Today’s The Heck of the North was my nineteenth century-length gravel or snow bike race. Somewhere toward the end of the event, I passed my 2,000th mile of century racing. A few thoughts that worked their way through my neurons during the event:
Compared to other great gravel races, I find the Heck especially appealing because the terrain and the sights are so reminiscent of the U.P. – the reddish gravel, the jagged rocks, the endless forests of mixed leafy and evergreen trees, and of course the glimpses of the Big Lake.
It hurts a lot to ride into a headwind, but headwinds hurt even more, somehow, when you get out of them and discover that your legs are dead.
I think my girls would love to ride big parts of this course, especially the two-track trails through the woods.
Being more diligent with my nutrition (200 calories an hour, every hour!) has paid off very well at the Inspiration and now the Heck, both in terms of maintaining good output throughout the race and being able to push hard in the last hour.
It’s also great to have a kit that just works right – shoes, socks, base layers, tights, jersey, hat, gloves. No fussing, no mussing. Comfortable all day.
I don’t think any other gravel race requires less use of the brakes. Maybe I’ll take mine off next year to save some weight.
Red Bull, properly administered, is a hell of a PED.
Fatbikes are good on dirt and great on snow, but they’re pretty damn awesome on grass, too. The softer the better.
Relatedly, I wish I had a dollar for everyone who told me, “You sound like a car!” when I rolled up on them during the race. 4-inch tires at 30psi are no joke. (The cash would have defrayed the costs of my post-race beers, for sure.)
Gravel racers are, as a group, pretty friendly and chatty folks, but Heck racers are especially so. I’ve never had so many good conversations with old friends and new acquaintances. (But it was still nice to ride my fatbike faster than some of them!)
Saturday, I rode in my favorite gravel race: the Inspiration 100, run on the great roads through the beautiful lake country outside Alexandria, Minnesota. I know and like the race directors (and keep buying bikes from ’em!), which is a bonus, and they keep letting me in the race, so I keep doing it.
I approached this year’s race with a little trepidation. Work and domestic responsibilities kept me away from my bike for much of the summer, and I learned what that means at the Cheq 100 and Maah Daah Hey. But I did get in a couple decent-length rides in the month before the Inspo, and I worked damn hard at the gym all summer, and I made a few important tweaks to my bike, and I knew I’d feel comfortable on the course… I was in short reasonably sure that I’d be able to finish, and even dared hope that I could race hard all day.
This turned out to be exactly what happened – helped along by great companionship with Bruce and Scott on the drive up north, by a restful night at Charlie’s place near the start, and most of all by incredibly beautiful conditions: excellent gravel, a blue sky, moderate winds, and comfortable temperatures. Even at the start line – where I was the only racer on a fatbike (knife to a gunfight?) – I thought, “Yeah, this is going to happen.” I’d found out on the drive up to the race that I seem to have been admitted to the Arrowhead 135 in January, which provided a big jolt of motivation to race hard. But too, I enjoyed the laid-back vibe of the race, chatting with some other riders that I’d met at various other events and finally shaking hands with a guy I’d admired and raced with but never met.
From the gun, the field rode away from me, but I settled into myself and focused on enjoying the ride.
I was very careful to eat and drink correctly, I stopped to stretch my back when needed, I took a few minutes to take a picture of a course-side sight I’ve always wondered about
and I focused whenever I could on chasing hard – a task made easier by the course’s long vistas and the day’s superb conditions. (I caught this guy.)
Here and there (like after a relatively quick stop at the convenience store around mile 55), I rode with another racer or two, but mostly I made my way through the backmarkers, almost all of whom, I was pleased to see, were on regular gravel bikes – machines that, all things being equal, should go a lot faster than a fatbike with 4-inch tires at 20psi.
From one perspective, these catches were satisfying in kind of a lame way (who cares who’s passing whom?), but from another perspective, they also signaled to me that yes, I did still know how to race bikes, and that yes, what training I’d been able to do this summer had paid off. I was especially pleased to find (contra the Maah Daah Hey) that I could actually attack the climbs, which are short, punchy, and frequent on this course.
And while the rollers were a known quantity, the course’s two most (in)famous bits were going to be challenging in a new way. This year, the dudes who run the Inspiration decided that we’d ride the course in the reverse of the direction that we have the last three years. This meant that the race’s two “feature sections” came well into the race: a rough, washed-out “minimum maintenance road” at mile 66 and an even rougher grass two-track between two farm fields at mile 95.
I was looking forward to these secteurs, both because I love rough terrain and because I knew that the Buffalo is the best possible bike for them. Hitting the MMR in a small group of riders, I immediately and completely dropped them. It’s a wonderful feeling to not have to choose a line through the rocks and sand and tree branches, to be able to just ride the hell out of it. I worked over those two miles, pushing as hard as possible, and popped out at the end feeling pretty trashed but feeling good about the effort (and the gap).
Over the next 25 miles, I recovered and prepared myself for that second feature section, which I knew would be shorter and easier. I was feeling physically pretty good as mile 95 approached, but my mental focus was wandering badly. For instance, while I knew (from earlier in the race) that the mileage on my GPS was different by 0.7 miles from the distances on the cue sheets, I could barely do the addition or subtraction to figure out where the turn onto the grass section would come up. “The cues say it’s a right turn at mile 94.3. Does that mean my GPS will read 93.6 or 95.0 when I get there?”
To remedy this, I took my secret weapon: a super tasty, super-caffeinated gel. As I was washing it down, mile 94.3 went by and suddenly I was no longer seeing other racers’ tracks in the gravel. Son of a bee! I had missed the goddamn turn onto the two-track! I hit the brakes and doubled back to the corner where, sure enough, the trail ran off into the weeds. Yes! I turned right and started riding. Within a few minutes, though, the trail I was on ended – in someone’s yard. No matter! I rode around the edge of the lawn and picked up the trail on the other side, only wait… This wasn’t a trail, or even a path; it was just the open space between two rows of corn! Fuckityfuckityfuck.
I buffaloed through the corn and walked my bike back to the gravel road along the edge of the field. A quick check of Google Maps showed me that I was somehow about a mile and a half north of where I needed to me, and heading – had I not stopped – away from the finish line, which even my foggy brain could tell was probably not what you should be doing when you’re 89% of the way into a race.
Hop on the bike. Ride back to the corner where it looks like I had taken a wrong turn. Sure enough, here are my tracks from when I missed the turn in the first place, and here are my tracks making a right turn off the road and down the trail.
Oh wait a second! I had been heading the wrong way, so I should have made a left turn, not the right turn that the cue sheets indicated for jerks riding in the correct direction.
Sure enough, 40 pairs of bike tires had clearly made the correct turn, and I finally followed suit. The grass two-track was fun and easy to ride on the fatbike, especially as the caffeine soaked in. I caught a couple racers whom I’d caught much earlier but who had – in a very unsportsmanlike way – snuck past me while I wandered the corn fields, then a couple more who stopped at an impromptu aid station where the two-track ended – just about ten miles of more or less straight-line riding from the finish, all into a mild but insistent headwind.
Several rolling hills and maybe a mile ahead, I could see one rider – just a speck. I decided to try to catch him. I didn’t think I could, or would, but I knew that a chase would make those last miles go by more quickly.
Find a bigger gear. Keep the cadence high. Stand on the uphills. Find an even bigger gear to push on the downhills. Downshift again on the flat. After a couple rollers, distinguish his jersey from his helmet. Upshift, crank, stand, upshift again. Another roller or two and I could see the color of his jersey – a dot of orange.
Burning throat. Spit trickling out of my mouth. Keep the pedals turning. From the top of another roller, see him just a few hundred meters ahead – approaching what I guess (now that my wrong turns had totally fouled up my GPS data) is the last rise before the turn to the finish.
Push my biggest gear on the descent. Downshift for the flat. Make out the words his jersey now. No more downshifting. Get up on the pedals. Zoom past him on the rise, nodding once, and push as hard as possible to the crest. No – not the highway, just another roller, but at the top of the next rise, I see high-speed traffic. Pavement! Downshift once before my thighs explode, but stay standing. Watch for the shimmery black ribbon of the asphalt. Right turn, upshift for the downhill to the finish line, but don’t coast!
I crossed the finish line a few minutes before my quarry, and had maybe even had a sip or three of Lollygagger before he cruised through the finish area and one of the race directors told me that he’s 20 years older than me and just survived prostate cancer.
Okay, so maybe the chase wasn’t quite the victory it could have been, but still! Lying there in the grass, and then later stuffing my face with bratwurst and another beer, I was pleased to have put in that particular effort, and to have worked hard all day. The 2015 Inspiration wasn’t my fastest race, but it wasn’t my slowest (or a DNF) either, and most importantly the event confirmed that I am ready to kick off a big autumn of training for the winter’s races. It’s going to be fun!
This year’s Inspiration is, though, the penultimate edition. Because it’s not easy to put on a free gravel race, the RDs have already announced that the 2016 event will be the last one. The race date is already set: Saturday, September 10, 2016. Registration opens on July 1. If you have any desire to do a great gravel race, this is the one to choose.
The girls were busy all Saturday with a friend – a.k.a. our third daughter – so I hopped on the Buffalo and headed out to get a few miles in my legs. The Inspiration 100 is in exactly two weeks, and while it’s too late to really train, any riding now will help minimize the pain of being in poor shape.
I wound up getting a solid 40 miles, mostly on gravel roads but also on the two trails our local MTB club has created. The newer, more challenging trail at Caron Park midway between Northfield and Faribault was damp but rideable and fun. I rode two laps on my way south to Faribault in the morning and two more on my way back to Northfield in the afternoon. As a neophyte mountain biker, I’m still amazed at how exhausting pedaling at 5mph for an hour can b, especially when you’re constantly confronted by hub-high log obstacles. Oof!
The trail riding was even slower than it might’ve been because after a few pedal strokes, I had who knows how many ounces of mud and leaves packed into the treads of my Maxxis Mammoth tires. They’re great on gravel, but terrible on dirt.
As usual with gravel rides, the scenery was great. The clammy gray clouds in the morning accented the verdant fields and woods, and then the afternoon sun made the summery greenness into a visual roar. Riding the gravel shoulder of a long stretch of paved road early on my route, I collected quite a bit of pollen, which I then carried all over Rice County.
Just doing my bit to help the bees.
Since I was trying to ride continuously, I only stopped to take a few pictures, which meant I have just mental snapshots of the three surly wild turkeys who didn’t want to clear the road, of the dozens of lean horses and fat cows in the pastures, or of the many tiny wood frogs that hopped away from me. But I had to stop to take a shot of this gigantic hawk, looking down on me with a predator’s cold gaze,
and of this free-range vacuum, standing enigmatically along the highway just outside the city limits.
All summer, the girls have been enrolled in a mountain biking class sponsored by our local MTB club and run at the new trails that the club built right in town. Though I can’t say every class went smoothly or that the girls loved every second they spent in the classes, they did learn a lot about riding and dramatically improved their skills, developed their endurance, and built their confidence.
The culmination of the class was an overnight trip to the massive MTB trail system built on abandoned mines at Cuyuna, in central Minnesota. Cuyuna is a fabled place for Minnesota mountain bikers and fatbikers, the place you go for the toughest trails and the best scenery. I had never been up there, so I hoped that the girls would both show the skills to successfully ride there and the enthusiasm to go "up north" on a little adventure.
By the middle of July, I could see that they had both: serious abilities on the trails and great eagerness for riding. In addition to the class, we rode several times on our own over the last few weeks, outings which they both loved. And then they crushed some tough challenges at the last regular class, which they described as "the most fun thing ever!" on the ride home.
The scene was thus set for a good trip to Cuyuna. Shannon was rightly concerned about both the practical arrangements and the girls’ safety, but I mostly allayed those fears – and some of the girls’ – and headed out on Thursday morning along with six other kids and five other adults, including the class leaders. The three-hour bus ride to Cuyuna was enjoyable, despite the need to give half our seats to a big rattling collection of bikes:
We arrived up north without any problems and almost immediately headed back into town to ride at a "pump track" – a compact system of dirt trails with undulating terrain and banked turns that are laid out so that good riders can get all the way around without pedaling – only "pumping" their arms and legs. None of us could pull off that trick, but everyone had a blast riding around and around and around on the track. I loved watching the girls loving the riding – and rapidly getting better at the unusual techniques needed to conquer the track. Julia crashed once, but was back riding within a few minutes. Whizzing past me, they shouted, "This is so much fun!"
After about an hour of pretty continuous riding, we adjourned for ice cream at Dairy Queen. Back at the campground, we set up our tents and took a short out-and-back ride on an easy stretch of the regular trails, getting a little of Cuyuna’s famous red dirt on our tires.
Everyone cooled off with a swim at the campground beach,
then we destroyed a delicious dinner prepared by one of the instructors and his wife – folks who have serious camp-cooking chops! Throughout, I tried to let the girls enjoy themselves and handle things largely on their own, which they readily did: being smart about riding and swimming, choosing good dinners, making their own sleeping arrangements… It was fun to see.
Friday morning, everyone woke up eager to hit the trails. I stayed behind while the other adults went for an early ride on some more challenging trails, but all the kids were great – getting dressed, eating good breakfasts, riding their bikes around excitedly. Finally, around 10, we headed out for a loop that would include three different "easy" trails. The wild card was the weather: as we started, the temps were already near 80° F with very high humidity. I gotta say that I was nervous as hell about whether Julia and Genevieve would be able to ride so much tough trail in such heat and humidity.
Fifteen minutes in, I knew they would. Without any problem, we roared en masse to the start of our loop, and got right to it: red-dirt trails that wound through young birch groves, tricky but manageable ascents and descents littered with loose rocks and stubbornly immobile roots, narrow passages overlooking beautiful lakes…
Wisely, our ride leader stopped often so kids could rest and drink and eat – little pauses that kept everyone energized and focused. Whenever he or the other instructor, riding last in our file, asked if everyone was having fun, the kids shouted, "Yes!"
We weren’t even deterred by a few bee stings when we inadvertently posed for a group photo on top of a beehive.
Julia got a bad zap on a finger, but soldiered on! I rode as much as I could right behind the girls so that I could watch them buzz along the trails, blonde ponytails poking out from under their helmets. Near the end of the ride, I finally stopped wondering if they could climb that nasty slope, ride that tricky descent, or rail that loose corner. The answer was always "yes," so I just settled in and enjoyed the sight of them loving the sport I love too.
The ride ended too soon for me (and I suspect for the other adults), but at just the right time for the kids – 90 minutes and about seven challenging miles of riding. The girls were just tired enough to sit for a nice photo of us – with a loon on the lake in the background!
An easy paved ride back to camp brought us down from the high of the ride to our last few activities: a quick lunch, a bit more swimming, and then of course packing up. The bus ride home was sweaty, but pleasingly quiet and relaxed.
Though we haven’t been back on our bikes since returning, the girls are excited to go to some of the more local MTB trails before school starts, and I am too. I am elated to have them riding the trails with me!
Going out with my fried Galen to the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands near Medora, North Dakota, I figured I’d be in for a tough race. I expected the weather to be hot and the singletrack trail to be as challenging as the trails at the Chequamegon 100 in June, and I also knew that – thanks to a busy summer that ate up my usual time to ride – that I wasn’t in the very best shape for riding.
By then, a damaged derailleur had been keeping me out of my two climbing gears for a couple hours, my legs were empty, the temperature had risen to a furnace-like 100° F, and I had just started the third leg of the race, which included the most and hardest climbing. I hate quitting, but the call was a good one. Turns out, 70% of the competitors in the long race did the same thing. The race video says that the MDH is “the raddest race in the baddest place,” but you could flip those adjectives around and summarize the event just as accurately.
So while I didn’t finish, I’m eager to try the race again next year with better training, a better race plan, and a bike that’s better suited to the trail. (My sincerest apologies to the Buffalo, but this isn’t your thing.)
In the meantime, I’m going to savor the experience and especially the amazing scenery. I’d never been to the Badlands, and I found them jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sitting on a bike seat always makes a view at least twice as good. The coolness started before the start, when race director extraordinaire Nick Ybarra quoted a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt (a local hero in western North Dakota, where he ranched before going into politics back east):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This was an inspiring way to wait for the gun, looking west toward a nearly-full moon setting behind the buttes.
The first few miles were rolling and slow as the field separated. I stopped at one point to admire the last glimpse of the moon before it disappeared behind the buttes.
Not long afterwards, we started up a long switchback climb, one that other riders had promised would take 15 or 20 minutes – two or three times longer than the longest climbs here in southern Minnesota. A film crew was shooting the race from a helicopter that zoomed deafeningly up and down the course, and the chopper hovered overhead for a few minutes to get what must be gorgeous footage of the glinting line of riders zig-zagging up the side of the hill.
The Buffalo’s new X1 gearing was more than up to the ascent, which ended in a fast, fun section of prairie singletrack – much more familiar terrain, though our prairie here doesn’t end in sheer 100-foot dropoffs.
For the next while, the trail swooped up and down, always following the tall 4×4 posts that marked the trail. The high prairie sections were frequently interrupted by cattle gates: heavy metal gates that had to be swung up and out of the way, then dropped with a huge clang after passing. Not a part of Midwestern riding!
These flat, fast sections all eventually dove down into the arroyos that created the real drama of the race. Some of this drama was visual – stunning overlooks and amazing moments like when I riding west with the rising sun behind me, then turned sharply left away from a ravine. My shadow momentarily leapt out from beneath me so that my head was fifty feet away on the far wall of the ravine. Breathtaking.
The arroyos also created physical drama. They were often full of evergreen shrubs that the climate assured would never be trees but that smelled wonderful anyhow. We could ride down into and up out of most of the arroyos, but not all of them: one had such steep walls that we had to skid down and clamber up.
Whether up high or down low, the views!
Though the terrain varied almost minute by minute, the rutted singletrack was constant: grooves about six inches wide and anywhere from an inch to six inches deep. Any wobble caused a pedal strike or a slap of the Buffalo’s derailleur against the side of the groove – or even a crash if the front tire snagged the edge. I took a couple undignified but minor falls, and somewhere in this section bent my derailleur hanger, which led to one or two dropped chains.
These delays aside, I was surprised to hit the first aid station (at the amazingly-named Scairt Women Road) fairly early – well ahead of my schedule. I gassed up quickly, lubed the Buffalo’s chain, and got back out on the trail feeling strong.
The heat was mounting, though, and the trail soon entered some very dry areas – desert, basically. The trail now often traced the buttes, with a steep wall up on one side and a steep drop down on the other. Whenever the terrain went down or stayed flat, I continued to make great time, blasting along at speeds well over the pace I needed to maintain for a daylight finish. I even zipped through the infamous “Devil’s Pass” section- a few hundred yards of trail between two steep drops on either side. This section is like something out of a movie – like maybe the MDH promo video (see 1:20-1:30 for the Devil’s Pass).
Tight switchback turns were a dime a dozen, and sand or rocks in the apex of the turns made them extra tricky. Playing it safe, I would put my inner foot down and tap tap tap my way around the corner, leaning away from the drop on the other side. This kind of riding was new and scary and exhilarating. Coming out of shaded areas into the sun, I could feel heat radiating off the eastern and southern faces of the buttes. I rode past patches of prickly-pear cacti and even – once – honest-to-God cattle bones lying along the trail!
Whenever the inclines steepened, troubles occurred. Either from wear and tear (the trail was heinously dusty) or more bobbles (the gully trails continued), my derailleur began acting up more and more often, until I could not get to my two granny gears at all without the chain slipping off the biggest cog and getting jammed between the cog and the spokes.
I tried to tamp down my frustration at losing huge chunks of time when I needed to stop to put the chain back onto the cogs. I’d done harder stuff than this in harder races. But my frustration almost boiled over into anger when the chain actually snapped, just as I started a long hard climb. I’d thought to buy a couple master links for my new chain just the day before at the bike shop in Medora, so I could actually make the change and get going, slowly, again – but still without those two valuable lowest gears, and dreading the inevitable next big climb.
Watching the mileage tick by on my bike computer, I knew I was getting close to the second aid station, which – another rider had told me – came after a stiff climb on the far side of the Little Missouri River. I thought I could sense the river because the landscape began greening up, becoming more like the area near the start, which had been right on the Little Missouri. I saw some cattle meandering through the damper landscape, and when I didn’t see cattle themselves, I saw many of their leavings: cow patties right on the damn trail.
Here, the terrain was flatter again, too – floodplain. I crossed a trickle of water named Whitetail Creek, a sad little watercourse made sadder for flowing around the bloated carcass of a fawn. After a little more pedaling, I arrived at the Little Missouri. A couple other riders were on the bank, taking off their shoes and socks, but I decided to just get on with it and walked right into the warm, muddy water. I first pushed the Buffalo and then hoisted it onto my shoulder when the water came up to knee height.
The crossing only took a minute or two. The trail resumed in a beautiful cottonwood grove that provided the first real shade all day – which was pleasant, since by now the temperatures must have been near a hundred degrees.
Riding away from the river, the cottonwoods ended where the promised big climb up to Aid Station 2 began – a long, steady grunt along the face of a bluff that must have been visible from the floodplain. The ascent was tough but feasible, even with a malfunctioning bike and increasingly dead legs. I was still pedaling when I popped out at the top and rolled past reached the timer’s tent. She welcomed me in and warned that I had arrived just 45 minutes before the time I had to leave. Thanks to all the delays from fixing my chain, this was far less time than I’d hoped to have in hand, but the number was still manageable.
Making my way to the shelter where volunteers were handing out food and drink, another volunteer stepped out to greet me. “How’s your bike working?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think the derailleur hanger is bent. Can’t get to my two granny gears.” “Well, I can take a look!” Past him was a bike mechanic’s station, complete with a bike stand and a big set of tools. “You go have some food and drink and I’ll see what I can do.” Before I could even really assent, he had the Buffalo up in the stand and was starting to examine the wonky der.
Smiling folks at the refreshment tent provided me with Cokes, ice water, and some food – and a handkerchief that had been soaking in ice water. Thrown over my head, it felt fantastic. Adhering to Jay Petervary’s directive to always do two things at once whenever you’re not riding, I ate and drank while restocking my backpack with supplies from my drop bag, then tried to rest in the shade, looking out over the Little Missouri.
Also resting in the tent was Scott J, a racer whom I’d met for the first time at the start that morning. Scott was the star of “The Push,” an amazing short film about the Arrowhead 135 fatbike race in the blizzard-marred 2013. I’ve watched “The Push” dozens of times, drawing inspiration from how Dale had ridden and pushed his bike through the storm that hit during the race to finish in 52 hours.
Of the Maah Daah Hey, though, Scott said that it was the hardest race he’d ever done and that he was quitting.
This gave me pause. One of the toughest racers around, dropping out? Before I could think too much about it, a timer announced that the cutoff time was only fifteen minutes away, and that anyone intending to continue needed to leave a.s.a.p. From the other side of the checkpoint, the bike mechanic called to me. “149, let’s talk about your bike!” We talked for a bit about the Buffalo’s problems: he’d straightened the derailleur hanger and adjusted the cage, which had been twisted, and felt decently sure that the bike was ready for the second half of the race – including, right away, the 25-mile section that included the course’s toughest climbs and that would be run under the day’s highest heat.
I decided I needed to give it a shot. I thanked the mechanic, hurried through the rest of my prep (grabbing two cold cans of Coke), and mounted up. For about ten minutes of rolling climbs, the Buffalo worked fine, even in the low gears, and I felt decent. Then, on one steep ramp, the derailleur started clanking again. I shifted out of the granny and found that I couldn’t pedal the hill. Get off the bike. Start hiking. Feel the heat pouring down from the sky.
On the downhill, I remounted and rode till the next climb, which I rode as far as I could in a medium gear. Shifting down to my granny, everything started clanking again. I hopped off and checked the time. I was now about half an hour out from the aid station – just far enough that turning around would be futile, since the crew would probably have been packed up by now. So I walked that uphill and rode the downhill, then repeated it.
After hiking one long grassy climb that I could have ridden easily with a functioning bike, I stopped in a tiny patch of shade to consider my options. I could see a gravel road – one of the many new roads cut into the grasslands to service new oil wells – in the near distance, but I had no idea where it went. Comparing the mileage on my computer to the course map, though, I figured that I was about three miles from the next checkpoint.
I figured that if I could make it there – even walking – I could abandon and get a ride back to… somewhere. I took a pull of water (already lukewarm) and some food and started riding. As I paralleled the road, a truck came up on me. The driver slowed and shouted, “You okay?” I shouted back, “Nope! Bike’s screwed up.” Pulling over, the driver turned out to be the race director, Nick. After we determined that the Buffalo had reached its limit and that its rider was pretty close to his, Nick loaded my bike in the bed of the truck. My day was over.
For the next couple hours, I toured the course with Nick and a couple other riders whom we picked up, including one guy who thought he had a dislocated shoulder and my Twin Cities friend Ryan, who had a bloody face after a hard crash. When we stopped at the third aid station, the one on the end of the hardest stretch of the course, I saw at least a dozen racers sprawled out – sleeping, resting, dropped out, preparing to go on. Carnage, at least as bad as anything I’d seen at the Arrowhead in quite the opposite weather.
Though I still felt some pangs of disappointment over dropping out, I felt better about the decision when I saw just how far gone were some of these racers – and, more jealously, what kinds of bikes they were using. Not a fatbike in the bunch, and lots of full-suspension mountain bikes. Every few minutes, a racer would come down off the hill into the aid station, and they too would be on light trail bikes. Drinking water and eating potato chips from Nick’s truck, I made some mental notes on what I would need to come back and finish the race in 2016.
My first change was up front. I love my Jones bars, but I learned at the Chequamegon that they weren’t great for trail riding. I swapped them out for the pair of flat bars that Ben Doom put on the bike when he originally built it up. After about ten hours of riding, I can tell that the flat bars are much better for twisty-turny trail riding. I’ll put the Jones bars back on for next winter’s training and racing, when I want an upright cruising position.
The bigger adjustment was changing from a 2x gearing setup to a 1x setup – the SRAM X1 system. I’d had all kinds of trouble with the bike’s original 2x components (loose crank arms, rattling bottom bracket, crummy shifting) and I’d started to worry about a major mechanical failure. Tom at Downtown Bikes swapped out the old stuff for the new system while I was traveling last week, and After three hours on the new setup, the 1x seems to be a lot better in all these areas. My connection to the bike through the cranks and BB feels rock solid, and the shifting across the cassette is smooth and quick. I’m eager to see how the system performs at the Maah Daah Hey 100 on August 1 – and in my other races during the rest of this "off-season" and over next winter. I’ve gotta say, too, that the 1x feels pretty pro.
Since the Crashquamegon a couple weeks ago, I’ve taken it pretty easy – daily sessions at the gym, but no long rides till today, when the stars aligned such that I could spend the whole day out in the Buffalo. I picked out a route over some of my favorite roads, aiming to hit some new MTB trails for a an hour of trail riding before an easy ride home.
As luck would have it, the ride took place in amazingly great conditions – cool early but rising to about 80° F, a cooling westerly breeze, bright sunshine, a crisp blue sky. Through I hammered the hills as hard as I could, I took it easy at other times. I wound up with 63 miles in my legs over 5:30 of ride time and soaked up some great views.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was only snuck into the race after I mused to a friend that I didn’t have any races on my calendar between the Almanzo in May and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in August. As it turns out, he knew a guy who could get me into the Cheq, and another friend, Galen, happened to be going up there to volunteer.
Things having fallen into place quite neatly, I headed up north on Thursday with Galen. We planned to camp each night and help set up the course on Friday. I’d race on Saturday while he hung out, and then we’d do a bit of riding on Sunday before coming home.
Our leisurely drive ended at a lovely little campsite at Two Lakes Campground in Drummond (just a couple miles up from where we saw a bear crossing the road!). The spot was idyllic, dominated by greens and blues and very quiet except for loons.
On Friday morning, we helped set up a chunk of the course (which had the added benefit of acquainting me with a gorgeous and fun piece of the trail)
and then did some riding on the infamously hard Rock Lake Trail, a savagely difficult stretch of rocky, rooty singletrack. It was as hard as anything I’d ever ridden, and I was riding it with fresh legs in good, dry conditions. If I do say so myself, the Buffalo looked awesome:
For various reasons entirely under my control, Friday night was less restful than it should have been, but I was up and moving by 5:30 a.m. to get to the race, driving over with JB, a fellow Northfielder. Just as forecasted, a heavy, chilly rain started falling about a half hour before the start. By 7 a.m., everything – roads, trails, riders, bikes, gear – was thoroughly soaked. But off we went!
The opening few miles are on a gravel road, so we were not only wet but muddy even before we hit the needle’s-eye opening to Rock Lake. The single-file line of racers jockeyed as we moved along the singletrack. I let quite a few people pass me when I either bobbled an obstacle or pulled over to let them through. I was not enthused about giving up spots, but I could tell that I was in for a long day – my bike computer was showing an average speed of well under 6 mph – and I wanted to conserve every bit of energy rather than go hard just to keep a spot for five more minutes. When we reached a super-steep rocky drop called Wall Street, I was amazed to see many riders take the A-line down the drop rather than the easy dirt B-line. I took the B, and was pleased to scoot around unscathed. Discretion and valor and all that.
As I wound my way through Rock Lake, other racers became fewer and fewer. A couple friends like JB went by me, and I pulled back a couple people who’d gone out too hot, but I was pretty much on my own, and happy enough about it. That’s not to say I was happy, exactly. In addition to the oddity of my hearing aids popping and buzzing from rain getting into my ears (and my consequent fretting that they’d die on the ride), I was uncomfortably filthy, the mud was already causing the Buffalo’s drivetrain to act up, my front brake suddenly stopped working, and my tires were proving to be terrible in the mud.
And I was crashing a lot. I went down at low speeds and at slightly less low speeds. I went off the bike to the right, scraping my legs on the chainring and chain, and off to the left, trapping myself under the Buffalo. I went over the bars more than once, including one idiotic time when I simply steered into a tree and then flew into it when, sure enough, the tree stopped the bike. Just as I started thinking seriously about how I could lessen the chance of an irreparable bike problem or of breaking an arm or leg, we came off Rock Lake and I had a short respite in which to eat, drink, and calculate that I was on pace for a 21-hour finish of a hundred-mile race.
This was an impossibility. I didn’t have enough food or water to race that long, and I didn’t have any lights to ride at night. As I thought about my options, I came up on my friend JB, sitting in the grass at a road crossing, his face covered in blood. “I hit a tree,” he told me. “My nose is broken.” I dug out my phone to find the number for the race director, who’d need to know JB was dropping out. (As it happens, that was a fateful move, as my phone got soaked and stopped working later that day.) As JB organized himself to head back to the start, a couple other riders pulled up, talking exhaustedly about dropping out. One even claimed to be hypothermic, which struck me as odd given that the temps were in the high sixties and that he was wearing a long-sleeve jersey and knickers – all coated in mud and muck.
I headed back onto the race course as they were leaving, and at around that point the race became as blurry and indistinct as the view through my filthy sunglasses. I rode the Buffalo for at least eight more hours after that point, but I remember only little moments in the race. For one thing, the course is so complicated and my knowledge of the trails is so thin that I have little or no idea where I was at any particular time. The only constants were my efforts to get over the muddy, mucky trails, to focus on making the turns, to strive to enjoy the sound of the rain in the trees and the sight of the weak light through the trees, and to try not to crash over and over. In between the usual array of earworm music, dumb but profound sayings popped into my head, like how success is often just rising one more time than you fall. In this race, this was literally true!
At some point, a racer caught me from behind. We talked for a bit about conditions. She said she’d heard that many people had dropped out. I corroborated this. She said she was wondering if we could switch to the shorter, 62-mile race at the spot on the course where the two races diverge. I said I didn’t know for sure, but had heard as much. We traded a bit of intel about the track ahead of us: a short gravel-road section, then a really tough loop around mile 30. She headed off up the trail away from me, leaving me to consider my options. Since I was only getting more concerned that I might wind up with a broken bike or body, I started to really like the idea of switching into the short race, especially if – as seemed likely – that meant that I would still get in a solid ten or more hours of hard riding.
Amidst all that, I enjoyed the swoopy fun of the Danky Dank and Esker trails, which were challenging but not obscenely so. I did not enjoy Hildebrand Loop, which is rated as “Very Difficult” and might better be rated “Very Effing Difficult.” Racers who must have been the leaders of the 62-mile race caught me in this section, as did a number of others like my friend Finn Sunboo. I crashed my way through the loop, walking plenty of hard sections, including the dicey, wooden “No Hands Bridge” over a creek running into Hildebrand Lake. Relieved to get off Hildebrand, roughly a third of the way into the 100-mile course, I decided to reward myself with the Red Bull I’d been carrying in my frame bag. I eagerly dug it out, almost tasting the sugary fizz. The can was, however, empty: it had been punctured in one of my crashes and all the caffeinated elixir had dribbled out into my frame bag.
Expletives were uttered here, and I decided to definitely shorten my day by switching into the 62-mile race. Now, though, I had to make it to the course split and then ride 20 miles after that to the finish. Back out on a gravel road, my chain, which had been creaking and catching all day, finally jumped off my biggest cog and lodged itself very, very tightly between that cog and the spokes. I needed a good 15 minutes, or maybe more, to fix it, in which time drivers in two passing trucks asked if I needed help. Nice folks, Wisconsinites!
Getting the chain back in place was in some ways the last test of the day, because the rain stopped around then, and after the repair had a long, fast gravel-road section that my computer suggested would end at or near the magical course split. I hammered the road, feeling very much at home in the big ring, head down near the Buffalo’s bars. The rollers and sweeping curves carried me past mile 35 and on to 40. Just as I started to wonder if I’d somehow made wrong turn, I came across a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the edge of the road. “Almost to the checkpoint!” he shouted as I rolled past. I pushed a bit more and got there: a pop-up tent, some muddy trucks, and a few volunteers wading through the soupy mud. I tried to make my stop quick, first confirming with the race director that I could in fact switch to the 62-mile race, then drinking a Coke and devouring some sugary food.
I dunno how long I was stopped, but I felt refreshed and relaxed when I took the Buffalo back onto the course. The trails were now a little drier than they had been in the morning, and these particular trails were also much more fun to ride: aerobically challenging, but technically just right. In the woods, I realized that I could hear birds singing for the first time all day, and that I was really dripping sweat – also for the first time.
I enjoyed the work of trying to punch the climbs – including the ascent to the course’s high point – and then letting the Buffalo run down the descents, including some truly amazing corkscrewing descents that got less and less frightening with each turn. I stopped crashing, and even went long stretches without putting a foot down. More racers caught me, including some 100-mile racers who were now hours and hours up on me. But I felt like I was on the home stretch. The trails – now the long northwesterly Ojibwe (or Ojibwa, depending on the sign!) – continued to be much more fun than work, and far easier to ride than those early in the day. I almost – almost – regretted that the race was coming to its conclusion, and then looked down at my filthy legs, my muddy bike, my clanking chain, and thought, “Naw, a hundred kilometers will be fine.”
Around the time my computer said that I’d gone about 55 miles, my fatbiking friend Wisconsin Mark caught me. He was shocked that I was ahead of him, since I am way slower than he is (even through he’s 18 years older than I am), and then very relieved to learn that he was actually about 40 miles ahead of me, having done the full 100-mile route. I tried to hang with him as we wound through the trees toward what had to be the road section to the finish, but he got away from me.
Then suddenly I saw his red jersey on a switchback ahead of me, riding out a descent that was paralleling a road and thus had to be dropping to the end of the Ojibwe Trail. A few minutes later, the Buffalo took me down that descent, under a nice little archway, and out onto the gravel road to the finish in Cable. I put the bike into the biggest gear that was still working and pushed as hard as I could, seeing Mark off in the distance. When the gravel turned to pavement, I knew I was done. A couple more turns and I pulled into the finishing area, completely and thoroughly worked.
My friend Galen met me with a grin and a few words of sympathy. All told, I logged a solid 100 kilometers in a pathetically slow but brutally hard 10:45, good enough for 18th place in the “metric” field. Notably – and leaving out the complication that some of us stepped down from the long race to the short one – only 35 out of 131 starters finished the 62-mile short race (a 27% completion rate), while only 63 of 130 (48%) finished the 100-mile long race. (Even weirder, the winner of the short race needed 8:05 to do those 62 miles – almost ten more minutes than the winner of the long race needed to do the full hundred!)
At the afterparty, Galen offered to loan me his car so that I could head home early on Sunday while he and another Northfielder – neither of whom had raced – did a bit of fun riding. The drive home was slow and easy, and included way too many stops to take on and let out food and drink. I got home in time to have a great Father’s Day, which was perfect.
Two days later now, I am sure that I will be back to try the race again in 2016. I’ll definitely approach the race differently, in big and small ways. Assuming I can maintain my endurance base, I will have to orient my training around the challenge of singletrack. I need to get much more practice on true singletrack trail, for one thing. I also need to practice handling rough trail – logs, rocks, mud – when fatigued, which is a very different thing than handling obstacles fresh. I’m lucky in these respects to have some fun local singletrack to ride now – and to have the Maah Daah Hey as a goal and a gauge, exactly 40 days from today!
I’ll definitely also need to figure out how to eat and drink on a mountain bike. Unlike either fatbike or gravel racing, a MTB racing seems to offer very few opportunities for eating my preferred “real foods,” like trail mix and jerky. I survived the Cheq on energy chews, but I could kill two birds with one stone by using an energy drink that provides water and nutrition at the same time. And I definitely need to use water bottles, not a Camelbak bladder in a frame bag! (I dislike wearing a backpack, but maybe I need to go in that direction again anyhow…)
I’m even feeling a perverse pride in having some of the ugliest legs in Minnesota right now, thanks to all those crashes. They’ll heal.
Growing up, I always wanted to learn to throw a football with a nice tight spiral – that is, I always wanted someone to teach me how to throw a football with a nice tight spiral.
Alas, neither of my parents knew how, and I never played any kind of even marginally organized football, so I never really learned.
Then Vivi came along. The girl loves to play catch with baseballs, soccer balls, frisbees, footballs – basically anything that one person can propel through the air and another person can catch. Our little kid-sized footballs turn out to be perfect for learning how to throw a spiral, whether you’re an eight-year old girl or her dad. We both look pretty much just like this now.
This was a long and wonderful early-summer weekend that included errands, playdates, birthday parties, plenty of ice cream, the first trip to the pool
and two good bike rides, one each evening.
Saturday’s outing was Vivi’s first on a new-to-her Trek mountain bike – a bike she loathed right up until I brought it home (at the suggestion of my bike shop’s owner, who knows from selling bikes!). Once Vivi saw the bike in all its 24″ glory, she was ready to rock, and so we did:
We rode a short gravel hill near our house and then tooled around on some paved paths in the next subdivision. She loved the bike’s speed, and Julia loved that the new bike helped her keep up.
Even though the girls had a very full day today, they still wanted to ride this evening, so off we went again, this time to the local MTB trails. Julia cruised the trails like a pro, and Vivi did a great job handling the bigger, faster bike through the tight twists and turns. She only watched as Julia rode her favorite drop, though:
They even fell for a little reverse psychology I used them to goad them into riding a little hill. The sign doesn’t apply when your motor is lungs and legs.
On the way home, Vivi’s saddle loosened to the point that she couldn’t ride comfortably, so I had to do some trailside jury-rigging by moving my seatpost and saddle to her bike. Shimmed with a bit of inner tube, she was able to ride home on my Brooks C17 saddle and Moots Cinch seatpost – a truly ridiculous situation, given that the saddle is worth more than her whole bike, and don’t even get me started on the ti post.
Since her seatpost wouldn’t fit in my bike’s downtube, I had to stand up the whole rest of the way, which made the last mile’s sprint through the rain even more challenging than otherwise!
All in all, this was an auspicious start to the summer.
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.