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Saturday, April 25, 2015


Over the course of 300+ miles, the Black Hills BackBone will challenge both body and bike.  In addition to all those miles of grouchy gravel and dinged up dirt roads, water, mud, thorns, pine needles, timber, tumble weeds and debris will wreak havoc on your treasured ride.  Mechanicals.  Some you prevent by preparation, some you fix by preparation, some you just prepare to endure.

Black Hills mud and pine needles filled my fork in a hurry.  No turning that wheel.
The most common mechanical on a long gravel ride is a flat tire.  I don't run road tires tubeless, unlike my trend setting friends, but I don't have many flats because I don't run tires skinny or worn.  I run 38 mm Schwalbe Marathon Racers, with significant flat protection in the tread and from the width.  They're not light, but neither am I.  In any event, I still carry a patch kit, 2 tubes, 2 tire irons, a tire boot, tweezers and a pump.  Just in case.  As much as I don't like to stop to fix a flat, I like to ride more than walk.

My tool kit: 2 tubes, 2 tire irons, tweezers, spare links, tire boot, patch kit, multi-tool, pump, bag.
Another common mechanical in muddy, gravelly conditions is broken chains and derailers.  The smaller pieces of gravel can stick with mud inside the chain, causing it to jam or twist in the derailer pulleys.  Even if it doesn't break, a twisted chain will not run through the derailer, at least not smoothly, and may not stay on a given gear.  The derailer itself then may bend or break, maybe taking the derailer hanger or even part of the frame with it.

My first line of defense is installing a higher end mountain bike rear derailer and a new 9 speed chain.   Simple, strong, durable.  Choose all three.  Keep the chain clear of debris and well lubed at all times, stopping to do so, if necessary.  Watch for mud build-up on the chain and on the derailer pulleys.  Be attentive to complaints from the drive train.  Cranking harder on the pedals to overcome resistance from mud and rocks in the drive train is not recommended.  Stop to clean it.  If a chain were to break, I would use the chain breaker on my mini-tool to remove the damaged links and replace them with spares.  If a derailer were to break, I would shorten the chain to convert the drivetrain to a single speed.  That's not as complicated as it sounds, but it's too much for this post.  Know that it is not an uncommon occurrence at many gravel grinders.

Broken chain, broken derailer, and broken dreams early on at Odin's Revenge 2014.
My 2x9 Shimano LX/XT drivetrain carried me to the finish.  (photo by Scott Redd)
Sometimes, the mud is just so much that even the wheels won't turn.  Not only will you stop, but you will actually be carrying your suddenly very heavy bike unless you clear some mud.  Rather than search for a stick, I carry a mud shank fashioned out of a metal marshmallow roasting stick.  Dainty it ain't.

No flimsy twig.  Now, that's a mud shank.
Other issues abound.  Wet and muddy conditions may cause balky braking.  Dry, dusty roads will drain the life from a chain.  Higher speed descents on washboards may rattle some parts loose or slip a seat post.  A properly maintained bike prevents much of this.  I check every bolt, every screw, every part before a long event.  Carry a mini-tool and know how to use it, just in case.

It's a long ride.  It's a lot longer walk.  And you're out there alone.  Keep your ride rolling.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


What do you eat on those long bike rides?  Ask 100 endurance athletes.  Get at least 100 answers.  The best result from experience.  That is, you find what works for you over time.

That Gas Station Burrito seemed like a good idea at Almanzo Royal 2014.  Thirty minutes later, not so much.
(photo by Scott Redd)
I'm a Hammer Nutrition guy.  That stuff just works for me, and has for over 15 years.  I like the science behind it and love the people that stand behind it.  Before Hammer, I would often scour the kitchen for a few days after a long effort, not hungry but searching for something to eat, like I was missing something.  After Hammer, that simply never happens.  I get the nutrition I need during the ride and then I eat normally the next day.  That's when I realized it works for me.

So, what to eat on the Black Hills BackBone?  The same as my other long rides.  Keep it simple:  Hammer Perpetuem (liquid protein fuel), Hammer Gel (complex carbs) and Hammer HEED (electrolyte drink).  I'll also carry some Endurolytes Fizz, an electrolyte supplement.  For my size and output, I plan on about 150 calories per hour and about 24 ounces of water per hour, depending on conditions.  Assuming 30-40 hours for the BackBone, that's 4500-6000 calories to carry.  No problem.  24 servings of Perpetuem (3,200 calories) + 10 servings of Gel (1,000 calories) + 18 servings of HEED (1,800 calories) = 6,000 calories.

I'll rotate between the calorie sources and drink about a full bottle of water or HEED every hour, depending on how I feel.  That's the plan.  Simple.  Didn't say it was fine dining.  Just makes for fine riding.

Spring order is here.  It's Hammer Time!
That's it.  Well, mostly.  I can actually stick to Plan A for awhile, say 12 to 15 hours, maybe a few more.  Then it's Plan B.  I'll bury in the bottom of a pack a substantial stash of regular M&M's and roasted peanuts.  Sugar and salt.  Carbs and protein.  Something to actually chew.  Quite a treat after a day of fluids.  Now, that's dining in style.

Then there's always Plan C, which is more standard gravel grinder fare.  Find a convenience store and eat everything in sight.  Not a great plan here, since such stores appear only at Miles 133, 226 and 285.  Besides, that never worked out too well for me.  Nonetheless, I'm sure to find something tasty in Spearfish at Mile 133 that I'll regret shortly thereafter.  I'm also not saying that coffee and a donut won't be tempting in Custer at Mile 226.  In fact, that thought may keep me turning pedals to get there.

Saturday, April 11, 2015


One could approach tackling the Black Hills BackBone from several angles, such as a bike packing trip, a multi-day fully supported tour, even a sanctioned race with teams.  One could have a support crew follow, or meet at designated spots, or be on call.  One could stash water and supplies along the way.  None of the above, for me.  At least not this time.  If you ever take on the BackBone, have fun riding it however you deem fit.  I plan to ride this, as continuous as possible, with no outside support other than that which I can acquire along the way.

So, here's the plan.  The Black Hills BackBone crosses 200 miles of exposed, remote prairie and 100 miles of hilly, remote forest, with few commercial establishments along the way for any kind of resupply.  I plan to presume that nothing but water will be available anyplace, and then hope to find a few treats.  I'll carry enough water for 6-8 hours and food for the entire ride.   How to resupply water?

Spinning out of NoWhere, North Dakota, the possibilities seem limitless, but water is not.
Arrive at the start fully loaded, both bike and body, as there is nothing at NoWhere, North Dakota.  Ranches are few and far between, with none on the route, until a cluster of buildings called Harding at Mile 47.  There are occupied houses and new construction, so I'll top off water for the long stretch ahead.

From Harding to St. Onge, the ranches are more frequent, with some close to the road, and the route passes through the "town" of Fruitdale.  Those are possibilities for water that I hope to bypass.  The first open business on the BackBone is the St. Onge Bar at Mile 121 (74 miles after Harding).  This looks like a fun place to stop, just to stop, which I may.  But Spearfish is the place, at Mile 135 (86 miles after Harding), to really reload and refresh.  The Black Hills are on deck.

Cruising along an open valley in the heart of the Hills.
The 30 mile climb out of Spearfish tops off near O'Neil Pass, with another 31 miles of narrow, forest gravel to Deerfield Lake.  The USFS White Tail Campground at Deerfield Lake at Mile 194 (61 miles after Spearfish) is a great camping spot that happens to have water.  I'll stop there.  The Mountain Meadow Resort is about a mile east on paved Deerfield Road, if needed.  Another resupply possibility earlier on this 61 mile stretch is the TrailsHead Lodge on Highway 85, just over O'Neil Pass about 1.5 miles west of where the route turns off Highway 85.

Out of Deerfield Lake, the BackBone dives into the remote reaches of the Black Hills on roads not recognized by MapMyRide or Garwin.  But it's a relatively short 31 miles to the tourist town of Custer at Mile 226, which features a variety of restaurants and convenience stores.  I'll probably stop for water, and maybe some coffee and simple carbs.  OK, donuts.

The buffalo are always watching in Wind Cave National Park.  Sometime they even leave the road.
Now, we're rolling.  From Custer, it's only 33 miles to Buffalo Gap and it goes by too fast.  I plan to get water, and maybe a fully loaded Coke, at the Buffalo Gap Trading Post.  From there, it's only 46 miles to the finish.  If needed, there are possibilities for water from homes in the towns of Oral (Mile 267) and Smithwick (Mile 276) and at a convenience store in Oelrichs (Mile 285).

Looking for water, in all the wrong places.

Hopefully, I'll have a ride from the finish at NothingThere, Nebraska (Mile 305).  If not, it's another 20 miles of gravel back to Oelrichs.

Also, there are natural sources of water all along, especially in the Hills, if you pay attention.  Shaun Arritola likely will bring some sort of Jedi sterilizing wand to treat wild water, in case he needs some.

Shaun, incredulous:  "That's the plan?"
Craig, emphatic:  "That's the plan!"
Shaun, skeptical:  "How are you going to do it?"
Craig, less emphatic:  "I have no idea."

A recurring conversation, with apologies to the writers of "A Few Good Men."

Saturday, April 4, 2015

For the Digital Cyclist: a GPS Map

The idea of the Black Hills BackBone has resonated with a wide assortment of folks, both cyclists and non-cyclists.  Maybe it's the natural beauty of the Black Hills or of the surrounding prairie.  Maybe it's the stark remoteness of these back roads.  Or maybe it's the sheer audacity of crossing the entire state of South Dakota through this country on these roads.  In any event, I am amazed at the responses and encouragement from so many different people.

One such person, whom I have never met, is Jake VanDewater.  Jake translated my turn-by-turn narrative of the Black Hills BackBone route into a GPS data map on Garmin and offered to share it with anyone interested.  He may not ride the BackBone and, if he does ride part or all of it, may not even use the Garmin map.  But Jake saw the social media requests for a GPS map and took on the project on his own.  Thanks so much, Jake.  I look forward to meeting, and riding, with you some time.  Here's the result of his work.  Black Hills BackBone - Garmin map HERE

Another avid cyclist, Greg Gleason, is also working on a GPS data map for the BackBone by converting a MapMyRide map.  He also just offered to do this after discerning my need for help.  Again, thanks.  Greg and his riding buddy Joe Stiller are actually considering a little out-and-back ride that would total over 600 miles.  Now, that's audacious!

These are living examples of Mark Stevenson's insightful blog post on the power of grass roots gravel grinders to create special experiences and relationships.  The folks that you meet are the kind of people that you want to ride with, that you want to spend more time with.  Right on, and ride on, Mark!  Guitar Ted's Post - HERE

Mark Stevenson encourages me, as I manage to finally reach Check Point Mile 47 over 6 hours into Odin's Revenge 2014.  (photo by Merrie Quigley)