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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Three Days of BackBone (part 3) - Crossing the Northern Prairie

A three year old daydream takes shape as a small group of friends gather at the Picnic Spring Campground for an early morning launch of a three day 300+ mile bike ride of the Black Hills BackBone.  All systems are go, but we know that everything must come together to successfully cross the starkly exposed northern prairie from NoWhere, North Dakota to the foothills of the Black Hills near Spearfish, about 133 miles away.  That's a lot of open country to cross in the middle of the summer.  Part 1 - An Idea Takes Shape.  Part 2 - Gathering.

Shaun Arritola, me, Dave Litzen and Rob Sorge at a Dakota Marker near the start of the Black Hills BackBone.
Our future's so bright.  (photo by Corinne Sorge) 
We awake before first light, with countless stars still filling the night sky.  No need for alarm clocks.  We're stoked to start this adventure.  We purposefully putz around with bikes, clothing, gear, food and water, while Corinne brews fresh coffee.  Now, there's a good start to the day.

Super Support Corinne Sorge fires up the stove to brew fresh coffee.
Before long, we load the shuttle trucks and pile in for the twenty mile drive to the border, beginning with a sparsely graveled near-road winding down a forested hidden valley.  As the morning sky lightens, we see that this is where the deer and antelope wake up to go play.  Rounding a corner, we drop into the vastness of this prairie, where we will spend the rest of a long day.

Always amiable shuttle driver Jonas Arritola patiently waits for us to unload bikes.
With Shaun in the background is North Dakota, not that it looks differently to the South.
We bee-line to the border, marked merely by a wind-shredded 45 mph speed limit sign sporting a "0" mile tag.  To the wind up here, that's not a limit, just a suggestion.  Fortunately, both winds and temperatures are mild this morning, as the sun breaks the horizon.  The forecast looks about as favorable as one could reasonably expect, but it's early July, so we know eventually it will be some degree of hot and windy.

More than ready to roll at the start of the Black Hills BackBone.
Notice the nearly vertical grass, showing practically no wind.  (photo by Corinne Sorge)
From the start line, we scan the prairie to spot a Dakota Marker, one of a series of quartzite columns embedded every one half mile along the entire length of the North Dakota - South Dakota border.  In addition to that historical significance, a replica Dakota Marker is the traveling trophy for the rivalry football game each year between the North Dakota State University Bison and South Dakota State University JackRabbits.  Now, that's a start line with personal meaning, since we have a daughter who is a varsity cheerleader for NDSU and another daughter who was a varsity cheerleader for SDSU.  Dakota Marker Start Line.

Here it is!  Out here!  We found it!  A Dakota Marker!
Time to ride.  It's about 50 degrees, there's a mild breeze from the NorthWest, and nothing but blue sky as we turn pedals shortly after 6:00 am on Table Mountain Road at the North Dakota border.  Our final destination lies over 300 remote road miles to the south at the Nebraska border.  But not today.  Today, we hope to reach Spearfish at about 133 miles, but we'll see what the day brings.

We spin easily over the early miles of gently rolling prairie with exceptionally long sight lines.  The swiftly rising sun reveals a cloudless sky filled with promise.  The only traffic out here is the prolific pronghorn antelope, who gracefully prance away as we sail through their territory.  The light wind always seems to be a bit of a cross wind, no matter our direction.  But it's still cool and the hard packed, lightly graveled roads feel fast and lively.

No limits.  Rolling through the vastness of Harding County on the Black Hills BackBone.
After a brisk paced four hours or so, we turn into the remnants of the town of Harding at about mile 47.  It's late morning, with rapidly rising temperatures and growing winds.  We're getting hot, dry and hungry.  Good time for a break.

Right on cue, there's Corinne and the Support Truck, with ice, cold drinks, food and everything else we need at the ready.  We replenish and restock, grateful for the support.

As we sprawl across the road shoulder, a rancher pulls up towing a trailer full of critters, wondering what's going on.  She lives "just down the road" and is a "next door neighbor" with Gayle Penn, the Harding rancher who saved my day on the first solo attempt of the BackBone in 2015.  A Rancher's Kindness.   Moments later, as we're about to pedal off, here comes Gayle hustling down her driveway, flagging us down.  Called by her neighbor, Gayle rushes out to meet everyone and to hear how we're doing.  Of course, she invites everyone inside, "out of this heat," for cold drinks and snacks.  But with temperatures rising and miles remaining, we reluctantly bid farewell after a delightful chat.  Corinne lingers a bit longer to fill all our water reservoirs with fresh, cool water from Gayle's deep well.  Thanks, Gayle!

Harding rancher Gayle Penn meets and greets the crazy cyclists pedaling through her town.
Gayle is an angel with a heart as big as the land she calls home.  Great to see you again, Gayle!  (photo by Corinne Sorge)
We roll generally south on primo prairie gravel, as the mid-day temperatures rise well into the 90's and the winds build well into the 20's.  Notwithstanding the great roads and gentle grades, we spin every bit of four more hours to cover the next 42 miles to the "true" Geographic Center of the United States at about mile 79.  Now, we're hot, tired and due for a long break, for which Corinne delivers made-to-order Subway sandwiches, chips and ice cold drinks.  Man, it's hot.

That last hot, windy stretch takes its toll on all of us, but especially on Shaun, who has already ridden more miles outside today than he has in total all year.  He plops down in a small patch of shade, assessing his day.  Shaun wants to keep riding, and I know he could ride into the evening and well into the night.  He would make Spearfish, but it would be late.  By this point, Shaun has ridden all the roads unknown to him, knows well the roads ahead and wants to ride as much as he can on Day 2 and on Day 3.  He reluctantly calls it a day.

Shaun is not alone.  Everyone is beat.  We try to refuel and rehydrate, but mostly just want to lay down and cool off.  There's little respite in this treeless expanse.  We sit about eight miles from U.S. Highway 85, where Corinne turns right toward Spearfish and the BackBone route turns left toward Brooker Road.  We ask Corinne to wait for us there.  That would be about 87 miles, which may well be the end of everyone's day.

Geographic Center of the United States about 79 miles into the Black Hills BackBone.
(photo by Corinne Sorge)
Those eight miles drag.  But when arrive at the highway, Rob is feeling better, Dave is feeling OK and we convince ourselves that temperatures will drop soon.  So, Rob and Dave ride off toward Brooker Road.  I stay awhile to talk with Shaun, who is upbeat and positive, despite the disappointment of ending his ride for the day.  Without hesitation, he offers to assume the Support Truck duties to allow Corinne to head to Spearfish to check into the BnB and prepare dinner.  What a awesome teammate.

Rob and Dave by now are well onto Brooker Road, which offers seven and a half miles of chunky gravel over a steady series of small rollers.  Welcome to gravel grinding, boys.  But, for the first time that I've been on that road, we find two tracks to ride in and feel a stout tailwind.  What has always been a real slog transforms into a seven and a half mile cruise.  That was nice.

I finally catch Rob and Dave on Arpan Road, which eventually turns to a short stretch of pavement near Orman Dam.  They're running on fumes.  Rob is overheated.  Dave is dry heaving.  Both manage to keep turning pedals, but stop whenever they find the occasional shade.  We decide to maintain in survival mode for a run to Fruitdale, still about six miles off.

Somehow still turning pedals on Arpan Road over 100 hot miles into the Black Hills BackBone.
Soft pedaling into Fruitdale, we regroup.  I believe that we probably could ride the remaining 20 miles to Spearfish, but it would take several hours on the increasingly hilly and technical roads.  We then would arrive so late that we would miss the evening at the BnB with our Support Team and may even jeopardize the day tomorrow.  So, we call it a day at 113 miles and about 12 hours, including all the pit stops, and call Shaun for a shuttle.

Roasted by the heat and beat up by the winds, we collapse at a quaint BnB in Spearfish Canyon to a feast of Texas brisket cooked up by Corinne and Lori.  My wife Colleen surprises me by joining us from Rapid City for the evening.  It all makes for a relaxing evening with friends.  We're tired, hungry and thirsty, but in good spirits, relieved to cover the exposed northern prairie on a hot summer day.

We'll return in the morning for those twenty miles remaining to ride to Spearfish and deal with the repercussions tomorrow.  Tonight, we rejoice and recover.

A first hint of the Black Hills on the hazy horizon of a hot summer day.
We ride most of the day before seeing this.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Three Days of BackBone (part 2) - Gathering

The Black Hills BackBone.  A cross state bike route on 300+ miles of remote gravel and dirt roads spanning the height of the State of South Dakota along the spine of the Black Hills.  Conceived as a continuous ride, the BackBone readily lends itself to a more manageable multi-day tour.  So, I invite some friends for a three day ride over the Fourth of July weekend.  A few actually bite.  Part 1 - An Idea Takes Shape.

Dave Litzen, me, Rob Sorge and Shaun Arritola at Picnic Spring Campground near the North Dakota border.
Yep, this is how we prepare for the Black Hills BackBone.  (photo by Corinne Sorge)
Several months ago, riding buddy Shaun Arritola was the first to join this little group ride.  He's an experienced endurance athlete and gravel grinder, with finishes at Dirty Kanza, Almanzo Royal and Odin's Revenge and many scouting rides part of forming the BackBone route.  But, with recent life happenings, for many months Shaun hasn't ridden longer than a regular 30 minute spin on a stationary bike.  Nonetheless, he longed for a shot at a three day BackBone, so he dusted off his trusty Specialized Tri-Cross a few weeks ago for a quick spin at the Gold Dust 70 mile gravel grinder.  OK, good to go.  Lounging comfortably around the campfire at Picnic Spring Campground on the eve of the ride, Shaun confidently relaxes knowing that he's not overtrained.  Not by a wee bit.

Shaun sweeping away the cobwebs at the Gold Dust.  (photo by Les Heiserman)
School of Mines roommate Rob Sorge drives in from Texas on Thursday afternoon, full-on Tigger bouncy-trouncy-flouncy-pouncy to check out his new bike, a fun-fun-fun-fun-fun Salsa Vaya adventure road bike.  I stumbled across this bike locally for him several weeks ago and thought it just right for the BackBone.  Without hesitation, Rob blurts out, "Just buy it!"  Now that he's finally in Rapid City, it's New Bike Day.  All giddy goodness.  Rob promptly installs his own saddle, seat post, pedals, water bottle cages and bags and makes a few adjustments.  A 100 meter spin and a big grin later, he pronounces it good.  Time for a pre-ride beer.  Love it.

Rob's wife Corinne volunteers as shuttle driver and support crew, but she's so much more than that.  She becomes the Team Mom, taking care of everyone and all the details of making this work.  Always positive and encouraging, Corinne is a tremendous add to the team.

Rob cranking up the Centennial Trail on Day 1 of our 310 mile DED Dirt Ride in 2014.
The length of the Centennial Trail and the length of the Mickelson Trail, with gravel connectors.
Compared to that ride, the three day Black Hills BackBone will be a breeze, so I tell him.
Rob and Corinne head across town to catch up with Dave and Lori Litzen, two more School of Mines classmates.  Rob cajoled Dave into riding along on the BackBone.  Easy-peasy, he said.  Being a chemical process engineer, Dave dives right into the deep end, researching bikes, equipment, clothing, nutrition, and training.  He eventually picks up a new all carbon gravel uber-rig, a Norco Search, and knocks out a series of increasingly difficult weekend rides, including a sprint up to Mount Rushmore.  Already fit, Dave drops 15 pounds from the heartier cardio workouts.  He's ready.

Dave's wife Lori also joins as shuttle driver and support crew.  She's not so keen on our plan to camp Friday night near the North Dakota border, so she'll meet everyone in Spearfish on Saturday night.  We're just glad to have her spunk and irreverence along.  This party is getting ready to roll.

Dave cruising at the Black Hills Gravel Series finale out of Spearfish.
He's as fast as his bike.  (photo by Lucas Haan)
Early Friday afternoon Shaun's son, Jonas, picks me up in a topless Jeep Renegade for a breezy bop up to Spearfish to meet Shaun.  We transfer gear into Shaun's 3/4 ton toy hauler for the trek to Picnic Spring Campground, a primitive site in Custer Gallatin National Forest near the North Dakota border.  Jonas tags along as our second shuttle driver and, as a current School of Mines student, fits right in with this HardRocker crowd.  Rob, Corinne and Dave pull in shortly thereafter and we set up camp at this little forested oasis surrounded by more than a few million acres of open prairie.

We share a quiet evening around a campfire, talking of all things related to the ride ahead and talking of nothing at all.  Rob zeroes in on tomorrow's ride, refusing to allow any thought of riding anything other than the roads ahead on the exposed northern prairie gravel toward the Black Hills.  That's not a bad approach.  It brings a degree of clarity to our mental preparation.

The weather looks favorable, the roads fast, the bikes ready, the clothes laid out, the maps and cue sheets handy, the food parceled out.  Even breakfast and coffee are ready to go.

Our path lies before us.  We await the dawn.

Super Support Corinne firing up the stove, while Dave and I hover hoping for coffee.
Even if the stove isn't primed, we are.  (photo by Rob Sorge)

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Three Days of BackBone (part 1) - An Idea Takes Shape

The Black Hills BackBone.  A cross state bike route on 300+ miles of remote gravel and dirt roads spanning the height of the State of South Dakota along the spine of the Black Hills.  From the where-are-we start of NoWhere, North Dakota, the Black Hills BackBone plunges into 130+ miles of exposed northern prairie, climbs 120+ miles deep into the heart of the Black Hills, and reluctantly drops into a final 60+ miles of hard scrabble southern prairie to the STOP sign finish at NothingThere, Nebraska.  (The Big Picture)

Out there.  Somewhere on the Black Hills BackBone.
This route is remote.  The first 220+ miles pass through but two towns, one of which offers little more than a convenience store.  There very well may be more miles without cell coverage than with.  Maintained gravel and non-maintained county roads cross the expansive prairie miles, while Forest Service gravel and dirt roads wind through the forested miles within the Black Hills.  This route is out there.

Out there.  Somewhere on the Black Hills BackBone.
I created the BackBone with the intent of riding it as a continuous ride, taking perhaps 30-40 hours to finish.  But it hasn't happened so far.  After running into crazy winds on the first solo attempt, (2015 - A Rancher's Kindness) and a freak ice storm on the second (2016 - A Sudden Turn), I know that it will take more than a little conditioning, preparation, experience and good fortune to successfully cover those 300+ miles as a continuous ride.  I will try again, but just don't know when.

Out there.  Somewhere on the Black Hills BackBone.
So, I take a mental step sideways and consider what the BackBone would look like as a multiple day ride.  Say, Day 1 to Spearfish, about 133 miles from the start, as there is little but prairie until then.  If that's doable, then Day 2 to Custer, about 93 miles with significant elevation gain, sounds about right.  After that two day warm-up, Day 3 to the finish would be a 82 mile victory lap through the buffalo herds.  A three day BackBone, with reasonable daily distances and many options for meals and accommodations at each day's end.  A 3 Day BackBone?  Well, OK.  Maybe.  It sounds more like a tour than a ride, but it could be fun.  OK.  Maybe.  On the back burner.

Out there.  Somewhere on the Black Hills BackBone.
Then last winter, I decide to back off all the long solo rides and reconnect a bit.  I contact some old friends and snare some interest for a run at a three day tour of the Black Hills BackBone route.  OK.  Maybe.  Let's see what shakes out.

Spring rolls along.  A spirited local rider creates a six race gravel series in towns scattered all over the Black Hills, bringing together local riders for a weekly Saturday morning 50 mile joy ride.  A Six Course Feast.  With that warmup, I drive a few hours south for the 75 mile Robidoux Quick & Dirty, a lively second year event through the Wild Cat Hills of the Nebraska panhandle.  Robidoux Quick & Dirty.  Then, I forsake the 110 mile and the 210 mile courses at the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder, opting instead the 70 mile Gold Rush.  A Friendly Little Ride.  All relatively short rides, leaving time and energy afterward.  Seeing old friends and meeting new ones.  It's good.

A three day BackBone is sounding better all the time.  What's it looking like by now?

Out there.  Somewhere on the Black Hills BackBone.
Riding buddy Shaun Arritola is the first to toss his helmet into the ring.  To my long-winded invitation, filled with questions and options, Shaun simply replies, "I'm in!"  Gotta love it.

College roommate Rob Sorge chips in with his typical enthusiasm, but also with his typical trepidation about distances, technical difficulty, elevation gain, weather, bike, gear, etc., etc., etc.  I address his concerns, but know that he is a world class sandbagger.  Rob is an exceptional all-around athlete who completed the 310 mile DED Dirt Ride with Shaun and me three years ago and sports a long list of cycling and non-cycling endurance experiences.  He just needs a suitable bike and he will crush it.

Rob cajoles another college classmate, Dave Litzen, to join the peloton.  Dave is another exceptional all-around athlete who played football at School of Mines and looks like he still could, now 40 years later.  Dave dives right in, researching and purchasing a new gravel uber-rig that he breaks in at the Black Hills Gravel Series.  He'll be ready.

Out there.  Somewhere on the Black Hills BackBone.
As this group forms, it's apparent we won't be bike packing the BackBone.  Instead, the ride morphs into a fully supported tour, with overnights in town on featherbeds.  To haul all our stuff and provide on course support, we even enlist Shaun's son Jonas, Rob's wife Corinne and Dave's wife Lori as shuttle drivers and support crew.

It's all good.  I just want to ride with friends.

So, we do.

Not messing around.  We're doing this.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bikepack Extravaganza 17

Here's a cool concept.  Choose a destination campsite, preferably within a reasonable ride from a couple of population centers.  Commit to bike pack to that campsite on a given day, solo or with friends.  Invite some other like-minded folks to do the same, from wherever they choose to start, along whatever route they choose to take, on whatever type of bike they choose to ride, with whomever they choose to bring along.  Gather together as folks filter in and set up camp.  Hang out around a campfire.  Share coffee and breakfast in the morning.  Eventually ride home.

Fun-loving group at the Bikepack Extravaganza 17!  I'm not there yet.  As usual, I'm still out pedaling somewhere.
Clockwise:  Amelia Meyer, Jay Erickson, Christopher Grady, Robert Cota, Jason Thorman, Pearl Meyer and Jim Meyer.
(photo by Amelia Meyer)
Welcome to the Bikepack Extravaganza 17, the brilliant brainchild of forest fire fighter and cycling enthusiast Robert Cota of Spearfish.  Robert loved hearing stories of bike packing adventures and yearned to give it a go.  Last summer, he enlisted cycling veterans Kristi and Perry Jewett to create a largely single track ride from Spearfish to Black Fox Campground, a Black Hills National Forest primitive campground about eight miles west of the village of Rochford.  Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Robert posted his ride on social media and invited others to create their own rides out to the same campground that night.  The Bikepack Extravaganza was born.

So jazzed about the idea last summer, I mistakenly rode 42 mostly uphill miles to Black Fox a week early.  Then, on the right day, I limped in at about 10:00 pm, after the latest of a string of 12 hour work days and a slow uphill ride skirting thunderstorms.  Both were fun sub-24ers, but the gathering of fellow bike geeks made the Bikepack Extravaganza special.  Here's a link to my two blog posts about those rides last summer.  Black Fox - A Week Early.  A Path to the Light.

It's well into mid-afternoon before I'm finally ready to roll out.
No such drama this year.  Over the course of a couple of nights, I map out a circuitous route primarily on USFS secondary roads and two track trails west from Black Hawk into Nemo, north into unchartered territory and eventually to Black Fox Campground.  All that would likely take a good chunk of the day, with all the route finding, rough "roads" and elevation gain.  I plan to start early for an anticipated 8-10 hour ride, as folks likely will start arriving by about 5:00 pm.

But I let the day slip away.  Nothing big.  Just this.  Then that.  Then another.  Before I knew it, I had no time for that ambitious ride.  How'd that happen?  Maybe I'm not so ambitious after all.

Off dirty gravel and onto gravelly dirt.  Uphill on Bogus Jim Road.
I reconfigure to ride the most direct route with the most gravel.  Leaving home at about 3:00 pm, I simply ride Nemo Road to Norris Peak Road, about 12 miles of primarily uphill pavement into a steady wind.  Light traffic and light rain shepherd me onto good gravel at Bogus Jim Road.  The skies clear and the rain stops, as I turn up North Bogus Jim Road to ride on fresh gravel uphill and upwind.  Just as I crest the final pitch, the rain resumes for the descent to the Sugar Shack on Highway 385. 

Once again, the rain stops when I turn uphill, now onto Rochford Road.  And, once again, after I pop over the final pitch, the rain kicks in for the descent.  By the time the last hill bottoms out, I'm wet and chilled, soft pedaling onto the Mickelson Trail for the final few miles into Rochford.  Time to dry off and warm up over a dinner of chili and fries at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon.  That hits the spot.  Eventually, I bid adieu to Dan at the Moonshine Gulch and tool out of town for a sweet 8 miles of mostly dirt road up Rapid Creek Road to Black Fox Campground.

Onto the Mickelson Trail.  Just because.
By the time I roll in, the party is on.  A boisterous bunch of bicyclists arise to greet me with cheers and high fives.  There's Jason Thorman, the devious mastermind behind the Black Hills Expedition and veteran of a long list of long bike packing races.  Jason rode single track on the Deerfield Trail and then up from Silver City with Robert Cota, the host of the Bikepack Extravaganza, and Jay Erikson, an outdoor enthusiast and recent convert to the whole bike packing thing.  And there's Christopher Grady, fresh off his podium finish at the 110 mile Gold Rush, who rode his gravel rig up from Spearfish.  The first on scene at 5:00 pm, Christopher snapped up the last camp site at this first come/first served, no reservation campground.  That's a gold medal performance.

A little later, Spearfish cyclists Jim, Amelia and Pearl Meyer drive past, looking for a site for some family camping on Father's Day weekend.  They find Black Fox full, but wonder what's with all those cyclists?  Well, in no time, they pull their truck in and join the party.  Now, with a motorized vehicle parked in our spot, we're a little less odd to the casual observer.

A bike packing bike can carry a lot of gear.
Robert Cota and Christopher Grady at Black Fox Campground.
(photo by Jason Thorman)
Sitting around a roaring fire under star-stuffed skies, we talk of rides, bikes and gear well into the night.  There's a great diversity of outdoor and athletic experiences among these bike packers, making for lively and wide ranging conversations.  But no matter the twists and turns, we keep coming back to bikes and our shared passion for exploring the great outdoors under pedal power.

Eventually, we retreat into our sleeping bags on our inflatable pads, tucked into our tents and bivy bags.  With the idyllic setting and the extended effort just to get here, sleep comes easily.

Packing up for the ride home.
Camping next to a mountain stream at elevation is cool, emotionally and physically.  However, the resulting overnight dew coats everything and turns to frost by morning.  We wake to bright sunshine and prepare our various breakfasts.  It's still 30-something degrees, so we pull our gear into the sun to pack up for the ride home.

Jason, Robert and Jay pedal out together by 7:00 am, heading for Silver City on their mountain bikes.  About the same time, Christopher turns his gravel rig north toward Spearfish.  I linger a bit, not all that enthused about this coming to an end.

I eventually turn pedals at about 8:00 am, cruising into the morning sun on Rapid Creek Road toward Rochford.  This is good.  This is really good.  I'll be doing more of this.

New friends are always fun to meet.  Here's Jay Erickson, an outdoors enthusiast and full-on bike packer.
Turns out he was a high school classmate of my wife and grew up right down the street.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017 Gold Dust - A Friendly Little Ride

Nothing quite like cruising the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota on a glorious early summer day with 200 fellow adventure cyclists at the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.  Even better is riding fast enough or, in my case, choosing the shortest race to finish early enough to hang out with the gravel clan at the post-race party.  Great day to be out and about in the Black Hills, especially with friends.

Shaun Arritola and I chewing up the early miles at the 70 mile Gold Dust.
(photo by Randy Ericksen)
Way back in 2013, I rode the inaugural 110 mile Gold Rush on my beloved Torelli cyclocross bike, finishing third (out of three) in the single speed division in my first gravel race.  In 2015, I finished the inaugural 210 mile Mother Lode on my relatively new, and geared, Black Mountain Cycles monster cross bike.  Now, in 2017, I look to the 70 mile Gold Dust for yet another new experience:  sleeping in for a later start, cruising without a care of time cutoffs, and finishing in the warmth of the day to enjoy the post-race party with friends at a park.  What a concept.

Tony Diem starts the Gold Dust in high-wheeling style.
(photo by Race Director Perry Jewett)
Thursday night before the event, I peruse the event website for a refresher on all the happenings, to mentally double check preparations and to stoke the fire a bit more.  I wander over to the registration page to see who I might run into over the weekend.  Sweet.  There are quite a few cycling friends from out of state traveling to Spearfish for the weekend.  This is going to be fun.  Then one name jumps off the page.

Shaun Arritola.  "That dirt bag!" I yell out loud, scattering the household critters.  He entered the Gold Dust at the last possible date and didn't tell me.  "Dirt bag!"  But now, I'm grinning ear to ear.  Shaun and I started our gravel road journeys back in 2013 at the Gold Rush and have ridden together many miles and events since, including Dirty Kanza, Almanzo Royal and Odin's Revenge.  But not in awhile.  Shaun has been working full time, caring for his father, and building a house, barn and other structures on a recently acquired acreage in the foothills.  So, he's been busy with real life for awhile.  But now, it looks like he found some time for a little bike ride.

Big rollers on the early miles shared by the Gold Dust, Gold Rush and Mother Lode courses,
before turning up, up, up into the Northern Black Hills.  (photo by Les Heiserman)
We catch up Friday evening at the race packet pickup in Spearfish.  Updating the progress on his various projects, Shaun exudes optimism that things will lighten up soon.  I smile and nod.  It sounds like the same song he's been singing for many, many months.  On the other hand, this time he did manage to take an entire Saturday off for the Gold Dust.  Maybe he will be coming back to the bike.  He is here now.

No question he's fit.  Shaun keeps active and works out daily at a gym, including a regular 30 minute or so bike ride on a stationary bike.  However, more than a few months have passed since he rode any longer than that, let alone longer outside.  The Gold Rush is his challenge, and test, of his ability to adapt his overall conditioning to a long bike ride and to reawaken his cycling spirit.  70+ miles and 4,500+ feet of elevation gain on remote gravel roads should do both.

Shaun bridging the gap up Sand Creek Road into the Black Hills at the Gold Rush.
Saturday morning bursts bright and early, with mild temperatures, clear skies and light winds.  It looks to be a great day for a bike ride in the Black Hills.  Arriving a little early for the 110 mile Gold Rush start, I re-connect with some friends and meet some new ones.  Nice.

Before long, Race Director Perry Jewett calls for the 7:00 Gold Dust start.  The scene at the start of  the "short" race reminds me of the overall gravel scene just four years ago.  All kinds of bikes:  rigid, hardtail and full suspension mountain bikes, hybrids, cyclocross bikes, fatties, and some that defy characterization.  All kinds of riders:  from those capable of riding these 70 miles in less than 4 hours to those out there to find out what they are capable of.  And all kinds of positive vibe:  light, lively, festive.  Folks just excited to see what's out there.

Steep little pitch up to the Potato Station by the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower.
(photo by Les Heiserman)
Shaun knows these roads well, having ridden the Gold Rush twice before and having lived, worked and ridden out of Spearfish for years.  He knows that the real ride of the Gold Dust is the first 45 miles, with its almost 4,500 feet of elevation gain, that top out at the Potato Station on Cement Ridge.  From there, it really is almost all down hill to the finish.

So, we spin out of Spearfish at a comfortable pace, intent to roll up to that feast at the Potato Station.  We settle into a familiar rhythm of a long ride.  The road surface is hard packed dirt with gravel sprinkles and navigation is straight forward.  We cruise through some prairie rollers and head for the Hills.  Even with all the climbing up Sand Creek Road and Grand Canyon Road, the first four hours soon pass as we head up Rattlesnake Canyon Road for the final five miles or so to the top.

Mission Accomplished.  Gold Dust mile 45 at the Potato Station on Cement Ridge.  All (most) downhill from here.
(photo by Race Director Perry Jewett)
Shaun learns that, at his current level of cycling conditioning, four hours of steady climbing is really fun.  After that, it becomes more challenging, as signs of cramps creep in.  But Shaun recognizes the symptoms and nurses himself through the remaining miles and elevation to ride into the Potato Station.  Objective met.  We take a long, celebratory break over a few too many potatos and chips.

Fellow Gold Dust riders trickle in, relieved to complete the steep, final pitch to the top.  What a fun stop with energetic volunteers offering snacks, drinks and squirt gun cool-offs.  It's downright relaxing.  As I remove my helmet to enjoy the light breeze, a young volunteer gasps, "OOOH, do you need some sunscreen for that forehead?"  I thank her, but decline.  She persists, "I really think you need some sunscreen."  OK.  "No thank you, ma'am.  I plan to outrun the sun."  She looks confused, but several older cyclists smile.

Potato Station looking west from Cement Ridge at the Gold Dust and Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.
(photo by Les Heiserman)
As we soak in the scene and scenery, Gold Rush racers also fly into the Potato Station for their required check-in. These cyclists are clearly racing, which makes for a focused pit stop and a quick departure down the hill.  Friendly faces and grateful thanks, but with a determination to complete a necessary task and move on.  What a contrast.  I have enjoyed racing like that and I have enjoyed riding like today.  Right now, I'm happy right where I am.

Following a steep, rock drop, Shaun negotiates a sharp turn through standing water.
Short and infrequent technical bit, just enough to pay attention.  (photo by Les Heiserman)
Eventually, we point our rigs downhill for the 25 mile descent to the finish at Spearfish City Park.  Thankfully, someone finally patched up the 482,793 pot holes that occupied Roughneck Falls Road the last time I bounced my way through there.  Now, it's just the normal tourist motor and pedestrian traffic on that popular destination.  We wind our way to Savoy and onto Spearfish Canyon, a paved 14 mile scenic decline to the turnoff into Spearfish City Park.  Nice ride.

Shaun successfully completes his challenge with experience, judgment, toughness, determination and optimism.   He cheerfully pedals over 70 miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain, with essentially no ride over the past many months that is longer than a regular 30 minute spin on a stationary bike.  A nice reminder that we are all capable of more than we may think.  And a nice reminder of reasons why we love to ride events like this.

Ironic that I won a Dirt Bag bike packing bag at the awards ceremony.
(photo by Race Director Perry Jewett)
We make a Clark Kent change of clothes and hit the post-race party with gusto.  A catered meal, drinks, local micro brew, live music, small expo.  We hang out with the gravel clan, as riders trickle in from all three courses.  Folks from twenty states and Canada mingle with family and friends, sharing stories of the day, of days past, and of days to come.  I enjoy hearing of events and rides far away and day dream of somehow making it to some of them, someday.  But today is the day for relishing the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder in the Black Hills of South Dakota, our backyard.  What a day.

My thoughts are abruptly interrupted by the sound of my name over the PA.  What's that?  I meander up to the stage, not for a podium placing, but for a raffle prize.  It's a bike packing frame bag made by a nearby Wyoming outfit called "DirtBags."  How cool is that?  A high quality, locally made cycling product that I will definitely enjoy.  And every time I see that DirtBag logo I will think of my friend Shaun, "that dirtbag" who surprised me with our ride together at the Gold Dust.

Thank you, Shaun.  Welcome back.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

2017 Robidoux Quick & Dirty

Robidoux Quick & Dirty is a second year gravel road race rolling up 4,000 feet of elevation gain over 75 miles through the Wild Cat Hills of the Nebraska panhandle.  Created by the Western Nebraska Bicycling Club, this event showcases the pioneer history of the area by following part of the Oregon Trail over old Robidoux Pass and Mitchell Pass in Scottsbluff National Monument.  Nice event.  Good folks.

All the roads were saturated from days of spring rains that reluctantly relented just before the start.
Some pave, a lot of gravel, some dirt, here some sand.  It all stuck to everything.
Driving south from Rapid City on a late Friday afternoon, I watch as the skies grow increasingly heavy, the winds pick up momentum and the temperatures drop.  Cautious glances away from the paved highway onto the occasional abutting gravel roads bring a foreboding sense of reality.  As I drive further south, the gravel roads are getting wetter and wetter.  And there's more and more water standing on the roads, in the ditches, and in the fields.  Hmm.  It starts to rain.  It rains harder.

Socked-in steady rain greets me as I pull into the pre-race festivities at Five Rocks Pavillion, a nice outdoors amphitheater in Gering, Nebraska.  Unfortunately, a week of windy, cold rain petulantly persists past its forecasted finish, and well past its welcome.  The announced field of 105 registered racers winnows down to something less than half that at the pre-race.  As racers huddle around a shelter, Race Director Matt Hutt announces that a 20 mile chunk of the course is actually underwater and the rest is soggy, sloppy gunk of gravel, mud and/or sand.  The solution?  Detour around the parts underwater and slog through the rest.  Well, all righty then.  The group soon disperses.

I meet the effervescent Matt Hutt, sign in, devour a stone-fired pizza, study the modified course map, and consider a game plan.  Not much to analyze, really.  Unless this weather improves quickly and significantly, this race looks to be an all day slog in 35 degree windy rain.  So, just stay warm and dry until the start, decide then the quantity and quality of layers to pile on, and head out to take on the day as it comes.  Not much more to it.

Waking up to 37 degree drizzle and steady winds.  At least the hard rain stopped during the night.
Pitching a tent in the dark windy rain at 35 degrees challenges my objective of staying warm and dry until the start.  However, all turns toasty once tucked inside.  Of course, it rains all night and into the morning, before settling down to a dreary drizzle by about 8:00 am.  I dress like I was riding the Iditarod.

"Hey! Craig!" shouts a familiar voice at the chilly start.  It's the one-and-only Jeff Caldwell of Team White Tail Racing
out of North Platte, here with compatriot Luke Meduna to take on the Robidoux on a fattie.  Great to see you guys! 
Racers filter back to Five Rocks.  The later they arrive, the less layers they are wearing.  I skeptically drop a layer, then two.  By the 9:00 am start, the rain stops and a north west wind picks up, driving temperatures into the 40's.  Matt Hutt warns racers that the first 20 miles plows through soggy bottom land with soupy soft gravel and a few stretches of deep mud.  But the skies tease with a few, small patches of blue and the winds hint of drier roads soon.  A cautious optimism fills the air as the primed peloton streams into the rolling prairie.

Starting out on good gravel.  Just more than a little saturated.  Like those clouds.
But wait.  There's some blue.  I think.

We pedal south and east on well developed, relatively flat gravel roads that, if dry, would be very
fast.  But dry they are not.  Even on 40 mm Schwalbe G-One tires, I ride seemingly rim deep in gooey gunk for much of the first 20 miles.  At least one race ends with a broken derailleur in a particularly nasty mud pit.  It's that kind of day.

No one is in any danger of getting lost.  The few turns are well marked and staffed with volunteers cheering and clanging cow bells.  The interaction is fun and lively, but eliminates what little navigation skills the course may otherwise require.

Turning uphill and upwind into the Wild Cat Hills on firmer gravel, turning to sand.
Emerging from that initial 20 mile slugfest, we turn west and north onto firmer gravel up and into the Wild Cat Hills. These "hills" are bluffs that remain after an ancient inland sea receded.  Wind and water since have eroded these bluffs, further exposing layers and layers of underlying rock and sand.  Much of the 4,000 feet of elevation gain lies here, which now happens to be directly into the growing wind.  The slow climbs allow for a greater appreciation of the unique scenery.

Imagining life as a trading post entrepreneur in these hills in the 1840's.
The course winds gradually uphill on good gravel into pine covered hills up old Robidoux Pass, which runs by the site of a trading post established in about 1840 by Antoine Robidoux.  Yeah, that's not a typo.  1840.  Well before the Civil War.  That life had to be filled with adventure.  After a short, steep pitch, the course detours around the underwater section by turning onto Rifle Sight Pass Road.  This detour was the best part of the ride for me.  Big, sweeping views, long sight lines, firm sandy roads and a sense of remoteness.  Ahhhh.  Breathe deep the air of freedom.

The sand holds a week's worth of rain, but is firm enough so it feels like flying.
This hill generated a speed of 40 mph for this back-of-the-packer.
After a long, glorious descent onto the prairie below, the course rolls along again, with volunteers once again cheering and clanging cow bells at most every intersection.  The gravel remains soft, but rideable and with less standing water, before spilling onto pavement for a short pitch up Mitchell Pass in Scottsbluff National Monument.  Now, it's just a spin through the Gering Cemetery to the finish.

Yep, that's pavement over Mitchell Pass in Scotts Bluff National Monument.
And, yep, that Black Mountain Monster Cross bike is all blue underneath that fresh coating of gunk.
There's Matt Hutt at the finish line, giving high fives to the finishers.  He's a muddy mess, too, since he rode the entire course with everyone else.  Volunteers cheer and clang cow bells.  Music rocks the park.  The aroma of fresh burritos fills the air.  It's much more of a party, now that the wind swept away most of the heavy clouds and drove temperatures into the 60's.

Crossing the finish to a high five by Race Director Matt Hutt, who unfortunately is just out of the picture.
At the finish, my computer read just over 61 miles, with 6 hours and 7 minutes moving time.  For what it's worth, my official finish time was 6 hours 17 minutes, putting me in 23rd place out of 30 finishers.  I don't know how many of the 50 some folks at the Friday pre-race actually rode on Saturday.  But I do know that yet another 50 or so that pre-registered chose not to ride and missed a good one.

Here's Race Director Matt Hutt, showing some mud, but little other effects, from riding the entire course with everyone.
Nice work, Matt!
All told, the Robidoux Quick & Dirty turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant day on the bike, exploring unique country with history and scenery.  With well developed gravel roads, minimal navigation, relatively short distances and on course support, this event should attract a lot of interest from anyone wanting to check out the gravel scene.

Matt Hutt and crew created a fine event and overcame the challenging conditions with good cheer and good judgment.  Well done.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Six Course Feast

A young chef prepares a six course gravel series, worthy of a feast.

Local engineer and beer meister Lucas Haan created a sensory masterpiece with the Black Hills Gravel Series.  Six consecutive Saturdays.  Six different starts.  Six different routes.  Up, down and all around the Black Hills over unique, back country remote roads and near-roads.  Six different restaurants at the finish.  A real treat.

Break that down a little.  Essentially one guy concocted six distinct courses, out of six different towns, for races on six consecutive weekends, drawing simply from a passion for cycling remote roads and sharing the experience with others.  He starts with a good eye for reading maps, scouts possibilities by vehicle and by bike, seeks input from others, and pieces together a creative looped long course of about 50 miles, with a shorter looped course of about 25 miles nestled therein.  He then prepares a GPS file and prints detailed cue sheets and maps.  Each week.  For six weeks.  That's commitment.  That's service.

The crazy thing is that each course was exceptional standing on its own.  That's something special.  Thank you, Lucas.

Lucas Haan setting up shop at the Crow Peak Brewery in Spearfish for the Black Hills Gravel Series #6.

This is grass roots gravel at its core.  No entry fee.  No pre-registration.  No aid stations.  No course markings.  No course marshals.  No on course support of any kind.  No t-shirt.  No schwag bag.  Just a cue sheet or a GPS file of that week's course.  All you need to do is get out there, sign a waiver and enjoy the adventure Lucas scoped out.  Each Saturday.  For six Saturdays.  Remarkable.

Folks flocked from all over to Sturgis, to Custer, to Rochford, to Lead, to Hill City and to Spearfish, anxious to see what Lucas created that week.  Look at a map.  That's a whole lot of Black Hills.  Half the riders came from Spearfish.  A quarter of the riders were women.  All came back with smiles and stories.

Here's a snapshot of each race in the Black Hills Gravel Series. The first and final courses ventured out into the wide open spaces on rolling prairie gravel roads through wind swept ranch land.  Sandwiched between those prairie gravel rides sat the meat of the series - four weeks of "forest gravel."  Just the right mix of fast gravel roads, lumpy dirt roads, and rocky two track.  Most all up or down, both steep and gradual, long and short, rough stuff to silky smooth.  Each course offered a unique mix of all of the above, and more, with unbeatable scenery.  Nice work, Lucas.

Black Hills Gravel Series #1 (Sturgis)

Turning back toward Bear Butte steaming for the finish.  Little did I know the steeps ahead lying in wait.
 Black Hills Gravel Series #1 (Sturgis)
The initial course spun East and North out of the motorcycle mecca of Sturgis onto the shoulders of Bear Butte with big views of the Black Hills.  This quick spin on fast gravel, in 70 degree temperatures and bright sunshine, kicked off the series with a flourish.  And just when you thought you're cruising to the finish, Cracker Jack Road and Avalanche Road delivered gut busting steeps right at the end, forewarning of the climbs, and little surprises, ahead in the coming weeks.

Black Hills Gravel Series #2 (Custer)

The natural cobblestones on the mile and a half climb up Cicero Peak.
Black Hills Gravel Series #2 (Custer)
The second course dove directly into the Black Hills out of the gold rush town of Custer and set the tone for the rest of the series.  About 50 miles.  About 5,000 feet of elevation gain.  At least that's what I rode after missing a turn.  Some fast gravel. Some good dirt.  A whole lot of up and down everywhere you turned.  Like the steep pitches right at the end of the Sturgis course, Lucas did not hesitate to add an unexpected wrinkle.  Here it was a mile and a half spur straight up a brutal rock-infested pitch to the summit of Cicero Peak for a stunning view.  I think I rode slower down that beast than up.  That was a ride.

Black Hills Gravel Series #3 (Rochford)

Another spur climb in the middle of a gravel race, here atop Flag Mountain overlooking Gillette Prairie.
Black Hills Gravel Series #3 (Rochford)
The 50 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain of the third course out of Rochford cranked up an 11+ mile climb along Castle Creek on a narrow two track logging "road," with water-filled pot holes, ruts, rocks and timber to negotiate.  Cool climb, but would really be a bear if much wetter.  A mile spur climb up Flag Mountain rewarded riders with a 360 view of the central Black Hills.  And that 5 mile stretch of Black Fox Camp road is one of my favorite rough roads anywhere.  Barely a road, following a beaver-inhabited mountain stream framed with cliffs.  Worth the ride by itself.

Black Hills Gravel Series #4 (Lead)

Spring time in the Black Hills.  Everything turning green and the streams are full.
Black Hills Gravel Series #4 (Lead)
The fourth course out of the mining town of Lead cheerfully kept the theme of 50 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain up and down all sorts of roads and near-roads, but with a start temperature of 27 degrees.  Yes, that's Fahrenheit.  The snow storms a couple of days before the race created everything from hero gravel, to water-filled pot holes, to greasy slides, to Almanzo-esque creeks to ford and even streams flowing down rock strewn two tracks.  All rideable. All added to the Northern Black Hills gravel experience.

Black Hills Gravel Series #5 (Hill City)

No shortage of exposed rock in the Black Hills.  We'll go around this one.
Black Hills Gravel Series #5 (Hill City)
Week 5.  Hill City.  How about another 50 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain?  Although there were a couple of short drops, the first 27 miles of the fourth course basically went up, with long rollers after that.  China Gulch, Horse Creek, McVey, Newton Fork, Bloody Gulch, Burnt Fork.  That's a rough bunch spitting out a whole lot of rocky dirt.  The only real gravel lurked on the corners of the steep downhills.  I'm sure Lucas planned that.  Tough course.

Black Hills Gravel Series #6 (Spearfish)

Heading home from Wyoming on some welcomed downhill in the heat of the day.
Black Hills Gravel Series #6 (Spearfish).
The final course spun out of Spearfish north and west back onto prairie gravel into the windy wilds of Wyoming.  No crazy two track here.  Just fast prairie gravel through rolling hills totaling 3,500 feet of elevation gain.  Great weather, almost summer heat.  Great turn out.  Fun finish to the series.

Those six weeks ended too soon.  Here's to Lucas Haan for creating a memorable gravel series.  Here's to hoping he will do this again next year.  If he does create something next year, I'll be at the start, and hopefully at the finish.