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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Three Days of BackBone (part 4) - Up and Into the Black Hills

Battling heat and winds over a long summer day, our intrepid little band struggles to cross the sun baked Northern Prairie to reach the foothills near Spearfish on the first day of our three day Black Hills BackBone.  But, cross it we do.  After a relaxing evening at a luxurious BnB with our Support Team, we awake to the challenge of Day 2 - the hot, dusty, relentless climb up Tinton Road to 6,683 foot O'Neil Pass, followed by miles of up and down on Forest Service back roads deep into the heart of the Black Hills.  Looks to be another big day on the BackBone.

Part 1 - An Idea Takes ShapePart 2 - GatheringPart 3 - Crossing the Northern Prairie.

Just a tad past warming up on Tinton Road, ultimately destined for O'Neil Pass.
But first, we return to Fruitdale, some twenty miles back up the BackBone route, to pick up where we stopped short of Spearfish last night.  Breaking brightly, the day looks to be similar to yesterday.  Calm and 50 degrees early, with winds building well into the 20's and temperatures rising well into the 90's.  Lots of sun.  Little shade.  And today, lots of up.  The sooner we get on, and off, that 30 miles of Tinton Road the better.

Back at Fruitdale, refreshed and renewed for Day 2.
(photo by Corinne Sorge)
Legs feel better than expected this morning and spirits are high.  The recuperative effects of a relaxing evening are remarkable, especially with a Support Team catering to everything.  We ride like the start of yesterday's ride, not the end.  By today's end, we'd love to pedal into Custer, but more realistically we aim for Deerfield Lake, still sitting 82 miles and a boat load of elevation gain away. 

Recognizing his current level of conditioning, Shaun decides to maximize his ride today by riding with us the 20 miles to Spearfish, shuttling the 30 miles to the top of O'Neil Pass and rejoining us for the following 32 miles to Deerfield Lake.  That works out to a solid 5 hours and 52 rough road miles for him, after yesterday's grueling 79 prairie miles.  Sounds like a rational plan.

Well, no, actually.  The BackBone goes left.  No surprise.
(photo concept by Rob Sorge)
Turning south onto Crooked Oaks Road, we spin up the first hills of the day.  Now we enter the foothills of the Black Hills, with winding roads carving up and around oak covered hills.  Relative to yesterday's Northern Prairie, here the grades are substantially steeper, the gravel thicker, the turns tighter and the sight lines shorter.  These more punchy, more technical roads offer a fun beginning to what promises to be another big day.

We drop down a ridge to turn left, contrary to an insistent road sign, onto a rutted, two track dirt road marked with an ominous "Impassable When Wet" sign.  It's Sale Barn Road, a 2 mile shortcut for local ranchers hauling cattle to the St. Onge stock market.  The BackBone route meanders east around the Belle Fouche Reservoir for several miles primarily to pick up this short stretch of rough road.  It's my tribute to Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, and his TransIowa, the grand daddy of modern gravel events.  Know that, when wet, this dirt road is a real bear.  Fortunately, today it's mid-summer dry and only occasionally and moderately rutted.  Still, I smile just thinking of all those TransIowa stories over the years.  Here's to you, Mark, O Keeper of the Gravel Flame.

Not much of a challenge in today's mid-summer heat, but Sale Barn Road is a different road when wet.
We emerge at the St. Onge stock market and roll over to Lookout Mountain Road, another non-maintained dirt road en route to Spearfish.  This one stares straight up a rutted wall, reminiscent of the crazy, steep, gouged dirt roads prevalent at the legendary Odin's Revenge.  Even though it's really just one steep pitch and it's dry today, this is my BackBone tribute to that remarkable event, Chad Quigley (the dastardly mastermind behind it), and his crew Team DSG.  Odin's Revenge remains my all-time favorite gravel event.  Odin's Revenge - One Rider's Retrospective.

Like Sale Barn Road, Lookout Mountain Road is not much of a challenge today.
But that wall ahead is nearly unwalkable when wet.  Not unlike any number of dirt roads at Odin's Revenge.
Coasting down from Lookout Mountain Road into Spearfish, we ride across town and run into McGuigan Road, the paved precursor to the graveled Tinton Road.  Shade disappears.  Climbing commences.  With altogether too few and too short exceptions, we face a hot, shadeless, dusty, relentless climb for the next 30 miles.

It certainly does not help matters that we start this climb after 10:00 am.  It's already hot and the holiday weekend vehicle traffic, both up and down, kicks up dust and detracts from the serenity of what, up to now, has been a quiet, remote road ride.  We settle in for a long, tough one.

Shortly after we reach gravel, Lori and Corinne help Rob find something, anything, to help get up this relentless climb.
Just as this climb is getting a little annoying, a late model luxury car traveling downhill slows to a crawl as it approaches me.  A perfected coiffed, impeccably dressed middle-aged woman powers down her window, musters all the disgust and disdain within her considerable reserve, and haughtily barks, "You DO know there is a BIKE trail right over THERE!"  Knowing that she is referring to the renowned single track Tinton Trail off a bit into the woods, I smile broadly and answer politely, "Yes, Ma'am!  Thank you!"  She shakes her head in utter disbelief and accelerates away.

That's a sure sign we're on the wrong road at the wrong time.  I never, not ever, receive that kind of treatment on truly remote roads.  Here For Each Other.  I commit right then to reconsider this part of the route.  For now, we soldier on, stopping occasionally if we find a patch of shade.  Mostly, we just grind up a long climb on a hot, dusty, relatively busy gravel road.  As the old Tour de France line goes, "Kilometers passing like kidney stones."

Early lunch at Old Baldy Trailhead.  We're ready for a change.  Of anything.  Of everything.
We eventually grind up past Big Hill and then Old Baldy, where we stop for an extended lunch break.  That helps, but it's hard to start up again in this heat.  We do.  And then, after we stop for a spell, we do again.  And then, again.  And, again.  We grind.  We growl.  We snort.  We endure.  When we finally turn onto U.S. Highway 85, the TransAm Highway, we know that we took all that Tinton Road threw at us today and came out on top.

Dave and Rob find their smiles today after turning off Tinton Road.
It's likely that Tinton Road will be cursed over beers for many years to come.  Maybe the guy who took them there, too.
Shaun joins us at O'Neil Pass Road for the rollicking descent on South Rapid Creek Road.  After that beat down inflicted by Tinton Road, it sure is good to see his big smile and hear his hearty encouragement.  It's also nice to see double digit speeds for a change.  We're cruising again.

Shaun and Dave stoked for Black Fox Camp Road.
(photo by Rob Sorge)
In seemingly no time, we turn west to ride right through Black Fox Campground, the site of the fun, creative Bikepack Extravaganza 17 earlier this year.  Bikepack Extravaganza 17.  Then it's a gradual incline on a rough road along a beaver dammed mountain stream framed by towering cliffs.  Yeah, this is Black Fox Camp Road, five of my favorite remote road miles anywhere.  For me, this alone is worth the climb up O'Neil Pass.

Cruising toward the top of Flag Mountain, we can finally start thinking of the final descent to Deerfield Lake.
Too soon, we leave that valley to climb over the tall shoulders of 6,939 foot Flag Mountain.  Legs are tired, but grades are gradual, with a couple of substantial drops along the way.  Maybe more importantly, temperatures relax with some gathering clouds.  Our spirits rise along with the elevation, for we know Deerfield Lake lies but a few miles away and well below us.  Rob and Dave freewheel out of sight, while I slow to gaze through the towering pines.  Thoughts wander.

There it is.  The big view of Gillette Prairie far below and the granite summit of Harney Peak on the horizon.  This is the signature shot for the Black Hills BackBone, as initially revealed almost three years ago.  Introducing the Black Hills BackBone.  I've been over this tall, broad shoulder many times, but this is the first time as part of a multi-day ride of the entire route.  I pause a bit to soak it in.  A quiet smile lingers.

High atop the shoulders of Flag Mountain, the remote road view that captures the heart of the Black Hills BackBone.
We plummet to Deerfield Lake, first on primo gravel and later on some pavement.  A few drops of rain fall as we pull in at White Tail Loop (USFS 421), really done for the day.  Earlier, we had decided to end today's ride there, so "Fresh Legs" Shaun rode ahead and connected with Jonis to retrieve the trucks for our shuttle to Custer.  However, through my communication snafu, they drive to a different spot.  With no cell phone coverage, we simply must wait for Shaun to work through possible alternatives to find us.  But he does and we load up without getting too wet.

Deep in the heart of the Black Hills, it's easy to forget that we started this day over 12 hours ago back in the foothills near Fruitdale, 20 miles short of Spearfish.  That's a lot of Black Hills behind us.  We cherish another relaxing night at a BnB, this time in Custer, where our Support Team awaits.  We eat, drink, shower and put our feet up in an old house, whose decor earns the nickname "Animal House."  But no Toga Party tonight.  We're cooked.  We're done.

No one talks much about riding tomorrow.  That's for tomorrow.

It's been a long time coming to reach this spot.  Worth a short pause.

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