This year was the fourth time I’ve tackled the Heck of the North, Minnesota’s biggest last-season gravel race, and the most fun I’ve had riding this event. With my gravel bike now someone else’s gravel bike, I decided to ride the Buffalo again, and felt pretty sure that the fatbike would be a good machine for the race’s infamous no-road sections – miles and miles of super rough grass trails that are better suited to hiking, ATV riding, and (in winter) snowmobiles than to bikes.
Apart from choosing the bike and setting myself up with enough nutrition for 200 calories an hour, I didn’t do much preparation for the race, though I was happy to ride the wave of good feeling and reasonable fitness gains from my riding and racing in September, especially the Inspiration 100. Getting to and from the Heck was a marvelous adventure of its own, recounted elsewhere, but I joined a couple hundred other gravel racers in the cool sunshine at the start line north of Two Harbors.
Sunny and cool were the watchwords of the day: perfect riding conditions, after two consecutive years of tougher (or borderline awful) conditions. The rollout was fast and fun – a long loop out from and then – after a nice taste of some of the day’s trails – back through the start.
The fatbike was, as I hoped, wonderful on the roughest stuff. I didn’t have to dismount on any trail section (except for a creek crossing late in the race), and whenever we hit grass, caught and dropped riders who were riding lesser bikes – gravel machines, rigid MTB bikes, front-shock MTB bikes, even full-sus MTBs. The trouble, such as it was, came on the gravel and especially the pavement roads. I just had too much wheel to push! More than once I’d gap a group on a trail section, then have them sweep me up and drop me on next road. Oh well. I was having fun, feeling good, enjoying the day, and amassing some good training for my winter races.
I did get to ride, on and off, with my friend Minnesota Mark, rocketing along on his gorgeous titanium Salsa Warbird. A few hours in, after riding side by side for a while, Mark got away from me on the approach to another trail section. Just before we reached it, the leaders of the shorter “Half of the Heck” came blasting past us, then promptly took a wrong turn that put them onto the full-distance course instead of keeping them on the Half route. We laughed when we passed them back a bit later, standing in the middle of the trail and reading their cue sheets in confusion.
A little more yo-yo riding with Mark – and the always-humbling moment in the race when I encounter the leaders heading back north, a good ten miles and an hour ahead of me – brought us to a ruggedly fun singletrack trail down to the midway checkpoint in Lester Park at the north end of Duluth. Good bike citizens, we stopped at the start of this trail to stand up a race marker that had blown down in the easterly wind. This was, I didn’t know, the race’s way of telling me that things were gonna be different after the checkpoint.
I caught up with my friend Michael L. at the check. He’d had a brutal race in 2014, so I was happy to see him feeling and riding well this year. After several years in which many Northfielders came up for the race, he and I were the only racers from the 55057 at the Heck this year, so I had to take a photo of our bikes resting at halfway.
Michael and Mark left the checkpoint before me, so I set out a goal of catching them. I couldn’t hang with any of the gravel-bike riders (or the tandem riders) who came up on me after the checkpoint, so I assumed that my goal was out of reach. This assumption seemed well grounded when I started to hit some of the easterly stretches of the course, heading right into an increasingly strong headwind.
But the headwind was bad for everyone, and it helped me track Mark down again. He took some great pictures of me as we approached the hill where, last year, my bike literally fell apart.
This year: no problem. I breathed a sigh of relief when I crested that climb – after which Mark dropped me again for what I expected to be the last time, and we headed into the what seemed like at least 99 miles of easterly riding into the goddamn wind. The first and worst section was on a paved road. I watched Mark and some skinny-tired brethren head off up the road, steaming along in a unit. I could only aim the Buffalo into the wind and pedal, feeling slower and heavier as fractions of the miles ticked by on my computer. Oh god, I wanted some tailwind or just a crosswind.
Eventually the pavement gave way to the gravel of Fox Farm Road. Getting a bit foggy from the day’s effort, I’d misinterpreted the directional cues and thought that Fox Farm Road would get us out of the wind. Nope: it was just a “turn” off the easterly pavement and onto more easterly gravel.
I had had all I could take to that point. As soon as I hit the gravel, I stopped and laid the Buffalo down on the weedy shoulder. Take a leak. Down my Red Bull. Swallow some water. Stretch out my back, insanely tight. Pop a gel. Remind myself that riding bikes on a gorgeous fall day is a privilege and a mystery. Remind myself too that the Heck is a stepping stone to harder work this winter. Pick up the bike. Get back on the bike. Start pedaling in.
Fox Farm was indeed more headwind, and some intermittent washboard surface, and a false flat that rose and rose and rose at 0.05%…
As they always do, the break, the self-pep talk, and the Red Bull paid off. The pain in my back disappeared and didn’t come back till Sunday morning. The weight in my legs dissipated. The “oh shiiiit” attitude vanished, too, replaced by thoughts of riding this bike in these northwoods in a couple months at the Arrowhead. I even started reconnecting with other riders, which was both pleasant (company!) and pleasing (caught you!). Seeing just what was left in my legs, I pushed as hard as I could up each of the remaining hills. Each time, I had to sit down at the crest, muscles and lungs burning. Then, just a few minutes later, the burning died away and I felt good again. By no means was I riding fast, but I was at least riding hard.
And lo and behold, after what looked – on the cue sheets – to be the second- or third-to-last trail section, I came up on both Mark and Michael. It felt great to have fought back to them, and even better to think we could ride together for the last 10 or 15 miles – much of which would be trail, out of the wind. Thank the goddess.
From the previous year’s race, I recalled that the last trail sections were mostly flat but also pretty wet – bogs here, creeks there. A small group including Mark and Michael and me hummed along nicely through these stretches, taking turns leading into this bit or that one, but mostly riding together. Feeling good, I took a couple digs but couldn’t get away. Others dug too, but mostly came back.
Then, weirdly, the group fell apart. One guy tried to get away, and I went after him. I caught him and went past him without feeling too bad, so I decided to just put my head down and go as hard as possible to the finish. It felt so good (as I had near the end of the Inspiration a month before) to just focus on putting every bit of energy into every single pedal stroke – again and again and again. I couldn’t quite bridge back to a fellow fatbiker who’d escaped from our group a few minutes before, but I felt good about not limping into the finish, about finding a meaningful level of effort after 105-some miles.
After one last road crossing, I made the turn into the finish area, bunny-hopped the finish line (because why not?), and then literally collapsed when I tried to get off the Buffalo. I had no legs left, which was just where I wanted to be.
Mark and Michael rolled in a few seconds later, looking equally happy with their efforts. Someone who remmebered me from the previous year’s race and who had read my stories on fatbiking brought me a Coke, knowing that I love that poisonous shit. I chatted a bit too with my friend Charlie Schad, whom I’d seen in the lead group. He said he’d finished on the podium and that our friend Ben Doom had won on a late breakaway. Somehow knowing that these guys had done so well made me feel even better about the day’s work. I know the Buffalo felt good – dirty from bars to hubs and carrying not a little bit of the trail on it.