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Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 6) - A Revelation

Three seasons ago, Odin's Revenge sparked my passion for unsanctioned, grass roots gravel road races.  Since then, I've returned twice and raced several others, including Gravel Worlds, Almanzo Royal, Dirty Kanza, Gold Rush Mother Lode and Omaha Jackrabbit, each having a unique flavor and character.  I'd found my event, or maybe my event found me.

Even mid-winter in the central Black Hills National Forest, the gravel roads are rideable on an all road bike.
More important than enjoying a few special events a year, this small gravel race triggered a new mindset for riding.  Conspiring with riding buddy Shaun Arritola, I continued riding gravel into the fall and then throughout the South Dakota winter.  It's a revelation.

Shaun spins into a stout, late winter wind in Badlands National Park en route to a rendezvous with a herd of bison.
Oh, the Black Hills are loaded with amazing single track for mountain biking, as well as many miles of winding, paved roads for road biking.  But now, I'm looking for new adventures on the meandering miles of gravel and dirt roads running throughout the Black Hills and out into the vastness of the prairie beyond.  The possibilities are limitless.  Any kind of road.  Any kind of country.  Any kind of weather.  Just get out and ride.

Plowing through a creek out by the Fairburn Agate Beds.
After that introductory gravel season in 2013, we ride 2-3 weekends per month, throughout the winter.  Even with trails stuffed with snow and paved roads slick with ice, the gravel roads are rideable, especially out on the prairie.  And drivers of the occasional vehicle crossing our path typically slow down, smile, wave and sometimes stop just to make sure we're okay.  More often, they stop just to find out what we're doing, maybe with a question phrased as a statement, such as, "We don't see many pedal bikes out these parts."

Shaun hoofs up a short, muddy climb just past the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.
These rides vary anywhere from 30 to 100 miles, or more, depending on our conditioning, ambition and time.  We ride through some weather and, sure, the roads sometimes are messy.  But we are repeatedly amazed at the number and length of rides possible, even in the depth of a western South Dakota winter, with the right gear, right route and right attitude.  Riding gravel is a game changer.

Rob Sorge and I chase two pronghorn across Wind Cave National Park.
By the time spring is sprung, we're primed for the upcoming races and longer trips.  And ready to ride any road, anytime.  I'll be on this path for awhile.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 5) - Eureka! The Gravel Experience

Riding the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush introduces me not only to the adventure of gravel races, but to the colorful assortment of cyclists drawn to them.  Yearning for more, I sift through the storied MidWestern gravel scene to unearth Odin's Revenge, a second year race smack dab in the middle of Cornhusker country.  What a gem.

Odin's Revenge is the brainchild of a motley group of local Gothenburg cyclists known as Team DSG, an acronym with a story for them to tell.  The prior year, 28 cyclists embarked on an unmarked, unsupported course of 170 rough, hilly miles through remote backcountry in the heat of summer.  Six finished.  There's a challenge.  And the vibe feels legit.  Post card entry mailed.

Mid-afternoon Friday, I pull into the campground serving as the start/finish/gathering place and immediately see that the people here make the race special.  The proprietors are immigrants from Great Britain, bringing a fun, friendly mix of sights, sounds and tastes of the British Isles to middle America.  Even with their campground bustling with typical mid-summer tourists, Gwen and Barry cheerfully carve out some space to stage a Friday evening pre-race gathering, as well as a Start/Finish area.  Off to a rousing start.

Guitar Ted and Paul Siebert kick off the pre-race party at Odin's Revenge 2013.  (photo by Odin's Revenge)
Setting up my little tent, I watch a steady stream of vehicles pull into the campground, many sporting bikes on board.  Before long, a small community forms, as folks set up camp, wander around to other camps, and strike up conversations.  Cyclists of all kinds are here, allured by the challenge of an unknown course through unknown country under unknown conditions, with only a simple set of written directions to follow, the gear on your bike and your own gumption.  The air is electric, as we compare thoughts and hopes.

Wandering over to the pre-race meeting, we find an enthusiastic group gathering, with local musician Paul Siebert playing a variety of instruments and Mark Stevenson himself, Guitar Ted of TransIowa and Gravel Grinder News fame, joining in.  Microbrews and other sports drinks flow, as folks meet and reconnect.  Eventually, Chad Quigley and Matt Bergen of Team DSG describe the course, walk through opportunities for water and supplies, explain emergency and bail out procedures, identify check points, point out particular highlights and hazards, and answer questions.  The evening is ripe with anticipation.

Spinning into the hills at the start of Odin's Revenge 2013.  (photo by Mark Stevenson) 
The predawn glow on the eastern horizon hints of the glorious morning to come, as a primed peloton of 40 or so pedals out of town for a couple of neutral miles on pavement before the gravel, and the racing, starts.  Soft, muted sunlight reveals a stunning landscape of rolling hills.  Wow.

There are no strangers in this peloton, only kindred spirits now connecting.  I enjoy the company of many, but seem to leap frog repeatedly with Mark Stevenson, grizzled old timer of the gravel scene.  He's the real deal.  Even to this new comer, he is genuine, encouraging, open, and chatty to the point of loquacious.  It's a real treat to share some early miles with him.

Mark Stevenson pacing me up the final climb to Check Point 1 at Odin's Revenge 2013.  (photo by Odin's Revenge)
As the miles pass, the small field stretches and I ride more by myself.  But my sporadic encounters with fellow racers are consistently positive and upbeat, as we crank through the rough, hilly roads in the growing wind and heat of the day.  The cheerful check point volunteers add to the festive vibe, offering encouragement, along with cool water and homemade treats.  I'm loving everything about this.

Up another dirt road at the 2013 Odin's Revenge.  (photo by Mark Stevenson)
After about 13 1/2 hours of remote road bliss, I spin into the finish to the boisterous cheers of the gravel clan reassembling at the campground.  That's good for second place amongst the single speeders, out of four starters.  More importantly, that's a great day on the bike.  Ahead lies a relaxing evening around the campsite, sharing stories of the day.

What an experience.  I'll do this again.


Addendum.  For a detailed race report on the 2013 Odin's Revenge, here are links to Mark Stevenson's five posts on his blog.  GT-Odin 2013-1;  GT-Odin 2013-2;  GT-Odin 2013-3;  GT-Odin 2013-4;  GT-Odin 2013-5.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 4) - Digging Deeper

Having bailed from a misguided plan for a big production 24 hour mountain bike race, I tasted a gravel sample at the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush.  Now, I'm eager to experience the storied MidWestern gravel scene.  For several years, I've followed on the internet the groundbreaking TransIowa and its progeny Almanzo and Dirty Kanza.  Those big races were done until next year.  What else is out there?

The start of the 2012 Odin's Revenge gravel race.  Looks like a mismatched group of bike geeks that I'd like to join.
(photo by Odin's Revenge)
At that time, searching for unsanctioned, under the radar, grass roots gravel races would be hit or miss.  That is, except for Gravel Grinder News, an obscure website started by TransIowa guru Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, as a clearing house for folks to post their gravel races.  It quickly becomes the de facto online calendar of gravel races all over the country.

Mike Marchand, Corey Godfrey and Matt Gersib lead the way at Odin's Revenge 2012.
(photo by Odin's Revenge)
These gravel races are popping up like dandelions all over.  Many are in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa,  Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.  None are very close to Rapid City.  Then I spot Odin's Revenge in Gothenburg, Nebraska, about 350 miles away.  That's a haul, but less than almost all the others.

The race itself looks interesting.  170 miles of gravel and dirt roads in central Nebraska through country that I had driven past many times, but never stopped, let alone explored.  The course pictures show miles of rough roads and surprising scenery.  This looks good.

Race volunteers check out conditions of a Minimum Maintenance Road in advance of Odin's Revenge 2013.
The prerace pictures stand out even more.  Folks on Friday night gather around a campsite with picnic tables and pop up tents.  A mixed group of 28 racers await the start, straddling everything from front suspension mountain bikes to cyclocross bikes to old road bikes.  The 2012 race recap reveals that only 6 of those 28 starters actually finish the race, due to the difficulty of the course and the heat.  Now, that sounds like my type of race.

I send in my entry form - a post card.  Who still sends post cards?  You do, if you want to race Odin's Revenge.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 3) - A Taste of Gravel

About three years ago, my grand plan for a reunion trip to a destination 24 hour mountain bike race is in shreds and I'm hunting for an endurance bike race of some kind.  There is the local 50 mile Dakota Five-O mountain bike race, but the field limit is full.  Besides, that's become a big production and I've already raced it three times on my rigid single speed.  What, then?

For several years, I'd been following TransIowa on the internet, along with a few other gravel grinders like Almanzo and Dirty Kanza.  These are long, solo races on gravel roads, not anything like the short, fast laps on single track trails and the social atmosphere of hanging out with friends and families at a team base camp at the 24 hour mountain bike races.  But without such a relay team in sight, maybe I should consider a different kind of race.

From the Dakota Five-O website, I see that the promoters were getting into the gravel scene with a new race in the Northern Black Hills:  the 110 mile Gold Rush and it's shorter companion, the 70 mile Gold Dust.  The course covers primary USFS gravel roads, rougher secondary roads, some trails and a gentle downhill paved highway to the finish.  The event features some elements of the storied MidWestern gravel grinders, but also carries over many aspects of the Dakota Five-O.  Worth a shot.

We're going where?  A confused Craig and a dapper Shaun look over the course description of the Black Hills Gold Rush.
A few weeks later, I find myself at the Spearfish City Park for the early morning start of the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush gravel grinder.  The setting is comfortably familiar to the Dakota Five-O, but something is different.  I mill around the parking lot, preparing to race while talking to other racers.  This is a far different collection of folks.

There are mountain bike racers, for sure, and road and cyclocross racers, too.  But also recreational mountain bikers, century road riders, commuters, tourists and even tool-a-rounders.  All kinds of different cyclists, on all kinds of different bikes.  There's a nervous excitement in the air, as folks assess gear, water and food options, while knowing little or nothing about the course.  For that matter, many know nothing about how to approach this type of race.  I certainly don't.

John Sundberg and I sprint for the top of an early climb at the 2013 Gold Rush.
The adventure unfolds.  I enjoy the early miles riding with a variety of others, each out on their own journey of discovery.  Encouraging me at the start, local-fast-guy-moved-to-Idaho Brant Miller returns on his single speed cyclocross bike to pursue a spot on the podium.  On the road, I meet master road racer Roddy Dowell of Missouri, a mutual friend of long time ChristianCycling teammate Rich Pierce and a speedster on his vintage lugged steel road bike.  Later, bikepacker John Sundberg of Spearfish cruises alongside on his Salsa Fargo mountain bike.  What an eclectic mix.

I ride my trusty Torelli cyclocross single speed, set up 42 x 18 for cyclocross.  The miles pass, but that gear turns out to be too tall.  Way too tall.  The long early climbs wear me down and the later, steeper climbs, like up Cement Ridge Lookout, are brutal.  The first 70 miles or so cover good gravel on primary USFS roads, but then the course turns into a muddy, rocky, almost single track hike-a-bike, both up and down.  As exhaustion sets in, I turn onto U.S. Highway 14A, Spearfish Canyon Road, for 14 miles of paved, gentle downhill to the finish.

Finishing the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush in 2013, 3rd place single speed (ok, there were only three).
Overall, the race is fun and the event vibe is cool, in a Dakota Five-O lite sort of way.  But the folks drawn to the event are what intrigue me.  And the race reports from the MidWestern gravel races make me wonder.  What are those like?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 2) - A Misguided Plan

Three years ago about this time, I was looking ahead to the upcoming year for mountain bike races to pencil in the calendar.  A random thought shot across my mind.  2013 marked ten years since my last 24 hour team relay mountain bike race.  Really?  Ten years?

Time to search for a race and get some old riding buddies back together.  But the 24 hour race pickings are slim.  Over the past 10 years, the big production 24 Hours of Moab and 24 Hours of Adrenalin have vanished and the overall number of 24 hour races is way down.  I eventually find the 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest, outside Gallup, New Mexico.  The course and venue look great and, importantly, the local promoter looks committed to all participants.

Magical night lights at the 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest.  (photo by ziarides.com)
I cook up a grand plan:  make a family trip to Denver; pick up some teammates and fellow racers; caravan to New Mexico; and race all weekend, just like the days of yore.  I register early and start to contact former teammates and other friends.  As usual, I hear lots of positive reactions, but no solid commitments.  That's standard fare for putting together teams for 24 hour relays.  It's a big commitment of time and energy, especially for a race hundreds of miles away.  No worries.  I'll let this percolate a little.

Over the next few months, however, the grand plan unravels.  My teammates from the past enjoy reconnecting, but none commit to another 24 hour race out in the sticks of New Mexico.   Our active teenage daughters have schedules and plans of their own, which not surprisingly do not include much enthusiasm for this trip.  It started to look like it may be a solo trip, not only to Denver, but also to Gallup.  I question the purpose of this endeavor.

Then, the promoters announce that the 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest would be the U.S. National Championship, as sanctioned by USA Cycling.  Ugg.  I'd had my fill of that organization over the years of both road and mountain bike racing, with its top down, heavy handed dictation, myopic focus on elite racers and open contempt for everyone else.  For my grand plan teetering on the brink, it was too much.

When USA Cycling latched on, I bailed out.  All for the best.  (photo by ziarides.com)
So, I did something I had never done before, or since.  I told the race promoter that I would not be there to race and ate the entry fee.  Oh, she offered to refund it.  But I told her to keep it, she'd need it, since everything USA Cycling touched turned to lower racer turnout, among other things.

As usual, it all turned out for the best.  Lightening and flash floods struck the race and USA Cycling clumsily stepped all over the promoters and racers to impose their will and turned a tough situation much worse.  Had I been there, it would have been an exercise in exasperation.  So, after dodging that debacle, now what?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 1) - An Awakening

Cara's former high school track coach, Paul Hendry, often said that you don't find your event in track, your event finds you.  That's grass roots gravel races for me.

Three years ago about this time, I was looking ahead to the upcoming year for mountain bike races to pencil in the calendar.  Gravel races were not even on the radar.  I still considered myself a mountain bike and cyclocross racer, even as any real racing, or even training, slipped further into the past.  A thought shot across my mind.  2013 marked ten years since my last 24 hour team relay mountain bike race.  Is that possible?  Really?

We somehow survived the 1999 24 Hours of Moab, which sparked a new approach to riding and racing.
Craig Groseth, Dan Cook and Mark Almer.
Back in 1999, I teamed up with best riding buddies Dan Cook and Mark Almer, added new friend Rick Dutson, and entered our first mountain bike race, the 24 Hours of Moab, as a 4 person relay team.  We cranked, crashed hard every lap, wilted in the afternoon, froze at night, broke bikes and bodies, kept pedaling and somehow finished far above expectations.  A weekend like no other, and the start of five special years highlighted with quickly increasing speed and technical ability, regular group night rides and a dozen 24 hour team relay races.

Some of our team at the 2001 24 Hours of Adrenalin at Winter Park, with Kelli Cook on the microphone.
We repeated our age group win on the course and our support team won the Best Pit Area.
By 2003, times had changed.  The 24 hour race scene started to wither, as the big production events like the 24 Hours of Moab and the 24 Hours of Adrenalin grew stale to many.  I managed to fit in two 24 hour team relays, but Dan had moved his family to California and we were preparing to move to Rapid City.  I still rode a bunch, but lost focus on any specific training.

Team IronClad of ChristianCycling.com at the 2005 24 Hours of Moab featured 10 race teams, 50 volunteers, a ministry of free food and mechanical service to anyone in need, a sofa lounge to relax, and a Sunday morning worship service with a praise band.  We were essentially the church for a temporary town of 4,000 people camping in the desert for the weekend.

When we moved to Rapid City, the Black Hills sported a vibrant cycling community that supported a variety of races and events, including a new 50 mile mountain bike race, the Dakota Five-O.  I eagerly jumped in, but with a different approach.  As part of an overall shift to a more simple, sustainable lifestyle, I hang up my go-fast Specialized StumpJumper Pro racing hardtail and convert my original mountain bike, a rigid steel 1991 Specialized RockHopper, to single speed.  All on the trail is new again, with a back to basics bike and a refreshed, relaxed mindset.

Time passes.  Oh, I occasionally enter a local race and putter through.  But my cycling becomes a daily commute to work, a weekly mountain bike ride or two, and an occasional road bike ride through the Black Hills.  Almost all single speed or fixed.  Losing speed and mentality for racing, but loving the ride.  All good.

Now, it's end of year 2012, I'm staring at the calendar, realizing that it's coming up on 10 years since that last 24 hour mountain bike race.  I miss those, especially the experience of sharing an entire  weekend of racing and camping with all those friends and their families.  What to do.  Hmmn.