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Sunday, August 23, 2020

2020 Gravel Worlds (DED BackBone Edition)

So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit
One more time.
Take It To The Limit, Glen Frey/Don Henley/Randy Meisner (1975) 

Celebrating the finish with Recoverite in a 2013 Gravel Worlds bottle.

The Pirate Cycling League nurtures an inclusive, grass roots vibe in all that they do. And they have been doing it as long as anyone. Under the sage guidance of Captains Craig "Schmidty" Schmidt and Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey, the Pirates ensure that cyclists of all levels are welcomed and valued at their gravel events, even as their signature race, Gravel Worlds, explodes in popularity and influence. They are a treasure.

This year, the Pirates cancelled Gravel Worlds, due to COVID-19 virus concerns. Although the annual gravel family reunion would not happen in person, the Pirates announced a virtual one. Cyclists could sign up for a Gravel World distance, choose their own course, ride on their own schedule, submit documentation, and be eligible for prize drawings. For this, the Pirates asked no tribute for themselves, but rather a nominal direct contribution to a local charity. 2020 Gravel Worlds

Who ever heard of a Pirate giving back to the community? These do.

Rolling out of Buffalo Gap on fresh gravel to a wildfire sunrise.

The Pirates' gesture merits support. So, I commit to take on a 150 mile Gravel Worlds ride in my backyard and share it with the gravel community. But what route? There are so many great options in the Black Hills.

Ash Road. The route must include Ash Road.

Back in early 2015, I announced the Black Hills BackBone route, a 310 mile cross-state gravel route spanning the height of the State of South Dakota along the spine of the Black Hills. Black Hills BackBone. When designing the route, I felt compelled to include the 3 miles of Ash Road, near the small town of Oral out on the prairie south and east of Wind Cave National Park. Here's what I wrote back then:

"One exception is Ash Road, a 3 mile roller coaster of short, steep hills, a rare-for-these-parts center pivot irrigation system and a hint of a gravel grid system, all reminiscent of Gravel Worlds. Gotta pay tribute to the Pirates." Black Hills BackBone - Final Cut.

Ash Road early on the Black Hills BackBone segment.

With Ash Road a given, I realize that a great 150 mile prairie gravel route may be possible simply by connecting parts of three different routes I created over the years. Start in Buffalo Gap and ride the Black Hills BackBone route to the border at NothingThere, Nebraska. Black Hills BackBone. From there, turn west on the Black Hills DoubleBackBone route and ride to the railroad town of Edgemont. DoubleBackBone. Then ride from Edgemont back to Buffalo Gap along the DED Dirt Ride route. DED Dirt Ride.

The Black Hills BackBone + the Black Hills DoubleBackBone + the DED Dirt Ride. Mapped out digitally on, it adds up to 150.0 miles with 7,336 feet of elevation gain.

Wow. Perfect.

The DED BackBone Edition of 2020 Gravel Worlds.

All smiles at mile 47 on the Nebraska border,
 which is the end of Black Hills BackBone and the start of the DoubleBackBone.

Early Saturday on what would have been the actual Gravel Worlds, I roll out of Buffalo Gap to a red sunrise muted by the smoke of massive wildfires in Colorado. Relatively low winds and temperatures bring me to the town of Oelrichs at Mile 27 for a gas station breakfast burrito and Coke. Surprisingly soon thereafter, I'm at the Nebraska border, giddy with memories of finishing the Black Hills BackBone in 2017 with friends Shaun Arritola, Dave Litzen and Rob Sorge. Friends. That was special.

Feeling spry, I cover those first 47 miles in less than 4 hours. Ahead lies the heart of today's ride: 50 miles of shadeless prairie gravel on incessantly rolling hills through pronghorn, mule deer and elk habitat, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and large cattle ranches. Although not yet noon, temperatures now exceed 100 degrees and the wind decides to pile on. This is no spot to stop for long.

The Black Hills DoubleBackBone segment offers 50 miles of open grassland to Edgemont.
No shade and 108 degrees on my cyclocomputer, but thankfully little wind.

About 17 miles later, I discover a sliver of shade at the building for the Ardmore Volunteer Fire Department. Although nearly deserted and certainly in need of some upkeep, Ardmore actually shows some life, with a few cars passing on Road 71 and even a lawnmower sputtering. I lay down in the shade, douse myself with water, and relax for about 10 minutes. It's an oven out there and I'm still 33 miles to Edgemont.

Back into heat and the big rolling hills, I realize that this middle third must make a big chunk of the 7,336 feet of elevation gain for the day. Every mile or so, it's down one hill and up another. In suffocating heat. Those thoughts eventually bring a wry smile and slow head shake. Just like Gravel Worlds.

Well, alrighty then. This is a legit remote Gravel Worlds course.

Looking back at a climb out of Edgemont on the DED Dirt Ride segment back to Buffalo Gap.

By the time I limp into Edgemont at Mile 97, I am cooked. Roasted and toasted. I pull into a gas station, douse myself with water, and lay down in the first shade since Ardmore. Fully 20 minutes later, I arise to collect thoughts and stretch a bit.

I am normal-tired for this part of a long ride, but still need to cool off, drink a bunch of fluids, eat a load of calories, and re-group for the remaining 53 miles. So, I go inside for a quart of chocolate milk, a quart of fully loaded Coke and a mini-pizza. Gradually, I come back to life.

Stark realities of a harsh environment where even a strength can become a liability.

I am not eager to get back out there in the heat and hills. In fact, I linger at that Edgemont gas station for an hour and 20 minutes all told. But it is just what I need to face the final 53 miles back to Buffalo Gap. I eventually remount to start the climb out of Edgemont.

The DED Dirt Ride segment is much less familiar to me, not having ridden it since 2014. But with so few places to take a wrong turn, I keep turning pedals en route toward Buffalo Gap. The rolling hills do not let up. Neither does the heat. But the miles slowly pass.

These lands are full of surprise. Coasting down a hill, I spot a fox on the road. It sees me and starts running. For fully a quarter mile, it keeps ahead of me on the road as I coast at about 20 mph. Finally, it turns into a drainage and vanishes into the vegetation. That's one fast fox.

Temperatures recede as the sun fades. With about 30 miles to go, I realize that I'm going to finish this ride in the dark. But I am going to finish this ride. A smile slowly forms across my sweaty, dusty face. I decide to enjoy the last 2 hours as a victory lap and casually cruise into Buffalo Gap.

I created this route on beforehand to verify the 150 mile distance.

My DED BackBone Edition of 2020 Gravel Worlds is complete. 150.0 miles. 7,336 feet of elevation gain. 14 hours, 30 minutes overall. 12 hours 8 minutes rolling. Taking it to my limit. One more time.

Thanks Schmidty, Cornbread and the rest of the Pirate Cycling League for your service to the gravel community. Hopefully, we'll all be at the next gravel family reunion at the 2021 Gravel Worlds.

Take It To The Limit, Eagles (1976)


  1. Excellent work! You picked a dandy of a route! Congrats.

  2. Amazing scenery you have up that way, great ride.