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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
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
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 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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for Volunteers

I am thankful for volunteers, those people who give their time, energy and talents to serve others.  They pour part of themselves into making this broken world a better place for someone else.  Seeing that service sparks hope.

Gravel bike races are not tackling any of the big problems of the world.  It's a smaller environment, where folks challenge themselves, create memories and build relationships.  But they have made a  positive, lasting impact on me.  This post goes out to the volunteers of gravel races, and their supportive families and friends, for making such experiences possible.

As representatives of gravel race volunteers everywhere, here are the people behind creating and working Odin's Revenge.  Thank you and thanks to all the volunteers of other events.

It's Odin himself,  a sleep deprived Chad Quigley, wearing the effects of running a long gravel race.

Merrie Mitchell-Quigley and Della Brock Hengen.  Cheerful faces at Check Point 1,
featuring Merrie's renown homemade "protein balls," which taste much more like dessert.

Always affable Matt Bergen manning Check Point 2.
With him is George Evans, who patrolled the course throughout the day on his motorcycle.
In the background is racer Tyler Loewens, apparently booking reservations for dinner.

       Bob Wieck and Garrett Olson at Check Point 3, with motorcycle patrol George Evans taking a well deserved break.
This was more a party than a check point, with food, drinks, music and loads of energy.

Beermeister Nate Bell of Kinkaider Brewery cheering on the finishers and tabulating results.

Finish line congratulations from Odin himself, Chad Quigley.  Nice way to end the day.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Components of a Special Gravel Race

I love gravel road races.  Most any kind.  Most any distance.  Much of that results from the type of folks that are drawn to them.  Somehow the emerging gravel clan has developed an atmosphere of genuine inclusiveness, above and beyond the natural bonding of those sharing a passion.  It's really something.  For an introduction to the gravel scene, see my prior post Gravel Grinder 101.

These unsanctioned, unlicensed wild cat events are each hand crafted by local, eccentric cycling enthusiasts showcasing their countryside and their idea of what makes a race fun.  So, you'll find all kinds of different events from which to chose.  Here are some details that I like in a gravel race.

Start line forming at 2013 Gravel Worlds.  (unknown photo credit)

1. Friday night pre-race get-together.  Since the race typically starts pretty early on a Saturday morning, the organizers stage a pre-race meeting on Friday to go over details and answer questions.  As one might expect, this quickly turns into a social gathering for folks to meet and reconnect.  The best pre-race meetings open early at an informal restaurant or bar, with time to order food and drinks and lots of room to move around from table to table, as the clan filters in.  I have not been to a TransIowa Meat Up, but I hear that's a bench mark for a gravel pre-race.  My favorite was last year's Odin's Revenge pre-race at the Walker Steakhouse.

Gravel clan gathering at the pre-race for 2015 Odin's Revenge.  (photo by Odin's Revenge)

The pre-race at 2015 Odin's Revenge deserves at least another picture.  Faces from the left:  Scott Redd (Omaha Jackrabbit Grand Poo Bah), Nate Bell (Odin's Revenge volunteer & key sponsor), Craig Schmidt (Gravel Worlds and Pirate Cycling League captain), and my back (enthusiastic racer and fan).  (photo by Odin's Revenge)

2. Friday night camp.  After the pre-race meeting, folks retire to their lodging for the evening.  I prefer to camp with others there for the race, whether racing, supporting, volunteering or organizing.  It's  another chance to share the experience, as you prepare for the day ahead and relax by a camp fire.

Shaun unloads Dachia's T.A.R.D.I.S. at the 2014 Almanzo Royal campsite.

Enjoying a pre-ride camp fire.

3. Saturday morning pre-race and early miles.  No matter the time of the start, I like to arrive early.  Those few minutes pass too quickly, but the interactions continue well into the race, particularly if the start has a decent neutral lead-out followed by some relatively easy, or at least not crazy hard, early miles.  Memorable moments.

Enjoying the early miles of 2015 Gold Rush Mother Lode with Jason Thorman and Luke Meduna.
(photo by randy ericken)

4. Check point volunteers.  Anyone who races, organizes or volunteers at a gravel race likely does the other things, too, and this passion shows.  Nothing wrong with checking in by just signing a roster or getting a receipt from a convenience store clerk, but it's a great boost to share the day with the kindred spirits of check point volunteers.

 Fun to check in with first class volunteers Matt Bergen and George Evans at Check Point 2 at 2015 Odin's Revenge.

5. Gravel Road Course.  Most gravel races feature interesting routes meandering along remote, rough roads and near-roads highlighting seldom visited or little known sights.  There's an art to balancing such a route.  If the roads become too much like trails or otherwise so rough that they overwhelm the course, it becomes a mountain bike race.  If there's too much pavement or other hard packed surface, it's just a road race.  I like gravel road races, with a smattering of relatively short sections of dirt roads, a closed bridge or gate to walk, and maybe a shallow water crossing or other obstacle to navigate.  But a gravel road race.

Water crossing at the 2014 Almanzo Royal (photo by Scott Redd).
Also, I like the idea of not knowing much, if anything, about the course in advance.  Get the cue sheets for the first part of the race at the start and the rest at subsequent check points.  No digital or other mapping in advance.  And no repeat of last year's course.  Keep a sense of adventure.

Cue sheet for the 2015 Omaha Jackrabbit.

6. Sunday morning awards.  With racers of all levels of ability and ambition and with courses commonly extending 50 - 150 hard miles, racers trickle into the finish over several hours.  For shorter races, the finishers, families and friends often linger near the finish line to savor the day and to cheer those joining them.  For longer races, the finish time between the fastest and slowest becomes many more hours.  Then, a very nice touch is to simply get everyone back together on Sunday morning.  My favorite is the Gold Rush Mother Lode awards ceremony, which basically is a Sunday brunch with the gravel clan.  It's a wonderful time to share with other racers, whether you rode with them all day, off and on, just a little, or even not at all.  I love seeing the faces and hearing the stories of the day, with all the fresh excitement of participating in a gravel race.

Paul Otsu and Lane Bergen on the 39 & Under podium at the 2015 Gold Rush Mother Lode.

Those are some of the components of a gravel race that combine to make a special event for me.  The common thread throughout is the people that are drawn to these things.  Simply the best.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Getting to NoWhere, North Dakota

There's no way around it.  Just getting to the start of the Black Hills BackBone is an undertaking and there's no there, even when you get there.  These logistics are part of the reason why I am not turning this route into a race.  I call it NoWhere, North Dakota for a reason.

Not the Black Hills BackBone start, but just 15 miles away.
To drive from Rapid City takes a solid 3+ hours one way.  To start pedaling at first light would require an exceptionally early wake up call, even for me.  A later start would still result in starting a long ride immediately after sitting in a car for hours.  To drive from Spearfish saves less than an hour and from Belle Fouche not much more.  In any event, that's not enough of a difference for me to arrange lodging there.  One of these options may work for others, but they're not my preference.

The nearest motel I can find is the one in the bustling town of Buffalo, population 380, which is roughly 30 miles from the start.  That may be a viable option for others.  I prefer to get closer, and to camp, outside of town if possible.

One might think the town of Ludlow, right on U.S. Highway 85 with its busy, oil field traffic, would offer some lodging.  One would be wrong.  Shaun and I found only a bar with very limited provisions, although the proprietors were friendly.

All the action in Ludlow is at the bar.  On an early Friday evening in August, that was us.
Fortunately, there's an island of public land up there in the sea of prairie.   In August, Shaun and I camped at an 8 unit primitive campground nestled among pine trees in a small cluster of hills sequestered as national forest.  More specifically, the Picnic Spring Campground, North Cave Hills Unit, Sioux Ranger District, Custer Gallatin National Forest.  Good vehicle access, 8 prepared camp sites, a composting outhouse, no water, no electricity, no fees, no reservations.  Beautiful spot to spend the afternoon and evening preparing for the BackBone start, about 15 miles away.

Near the Picnic Spring campground.
So, for those considering riding the Black Hills BackBone, there are a few options to get to the start.  When I go back, I'll be enjoying an afternoon and evening at the Picnic Spring campground.

Our way to start the Black Hills BackBone.  After a relaxing evening in front of a campfire.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Start Line With Some History and A Personal Connection

When scouting a Start Line for the Black Hills BackBone last winter, Shaun and I drove back and forth on a few county roads in northern Harding County, South Dakota looking for some indication of a border with North Dakota.  In every direction, we see windswept prairie fading to the horizon.  The landscape is striking and the exposure to the elements severe, but we find no border sign of any kind.  There has to be something, even out there.

A Dakota Marker - 342 miles West of the eastern border of both states.  The "SC" means "Section Corner."
We finally just stop at a steel post sporting 3 road signs - "TABLE MOUNTAIN RD," "SPEED LIMIT 45" and a small "0."  The engineer in me appreciates the efficiency of a single post handling all those tasks and it seems to be about the right spot by the maps.  One views the sign looking south to South Dakota, so I interpret the "0" as a Mile Marker Zero and call it the Start Line.  It just seems odd that nothing else marks the state border.

Mile Marker "0" for the Black Hills BackBone.  The wind apparently does not know how to read.
I take a few pictures, then pause to soak in the scene.  The stark remoteness of this land draws me in and takes hold.  This is not merely a Start Line.  This is the beginning of a journey.

Gazing to the east, I spot a short, square-shaped stone stuck by itself about 50 meters off the road into the prairie.  That's odd.  It's not part of a fence or any other structure.  There's nothing around it at all, but clumps of grass.  I hop the barbed wire fence and stumble across the bumpy, cow pie laden earth.  What is it?

It's clearly a sign of some sort, about 10 inches square and extending maybe 3-4 feet above ground.  Engraved on the south face is "S.D." and on the north face is "N.D."  Other markings are engraved on the east and west faces, including a "342" and "S.C."  I take several pictures, now convinced that we're actually at the border.  I don't know what to make of the stone sign, but someone spent some effort to put it there.  We leave to scout possible gravel routes leading south.  Other thoughts soon crowd out the mystery of the odd stone sign.

This side of the quartzite Dakota Marker shows the effects of decades of cattle scratching. 
Months pass.  The BackBone route takes shape, with rides, pictures, cue sheets, digital mapping and blog posts.  Details to the South change, but the Start Line remains at the sign with the zero on Table Mountain Road.  Oh, yeah.  And by the odd stone thing, too.  Whatever that is.

I find out, in a most unlikely way.  Colleen and I are blessed with two daughters, Cara is a senior at South Dakota State University and Chani is a freshman at North Dakota State University.  Both are varsity cheerleaders and their schools are rivals in many respects, but particularly in football, where the teams battle each year for possession of a traveling trophy.  In a pre-game news report, I see a picture of the actual trophy.  It looks just like that stone sign at the border.  And the name of the traveling trophy - The Dakota Marker.

Cara (SDSU) and Chani (NDSU) at a preseason cheer camp.  Dad could do without the bison horns and bunny ears.
Now, I need to know.  Apparently, drawing the border between the two Dakotas was not without some controversy and intrigue.  When the dust finally settled, the border was marked with 720 engraved quartzite posts, positioned at half mile increments along the entire length of both states - the Dakota Markers.  Table Mountain Road just happens to cross the North Dakota border within sight of one of those markers.

Now that's a Start Line for the Black Hills BackBone.  Remote as these parts can be.  Some history.  And a personal connection.  Perfect.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tires? Yes.

What tires to run for the Black Hills BackBone?  That's like asking what type and set up of bike to ride.  Everyone has an opinion, maybe because many types and sizes of tires will work just fine.  At gravel races, I've seen everything from 28 mm road tires to 4+ inch fat bike tires.  Like your bike.  Run what 'cha brung.  And have fun.

That being said, I've ridden these roads every which way under a variety of conditions, with four very different types of tires that fit my Black Mountain Cycles cross bike:  30 mm road slicks, 35 mm cyclocross knobbies, 38 mm light touring road tires and 43 mm 'tweener knobbies.  One could make a case for each of them for the BackBone.  As between these four types of tires, here's my take.

With loads of clearance, my Black Mountain Cycles monster cross bike allows many tire options. 
Start with the road surface.  The Northern prairie portion of the route is generally pretty hard packed, lightly graveled but sharp.  Sidewall cuts are a real possibility.  As Spearfish approaches, the gravel gets thicker, less sharp, and generally more like MidWestern gravel.  Into the Black Hills, the gravel again thins out and, while generally very nice to ride, the surface can be soft, rutted and strewn with debris.  Onto the Southern prairie, the gravel is again more like MidWestern gravel that gradually thins to near dirt at the Nebraska border.  See prior post Not Your Grandpa Joe's Gravel.

My go-to tire for the BackBone, and generally for this type of riding, is a 38 mm road tire, which currently is the Schwalbe Marathon Racer, a touring road tire lightest in the Marathon line. The relatively fat (for a road tire) profile and low pressure make for a comfortable ride, despite the substantial sidewalls and internal flat protection.  By the way, that flat protection works.  I have had only one flat in over 5,000 miles of rough roads on those tires.  At 38 mm, it's also wide enough for control at speed over those surfaces, without being too sluggish, heavy or buzzy.  I have not felt the need for bigger tread on any of the rough roads I ride, including the BackBone, the Almanzo Royal, the Gold Rush Mother Lode and Odin's Revenge (twice).  It's the sweet spot for me.

These Marathon Racers need to retire, but I keep putting them back on
after the planned replacement tire just doesn't do it as well.
Others may prefer a tire with more meat.  Before trying the Marathon Racers, I rode a full season on a knobby cyclocross tire with a subtle centerline tread, the 35 mm Schwalbe Smart Sam.  For all those knobs, it rolls pretty well.  I enjoyed many gravel and dirt miles in the Black Hills, as well as races like the Gold Rush, Odin's Revenge and Gravel Worlds.  Although the knobs were handy in spots, it seemed overkill for most of the miles on any given ride.  So, rather than moving to a semi-slick cyclocross tire with fewer knobs, I decided to try a wide, smooth road tire, which led me to the Marathon Racers.  The Smart Sams were quickly relegated back to cyclocross, for which they were designed.

Schwalbe 35mm Smart Sam cyclocross tires work well enough.  They're just better at cyclocross.
To push the road tire concept a bit further, I also tried the Schwalbe Kojak, a no-tread, slick tire with internal flat protection akin to the Marathon Racer.  These may have worked out, if they actually were the 35 mm width as advertised.  Instead, mounted and inflated, they measured but 30 mm, which I found to be too skinny for the roads I like to ride.  I did not get any pinch flats, but the overall ride was much less comfortable and less stable in rough conditions, especially at speed.  I didn't keep them on my bike long enough to take a picture, but I will keep them for pavement-only rides, where they should shine.

At the other extreme, I also tried 43 mm Bruce Gordon Rock 'n Roads, a 'tweener tire with beefy tread providing loads of traction on loose stuff.  These would work on many single track trails.  I've ridden the Rock 'n Roads for about 500 miles, including this year's 127 mile Omaha Jackrabbit, which featured over 25 miles of rough dirt, minimum maintenance roads.  But the substantial tread is just too much for me and the road buzz is a constant reminder of the drag.  More importantly, I keep getting flats on these tires, no matter where or how I ride them.  Not fun.  I don't plan to rely on the Rock 'n Roads for any future, significant ride, unless converted to tubeless and tested thoroughly.  Even then, I question their durability.  Just not for me.

43 mm Rock 'n Roads cruised the dirt roads at the Omaha Jackrabbit.
I was amazed that I had no flats over 127 miles.  That's a record for those tires.
There are a growing number and variety of tires entering the market targeted for gravel and dirt road rides.  For example, Schwalbe announced a new tubeless tire for this purpose, the G-One, available next spring.  I'll certainly take a pair of those, in 38 mm.  And if those don't pan out, I'm sure I'll eventually find something better than my current touring tire pressed into gravel duty.

Schwalbe G-One.  Next up.  Next spring.  That's a lot of knobs for me.  We'll see.
In the meantime, I'll stick with my tried and true 38 mm Marathon Racers.  On all roads.  In all conditions.  Time to ride.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Omaha JackRabbit - A Lesson in Sleep Deprivation

On a dark, rural highway, cold wind in my face.  Fresh smell of alfalfa, rising into my space.  Up ahead through the corn fields, I see a shimmering light.  My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim.  I had to stop for the night.

It's 10:00 pm on a pitch black, cold October night when I putter onto a gravel back road outside Blair, Nebraska, seeking a manicured acreage hosting the start/finish/campsite for this year's Omaha JackRabbit.  No street lights, no yard lights, no movement, no activity.  All I have is an address that looks like a foreign zip code chicken scratched onto a napkin.  With over 39 hours passing since I last slept, things are getting more than a little fuzzy.  I spot a solitary light.

A helpful night man explains where to drop off equipment, where to set up camp, where to park, where to get something to eat, where to go to the start in the morning, where to, WHAT?  I process none of it.  Confuzzled, I simply ask, "Where do you want my car parked in the morning?"  He says, "Follow me."  When he stops, I stop, turn off the engine and fall asleep.

Ere the sun rises over harvest season in middle America.  (photo by Rob Evans)
Bright lights and excited chatter jolt me awake.  Somehow, it's already 6:30 am and I'm parked in the middle of a grassy open space filled with vehicles, bikes and racers readying for the 7:00 am start.  So much for my well-oiled pre-race routine of bike, clothing, gear, water and food checks, let alone hot breakfast and coffee.  Oblivious to the conditions, I throw on a standard mid-summer clothing kit, grab my bike and make it to the start line, just as Grand Poo-Bah Scott Redd briefs the racers on the day ahead.  Turning to the registration table, I sign the waiver, pick up the first set of cue sheets and realize I must return to my car for my helmet, among other things.

I've already missed all the pre-race social activities that I enjoy so much at these grass roots gravel races:  the Friday afternoon pre-registration at a bike shop or restaurant, the Friday night gathering around a campfire at a campsite, and the Saturday morning pre-race meet-ups and re-connects.  Now, as the flock of blinking red lights disappear into the pre-dawn darkness, I miss the start.

Yes, that's the road we take and the bridge we cross.  Early signs of a creative course design.  (photo by Rob Evans)
Alright, so I start this race with a chase.  By the time I turn pedals, however, the last of the blinking red lights are only occasionally visible, as the racers ahead crest one of a multitude of undulating hills.  I power up the first little hill.  Boy, that hurts.  Worse, the drop down the other side feels like jumping into a mountain lake.  It is cold.  30-something degree cold.  I have gear for this, but it's back at the car, neglected in the dark scramble just to get to the start.  My mid-summer clothing kit will have to do, but I am cold.

One room school house, taking a well deserved rest.
Over a series of small hills, I aim to catch at least one straggling blinking red light.  But the cold slows my descents and fatigue slows my climbs.  Although just a few miles from the start, I feel like I've already ridden a hundred hard miles.  I simply have no power.  Lack of sleep turns my race into a ride.  I choose to enjoy my day for what it is, a mellow bike ride through rural Nebraska back roads during harvest.

Flushed from the corn field on my right, a rooster pheasant nearly takes me out here.
And what a nice ride.  The Omaha JackRabbit is a 125 mile bicycle race winding through the best gravel and dirt roads north and west out of Blair, Nebraska, which itself is about 30 miles north and west of Omaha.  A product of the creative minds of bike aficionado Scott Redd, his sidekick Pell Duvall and a bevy of cohorts, including Jayme Frye and Mike Wagster, the JackRabbit rolls up and down about 85 miles of rough rural roads, piling up a grain cart full of elevation gain, before plopping onto a Missouri River flood plain for 35 miles of pancake flat, but pretty beat up dirt roads, and finishing with some climbing back into the surrounding river bluffs.

Why, we've got both kinds, country and western.
The challenging, scenic course reflects the passion and care that Scott, Pell and crew pour into this event.  To select interesting roads and then patch them together for us to enjoy takes countless hours that only a servant's heart could bear.  They charge no entry fee, but just ask racers to respect the land, the folks living and working here, and each other.  They say there is no support, but the friendly faces at the start, check points and finish say otherwise.  They also provide food, drinks, campfires and camping at the start/finish.  These are folks to support.  Thank you, gentlemen.

V Road, one of 25 miles of Minimum Maintenance Roads.  When dry like this, they are great.  (photo by Rob Evans)
So, I am blessed to be here, to ride to honor their service and to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  As I ride, much slower than expected, the day gradually warms.  I soft pedal into Check Point 1 at the City Park in Uehling to find kindred spirits Jayme Frye and Mike Wagster, handing out the second set of cue sheets.  After an engaging chat that is far too brief, I reluctantly bid farewell, but don't go far.  At the edge of town, I spy a convenience store.  Time for that hot breakfast and morning coffee.

Harvest season in the Great Plains.  (photo by Rob Evans)
It's only about 91 miles to go, but I am moving slow and am in full tourist mode.  With cue sheets to the finish, lights for the night and provisions for however long it takes, I'm in for the long haul.  The hills seem to get bigger and steeper, but the farmland scenes and activities are nothing less than a living, breathing modern Norman Rockwell painting.

Corn.  To infinity and beyond.
I stop for pictures, for critters, for views.  I even stop to talk with a truck driver waiting for his semi-truck trailer to fill with corn.  He says that he can haul 1,000 bushels, which is the capacity of the grain cart unloading into his trailer and which the combine can harvest in about an hour.  Considering the army of farm equipment swarming the land, that's a staggering amount of corn coming in.

I'll let this little guy pass.  Many, many combines, tractors and trucks all over the back roads today.
Eventually I coast into Check Point 2 in Decatur, about 41 miles to go.  Volunteer Kerrie tells me that a group of three riders left just moments ago and I could probably catch up to them.  As much as I enjoy riding with others, I know that nightfall looms and temperatures will plummet.  So, I choose a nice, long, warm convenience store break, complete with GodFather's pizza, hot chocolate and more clothing layers.  Not my typical race fare, but then again I stopped racing before sunrise.

The next 35 miles are flat, but not always fast.  The gravel roads are in pretty good shape, but most of the dirt roads are rough, a few miles sporting washboards created by large tread farm equipment.  These hardened washboards are 2-3 inch wide, and about that deep, making it tough pedaling to ride even 5-10 mph.  But those sections are relatively short and soon I'm climbing out of the flood plain back into the river bluffs.

Those last 6 miles were not without drama.  Cruising a rare downhill at maybe 25 mph, I round a corner to go eye-to-eye with an enormous raccoon loitering in the middle of my line.  With no instincts to swerve or brake, I unload my best attempt at a bunny hop over the snarling beast, fully expecting at least a rear wheel collision.  He must have moved fast enough, though, as he scampered off.  The few downhills after that I took much slower.

2015 Omaha JackRabbit Finish Line, marked by Pell Duvall and captured by Scott Redd.  Thanks, guys.
Popping over one last hill, I finish cold in the dark, just like the start.  Scott and Pell enthusiastically greet me and invite me inside to warm up, recover and hang out.  It's a good day on the bike, with a good night ahead.

My take-away from a sleep deprived gravel ride:  you can ride a long way without much sleep and have a lot of fun, but it's going to be low energy and slow.  Enjoy it for what it is.

Scott Redd and Pell Duvall:  the indomitable force behind the Omaha JackRabbit.