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Monday, December 3, 2018

Head for the Hills! It's the Mother Lode!

The Black Hills Mother Lode is a 210 mile gravel road race out of the college town of Spearfish, South Dakota. Organized by the folks behind the popular Dakota Five-O and 28-Below bicycle races, the Mother Lode is the big sister to the 110 mile Gold Rush and the 70 mile Gold Dust running the same day. Put the three together and it's a weekend gravel festival for everyone, featuring live music, a catered picnic at the finish line park, a high energy awards ceremony and tables filled with door prizes.

Over the years, I've ridden and enjoyed each distance. Chose one based on your conditioning and ambition and you're bound to have a good time. For 2019, I plan to return for another run at the Mother Lode.

Early miles at the 2015 Mother Lode, about to turn onto Sand Creek Road to enter the Black Hills.
Jason Thorman, Craig Groseth, Luke Meduna (photo by Randy Ericksen)

What to expect on the Mother Lode course? Gear up for long, steady climbs measured in miles. For the most part, the roads are hard packed, lightly graveled U.S. Forest Service "primary" roads with relatively long sight lines, low traffic and uncomplicated navigation. The country is rolling forested hills and meadows with little development of any kind, other than some logging operations and an occasional campground. After climbing the 70 miles up O'Neil Pass, the following 100 miles are particularly remote, with cell coverage sporadic at best. Carry everything you need between the four check points, including water, food, repair supplies and foul weather gear.

Of all the things to bring to the Mother Lode, pack a bottomless bottle of optimism and a flask of your best judgment. In the words of Odin's Revenge, "He hath need of his wits who wanders wide."

Boles Canyon Road not long after crossing O'Neil Pass at the 2015 Mother Lode.
(photo by Randy Ericksen)

For more event details, start at for maps, gpx files and cue sheets of all three courses, as well as a photo gallery and other essential information. There's plenty to prepare you to get out there and have fun.

For my first account race reports and related observations of the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder races, go to the following posts on the Black Hills BackBone blog. Back in 2013, I managed to finish the inaugural Gold Rush on my single speed cyclocross bike with 32 mm knobbies, a couple of water bottles and a few gels. A Taste of Gravel. That was a rough introduction to gravel, but two years later I returned for the inaugural Mother Lode. 2015 Mother Lode. After riding the Mother Lode in 2016 (Cooked at the Mother Lode), the Gold Dust in 2017 (A Friendly Little Ride) and the Gold Rush in 2018 (A Single Speed Gold Rush), it seems right to return for another Mother Lode in 2019.

Heading for the Hills! For another Mother Lode!

Already cooking at 5:00 am in the 81 degree start of the 2016 Mother Lode.
(photo by Randy Ericksen)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Keeping It Real - The C.O.G. 100

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Mark Twain

There's much angst in the virtual air about the commercialization of gravel races and the inevitable burst of the gravel bubble. The gravel darling of the mainstream cycling media, Dirty Kanza, continues to get more expensive, more exclusive and even more corporate with its recent sale to a big event production company. Many other gravel events also are morphing into conventional bicycle races, with professional riders, team tactics, expanding levels of support, little to no self-navigation, substantial entry fees and prizing, national media coverage and more enforcement of more rules due to racers cheating. Sound familiar?

Not to worry. What sparked and nurtured the gravel scene was not marketing and selling big production events. When all the big hype gravel stuff withers, folks will still get together to ride gravel for fun, challenge and competition at local rides and grass roots races.

New gravel races still pop up all over, many of which are small, low-key events operating on a shoestring budget by a dreamer and some volunteers. The grandfather of gravel, Guitar Ted, notes that such "under the radar" events continue to fill the calendar. The Message. Out here in the sticks of western South Dakota, engineer/beermeister Lucas Haan exemplifies the can-do gravel attitude by starting a spring gravel series that doubled in size twice in its first year, then doubled again to over 100 riders in its second. A Gravel Community Builds. That's where it's at.

Now, from the birthplace of today's gravel scene, none other than Guitar Ted recently announced a new gravel race out of Iowa that should warm the hearts of grass roots gravelleurs everywhere:  The C.O.G. 100 Iowa Gravel Single Speed Championship.  C.O.G. 100.

Drawing deeply from its Trans Iowa roots, the C.O.G. 100 squarely plunks ownership of the experience on the individual rider. Guitar Ted clearly and repeatedly pronounces that YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU and re-inforces that philosophy into the very structure of the event:
  • Self-navigated with cue sheets delivered at the start (no course markings, no GPS for navigation). 
  • Self-supported (no aid stations, no crew, no stores on the route). 
  • No outside support of any kind (specifically noting no outside "encouragement/cheering"). 
  • No race organizer retrieval (arrange transportation if quitting). 
  • No sanctioning, no prizing, no schwag (the experience is the reward).
That crusty curmudgeon Guitar Ted refuses to allow anyone to simply buy an experience served up on a silver platter. Instead, he provides written directions and you ride. It's just you, your fellow riders and whatever you discover out there on an unknown course. Oh, and single speed only. All in all, it's a genuine Guitar Ted Production.

The C.O.G. 100 reads like a Christmas wish list of everything I'd love in a gravel race. I wish I could be there.

Registration opens January 2, 2019 and is limited to 75. Expect it to fill fast.

On the volunteers ride at Trans Iowa v14, a flat stretch of rideable B-road somewhere around Grinnell, Iowa.
On the C.O.G. 100, I'd expect very few flat stretches. Very, very few. Maybe none. Likely none. OK, none.

Monday, November 12, 2018


"Doc, ya oughta be in bed. What the hell are ya doin' this for anyway?" (Turkey Creek Jack Johnson)
"Wyatt Earp is my friend."  (Doc Holliday)
"Hell, I got lots of friends."  (Turkey Creek Jack Johnson)
"I don't."  (Doc Holliday)
Tombstone (1993). Video Link.

Twenty-some years ago, a thoughtful person in my Bible study group asked a challenging question. Outside your family, do you have a friend who you know would immediately come to help if you called at 3:00 o'clock in the morning? Many responded affirmatively, some by experience but most by trust in their friendships. Others, however, were not so sure.

After wrestling with that for a bit, the follow-up question was more penetrating. Under similar circumstances, would anyone call you? That is, are you the friend that another would call, knowing that you would answer and come help? The group grew more pensive.

Every so often, I remember that discussion and the resulting conversations with friends. It always reminds me to appreciate my friends, of all kinds, and prompts me to work to build stronger friendships. Admittedly, those intentional efforts over the years have been infrequent and haphazard, at best.

That leads me to a few friends who have been on my mind lately. I'm especially blessed to have some special friends who helped me finally achieve a multi-year goal of riding the entire length of the 310 mile Black Hills BackBone. Each of them answered my call and ventured far outside their comfort zone to join me. College roommate Rob Sorge rearranged his schedule to drive across the country to share our latest adventure together, totally trusting my route planning and bike selection for him. College classmate Dave Litzen doesn't ride much long distance, but bought a new bike just to join this crazy cross-state weekend ride, and then had the moxie and ability to finish it. Former colleague Shaun Arritola simply quipped, "I'm in!" in response to my vague suggestion of a ride, instantly transforming a nutty idea into reality. To top it off, all three enlisted family to crew, who made it work. Together, we created a special weekend that I cherish.

Yes, that ride was a year and a half ago. But whenever I think of the Black Hills BackBone, I think of those friends who recognized what it meant to me and did what it took to make it happen. Thank you Robbie and Corinne, Dave and Lori, Shaun and Jonis!

Here's a link to a post summarizing our 2017 Black Hills BackBone ride. Three Days of BackBone. And here's our finish line photo.

When you're riding so fast that it's hard to hear each other.   ; )
Approaching the South Dakota - Nebraska border at the end of the 2017 Black Hills BackBone.
Rob Sorge, Dave Litzen, Shaun Arritola and Craig Groseth (photo by Corinne Sorge)

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Challenge, Not Compete

Competition is the American way. In every way. In everything.

Competition is you against someone else.

Compete to make the team against everyone else trying out. Then compete against your teammates for playing time and roles.

Compete to get accepted in the school against everyone else applying. Then compete against your classmates for grades and class rank.

Compete to get the job against everyone else qualified. Then compete against your co-workers for bonuses and promotions.

Competition always measures your performance against the performance of others. It can drive one to achieve beyond actual and perceived limitations. At its best, it can draw out the best from within.

However, if comparative performance is the sole matrix for measuring success, personal growth of a competitor is inherently limited.

As every adult amateur endurance athlete knows, the size and quality of a competitive field varies widely by event and directly impacts relative placing. That is, unless the field is very large and consistently representative of your category, your relative placing within the field often depends less on your achievement and more on merely the number and quality of others showing up.

But your friends and family, and practically everyone else, just want to know how you placed relative to the field, which is easy to quantify and express. With a simple number, everyone believes they know how you did and how accomplished you are. You may even believe it yourself. Sometimes, it may even be true.

Dead No-Fooling Last Place at the inaugural Gold Rush Mother Lode gravel race in 2015.
19 hours 58 minutes to cover 210 miles of Black Hills gravel with over 12,000 feet of elevation gain.
I left it all on the course. That was my best on that day. I was ecstatic, even though no one finished after me.

Of course, a far better measure of your result is how you placed relative to your potential for that event on that day, based on your preparation, training and effort. Such a result is completely independent of the size and quality of the competitive field. It's also harder to quantify and much harder to express to others. But it's more real.

Years ago, I committed to refrain from patting myself on the back for finishing high in a small, relatively slow field or from beating myself up for finishing low in a large, relatively fast field. That is, I committed to set my goals and expectations based on my potential for that event on that day, without regard to relative placing. That's easy to say and not so easy to do.

I still love to compete and still love to train to be able to compete. I still check everyone's race results, not just mine. But I must remind myself that I compete for my goals and expectations, not relative placing. Then I know that another's great performance or deep disappointment does not change whatever I did.

So, if competition always measures your performance against the performance of another, then maybe I no longer compete, after all. But if not competing, what am I doing?

Challenging, not competing.

Challenging myself to strive, to improve, to achieve. That's it.

Challenge, not compete.

Greg Gleason and Walter Zitz crossing the finish line at Trans Iowa v.12.
Competition pushed them to perform their best and nearly break the 24 hour barrier at the 340-ish mile gravel race.
The challenge brought the two together for a memorable experience and example of pushing each other to the limit.
(photo by Wally Kilburg)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Big Goal

The "A" race. The premier event. The epic destination.

For endurance athletes, the end of the calendar year triggers dreams of the big goal for next year. What could it be? Is it even possible? How? To make it so, what must be? What must not be? The questions and analyses percolate for hours, days, weeks, even months. And that's just identifying it. Then the real work begins. Gotta plan. Gotta organize. Gotta train. Gotta turn everything around to focus on the big goal.

I've spent most of my adult life with such a mindset, resulting in many memorable races, events and destinations over the years. There's much to be said for setting a big goal and working to achieve it. I'm a big fan of big goals.

The big goal dominates all thought, like Pikes Peak looming over the Colorado landscape.
Back in 1989, my big goal was the Pikes Peak Marathon.
Undue emphasis on results, however, inevitably leads to a letdown afterward. That is, after achieving the big goal, what then? Typically, I respond by identifying the next big goal and fixing it on the horizon. Start the process over again. Then again. And again. The process becomes a lifestyle, all dependent on setting and achieving the next big goal.

It's all good. Until there is no next big goal. Or identifying the next big goal is elusive. What then?

In July of 2017, I finally completed a bicycle ride covering the 310 miles of the Black Hills BackBone, a North-to-South remote road crossing of the State of South Dakota. Admittedly, the ride was different from that originally conceived, but I celebrated achieving a major, multi-year goal. Three Days of BackBone.

Then I drifted.

Months passed. Fitness plunged. Weight soared. In October of 2017, the changing season eventually triggered a nagging feeling that I needed a big goal to kick start stuff. But identifying it was more than elusive. For some reason, I could not even begin to consider one.

A simple journey with no big goal in sight.
To clear my mind one day, I went on a long bike ride. Somewhere along that remote dirt road, I recognized what has been a mainstay for the past 10+ years - my daily bike commute. Every day I ride to work, unless a family commitment prevents it. It's what I do, regardless of weather, mood, physical ailments, or any thing else. It's just part of my day. There is no big goal.

Well, maybe it's that simple. Maybe I don't need the next big goal, after all. Maybe I should just add something small to my daily routine. Make it part of my day. Like my bike commute.

But what? What's missing? Running. I don't run any more, since all but abandoning it over 15 years ago. Thousands of hours spinning circles over the years must have physically changed something. Running now is awkward and uncomfortable, rather than natural and smooth. This will be difficult to start, let alone maintain, especially without a big goal.

Then, one morning I just started. It was short (less than a mile), slow (barely above walking speed) and painful (ice and ibuprofen afterwards). Too sore to run the next day, I ran again the day after that. To allow some recovery, I decided to run just three mornings a week, making the third run on my favorite M-Hill trails. Time passed, but progress was almost imperceptible. I repeatedly reminded myself that speed and distance mattered not. Just keep at it.

Now, over a year later, I am still running three early mornings a week. Speed, distance and difficulty have increased some, but not a lot. Maybe that's the next step, or maybe not. I just love getting back out there running. A part of me awoke from a long slumber.

I didn't set or achieve the next big goal in 2018. It's much bigger than that.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Gravel Community Builds

The Black Hills of South Dakota are a forested island of imposing granite and shale, surrounded by rolling seas of prairie. Throughout these lands wind remote roads, trails and paths of every description, beckoning the adventurous cyclist. With so many ride options and such variety, the relatively small cycling community naturally scatters and often feels smaller than it is.

How then to draw together this small, diverse assortment of cyclists? A start is the Black Hills Gravel Series. By organizing these rides, Lucas Haan tapped into a wide spread yearning throughout the Black Hills for a low-key, regular gathering for area cyclists of all kinds to share their passion. Every other week in April and May, folks could simply show up at a fun start/finish restaurant, sign a waiver, receive a set of cue sheets, ride a unique, remote rough road ride into the amazing Black Hills, and then hang out for lunch. What a wonderful addition to the local cycling scene.

Lucas Haan addressing the gathering collection of cyclists at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.

This all started slowly in the spring of 2017, with a core group of maybe 10-15 cyclists riding the first several rides. By the sixth and final ride that year, however, the word was out and that number had more than doubled, twice. These rides were a boat load of fun and the atmosphere was friendly and lively. For months thereafter, informal groups continued to regularly ride area gravel and dirt roads. A gravel cycling community took root. A Six Course Feast.

When Lucas announced the 2018 Black Hill Gravel Series, folks jumped at the opportunity. Despite a series of crazy spring snow days and some re-scheduling, over 100 cyclists rode the first ride out of Sturgis. About that many rode the second ride out of Spearfish, as well as the third ride out of Hill City.  The fourth and final ride out of Custer drew a smaller group, as persistently nasty weather brought 30-something degree rain and sloppy roads. In any event, around these parts, that's a lot of cyclists in one place. And they were out there having fun. A Gourmet Meal Discovered.

Lucas Haan checking on the riders out on the course at the 2018 Black Hills Gravel Series - Hill City.

Where did these riders all come from? Well, apparently from all across the cycling spectrum. For 2018, Lucas added a 10 mile "Starter" route to each ride, which drew beginners that added up to about 15% of all riders. For many of these riders, a 10 mile ride on unknown dirt roads into the forest was a very big step. At the other end, the 50 mile "Scenic" ride totaled about 35% of all riders. Many of these were seasoned gravel grinders building base or adding speed for bigger events later in the season. What about the remaining 50%, who enjoyed the 25 mile "Social" ride? I'm thinking a bunch of those social riders added the 2.5 hour average ride time to the 9:30 start to reach a noon finish for a first call for a round of micro-brews. Just saying that a lot of folks enjoyed these rides and the get-togethers afterwards.

In any event, the growth of these rides was not fueled by local racers chasing trophies or enthusiasts chasing the latest trend. And it certainly was not fueled by big production starts, finishes, celebrities or prizes. For the bulk of the riders out there, the Black Hills Gravel Series was a nice spring challenge with like-minded folks in a low key, social environment. It was fun.

I can't wait to ride whatever Lucas dreams up for next spring. And I hope to see even more of you out there in 2019.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Iowa Wind and Rock - The Gravel Family Steps Up

The King is dead! Long live the King!

In 2005, Mark Stevenson and Jeff Kerkove cooked up a mind bending endurance bicycle race called Trans Iowa, sparking a grass roots movement that continues to change the face of cycling. A Gravel Pilgrimage. After the completion of Trans Iowa v14 earlier this year, Mark announced the end of this pioneering event, leaving in its wake hundreds of gravel events of all kinds all over. And just ask a Trans Iowa veteran about their experience. What a legacy.  Trans Iowa v14 - The Last Lap.

Mark Stevenson (orange cap on the left) with final instructions and well wishes to racers at the start of Trans Iowa v14.
But wait. No Trans Iowa? That's a big crater on the endurance cycling landscape.

Sarah Cooper, Dennis Grelk and Steve Fuller recognized the significance of this loss to the cycling community and stepped up to do something about it. Highly accomplished endurance cyclists all, they banded together to create Iowa Wind and Rock, a new event crafted in the spirit of Trans Iowa.

Here is part of their announcement from their website.

"For 14 years, Trans Iowa, one of the most difficult gravel races in the U.S., took place in Iowa at the end of April. It was difficult not only because of the terrain, but also due to notoriously fickle Iowa weather, and the challenges it required riders to overcome just to make it to the starting line. The end of Trans Iowa in 2018 meant that a unique chapter of gravel racing history closed. As Iowans, Trans Iowa finishers, and people who enjoy stretching personal boundaries, we didn't want to see this unique opportunity for people to challenge themselves disappear. Iowa Wind and Rock is NOT, nor will it ever be Trans Iowa. However, we want to provide people a similar challenge - A free, 340ish mile, cue sheet navigated, late spring, Iowa event that allows entrants to challenge themselves, expand their boundaries, and allow them to see what they are capable of." Iowa Wind and Rock.

Whoa. Slow down. This is worth noting. These folks would not have to do this and certainly would not have to do it this way. Sarah, Dennis and Steve each have raced successfully at high levels over many years. They could easily leave this alone or trade their panache for cash. That's not happening here.

Iowa Wind and Rock represents an enormous commitment of time, effort and money from Sarah, Dennis and Steve, as well as from their families and friends. Nonetheless, they decided to create this event, in the spirit of Trans Iowa and with Mark Stevenson's blessing, to offer the cycling community a similar boundary-expanding experience. And they offered it for free. Guitar Ted on Iowa Wind and Rock.

Wow. Awesome. This is the Gravel Family. In action. Doing what needs to be done. And doing it right.

Thank you, Sarah, Dennis and Steve.