Monday, June 24, 2019

Time to Ride

It's been such a long time, I think I should be goin', yeah.
And time doesn't wait for me, it keeps on rollin'.
Donald T. Scholz, Boston, Long Time (1976).


A relentless winter grudgingly surrenders to a dank, dreary spring, sequestering for months all but the most enthusiastic cyclist. Piling on, cynics smirk that the summer solstice marks the beginning of shorter days, as if the best of summer has already passed.

Don't buy it. Brighter days lie ahead.

Now is the time to ride. With a friend. In a group. With family. Solo. Before work. After work. On a day off. At an event. At a race. Just ride. It's fun and will stoke the fire for the next one.

The gatherings add up to relationships. The experiences add up to a lifestyle. It's always worth it.

Brad Kurtz and grandson Ayden Kurtz enjoying the day riding the 2019 Black Hills Gravel Series #1 - Spearfish.

Now is also the best time to help others discover the magic of riding remote gravel and dirt roads, away from the distracted drivers on pavement. Invite someone new to your next ride. It usually doesn't take much of a ride for a newcomer to start asking for other good places to ride.

Outside major urban centers, lightly traveled back roads exist most everywhere. Here in Western South Dakota, the Black Hills National Forest offers a treasure trove of remote gravel and dirt roads for the adventurous cyclist. With an embarrassment of riches, choosing where to ride can be confusing. Where does one start?

The best source of ride information is the gravel family itself, a friendly and welcoming lot. Ask around. Search social media. Enthusiasts love to share their enthusiasm and many document their rides digitally. In Spearfish, Rushmore Bikes has posted social media notices of its Wednesday night gravel rides for some time. Cyclists regularly post rides and events in FaceBook groups like Black Hills Drop Bar Dirt, Gravel & Cyclocross Riders. Even national websites like ridinggravel.com post local events on their calendars.

Out here, another great ride resource that continues to build is the Black Hills Gravel Series, which are great routes almost anytime of year. I've ridden some of the Spearfish and Sturgis routes in the dead of winter. Since 2017, Lucas Haan has published gpx files and/or cue sheets for something like 8 different routes of about 10 miles, 14 different routes of about 25 miles and 13 different routes of about 50 miles. As far as I know, those routes are still out there.

Of course, part of the allure of riding remote roads is experiencing new country that interests you. What better way to explore than to create your own route? Better yet, brainstorm routes with a riding buddy over a coffee or brew.

Well, how do you do that? Most start digitally. Not surprisingly, I almost always start analog. That is, I pull out a hard copy U.S. Forest Service map of the Black Hills National Forest or the voluminous South Dakota State Atlas published by the South Dakota State Department of Transportation, which shows all public roads by county. I follow roads and near-roads, looking for interesting ridge lines, creeks, drainages, peaks, areas of former wildfires, small towns, abandoned towns, historical sites, or just anything different. Maybe I'll look for a spot on the map where I haven't ridden, just to find a way to get there. Maybe I'll look for an obscure connector between two better known roads. Maybe I'll just look. Then, when it comes time to ride, I simply piece together some of those roads to make a route of the desired distance and difficulty. Of course, I'll make a hard copy and bring it along.

Whether a route is digital, analog or by the seat of your shorts, it's all just pedaling a bicycle.

Time to ride.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Every Rider Has A Story - 2019 Gold Rush

Listen to any cyclist at the 2019 Gold Rush Gravel Grinder and you'll hear a compelling story. On that day, 300 some cyclists willingly rode from the comforts of the tourist town of Spearfish on messy gravel roads into the cold, wet, and wind of a nasty spring squall in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota. Whether striving to ride the 70 mile Gold Dust, the 110 mile Gold Rush or the 210 mile Mother Lode, all pedaled into that weather, on to those roads and up those Hills. Their reasons were their own, but they shared a kindred spirit.

To see what's out there. To see what's within. To face the day as it unfolds.

Since the race, I've started to hear some of the stories of other riders. Everyone endured an endless winter that curtailed planned training. Everyone overcame obstacles just to get to the start line and then to actually start riding this thing. Everyone was cold and wet. Everyone had mud everywhere. Everyone suffered out there in those conditions. Everyone has a story to tell.

Irrepressible Robert Cota cheering on all the riders spinning up some early rollers on Homestake Road west of Spearfish.
I second that emotion. (photo by Randy Ericksen)

In a day of stories to be told for years to come, however, the most compelling story I know is the ride of Lucas Haan. 

As most cyclists around the Black Hills know, Lucas is a free-thinking engineer/beermeister who infuses boundless energy, enthusiasm and creativity into hosting the Black Hills Gravel Series, as well as spearheading a variety of other community-based cycling endeavors. He's a force of nature making our cycling community better for everyone and seems to know by name everyone in the Black Hills who has ever pedaled a bicycle.

Lucas also is a talented cyclist who registered for the Mother Lode, despite being a novice to endurance racing. Analyzing like a School of Mines engineer, Lucas obsessed over the details of the course, learned hydration and nutrition, tweaked his new Black Mountain Cycles MCD, and planned a full slate of training rides leading to the June 8th race. Like everyone else, however, weather, work and family commitments conspired to truncate the number and length of those rides. Race day crept closer.

Now, cyclists are notorious sandbaggers about their claimed lack of training, but I seriously doubt another registrant for the 210 mile Mother Lode could say this. Shortly before the race, Lucas had not yet completed a 100 mile bicycle ride. Not this year. Not last year. Not the year before. Not ever.

That's nuts. Who does that? Who signs up for a race like the Mother Lode right out of the endurance racing blocks?

Just two weeks before the race, Lucas finally recorded his first century: a paved road hammerfest with some local fast guys. Lucas avowed that they took a few long breaks and that he was a little tired, but otherwise felt good to go for the Mother Lode. That's not exactly a conventional training plan, but it certainly revealed some latent abilities.

Lucas Haan on the wheel of Christopher Grady in the early miles of the 2019 Mother Lode.
(photo by Randy Ericksen)

On race day, Lucas steamed onto the gravel with the lead group and steadily powered up the 70 miles to O'Neil Pass in under 6 hours. That's a strong start for anyone. Although his Scandihoovian motor burns very hot, even Lucas was a bit chilled at TrailsHead Lodge in his lightweight wind jacket. Seeking solutions, he ate some grub and bought several chemical foot warmers, before dropping into the Central Hills for that big 100 mile loop that eventually climbs back to TrailsHead Lodge.

Lucas insisted that the sun came out for some of that loop, but I think that was just his disposition working to convince his hands and feet that it really was getting warmer. In any event, after dark the temperatures plummeted into the low 30's for his final climb back up O'Neil Pass. Some racers saw snow. At TrailsHead Lodge, Lucas saw newspaper as insulation and created a makeshift puffy jacket for the frosty descent in Spearfish Canyon. The rookie goes old school.

Lucas cruised into Spearfish shortly before midnight to become a Mother Lode finisher on a brutal day. And his time of 18:49:49 earned third place in the Under-39 age group.

Amazing. Simply amazing.

Congratulations, Lucas. I can't wait to see what's ahead for you.


Lucas Haan celebrating his finish of the 2019 Mother Lode.

Here is a sampling of Randy Ericksen photographs of other cyclists out there braving the elements in the 2019 Gold Dust, Gold Rush and Mother Lode gravel races. Each has a story to tell.

Wet, wind and cold, right from the start of gravel on the Mother Lode.
Lead dog Nate Keck avoids the spray of wet gravel on the early miles of the Gold Rush.

Homestake Road rollers introduce Gold Dust riders to wet gravel.

Zach Stone taming his bucking bronco on the Gold Dust.

On the Gold Dust, Erik Lindquist suppresses his ever-present smile for the mud-covered, gravel grinder look.

This spring's latest look - mud splattered white.

On the Gold Dust, Casey Bergstrom flies off Cement Ridge in search of more mud.

Climbing into the clouds toward O'Neil Pass. I'm shivering just looking at that damp cold.
This photograph captures the day. 

Finally, here's a link to Randy Ericksen's album for more pictures from that day. 2019 Gold Rush Photos by Randy Ericksen.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Arrogance at the Mother Lode

Our mission was called a "successful failure" in that we returned safely but never made it to the moon.  Commander Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 (1993).

Last weekend I started the 210 mile Mother Lode, bailed at the top of O'Neil Pass, and endured the route back to Spearfish. So, essentially I rode the 110 mile Gold Rush in difficult conditions, but it doesn't feel like a successful anything. This race will fester until I learn something meaningful to apply long term.

Grossly under clothed for the conditions, here just a few miles from the start of a 210 mile race.
(photo by Randy Ericksen)
One could argue that my first mistake was registering for the 210 mile Mother Lode in the first place. However, I enjoy this course running through the Black Hills back country that I regularly ride. I also love to hang out with the people drawn to this event and to support our local folks putting it on. And I completed this race in 2015 with much tougher time limits, as well as the 110 mile Gold Rush on a single speed in 2013 and 2018. This event is right in my wheel house.

Maybe registering single speed for the Mother Lode was a reach, but I think not. I've ridden a lot of single speed over the past 20+ years and, more significantly, all my miles for the last eight months have been single speed, whether pave, gravel, dirt or commute. I think switching to gears shortly before the Mother Lode actually would have been harder.

I wish I could use the excuse of inexperience of riding in bad weather. No sale. Along with a long history of rides, events and races in questionable conditions, I have commuted by bike to work almost every day, year around, for the past 11 years in Rapid City, South Dakota. I have the gear, experience and temperament for riding through much worse than what hit the Mother Lode.

So, what happened?

Arrogance.

Before the Mother Lode, I grabbed my bottomless bottle of optimism, filled up a mighty mug of arrogance and chugged it. The weather didn't seem that bad at the start in town and the forecast looked to improve. I didn't want to carry a bunch of seemingly unnecessary, heavy, bulky cold weather gear all day and into the night. I've ridden harder events in worse conditions. Confidence slid into hubris. I started very light on clothing, basically a summer kit and light jacket, and brought embarrassingly little else along. Horrible decision. It cost me the race.

In my Jeep, I left behind practically a warehouse of cold, wet weather clothing: waterproof shoe covers, waterproof socks, waterproof insulated gloves, waterproof over mitts, tights, thermal tights, rain pants, long sleeve wool jersey, long sleeve thermal jersey, thermal jacket, balaclava, and even a helmet cover. If I had my 45NRTH Wolvhammer boots along, I could have ridden through a blizzard with all that gear.

I can't believe this list as I write it. Why did I leave any of that behind? What was I thinking? Inexplicable. Simply inexplicable.

I'm left with arrogance. Simply believing I know everything and can do anything. It made for a miserable, borderline dangerous day on the bike and a bitter disappointment.

Added a light weight rain jacket shortly after the first picture, but that was all I had to add.

So, here's a little play-by-play. By the time we hit gravel at the 5 mile mark, I'm already wet and chilled. Some prairie rollers exposed to drizzle and Wyoming winds then turn chilled to stone cold. The gradual, more protected climb up Sand Creek Road stabilizes body temperatures for awhile, but the occasional exposure to those Wyoming winds steals hard earned heat. With numb hands and feet, I pull into the 36 mile aid station at just over 3 hours, about the same as last year.

Ahead stands a short, steeper pitch on Moskee Road and some exposed rollers, but I know the long, gradual, protected climb up Grand Canyon Road follows. So, I hunker down with the objective of somehow making Grand Canyon Road and then warming up during the 20+ mile steady climb to O'Neil Pass. It looks to be about 6 1/2 hours to the top, comfortably within the 7 3/4 hour limit.

Nice plan. Made it to Grand Canyon Road. Made it up O'Neil Pass. About 7 hours. Never warmed up. Not even a little. Despite climbing steadily for 2 hours, primarily downwind or out of the wind, I only get more wet and more cold. A deep, penetrating wetness from a soaking drizzle, compounded by low temperatures, occasional wind, and grossly inadequate clothing. Spinning the final rollers near the top, I can barely hold the bike steady and barely operate the brakes.

At the 70 mile checkpoint at TrailsHead Lodge, the sun finally pokes through the heavy blanket of clouds. At first, I am elated, hoping that perhaps I could dry a little, or at least warm up. But that brief burst of sunshine brings the opposite result. I realize that, right here, right now, is likely the best weather I'll see for the rest of the race. And right now, I am still shivering and shaky.

From O'Neil Pass, the Mother Lode turns south for a 100 mile loop into the Central Black Hills that winds back to TrailsHead Lodge for the final checkpoint and then drops about 40 miles down to the Spearfish finish. That 100 mile loop showcases some gorgeous back country on fast, forest gravel roads that are not particularly difficult. However, there is virtually no development and often no cell phone coverage. That's not a hundred miles to ride solo when shivering hinders you from operating a bicycle.

After a raucous internal debate with wild emotional swings, I eventually decide to cut short the Mother Lode. At such a time, I am grateful for the unexpected company of a friend, Matt Bergen, an Odin's Revenge race director there to support his son Lane. Thanks, Matt. That helped a lot.

With my race over, I enjoy a sloppy joe sandwich prepared by the good folks at the TrailsHead Lodge and start to ride the route back to Spearfish. That long, cold descent confirms my decision. On the final 14 mile, steady descent on paved Spearfish Canyon Road, I actually stop three times to walk to warm my feet enough to feel cold. The last walk takes over a half mile for that to happen.

Eventually, I plop into my Jeep still stuffed with all that gear staring at me. Just sitting there, staring at me. I hear them mock, "How was your race? Did you have fun? Can I go along next time?"

I start the engine, crank the heat and strip off wet clothes. Shivering eventually gives way to shaking my head.

Questions, no answers. Disappointment, no solace. Anger, no outlet.

Eventually, on the drive back to Rapid City, I process the experience enough to realize that my own arrogance doomed this race before the start. That's something I can work on.