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Sunday, August 30, 2020

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series (Season 4 wrap)

Country roads, take me home
To the place, I belong
South Dakota, Black Hills gravel
Take me home, country roads
apologies to John Denver, Take Me Home Country Roads (1971)

Another season of the Black Hills Gravel Series brought together a growing community of cyclists to share their love of riding remote roads. The Black Hills Gravel Series attracts all kinds of folks, from young to old, beginner to veteran, novice to expert. It's a community treasure, created and nurtured by the indomitable force of nature known as Lucas Haan.

Behind that friendly face, Lucas Haan is constantly cooking up amazing Black Hills Gravel routes.

This fourth season offered seven start locations scattered throughout the Black Hills area, each with a Green route (easy 10-15 miles), Blue route (moderate 20-25 miles) and Black route (difficult 45-55 miles). Generally, the Green routes not only are the shortest, but also have fewer, easier hills and better road surfaces. The Blue routes basically double the number of miles, as well as gain more elevation on less developed roads. The Black routes double the miles again, gain even more elevation on more difficult climbs, and often include stretches of "roads" that challenge even the most accomplished cyclist.

To keep the good times rolling all summer long, Lucas released the routes about once a month from March through August. Even with the popular group starts and after ride gatherings canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, folks eagerly anticipated the announcement of the next route, rode their chosen distance on their schedule, and shared their experience on social media. With this regular Black Hills Gravel connection, our local gravel community not only survived, but thrived throughout this season.

Here's a snapshot of each of the seven Black routes of the 2020 Black Hills Gravel Series. The first three ventured into the rolling prairie surrounding Piedmont, Sturgis and Spearfish. The next four dove deeply into the Black Hills from Custer, Merritt, Hill City and Rochford. Each route offered a unique mix of fast gravel and lumpy dirt roads, with the Black routes adding a little something extra, like some rocky two track, gutted ATV trail or overgrown single track. All are creative, memorable routes worthy of riding again and again. Thank you, Lucas, for another season of Black Hills Gravel!

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #1 (Piedmont)
The Black Hills Gravel Series kicks off in late March with a prairie ride east and north out of Piedmont. In brilliant sunshine, 60 degrees and little wind, cyclists fly over dry, hard, fast gravel, if a little rough from our snowy winter. It's a great spin fest to start the season. (2020 Piedmont Photo Album).

Bear Butte looms on the horizon early on the Piedmont route.

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #2 (Sturgis)
Just three days after a foot of fresh snow in early April, the Black Hills Gravel Series streaks back into the rolling prairie, this time north and east out of Sturgis. Surprisingly, cyclists revel in sunshine, light winds, 40-50 degrees and hero gravel everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except a mischievous 3 mile Minimum Maintenance Road filled with snow, ice and mud. Well, alrighty then! Let the infamous route twists on the Black Hills Gravel Series begin! (2020 Sturgis Photo Album).

One mile into a three mile stretch of ice, snow and mud on the Sturgis route.
Otherwise, it's hero gravel all day.

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #3 (Spearfish)
Building momentum for upcoming rides deep into the Black Hills, the Black Hills Gravel Series adds longer and steeper climbs on the next ride out on the prairie and surrounding hills from Spearfish. Maybe it's a bit more cloudy and more windy this time, but nobody complains about the 60-70 temperatures and great gravel. Even gullied Lookout Mountain Road isn't too hard to navigate, nor is a closed bridge. We're ready to hit the Hills! (2020 Spearfish Photo Album).

On the Spearfish route, a closed bridge awaits at the bottom of this twisty steep.

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #4 (Custer)
Into the Hills! North and west out of Custer stream a series of remote roads that quickly spider web into a mass of sometimes interconnecting gravel, dirt, two track, barely a track and even elk "roads." Factor in virtually no cell coverage for a true Black Hills remote road adventure. This day dawns even more magical with early morning mist and 55-65 degree temperatures. Recent snow and rain softens the various road surfaces, slowing everyone. This is where it's at. (2020 Custer Photo Album).

Early on the Custer route, a Forest Service road climbs toward the mist.

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #5 (Merritt)
Bring your "A" game to this course. Primary, secondary, and tertiary USFS back roads, logging trails, ATV trails with Black Hills sized gravel, overgrown single track and multiple creek crossings, including a mid-thigh creek fording if you're not paying attention! Hot, dry, and dusty all day, with plenty of exposed, steep climbs in the second half, including right at the end. This one's earned. (2020 Merritt Photo Album).

Innocent enough start to a long, hot, hard day on the bike on the Merritt route.

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #6 (Hill City)
Into the Heart of the Hills from Hill City, cyclists climb over 5,000 feet of elevation in 55 miles on mostly secondary USFS roads with virtually no traffic and little development. Rough roads follow streams lined with meadows and granite. Rolling ridge lines reveal the biggest peaks in the Black Hills. And just when it looks like a downhill coast to the finish, the route turns onto a rock-infested ATV trail for 3 miles of bonus bike handling clinic. On a Black Hills Gravel ride, it aint over 'til it's over. (2020 Hill City Photo Album).

Ridge line view of Harney Peak from a wild flower lined road on the Hill City route.

2020 Black Hills Gravel Series #7 (Rochford)
In the season finale, the Black Hills Gravel Series rolls out of Rochford up postcard perfect Black Fox Camp Road to summit Flag Mountain, quickly descends fast gravel with big views, jumps on a nifty 3 mile dirt connector, and then climbs up a rough, winding Castle Creek Road. Recent rains deliver hero gravel everywhere, although some navigation is required around puddles and cow pies. All rideable. All fun. A worthy finish to another outstanding season. (2020 Rochford Photo Album).

Rolling up toward the high country early on the Rochford route.

Go to Lucas' website for news of all things Black Hills Gravel, including a digital library of GPX files for all of the Black Hills Gravel Series routes over the past four years. Also, check out his Black Hills Gravel FaceBook Page for the latest Black Hills Gravel news. Then, get out there and ride!

Take Me Home Country Roads
John Denver (1971)

Sunday, August 23, 2020

2020 Gravel Worlds (DED BackBone Edition)

So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit
One more time.
Take It To The Limit, Glen Frey/Don Henley/Randy Meisner (1975) 

Celebrating the finish with Recoverite in a 2013 Gravel Worlds bottle.

The Pirate Cycling League nurtures an inclusive, grass roots vibe in all that they do. And they have been doing it as long as anyone. Under the sage guidance of Captains Craig "Schmidty" Schmidt and Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey, the Pirates ensure that cyclists of all levels are welcomed and valued at their gravel events, even as their signature race, Gravel Worlds, explodes in popularity and influence. They are a treasure.

This year, the Pirates cancelled Gravel Worlds, due to COVID-19 virus concerns. Although the annual gravel family reunion would not happen in person, the Pirates announced a virtual one. Cyclists could sign up for a Gravel World distance, choose their own course, ride on their own schedule, submit documentation, and be eligible for prize drawings. For this, the Pirates asked no tribute for themselves, but rather a nominal direct contribution to a local charity. 2020 Gravel Worlds

Who ever heard of a Pirate giving back to the community? These do.

Rolling out of Buffalo Gap on fresh gravel to a wildfire sunrise.

The Pirates' gesture merits support. So, I commit to take on a 150 mile Gravel Worlds ride in my backyard and share it with the gravel community. But what route? There are so many great options in the Black Hills.

Ash Road. The route must include Ash Road.

Back in early 2015, I announced the Black Hills BackBone route, a 310 mile cross-state gravel route spanning the height of the State of South Dakota along the spine of the Black Hills. Black Hills BackBone. When designing the route, I felt compelled to include the 3 miles of Ash Road, near the small town of Oral out on the prairie south and east of Wind Cave National Park. Here's what I wrote back then:

"One exception is Ash Road, a 3 mile roller coaster of short, steep hills, a rare-for-these-parts center pivot irrigation system and a hint of a gravel grid system, all reminiscent of Gravel Worlds. Gotta pay tribute to the Pirates." Black Hills BackBone - Final Cut.

Ash Road early on the Black Hills BackBone segment.

With Ash Road a given, I realize that a great 150 mile prairie gravel route may be possible simply by connecting parts of three different routes I created over the years. Start in Buffalo Gap and ride the Black Hills BackBone route to the border at NothingThere, Nebraska. Black Hills BackBone. From there, turn west on the Black Hills DoubleBackBone route and ride to the railroad town of Edgemont. DoubleBackBone. Then ride from Edgemont back to Buffalo Gap along the DED Dirt Ride route. DED Dirt Ride.

The Black Hills BackBone + the Black Hills DoubleBackBone + the DED Dirt Ride. Mapped out digitally on, it adds up to 150.0 miles with 7,336 feet of elevation gain.

Wow. Perfect.

The DED BackBone Edition of 2020 Gravel Worlds.

All smiles at mile 47 on the Nebraska border,
 which is the end of Black Hills BackBone and the start of the DoubleBackBone.

Early Saturday on what would have been the actual Gravel Worlds, I roll out of Buffalo Gap to a red sunrise muted by the smoke of massive wildfires in Colorado. Relatively low winds and temperatures bring me to the town of Oelrichs at Mile 27 for a gas station breakfast burrito and Coke. Surprisingly soon thereafter, I'm at the Nebraska border, giddy with memories of finishing the Black Hills BackBone in 2017 with friends Shaun Arritola, Dave Litzen and Rob Sorge. Friends. That was special.

Feeling spry, I cover those first 47 miles in less than 4 hours. Ahead lies the heart of today's ride: 50 miles of shadeless prairie gravel on incessantly rolling hills through pronghorn, mule deer and elk habitat, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and large cattle ranches. Although not yet noon, temperatures now exceed 100 degrees and the wind decides to pile on. This is no spot to stop for long.

The Black Hills DoubleBackBone segment offers 50 miles of open grassland to Edgemont.
No shade and 108 degrees on my cyclocomputer, but thankfully little wind.

About 17 miles later, I discover a sliver of shade at the building for the Ardmore Volunteer Fire Department. Although nearly deserted and certainly in need of some upkeep, Ardmore actually shows some life, with a few cars passing on Road 71 and even a lawnmower sputtering. I lay down in the shade, douse myself with water, and relax for about 10 minutes. It's an oven out there and I'm still 33 miles to Edgemont.

Back into heat and the big rolling hills, I realize that this middle third must make a big chunk of the 7,336 feet of elevation gain for the day. Every mile or so, it's down one hill and up another. In suffocating heat. Those thoughts eventually bring a wry smile and slow head shake. Just like Gravel Worlds.

Well, alrighty then. This is a legit remote Gravel Worlds course.

Looking back at a climb out of Edgemont on the DED Dirt Ride segment back to Buffalo Gap.

By the time I limp into Edgemont at Mile 97, I am cooked. Roasted and toasted. I pull into a gas station, douse myself with water, and lay down in the first shade since Ardmore. Fully 20 minutes later, I arise to collect thoughts and stretch a bit.

I am normal-tired for this part of a long ride, but still need to cool off, drink a bunch of fluids, eat a load of calories, and re-group for the remaining 53 miles. So, I go inside for a quart of chocolate milk, a quart of fully loaded Coke and a mini-pizza. Gradually, I come back to life.

Stark realities of a harsh environment where even a strength can become a liability.

I am not eager to get back out there in the heat and hills. In fact, I linger at that Edgemont gas station for an hour and 20 minutes all told. But it is just what I need to face the final 53 miles back to Buffalo Gap. I eventually remount to start the climb out of Edgemont.

The DED Dirt Ride segment is much less familiar to me, not having ridden it since 2014. But with so few places to take a wrong turn, I keep turning pedals en route toward Buffalo Gap. The rolling hills do not let up. Neither does the heat. But the miles slowly pass.

These lands are full of surprise. Coasting down a hill, I spot a fox on the road. It sees me and starts running. For fully a quarter mile, it keeps ahead of me on the road as I coast at about 20 mph. Finally, it turns into a drainage and vanishes into the vegetation. That's one fast fox.

Temperatures recede as the sun fades. With about 30 miles to go, I realize that I'm going to finish this ride in the dark. But I am going to finish this ride. A smile slowly forms across my sweaty, dusty face. I decide to enjoy the last 2 hours as a victory lap and casually cruise into Buffalo Gap.

I created this route on beforehand to verify the 150 mile distance.

My DED BackBone Edition of 2020 Gravel Worlds is complete. 150.0 miles. 7,336 feet of elevation gain. 14 hours, 30 minutes overall. 12 hours 8 minutes rolling. Taking it to my limit. One more time.

Thanks Schmidty, Cornbread and the rest of the Pirate Cycling League for your service to the gravel community. Hopefully, we'll all be at the next gravel family reunion at the 2021 Gravel Worlds.

Take It To The Limit, Eagles (1976)

Monday, August 17, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 - A Bikepacking Journey

Got to pay your dues
If you want to sing the blues
And you know it don't come easy
It Don't Come Easy, Ringo Starr and George Harrison (1971).

When compadre Lucas Haan alerted me to the Cloud Peak 500 bike packing route in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming (Cloud Peak 500), I immediately recognized its potential as a primo shake out ride for a Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) tour. Specifically, it offers about 20 percent of the distance and elevation gain of the GDMBR on a similar variety of remote roads and terrain, with occasional small towns for re-supply. As a bonus, the Big Horns are but a few hours from Rapid City. I mark it a priority ride for 2020. (Cloud Peak 500 - That's The Plan)

From the start, I believe that I could comfortably cover 60-80 miles per day with a loaded bike packing bike on that route. That means riding 6-7 days. After a couple of overnight rides in the Black Hills on my loaded bike, I bump that estimate up another day. Confident in my assessment, I arrange car transport with my wife Colleen and even commit to help our daughter Cara move to a new apartment in Denver right after that.

Meanwhile, cycling friend Paul Brasby of North Platte, Nebraska catches wind of my Cloud Peak 500 plans. As a lifelong, successful road racer, Paul is an enthusiastic gravel racer and bike packer with both eyes fixed on a GDMBR ride in the near future. He also concludes that the Cloud Peak 500 looks to be an ideal ride to prepare for that, as well as a great ride on its own. We decide to start together and see how it goes.

Early on Day 2, Paul Brasby and Craig Groseth at USFS Dead Swede Campground.
We're celebrating the end of the beastly Red Grade Road climb at about Mile 72.

With promising weather and good spirits, Paul and I start early one morning from Sheridan, Wyoming. We ride together, off and on, during each day and re-connect each night, usually at a primitive campsite. The rough, remote roads demand long, steep, exposed climbs, but deliver big, stunning views. The weather cooperates fabulously, with mostly moderate winds, short and predictable afternoon showers, and seasonably warm temperatures. Navigation by map (me) and gpx (Paul) is flawless. Although few in number, the local people are fantastically friendly. All is well.

Despite such favorable conditions, I did not ride my expected 60-80 miles a day. Not even close. With a fully loaded bike, on those rough roads, with that much elevation gain, I manage about 50 miles a day. And at the end of each day, I am more than ready to be done. I think Paul was, too.

Early on Day 3, Paul is pleased to crest a pitch at an elevation well over 10,000 feet.

That shortened daily mileage adds up over time. At the end of Day 5, we approach Mile 250 at the small town of Ten Sleep. At that pace, we would not reach the finish until Day 10. However, Paul only had 8 days to ride before needing to return to work. I had 7 days and maybe the morning of an eighth before Colleen picked me up to help Cara move. Time to re-assess.

Leaving Ten Sleep early on Day 6, we aim to reach a primitive BLM campsite at about Mile 300, re-supply water, re-fuel and decide then whether to ride into the night. With the biggest climbs behind us and the road surface improving, Paul is energized at the prospect of riding the remaining 250 miles in just 3 days to complete Cloud Peak 500 route. However, by mid-morning I know that I'm unlikely to make it, so I encourage him to go for it.

Paul kicks in. I kick back.

Later on Day 3, I negotiate an 8 mile, rock-strewn, loose, steep, 4000+ foot drop
the map calls a road. I call it "Dude's Downhill" as it's straight from an X-Games course.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Paul rides an amazing 105 miles that day to reach Kaycee, rides another 78 the next day to reach Buffalo and then finishes in Sheridan the following day. His total time for the entire Cloud Peak 500 route - 7 days, 5 hours, 30 minutes. What a ride. What a finish.

Back to Day 6, I rolled into that BLM campsite almost two hours after Paul and stayed for the night. The next day, I rode another 50-some miles into Kaycee to complete my Cloud Peak 500 tour at about 350 miles. What a great week. What a great experience.

In the upcoming weeks, I plan to post the story of each day of our Cloud Peak 500 ride, in words and pictures. I also plan to post separately the logistics of each day, particularly since much of the route is so remote and dry. Over a week long trip like this, the experience creates much to process. This one deserves some time and effort to get right.

It Don't Come Easy, Ringo Starr (1971).

A final note. Only passionate, local enthusiasts know their backcountry well enough to piece together a route such as the Cloud Peak 500. Thank you, Sarah Wallick and Aaron Denberg of Big Horn, Wyoming for creating this unique, challenging route in, over, up, down, and all around the Big Horn Mountains. Anyone finding this gem is fortunate. 

Cloud Peak 500 route, from

Monday, August 3, 2020

Cloud Peak 500 - Gear List

Oh, well.
Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac (1969).

Posts in the wrong order? Oh, well.
Fleetwood Mac, circa 1969, with Mick Fleetwood on percussion and John McVie on bass.
But this is not your mother's Fleetwood Mac. Say hello to Peter Green.

I just realized that my last three posts are in reverse order. A first post should have identified all the gear I plan to take on the Cloud Peak 500. Then a second post should have described how I pack all that gear onto the bike. Finally, a third post should have reported how the loaded bike handles on roads and trails.

But I got all excited about getting out there and messed up the order. I packed up the bike with everything, rode it all over for a few weeks, and eventually sat down long enough to write a post on how the loaded bike handled. Cloud Peak 500 - Gearing Up. In response to some inquiries, I then wrote a post on how I packed everything onto the bike. Cloud Peak 500 - Packing Up. And now while double checking gear, I'm finally writing a post that lists everything. It's all backwards.

Oh, well.

Reverse order or not, here's a complete gear list for my Cloud Peak 500. It's a list, not a photo gallery. I did not take pictures of the gear before packing and I'm not about to disassemble everything just to post one of those nice pictures showcasing everything all laid out in neat rows across the living room floor. Maybe next time.

For what it's worth, I have been gradually acquiring this type of gear over many years. But it's still quite a sight to see all this on a list for one ride.

It's all in there.

Sleep Kit:  Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL1 Bikepack tent, Brooks Range Mountaineering Alpini 30 sleeping bag, ThermaRest ProLite pad, Outdoor Vitals UL Stretch pillow, SeaToSummit Reactor Extreme liner

Clothes:  2 Voler bib shorts, 2 Voler jerseys, 2 pair SmartWool socks, 1 SmartWool top base layer, 1 SmartWool bottom base layer, 1 Voler wind jacket, 1 Showers Pass Refuge rain jacket, 1 Marmot hooded down jacket, 1 SmartWool casual shirt, 1 nylon shorts, 1 pair Pearl Izumi liner gloves, 1 pair Marmot over gloves, 1 Pearl Izumi head band, 1 Voler skull cap, 1 SmartWool stocking cap, 1 buff

First Aid/Hygiene/Personal:  Ace bandage, gauze pads, large & small band aids, butterfly band aids, alcohol wipes, NeoSporin, hydrocortisone, sun screen, lip balm, insect repellant, aspirin, Tums, wipes, toilet paper, zinc oxide, hand towel, tooth brush/paste, soap, sunglasses, bear spray, phone, wallet

Tool Kit:  Lezyne Alloy HV Drive pump, Lezyne SV-16 multi-tool, Lezyne Tubeless CO2 Blaster tubeless tire repair kit, extra sealant, 2 spare tubes, Park Tool patch kit, tire irons, LeatherMan Skeletal CX tool, Jones derailer hanger, chain links, quick links, chain lube, duct tape, zip ties, CCG mud scraper

Navigation:  DeLorme hard copy maps, cue sheets, Stem Captain compass, CatEye cyclocomputer, CatEye head light and tail light, Mountain Miser thermometer, Gideon's pocket Bible

Documentation:  Olympus TG-4 Tough camera, paper, pens

Hydration:  100 ounce CamelBack bladder, 2 one liter bottles, MSR Trail Shot water filter, iodine

Food (8 days):  oatmeal/coffee (breakfast), nutrition bars/peanut butter/jerkey/gels (during the day), freeze dried entree/hot chocolate/bars (dinner)

Kitchen:  JetBoil MiniMo stove and fuel, matches, salt/pepper, SeaToSummit collapsible bowl/cup, XL spoon