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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.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Off the Bike

Notwithstanding all the fun scouting remote roads all over a wide swath of western South Dakota to create the Black Hills BackBone route, I'm still processing the simple fact that I did not ride it all this year as planned.  Last weeks ride off the map south of Jewel Cave helped.  And I'm really looking forward to the upcoming Omaha JackRabbit, put together by bike aficionados Pell Duvall and Scott Redd.  But a bit more of a respite is in order.

Enter Paul Matson, one of my best friends from Yankton High School and one of the best friends a person could have.  Paul is a medical doctor living in Portland, Oregon, with a propensity to return to South Dakota occasionally to share some time.  Usually there's some hiking involved.  This year, he flew into Rapid City several days in advance of pheasant hunting in parts further East.  Great timing.

Now, there's a hike for a couple of old friends.  Old Baldy Mountain.
We set out Monday late morning for Old Baldy Mountain in the Northern Black Hills.  It's a bit of a drive from Rapid City for a relatively short 6 mile loop, but we aren't in a hurry.  Although I submit that any route is a scenic route, we take a variety of back roads, including portions of both the BackBone and the Gold Rush Mother Lode.  Nice drive.

Paul enjoying the view atop Old Baldy Mountain.
 Mid-October in the Northern Hills is past prime time for the changing of the colors of the aspen and birch stands.  But this fall has been mild and we find a few pockets of trees holding onto their golden leaves.  The trail is mellow and the miles pass.  We greet a solitary hiker, who enthusiastically tells us of a herd of 20 or so elk that had just crossed the trail ahead of us.  We see no elk and no other hikers, but relish the fall air, the scenery surrounding us and the simple experience of a nice hike.

Still a few golden leaves left.
Dropping off the summit, we somehow venture off the loop trail circling back to the trail head.  Instead, we hike several miles due north before emptying onto School House Gulch Road (USFS 222), north and west of Iron Creek Lake.  So, we end up on more remote roads, hiking a few miles east to Tinton Road (USFS 134) and over 4 miles back to the trail head.  Something more than double the 6 mile loop.

Getting a little dark by the time we found our way back to the trail head.
A little off the marked trail.  A little off the planned route.  Maybe just a little off.  Thanks, Paul.

Monday, October 5, 2015


With riding the Black Hills BackBone in a single ride now firmly pushed into the future, I set out for fresh gravel.  Something new.  Something different.  Something so far off the BackBone route that it has not, and would not, even be considered for that.  Something just to ride and explore, just to ride and explore.
There are many of these rough, gutted crossings on Red Canyon Road (Fall River Co 15), which was mostly dry today.
I knew right where to go.  A large swath of Black Hills removed from the recreational centers of the North and the tourist draws of the Center.   The SouthWestern most corner of the Black Hills, where the iron grip of the dense pine forests that give these hills their name slips and slowly gives way to the rolling, hard scrabble edge of the prairie.  I'm going south of Jewel Cave National Park to the railroad town of Edgemont and back, on whatever roads look interesting.  Just what the doctor ordered.

Starting with the typical Black Hills forest gravel.  It doesn't last long.
OK.  One more forest gravel photo.  Just over this hill, and around that corner . . .

Now, the view starts to open, as the land hardens.

Now we're rolling.
Ridge line that must have been the fire break for a relatively recent forest fire.
 There's great gravel and dirt roads out there, with plenty of primary and secondary roads for a variety of longer rides.  I'll be back for more of those, and to chase down more of the sketch roads and skid trails I merely sampled today.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The One Ride Still Ahead

Last year about this time, I dreamt up the odd idea of creating a bike route that crossed the entire state of South Dakota, from North to South, along the spine of the Black Hills, on the best remote gravel and dirt roads I could find.  Call it the Black Hills BackBone.  Make it public and make it happen.

A rough outline soon took shape and details filled in as I researched roads and resupply possibilities by pouring over county, U.S. Forest Service and even internet satellite maps.  Eventually, I posted the proposed BackBone route and set out to check it all out.  Here are links to my prior posts on the Route OverviewCue Sheets and Maps and GPS.

A vague idea took hold and eventually took shape, over miles and time in the saddle.
Over the course of 2015, I rode every bit of the Black Hills BackBone route, in various bits, pieces and chunks, up, down and sideways and through all kinds of weather.  I have found, considered and rejected many possible re-routes and add-ons.  The course is a keeper.  I like it.

The view forward, from Flag Mountain Road, about mile 185 on the BackBone.
However, my plan was not to just re-con the route, as much fun as that was.  It was to ride it all, from border to border, on a single, continuous ride.  That's still my plan.  But my time window this year is closed.  No excuse.  I didn't get it done.

So, it's getting pushed to next year.  And the course record remains open.