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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Real. American. Gravel.

The First Order wins by making us think we're alone. We're not.
Poe Dameron, Star Wars - The Rise Of Skywalker (2019).

Muscling into the gravel scene, corporate opportunists incessantly hype "premier" gravel races promising a "world class" experience, at least for those anointed as special enough to be allowed to start or those willing to pay dearly for the privilege. If you're not a chosen one, hey, maybe you will be fortunate enough to "win" entry through a contrived lottery. If you don't get in this year, well, here's a lesser status, satellite event for you to work your way up to the real one. Of course, we'll let a limited number of you pay for our special training camp for preferred status for entry next year. Pony up, peasants, maybe we'll let you in. Meanwhile, submit to your Supreme Leader.

Like the First Order Fleet pillaging the desert planet Jakku for the map to Luke Skywalker, the elitism that strangles sanctioned bicycle racing stalks the gravel galaxy for your fealty.

Fear not. Corporate behemoths will not subjugate the gravel community. When all the big hype boondoggles dissipate, folks will still gather for fun, challenge and competition at local rides and grass root races. Just look around. You're not alone.

Recon from the 2020 C.O.G. 100 course. (photo by Guitar Ted Productions)
Here's a great start, straight from the birthplace of the grass roots gravel scene. It's the second running of the C.O.G. 100 Iowa Gravel Single Speed Championship, hosted by none other than Guitar Ted and N.Y. Roll. 2020 C.O.G. 100. This is where it's at.

The C.O.G. 100 is open to all willing to take ownership of the experience, rather than buy one served up on a silver platter. That is, Guitar Ted clearly and repeatedly pronounces that YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU and infuses that philosophy into the essence of the event:
  • self-navigated by cue sheets provided at the start (no GPS, no course markings)
  • self-supported (C-store re-supply, no crew, no aid stations, no caching)
  • no outside support of any kind (no "film" crew on course, no outside "encouragement")
  • no race organizer retrieval (ride in or arrange transportation if quitting)
  • no sanctioning, no prizing, limited if any schwag (the experience is the reward)
  • no one excluded (other than a generous field limit)
  • no cycles with a motor (mind-boggling that this has to be said)
  • modest entry fee to cover insurance and some expenses
It's just you, your fellow riders, and whatever you discover out there on an unknown course. All in all, it's a genuine Guitar Ted Production.

This is the heart of gravel. I'd love to return to the C.O.G. 100.

For more information, go to the C.O.G. 100 Blog. For my race report from last year's inaugural C.O.G. 100, go to A Fine Mess. For more gravel events, many of similar character, go to the Events Calendar at

In the end, the people make the gravel community.

It's not a navy, sir. It's just . . . people."
First Order Officer, Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker (2019).

B-Road recon for the 2020 C.O.G. 100. (photo by Guitar Ted Productions)

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

F.I.T. - A Mantra For 2020

In the moment.

That's not a resolution, but a mindset. That's not a lofty goal to hopefully attain someday in the fuzzy future, but an attitude to carry every day. 

Today. Right now. On this ride.

That's what struck me during my first gravel ride of the year. 

I can be this. Right now. 


A little windy at Wind Cave National Park.

Last weekend, I rode out of Buffalo Gap into Wind Cave National Park on a favorite remote road that actually is on the Black Hills BackBone route. It's a great winter ride because it's out-and-back starting mostly uphill and north bound into prevailing arctic winds. Regardless of the season, I ride past herds of buffalo on this gravel road every ride through Wind Cave. Every single ride.

How many roads guarantee more buffalo than cars?

On this day, the sun shines brightly at 53 degrees as I spin out of the Buffalo Gap Trading Post for my much anticipated first gravel ride of the year. Turning west out of town, however, howling winds rudely greet me, dropping my cadence and speed. Welcome back to gravel, buster.

When a gust of wind lurches my bike a couple of feet off line, the thought of turning back crosses my mind. Hey! Where did that come from? I never have thoughts like that. It's just a little wind.

I slow for a moment, but pedal on. The wind shifts, as it will. I settle into the rhythm of the ride, but that unsettling thought of turning back keeps resurfacing. Where did that come from? That question soon filters down to something different. Why am I out here?

First gravel ride of the year into Wind Cave National Park. Stout winds, hills, rough roads and insight ahead.
The road winds toward that small herd of buffalo in the background. Of course, a curmudgeon or two take the road.

Well, that's not complicated. I'm out to rejoice in the day the Lord has made. That is, to have fun.

That's when I realize that I'm having fun right now. The ambient conditions don't get to decide. My speed and distance don't get to decide. My level of conditioning doesn't even get to decide. I decide to have fun right here, right now.

The wind? I'm sure it will be faster and easier once I turn around for the tailwind cruise back to the Jeep. But more fun? It's fun right now riding directly into it, finding a way to push and pull that crank to turn that gear to move that bike through it. Now, it's uphill, too? Cool. The gravel a little soft? Well, all righty then. 

It's fun to work though something to resolution. It's fun to overcome an obstacle. It's fun to do something you're not sure you can. And as my Dad coached me from a young age, it's always fun to get better. The Best Coach I Ever Had.

As the miles roll by, it's easy to drift into anxious thoughts of future events or negative thoughts of past conditioning now lost. Another time perhaps those thoughts can be channeled to something productive. Right now, on this ride, it's time to stay in the moment. Embrace this moment for all that it is.

As time passes, it takes some work to stay in the moment, resolve challenges and be positive. I think that's where mental toughness comes into play. It's easy to get bogged down in other stuff, but, once again, it's not complicated.

Stay in the Moment. Resolve challenges. Be positive.

In the end, and even during the ride, that all adds up to fun. 

That's why I'm out there.

Remote road gravel in Wind Cave National Park, Black Hills of South Dakota.
One of my favorite stretches of gravel road anywhere. Yes, it's on the Black Hills BackBone route.

Fun + In the moment + Tough  =  F.I.T.

That's my mantra for 2020. See you out there.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Black Hills BackBone - What It Is + Links

The Black Hills BackBone is simply a bicycle route that I created to ride myself. 

There is no Black Hills BackBone race, or publicly organized event, or "Grand Depart," or anything like that. It's just a route I created to ride myself. Then I created this blog to document my journey, in part as a digital scrapbook and in part to share my experience with others. That's it.

The tall, broad shoulders of Flag Mountain reveal the granite peaks of Mount Rushmore and Harney Peak.

But, oh, what a route.

Inspired by the cross-country routes of the TransAmerican Trail and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route of the Adventure Cycling Association, I wondered whether I could piece together a remote road ride on primarily gravel and dirt roads that spanned the height of the State of South Dakota along the spine of our beloved Black Hills. That whimsical daydream led to many hours of scouring maps, scouting back roads and pedaling all over Western South Dakota. There seemed to be no end of options.

I struggled with this route, primarily because the Black Hills National Forest offers a staggering number of amazing roads to ride. Scouting a promising road invariably led to more. At some point, I simply had to stop, prioritize, and choose. The Black Hills BackBone is the resultBlack Hill BackBone - Cue Sheets & Other Links.

Conceived as an unsupported, solo ride, the Black Hills BackBone readily lends itself to a multi-day bikepacking ride or even a multi-day supported tour. In 2017, a small group of friends rode the entire route over three days in the heat and winds of a Fourth of July weekend. For my multi-post  report on that ride, go to these posts. An Idea Takes ShapeGatheringCrossing The Northern PrairieUp And Into The Black HillsFocus On The FinishA Weekend To RememberFriends.

Earlier this year, over a cold, rainy Memorial Day weekend, an intrepid group of eight cycling enthusiasts from Colorado made a run at the Black Hills BackBone. On that particular weekend of difficult conditions, they rode about as much of the route as one reasonably could. They said they had a great time, particularly Day 3 from O'Neil Pass to Custer, and vowed to return to the Black Hills. New Friends On The BackBone.

To my knowledge, the entire Black Hills BackBone has not been ridden on a bicycle as a continuous, unsupported, solo ride. In my first attempt in 2015, I stumbled into ferocious prairie winds with horizontal rain that eventually spit me out in Spearfish 135 miles later, barely able to stand.  A Rancher's Kindness.  In my second attempt in 2016, I flew across the 135 miles of Northern Prairie in ideal conditions before plowing into a freak ice blizzard climbing O'Neil Pass, dropping me into a trail head outhouse shaking like a frozen leaf.  A Sudden Turn.  My third attempt remains undocumented, as I still cannot wrap my mind around that ride.

Throughout this blog you will find details and pictures of the Black Hills BackBone route. To save a trip through the archives, here are links to some posts for the route. IntroductionOverviewFinal CutNew Cue Sheets & TweaksBackBone Photo Essay.

But wait, there's more.

Miles and miles of remote back roads on the Black Hills DoubleBackBone. Self-sufficiency required.

Imagine riding along the Black Hills BackBone to the stop sign finish at the Nebraska border. Celebrate for a moment, but then head west onto Dakota Line Road to access the Wild, Wild Western reaches of the Black Hills. A serpentine network of barely used gravel and dirt roads wind generally north for a return trip back to the North Dakota border.

Now, that's one big, bad loop. Well over 600 miles, all told. 

It's the Black Hills DoubleBackBone. Black Hills DoubleBackBone Cue Sheets.

Sometimes, more is more. More rolling prairie patrolled by herds of cattle, buffalo, pronghorn and elk. More obscure canyons scoured by flash floods. More twisty ridge lines climbing to soaring views. More hills stuffed with pine and aspen. More dirt near-roads connecting with secondary Forest Service gravel. And even more remote than the easterly side of the loop, which is a bit hard to believe until you're out there.

The Black Hills DoubleBackBone, like the original BackBone, is just a route that I think is fun and challenging, however one chooses to experience it. Solo or group. One continuous ride, a series of days or in sections over time. Self-supported, shuttled or fully supported. Maybe some combination or even all of the above.

The Black Hills BackBone. Go big.

The Black Hills DoubleBackBone. Go bigger.
The Black Hills. Just go.