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Thursday, June 3, 2021

Bikepacking the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider

Rollin' rollin' rollin'
Though the streams are swollen
Keep them doggies rollin'
Rawhide, Dimitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington (1958) 

Leaping off a crowded 2021 spring racing schedule is the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder, a much anticipated 120 mile gravel race that dives deep into the steep ravines of the Loess Canyons in South Central Nebraska. Months ago, I marked this race on the calendar in pen and wrote a post about these remote roads through this wonderfully unique country. See, Knock, Knock, Knockin' On Odin's Door

Endurance athletes Jeff and Shea Caldwell, owners of the local White Tail CycleSport bike shop, spearhead this event and enlisted Paul Brasby to design the 120 mile course through rugged cow country. As a long time local racer and bike packer, Paul intimately knows all these back roads and set out to create a course to showcase the very best. I could not wait to ride it. 

Jeff Bloom steams up a rough road cut deep into the hills on the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

Then, several weeks ago, Paul asked me to confirm road conditions and cue sheets by riding the planned course in advance of the race with a group of friends. However, rather than ride it in a single day, he suggested a 2 day bikepacking ride with an overnight stay at a primitive campsite. More specifically, he planned to ride about 70 miles of the course on the first day to camp at the renowned Potter's Pasture and then the remaining 50 miles on the second day back to North Platte. I jumped at the chance.

Jeff Bloom, Ben Cooper, Jon Naaf, Craig Groseth, Luke Entz, Paul Brasby
Ready to roll from the start of the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder route.

So, on a cool morning in early May, a group of six intrepid cyclists assemble in the alley behind Paul's house, hauling a wide range of bikes, gear, experience, ability and age. Amidst the elevated chatter, we check and double check everything and, finally, launch our little overnight adventure.

"Craig! Stop!" belts out Jon Naaf, an engineer and endurance gravel grinder from Kansas. Not one pedal rotation into the ride, I look back to see an absolutely flat rear tire. Apparently, when topping off the tire with air, I did not fully close the Presta valve and lost all of it. Off to an inauspicious start.

Cruising out of North Platte on smooth gravel along a canal. Rougher stuff lies ahead.

Moving again, we roll through town along a nice bike path and stop for pictures at Fort Cody, a trading post that will be the official start/finish of the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder in June. This will be a fun, lively venue for everyone at the event, whether riding or not. We're all smiles and ready to hit the course.

Almost immediately, we ride off pavement, climbing out of the Platte River valley into the hills and ravines to the south. Thanks to permission from a local landowner, the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course crosses a stretch of private land otherwise closed to the public. As the route creator checking the route, Paul obtains a personal escort through this area for us on today's ride. Soon we're onto the back roads deep into cow country.

A glimpse of a Buffalo Bill Rough Rider road early on the course.

Unlike a typical ride report, I'm not writing or showing many details about the course in advance of the actual event. But, if you're riding the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider, bring your entire tool box of cycling skills and sagacity. You will need everything. And if the weather adds anything at all, you're in for a real challenge.

Bike packer's paradise at Potter's Pasture primitive campground.

On the other hand, I will report a little on the rest of our ride. When hitting a set of short hills early on our Day 1, I slip off the back of the main group and later stop for a short break. Beautiful country. Beautiful day. So grateful to be out there.

Remounting to go, my heart sinks at the sight of a flat rear tire. How did that happen? One look reveals no single, big leak, but rather a swarm of goat head thorns attacking seemingly every square inch around the tire. I stop counting at 30. This will test the 3 ounces of sealant I put in that tire a few weeks ago.

With 300+ pump strokes, I pump up that 29 inch plus tire, spin it a bit, and then watch it deflate in seconds. So, I pump it all back up again, spin it some more, and watch it deflate again. Alright. One more time. This time, it holds. A bit low, but it holds.

Craig Groseth, Luke Entz, Paul Brasby, Ben Cooper
Rolling along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

Babying that questionable tire down a steep, gullied descent, I check the pressure at the bottom. It seems to be holding enough, but I add some air anyhow. For the next couple of hours, I stop every 20 minutes or so to check that air pressure. Most every time, I add some air to keep rolling.

Cresting the top of the infamous Hanson Hill, I stop to admire the view and take a break. By the time I'm done patting myself on the back for clearing that climb, I notice that the rear tire is dead flat, again. This time, it refuses to hold any air, no matter how many times I pump. I even add 2 ounces of extra sealant and keep pumping. No sale. I empty a CO2 cartridge, which briefly fills the tire. Hmmn. Adding a tube, or even two, makes little sense to me, with so many thorns already embedded. This is going to take some time and thought.

With miles to go and the afternoon waning, I communicate with Paul, who directs me to a nearby rancher. Even with access to his complete work shop with an air compressor, I cannot get that tire to hold air and finally relent to a lift for the remaining miles to Potter's Pasture. While waiting for the inglorious sag wagon, I continue to work on that rear tire and, lo and behold, it finally holds air. 

As I install the rear wheel, I entertain a fleeting thought that, maybe, just maybe, I can still ride the rest of the course to camp today. Then I see that the front tire is dead flat now. Really? With the rest of the group now closing in on Potter's Pasture, I run out of time and take that lift to camp. 

No hill is too steep or too loosey-goosey for bike packer Paul Brasby.

Potter's Pasture is abuzz with activity and upbeat banter, as our merry band of bikepackers set up tents, tend to bikes, and fix dinner. Someone starts a fire in the campground fire pit, which draws everyone for warmth and conversation. Jeff Caldwell drives in from North Platte, bringing cold beer and pop, amping up the energy. Stories fly like sparks from the fire, burning brightly and drifting into the night, leaving lasting memories. The evening passes much too quickly.

The moderate May weather eventually cools and our crew hits the sleeping bags for rest and recovery. We awaken early to a cool, damp morning with a blanket of dew on everything left uncovered. Soon, however, bodies and spirits warm with hot breakfast and coffee over another roaring fire. We're ready for today's 50 mile ride back to North Platte. 

Pausing to soak in the view along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

Climbing out of Potter's Pasture, we string out a bit and then re-group at a cattle guard along a ridge line showcasing a view down the renowned Government Pocket Road. The day is young. The temperatures mild. The winds not yet awake. We're just cruising home.

We wind along ridge lines and through cedar lined valleys, eventually dropping back into the Platte River Valley. Now late morning, the wind picks up, the temperature rises, and thoughts turn to home. Just when it looks like a quiet spin into town, we turn south and west, into that growing wind and back up to another ridge line. This pitch hurts more than it should.

Even Big Foot is checking out the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

But that last hill is relatively short and the final miles smoothly drop to a relatively flat finish. It's still early afternoon when I soft pedal back into the Fort Cody parking lot. And there's Paul patiently waiting for me in the shade.

Over burgers, we recount our little two day ride. For a gravel event, I like this course a lot, as it is long enough and challenging enough, while still being fun and possible for many to finish, at least in our relatively mild conditions. Adding any sort of weather, at all, to this course would launch this experience to another level. Regardless of the conditions, cyclists unfamiliar with this area are in for a treat.

For an overnight bikepacking ride, I also like this route a lot. Well done, Paul, and thanks for letting me join your merry band of bikepackers.

History abounds along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

The lead goes to the Blues Brothers, who made Rawhide cool again forty years ago.

Theme from Rawhide, The Blues Brothers (1980)

But here is the original version from the television show Rawhide debuting in 1959.

Rawhide theme song, Frankie Laine (1959)

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