With the Fat Pursuit and the Arrowhead rapidly approaching (70 days and 94 days away, respectively), I’ve been feeling the need to get out for some long rides. So far this fall, though, a heavy workload at the office and plenty of activities at home have made all-day outings impossible, so Friday I did the next best thing by going out after dinner for a few hours on the gravel roads.
Riding gravel roads in the dark is wonderful, especially on an unseasonable night like Friday – 60° F, an insistent but not harsh westerly breeze, a touch of humidity. I left home just as the sun set behind me, calling out for a picture or two. A stop to adjust my seat height – when did I acquire the unwelcome ability to feel that my saddle is too high or low based on the shorts I’m wearing? – and tweak the angle of some new grips.
Soon afterwards, I was in full dark, riding toward the white spot of road illuminated by my headlight. First more east, waving to a cyclist hiding behind his own headlight as he headed back toward town. Then some south paralleling the county line, waving to the cars and trucks I met, dropping into low spots where cool wet air had pooled, climbing up to ridges where the breeze warmed me. All around, I could see yellow, white, red lights at dozens of farms. Interior lights spilling through picture windows. A bonfire, the smoke almost more felt than smelled.
A turn to the west onto pavement for a passage through a tiny farm town, dark but loud with machinery at the grain elevator.
Then back onto gravel, passing the state park and the first deer, timidly watching from the trees from the far side of the ditch. A cat, sitting by a mailbox post. An easy downhill curve that the darkness turned into a mountain pass. A slow, tentative lap around the MTB trails at the county park – tricky to ride with only the headlight and a fading headlamp. Stopped at the high point, I could hears cows lowing, horses neighing, dogs barking, coyotes yipping. The night was really alive. Back on the bike, I found Gut Check Bridge downright scary: wet, banked, downhill.
After the park, one last westerly section, then northeast up a long, steady climb through a gorgeous stand of hardwoods. Some unseen dogs yapping angrily at me. More deer. Legs burning now from the gym at noon, from 2.5 hours of riding, from an empty stomach.
North now, back toward town. The last big climb, past a dead deer, gnawed open by night creatures. Another cat, darting away. The rollers on the straight drag back to the city limits. A combine crawling through a cornfield toward two tractor-trailers waiting for its load. The last stretch of gravel, up a hill now crowned with a new tract house, light pouring from every window, people moving around inside. Five minutes later, back inside my own house to stay up too late, buzzing with endorphins and looking forward to the next night ride.
A while ago I asked for recommendations of natural-history and science books to read.
Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus was heartily recommended by several people, and very much worth my time. The book is so beautifully and transparently written that it can be read quickly, which for me heightened its effect. Like an octopus using all eight arms to take in everything it can all at once, I wanted to gorge on everything the book has to offer: wonderful science writing on these utterly bizarre creatures; learned considerations of how humans can connect to wild creatures and, especially, what forms animal consciousness might take; and wonderful stories about her own relationships with several octopuses in a Boston aquarium.
The book contains too much of all that and more to summarize, so let me just say that anyone interested in animals or a nature beyond humans should read it. The closing passages were as moving as anything I’ve read this year, but every other page contained astounding stuff like this litany of octopus mythology:
God, I love the day before races. The anticipation is so wonderfully energizing. The day usually includes some travel, often with friend, which is almost always great because I love traveling and friends, especially for a good reason like getting to a race.
But the day before a race also includes race-y stuff like eating and drinking right, checking in for the event, attending the pre-race meeting, and of course hanging out with other racers and volunteers and such.
If there’s time, the day before also might also include a bit of riding on the course – stretching the legs, getting a sense of the trail, and enjoying the scenery that race-day focus will obscure, like these pix from my pre-rides with the Marks at the Fat Pursuit in Idaho last January
and with Galen, Ben, and Tim at the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota in July.
My trip to the Tuscobia was less involved than either of those race trips, requiring just a short drive to western Wisconsin. But I jammed to my own music, sipped some good coffee, soaked up the views of rolling snowy hills, thought through the race, and stopped for a photo:
Once I got to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, I checked in at the hotel, ran a quick errand, and checked in at the race HQ, then headed up the trail for an hour’s ride. The conditions were very good, so I had a nice time and definitely built up a bank of good feeling for the next day.
Afterwards, I met up with my friend Ben (with whom I went on an epic trip to the first Fat Pursuit in 2014). We hung out for a while before we hit the registration and gear check, had a great dinner (pizza, of course), and then attended the racers’ meeting. Back at our hotel early in the evening, we set up our bikes for the race – a process I love, love, love even though it’s a little bit maddening, since it involves both the pleasant routine of getting all my equipment on the bike, but also trying to guess about new ways to pack the bike. Having Ben in the same room was great because the guy knows his business. (Literally: he runs a bike shop.) By 9 p.m. we had everything ready for the start. One more sleep till the race!
Today, November 1, is National Bison Day, a semi-official date that recognizes the historical and ecological importance of the North American bison.
I’ve been obsessed with buffalo for a couple years now, so I really like the idea of a day “for” them and for what they do or should represent to us as Americans: strength, freedom, wildness, beauty, but above all the value of nature.
As amazing as they are as symbols, bison are even more amazing as animals. They are huge and fast and strong and gorgeous, but almost as adaptable as humans to a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Though the giant bulls get a of attention, a herd is actually led by its mature females, who collectively assure the group’s survival in the face of often incredible odds – from harsh winters on the Great Plains or the challenge of fording a spring river to eluding the killers who nearly exterminated Bison bison in the 19th century or simply finding good places to graze all summer long.
The U.S. probably contains more bison right now than at any time since the Great Slaughter. Though almost none of the American herds are truly wild right now, every year sees the establishment of new conservation herds (e.g., in Alaska, Illinois, or Minnesota) and the growth of existing ones, such as the already-massive but ever-expanding herd at the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, which (as their new annual report describes) has grown from 16 buffs in 2005 to 600 this year – and looks to grow to 1,000 animals by 2018.
All is not rosy for American bison, however, even and especially for the herd that is most prominent in the American imagination: the animals of Yellowstone National Park. Though the bison there are justifiably famous as wily survivors of the Great Slaughter and as the denizens of a spectacular place, they are also subject to enormous, awful abuse. Montana law allows state officials to take brutal and often fatal steps to control the buffs that, seeking forage, migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. This control is supposedly necessary to keep the buffalo from infecting domestic cattle (as fragile a species as one can imagine!) with diseases that would harm the state’s beef industry.
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.
Through the first part of the year, I read a bunch of books on buffalo, all of which inevitably included at least a brief treatment of the Great Slaughter, during which colonizing whites annihilated the North American herd of bison that had numbered at least 30 million (and possibly 50 million) as late as 1850. By 1900, only a couple dozen survived, hiding deep within the Yellowstone country in northwestern Wyoming.
By the end of the spring, I was simply tired of reading stories about this and other destructions of nature, and so I sought out some reading that offered a more hopeful, if not exactly positive, perspective on environmental history and on our current environmental situation. Gradually, I shifted my bison reading to material on the array of bison conservation and restoration efforts that are underway throughout North America – perhaps most importantly, on the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, where conservationists hope to have a 12,000-head herd of wild, migratory bison by 2030.
I learned, in this reading, that these kinds of ambitious landscape-scale conservation efforts were called rewilding, and that under that rubric, many thoughtful, hard-working people all over the world are trying to reverse the arrow of human development (read: destruction) of the natural world and going back to something like the world that existed when humans were fewer, or absent.
By and by, this led me to George Monbiot’s Feral, an engrossing book on the idea and practice of rewilding. The concept could be merely romantic or misanthropically nihilistic, but Monbiot’s careful research and exceptional writing outlines a different vision. The kind of rewilding that Monbiot advocates rests on his particular perspective on nature (one learned from and shared with many others) and on his assertive, engrossing investigations of places where rewilding is already occurring, such as the nearly-lost Caledonian forest in Scotland.
More than anything else, Monbiot recommends – in a cleverly conservative way – that humans give up our drive to control nature (a drive that seems increasingly to doom us and nature) and recognize that nature is more complex, more obdurate, and more resilient than we can know. If – Monbiot argues and illustrates with powerful examples – people simply get out of the way, nature will take its course back to landscapes (and seascapes) that sustain a far wider range of non-human life than our arid cities and suburbs – and much more than even our “natural” areas such as denuded farmlands and largely un-natural parks.
Not only is this nature better for nature, but this nature would be better for humans, too – a world where we do not burden ourselves with the crime of destroying our home and where we can live in settings (forests, prairies, coasts) that look, feel, and are more like the places where we evolved. Of course, many can object – for good and bad reasons – to rewilding. It’s certainly just one scheme among many for living on Earth. But it’s one that resonates with me, and that I think makes more sense than a lot of other approaches to civilization that I see operating right now.
On big trip out to the Maah Daah Hey, Galen and I traveled deep into the buffalo heartland, where two hundred years ago millions of bison roamed. My sentiments on bison still need to be gathered up and put into words, but my depth of feeling can be suggested by the how much bisoniana I gathered. Below is some of it. (I did not get pictures of the bison in either unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park [$20 is too much for a drive around the park!] or of the signs for various housing developments in Watford City, North Dakota: Buffalo Hills, Blue Bison, Bison Meadows, Bison Run…)