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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Six Course Feast

A young chef prepares a six course gravel series, worthy of a feast.

Local engineer and beer meister Lucas Haan created a sensory masterpiece with the Black Hills Gravel Series. Six consecutive Saturdays. Six different starts. Six different routes. Up, down and all around the Black Hills over unique, back country remote roads and near-roads. Six different restaurants at the finish. A real treat.

Break that down a little. Essentially one guy concocted six distinct courses, out of six different towns, for races on six consecutive weekends, drawing simply from a passion for cycling remote roads and sharing the experience with others. He starts with a good eye for reading maps, scouts possibilities by vehicle and by bike, seeks input from others, and pieces together a creative looped long course of about 50 miles, with a shorter looped course of about 25 miles nestled therein. He then prepares a GPS file and prints detailed cue sheets and maps. Each week. For six weeks. That's commitment. That's service.

The crazy thing is that each course was exceptional standing on its own. That's something special. Thank you, Lucas.

Lucas Haan setting up shop at the Crow Peak Brewery in Spearfish for the Black Hills Gravel Series #6.

This is grass roots gravel at its core. No entry fee. No pre-registration. No aid stations. No course markings. No course marshals. No on course support of any kind. No t-shirt. No schwag bag. Just a cue sheet or a GPS file of that week's course. All you need to do is get out there, sign a waiver and enjoy the adventure Lucas scoped out. Each Saturday. For six Saturdays. Remarkable.

Folks flocked from all over to Sturgis, to Custer, to Rochford, to Lead, to Hill City and to Spearfish, anxious to see what Lucas created that week. Look at a map. That's a whole lot of Black Hills. Half the riders came from Spearfish. A quarter of the riders were women. All came back with smiles and stories.

Here's a snapshot of each race in the Black Hills Gravel Series. The first and final courses ventured out into the wide open spaces on rolling prairie gravel roads through wind swept ranch land. Sandwiched between those prairie gravel rides sat the meat of the series - four weeks of "forest gravel." Just the right mix of fast gravel roads, lumpy dirt roads, and rocky two track. Most all up or down, both steep and gradual, long and short, rough stuff to silky smooth. Each course offered a unique mix of all of the above, and more, with unbeatable scenery. Nice work, Lucas.

Black Hills Gravel Series #1 (Sturgis)

Turning back toward Bear Butte steaming for the finish. Little did I know the steeps ahead lying in wait.
 Black Hills Gravel Series #1 (Sturgis)
The initial course spun East and North out of the motorcycle mecca of Sturgis onto the shoulders of Bear Butte with big views of the Black Hills. This quick spin on fast gravel, in 70 degree temperatures and bright sunshine, kicked off the series with a flourish. And just when you thought you're cruising to the finish, Cracker Jack Road and Avalanche Road delivered gut busting steeps right at the end, forewarning of the climbs, and little surprises, ahead in the coming weeks.

Black Hills Gravel Series #2 (Custer)

The natural cobblestones on the mile and a half climb up Cicero Peak.
Black Hills Gravel Series #2 (Custer)
The second course dove directly into the Black Hills out of the gold rush town of Custer and set the tone for the rest of the series. About 50 miles. About 5,000 feet of elevation gain. At least that's what I rode after missing a turn. Some fast gravel. Some good dirt. A whole lot of up and down everywhere you turned.  Like the steep pitches right at the end of the Sturgis course, Lucas did not hesitate to add an unexpected wrinkle. Here it was a mile and a half spur straight up a brutal rock-infested pitch to the summit of Cicero Peak for a stunning view. I think I rode slower down that beast than up. That was a ride.

Black Hills Gravel Series #3 (Rochford)

Another spur climb in the middle of a gravel race, here atop Flag Mountain overlooking Gillette Prairie.
Black Hills Gravel Series #3 (Rochford)
The 50 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain of the third course out of Rochford cranked up an 11+ mile climb along Castle Creek on a narrow two track logging "road," with water-filled pot holes, ruts, rocks and timber to negotiate. Cool climb, but would really be a bear if much wetter. A mile spur climb up Flag Mountain rewarded riders with a 360 view of the central Black Hills. And that 5 mile stretch of Black Fox Camp road is one of my favorite rough roads anywhere. Barely a road, following a beaver-inhabited mountain stream framed with cliffs. Worth the ride by itself.

Black Hills Gravel Series #4 (Lead)

Spring time in the Black Hills.  Everything turning green and the streams are full.
Black Hills Gravel Series #4 (Lead)
The fourth course out of the mining town of Lead cheerfully kept the theme of 50 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain up and down all sorts of roads and near-roads, but with a start temperature of 27 degrees. Yes, that's Fahrenheit. The snow storms a couple of days before the race created everything from hero gravel, to water-filled pot holes, to greasy slides, to Almanzo-esque creeks to ford and even streams flowing down rock strewn two tracks. All rideable. All added to the Northern Black Hills gravel experience.

Black Hills Gravel Series #5 (Hill City)

No shortage of exposed rock in the Black Hills.  We'll go around this one.
Black Hills Gravel Series #5 (Hill City)
Week 5. Hill City. How about another 50 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain? Although there were a couple of short drops, the first 27 miles of the fourth course basically went up, with long rollers after that. China Gulch, Horse Creek, McVey, Newton Fork, Bloody Gulch, Burnt Fork. That's a rough bunch spitting out a whole lot of rocky dirt. The only real gravel lurked on the corners of the steep downhills. I'm sure Lucas planned that. Tough course.

Black Hills Gravel Series #6 (Spearfish)

Heading home from Wyoming on some welcomed downhill in the heat of the day.
Black Hills Gravel Series #6 (Spearfish).
The final course spun out of Spearfish north and west back onto prairie gravel into the windy wilds of Wyoming.  No crazy two track here. Just fast prairie gravel through rolling hills totaling 3,500 feet of elevation gain. Great weather, almost summer heat. Great turn out. Fun finish to the series.

Those six weeks ended too soon. Here's to Lucas Haan for creating a memorable gravel series. Here's to hoping he will do this again next year. If he does create something next year, I'll be at the start, and hopefully at the finish.