Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series


Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course. 

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff. 

My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while. 

The low points were

  1. when I crashed,
  2. when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and 
  3. When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time. 

The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course. 

It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner. 

The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon. 

The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and  52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster. 

Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 


Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 


When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

Into the Woods

One aspect of cycling that surprises and pleases me is how a bike ride will sometimes – by accident or by subconscious arrangement – bring me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go. Fatbiking has done this figuratively and literally, creating or at least heightening a passion for being in the snow. Riding the Arrowhead literally changed my life.

But this happens often enough on regular old rides too. A mindless drift down a favorite road brings me at just the right moment to a view of a prairie landscape that shocks me with a feeling of being small but in just the right place.

Isaacson Corner
Isaacson Corner

A ride with the girls creates a sense – rare but welcomed – of being possibly okay at parenting.
Lebanon Hills
Lebanon Hills

Or yesterday: a careful plan for a pretty hard training ride delivered me to some wooded trails, just a few miles but a world away from home, that dripped with rain and a feeling of home – of my actual childhood homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my ancestral homes in the woods of eastern Belgium and central Finland. Even barrages of mosquitoes couldn’t detract from my sweaty happiness at being deep in the trees and ferns and mud. 

Caron Park
Caron Park

Ballin’

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:
Our 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.

Everybody Is Tae Kwon Fighting

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.

Sparring

Not All Gravel Is Created Equal

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.

Getting Moving
Getting Moving

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

Lake for Sale
Lake for Sale

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.)

Midmorning Chase
Midmorning Chase

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.

Midafternoon Rolling
Midafternoon Rolling

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.

Right Turn to the Wrong Way
Right Turn to the Wrong Way

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.

Right Turn to the Right Way
Right Turn to the Right Way

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.