Today was a perfectly ordinary day full of perfect ordinariness.
It was a Wednesday with nice fall weather – sunny, warm, and mild. The workday included three different meetings: one in the morning on a community project, one at dinnertime on an academic project, and one in the evening for our townhouse association. Being out late at those meetings, I didn’t get to see the girls till nearly bedtime.
I did plenty of miscellaneous work in between the meetings, some of which I did at the office, some of which I did at home or the coffee shop. Some of the work entailed finally finishing lingering projects, some nudged along current projects, some started new endeavors, and some was just answering emails. I ate a sandwich for each meal (though not the same sandwich). During my dinner at the downtown sandwich shop, a kid in the next booth started to melt down because he had onions in his sandwich. He stopped when his mom pointed out that the “onions” were actually peppers, and then had an actual meltdown when he didn’t get an “ice cream fudge” for dessert. I went to the gym and did poorly in a hard workout but bantered enjoyably with the other people in the session and our coach. I didn’t get to ride my bike much, though back and forth to work counts for something, and I was pleasantly cold in the way to work. I made some plans for winter racing. I heard the same REO Speedwagon song twice. I remembered to watch my favorite TV show at 9. And to have the last beer in the fridge.
As great a race as the Heck of the North was, even more great and memorable was getting to the race. Being a wholly unworthy but lucky son of a gun, I had the chance to fly – like, in an airplane! – up to the race, thanks to my friend Michael, whom I met a few years ago through the Northfield cycling scene.
In addition, see, to being a great gravel rider, a fatbiker, and an IT entrepreneur (and the parent of a kid the same age as my oldest), Michael is a private pilot. I’ve enjoyed learning from him about this avocation: his desire and efforts to learn to fly, his membership in a flying club based at an airfield near Northfield, his adventures flying to places near (the big Oshkosh air show) and far (the Black Hills in South Dakota).
We’d chatted casually a few times about going up together sometime, but never actually made time for it – until Michael discovered, last week, that the forecast for Heck weekend included perfect flying weather. I was more than game for flying to the race – what a great story, right? – so we made the requisite arrangements, planning to head up on Friday afternoon from tiny little Airlake Airport in Lakeville (a.k.a. KLVN, a half hour or less from Northfield) to big ol’ Duluth International (a.k.a. KDLH).
Interested though I was to go up in a little propeller plane, I was surprised to find myself pretty nervous about the flight. Not because I doubted that Michael was a perfectly capable pilot, but because, you know, scary news stories like this one or major tragedies like this one. My unconscious even served up a vivid nightmare about being in an airplane crash, just to make sure I was cognizant of my unfounded terror reasonable concern.
Friday morning, I literally and figuratively gritted my teeth and said to myself, “Self, nothing bad is going happen. Face your fear. The flights will be fine.” And not only was that very much the case, but both of the flights – Friday afternoon up to Duluth, Sunday morning back home – were marvelous, astounding, indelible experiences.
Michael selected his club’s Piper Archer as the best plane for our trip: roomy enough for our bikes, bags, and selves, and more than capable of the 90-minute flights between KLVN and KDLH.
Michael did a great job with the pre-flight prep, from doing the mandatory checklists and offering basic facts about the airplane to briefing me on in-air etiquette and answering my questions about being aloft in “Archer 8414 November,” which looked amazingly (and a little disturbingly) like a station wagon. Getting set to go dampened my lingering worries, and participating in some of the pre-flight activities was engaging: turns out, one person can roll the plane out of the hangar – just give it a yank and it follows you like a dog!
Once packed into Archer 8414 November’s front seats, I put on headphones/microphone that muffled the rather incredible engine noise, let me communicate with Michael in the air, and looked, frankly, a little bit cool. I wished I had a long red scarf like Snoopy.
We taxied over to the runway, did a few final checks of the airplane’s systems, and then started down the tarmac. I expected the abrupt upward sensation of a jetliner on liftoff, but nope: Archer 814 was just suddenly six, then sixty, then 600 feet off the ground, soaring over Lakeville and points east. I was literally slack jawed – and we weren’t even really flying yet.
We headed mostly east first, then turned north and followed the beautiful blue St. Croix River for a ways.
An easterly wind meant that we could not just head straight north to Duluth, but had to fly over a beautiful swath of western Wisconsin, which was first a patchwork of fields and small cities.
About halfway into the flight, though, the farms and towns disappeared and the forests and bogs asserted themselves. Gorgeous.
Michael saw Duluth in the distance far before I did, but when I finally did pick out the white-gray smudge of civilization against the green-brown of hills and, behind, the deep blue of the lake, I enjoyed watching the Zenith City approach. Going far slower and far lower than a jet heightened my impression that I was immobile and the ground was moving under me – an exhilarating and fascinating sensation.
A swing to the west brought us around to the runway at Duluth, where Michael touched down without any problem.
On the ground at KDLH, I was amazed to learn of the existence of a whole industry that serves private pilots: guiding their planes to their parking spots, tying the planes down, fueling the planes up, handling baggage (even our bikes – cargo I don’t think our guy had ever seen come out of a tiny little plane), even driving us over to the car-rental counter… This is somewhat how the 1% lives, I suspect.
An hour later, we had finished the first part of our trip with a quick drive up Highway 61 to Two Harbors. I would be lying if I said that I was then anticipating the race on Saturday more than the return flight on Sunday.
Sunday morning, we got our heavy legs to KDLH relatively early. In getting us to the terminal where Archer 8414 November had been waiting, I got to drive our rental car on the tarmac – yet another strange feeling, and impossible to separate from about a hundred action-movie scenes. Reality was far quieter: Michael took care of the pre-flight checks while I loaded the plane and returned the car.
As on Friday, takeoff was seemingly effortless, but Michael had the brilliant idea of flying further east, over Duluth and above the lake, before turning south toward home. The views were incredible. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the shores of Lake Superior, and some dozens of hours on the water, but I don’t think I’d ever been above the Big Lake. It was worth the wait – especially with the bonus of seeing Duluth from the air.
Heading back south, we retraced some of Friday’s flight path, flying over the St. Louis River south of Duluth, the massive forests and bogs on both sides of the state line, and finally the St. Croix again.
At one point somewhere over Wisconsin, Michael let me operate Archer 8414 November’s controls, which I did very, very, very gingerly. Again: astounding. Turn the yoke to the right, and the plane turns right! To the left, it goes left. Pull back on the yoke and the goddamn plane goes up. Push the yoke in, and ohmygod there’s the ground in front of us! I didn’t have the stomach to do much more of this “flying” and happily let Michael take the plane back.
As we approached home, Michael asked for permission to fly through the restricted “Class Bravo” airspace over Minneapolis. Since it was a quiet Sunday morning in the sky, ground control granted this request, and we flew right over Minneapolis, just to the east of downtown – you know, for the views. Which were amazing.
Just a few minutes later, we were back over Airlake, and then back on the ground, and then back in the car, headed home. I think I’m still a little high from the incredible experiences of those flights – and very grateful to have a generous and skilled friend like Michael. Should I even mention that I can’t wait for next time?
Today’s The Heck of the North was my nineteenth century-length gravel or snow bike race. Somewhere toward the end of the event, I passed my 2,000th mile of century racing. A few thoughts that worked their way through my neurons during the event:
Compared to other great gravel races, I find the Heck especially appealing because the terrain and the sights are so reminiscent of the U.P. – the reddish gravel, the jagged rocks, the endless forests of mixed leafy and evergreen trees, and of course the glimpses of the Big Lake.
It hurts a lot to ride into a headwind, but headwinds hurt even more, somehow, when you get out of them and discover that your legs are dead.
I think my girls would love to ride big parts of this course, especially the two-track trails through the woods.
Being more diligent with my nutrition (200 calories an hour, every hour!) has paid off very well at the Inspiration and now the Heck, both in terms of maintaining good output throughout the race and being able to push hard in the last hour.
It’s also great to have a kit that just works right – shoes, socks, base layers, tights, jersey, hat, gloves. No fussing, no mussing. Comfortable all day.
I don’t think any other gravel race requires less use of the brakes. Maybe I’ll take mine off next year to save some weight.
Red Bull, properly administered, is a hell of a PED.
Fatbikes are good on dirt and great on snow, but they’re pretty damn awesome on grass, too. The softer the better.
Relatedly, I wish I had a dollar for everyone who told me, “You sound like a car!” when I rolled up on them during the race. 4-inch tires at 30psi are no joke. (The cash would have defrayed the costs of my post-race beers, for sure.)
Gravel racers are, as a group, pretty friendly and chatty folks, but Heck racers are especially so. I’ve never had so many good conversations with old friends and new acquaintances. (But it was still nice to ride my fatbike faster than some of them!)
At the end of the school year, Julia decided to take up a big challenge put on by the public school’s basketball coaches for the summer: to take 10,000 shots and amass 24 hours of ball handling.
She had to really work at it, but last week she finished the ball handling and this afternoon she took her ten-thousandth shot, making a basket in our weathered hoop:
I was impressed all summer long with her commitment to this challenge. She went out there and dribbled and shot on hot days and cool days, in mornings and in evenings, in the sun and in the rain, when she was rested and when she was tired, when she felt like doing it and when she didn’t. I’m proud of her for finishing in style.
The girls’ new purple belts mean that tae kwon do training now often involves sparring with other students at or just above their level.
I hadn’t really seen them do this until Thursday’s practice, and holy moly was it stressful to watch. Sure, they were all done up in protective gear, but still: seeing your tiny babies getting punched and kicked – and of course punching and kicking their foes? Riveting and scary. They loved it.
Saturday, I rode in my favorite gravel race: the Inspiration 100, run on the great roads through the beautiful lake country outside Alexandria, Minnesota. I know and like the race directors (and keep buying bikes from ’em!), which is a bonus, and they keep letting me in the race, so I keep doing it.
I approached this year’s race with a little trepidation. Work and domestic responsibilities kept me away from my bike for much of the summer, and I learned what that means at the Cheq 100 and Maah Daah Hey. But I did get in a couple decent-length rides in the month before the Inspo, and I worked damn hard at the gym all summer, and I made a few important tweaks to my bike, and I knew I’d feel comfortable on the course… I was in short reasonably sure that I’d be able to finish, and even dared hope that I could race hard all day.
This turned out to be exactly what happened – helped along by great companionship with Bruce and Scott on the drive up north, by a restful night at Charlie’s place near the start, and most of all by incredibly beautiful conditions: excellent gravel, a blue sky, moderate winds, and comfortable temperatures. Even at the start line – where I was the only racer on a fatbike (knife to a gunfight?) – I thought, “Yeah, this is going to happen.” I’d found out on the drive up to the race that I seem to have been admitted to the Arrowhead 135 in January, which provided a big jolt of motivation to race hard. But too, I enjoyed the laid-back vibe of the race, chatting with some other riders that I’d met at various other events and finally shaking hands with a guy I’d admired and raced with but never met.
From the gun, the field rode away from me, but I settled into myself and focused on enjoying the ride.
I was very careful to eat and drink correctly, I stopped to stretch my back when needed, I took a few minutes to take a picture of a course-side sight I’ve always wondered about
and I focused whenever I could on chasing hard – a task made easier by the course’s long vistas and the day’s superb conditions. (I caught this guy.)
Here and there (like after a relatively quick stop at the convenience store around mile 55), I rode with another racer or two, but mostly I made my way through the backmarkers, almost all of whom, I was pleased to see, were on regular gravel bikes – machines that, all things being equal, should go a lot faster than a fatbike with 4-inch tires at 20psi.
From one perspective, these catches were satisfying in kind of a lame way (who cares who’s passing whom?), but from another perspective, they also signaled to me that yes, I did still know how to race bikes, and that yes, what training I’d been able to do this summer had paid off. I was especially pleased to find (contra the Maah Daah Hey) that I could actually attack the climbs, which are short, punchy, and frequent on this course.
And while the rollers were a known quantity, the course’s two most (in)famous bits were going to be challenging in a new way. This year, the dudes who run the Inspiration decided that we’d ride the course in the reverse of the direction that we have the last three years. This meant that the race’s two “feature sections” came well into the race: a rough, washed-out “minimum maintenance road” at mile 66 and an even rougher grass two-track between two farm fields at mile 95.
I was looking forward to these secteurs, both because I love rough terrain and because I knew that the Buffalo is the best possible bike for them. Hitting the MMR in a small group of riders, I immediately and completely dropped them. It’s a wonderful feeling to not have to choose a line through the rocks and sand and tree branches, to be able to just ride the hell out of it. I worked over those two miles, pushing as hard as possible, and popped out at the end feeling pretty trashed but feeling good about the effort (and the gap).
Over the next 25 miles, I recovered and prepared myself for that second feature section, which I knew would be shorter and easier. I was feeling physically pretty good as mile 95 approached, but my mental focus was wandering badly. For instance, while I knew (from earlier in the race) that the mileage on my GPS was different by 0.7 miles from the distances on the cue sheets, I could barely do the addition or subtraction to figure out where the turn onto the grass section would come up. “The cues say it’s a right turn at mile 94.3. Does that mean my GPS will read 93.6 or 95.0 when I get there?”
To remedy this, I took my secret weapon: a super tasty, super-caffeinated gel. As I was washing it down, mile 94.3 went by and suddenly I was no longer seeing other racers’ tracks in the gravel. Son of a bee! I had missed the goddamn turn onto the two-track! I hit the brakes and doubled back to the corner where, sure enough, the trail ran off into the weeds. Yes! I turned right and started riding. Within a few minutes, though, the trail I was on ended – in someone’s yard. No matter! I rode around the edge of the lawn and picked up the trail on the other side, only wait… This wasn’t a trail, or even a path; it was just the open space between two rows of corn! Fuckityfuckityfuck.
I buffaloed through the corn and walked my bike back to the gravel road along the edge of the field. A quick check of Google Maps showed me that I was somehow about a mile and a half north of where I needed to me, and heading – had I not stopped – away from the finish line, which even my foggy brain could tell was probably not what you should be doing when you’re 89% of the way into a race.
Hop on the bike. Ride back to the corner where it looks like I had taken a wrong turn. Sure enough, here are my tracks from when I missed the turn in the first place, and here are my tracks making a right turn off the road and down the trail.
Oh wait a second! I had been heading the wrong way, so I should have made a left turn, not the right turn that the cue sheets indicated for jerks riding in the correct direction.
Sure enough, 40 pairs of bike tires had clearly made the correct turn, and I finally followed suit. The grass two-track was fun and easy to ride on the fatbike, especially as the caffeine soaked in. I caught a couple racers whom I’d caught much earlier but who had – in a very unsportsmanlike way – snuck past me while I wandered the corn fields, then a couple more who stopped at an impromptu aid station where the two-track ended – just about ten miles of more or less straight-line riding from the finish, all into a mild but insistent headwind.
Several rolling hills and maybe a mile ahead, I could see one rider – just a speck. I decided to try to catch him. I didn’t think I could, or would, but I knew that a chase would make those last miles go by more quickly.
Find a bigger gear. Keep the cadence high. Stand on the uphills. Find an even bigger gear to push on the downhills. Downshift again on the flat. After a couple rollers, distinguish his jersey from his helmet. Upshift, crank, stand, upshift again. Another roller or two and I could see the color of his jersey – a dot of orange.
Burning throat. Spit trickling out of my mouth. Keep the pedals turning. From the top of another roller, see him just a few hundred meters ahead – approaching what I guess (now that my wrong turns had totally fouled up my GPS data) is the last rise before the turn to the finish.
Push my biggest gear on the descent. Downshift for the flat. Make out the words his jersey now. No more downshifting. Get up on the pedals. Zoom past him on the rise, nodding once, and push as hard as possible to the crest. No – not the highway, just another roller, but at the top of the next rise, I see high-speed traffic. Pavement! Downshift once before my thighs explode, but stay standing. Watch for the shimmery black ribbon of the asphalt. Right turn, upshift for the downhill to the finish line, but don’t coast!
I crossed the finish line a few minutes before my quarry, and had maybe even had a sip or three of Lollygagger before he cruised through the finish area and one of the race directors told me that he’s 20 years older than me and just survived prostate cancer.
Okay, so maybe the chase wasn’t quite the victory it could have been, but still! Lying there in the grass, and then later stuffing my face with bratwurst and another beer, I was pleased to have put in that particular effort, and to have worked hard all day. The 2015 Inspiration wasn’t my fastest race, but it wasn’t my slowest (or a DNF) either, and most importantly the event confirmed that I am ready to kick off a big autumn of training for the winter’s races. It’s going to be fun!
This year’s Inspiration is, though, the penultimate edition. Because it’s not easy to put on a free gravel race, the RDs have already announced that the 2016 event will be the last one. The race date is already set: Saturday, September 10, 2016. Registration opens on July 1. If you have any desire to do a great gravel race, this is the one to choose.
The girls were busy all Saturday with a friend – a.k.a. our third daughter – so I hopped on the Buffalo and headed out to get a few miles in my legs. The Inspiration 100 is in exactly two weeks, and while it’s too late to really train, any riding now will help minimize the pain of being in poor shape.
I wound up getting a solid 40 miles, mostly on gravel roads but also on the two trails our local MTB club has created. The newer, more challenging trail at Caron Park midway between Northfield and Faribault was damp but rideable and fun. I rode two laps on my way south to Faribault in the morning and two more on my way back to Northfield in the afternoon. As a neophyte mountain biker, I’m still amazed at how exhausting pedaling at 5mph for an hour can b, especially when you’re constantly confronted by hub-high log obstacles. Oof!
The trail riding was even slower than it might’ve been because after a few pedal strokes, I had who knows how many ounces of mud and leaves packed into the treads of my Maxxis Mammoth tires. They’re great on gravel, but terrible on dirt.
As usual with gravel rides, the scenery was great. The clammy gray clouds in the morning accented the verdant fields and woods, and then the afternoon sun made the summery greenness into a visual roar. Riding the gravel shoulder of a long stretch of paved road early on my route, I collected quite a bit of pollen, which I then carried all over Rice County.
Just doing my bit to help the bees.
Since I was trying to ride continuously, I only stopped to take a few pictures, which meant I have just mental snapshots of the three surly wild turkeys who didn’t want to clear the road, of the dozens of lean horses and fat cows in the pastures, or of the many tiny wood frogs that hopped away from me. But I had to stop to take a shot of this gigantic hawk, looking down on me with a predator’s cold gaze,
and of this free-range vacuum, standing enigmatically along the highway just outside the city limits.
All summer, the girls have been enrolled in a mountain biking class sponsored by our local MTB club and run at the new trails that the club built right in town. Though I can’t say every class went smoothly or that the girls loved every second they spent in the classes, they did learn a lot about riding and dramatically improved their skills, developed their endurance, and built their confidence.
The culmination of the class was an overnight trip to the massive MTB trail system built on abandoned mines at Cuyuna, in central Minnesota. Cuyuna is a fabled place for Minnesota mountain bikers and fatbikers, the place you go for the toughest trails and the best scenery. I had never been up there, so I hoped that the girls would both show the skills to successfully ride there and the enthusiasm to go "up north" on a little adventure.
By the middle of July, I could see that they had both: serious abilities on the trails and great eagerness for riding. In addition to the class, we rode several times on our own over the last few weeks, outings which they both loved. And then they crushed some tough challenges at the last regular class, which they described as "the most fun thing ever!" on the ride home.
The scene was thus set for a good trip to Cuyuna. Shannon was rightly concerned about both the practical arrangements and the girls’ safety, but I mostly allayed those fears – and some of the girls’ – and headed out on Thursday morning along with six other kids and five other adults, including the class leaders. The three-hour bus ride to Cuyuna was enjoyable, despite the need to give half our seats to a big rattling collection of bikes:
We arrived up north without any problems and almost immediately headed back into town to ride at a "pump track" – a compact system of dirt trails with undulating terrain and banked turns that are laid out so that good riders can get all the way around without pedaling – only "pumping" their arms and legs. None of us could pull off that trick, but everyone had a blast riding around and around and around on the track. I loved watching the girls loving the riding – and rapidly getting better at the unusual techniques needed to conquer the track. Julia crashed once, but was back riding within a few minutes. Whizzing past me, they shouted, "This is so much fun!"
After about an hour of pretty continuous riding, we adjourned for ice cream at Dairy Queen. Back at the campground, we set up our tents and took a short out-and-back ride on an easy stretch of the regular trails, getting a little of Cuyuna’s famous red dirt on our tires.
Everyone cooled off with a swim at the campground beach,
then we destroyed a delicious dinner prepared by one of the instructors and his wife – folks who have serious camp-cooking chops! Throughout, I tried to let the girls enjoy themselves and handle things largely on their own, which they readily did: being smart about riding and swimming, choosing good dinners, making their own sleeping arrangements… It was fun to see.
Friday morning, everyone woke up eager to hit the trails. I stayed behind while the other adults went for an early ride on some more challenging trails, but all the kids were great – getting dressed, eating good breakfasts, riding their bikes around excitedly. Finally, around 10, we headed out for a loop that would include three different "easy" trails. The wild card was the weather: as we started, the temps were already near 80° F with very high humidity. I gotta say that I was nervous as hell about whether Julia and Genevieve would be able to ride so much tough trail in such heat and humidity.
Fifteen minutes in, I knew they would. Without any problem, we roared en masse to the start of our loop, and got right to it: red-dirt trails that wound through young birch groves, tricky but manageable ascents and descents littered with loose rocks and stubbornly immobile roots, narrow passages overlooking beautiful lakes…
Wisely, our ride leader stopped often so kids could rest and drink and eat – little pauses that kept everyone energized and focused. Whenever he or the other instructor, riding last in our file, asked if everyone was having fun, the kids shouted, "Yes!"
We weren’t even deterred by a few bee stings when we inadvertently posed for a group photo on top of a beehive.
Julia got a bad zap on a finger, but soldiered on! I rode as much as I could right behind the girls so that I could watch them buzz along the trails, blonde ponytails poking out from under their helmets. Near the end of the ride, I finally stopped wondering if they could climb that nasty slope, ride that tricky descent, or rail that loose corner. The answer was always "yes," so I just settled in and enjoyed the sight of them loving the sport I love too.
The ride ended too soon for me (and I suspect for the other adults), but at just the right time for the kids – 90 minutes and about seven challenging miles of riding. The girls were just tired enough to sit for a nice photo of us – with a loon on the lake in the background!
An easy paved ride back to camp brought us down from the high of the ride to our last few activities: a quick lunch, a bit more swimming, and then of course packing up. The bus ride home was sweaty, but pleasingly quiet and relaxed.
Though we haven’t been back on our bikes since returning, the girls are excited to go to some of the more local MTB trails before school starts, and I am too. I am elated to have them riding the trails with me!
On big trip out to the Maah Daah Hey, Galen and I traveled deep into the buffalo heartland, where two hundred years ago millions of bison roamed. My sentiments on bison still need to be gathered up and put into words, but my depth of feeling can be suggested by the how much bisoniana I gathered. Below is some of it. (I did not get pictures of the bison in either unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park [$20 is too much for a drive around the park!] or of the signs for various housing developments in Watford City, North Dakota: Buffalo Hills, Blue Bison, Bison Meadows, Bison Run…)
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.
Going out with my fried Galen to the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands near Medora, North Dakota, I figured I’d be in for a tough race. I expected the weather to be hot and the singletrack trail to be as challenging as the trails at the Chequamegon 100 in June, and I also knew that – thanks to a busy summer that ate up my usual time to ride – that I wasn’t in the very best shape for riding.
By then, a damaged derailleur had been keeping me out of my two climbing gears for a couple hours, my legs were empty, the temperature had risen to a furnace-like 100° F, and I had just started the third leg of the race, which included the most and hardest climbing. I hate quitting, but the call was a good one. Turns out, 70% of the competitors in the long race did the same thing. The race video says that the MDH is “the raddest race in the baddest place,” but you could flip those adjectives around and summarize the event just as accurately.
So while I didn’t finish, I’m eager to try the race again next year with better training, a better race plan, and a bike that’s better suited to the trail. (My sincerest apologies to the Buffalo, but this isn’t your thing.)
In the meantime, I’m going to savor the experience and especially the amazing scenery. I’d never been to the Badlands, and I found them jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sitting on a bike seat always makes a view at least twice as good. The coolness started before the start, when race director extraordinaire Nick Ybarra quoted a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt (a local hero in western North Dakota, where he ranched before going into politics back east):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This was an inspiring way to wait for the gun, looking west toward a nearly-full moon setting behind the buttes.
The first few miles were rolling and slow as the field separated. I stopped at one point to admire the last glimpse of the moon before it disappeared behind the buttes.
Not long afterwards, we started up a long switchback climb, one that other riders had promised would take 15 or 20 minutes – two or three times longer than the longest climbs here in southern Minnesota. A film crew was shooting the race from a helicopter that zoomed deafeningly up and down the course, and the chopper hovered overhead for a few minutes to get what must be gorgeous footage of the glinting line of riders zig-zagging up the side of the hill.
The Buffalo’s new X1 gearing was more than up to the ascent, which ended in a fast, fun section of prairie singletrack – much more familiar terrain, though our prairie here doesn’t end in sheer 100-foot dropoffs.
For the next while, the trail swooped up and down, always following the tall 4×4 posts that marked the trail. The high prairie sections were frequently interrupted by cattle gates: heavy metal gates that had to be swung up and out of the way, then dropped with a huge clang after passing. Not a part of Midwestern riding!
These flat, fast sections all eventually dove down into the arroyos that created the real drama of the race. Some of this drama was visual – stunning overlooks and amazing moments like when I riding west with the rising sun behind me, then turned sharply left away from a ravine. My shadow momentarily leapt out from beneath me so that my head was fifty feet away on the far wall of the ravine. Breathtaking.
The arroyos also created physical drama. They were often full of evergreen shrubs that the climate assured would never be trees but that smelled wonderful anyhow. We could ride down into and up out of most of the arroyos, but not all of them: one had such steep walls that we had to skid down and clamber up.
Whether up high or down low, the views!
Though the terrain varied almost minute by minute, the rutted singletrack was constant: grooves about six inches wide and anywhere from an inch to six inches deep. Any wobble caused a pedal strike or a slap of the Buffalo’s derailleur against the side of the groove – or even a crash if the front tire snagged the edge. I took a couple undignified but minor falls, and somewhere in this section bent my derailleur hanger, which led to one or two dropped chains.
These delays aside, I was surprised to hit the first aid station (at the amazingly-named Scairt Women Road) fairly early – well ahead of my schedule. I gassed up quickly, lubed the Buffalo’s chain, and got back out on the trail feeling strong.
The heat was mounting, though, and the trail soon entered some very dry areas – desert, basically. The trail now often traced the buttes, with a steep wall up on one side and a steep drop down on the other. Whenever the terrain went down or stayed flat, I continued to make great time, blasting along at speeds well over the pace I needed to maintain for a daylight finish. I even zipped through the infamous “Devil’s Pass” section- a few hundred yards of trail between two steep drops on either side. This section is like something out of a movie – like maybe the MDH promo video (see 1:20-1:30 for the Devil’s Pass).
Tight switchback turns were a dime a dozen, and sand or rocks in the apex of the turns made them extra tricky. Playing it safe, I would put my inner foot down and tap tap tap my way around the corner, leaning away from the drop on the other side. This kind of riding was new and scary and exhilarating. Coming out of shaded areas into the sun, I could feel heat radiating off the eastern and southern faces of the buttes. I rode past patches of prickly-pear cacti and even – once – honest-to-God cattle bones lying along the trail!
Whenever the inclines steepened, troubles occurred. Either from wear and tear (the trail was heinously dusty) or more bobbles (the gully trails continued), my derailleur began acting up more and more often, until I could not get to my two granny gears at all without the chain slipping off the biggest cog and getting jammed between the cog and the spokes.
I tried to tamp down my frustration at losing huge chunks of time when I needed to stop to put the chain back onto the cogs. I’d done harder stuff than this in harder races. But my frustration almost boiled over into anger when the chain actually snapped, just as I started a long hard climb. I’d thought to buy a couple master links for my new chain just the day before at the bike shop in Medora, so I could actually make the change and get going, slowly, again – but still without those two valuable lowest gears, and dreading the inevitable next big climb.
Watching the mileage tick by on my bike computer, I knew I was getting close to the second aid station, which – another rider had told me – came after a stiff climb on the far side of the Little Missouri River. I thought I could sense the river because the landscape began greening up, becoming more like the area near the start, which had been right on the Little Missouri. I saw some cattle meandering through the damper landscape, and when I didn’t see cattle themselves, I saw many of their leavings: cow patties right on the damn trail.
Here, the terrain was flatter again, too – floodplain. I crossed a trickle of water named Whitetail Creek, a sad little watercourse made sadder for flowing around the bloated carcass of a fawn. After a little more pedaling, I arrived at the Little Missouri. A couple other riders were on the bank, taking off their shoes and socks, but I decided to just get on with it and walked right into the warm, muddy water. I first pushed the Buffalo and then hoisted it onto my shoulder when the water came up to knee height.
The crossing only took a minute or two. The trail resumed in a beautiful cottonwood grove that provided the first real shade all day – which was pleasant, since by now the temperatures must have been near a hundred degrees.
Riding away from the river, the cottonwoods ended where the promised big climb up to Aid Station 2 began – a long, steady grunt along the face of a bluff that must have been visible from the floodplain. The ascent was tough but feasible, even with a malfunctioning bike and increasingly dead legs. I was still pedaling when I popped out at the top and rolled past reached the timer’s tent. She welcomed me in and warned that I had arrived just 45 minutes before the time I had to leave. Thanks to all the delays from fixing my chain, this was far less time than I’d hoped to have in hand, but the number was still manageable.
Making my way to the shelter where volunteers were handing out food and drink, another volunteer stepped out to greet me. “How’s your bike working?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think the derailleur hanger is bent. Can’t get to my two granny gears.” “Well, I can take a look!” Past him was a bike mechanic’s station, complete with a bike stand and a big set of tools. “You go have some food and drink and I’ll see what I can do.” Before I could even really assent, he had the Buffalo up in the stand and was starting to examine the wonky der.
Smiling folks at the refreshment tent provided me with Cokes, ice water, and some food – and a handkerchief that had been soaking in ice water. Thrown over my head, it felt fantastic. Adhering to Jay Petervary’s directive to always do two things at once whenever you’re not riding, I ate and drank while restocking my backpack with supplies from my drop bag, then tried to rest in the shade, looking out over the Little Missouri.
Also resting in the tent was Scott J, a racer whom I’d met for the first time at the start that morning. Scott was the star of “The Push,” an amazing short film about the Arrowhead 135 fatbike race in the blizzard-marred 2013. I’ve watched “The Push” dozens of times, drawing inspiration from how Dale had ridden and pushed his bike through the storm that hit during the race to finish in 52 hours.
Of the Maah Daah Hey, though, Scott said that it was the hardest race he’d ever done and that he was quitting.
This gave me pause. One of the toughest racers around, dropping out? Before I could think too much about it, a timer announced that the cutoff time was only fifteen minutes away, and that anyone intending to continue needed to leave a.s.a.p. From the other side of the checkpoint, the bike mechanic called to me. “149, let’s talk about your bike!” We talked for a bit about the Buffalo’s problems: he’d straightened the derailleur hanger and adjusted the cage, which had been twisted, and felt decently sure that the bike was ready for the second half of the race – including, right away, the 25-mile section that included the course’s toughest climbs and that would be run under the day’s highest heat.
I decided I needed to give it a shot. I thanked the mechanic, hurried through the rest of my prep (grabbing two cold cans of Coke), and mounted up. For about ten minutes of rolling climbs, the Buffalo worked fine, even in the low gears, and I felt decent. Then, on one steep ramp, the derailleur started clanking again. I shifted out of the granny and found that I couldn’t pedal the hill. Get off the bike. Start hiking. Feel the heat pouring down from the sky.
On the downhill, I remounted and rode till the next climb, which I rode as far as I could in a medium gear. Shifting down to my granny, everything started clanking again. I hopped off and checked the time. I was now about half an hour out from the aid station – just far enough that turning around would be futile, since the crew would probably have been packed up by now. So I walked that uphill and rode the downhill, then repeated it.
After hiking one long grassy climb that I could have ridden easily with a functioning bike, I stopped in a tiny patch of shade to consider my options. I could see a gravel road – one of the many new roads cut into the grasslands to service new oil wells – in the near distance, but I had no idea where it went. Comparing the mileage on my computer to the course map, though, I figured that I was about three miles from the next checkpoint.
I figured that if I could make it there – even walking – I could abandon and get a ride back to… somewhere. I took a pull of water (already lukewarm) and some food and started riding. As I paralleled the road, a truck came up on me. The driver slowed and shouted, “You okay?” I shouted back, “Nope! Bike’s screwed up.” Pulling over, the driver turned out to be the race director, Nick. After we determined that the Buffalo had reached its limit and that its rider was pretty close to his, Nick loaded my bike in the bed of the truck. My day was over.
For the next couple hours, I toured the course with Nick and a couple other riders whom we picked up, including one guy who thought he had a dislocated shoulder and my Twin Cities friend Ryan, who had a bloody face after a hard crash. When we stopped at the third aid station, the one on the end of the hardest stretch of the course, I saw at least a dozen racers sprawled out – sleeping, resting, dropped out, preparing to go on. Carnage, at least as bad as anything I’d seen at the Arrowhead in quite the opposite weather.
Though I still felt some pangs of disappointment over dropping out, I felt better about the decision when I saw just how far gone were some of these racers – and, more jealously, what kinds of bikes they were using. Not a fatbike in the bunch, and lots of full-suspension mountain bikes. Every few minutes, a racer would come down off the hill into the aid station, and they too would be on light trail bikes. Drinking water and eating potato chips from Nick’s truck, I made some mental notes on what I would need to come back and finish the race in 2016.
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.
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:
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.
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.