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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Three Days of BackBone (part 5) - Focus on the Finish

Warming up on rough roads out of Fruitdale, we grit and grind up hot, relentless Tinton Road and climb deep into the heart of the Black Hills to reach idyllic Deerfield Lake on Day 2 of our three day Black Hills BackBone. After an evening of hard recovery with our Support Team at a Custer BnB, we awake to the Challenge of Day 3 - up and down 67 miles on back roads through the rugged, granite-spiked Central Black Hills, then 46 miles of haggard, hard scrabble Southern Prairie. That's 113 miles to the Nebraska border over a lot of tough terrain in mid-summer heat and wind. What do you think?

Difficult. Not impossible.


Part 1 - An Idea Takes Shape.  Part 2 - Gathering.  Part 3 - Crossing the Northern Prairie.  Part 4 - Up and Into the Black Hills.

As the sun starts to set, we roll to NothingThere, Nebraska.
(photo by Corinne Sorge)
We first return to Deerfield Lake, some 31 miles back up the BackBone route, to pick up where we stopped short of Custer last night. Today's forecast looks hot and windy, like yesterday, but more heat and more wind. At least we ride through some forest until mid-afternoon.

Also like yesterday morning, legs feel surprisingly good and spirits upbeat. It's amazing how the body can recover from a hard, all day cycling effort with a solid night's rest. It's even more amazing how the spirit can recover. We're ready. We resolve to start slowly, build a sustainable rhythm for the long day ahead, and finish at the distant border. We got this.

Back to idyllic Deerfield Lake to start Day 3 of the BackBone.
(photo by Corinne Sorge)
Right out of the blocks, we hit Williams Draw Road, a rough USFS secondary road that essentially climbs through dense pine for much of its 8 miles. It's a fun start to the day, but slow going. That's OK. We look to cover a lot of ground today. We drop onto Ditch Creek Road, with faster gravel and milder grades through more open valleys. This is prime elk and deer country, though not many large wild animals are moving around in the heat. Too intelligent.

Shaun spinning up Williams Draw Road early on Day 3.
Here, south of Deerfield Lake, the surrounding hills and valleys explode into a spider web of roads, near-roads, wanna-B roads, trails, paths and dead ends. Forsaking many possible adventures in many directions, we focus on the Nebraska border, still over 100 miles to the south. So, we stay on the BackBone route of USFS primary and secondary roads, which are not necessarily less interesting. Turning away from a valley, we climb Custer Limestone Road for the ridge line view of Harney Peak and Crazy Horse on the not so distant horizon. From that vantage, we also see our path far to the south start to open up a little.

On the horizon over Dave's left shoulder lies Harney Peak, with Crazy Horse the lighter stone below and right.
Now, we're moving. Down, down, down Custer Limestone Road and then even more so on Upper French Creek Road. This is fun, fast, flowing gravel, through granite outcroppings, along streams and past some homes. In no time, we turn onto U.S. Highway 16 for a short spin into Custer.

Finally, an extended fast descent. Coasting down Upper French Creek Road toward Custer.
Corinne and Lori set up lunch at Harbach City Park in Custer and then surprise us by riding their bikes up the BackBone route to meet us on Upper French Creek Road. We form a breakaway group of six streaming into Custer together. For the next couple of miles, mid-day traffic surrounds us in this tourist town on the Fourth of July weekend. A bit of a jolt to our remote road serenity.

Folks fill the shaded park, particularly since it's a trailhead for the popular Mickelson Trail. That's a fun rails-to-trails path, but not for us today. Unbeknownst to those enjoying the Mickelson, we focus on the Nebraska border, still 82 gravel and dirt road miles away. We refuel, rehydrate, restock and remount.

Support Team Corinne and Lori are so organized and efficient that they go on their own bike ride.
Out of Custer, we climb again, first up Sidney Park Road and then Flynn Creek Road. But we quickly crest those climbs, neither steep nor long, and fly down a sweet, flowing descent through more granite outcroppings into a widening valley. With big grins, we bottom out on Beaver Creek Road at the restored 19th century Cold Springs School, which doubled as a church in this sparsely populated pocket of the Black Hills. Nearby, the well-maintained cemetery marks the lives of the local settlers.

Emerging from the forested Hills to enter Wind Cave National Park, we weave through a prairie dog metropolis, follow a treeless ridge line with 360 degree views and drop through a buffalo herd to the prairie below. We're on highly recommended Rankin Ridge Road (NPS 5), the first gravel ride that Shaun and I rode together back in early 2013 and a memorable part of our 2014 DED Dirt Ride.

The big climbs are now behind us. The rolling prairie awaits.

Shaun slows to pass through a small buffalo herd protecting their calves.
Just off screen to the left is a cantankerous old bull, who arises to amble toward them as we approach.

Shortly before the town of Buffalo Gap, we stop on 7-11 Road to appreciate the scrap metal yard sculptures at a small ranch. But the artwork is gone. I need to find out what happened, because that was a must-see along this route.

Corinne and Lori greet us at the Post Office in Buffalo Gap, just into the Southern Prairie. This is a good time and place for a physical break and a mental re-set. So far today, we've ridden 67 hilly miles on rough roads in mid-90 degree heat and 15-20 mph winds. Now mid-afternoon, we sit 46 miles of rolling prairie gravel from the Nebraska border, with both temperatures and winds still rising. We try to cool off.

Back on prairie gravel for the final 46 miles.
After 262 miles, that remaining 46 miles may not sound like much. But after 262 miles, the tank holds little but fumes and the radiator is gurgling. So, we break it down to small pieces and resolve to pedal station to station, with our Support Team leap frogging. We start with 8 miles to Oral. We make it. We stop. We take a deep breath. OK.  Now, 38 miles.

From Oral, a steep half mile pitch climbs out of the Cheyenne River valley. That was rude. It gets worse. We turn south on Ash Road, for a 3 mile series of steep rollers. Ouch. But Ash Road also offers a rare-for-these-parts center pivot irrigation system and a hint of a gravel grid system. All together, this short stretch reminds me of Gravel Worlds, so I had to put it in the BackBone. Gotta pay tribute to the Pirates. Here's to Craig Schmidt, Corey Godfrey, the rest of the Pirate Cycling League and all those memories of Gravel Worlds. Aye, matey!

We stop again at Smithwick, and again just past Oelrichs. Basically, every 5-10 miles, we stop for a short break and re-group. It's slow. It's hard. It's working. We gradually knock off the miles.

Our only flat of the three day ride comes at 295 miles, just 13 miles from the finish.
(photo by Rob Sorge)

Picking up a tailwind as we turn west on Antelope Lane, we spin easily for several miles into the slowly setting sun before turning south onto Hard Scrabble Road. Abruptly, without warning or apparent cause, an angry hiss interrupts our rhythm. Air and sealant are blowing out of my rear tire like fireworks. An unknown object somehow sliced a sizable gash across the tread. Eventually, the remaining sealant manages to stitch together enough stuff to plug the hole, but only holds together at about 20 psi. That'll do, at least for the remaining 13 miles.

We eventually turn onto Black Bank Road, the last road before the border. With a big sweeping 90 degree turn, we wave goodbye to our final view of the now distant Black Hills and streak south toward the Nebraska border, only 9 miles away. The finish is almost in sight.

It's getting harder to express this in words. Here are some pictures as we close in on the finish.

(photo by Corinne Sorge)

Dave and Shaun on Black Bank Road, within sight of the finish.

Rob and me, as the sun starts to set.

The end of Dakota Line Road.  Dipping our front wheels into Nebraska.
We soft pedal to a lonely STOP sign where Black Bank Road T-bones into Dakota Line Road. It's the Nebraska border and the official finish of the Black Hills BackBone. We made it.

Just today, we endure 113 miles over 12+ hours on gravel and dirt roads through the Black Hills and across the Southern Prairie in mid-summer heat and winds. A special day. A memorable day. A get-'er-done day. We made it.

Smiles and hugs abound. Pictures every time you turn around, and sometimes when you don't. Corinne and Lori make sure everyone has food, water and whatever else. Jonis helps load up. It's hard to believe. We made it. We. Made. It.

One more finish line photo.  Just because.  Shaun, Rob, me and Dave.  Nice.
(photo by Corinne Sorge)

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