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Sunday, December 18, 2016

An Overhaul (part 7) - On the Road Again

After 30 months and about 12,000 mostly rough miles, my Black Mountain Cycles gravel bike is long overdue for an overhaul.  A frame off overhaul, if you will.  I removed, cleaned, and inspected each component, analyzing wear for possible replacement and performance for possible upgrade.

The big relief is that the big things, namely the frame, fork and wheels, look great and work great.  Very small touch up paint on the frame and fork and very minor truing on the wheels.  Nothing more required or desired.

Of course, the tires and sealant need replacing, as do the drivetrain components of the cassette, chain and chain rings.  I also replace all cables, housing, brake pads and bar tape.  "That's just normal wear and tear, dude."

After careful consideration, the only upgrade is a new Velo-Orange Grand Cru crank set.  When installing the new crank set, I find that the bottom bracket is a bit short.  So, I replace the Shimano UN-55 square taper bottom bracket with another of the right length.  I'll keep the still solid, shorter bottom bracket with the old crank set in the parts bin, just in case.

That's it, this time.  Maybe I'll try a Salsa CowChipper handle bar in the future.  And maybe a different saddle.  Maybe.  This bike is built for long miles on rough roads in all conditions.  It handles that just fine.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The End of Odin's Revenge - One Rider's Retrospective

For five years, Odin's Revenge threw down an annual 180 mile remote road bicycle race that captured the very essence of the storied Mid-Western gravel scene. Now, the downright neighborly folks behind this remarkable event are pulling up stakes and moving on. I appreciate all their efforts over those years and cherish those experiences. I know they care deeply for the event and all the people with whom they shared it. But I'm still sad. I cranked, pushed and dragged my bike almost sixty-eight hours of official race time to reach four finish lines. That leaves a mark. So, I'm not letting this pass without at least one retrospective from this grateful rider.

Chad Quigley, the dastardly mastermind behind Odin's Revenge, surveys his far-flung realm,
the breadth and depth into which he dispatched willing subjects eager for adventure.  
(photo by Wally Kilburg)

As a start, the beautiful, brutal, mysterious course is legendary. Miles of rolling primo gravel wind through remote backcountry, connected by stretches of deeply rutted, washed out, powdered dirt near-roads. Twisty-turvey ridgeline spins precipitously drop into deep, forested ravines before nasty  steeps claw back out. Miles pass, sometimes hours, without the sight of a single occupied building, let alone a town. You are immersed in the depths of an endless central Nebraska prairie.

The pre-dawn start of the inaugural 2012 Odin's Revenge, where just six of the twenty-eight starters endure the blazing heat to finish the brutal course. Pictures and reports of that race spark my imagination and draw me to Gothenburg the following year. Jazzed, I return each of the next three years and would love to return again. (photo by Odin's Revenge)

Then the weather chips in. Mid-summer midwestern heat and humidity, whipped up by persistent, unbridled winds, extract every ounce of fluid from the body and dare you to think a positive thought.  But you do, because that's what you do and because anything less dooms the day.

If, by some Norse god treachery, those powdery near-roads turn to mud, forget about riding and maybe forget about some of your expensive bike parts. Listen to any survivor of the 2014 Odin's Revenge, the infamous Mud Year. Here's one story, just a flashing moment of my 21 hour day that year. On a particularly steep, rutted, muddy descent, I actually slid down sideways. Yes, my bike was perpendicular to my direction of travel as I feebly maneuvered between wheel-gobbling ruts. Only the bottom of the hill stopped me. That kept the heart rate up.

A real treat at my first Odin's Revenge is meeting and riding with a host of talented,
engaging bike geeks from all over, including the gregarious Mark Stevenson,
code name Guitar Ted. A better riding companion you will not find. 
Here's Mark towing me up the final climb to Check Point 1 in the 2013 Odin's Revenge.
(photo by Odin's Revenge)

The conditions vary from hero gravel to ghastly, and you never know how long a particular elixir or witches brew of conditions will last. The DSG crew change the course every year and divulge it only by paper cue sheets at the start and at a half way checkpoint, if you somehow survive to make it that far and on time. The mystery and eventual discovery of the route are all part of the allure. What form of beauty or beast, or both, lies in wait around the next bend or over the next rise?

At the 2014 Odin's Revenge pre-race gathering, the DSG crew lays it out there.  
Consistent, torrential spring rains have saturated the countryside.
Good gravel roads are barely rideable and the non-maintained dirt roads are barely walkable.
Do the riders want to race an alternative, shorter course?
The resounding response - NO!!!
(photo by Odin's Revenge)

More amazing than the Odin's Revenge race course, however, are the friendly folks behind it. Chad and Merrie Quigley, Matt Bergen, Bob Wieck, Garrett Olson, Kyle Vincent, Nate Bell and Paul Siebert. They envisioned, created and nurtured a unique, home-spun event for everyone to enjoy. They cater to the adventuresome spirit, with a focused guidance for everyone to share the experience with each other and to take care of each other, all in the context of an unsupported, remote road bicycle race. To put all that together, and keep it together, is a remarkable achievement.

Inspired by Friday night campfire tales and encouragement from gravel royalty Greg Gleason,
I lighten my payload and reconfigure my race plans at the 2015 Odin's Revenge.
I push the pace early, and hang on. The final 40 some miles were unforgettable,
steaming out of the last Check Point in a six rider peloton 
destined for a joyous finish before dark. (photo by Odin's Revenge)

People responded. They sure did, from all corners of the cycling world, from the fastest to the slowest, the expert to the novice. They ventured to a speck on the map of flyover country for Odin's Revenge. This eclectic assortment of certifiable bike geeks breathed life into the communal experience envisioned by the DSG crew. Together, everyone at Odin's Revenge demonstrated that a bike race can be more. So much more.

Flooding in 2015 forced the DSG crew to move the Friday pre-race gathering, at the very last minute,
to the Walker Steak House.  Of course, it turned out awesome.  That's just how DSG rolls.
Here's the Odin's Revenge clan beginning to gather at Walker's in 2016.  
(photo by Odin's Revenge)

The vibe generated at Odin's Revenge reverberated throughout the gravel scene and through all those who were privileged to participate.  

Experiences shared. Friendships forged. Futures shaped.

Those endure.

Thank you.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

An Overhaul (part 6) - Controls

The Black Mountain gravel bike overhaul moves to the handlebars, stem, saddle, seat post and collar.  To the non-cyclist, these components may seem to be, well, rather pedestrian.  To the cyclist, however, one errant component in this mix can turn a nice, long ride into something entirely different.  Here's a look at some under appreciated components after 12,000 miles.

Handlebars (Salsa Cowbell 44 cm).   Over more than a few miles and seasons of road riding, I have tried many different handlebars in an endless search of long distance comfort on the hoods, functional control in the drops, and usable recovery space on the tops.  Longer distance, rough road riding is tough enough on the hands and I have an additional challenge of a problematic left wrist, first broken and not properly healed back in 1974.  No handlebar worked just right.

No handlebar, that is, until the Salsa CowBell I installed on this Black Mountain gravel bike.  The slight flare, shallow drop and short reach combine to make this an exceptionally comfortable road bike bar for me.  Although the flare is reminiscent of the old Salsa Bell Lap cyclocross bar and many varieties of road bars offer a shallow drop or a short reach, the CowBell put it all together in a way that works just right for me.

A careful inspection of the CowBell bars reveals no cracks or flaws, or other reason to retire them.  So, they go back on, with a fresh wrapping of bar tape.  All that being said, I remain intrigued by the Salsa CowChipper bars, which look like a CowBell with about twice the flare.  I don't know how my wrists would respond to even more flare, but maybe next overhaul I'll consider experimenting with a CowChipper.

Stem (Thomson Elite 4X).  There's nothing complicated about this stem.  It's just strong, durable and, in this case, elegant.  No slippage or sway.  The right reach and angle.  A perfect perch for those CowBell bars and still gorgeous.  No polish necessary.

Saddle (Terry Liberator).  My longer distance road bikes have sported Terry Liberator saddles since the early 1990's.  Like the Time ATAC pedals, I stumbled into this saddle a long time ago, discovered that it fit just right and was comfortable for hours on end.  Lighter, more glamorous saddles adorned some go-fast bikes, but this model always seems to end up on the bike set up for longer rides.  So, when I built up this gravel bike, I naturally installed a new Terry Liberator.  Now, I simply cannot rationalize replacing a proven performer when it works so well and still looks good.  I'm always open to suggestions and maybe next overhaul I'll look at something else.  Maybe.

Seatpost/Collar (Thomson Elite/Thomson).  Like the Thomson stem, there's nothing complicated about the seat post.  An elegant component that happens to be strong and durable.  Easy to set right and then just forget about.  A perfect post for that comfy saddle.  Clean, regrease lightly and return to its rightful place.  And that collar looks like a sterling silver ring, securing holding everything in place over the roughest terrain.

Various designs of suspension seat posts are now available for rough road riding.  I think the general concept is solid and may well become a popular standard feature on many all road bikes.  But not mine.  This bike in particular is not the one for a seat post with moving joints or flexing carbon.  More fundamentally, this artfully designed rim-brake steel frame and fork, with quality 40 mm tires on wide 32 spoke rims, combine with the other components to create an exceptionally comfortable ride.  No suspension needed for me.

In summary, the control components of the handlebars, stem, saddle, seat post, and collar each work as intended.  No changes.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

An Overhaul (part 5) - Brakes and Shifters

The brakes and shifters on my gravel bike are not the latest, greatest, gotta-have, gee whiz-bang shindigs.  To the contrary, these simple, durable, old school components just work well in most conditions.  They have never left me stranded out in the sticks and are unlikely to do so.  Eventually, they will wear out.  Let's see how they're faring.

Keeping it simple.  Simple brake levers, rim brakes and friction bar end shifters.  No worries.
Brakes (Shimano XT V-brakes/Cane Creek 287V levers).  Like the front derailleur, I pulled this set of XT V-brakes off my old Torelli cyclocross bike when converting to cantilevers.  For well over ten years, they collected dust in my parts bin before recalled for deployment on this gravel bike.  Teamed up with Cane Creek 287V levers, these V-brakes have provided all the power and modulation I've ever needed for rough road riding.

On close inspection, the calipers show some age, but still function without flaw.  The springs and pivots look good and move right.  Maybe I'll look for an upgrade to a set of Paul Components or other higher end rim brakes next time around.  This time, with some minor buffing, these V-brake calipers go back on.

Simple Shimano XT V-brakes, about 15 years old, or so.
The brake levers have weathered more than a few mishaps, but have never malfunctioned.  As one who rides on the hoods most of the time, I find these levers comfortable for long rides.  If I had to replace them, which I don't, I'd buy the same set again.

So, for the brakes, I'll replace the pads, run new cables and housing, and expect many more miles of comfortable, confident braking.

Rivendell Silver friction bar end shifters.  Move the lever, move the derailleur.  Simple.

Shifters (Rivendell Silver Bar End).  If the square taper bottom bracket somehow escaped attention, the friction (!?!?!) bar end shifters scream "RetroGrouch!"  For the younger crowd, with friction shifting, one slides a lever to find the desired gear, rather than punching a lever to precisely click into a specific gear.  Think playing a trombone, rather than a trumpet.  Admittedly not lightening fast, these shifters define versatility and perform well in all sorts of nasty conditions.  I like them and will put them back on, along with a fresh set of new cables and housing.

All told, these brakes and shifters have worked as intended and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future, with regular maintenance and replacement of cables, housing, and pads.  I love it when a plan comes together.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

An Overhaul (part 4) - Drivetrain

Other than multiple flats, catastrophic failure of the drivetrain is probably the most common mechanical deal breaker in a gravel race.  Rear derailleurs and chains are particularly vulnerable to jams and breaks from the small, odd-shaped chunks of gravel that can travel with muddy soil.  And the rest of the drivetrain is far from immune.

I focus on prevention by prioritizing durable components, frequent maintenance and careful operation in adverse conditions.  That is, I choose heavier (not race light and not carbon) components, clean off any accumulation of anything, and stop pedaling when something doesn't sound or feel right.  Sure, I've broken stuff, but this approach has carried me through many messy miles, including the infamous 2014 Odin's Revenge 180 mile gravel race, where only six racers finished ahead of a long, muddy trail of broken bikes, parts and dreams.  (Yes, I passed a fellow racer holding up a broken carbon frame.)  Now that this drivetrain is disassembled and really clean, let's see how it's held up after all those miles.

Damage assessment after the first Minimum Maintenance Road at the 2014 Odin's Revenge.
That was it for some racers, over 150 miles of rough roads short of the finish.  (photo by Scott Redd)
Rear Derailleur (Shimano Deore LX).   Even cleaned up and polished a bit, this rear derailleur looks like it's been through some medieval battles.  Scuffs and scratches abound.  But, more importantly, the main spring, joints and pulleys look solid, feel good and move right.  I don't have to do much of anything with this derailleur.  Remarkable.  It's going right back on.

Front Derailleur (Shimano XT Top Pull).  Practically new when pulled off my old Torelli cyclocross bike in a single speed conversion, this front derailleur is elegantly simple and functional.  The top pull design allows the shift cable to run along the top tube and down the seat tube directly into the derailleur.  No need to run the cable below the derailleur, around a pulley and back up, as required by a bottom pull derailleur.  That's one less spot to collect mud and debris that can cause failure.  Cleaned up and polished a bit, this derailleur looks and works great.  Back on it goes.

Go ahead, call me a curmudgeon.  I am not removing the front derailleur for a 1X drivetrain, which inflicts considerably greater lateral forces on the often gunked up chain as it moves across the breadth of the now necessary wide range cassette.  I know experienced cyclists who love their 1X drivetrain for this application and that's great.  It's certainly the trend and may be the wave.  But I like closer spacing in mid-range gears.  I also know from years of single speeding how little a chain wears when the drive line between the chain ring and cog is always perfectly straight, and how much greater a chain wears even when properly operating a 3X drivetrain, let alone a 2X.  Cranking through gunk with a chain torqued from a single chain ring to a 36, 42 or even larger cassette cog does not fit my design criteria for this bike.

Functional, durable, serviceable.  Choose all three.
 Cassette/Chain (Shimano Ultegra 12-27/SRAM 971).  Yes, I still run 9 speed, mostly on the relatively close gear range of a 12-27 cassette and occasionally on a 11-34.  That's plenty of gears, especially for this curmudgeon whose other bikes are all single speed or fixed.  So, I don't need to even address the relative merits of 10 or 11 speed systems.  Although this Ultregra cassette would not make Guitar Ted's page of #bikeshophorrors, it's worn enough to warrant replacement.  This time, I'm moving to an even more road-like, closer range 13-25 cassette, to close down a couple of mid-range gaps.  I can always switch to that 11-34 for a long ride with particularly steep, technical climbs or for a bike packing trip.  With a new cassette, I'll put on a new chain, since I replace the chain about once a year anyhow.

Crankset/Chainrings (FSA 50/34).  The crankset and chainrings take some serious work just to get clean, even with a chemical assist.  Whoa.  Those rings are beat.  I'm surprised I haven't experienced chain skips or drops.  And that basic crankset, never pretty to begin with, simply will not clean up or polish up.  I could install some new chain rings on that dowdy crankset.  Instead, I'm replacing the whole enchilada with a Velo-Orange Grand Cru crankset with 48/34 chain rings.  Much better.

The right crankset for this bike.
Pedals (Time ATAC Alium).  I like Time ATAC pedals.  I have ridden, raced, commuted, toured and goofed with various versions of ATACs on every type of bike since my first pair in 2001.  They are functional, durable and mudophilic.  Once the cleats are worn in a little, they engage effortlessly without a thought and disengage only when truly needed.  Not so great in the snow, but clipless pedals just aren't.  This three year old pair no longer looks new.  In fact, they look pretty rough.  But I don't see anything wrong functionally to warrant replacement.  Their track record carries them back on this bike.

Bottom Bracket (Shimano UN55).  Nothing says "retrogrouch" quite like a threaded, square taper bottom bracket.  However, nothing says durable, dependable, serviceable and replaceable quite like one, either.  Once committed to square taper, the alternatives to Shimano's best are limited to high end offerings costing several times as much from the likes of Phil Wood and White Industries.  I tried the White Industries bottom bracket on my single speed mountain bike a few years ago.  It exploded within a year of moderate use and left me walking out on an important ride.  Not doing that again.  This one is barely broken in.  Back on it goes.

In sum, I'm replacing the cassette, chain, crankset and chain rings, but not the rear derailleur, front derailleur, pedals or bottom bracket.  I think that's doing pretty well for all those rough miles.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

An Overhaul (part 3) - Wheels and Tires

The overhaul of my Black Mountain Cycles gravel bike moves to wheels and tires.  When I built up this bike in early 2014, I simply put on a spare cyclocross wheel set from my parts bin.  The aging Shimano Ultegra hubs still spun smoothly, but the Mavic CX rims were road-bike narrow, relatively heavy and pretty beat up from years of single speed cyclocross abuse.  So, about a year ago, I upgraded to wider, tubeless compatible H Plus Son Archetype rims laced to Shimano 105 hubs.  Really nice new.  Looks good for this application.  Let's take a closer look at these wheels after about 4,000 rough miles.

After a thorough cleaning, I scrutinize each wheel on a truing stand.  No wobbles.  No dips.  Just a couple of minor tweaks per wheel to return them to true.  I'm pleasantly surprised that these rims remain practically spot on, given the pounding they have endured.  The hubs spin nicely and the spokes are undamaged.  Functionally, these wheel are ready to roll.

Final inspection by Mila, a particularly persnickety cat.
Aesthetically, the modestly deep rims proudly display their hard earned miles.  OK, they look a little beat up.  I first spend some energy on the brake surfaces, scrubbing off embedded lines of stubborn, sticky residue with a degreaser soaked brush.  That helps.  But the side walls of the rims need more attention.  I reach into the restoration tool kit to pull out an old can of NEVER-DULL Wadding Polish.  That's the ticket.  It takes a couple of episodes of "The Rifleman" on a quiet Saturday morning to work through both wheels to buff up that shine.  Looks better than new to me, with a few resilient scratches remaining to honor those challenging miles.

All dressed up, just waiting for some new shoes.
On to the tires, I switched to tubeless 40 mm Schwalbe G-Ones in March and could not be more pleased.  For my type of riding, they are the Goldilocks blend of comfort, control, flat protection and durability.  Now, after over 3,000 miles, the knobs on the centerline are essentially gone and those on the edges are almost.  When removing the tires, I find some sealant remaining, but cannot see how.  The front tire has a large gash from a broken bottle encounter, along with several thorns still sticking through.  The rear tire has two smaller gashes and more thorns than I count.  Somehow, they both still hold air, although those gashes probably explain why I can not keep tire pressure above 40 psi.  I order replacements.

Schwalbe G-One tire seated on a H Plus Son Archetype rim.  Now, that's a match.
This combination of rims and tires easily sets up tubeless in a few moments with just a floor pump, even for this recent convert.  No more work than old school tubes.  Here's to the next few thousand miles.

Addendum.  I'm open to offers, preferably a trade for something unique, for a pair of barely used 45 mm Bruce Gordon Rock 'n Roads.  Many like those tires, but they're not for me.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

An Overhaul (part 2) - Frame and Fork

It's no secret that I love my Black Mountain Cycles gravel bike.  For the rough road riding I enjoy, it's   a magnificent fusion of form and function.  Hard to imagine anything better for me.

Now, after over 30 months and 12,000 miles of rough roads in all kinds of conditions, it's time for a complete overhaul of everything.  That includes the frame and fork.  So, I carefully remove the components, then scrub the bare frame and fork with a soapy toothbrush.  Next, a close inspection.  I hope to find no structural damage, but know full well the history of all those miles.

There's a keeper.
Relief.  I discern no cracks, dings, bends or other post-fabrication structural modifications.  The frame and fork look good.  Very good.  Good for another 12,000 miles at least.

I spot a couple of superficial issues.  The underside of the down tube appears, at first, to have suffered a substantial number of paint chips.  However, almost all turn out to be grimy splotches of petroleum-based somethings that eventually clean off with the right solvent and some elbow grease.  I did find a half dozen or so actual paint chips, primarily on the frame on the drive side chain stay near the crank set.  That's not unexpected nor uncommon.  I patch those with hobby store enamel.

I also find some paint rub where the Revelate Designs frame pack contacts the frame, but only enough to slightly dull the paint in a small area in a few places.  "That's just normal wear and tear, dude."

The graceful curve of a steel fork helps smooth out those rough roads.
No need to replace this frame or fork.  Not yet.  But if I did, it would be for the current monster cross from Black Mountain Cycles.  Mike Varley recently tweaked this beauty by slightly increasing the fork offsets and the head tube height, adding a third set of water bottle bosses, and changing to a Pacenti fork crown with even greater tire clearance.  A fine bike refined.

I'd like a new one just to hang on the wall, although not riding it would be a crying shame.  So, no new gravel frame or fork for me.

Addendum 1.  I did not remove the Velo-Orange Grand Cru head set.  There's really not much to do with this, other than clean it up a bit and confirm that it's working properly.  Again, no issues here.

Addendum 2.  This is a rim brake only, steel frame and fork, which for me is a major advantage in ride quality.  I do not find disc brakes or carbon anything to be an upgrade, contrary to conventional marketing.  But that's beyond the scope of this post.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

An Overhaul (part 1) - It's Time

For over 30 months now, my beloved Black Mountain Cycles gravel bike has faithfully carried me thousands of miles on every sort of road in all kinds of conditions.  Daily commutes, weekend explorations, all day and into the night races, sub-24 hour and multi-day bike packing trips, Black Hills BackBone reconnaissance and attempts, and just tool-around town rides.  So capable.  So comfortable.  Such a joy.

I built up this bike from the frame precisely for that type of riding, selecting each component with a priority on function, durability and serviceability, and I maintain it with care and attention.  However, eventually regular maintenance is not enough.  After about 12,000 mostly rough miles, that eventuality is now.  Time for an overhaul.  A complete, everything-off-the-frame overhaul.  Each component I'll remove, clean, inspect, replace if needed, and consider for upgrade.  Let's see what's really holding up.

Tested and proven road worthy.  Time to refresh.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Long Way Home

Work is stealing my summer.  Shifting shifts and over-the-top overtime soak up sunlight and drain energy.  Enough.  I'm taking the long way home today, even though it's 90+ degrees and I'm back at work at 3:00 am again tomorrow.

At the top of Tower Road, a paved climb the reaches Skyline Drive at it's southern edge.
Time for a mixed terrain ride, on concrete, asphalt, chip seal, gravel, dirt, trail and just plain bushwhack.  Whatever route and surface strikes my fancy.  Here's a photo essay of my 25 mile round about ride home from work today.

Little climb from the back side of the School of Mines "New Gym,"
at least that's what we called it when it opened in 1977.  I did not clean that today.

Rode a lap of the Robbinsdale CycloCross Race Course, my favorite cross venue in Rapid City.

Found this little gem cutting through some neighborhoods.

Another short cut led to a messy crossing of this drainage.

In-town gravel, much better than fighting afternoon traffic on the paved roads.

Skyline Drive, riding north shortly after the Tower Road climb.  Fast and twisty.

Detour to Skyline Wilderness Park on the Amphitheater Trail, basically a skinny dirt road.

Had to include a climb up M-Hill, here on Cowboy Hill Road, with a stop at the "M" and a cruise down Far West.
A little adventure just riding home from work.  All in town.  All on my Black Mountain gravel bike.  All better for another 12 hour shift tomorrow.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Great Bear Ride

The Black Hills BackBone crosses the state of South Dakota on some of the best gravel and dirt roads around.  But there are many miles of memorable paved roads throughout the Black Hills and into the surrounding prairie.  Here's a special road ride across the Northern Black Hills into Wyoming.

The Great Bear Ride starts at Bear Butte, at the eastern edge of the Black Hills outside of Sturgis.
The family of Pennington County Transport Deputy Cameron Duchenaux hosts the "Great Bear Ride," a 100 mile bicycle ride from Bear Butte to Mato Tipila (Devil's Tower) as a memorial to Cameron's brother Shamus, who died from Type 1 diabetes at the age of 21.  This year, they are riding to raise awareness and funds for a capital building project for the Head Start program of Rural America Initiatives, a local organization that "partners with at-risk and low income Native American families to strengthen the development of healthy, sober, self-sufficient lifestyles."
There are very few cycling events like this in the Black Hills and this one supports a valuable local cause. It is Saturday, October 1, with pre-registration and more information at and event day registration at the Bear Butte start.  You can ride the full 100 miles or form a relay team.  With water stations every 25 miles, it's easy to split the route for a team of four.
The finish of the Great Bear Ride is 100 miles later in Wyoming at Mato Tipila.
I plan to ride it and hope that you consider supporting it.  Several friends have already committed to ride, including some from out of town.  If enough folks express interest, I will plan a get-together of some sort on Friday night.  Look for updates on my FaceBook page.  Hope to see you out there.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Path to the Light

"There is light, and beauty up there, that no Shadow can touch."
Samwise Gamgee
Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King

My heart longs to ride to a remote, primitive campsite to join fellow bike packing enthusiasts for a short get-away on Saturday evening. But the world seems to conspire against me.

First, I misread the announcement for the gathering and actually ride out there last week. It's a nice ride and campout, but not the intended social event. Then, family happenings this week, some predictable and some not, detract me from organizing all the food, gear and clothing details. As the load on the week builds, work demands a string of 12 hour shifts, including a 3:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shift on Saturday itself. It doesn't look good.

Limping home from work on Saturday at about 3:30 p.m., I drop everything to the floor and plop onto a couch. Dozing off, I jolt awake to find it now after 4:00 p.m. In addition to my bike being nowhere near ready to go, I'm tired, sleepy, hungry, thirsty and all around worn down. Decision time. The world hasn't won yet, but it's late in the game and I'm behind. I know that's exactly when it's time to go.

After a quick, last minute stuff check, I'm out the door by about 4:30 p.m. Of course, I know neither the weather nor the forecast. It doesn't matter. Tonight, I'm riding 42 miles on primarily gravel roads, mostly uphill, to eat a cold dinner, pitch a tent in the dark, and sleep on the ground. There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.

There is a light that no darkness can touch.

Spinning out of Rapid City on Nemo Road, I'm almost four miles up the initial five mile climb before noticing the dark clouds directly above, to the right and to the left. Those clouds are really dark. Behind me, the rumblings of thunder start and the wind arrives in force. I slow, then stop, and look up again. Reflexively, I cross the road and turn downhill toward home. The world wins.

But something stops me a second time. I turn around and look up, again. There. There to the West, and a little to the North. There's a break in the clouds. Yes, it's small, not much at all compared to the darkness surrounding me. But, it's there. A thought penetrates my heart. There lies your path. Ahead lies your destination. Follow this path to the light.

A big smile breaks out. Let's go. I restart my climb with hopes of reaching the light before the world crashes down around me. The darkness deepens and the winds howl, but it doesn't matter. I'm moving toward the light.

Moments later, a man driving a public utility truck pulls alongside, motioning me over. He's concerned for my safety, as he's en route to fix some downed power lines already knocked out by heavy rains and thunderstorms just a few miles to the north. I thank him and tell him that I am doing great. I say that my journey lies there, to that small patch of light poking through the mass of angry clouds. And I'll make it to that light, whether or not this nasty weather descends on me first. He looks at me a bit sideways, but leaves knowing that he at least tried to steer me home.

Over the next six miles on Nemo Road, the fast moving clouds and shifting winds confound any prediction of where or when all this violence will strike. But it certainly will, both near and soon. Throughout all this activity, the small patch of clear sky to the West remains. Promising. Unchanging. My hope lies with the light.

As I turn left onto Norris Peak Road, the first dollops of rain strike. Big, fat drops of cold water, leaving splotches on the pavement the size of silver dollars. I reach for my rain jacket, at the ready in my left rear jersey pocket. It stays there. The rains hold.

Just two miles later, I pedal west onto Bogus Jim Road, finally on gravel and more uphill. I'm right at the razor's edge of a major thunderstorm just to the north and another just to the south. I'm now riding pretty much due West, between the darkest of the clouds and directly toward that small patch of clear sky. I hope.

The miles pass slowly, with my weary body hauling a laden bike up a series of long hills. About six miles later, just as I finally crest the last of the climbs on this stretch of gravel, the sun in all its glory breaks out. I made it to the light. The darkness is decidedly behind me now. I made it to the light.

Peaceful evening ride once I found my way to the light.

Joyfully coasting down a short descent, I know that I'll make it to Black Fox Campground tonight. Oh, there's still 20 miles of mostly uphill pedaling on gravel, and it's going to be dark. But I'm going to make it. My path to the light leads me to my destination.

I believe there's a bigger story here. The path is the Bible. The light is Jesus. The destination is God. Follow the Bible to Jesus to experience God. Even then, while here on this earth, there still will be storms to weather and work to do, but your destination is secure. Be at peace.

2016 Pedal Power Camp Out, several hours before I arrived.  (photo by Jason Thorman) 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Fox Sub-24

The concept of the sub-24 is simple.  Some afternoon ride your bike from home to a desired location, camp and ride your bike home the next morning.  It doesn't have to be a monster ride.  Just pick out an interesting destination and route.  Two bike rides, along with a night camping, all in less than about 24 hours.  Sub-24.  Sweet little get-away.

A great destination for a sub-24 from Rapid City is the Black Fox Campground, about mile 176 on the Black Hills BackBone route at the intersection of South Rapid Creek Road (USFS 231) and Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233).  This U.S Forest Service primitive campground is about 42 mostly uphill miles from Rapid City, making for a tough ride out and an easy ride in.

Planted at the northern edge of the central Black Hills, the Black Fox campground is also accessible for a sub-24 from Spearfish, Sturgis and other communities.  With paved, gravel and dirt roads in abundance, as well as some single track, one could piece together any number and variety of routes between the Black Hills population centers and the Black Fox campground.

All dressed up and ready to go.
This is not a secure, undisclosed location.  Endurance cyclist, bikepacker and all-around good guy Dave Kent informed me that fellow cyclist Robert Cota selected the Black Fox campground to host a unique event, the Pedal Power Camp Out.  Next weekend, he plans to reserve camp sites at the Black Fox campground and has invited folks for a "mass bike pack camp out."  For two nights, folks will ride into, out of and home from Black Fox from wherever to wherever, on whatever, and camp together.  It's a bikepackers rendezvous!

I learn of the Pedal Power Camp Out late in the week.  Not needing much encouragement for such a ride, I throw together gear and food on Sunday afternoon and finally, at about 3 p.m., strike west on Nemo Road for Black Fox.  No, I did not intend to scout a route for the big event.  I misread the invitation as being this weekend.

Uphill on Bogus Jim Road, leaving Pennington County roads for the significantly less maintained USFS roads.
Too busy and excited to check the temperature, let alone the forecast, I soon find myself spinning my lowest gear up sun baked Nemo Road.  My goodness, how hot is it?  My on-bike thermometer reads 104, then 108, then 110.  When I finally crest the initial 5 mile climb, it's 114 degrees.  Oh, man, here we go again.

Surely, higher elevations will mean lower temperatures.  So, I eagerly turn onto Norris Peak Road at about mile 10.  Surely is wrong.  I reach gravel at Bogus Jim Road and keep climbing on increasingly steeper and rougher roads.  Surely is still wrong.  A short descent onto U.S. Highway 385 offers some relief, but it's illusory.  The downhill wind just draws out what little moisture remains in me.  Then I'm back on gravel on Rochford Road for more climbing.  It's late afternoon and still over 100 degrees.

A primitive road off of Black Fox Camp Road (USFS 233)
During one of my frequent stops along this stretch, a couple on an ATV stop to make sure I'm okay.  Another example of folks on remote roads taking care of each other.  A few miles later, that same couple is loading their ATVs onto a trailer and the woman calls me over.  It's Deanne Cogdill of New Underwood, SD and she's full of questions sparked by my jersey.  What a blessing.  Hope to ride with her soon.

Finally, a quick descent lands me near an access to the Mickelson Trail that Shaun pointed out a couple of years ago.  Eager for a change, and for the possibility of some shade, I hop on it for the final 4 miles into Rochford.  Much cooler riding on a rails-to-trails trail paralleling a creek.  I douse my steaming noggin under the water faucet at the Rochford Trailhead and then enjoy a Coke at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon.  It's Open Mic Sunday and local musicians are on full display.  And I'm closing in on Black Fox.

Ready for a sunset, and dinner.
The final 8 miles up South Rapid Creek Road (USFS 231) are a real treat, even though I'm hot and tired.  Good Black Hills gravel. Temperatures now in the mid-80's.  Steady uphill, without steeps.  Following a meandering stream up a valley lined with conifer-stuffed hills.  Maybe a big part of it is that I'm not chasing a race goal or a time cut-off.  I'm just riding into camp.  Best part of the ride.

Rolling into the Black Fox Campground, I find it empty, but for a couple of Spearfish teachers camping with their grandkids.  I enjoy talking with them for a bit, but they had not seen any cyclists all weekend.  I figure I missed the party, but not its spirit.  I set up camp, test some equipment and food for a makeshift dinner and call it good.  Very good.

Cruising down South Rapid Creek Road on the early morning ride home.
Up at first light, I make some coffee and pack up.  Am I glad that, at the last minute, I had thrown into my pack a polypro stocking cap, long sleeve top and glove liners.  The thermometer now reads 44 degrees.  That's right.  70 degrees cooler than the high temperature on yesterday's ride out here.  It's still 44 degrees when I ride out of camp at about 6:30 a.m. wearing every stitch of clothing I brought.

As it turns out, at my relaxed speed, it's a comfortable temperature that's slowly rising.  And it's a relaxed effort for the initial 8 mile gradual downhill to back to Rochford.  Cattle and white tail deer graze in the meadows as the sun gradually chases away the last shadows of the night.  But that's not all.  A herd of over a hundred elk purposefully move along an aspen grove.  At the first sight of me, they all bolt for cover in the conifers above.  No hesitation.  Just like that, they're gone.  Every one.

By the time I stop to take this, most of the 100+ elk in this herd had already skedaddled into the trees.
The few uphill stretches pass in the mild temperatures of early morning.  Mostly it's cruising downhill for the return trip to Rapid City.  I briefly consider a side trip to scout out some primitive roads and ATV trails leading east out of Steamboat Rock towards Black Hawk.  But, remembering the effort expended yesterday in the heat, I return to my senses and take gravel and paved roads home.  Good decision.

Early morning sun along Nemo Road, less than 10 miles from Rapid City.
Altogether, that was about 42 miles in 5+ hours out to Black Fox and about 42 miles in less than 3 hours home.  A long, hard effort out there and a short, relaxed cruise home.  That's a nice sub-24.

Now if I can repeat it all this upcoming weekend.  I'd love to share the experience with fellow bike packers.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Back in the Saddle at Odin's Revenge

Back to Odin's Revenge.  180 miles of the toughest gravel and dirt roads winding through the rolling hills and steep ravines of remote ranch country in central Nebraska.  Adventure gravel geeks of all sorts, seasoned and green, fast and slow, journey here to challenge themselves and each other.  Even more so, they look to the open western prairie for an experience to share with each other and with the friendly folks that put it all together.  Odin's Revenge represents the best of the gravel scene.

Finding my way, out there somewhere on the Odin's Revenge course.
Relishing a return to Odin's Revenge for the fourth time, I carry the unfamiliar weight of a DNF ("did not finish") from the 210 mile Gold Rush Mother Lode, just two weeks ago.  In addition to the emotional baggage, I know there's a physical one, as well.  I've ridden to work every day since without issue, but harder efforts on single track reveal the truth.  I have no power.  I still have not physically recovered from the heat of the Mother Lode.  Not sure Odin's Revenge is the place to do that.

So, I roll into Gothenburg with considerable concerns about the race ahead, while quietly hoping for a solid finish.  Seductive whispers of dropping the mileage down to the 60 mile "short course" creep into my thoughts during the six hour drive.  Such a decision would be easy to rationalize, but hard to live with.  I know, when it comes right down to it, I'm all-in for the full 180 mile course.

Chad Quigley, the Revenge behind Odin's, setting up the pre-race gathering at Walker's Steak House.
Nothing lightens the heart quite like the Odin's Revenge pre-race gathering at the Walker Steak House. Folks filter in over the next few hours, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones.  Some talk of rides in the past, but mostly of the day ahead.  What did Chad and Team DSG cook up this year?  Even more Minimum Maintenance Roads, or worse?  What about the heat, the wind, the rains?  Oh, what are you running for tires?  That may all sound like a bunch of Nervous Nellies, but, with this crowd, it's more like being excited to face whatever comes our way.  Anticipation fills the old dance hall, mixing with the aroma of sizzling steaks and cold beer.

Chad announces that he designed the course along the lines of the inaugural 2012 race:  two odd shaped balloons connected at a start/finish area, with a meandering southern loop of about 100 miles, followed by a northern loop of about 80 miles.  Racers must reach four check points along the way at miles 42.6, 69.6, 96.5 and 138.5, each with a time cut-off.  The finish arrives at mile 178.1, for those that manage to make it.  It all looks reasonable enough on paper.  Of course, those miles cover what most cyclists would not consider normal roads or, in some cases, roads at all.

If you're looking for sweet gravel, you'll find plenty at Odin's Revenge.  Just know that there's some other stuff, too.
Having finished the last three years, I recognize enough of the roads on the cue sheets to know that this course will be at least as difficult those in the past.  My game plan is simple.  From the very start, ride moderately, with just enough effort to complete the 100 mile first loop on time to get the cue sheets for the second loop. Then take a break, refuel, assess how you feel for the 80 mile second loop, and head out with an appropriate plan to finish within the time cut-off of 12:30 am.  No attack speed today.  This is all about finishing.

Back to the Blue Heron campground, I enjoy the camaraderie of several other racers preparing for the day ahead:  strongman Jeff Caldwell and his irrepressible daughter Piper of North Platte, NE joyfully spinning around on their fatties; gravel veteran Shane Buscher of Lincoln, NE; tip-of-the-spear racer Daniel Schneider of Colorado; Omaha JackRabbit guru Scott Redd of Omaha, NE; and the ever-smiling, fast-roadie-racer Lawrence Fitz of Champaign, IL.  Some familiar faces.  Some new.  All having fun.

That light must be an angel looking over me, as we prepare for the 6:00 am start.
(photo by Emilie Kenoyer)
As usual, I awake moments before the alarm is set to go off.  The forecast calls for temperatures in the upper 80's, with morning winds from the south, the direction we're starting into, and then shifting to be from the north late morning, the direction we'll be riding then.  So, warm and headwinds all day.  All the more reason to ride conservatively.

The start line at 6:00 am is a festive happening, with pictures and well-wishing all around.  It's easy to get caught up in all that energy, but I remind myself to ride conservatively.  Many, many unknown variables about the course, the conditions and, most importantly, my body.  Go slow.

Cruising past one of the very few structures out there on the southern loop.
Only twenty-five of the forty registered racers actually start and, at the first hint of gravel, most of them disappear over the first hill.  I feel much better turning pedals than expected, but resist the temptation to respond.  This in not the day to chase rabbits.  Let them go.  Let them all go.  Find your pace.  Keep it mellow.  You're in this one to finish.

I soak in the moment.  The slow awakening sun greets lazy clouds, light breezes and mild temperatures, as the low hills of the Platte River Valley roll by.  This is my favorite time of day and I'm doing my favorite thing at my favorite event.  So happy to just be here.

The difficulties of the hills pick up, both in pitch and in surface, but it's a kinder, gentler ride when not pushing the pace.  The hardest part of these early miles is riding alone.  Even at relatively small races,  I enjoy riding with others, off and on, at least through the first few check points.  Today, with my measured pace, that isn't happening.  I'm at the blunt end of the spear.

Topping another small rise, I spot Check Point 1 at mile 42.6, managed by Merrie Quigley and her enthusiastic crew of cowbell clangers.  Merrie's famous "protein balls" are always a special treat, along with the cold, crisp water served by Culligan Water man Gordon Sanders.  Notwithstanding my pedestrian pace, it's only about 3 1/2 hours into the race, almost an hour before the cut-off time.  I feel fresh and energized.

Now come steeper climbs, more deeply rutted roads and thicker talcum they call dirt around here.  This is much more work, particularly with temperatures and winds rising.  With each turn, the names of the roads evoke memories of challenging sections of prior races :  Cut Creek Road, Hansen Hill, Effenbeck Road, Cottonwood Road and the renowned Government Pocket Road.  But the climbs don't seem as steep, the ruts as deep or the talcum as soft.  Maybe it's the relaxed mindset, but I'm feeling strong.

I cruise into Check Point 2 at Potter's Pasture at mile 69.6, hosted by artiste Garrett Olsen and Jen Wilson.  Very upscale, with a party tent, cheese and crackers, and adult beverages.  It's a peaceful spot.  Sweet.  I lie down for just a minute, top off water and get back out there, with still almost an hour in the time bank.  That was nice.

Picked up this cool print from cyclist artiste Garrett Olsen, who volunteers every year at Odin's Revenge.
Not long thereafter, I find Scott Redd at the top of a hill on Gillman Road, taking pictures, of course.  Scott is a cycling aficionado who has ridden many gravel events, including this year's TransIowa, and is the creative force behind the eclectic Omaha JackRabbit ride in October each year.  Just a few uphill pitches and "it's all a downhill trend," he says as he gazes into a Garmin digital map he created last night from the written cue sheets.  We ride together the hour or so remaining of the southern loop, sharing our time and encouraging each other.  What a great way to spin into Check Point 3.

Cruising along the canal with Scott Redd, a strong rider and great companion as the day grows longer.
Sticking to the plan, I put my feet up in the convenience store at the Blue Heron Campground, inhale a bottle of chocolate milk and a can of Coke, study the cue sheets for the northern loop and assess the eighty-two miles ahead.  There's at least twenty miles straight north, maybe thirty, into the now stout wind on a variety of unknown, numbered roads, with stretches into uninviting places as "Roten Valley."  I also hear whispers in the air, cautioning of unrideable, even indiscernible, paths unworthy of the name "road," lying in wait to lure and entrap the unwary.

Whatever, dude.  I now have about an hour and a half in the time bank and I feel really good.  The slow, steady pace is working.  Let's see what's out there and get to that next check point, about 42 miles away.

The next 30 miles or so are the least pleasant part of the entire day:  generally uphill on a false flat or a real hill, directly into a headwind, temperatures in the low 90's, thick gravel everywhere and not nearly as scenic as the southern loop.  All pass from memory as I spin into the raucous, rocking venue that is Check Point 4.  Lane Bergen, just back from his 1400 mile bike ride along the Continental Divide, and his proud dad Matt, hoop and holler to the squawking squeeze box of musician Paul Siebert.  It's all quite the mix of sights and sounds, planted on an intersection of a primitive dirt road and a barely maintained gravel road in the middle of nowhere particular.  What a fun stop.  And, despite the difficult section just covered, I still carry a solid hour and a half in the time bank.

Matt Bergen at Check Point 4, as I take off for the final 40 miles.  Or so.
(photo by Lane Bergen)
Now, I know I'll finish this.  Whatever lies ahead in the final 40 miles will have to include at least 20 miles of riding south, some tailwind and mostly "trending downhill," as Scott would say.  After a quick few miles, my optimism for a fast finishing forty miles fades upon turning onto a series of "Minimum Maintenance Roads," where I am abruptly reduced to walking, dragging and carrying my bike, while attempting to navigate through waist high grass.  Fortunately, these parts of the "roads" are relatively short connectors and soon I'm back to cruising on gravel.  

I zone out for a couple of miles before noticing that a road sign does not match the cue sheets.  Oh, no.  This is not the time to go off course and get lost in unfamiliar, remote country.  I backtrack and eventually get back on course, losing maybe half an hour or so and a lot of enthusiasm for that fast finish.

Yes, this is the "road" on one stretch of Odin's Revenge.  Does that look like "Minimum Maintenance" to you?
(photo by Scott Redd)
But I carry on, now finally back on solid gravel roads, for the most part.  As the sun slides away with a glorious farewell, I'm determined to stay on course now that it's dark.  I stop frequently to ensure that the cue sheets and road signs stay true.  The miles grow longer, but pass.  I'm certainly ready to get off the bike when crossing U.S. Highway 30 and then the bridge over Interstate 70 to take the turn onto Willow Island Road for the final 6 miles.  Not even the chunky gravel here dampens my spirit.  I will finish this race, on this day.  

A truck approaches from ahead, flashing its lights and stopping for me.  It's Race Director Chad Quigley and his wife Merrie, out checking on the racers still out on the course.  He's the force behind the fabulous team that puts together this great race, taking care of everyone within the spirit of such events.  A few minutes later, Chad and Merrie drive off to find Scott Redd and Janine Copple, who apparently are somewhere behind me.

Eventually, the heavy gravel of Willow Island Road T-bones into paved highway 47 for a short coast to the finish line at the Blue Heron Campground.  The handful of volunteers, racers and crew still hanging around bring me home to a chorus of cheers and cowbells, right at 11:27 pm.  That's 17 hours and 27 minutes after the start and just over an hour before the final time cut-off.  While snapping my finish line photo, Emilie Kenoyer exclaims, "Craig, you're just beaming!" 

That I am.  Still.

There's a finish line photo of one happy camper.  (photo by Emilie Kenoyer)
  Epilogue:  Scott Redd and Janine Copple knew they had become too late to be labeled as "official finishers" on some list, but kept pedaling well into the night to finish the entire course at 1:21 am.  Such determination represents the spirit of these events.  And Odin's Revenge itself, created and nurtured by Chad Quigley and the rest of Team DSG, represents the best of the unsanctioned, grass roots gravel race scene.  Support them and others like them.  The experiences they help to create are worth having and sharing.