leaving Mark behind again, I almost collided with a road grader that was smoothing the trail so trucks could get to a logging site. The operator gave me a friendly wave as I pulled the Buffalo up onto a snowbank to stay out of his way. Weirdness.
The miles continued to flow under my wheels, and my computer continued to show an average speed that put me ahead of a 24-hour pace. I tried to stay balanced about this: happy to be going fast, aware that the race could change at any moment with a bad stretch of hills, a flat tire, a crash, a mechanical. I pushed myself to keep my speed against those eventualities. Get up out of the saddle. Breathe deeply. Shift to a harder gear. My body responded every time, a strange and wonderful sensation.
Around mid-afternoon, I knew I was approaching the second checkpoint, a cabin at Melgeorges Resort. When I saw a trail sign that said the resort was only five miles away, I stood on the pedals to push as hard as I could. After a half hour of hard effort, I popped out on Elephant Lake, across from Melgeorges. A volunteer on the shoreline warned me that the lake was windy, but I knew it could not be anything like the hellscape it had been the previous year, when I crossed just after dark in temperatures near thirty degrees below zero.
In fact, the winds weren’t very strong, and the flatness of the lake was a relief after the hills on the trail. Taking some encouragement from a few spectators who were resolutely standing in the emptiness at the middle of the ice, I tracked another racer in.
We gathered up another rider or two when we reached the far shore. A twisty trail along the shoreline led us to the checkpoint. I stood the Buffalo in a snowbank, grabbed my empty water bottles and a dry shirt, and marched up the steps into the cabin. The stairs were so much easier to climb than they had been the previous year. Literally day and night, thanks to being 2:23 ahead of last year’s pace.
Inside, the checkpoint was as crowded and warm and bustling as ever. The racers this year looked much less brutalized than in 2014. The “checkpoint ladies,” led by the former race director Mary Pramann, descended on me to take care of my needs. Hot water in my bottles. Soaking-wet jersey and gloves and hat off to the clothes dryer. Grilled cheese sandwiches and a bowl of wild rice soup in my hands. Sitting down, I tried to be quick and efficient. Gulp some Coke. Drink the soup. Stuff hunks of grilled cheese into my mouth. Say hi to T-Race, readying to leave. Commiserate with my gravel-racing friend Jeff, having a rough time. Retrieve my dried clothes. Score a couple pouches of Honey Stinger energy chews from the pile of food that racers had discarded. Say hi to Mark S., just arriving, and joke that I’d see him at the finish line, where I’d be waiting for him to buy my breakfast. Get back out the door. The volunteer with the time-check sheet said I was heading out after 44 minutes – longer than I had hoped to stay, but an hour less than 2014. I was four hours up on that pace.
Outside, I stowed my water, plugged my lights into their batteries, got back onto the Buffalo, and found a big gear to push over the resort driveway and back onto the trail – far easier to find in the evening light than it had been in the full dark the previous year. I was determined to ride as fast as possible in the waning light so that I had to do as little riding as possible in the dark later. The stretch from Melgeorges to the Skipulk checkpoint at mile 111 is the hardest part of the race. Fatigue and the darkness conspire to make the hills seem impossibly hard and numerous. My push to sprint away from Melgeorges initially paid off. In the first hour after leaving the checkpoint. I made it up some nasty hills in the last of the light, caught a racer or two, and kept myself warm as the temps started to dip. Just as dawn had snuck up on me nine hours before, dusk slipped past unnoticed until I wrapped in the dark. I turned my lights on and I started that familiar, comfortable chase of a pool of headlamp light.
However, the darkness brought a deteriorating trail: big tire ruts, snow angels from crashes, a few patches of bare dirt, lots of leaves and branches, a few spots of standing water. Where before I’d been easily following the track others had worn into the trail, I now often accidentally steered or was bounced out of it. Cursing my clumsy riding, I tried and mostly succeeded at riding especially hard on the flats to compensate for my slowdowns (swerves and bobbles, hike-a-bikes on the hills, eating and drinking) or stops (pausing to give Cal N some much-needed ibuprofen, chatting briefly with Charlie F at a shelter where he was planning to camp overnight, mostly for the fun of it). I was surprised and pleased that my legs – 80, 85, 90, 95 miles into the race – continued to respond with actual power and speed, and also that the trail seemed to be flatter and faster than I recalled from 2014. Glancing at my computer, I kept seeing speeds of 8 and 9 and 10 and 11 mph. A good sign. At the very least, I was maintaining my four-hour lead on my 2014 pace.
I hit the 100-mile “century” mark at about 8:30. This was when I’d left Melgeorges the year before, so I figured I was about 28 miles ahead of myself – and more importantly, just about 10 miles from the last checkpoint at Skipulk. I figured I would get there in about 90 minutes, around 10 p.m., 15 hours into the race.
Then the wheels almost literally came off. More and worse sections of deep snow and innumerable ruts made even some stretches of flat trail unrideable. I took an enormous digger when my concentration lapsed on relatively easy descent, finding myself upside down in a nest of branches off the trail. The Buffalo was six feet away, pointing the wrong up the trail. I was lucky I didn’t break any part of my body or my bike in the crash, but not so lucky as to avoid any harm. Shortly after I got myself back in order and started down the trail again, my drivetrain started clanking ominously. Grit in the chain? Bent derailleur? Surely not a chain about to break…
I promised to check everything carefully at Skipulk in an hour. Nope: wrong promise. As I downshifted to climb a fairly easy hill, my drivetrain locked up. I tried to reverse-pedal the chain free. No luck: the jam was too tight, and I tipped over in the snow. Fuuuuuck. Repair time. I clicked off my headlight to save the battery and dug out my breakdown bag – multitool, chain breaker, master links. Inspecting the chain, I saw that one of the inner links had come partially off its pin and then gotten jammed into derailleur cage. Never seen that happen before! I couldn’t pull the chain free by hand or spin it clear with the cranks, so I finally used my multitool’s flat screwdriver to bend the link away from the cage. Break the chain there and at the other end of the link. Stow the pins and links in my toolbag. Get out the master link, being careful that my numb fingers don’t drop it in the snow. Install. Check the chain tension by hand. Spin the cranks to see if the chain holds. Pack away the breakdown bag. Flex my hands to get some feeling back. Push the Buffalo up the hill, then climb on and put some tentative pressure into the pedals. Yes! It holds!
I spent about 10 minutes on this repair at mile 104, and felt old-man stiff when I started rolling again – cold legs from kneeling in the snow, cold fingers from working barehanded on the chain, cold head from cooled sweat. Still: only six or seven miles to Skipulk. An hour! I’d get there at 10:30, just thirty minutes later than I had planned. Between the crash and the breakdown, though, I hadn’t consumed anything in a half hour or more. The increasingly late hour and of course my fatigue started to press down on me, too. Now my computer was showing 4 or 6 mph more often than 8 or 10 mph. Skipulk seemed to be getting further away.
Somehow, race experience broke through the bonk. “Be disciplined!” I stopped, ate a big handful of trail mix, guzzled a Red Bull, slurped up a caffeinated energy gel, and drank a good half-bottle of water. I knew I’d be uncomfortable with all that food in my belly, but I wanted to ingest as many calories as possible so that I could maybe speed up on the way to Skipulk.
And that’s just what happened. The frustration and fatigue faded away, some mental sharpness returned, and I was able to march not trudge up the hills, to stand up to pedal harder on the flats, to look forward to a bit of company at the checkpoint. That company came sooner than I expected, in the form of a half-dozen signs put up by the crew from Surly Bikes, who were manning Skipulk. One sign promised that I was almost to the checkpoint. Another read, “To wolves, you taste like chicken. Wolves love chicken!” Then one said, “Just kidding! You’re not almost there!” I laughed at that one. Pedal pedal pedal. Ignore the returned hunger. Meet and nod silently to someone skiing the wrong way down the trail. No idea what that’s about. Pedal pedal pedal. Appreciate anew that every turn of the cranks brings you closer to whatever it is you’re riding toward.
A weird bellowing sound – almost musical – came down the path toward me. Not scary, but not Northwoods. I rode past another couple signs and a very creepy life-sized centaur perched right at the edge of the track. Another bellow, louder – and now lights! Bike lights, a campfire, torches. People on the trail. The bellowing had been someone blowing a shofar or a conch to announce riders’ arrivals. Awesome! The checkpoint volunteers welcomed me in with a cheer. A nose-pierced woman noted my number and arrival time – 11:05. Way off my planned 10 p.m. arrival. Acceptable considering my last ten miles.
Leaning the Buffalo up between a couple other resting bikes, I clicked back over into checkpoint mode. Turn off headlight and headlamp. Refill and stow water bottles. Throw away a surprisingly large collection of food wrappers and that empty Red Bull can. Get a cup of coffee, and mix cocoa powder into it. Grab a half-dozen cookies. Go into the heated teepee to eat and drink and rest for a spell. I chatted a bit with another racer and a volunteer stoking the fire, really just wanting to be around other people, not necessarily to talk to them. I did ask the volunteer if he knew who had won the race. He didn’t. (As it happens, Jorden Wakeley had won a three-way sprint for the victory just over an hour before.)
I promised myself that I’d go as soon as I finished my treats. I gobbled them up like Cookie Monster, and when the last one was gone, my legs pushed me upright. Checking out a little after 11:30, I figured that I had been stopped for about a half hour – far better than the 90 minutes I’d spent at Skipulk in 2014, when a kerosene heater and a flood of encouraging messages on my phone thawed me out enough to finish the race. I calculated that I was almost exactly eight hours ahead of last year’s pace, putting me at the finish line around 21 hours. Yes! Fantastic! A 24-hour finish was practically in the bag, and even a 22-hour finish was possible – if I held everything together over the last 20-some miles.
Back on the Buffalo, I headed off toward the last big climb and descent, Wakemup Hill. I remembered this landmark coming up quickly after the checkpoint, and it did. As I reached the bottom of the climb, a racer in front of me disappeared over the top, giving me another jolt of adrenaline. Chase? By the time I walked up to the summit, though, he was long gone. No matter. I knew the rest of the race was flat and easier than pretty much everything since Gateway. Midnight came and went somewhere around mile 115. 20 miles to go. I wondered if anyone was still up “watching” the race online.
I caught occasional glimpses of tail lights in front of me. While I couldn’t quite put on a chase, I was able to catch myself softpedaling and to focus on putting steady power into the pedals. Until I couldn’t: on one of the long flat straightaways through the swamps, with the skyglow from Tower visible in the distance, I started veering gently out of and back to the track, losing concentration. Red alert! Bonking! I stopped to pound another Red Bull and a caffeinated gel, enjoying the play of my headlamp on the bushes and trees.
Probably as much from the psychological boost of recognizing the imminent bonk as from the physical boost from all those delicious sugars, I started feeling better immediately. I spotted Shelter 9 at 125 miles, a lonely lean-to at a trail junction. 10 miles to go. An hour! Though my computer had died shortly after Wakemup Hill, I could tell from my cadence and the way the trees and bushes blurred past me that I was still moving at good clip. The skyglow grew brighter and larger on the horizon. I crossed one road and then another, guessing at their names since apparently nobody in goddamn Saint Louis County thinks to put a goddamn sign at a goddamn snowmobile crossing. Low bridges that had felt like the Alps in 2014 were now easy up-and-down bumps. I passed and cursed numerous unhelpful trail signs – “Caution” for what? Murderous moose? – and finally a few that started pointing this way and that toward the resorts on Lake Vermillion, including Fortune Bay Resort & Casino, where the race ended. One sign said Fortune Bay was five miles away. Or did it say six? I wasn’t about to go back to verify my reading comphehension. Either way, not many more miles. Pedal pedal pedal. Getting closer to that yellow-orange glow in the sky!
I saw a red light ahead, passing from right to left. That other racer? No, a car on a road! Checking my cue sheet, I figured that the car had to be on the highway at the edge of the Bois Forte Ojibwe reservation on which Fortune Bay stands. I went up through the mushy snow on one side of the road, over the pavement, and down through the mushy snow on the other side. Sure enough, right there was a big gate that I remembered from last year, with the trail running off to one side.
Two miles to go, minus that pedal stroke and that pedal stroke and that pedal stroke. The trail wound pleasantly through the woods, then came out in an open area where I could see the corner of the first building since Melgeorges – an outbuilding on the casino grounds. Some orange snow fencing appeared, and beyond it, the half-lit finish-line banner. The hair on the back of my neck went up. A l m o s t done – again! I wondered if I’d cry again when I finished. I shifted up and got up out of the saddle one more time. Just like last year, the banner disappeared for a second as I rounded one last corner, then appeared, bright and welcoming, atop the last short rise. I sprinted up that ramp.
A bunch of volunteers came out of the tent on the finish line to cheer me in. I rolled across the finish line and jumped off my bike, exclaiming unthinkingly, “That was awesome! What a great race!” A volunteer took my number down. “What time is it?” I asked, hoping that he would say it was no later than five so that I had my 22-hour finish. “It’s 2:30,” he said. I was surprised it was so early, and tried to do the math in my head. “Damn!” I said. “Just missed a 20-hour finish!” He looked back at his phone. “No, you finished in about 19:30. It’s a good year to go fast!” I blinked up at him. “Really? That’s almost ten hours faster than I went last year.” He nodded, possibly impressed. “Nice ride. C’mon, let’s get inside. We have to do gear check and then get you upstairs.” He graciously snapped a picture of me and the Buffalo first.
I chattered nonstop on the walk up to the casino building, learning among other things that the men’s finish had come down to a three-way sprint and that Tracey had won the women’s race, finishing an hour before me. The volunteer efficiently verified that I still had all my required gear – even the 3,000 calories of uneaten peanut butter – before walking me up to the hospitality room. The volunteers and racers there gave me a nice round of applause, one of the sweetest traditions at the Arrowhead. One of the volunteers helped me take my pick of finisher’s hats (blue, gray, or black) and trophies (yellow, black, white arrowheads) and then posed me in front of the race banner for the requisite portrait. The smile was unforced.
Wired like always after a long race, I camped out in the hospitality room for most of the night, eating, drinking, applauding other finishers, chatting with volunteers and other racers, reading Facebook – and enjoying the feeling that everything had come together pretty well.
Friday night, I finished the pro cyclist Rebecca Rusch’s great memoir of her athletic career, Rusch to Glory. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in pro cycling or endurance sport.
I’ve followed the career of the “Queen of Pain” since she won her first Leadville 100 mountain-bike race in 2009 – the year that Lance Armstrong won the men’s race. Rusch had a long and successful athletic career before her first (of four consecutive) Leadville wins, and she spends a good deal of her book (co-written with Selene Yeager) on her exploits as a paddler, a rock climber, an adventure racer, and finally a long-distance mountain biker. All of her race stories are gripping, whether she’s describing an insanely arduous adventure race in Tibet, her first 24-hour MTB national and world championships, her Leadville wins, or even the tragic death of a teammate during an adventure race in South America.
In the book, Rebecca comes across as a supremely driven and superbly talented athlete but also as a capable businesswoman (sponsorships sound like a blessing and a curse!) and a pretty nice person. I’d like to think that I can testify to that last quality. “Reba” did JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in 2014 and, like me, DNF’ed. She came back to the race in 2015 and, like me, finished – in her case, fourth overall. Before the race, she graciously chatted with me and signed my copy of her book (as well as a copy for a friend).
True to her inscription in my book, she actually tracked me down after the race and congratulated me on my finish. I was a little bit awestruck, but as the book shows, that’s the kind of person she is – as well as the person who can turn herself inside out on the bike.
Twice this evening, I’ve encountered tastes and smells that have taken me back to childhood.
For dinner, Shannon made some ridiculously good Italian-style meatball sandwiches. The tomato sauce soaked into the crusty bread and created a taste-smell that sent me right back to the dim dining room at the Bell Chalet in Hurley, Wisconsin – one of the two or three places where I learned to love square-cut Midwestern pizza. I almost couldn’t finish the sandwich. Almost.
Then after the girls went to bed, I opened a little bottle of brandy that I bought experimentally a few weeks ago after hearing from a friend about its excellent qualities as a winter drink. The smell that floated out of the bottle was exactly the smell of the giant cabinet in which my Grandma kept her fine china and the liquor she used to make her beloved Manhattans. I wonder if in fact she was making Metropolitans…
Though I never tasted any of the drinks she made, the scent of the VSOP made it seem like Christmas 1980 again.