Saturday, December 5, 2020

2020 Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure - Take A Back Road

And it makes me wanna take a back road
Makes me wanna take the long way home
Put a little gravel in my travel
Unwind, unravel all night long

Take A Back Road, Rhett Akins & Luke Laird (2011)

After several summers of solo weekend bikepacking rides throughout the Black Hills, I enjoyed a week+ trip around the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming with cycling buddy Paul Brasby. During that trip, Paul described a bikepacking event he was adding to an existing gravel grinder.

What? Adding a bikepacking event to a gravel grinder? What does that look like?

Paul Brasby leads the Friday group bikepacking ride out to the campground at Sabetha City Lake.
(photo by Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash)

The Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash is an annual race in the historic town of Marysville, Kansas. With passionate, dedicated individuals planning and managing the event, the Pony Express has developed a growing cult following among area cyclists as a must-ride at the end of the year's gravel calendar.

The signature event is a 120 mile gravel race on a wide variety of gravel/dirt roads fanning out from the first Home Station of the famous Pony Express of the Old West. For those looking for less saddle time, the Pony Express also offers a 70 mile race and two different relays - a 3 person relay to cover the 120 mile course and a 4 person relay on the 70 mile course. Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash.

Paul knows this event thoroughly. In fact, he created the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash, co-directed it for its first 5 years, and just this year turned it over to locals. For 2020, Paul suggested a bikepacking event that would leave the morning before the main event, ride along the 120 mile route, camp somewhere about half way, and ride back the next day to finish along with everyone else. In another twist, the Friday ride out to the camp would be a non-timed group ride, while the Saturday ride back would be a timed race for those that wanted to compete. Now, how about that?

Paul Brasby leads the start of the inaugural Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure.
(photo by Andrea Skalla)

After a spring and summer of riding solo, very small group rides, and "virtual" events, the prospect of riding in an actual event with others certainly is appealing. The Pony Express also sounds like a well conceived and executed gravel event, especially with this intriguing Bikepacking Adventure. But it's Paul's role in the event that drives me to find my way to Marysville, Kansas in the middle of October.

Paul co-directed the Pony Express with the Marysville Chamber of Commerce for the first five years and the small town really responds. Seemingly half of the town's weekly newspaper is devoted to the event and "Welcome Gravel Dashers!" signs adorn businesses all over. The City Park even fills this weekend with many cyclists and their families camping in RVs and tents. It's the event of the weekend.

Cruising a Minimum Maintenance Road during harvest season in northern Kansas.

The bikepacking event rules are pretty straightforward. Carry what you want for food, clothing and camping, but you'll have to carry it the entire event. You can utilize the aid stations set up for the main event and also stop at commercial establishments along the way, if any. But I'm not relying on unknown resupply and I'm not cutting corners. As a non-racer who enjoys hot meals and relative comfort on and off the bike, I will carry my typical autumn sub-24 gear and plan to resupply nothing but water.

For this two day/one night event on a gravel race course, I choose my beloved Black Mountain Cycles  MonsterCross bike with 40 mm Schwalbe G-One Bite tires. It's built for this terrain and comfortably carries everything, including tent, sleeping bag/liner/pad/pillow, rain gear, clothing, stove, food, and 4.5 liters of water. When ready to roll, it weighs 47 pounds. No fly weight, but all business.

Flying into Summerfield, the first and only checkpoint of the first day.

Sixteen intrepid bikepackers roll out of Marysville on Friday morning, bound for Sabetha City Lake to camp. It's a jovial, talkative group excited to be out riding together on a crisp autumn morning. The route starts on the Blue River Rail Trail before turning onto fast gravel occasionally connected by dirt Minimum Maintenance Roads. If wet, this course could be Mr. Hyde, but today it's all Dr. Jekyll.

Mid-October is harvest season in northern Kansas and combines, tractors and trucks fill the countryside. More than once, I stop to let a procession of big rigs amble by. I welcome the short breaks, knowing that the industrious farmers are the reason these roads exist and I get to ride them just for fun.

The winds build throughout the morning, growing into a substantial, steady westerly. Turns out that's a big tailwind for most of our ride today. With the strong prevailing winds, fast roads, and relatively light gravel bike, I'm rolling 12-15 mph with little effort. Nice.

Before long, I pull into the 27 mile checkpoint in the town of Summerfield. In addition to water, some local volunteers offer the cyclists Halloween candy from a ginormous bag. What a treat! Since chocolate doesn't travel very well on a bike, I indulge right there. Sweet!

Good thing this Minimum Maintenance Road is dry.

The miles roll by easily, at least until Brewsky Hill. No, it's not a monster climb in length, but it is steep. So steep, in fact, that a sponsor offers a free beer to anyone that rides it without stopping. I give it a go, but don't get far. Remounting to try again, I fall after a couple of pedal strokes and stumble all the way to the bottom before catching my balance. OK, that's it. This is the only time all day that I would have preferred my Jones 29+ with mountain bike gearing.

After a delightful 73 miles, I soft pedal into the camp ground in mid-afternoon and set up camp. Camp host Jon Naaf checks on the bikepackers riding in and creates a central gathering place near his camper by the lake, with a picnic table, chairs and a roaring campfire. Once he accounts for all riders, Jon unexpectedly grills hamburgers and hot dogs, provides beverages, and awards a door prize to each rider. Even better, he later facilitates a round-the-campfire introduction of everyone there. Nice.

Gathering at a city lake, bikepackers attract the attention of the local constable.

Just as the party's getting started, a Sabetha Police Officer drives up to check out a report of "about 20 bikers" hanging out at the city lake. Even the local EMT shows up, just in case. Jon addresses their concerns and happily announces that no charges will be filed. 

The informal gathering stretches into the evening, as few wish to leave the warmth of the campfire and the company surrounding it. A little community builds, as new friends connect and old friends re-connect. Jon recounts the story of his wife Amy, who recovered from cancer and started the organization Pink Gravel to help others recovering from cancer return to active lifestyles. Pink Gravel is out in the community, raising awareness, encouraging folks, and volunteering at events such as the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash. That's some community service. See her website Pink Gravel.

Warm fire and conversation at Sabetha City Lake.

Eventually, all the bikepackers head to their tents and hammocks. Well, all but one. Todd Frye, a local cyclist active in the nutty Black Squirrel Cycling League, left his tent at the start. That actually was intentional, because he did not like how the tent's weight affected his bike's handling and figured a tarp would be enough shelter. Then forgot to load the tarp onto his bike. Only after arriving at the campground did he realize his mistake.

With temperatures dropping into the 40's and below, Todd knew he was in for a long, cold night in his sleeping bag in the open air. Determined to stick to the ethos of the bikepacking event, he refused offers of help and hunkered down in a shallow ditch. Then, in the middle of the night, a front blew in like a freight train and kicked winds up to a steady 25+ mph. I don't think he slept much after that.

Here I'm enjoying a cup of hot coffee while the racers take off on the second day.
(photo by Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash)

In the morning, the persistent wind creates all sorts of problems for everyone. Tents and ground covers billow. Stuff sacks scoot away. Hats tumble across the grounds. Stoves blow out. The biggest problem, however, is that steady 25+ mph wind will be a direct headwind for much of our 52+ miles today. That's going to take some work. Most of the bikepackers seem to respond with a silent shrug and continue to prepare for the ride ahead.

Shortly before 7:30, I deliberately sit at the picnic table by the lake and fire up my stove to make a fresh cup of coffee. I'm sitting out the race start. If I line up for that 7:30 start, I know I'll get caught up in racing. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but that's not why I'm here. So, at 7:30 I cheer on those starting the race back to Marysville and enjoy the rest of my coffee.

Winding our way back to Marysville on the second day.

Maybe 20 minutes later, I meander out of the campground as one of the last bikepackers to leave. The day breaks overcast, cool and windy. But I slept warm and well, savored a hot breakfast and am dressed for the conditions. I settle in for a relaxing 52 mile tour of the Pony Express countryside.

The idyllic, protected start around the lake soon climbs out of tree cover and emerges onto the fruited plains. No hiding from the wind here. I'm pedaling up and down rolling farmland directly into that big headwind. OK, so this is what the day is. I find a sustainable rhythm and enjoy the passing scenery.

At the Axtell checkpoint on the second day, riders on the 70 Mile course merge onto the 120 mile course.
(photo by Andrea Skalla)

I pass a few of the other non-racing bikepackers, several of whom are struggling with the early hills and wind. The return ride on the second day ultimately proved more difficult than expected for many, as only 10 of the 16 bikepackers starting today ultimately pedaled back to Marysville.

Cruising into the check point at the town of Axtell, I stop to refuel, rehydrate and stretch a bit. The park is buzzing with activity, with cyclists from today's 70 mile course streaming in to merge with the 120 mile route. Volunteers scurry about, taking care of everyone. I refill my water bottles, sit down against a fence by the road, and close my eyes. This is good . This is really good. Fully 20 minutes pass before I move again. Oh, yeah. I still need to eat and drink. OK, I will. Ahh. This is good.

Paul Brasby and Craig Groseth at the finish of the 2020 Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure.
Paul finished 3rd to claim a podium spot. FWIW, I finished 7th.

The rest of the ride continues to roll through picturesque rural Kansas, up and down good gravel roads and more than occasionally dip into a dirt road connector. The main difference today is the persistently heavy headwinds and, after the Axtell check point, the presence of the 70 mile riders, including a couple of old Nebraskans. 

First, Rob Evans of Omaha flew by, then slowed to chat, before disappearing over the next ridge. A little later, Joe Billesbach of Beatrice did the same. Both interrupted their race to re-connect a bit, even as they were clearly racing. I later learned that Rob rode as part of the winning 120 mile relay team and Joe won the 70 mile fat bike race. Thanks for the hospitality, boys. I'm glad it didn't cost you a win!

Now that's a lot of stuff from one event. Clockwise from the upper right: 3/4 length event t-shirt,
custom bikepacking finisher's cup, buff, number plate, liner gloves, local newspaper, mud stick,
titanium spork, Pony Express "mail" to carry through the checkpoints, custom face mask, cue sheets,
 and 3/4 length Pink Gravel t-shirt.

The 120 mile course is quickly running out. Soon I'm back on the Blue River Rail Trail for the final few miles into Marysville. I'm not sure that I'm ready for all this to end, but I soft pedal through the finish line. There's Paul, waiting. He's excited for me, but he's also cheering for every rider coming in. Later I learn that Paul raced hard and smart all day to grab third place in the bikepacking race. Nice.

Riders of all kinds filter through the finish line over the next several hours. I hang out for the energetic post-race festivities by the newly restored Union Pacific Train Depot. There's plenty of drinks and snacks, but the homemade apple caramel pie and vanilla ice cream is simply scrumptious. I consider myself abundantly disciplined to consume only two servings. At a volunteer's table, I find my event schwag bag filled with all sorts of stuff, including a titanium spork and a "Marysville Mud Stick." Better yet, I receive a custom finisher's cup for the Bikepacking Adventure. How cool is that?

Thanks to race co-directors Mark and Renee Hoffman, the rest of the Black Squirrel Cycling League, and the Marysville Chamber of Commerce for running the 2020 Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash! Well done, folks! Thanks also to all the sponsors, the volunteers and the cyclists out there pedaling through that wind! And special thanks to my cycling buddy Paul Brasby for drawing me out to Marysville, Kansas to experience a slice of heaven known as the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash.

Take A Back Road, Rodney Atkins (2011)

Saturday, November 28, 2020

2020 Coffeeneuring Challenge - Feeling Groovy

Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
The 59th Street Bridge Song, Paul Simon (1966)

I don't need much of an excuse to ride my bike, meet with friends, or drink coffee. So, when Lucas Haan notified me of the 2020 Coffeeneuring Challenge, I jumped in. And, unlike our #CoffeeOutside - Rapid City gathering every Thursday morning, this one doesn't require sitting outside early morning, unless, of course, that's what you want to do.

From her website, endurance athlete Mary Gersemalina describes the concept:  "The Coffeeneuring Challenge is a time to spin the wheels, experience the chill of fall as it pokes at you through your clothes, and linger over a steamy cup of coffee. The challenge offers an opportunity to virtually connect with others as we ride through shorter days and changing seasons."

"Essentially the challenge boils down to this:
  • over the course of 7-ish weeks,
  • ride your bike to 7 different places,
  • at least 2 miles round trip each time,
  • drink 7 cups of coffee (or similar), and
  • take 7 pictures (or other documentation) as proof of your coffeeneuring."

More information at 2020 Coffeeneuring Challenge.

It's a fun twist. Among other things, Coffeeneuring led me to relax for a change by the "M" on M-Hill, to ride along on another's commute to work, to stop for a moment while scouting remote roads in the Black Hills, and even to ride straight up a temporary construction path to access some single track.

To submit the requested documentation to complete my first Coffeeneuring Challenge, I am Craig Groseth of Rapid City, South Dakota, USA and below are my completed control cards and pictures for seven rides. Thank you, Mary, for creating and nurturing this community of Coffeeneurs.

Ride 1

Ride 2

Ride 3

Ride 4

Ride 5

Ride 6

Ride 7

Here's Simon & Garfunkel "feeling groovy" at The Concert At Central Park in New York City in 1981. For a trip further down and even past Memory Lane for many, watch the second clip of Simon & Garfunkel on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, where the Smothers Brothers join in.

The 59th Street Bridge Song, Simon & Garfunkel, The Concert At Central Park (1981).

The 59th Street Bridge Song, Simon & Garfunkel, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967).

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 Logistics - Miles 434 to 490

The Cloud Peak 500 is a 500 mile remote road loop in and around the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. This post is part of a series that describes some of each day's logistics involved when we rode the route on bicycles loaded for a 7-8 day self-supported tour in early August 2020. It also includes a screen shot and link to a digital map on, which I created after the trip to show our ride for each separate day. Finally, it adds a photo gallery. This post covers Miles 434-490 of the route, which was Paul's final day. Go to Miles 0-52 for Logistics for Day 1, go to Miles 52-104 for Logistics for Day 2, go to Miles 104-151 for Logistics for Day 3, go to Miles 151-201 for Logistics for Day 4, go to Miles 201-251 for Logistics for Day 5, go to Miles 251-299 for Logistics for my Day 6, go to Miles 299-356 for Logistics for my Day 7, and go to Miles 356-434 for Logistics for Paul's Day 7.

After winding 434 miles of up, down, and along the Big Horn Mountains in a mammoth counter-clockwise loop, the Cloud Peak 500 strikes for the eastern prairie for a rolling 56 miles from Buffalo to the finish in Sheridan. Know that no commercial establishments exist on route for re-supply, despite what appear to be towns on a map. This section is a welcomed break from all the previous days of long, hot climbs and is a fitting finish for this self-supported tour.

Paul starts his Day 8 from the town of Buffalo at an elevation of about 4,600 feet and finished the day, and the Cloud Peak 500 route, 56 miles later at the town of Sheridan at an elevation of about 3,800 feet. The first 23 miles roll generally downhill along Clear Creek on Kumor Road (40), then Belus Road (102), then Box Elder Road (171), and finally merging with U.S. Highway 14 for 2 miles to "Ucross." All these roads are straight forward to navigate and good, solid gravel to ride.

Ucross appears to be a town on my maps, but it is not. Rather, it is an art studio, gallery, and/or museum of some sort that may be open to the public during other days, hours or times. It certainly is not a place for a traveling cyclist to re-supply provisions. That is also true for all the other spots that appear to be towns along these 56 miles. Carry what you need for this stretch.

Just a half mile after "Ucross," the route turns NorthWest onto Coal Creek Road (195). Here starts the biggest "climb" of the day, about 600 feet of elevation gain over the next 6 miles. Relatively speaking, this is a bump in the road on the Cloud Peak 500.

Cresting that rise, the route drops a mile into "Ulm," another non-town. Continue north on Ulm Road (42), which gently rolls down a valley for about 14 miles to Wyarno Road (84). Just 3 miles later, the route turns onto Wildcat Road (84), which winds and rolls about 5 miles before merging with 336 to enter Sheridan. 

These roads are straight forward to navigate and follow. Other than a several mile stretch of fresh gravel that Paul rode into in mid-August 2020, these roads are relatively good, solid gravel roads for the prepared cyclist.

Paul Brasby Photo Album

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 (Paul Writes His Final Day) - The Road Less Traveled

And it all might come together
And it all might come unraveled
On the road less traveled. 
The Road Less Traveled, Buddy Brock & Dean Dillon (2001)

After five days of riding the Cloud Peak 500, Paul Brasby and I face the facts. We're running out of time. We need to dramatically increase our daily mileage over the next three days or we will finish short. Decision time. Early on Day 6, we discuss options and leave Ten Sleep with a plan. I wrote about my Day 6 in Decision Day and my Day 7 in High On A Desert Plain. Paul wrote about his Day 6 in Ghost Rider In The Sky , wrote about his Day 7 in the post Wonder Where I'm Bound , and writes about his final day here.

After 7 days, 5 hours and 30 minutes, Paul Brasby is the first and only official finisher of the Cloud Peak 500. From one who was out there with him for 5+ days working those climbs in that August heat, I will paraphrase the legendary Steve Prefontaine to say that somebody may beat that time, but they're going to have to bleed to do it.

I checked the weather for tomorrow before I called it a night. It showed for a hot day in the high desert plains with temperatures in the 90's. I set my alarm for 6:30 am, so I can get an early start before the Mercury starts to rise.

I'm up before the alarm goes off and before long I'm packed and ready to go. It's time to close the book on the Cloud Peak 500.

The route follows river valleys for most of the day to Sheridan, with minimal elevation gain. Climbing to cooler temperatures is not possible.

A quick stop at a convenience store for coffee, hot sandwich, a bag of trail mix, and a quick text message to Craig. I'm back on the road by 7:15 am. The air is cool, as the magical hour for photography is in full swing. I quickly get back on the route and hit gravel soon after. The roads are fast and relatively flat. Once again, I enjoy a slight tailwind.

I was expecting today's route to be a boring, dry desert-like ride, with very little to perk my interest. But was I wrong! Just the opposite happened. I find myself riding in lush valleys with native grasses and alfalfa fields growing strong, ready for another cutting.

Grassy hills, void of trees, covered in green grass jetting upward from the valley floor in all shapes and sizes. Ridge lines form on both sides of the valleys for most of the day. I find myself rubber-necking, as I enjoyed the scenery, like watching a tennis match from the front row at center court. With the early morning light, it made for stunning shadows across the valleys. The roads were flowing through the prairie grass like a freshly laid red ribbon of satin. It was beautiful!!!

I found myself following bicycle tire tracks early on and they appeared to be a set of skinny gravel tires. In the distance, I can see the gravel road abruptly changing from a grey to red color. As I approach the new color of gravel, I noticed the tire tracks made a U-turn in the road and headed back for Buffalo. A local, I figured, doing an out and back. 

Well, I quickly discovered why they did. The new color of red gravel was 6 inches of freshly laid pea gravel. Holy Cow!!! Thank God I had 2.2 inch tires on the Cutty. They were just enough to give me the float I needed to stay on top of the loose stuff! This went on for several miles and I was happy to see it end! 

I left Buffalo with 3.8 liters of water and I used every bit of it during this leg. The towns dotting the map really aren't towns for the most part. Don't plan on using any of them for refueling purposes!!!

As the day pushes into late morning, the temperature rises with the short hand of the clock. My spirits are increasing with every pedal stroke, as it means I'm getting closer to the end of my journey. The miles are flying by, in epic proportion to the rest of the trip!

I text Crag and fill him in on my location. Craig is as much a part of this finish as it is for me! He may not be riding it with me, but he is with me in spirit. We started this epic adventure together and we're going to finish it together! Because of him, I am here, just miles away from the end of the Cloud Peak 500!

I'm in another valley heading west on WildCat Road following the BNSF railroad tracks. The route makes a change of direction with a series of right and left turns, as it works its way southwest toward Sheridan.

Because of the rolling hills, I can't see the city at all. My computer that started with 486 miles now shows only two! I ride over the last couple of hills and the city of Sheridan now comes into full view. It is literally all down hill from here.

What an amazing, hard fought ride that was. WOW!!!

My computer chirps at me to let me know I crossed the virtual finish line, as I swing into a pay only gas station and motel across the parking lot to take a few pictures. I hop back on my bike and roll to where Craig and I started our adventure . . . 7 days 5 hours and 30 minutes ago!


I would like to give a big shout out to Aaron Denberg and his wife Sarah Wallick of Big Horn, Wyoming for putting this route together for all of us to enjoy! In my 42 years of riding, this was the toughest multi-day I've done to date!!! Thank You for an Epic Adventure and for giving us the opportunity to play in your back yard!!!

I happened to come across Craig's blog post about the Cloud Peak 500 and the thought of riding with a friend intrigued me. Thank you Craig for inviting me to tag along and for your friendship on this Epic Journey. I look forward to riding with you again in the back country. Just say when and where!!!

The Road Less Traveled, George Strait (2001)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 Logistics - Miles 356 to 434

The Cloud Peak 500 is a 500 mile remote road loop in and around the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. This post is part of a series that describes some of each day's logistics involved when we rode the route on bicycles loaded for a 7-8 day self-supported tour in early August 2020. It also includes a screen shot and link to a digital map on, which I created after the trip to show our ride for each separate day. Finally, it adds a photo gallery. This post covers Miles 356-434 of the route, which was Paul's Day 7. Go to Miles 0-52 for Logistics for Day 1, go to Miles 52-104 for Logistics for Day 2, go to Miles 104-151 for Logistics for Day 3, go to Miles 151-201 for Logistics for Day 4, go to Miles 201-251 for Logistics for Day 5, go to Miles 251-299 for Logistics for my Day 6 and go to Miles 299-356 for Logistics for my Day 7.

Right from the start, this day's climb gains over 3,600 feet in the first 22 miles and that's only half of the climbing over its 77 miles. Expect soft roads, virtually no shade, no development, and no water for at least 40 miles. Once again, however, the final descent eventually pays off, here down Crazy Woman Canyon.

Cloud Peak 500 - Paul Day 7

Paul starts his Day 7 from the town of Kaycee at an elevation of about 4,600 feet. The first 12 miles climb steadily on Mayoworth Road (191) through dry prairie sloping up the arid mountainside. Mayoworth comprises a couple of homes and has no commercial establishments. Enjoy the glimpses of green vegetation at this intersection before grinding up another long, hot, dry, soft climb.

From Mayoworth, the route turns onto Slip Road (67), which starts innocently enough by continuing to climb steadily for about 4 miles. At about mile 16, however, Slip Road tosses aside the facade to show its true character. The next 6 miles climb over 2,500 feet.

Yes. That's right. Over 2,500 feet of elevation gain in 6 miles. Not surprisingly, it takes 18 switchbacks to do that. And this soft road offers no shade, no water and no shelter. Virtually no traffic.

After that effort, one receives the shortest of respites before climbing again. At about 30 miles, Slip Road merges into Hazelton Road (3), which continues to roll upwards. Eventually, Paul stopped at a road sign that noted 36 miles down to Kaycee. He rode 7 hours that day to reach that sign. Not until after about 40 miles is the climbing pretty much over. No water anywhere. That's a long, hot, hard day.

The route rolls along Hazelton Road. At about mile 49, shortly before reaching U.S. Highway 16, the route turns off Hazelton Road and follows a serpentine path through a patchwork of roads and trails. Follow your GPS or detailed cue sheets. The following is a general description only. As I discerned, the route turns off Hazelton Road downhill onto Billy Creek Road (USFS 466) for about a mile, turns onto USFS 622 for about another mile, meanders for about another mile to turn onto USFS 473 for about 2 miles, turns onto USFS 33 to finally enter Crazy Woman Canyon.

Crazy Woman Canyon (33) is the road highlight of the day, dropping about 2,600 feet over 10 miles of crazy cool canyon. The road surface is hard and fast, but the road carries traffic and is very narrow, often single lane. Check speeds regularly.

At about 67 miles, the route turns north onto Klondike Road (132) for a prairie rolling 10 miles into the town of Buffalo. Full services available here, including motels and restaurants.

Paul Brasby Photo Album