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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bikepack Extravaganza 17

Here's a cool concept.  Choose a destination campsite, preferably within a reasonable ride from a couple of population centers.  Commit to bike pack to that campsite on a given day, solo or with friends.  Invite some other like-minded folks to do the same, from wherever they choose to start, along whatever route they choose to take, on whatever type of bike they choose to ride, with whomever they choose to bring along.  Gather together as folks filter in and set up camp.  Hang out around a campfire.  Share coffee and breakfast in the morning.  Eventually ride home.

Fun-loving group at the Bikepack Extravaganza 17!  I'm not there yet.  As usual, I'm still out pedaling somewhere.
Clockwise:  Amelia Meyer, Jay Erickson, Christopher Grady, Robert Cota, Jason Thorman, Pearl Meyer and Jim Meyer.
(photo by Amelia Meyer)
Welcome to the Bikepack Extravaganza 17, the brilliant brainchild of forest fire fighter and cycling enthusiast Robert Cota of Spearfish.  Robert loved hearing stories of bike packing adventures and yearned to give it a go.  Last summer, he enlisted cycling veterans Kristi and Perry Jewett to create a largely single track ride from Spearfish to Black Fox Campground, a Black Hills National Forest primitive campground about eight miles west of the village of Rochford.  Unable to contain his enthusiasm, Robert posted his ride on social media and invited others to create their own rides out to the same campground that night.  The Bikepack Extravaganza was born.

So jazzed about the idea last summer, I mistakenly rode 42 mostly uphill miles to Black Fox a week early.  Then, on the right day, I limped in at about 10:00 pm, after the latest of a string of 12 hour work days and a slow uphill ride skirting thunderstorms.  Both were fun sub-24ers, but the gathering of fellow bike geeks made the Bikepack Extravaganza special.  Here's a link to my two blog posts about those rides last summer.  Black Fox - A Week Early.  A Path to the Light.

It's well into mid-afternoon before I'm finally ready to roll out.
No such drama this year.  Over the course of a couple of nights, I map out a circuitous route primarily on USFS secondary roads and two track trails west from Black Hawk into Nemo, north into unchartered territory and eventually to Black Fox Campground.  All that would likely take a good chunk of the day, with all the route finding, rough "roads" and elevation gain.  I plan to start early for an anticipated 8-10 hour ride, as folks likely will start arriving by about 5:00 pm.

But I let the day slip away.  Nothing big.  Just this.  Then that.  Then another.  Before I knew it, I had no time for that ambitious ride.  How'd that happen?  Maybe I'm not so ambitious after all.

Off dirty gravel and onto gravelly dirt.  Uphill on Bogus Jim Road.
I reconfigure to ride the most direct route with the most gravel.  Leaving home at about 3:00 pm, I simply ride Nemo Road to Norris Peak Road, about 12 miles of primarily uphill pavement into a steady wind.  Light traffic and light rain shepherd me onto good gravel at Bogus Jim Road.  The skies clear and the rain stops, as I turn up North Bogus Jim Road to ride on fresh gravel uphill and upwind.  Just as I crest the final pitch, the rain resumes for the descent to the Sugar Shack on Highway 385. 

Once again, the rain stops when I turn uphill, now onto Rochford Road.  And, once again, after I pop over the final pitch, the rain kicks in for the descent.  By the time the last hill bottoms out, I'm wet and chilled, soft pedaling onto the Mickelson Trail for the final few miles into Rochford.  Time to dry off and warm up over a dinner of chili and fries at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon.  That hits the spot.  Eventually, I bid adieu to Dan at the Moonshine Gulch and tool out of town for a sweet 8 miles of mostly dirt road up Rapid Creek Road to Black Fox Campground.

Onto the Mickelson Trail.  Just because.
By the time I roll in, the party is on.  A boisterous bunch of bicyclists arise to greet me with cheers and high fives.  There's Jason Thorman, the devious mastermind behind the Black Hills Expedition and veteran of a long list of long bike packing races.  Jason rode single track on the Deerfield Trail and then up from Silver City with Robert Cota, the host of the Bikepack Extravaganza, and Jay Erikson, an outdoor enthusiast and recent convert to the whole bike packing thing.  And there's Christopher Grady, fresh off his podium finish at the 110 mile Gold Rush, who rode his gravel rig up from Spearfish.  The first on scene at 5:00 pm, Christopher snapped up the last camp site at this first come/first served, no reservation campground.  That's a gold medal performance.

A little later, Spearfish cyclists Jim, Amelia and Pearl Meyer drive past, looking for a site for some family camping on Father's Day weekend.  They find Black Fox full, but wonder what's with all those cyclists?  Well, in no time, they pull their truck in and join the party.  Now, with a motorized vehicle parked in our spot, we're a little less odd to the casual observer.

A bike packing bike can carry a lot of gear.
Robert Cota and Christopher Grady at Black Fox Campground.
(photo by Jason Thorman)
Sitting around a roaring fire under star-stuffed skies, we talk of rides, bikes and gear well into the night.  There's a great diversity of outdoor and athletic experiences among these bike packers, making for lively and wide ranging conversations.  But no matter the twists and turns, we keep coming back to bikes and our shared passion for exploring the great outdoors under pedal power.

Eventually, we retreat into our sleeping bags on our inflatable pads, tucked into our tents and bivy bags.  With the idyllic setting and the extended effort just to get here, sleep comes easily.

Packing up for the ride home.
Camping next to a mountain stream at elevation is cool, emotionally and physically.  However, the resulting overnight dew coats everything and turns to frost by morning.  We wake to bright sunshine and prepare our various breakfasts.  It's still 30-something degrees, so we pull our gear into the sun to pack up for the ride home.

Jason, Robert and Jay pedal out together by 7:00 am, heading for Silver City on their mountain bikes.  About the same time, Christopher turns his gravel rig north toward Spearfish.  I linger a bit, not all that enthused about this coming to an end.

I eventually turn pedals at about 8:00 am, cruising into the morning sun on Rapid Creek Road toward Rochford.  This is good.  This is really good.  I'll be doing more of this.

New friends are always fun to meet.  Here's Jay Erickson, an outdoors enthusiast and full-on bike packer.
Turns out he was a high school classmate of my wife and grew up right down the street.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

2017 Gold Dust - A Friendly Little Ride

Nothing quite like cruising the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota on a glorious early summer day with 200 fellow adventure cyclists at the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.  Even better is riding fast enough or, in my case, choosing the shortest race to finish early enough to hang out with the gravel clan at the post-race party.  Great day to be out and about in the Black Hills, especially with friends.

Shaun Arritola and I chewing up the early miles at the 70 mile Gold Dust.
(photo by Randy Ericksen)
Way back in 2013, I rode the inaugural 110 mile Gold Rush on my beloved Torelli cyclocross bike, finishing third (out of three) in the single speed division in my first gravel race.  In 2015, I finished the inaugural 210 mile Mother Lode on my relatively new, and geared, Black Mountain Cycles monster cross bike.  Now, in 2017, I look to the 70 mile Gold Dust for yet another new experience:  sleeping in for a later start, cruising without a care of time cutoffs, and finishing in the warmth of the day to enjoy the post-race party with friends at a park.  What a concept.

Tony Diem starts the Gold Dust in high-wheeling style.
(photo by Race Director Perry Jewett)
Thursday night before the event, I peruse the event website for a refresher on all the happenings, to mentally double check preparations and to stoke the fire a bit more.  I wander over to the registration page to see who I might run into over the weekend.  Sweet.  There are quite a few cycling friends from out of state traveling to Spearfish for the weekend.  This is going to be fun.  Then one name jumps off the page.

Shaun Arritola.  "That dirt bag!" I yell out loud, scattering the household critters.  He entered the Gold Dust at the last possible date and didn't tell me.  "Dirt bag!"  But now, I'm grinning ear to ear.  Shaun and I started our gravel road journeys back in 2013 at the Gold Rush and have ridden together many miles and events since, including Dirty Kanza, Almanzo Royal and Odin's Revenge.  But not in awhile.  Shaun has been working full time, caring for his father, and building a house, barn and other structures on a recently acquired acreage in the foothills.  So, he's been busy with real life for awhile.  But now, it looks like he found some time for a little bike ride.

Big rollers on the early miles shared by the Gold Dust, Gold Rush and Mother Lode courses,
before turning up, up, up into the Northern Black Hills.  (photo by Les Heiserman)
We catch up Friday evening at the race packet pickup in Spearfish.  Updating the progress on his various projects, Shaun exudes optimism that things will lighten up soon.  I smile and nod.  It sounds like the same song he's been singing for many, many months.  On the other hand, this time he did manage to take an entire Saturday off for the Gold Dust.  Maybe he will be coming back to the bike.  He is here now.

No question he's fit.  Shaun keeps active and works out daily at a gym, including a regular 30 minute or so bike ride on a stationary bike.  However, more than a few months have passed since he rode any longer than that, let alone longer outside.  The Gold Rush is his challenge, and test, of his ability to adapt his overall conditioning to a long bike ride and to reawaken his cycling spirit.  70+ miles and 4,500+ feet of elevation gain on remote gravel roads should do both.

Shaun bridging the gap up Sand Creek Road into the Black Hills at the Gold Rush.
Saturday morning bursts bright and early, with mild temperatures, clear skies and light winds.  It looks to be a great day for a bike ride in the Black Hills.  Arriving a little early for the 110 mile Gold Rush start, I re-connect with some friends and meet some new ones.  Nice.

Before long, Race Director Perry Jewett calls for the 7:00 Gold Dust start.  The scene at the start of  the "short" race reminds me of the overall gravel scene just four years ago.  All kinds of bikes:  rigid, hardtail and full suspension mountain bikes, hybrids, cyclocross bikes, fatties, and some that defy characterization.  All kinds of riders:  from those capable of riding these 70 miles in less than 4 hours to those out there to find out what they are capable of.  And all kinds of positive vibe:  light, lively, festive.  Folks just excited to see what's out there.

Steep little pitch up to the Potato Station by the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower.
(photo by Les Heiserman)
Shaun knows these roads well, having ridden the Gold Rush twice before and having lived, worked and ridden out of Spearfish for years.  He knows that the real ride of the Gold Dust is the first 45 miles, with its almost 4,500 feet of elevation gain, that top out at the Potato Station on Cement Ridge.  From there, it really is almost all down hill to the finish.

So, we spin out of Spearfish at a comfortable pace, intent to roll up to that feast at the Potato Station.  We settle into a familiar rhythm of a long ride.  The road surface is hard packed dirt with gravel sprinkles and navigation is straight forward.  We cruise through some prairie rollers and head for the Hills.  Even with all the climbing up Sand Creek Road and Grand Canyon Road, the first four hours soon pass as we head up Rattlesnake Canyon Road for the final five miles or so to the top.

Mission Accomplished.  Gold Dust mile 45 at the Potato Station on Cement Ridge.  All (most) downhill from here.
(photo by Race Director Perry Jewett)
Shaun learns that, at his current level of cycling conditioning, four hours of steady climbing is really fun.  After that, it becomes more challenging, as signs of cramps creep in.  But Shaun recognizes the symptoms and nurses himself through the remaining miles and elevation to ride into the Potato Station.  Objective met.  We take a long, celebratory break over a few too many potatos and chips.

Fellow Gold Dust riders trickle in, relieved to complete the steep, final pitch to the top.  What a fun stop with energetic volunteers offering snacks, drinks and squirt gun cool-offs.  It's downright relaxing.  As I remove my helmet to enjoy the light breeze, a young volunteer gasps, "OOOH, do you need some sunscreen for that forehead?"  I thank her, but decline.  She persists, "I really think you need some sunscreen."  OK.  "No thank you, ma'am.  I plan to outrun the sun."  She looks confused, but several older cyclists smile.

Potato Station looking west from Cement Ridge at the Gold Dust and Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.
(photo by Les Heiserman)
As we soak in the scene and scenery, Gold Rush racers also fly into the Potato Station for their required check-in. These cyclists are clearly racing, which makes for a focused pit stop and a quick departure down the hill.  Friendly faces and grateful thanks, but with a determination to complete a necessary task and move on.  What a contrast.  I have enjoyed racing like that and I have enjoyed riding like today.  Right now, I'm happy right where I am.

Following a steep, rock drop, Shaun negotiates a sharp turn through standing water.
Short and infrequent technical bit, just enough to pay attention.  (photo by Les Heiserman)
Eventually, we point our rigs downhill for the 25 mile descent to the finish at Spearfish City Park.  Thankfully, someone finally patched up the 482,793 pot holes that occupied Roughneck Falls Road the last time I bounced my way through there.  Now, it's just the normal tourist motor and pedestrian traffic on that popular destination.  We wind our way to Savoy and onto Spearfish Canyon, a paved 14 mile scenic decline to the turnoff into Spearfish City Park.  Nice ride.

Shaun successfully completes his challenge with experience, judgment, toughness, determination and optimism.   He cheerfully pedals over 70 miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain, with essentially no ride over the past many months that is longer than a regular 30 minute spin on a stationary bike.  A nice reminder that we are all capable of more than we may think.  And a nice reminder of reasons why we love to ride events like this.

Ironic that I won a Dirt Bag bike packing bag at the awards ceremony.
(photo by Race Director Perry Jewett)
We make a Clark Kent change of clothes and hit the post-race party with gusto.  A catered meal, drinks, local micro brew, live music, small expo.  We hang out with the gravel clan, as riders trickle in from all three courses.  Folks from twenty states and Canada mingle with family and friends, sharing stories of the day, of days past, and of days to come.  I enjoy hearing of events and rides far away and day dream of somehow making it to some of them, someday.  But today is the day for relishing the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder in the Black Hills of South Dakota, our backyard.  What a day.

My thoughts are abruptly interrupted by the sound of my name over the PA.  What's that?  I meander up to the stage, not for a podium placing, but for a raffle prize.  It's a bike packing frame bag made by a nearby Wyoming outfit called "DirtBags."  How cool is that?  A high quality, locally made cycling product that I will definitely enjoy.  And every time I see that DirtBag logo I will think of my friend Shaun, "that dirtbag" who surprised me with our ride together at the Gold Dust.

Thank you, Shaun.  Welcome back.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

2017 Robidoux Quick & Dirty

Robidoux Quick & Dirty is a second year gravel road race rolling up 4,000 feet of elevation gain over 75 miles through the Wild Cat Hills of the Nebraska panhandle.  Created by the Western Nebraska Bicycling Club, this event showcases the pioneer history of the area by following part of the Oregon Trail over old Robidoux Pass and Mitchell Pass in Scottsbluff National Monument.  Nice event.  Good folks.

All the roads were saturated from days of spring rains that reluctantly relented just before the start.
Some pave, a lot of gravel, some dirt, here some sand.  It all stuck to everything.
Driving south from Rapid City on a late Friday afternoon, I watch as the skies grow increasingly heavy, the winds pick up momentum and the temperatures drop.  Cautious glances away from the paved highway onto the occasional abutting gravel roads bring a foreboding sense of reality.  As I drive further south, the gravel roads are getting wetter and wetter.  And there's more and more water standing on the roads, in the ditches, and in the fields.  Hmm.  It starts to rain.  It rains harder.

Socked-in steady rain greets me as I pull into the pre-race festivities at Five Rocks Pavillion, a nice outdoors amphitheater in Gering, Nebraska.  Unfortunately, a week of windy, cold rain petulantly persists past its forecasted finish, and well past its welcome.  The announced field of 105 registered racers winnows down to something less than half that at the pre-race.  As racers huddle around a shelter, Race Director Matt Hutt announces that a 20 mile chunk of the course is actually underwater and the rest is soggy, sloppy gunk of gravel, mud and/or sand.  The solution?  Detour around the parts underwater and slog through the rest.  Well, all righty then.  The group soon disperses.

I meet the effervescent Matt Hutt, sign in, devour a stone-fired pizza, study the modified course map, and consider a game plan.  Not much to analyze, really.  Unless this weather improves quickly and significantly, this race looks to be an all day slog in 35 degree windy rain.  So, just stay warm and dry until the start, decide then the quantity and quality of layers to pile on, and head out to take on the day as it comes.  Not much more to it.

Waking up to 37 degree drizzle and steady winds.  At least the hard rain stopped during the night.
Pitching a tent in the dark windy rain at 35 degrees challenges my objective of staying warm and dry until the start.  However, all turns toasty once tucked inside.  Of course, it rains all night and into the morning, before settling down to a dreary drizzle by about 8:00 am.  I dress like I was riding the Iditarod.

"Hey! Craig!" shouts a familiar voice at the chilly start.  It's the one-and-only Jeff Caldwell of Team White Tail Racing
out of North Platte, here with compatriot Luke Meduna to take on the Robidoux on a fattie.  Great to see you guys! 
Racers filter back to Five Rocks.  The later they arrive, the less layers they are wearing.  I skeptically drop a layer, then two.  By the 9:00 am start, the rain stops and a north west wind picks up, driving temperatures into the 40's.  Matt Hutt warns racers that the first 20 miles plows through soggy bottom land with soupy soft gravel and a few stretches of deep mud.  But the skies tease with a few, small patches of blue and the winds hint of drier roads soon.  A cautious optimism fills the air as the primed peloton streams into the rolling prairie.

Starting out on good gravel.  Just more than a little saturated.  Like those clouds.
But wait.  There's some blue.  I think.

We pedal south and east on well developed, relatively flat gravel roads that, if dry, would be very
fast.  But dry they are not.  Even on 40 mm Schwalbe G-One tires, I ride seemingly rim deep in gooey gunk for much of the first 20 miles.  At least one race ends with a broken derailleur in a particularly nasty mud pit.  It's that kind of day.

No one is in any danger of getting lost.  The few turns are well marked and staffed with volunteers cheering and clanging cow bells.  The interaction is fun and lively, but eliminates what little navigation skills the course may otherwise require.

Turning uphill and upwind into the Wild Cat Hills on firmer gravel, turning to sand.
Emerging from that initial 20 mile slugfest, we turn west and north onto firmer gravel up and into the Wild Cat Hills. These "hills" are bluffs that remain after an ancient inland sea receded.  Wind and water since have eroded these bluffs, further exposing layers and layers of underlying rock and sand.  Much of the 4,000 feet of elevation gain lies here, which now happens to be directly into the growing wind.  The slow climbs allow for a greater appreciation of the unique scenery.

Imagining life as a trading post entrepreneur in these hills in the 1840's.
The course winds gradually uphill on good gravel into pine covered hills up old Robidoux Pass, which runs by the site of a trading post established in about 1840 by Antoine Robidoux.  Yeah, that's not a typo.  1840.  Well before the Civil War.  That life had to be filled with adventure.  After a short, steep pitch, the course detours around the underwater section by turning onto Rifle Sight Pass Road.  This detour was the best part of the ride for me.  Big, sweeping views, long sight lines, firm sandy roads and a sense of remoteness.  Ahhhh.  Breathe deep the air of freedom.

The sand holds a week's worth of rain, but is firm enough so it feels like flying.
This hill generated a speed of 40 mph for this back-of-the-packer.
After a long, glorious descent onto the prairie below, the course rolls along again, with volunteers once again cheering and clanging cow bells at most every intersection.  The gravel remains soft, but rideable and with less standing water, before spilling onto pavement for a short pitch up Mitchell Pass in Scottsbluff National Monument.  Now, it's just a spin through the Gering Cemetery to the finish.

Yep, that's pavement over Mitchell Pass in Scotts Bluff National Monument.
And, yep, that Black Mountain Monster Cross bike is all blue underneath that fresh coating of gunk.
There's Matt Hutt at the finish line, giving high fives to the finishers.  He's a muddy mess, too, since he rode the entire course with everyone else.  Volunteers cheer and clang cow bells.  Music rocks the park.  The aroma of fresh burritos fills the air.  It's much more of a party, now that the wind swept away most of the heavy clouds and drove temperatures into the 60's.

Crossing the finish to a high five by Race Director Matt Hutt, who unfortunately is just out of the picture.
At the finish, my computer read just over 61 miles, with 6 hours and 7 minutes moving time.  For what it's worth, my official finish time was 6 hours 17 minutes, putting me in 23rd place out of 30 finishers.  I don't know how many of the 50 some folks at the Friday pre-race actually rode on Saturday.  But I do know that yet another 50 or so that pre-registered chose not to ride and missed a good one.

Here's Race Director Matt Hutt, showing some mud, but little other effects, from riding the entire course with everyone.
Nice work, Matt!
All told, the Robidoux Quick & Dirty turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant day on the bike, exploring unique country with history and scenery.  With well developed gravel roads, minimal navigation, relatively short distances and on course support, this event should attract a lot of interest from anyone wanting to check out the gravel scene.

Matt Hutt and crew created a fine event and overcame the challenging conditions with good cheer and good judgment.  Well done.