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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.