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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Gravel Grinder 101


The Black Hills BackBone takes a back seat this weekend, as I am amped up to get on the 2015 race roster for Odin's Revenge, a 170+ mile gravel and dirt road race in central Nebraska.  This race sparked my passion for gravel grinders, and the folks who organize, volunteer and ride them.

As excited as I am, it also reminded me of last summer's IC3 National Camp, where almost none of the long time, dedicated cyclists had even heard of a such a thing.  So, I wrote an introduction to gravel grinders that was published on August 8, 2014 on ChristianCycling.com.  If you love to ride, really ride, and you love to ride with those of kindred spirit, you'll love gravel grinders.  Here it is.  Gravel Grinder 101.


Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, paces me up a final hill to Check Point 1 at 2013 Odin's Revenge.
(photo by Kyle Vincent)
Unless you’re from the nation’s breadbasket, you may be unfamiliar with the grassroots phenomena of “gravel grinders” popping up like dandelions all over the countryside.  Gravel grinders are unsanctioned, unsupported endurance bicycle races on primarily gravel and dirt roads, with little or no outside support, course markings, fees or prizes.  There are no governing bodies, race officials, or licenses.  Just a dedicated race organizer and some volunteers plotting out a unique course highlighting local, out-of-the-way sights and sounds, with unapologetic bike geeks gathering for a long day, or more, of racing, adventure and camaderie. 

Gravel grinders are a great experience for avid cyclists of all kinds.  By their very nature, and by the nature of the folks that organize, volunteer and race these events, gravel grinders provide a great opportunity to meet cyclists where they are and to build relationships. 

Although gravel grinders are races and they keep score, the spirit of inclusiveness is real and palpable.  All kinds of cyclists show up.  Many are road and cyclocross racers.  Others have more experience as endurance mountain bike racers.  Others haven’t raced much, if at all, but are passionate recreational riders of all kinds, including randonneurs, century riders, commuters and tourists.  All are welcomed and encouraged to give it a go and share the experience with everyone involved. 

You’ll also see all kinds of bikes.  Many race cyclocross bikes, with as fat a tire as the frame allows.  But the gravel grinders I’ve entered also included rigid, hard tail and fully suspended mountain bikes, tandems and even fat bikes.  Road bikes, or any bike with tires less than 30 mm, will likely provide practice for pinch flat repair.  Most run gears, but you’ll see some singlespeeds and even an occasional fixed gear.  But, hey, run what ‘cha brung. 

Because many gravel grinders start pretty early on a Saturday morning, the pre-race meeting is often held on early Friday evening.  Here, the race organizer typically hands out cue sheets for the first section of the course, walks through the opportunities on the course for water and supplies, describes emergency and bail out procedures, identifies checkpoints, points out particular highlights and hazards, and answers questions.  As one might expect, before and after the actual meeting, these turn into informal social gatherings, as folks meet and reconnect, perhaps over a couple of local micro-brews or other treats.

Whether before, during or after the race, I believe that much of the positive atmosphere of gravel grinders directly results from the races being unsupported and social, while still being competitive.  During the race, the field self-selects pretty quickly, even for races of 100 or 200 miles.  Once the race hits gravel, pacelines streak out in two of the three tracks that typically form over time from motor vehicle traffic on the gravel roads.  With little or no traffic, it’s easy to ride two abreast with another of similar ability or ambition.  With no outside support allowed, racers depend on themselves and help each other, even at the front of the race.  With no course markings, racers share navigation duties to stay on course, or return to the course.  With no feed zones or crews, racers find convenience stores for food and water, and share if not available or closed.   Believe it or not, there are gravel grinders with little or spotty cell coverage, and some distance for emergency personnel, so racers really look after each other.  All this while remaining a race.  It really is something to experience.   

So, how did all this start?  The founding father and keeper of the flame of today’s gravel grinder is Mark Stevenson, aka “Guitar Ted,” a bike mechanic and Christian worship band guitarist who ten years ago started a 300+ mile gravel race dubbed “TransIowa.”  In general, TransIowa and its progeny feature free registration, no licensing, unsanctioned, self-supported endurance bicycle racing on unmarked public gravel and dirt roads through relatively remote countryside.  Racers receive a cue sheet, with directions for an initial portion of the course.  Racers that reach the end of the first set of cue sheets by a pre-determined time cut-off receive a second set of cue sheets.  Those that miss the cut-off do not.  Longer races may have multiple cut-offs and checkpoints.  Racers generally carry much of what they think they need, but may re-supply at small towns and convenience stores along the way.  These races are largely self-policed, although race organizers are known to throw in a surprise checkpoint or two, often with water and treats, to keep folks on course.  The course usually changes each year to keep the navigation and adventure component.  Popular gravel grinders in kindred spirit with TransIowa include Almanzo in Spring Valley, MN, Odin’s Revenge in Gothenburg, NE, Gravel Worlds in Lincoln, NE, and many others.

Being unsanctioned and ultimately grassroots, each gravel grinder forges its own path.  For example, other races may provide cue sheets in advance, even digitally, keep the same course year after year, allow some level of outside support at designated spots, charge an entry fee, provide schwag or award substantial prizing.  Popular gravel grinders containing many of those elements include Dirty Kanza in Emporia, KS, Rebecca’s Private Idaho in Ketchum, Idaho and Gold Rush Gravel Grinder in Spearfish, SD.  

Check out some gravel grinders to find one that appeals to you.  Guitar Ted maintains a calendar of gravel races and events at www.gravelgrindernews.com.  Or contact me.  I’d be happy to help you get started.  Also, for a heart felt post about the spirit of gravel grinders, go to this post on Guitar Ted’s blog, g-tedproductions.blogspot.com  - http://g-tedproductions.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-reason-for-what-i-do.html  New text -  also, go to ridinggravel.com for event calendars, reviews, forums and more.

Gravel grinders.  There’s an adventure out there for you.  And you’ll probably meet a few folks along the way.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Start: NoWhere, North Dakota to the Geographic Center of the United States

The Black Hills BackBone is a cross state remote road ride from NoWhere, North Dakota to NothingThere, Nebraska along the spine of the Black Hills.  The start of this 300+ mile journey lies at the northern border of South Dakota, less than 20 miles east of Montana, on Table Mountain Road (Harding County Road 733).    There's actually a carved stone marking the state border, if you look for it long enough, are willing to hop a barbed wired fence, and cross a solid 50 meters of cow pie laden pasture.  Notwithstanding the marker, it's still way out there.  It's still NoWhere, North Dakota.  

Border marker at NoWhere, North Dakota.
So, here's the first 80 miles or so of the Black Hills BackBone, from the Start to the Geographic Center of the United States in rural Harding County, South Dakota.  That seemed like a good place to stop for a spell.

Riding south on Table Mountain Road (733) at Mile Marker 0, angle West (right) after about 1.5 miles and spin south on wide open prairie gravel, with Table Mountain looming to the East.  Ride within the posted speed limit.  It's 300+ miles to Nebraska.

Mile marker 0 on Table Mountain Road at the North Dakota border.
After about 9 miles from the start, turn West (right) onto Ladner Road for 4 miles heading west and then a sweeping turn to the south for 2 more miles.  These are prairie gravel roads, with generally long sight lines and significant exposure.  The gravel typically is not too thick and usually has two, sometimes three, tracks to follow.

Starting off right with miles of broken prairie.
After those 6 miles on Ladner Road, there's a 90 degree West (right) turn.  Do not take that, but continue South (straight past that intersection) on what is now called Bullock Road.  After 7.5 miles, continue on Bullock Road by turning West (right) at a t-bone intersection.  Ride West for 2.5 miles, where Bullock Road turns South (left) for another 8.5 miles to paved U.S. Highway 20.

Hints of a distant past poke through the ocean of grass.
As you can see, there are not many roads out there, but they often do not stick to a single north-south or east-west direction for a given name.  It's probably a good thing this is the beginning of the BackBone, before the eyes cross and the mind wanders. 

At paved U.S. Highway 20, turn West (right) for about 0.5 miles, then turn South (left) back onto gravel on Harding Road.  This is a nice, rolling stretch of prairie, with a smattering of buttes and hills rising on both horizons.  There are even a few patches of pine trees up in some of the hills, as well the prevailing cottonwoods along the creeks and drainages.  Out here are coyotes, fox, skunk, jack rabbits, quail, hawks and eagles, as well as hundreds of buffalo.


After 13 miles on Harding Road and about 47 miles into the BackBone, we'll stop at the almost dormant town of Harding for water, as there are few opportunities in the next 80 miles or so.

With water topped off, continue South out of Harding on Harding Road for about 18 miles, where it t-bones into Old Highway 85.  Turn West (right) for a 13.8 mile shot to today's destination:  the Geographical Center of the United States.  I do not know how one determines such things, or why anyone would do so, but there it is.  Pay careful attention to the East (your left) because it's really easy to miss.  There's a rock cairn and a handwritten sign at the fence line beside the road.  A bandit foot path leads to the actual U.S. Geological Survey marker about 100 meters out onto the prairie.


That's the first 80 miles or so of the Black Hills BackBone.  Route followers will notice that I changed the Start Line from my earlier post entitled "The Big Picture."  My initial plan was to start on Camp Crook Road (Harding County 867), less than 3 miles from the Montana border.  However, when I actually got up there, I found not the expected gravel, but pavement for the first 12 miles.  After some scouting about, I chose this new Start Line. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Buffalo Gap to Oelrichs

From Buffalo Gap, the Black Hills BackBone bursts out of the shadows of the Black Hills and hurtles into the wide open spaces of Western South Dakota prairie.  This 25 mile section from Buffalo Gap to Oelrichs is full of surprises, so stay alert.  And know this.  There are very, very few trees, hills, rock formations or anything else that shields, or even slows down, the relentless winds out there.  Today, the gusty cross winds blew me right off my line so many times I lost track.

Toward the horizon lies a bridge over the River Cheyenne.
So, here's Buffalo Gap to Oelrichs on the Black Hills BackBone.  Entering Buffalo Gap on 7-11 Road, turn South (right) on 4th Street, an immediate East (left) on Elm Street, and then South (the second right) on 2nd Street.  Riding south on 2nd Street, do not miss the Buffalo Gap Trading Post on your right.  A picker's paradise stuffed full of stuff.  Some of it is even for sale.  After perusing the wares during last summer's DED Dirt Ride, Shaun's going back with his truck and trailer.

"Hey!  These are my people!" exalts Shaun.
Continue south out of town on 2nd Street, which turns into Buffalo Gap Road (6291), for a dose of mostly up, sometimes down, relatively thick prairie gravel.  Occasional glimpses of asphalt buried below the gravel do not diminish the vibe, but speak to an old road on a sustainable path.  Eventually, after 7 miles, Buffalo Gap Road drops to the Cheyenne River and into the village of Oral.

Downtown Oral, with a little hill out of town.  There's more ahead.
Turn East (left) on Fall River County Road 2.  1.5 miles later, turn South (right) on Ash Road.  Here, the BackBone showcases a rare-for-these-parts center pivot irrigation system, a hint of a gravel grid system, and a steady diet of steep rollers, all reminiscent of Gravel Worlds.  Gotta pay tribute to the Pirates.  After 3 miles on Ash Road, turn East (left) on Hay Canyon Road for just a mile before turning South (right) on Sand Creek Road.  Now, there's just 4 miles to the village of Smithwick, a welcoming place.

Stopped for a Hammer Gel and some HEED, thank you.
Turn East (left) at Smithwick Road for about one-half mile, then turn South (right) on North Butte Road (Fall River County Road 2).  Big exposure, big hills, big views and an aptly named Windy Butte highlight these final 8 miles to U.S. Highway 18.  That's another 25 miles knocked off the BackBone.  Cross the highway and pick up the route described on the post entitled Oelrichs to the Finish.

Post script.  I guess this is how to park a train overnight.  There were many cars extending in both directions.