Mountain Biking with the Girls

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:
Express to Cuyuna

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!"

Julia on the bumps

Vivi on the bumps

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,
Beach hijinks

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…
Birchwood climb

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!"
Another break

We weren’t even deterred by a few bee stings when we inadvertently posed for a group photo on top of a beehive.
Pre-sting group grins (photo by Marty L.)

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.
Tassava train!

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!
Trailhead pose

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!

Buffalo Tour

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…)

Seen on I-94 somewhere in western Minnesota:

Bison Transport
Bison Transport

 

Me in front of the The World’s Largest Buffalo at the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, North Dakota:

The World's Largest Buffalo (Jamestown, ND)
The World’s Largest Buffalo (Jamestown, ND)

Two of the members of the small herd that belongs to the museum and lives in the hilly park below the statue:

Jamestown Herd
Jamestown Herd

Two white buffalo also live there, but I only saw one (after Galen’s sharp eye picked it out), and couldn’t get a photo.

A buffalo head in a restaurant in Jamestown:

Buffalo Head I
Jamestown Buffalo Head

My bike perched on a bluff on the Maah Daah Hey Trail south of Medora, the day before the race:

The Buffalo in the Badlands
The Buffalo in the Badlands

The sign on the Buffalo Gap gift shop in Medora:

Signage
Signage

A bison magnet, purchased in the Buffalo Gap shop:

Medora Bison Magnet
Medora Bison Magnet

A bison cookie cutter, also purchased at the Buffalo Gap:

Bison Cookie Cutter
Bison Cookie Cutter

Another bison head, this one in the lobby of the hotel where we registered for the race:

Watford City Bison Head
Watford City Bison Head

And finally, a crappy buffalo (reading a book entitled Drilling for Dummies) on the side of a portapotty at the first aid station in the race:

Pooping Buffalo
Pooping Buffalo

Purple Belters

After successfully completing a very challenging tae kwon do test last Thursday, the girls tonight received their purple belts tonight at a lovely, relaxed event organized by their instructor, Dan Elo.

Dan said some nice things about each kid, and singled out the girls and their BFFs as being especially hard working. I hope they were as proud of themselves as I was. They’ve shown real discipline and dedication in coming so far so fast. Their belts and smiles are well earned.

Maah Daah Halfway

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.

For those and other reasons, the race proved to be much harder than I expected – replacing the Cheq 100 as my hardest “dryland” day on the bike. I wound up dropping out around mile 55, after about seven hours of riding and (to me) a staggering 6,000 feet of climbing.

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.

Starting under the Setting Moon
Starting under the Setting Moon

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.

Westward Vista
Westward Vista

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.

Racing along the Rim
Racing along the Rim

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.

Hike-a-Bike in a Manure Creek
Hike-a-Bike in a Manure Creek

Whether up high or down low, the views!

Going to the Edge...
Going to the Edge…
Arrowhead Peaks
Arrowhead Peaks

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.

Prairie Singletrack
Prairie Singletrack

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.

Tough Going
Tough Going

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.

Fording the Little Missouri
Fording the Little Missouri

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.

Little Missouri Cottonwood Grove
Little Missouri Cottonwood Grove

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.

Overlooking the Little Missouri from Checkpoint 2
Overlooking the Little Missouri from Aid Station 2

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.

Jagged Little Hills
Jagged Little Hills

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.

Beer Snobbery

I’ve been lucky this month to have enjoyed some great new beers – perhaps too many, but what’s "too" mean? I enjoyed the first set of tasty brews while on a conference trip to Middletown, Connecticut, two weeks ago. I had an Allagash White with my lunchtime pizza. It’s a common-enough beer, but one I hadn’t had. It complemented the two massive slices of New York-style pizza perfectly.

Later that evening, out for dinner with friends and colleagues, I had two light, delicious, well-balanced Connecticut ales – Thomas Hooker’s blonde and Thimble Island’s American – which had one of the best labels I’ve ever seen:
Thimble Island American ale

Then, after dinner, we headed over to an interesting taproom just up the street, Eli Cannon’s, which I’d read about before the trip. The ambiance and decor was almost overwhelming, frankly, and the tap list was ridiculously long – something like 70 beers. I was excited to try some unknown dark beers from East Coast brewers, but I was surprised and a little disappointed to find that the list was dominated by pale ales and india pale ales. I tried to get a flight of dark beers, but could only get two that I hadn’t already drunk! Still, the two non-dark beers were both fine – Secret Agent X9, a Belgian by Middletown’s tiny Stubborn Beauty brewery, and Eli Cannon’s own 21st Anniversary ale – and the two new-to-me darks were great: Wolaver’s oatmeal stout out of Vermont and the Green Flash Silva Stout from San Diego (so much for the East Coast thing). I hadn’t heard of the first, but had long looked for the second, and enjoyed both of them very much. The Green Flash was especially good, a very deep vanilla-toned stout with just a hint of its bourbon-barrel aging.

After the conference goings-on each day, a revolving group of us went back to Eli Cannon’s for nightcaps. I had the Wolaver’s and the Green Flash again and on our last visit, the Mission Gose by Evil Twin. I’d had and enjoyed a couple Gose beers, but this was a crazy, insanely tart beer that was not at all the right thing at 10 p.m. in a dim taphouse. After dinner on a hot, sunny patio, yes. Having a super-low alcohol content, though, I felt okay about cleansing the palate with another glass of the Silva.

In addition to the beers at Eli Cannon’s, I was lucky to have some good stuff at the conference dinners, which are usually centered on wine – not my cup of tea. This year we could find good local stuff, including the outstanding coffee stout from Thimble Island and the Trappist ale from Spencer Brewery in Massachusetts. The Trappist was unusual and amazingly good – for me, an ideal dessert beer.

My sampling of regional beers didn’t end when I came home. My friend and colleague Ryan at Franklin & Marshall has a side business, A Case for Beer, in which he assembles twelve-pack "Flight Kits" of interesting local beers. I’d have loved to get his Connecticut kit, but flying home prevented this. I lucked out, though, when two other colleagues, Anne and Ann gave me the two darkest beers from their kit: the Smoke & Dagger Schwarzbier from Jack’s Abby in Massachusetts and the Raincloud porter from Foolproof in Rhode Island. Maybe partly because I had to smuggle them home, I found that both were exceptionally good beers. The Cloak & Dagger was maybe the blackest lager I’ve ever had, a heavy mouthful of smoke. The Raincloud also had a delicious smokiness, but it ended in a little hop kick, which was surprising and pleasant – and came in a pretty can:
Foolproof Raincloud

All those great beers made July a great beer month, but then last night I went up to St. Paul to meet a friend at the Urban Growler, a new microbrewery in an industrial zone off the new light rail line.
Urban Growler

All of their beers looked great, so I had a flight, which included their "flagship" cream ale, their IPA, and their "City Dale" session ale (all perfectly fine but not my thing) as well as three insanely great and creative beers. One was their smooth "De-Lovely" porter, which we enjoyed with a shot of coffee in it. The second was a Witbier made with rhubarb, which lent the beer a slightly sweet but understatedly tart flavor. The last, called the Sticky Rice, was something new to me: a Wit made with rice, mango, coconut, and ginger. I thought it was outstanding. The snap of the ginger made it ideal to sip on the darkening patio with lots of other happy beer-drinkers around. I’m eager to go up there again in a few months to try the new stuff on the menu.

Tinkering with the Buffalo

I’ve just set up the Buffalo for our next races.
New Setup

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.

Business Travel: A Joy of the Knowledge Worker’s Life

Attending conferences is one of the best parts of my job, up there near learning about faculty members’ projects and booking grants. Many summers, I attend the annual gathering of colleagues from some (we like to think, "almost all") of the best liberal arts colleges in the country.

It’s always a great meeting, a place to gather valuable information about grantmaking to "LACs" around the country, to talk with fifty or so peers about life at and beyond work, and not least to see other campuses and college towns. Ten years into this job, I realize that a huge fraction of all the traveling I’ve done in my life has been for this conference or another, similar one that’s held in the fall. Going to one or the other meeting, I’ve been able to see Connecticut College in New London, the University of Richmond in Virginia, Siena College and Skidmore College in upstate New York; St. Michael’s College in Burlington, Vermont; Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington; Grinnell College in Iowa; Ursinius College outside Philadelphia; Denison University in Granville, Ohio; and Mills College in Oakland.

This year’s meeting was at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut – a campus I visited a couple years ago. The Wesleyan campus is gorgeous, Middletown is picturesque, and the customary "excursion" on the last night of the conference took us to a yacht club in Essex, a quaint village on the Connecticut River. It was hard not to find something gorgeous to look at:

South Church in the oldest part of Middletown

Wesleyan's chapel and concert hall, joined by a modern pavilion

Campus Center at Wesleyan

Tooker House in Essex

The view from the Essex Yacht Club onto the Connecticut River

This year I felt especially tuned in to the meeting because the Northfield colleges – Carleton and St. Olaf – are hosting this conference next year. Only 51 weeks till our friends arrive!

Independence from Bedtime Day

July Fourth has been one of those holidays that’s been hard for the Tassava family to truly embrace. Ours isn’t a diet that easily incorporates grilled meat, for instance, and the girls’ former troubles with traveling, staying up late, or staying up late while traveling meant that we only finally "went somewhere for the Fourth" last year, when we both journeyed to the U.P. to spend the holiday with my mom and to see fireworks – which, in da Yoop, happen very late.

This year, my mom came down to see us, which made the holiday a lot simpler, and the girls were able both to stay up late enough to enjoy sparklers and fireworks and to sleep in a little bit the next day. So surprised were we by the latter development that I didn’t even plan to take them to the fireworks in Northfield. But after we burned off a million sparklers,

Sparkling

I got a text from a friend saying that the fireworks were imminent. I piled the girls into the car, zipped over to the spot where they were watching, and soaked in the experience. The girls loved it. What’s not to love?

Finale I

Finale II

And the next day, they even kinda slept in!

Easy Riding

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.

Rewilding on Warsaw Trail

65th Avenue Drop

American Rock

Sogn Valley Trail Vista

Stop Sign Vine

Fawn Ahead!

Fatbike Walks on Water

My Ten Hardest Races (so far)

One thing I do remember about the horrible, wonderful, no-good, so-great Cheq 100 last weekend was a lot of thinking about where the race fell in my personal top-ten list of hard races.

This is narcissistic, I know, but dammit, I love them all.

While very eager to do races in the future that will get onto this list, here is the current top ten, in descending order:

10. The Lutsen 99er in June 2014. Not especially demanding physically, this race was my first mountain bike race. If nothing else, the sheer quantity of mud made this one memorable. I’d do it again, for sure! 8h 44m, 282nd of 421 finishers.

Lutsen 99er
Lutsen 99er

9. The Royal 162 in May 2014: At 165 miles (the 162 miles of the course, plus 3 bonus miles after a wrong turn), this was my longest-ever ride – so far! Though conditions were pretty good, this was just a long freaking way to ride bikes. Thank god Derek was there for company. 14h 23m, 39th of 51.

Deek at the Royal
Deek at the Royal

8. The Almanzo 100 in May 2011: (part I | part II | part III) My first gravel-century race, run in cold, wet conditions that made the riding slow and dirty and tough. I loved it as an event in its own right and as my introduction to ultradistance racing. 9h 8m, 80/150.

Almanzo 100 (2011)
Almanzo 100 (2011)

7. The Heck of the North in September 2014: The distance – 108 miles – wasn’t that bad, and the course was great, but my rear derailleur blew up at about mile 80, so I had to do some jury-rigging to convert my Salsa Vaya to a singlespeed and then limp in to the finish. 9h 55m, 139/174.

6. The Inspiration 100 in September 2013: Another gravel century, but run in temps above 90 and a heat index near or above 100. Heat exhaustion was a major factor, but I still managed a fast (for me) time: 7h 7m, 22/78.

Inspiration 2013
Inspiration 2013

5. The Cheq 100 in June 2015. This was a very hard race of attrition in which I didn’t get the result I wanted (a finish in the full 100-mile race). Pending my race in North Dakota in August, the Cheq now my #1 “off-season” goal for 2016. 10h 45m, something like 20/30.

4. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2015: Coming in well trained, decently rested (two weeks after #3, below), and very, very eager, I rode what I think is my best race here in pretty much perfect conditions. 19h 30m, 26/77.

Finish Line Grin
Finish Line Grin

3. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in January 2015: I worked so freaking hard at getting this race right. I tested my clothing, gear, and bike, I thought incessantly about my race strategy, and I trained like mad. It paid off with a solid effort and a finish of the full 126 miles. 26h 25m, 30/39.

Finished!
Finished!

2. JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit in March 2014 (part I | part II | part III): Run along the Continental Divide where Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana meet, this was my first race at any kind of altitude. What the elevation didn’t take out of me, the brutally slow snow did. I couldn’t finish this one, getting pulled off the course at 100 miles by the race director after 32 hours of racing. I’d say this was the low point in my personal history of bike racing, but I drew a lot of motivation from my “honorary finish.” Not only did I return the next year to ride smarter and faster and to finish (see #X above), but I’ve treasured the connections I made to this race’s people and land.

Fat Pursuit 2014
Fat Pursuit 2014

1. The Arrowhead 135 in January 2014: my first and still the hardest fatbike race I’ve done. I’d never done race of longer than about 12 hours, but this one took me more than 24 hours, thanks in large part to temperatures that infamously ranged from -20° to -40° made the riding difficult, to say the least, but I stuck it out, teaching myself that I could do a lot more than I thought I could. 29h 9m, and a top-ten finish – 7/30.

Wakemup Hill
Wakemup Hill

Montage of Heck

Last night, I finally watched Montage of Heck, the recent documentary about Kurt Cobain by Brett Mogren. The film was moving, as I expected (or worried), and pleasingly focused on Cobain’s and Nirvana’s music. (The dude could shred on the guitar.) The music was in fact the centerpiece of the film: album and live tracks of classic Nirvana tunes, rarities and covers by others (a plinking, nursery-rhyme version of "All Apologies" early in the film gave me chills), and – surprisingly to me – actual pages of lyrics from Cobain’s own voluminous notebooks. Seeing the original lyrics to "Frances Farmer" magnified the impact of that amazing song, which is maybe my favorite. The animations of the notebook pages, and of key scenes in Cobain’s life, were a nice touch, highlighting the fact that Cobain was a talented visual artist – something I didn’t know about him.

Frances Farmer

Of course the film is also and maybe mostly about Cobain’s life, and incidentally about his death, which is treated far too abruptly. I wished that the Mogren had dealt even more with Cobain’s biography. After an excruciating look at his childhood, the film switches over almost entirely to the band just before Bleach. I can understand that choice, but given the detailed examination of Cobain’s youth, I wanted even more about being Courtney Love’s husband and Frances’ father. (Courtney does not come off well from the film.)

Cobain
Maybe I was just falling prey to the tendency of a fan to also be a voyeur, which Cobain himself loathed in his ugliest moments and which he tried to redirect to his art in his best. Midway through the film, some journalist asks Cobain why he can’t or won’t explain his songs to his fans. "There’s nothing to be said, man," Kurt replies, visibly exhausted by the question. "It’s all in the music, man, it’s all in the music. It’s all in the meat… I’d like to hear what they have, have in mind, you know, like, how they interpret it."

It’s a simple notion, but a profound one. Even if he were still alive, I could never explain to Cobain just what his music – Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, Unplugged, From the Muddy Banks, and all the rest – meant and means to me. It’s literally too much. Too much noise, too much rage, too much humor, too much beauty, too much feeling. Maybe, finally, Cobain is a kind of sacrificial lamb for me. The feelings that poured out of him created a kind of hole where I could and can stuff my own feelings. For that, I have to thank him – even if I also wish he were still around to make more music for me, and for us, and for himself.