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Sunday, June 27, 2021

2021 Black Hills Bounty (Day 0) - Come Together

He roller coaster. He got early warning.
He got Muddy Water. He one mojo filter.
He say, "one and one and one is three."
Got to be good looking, cause he's so hard to see.
Come together, right now. Over me.

Come Together, John Lennon & Paul McCartney (1969)

Marking the occasion with a signature Black Hills Bounty bikepacking mug.
Near the top of Bear Mountain on Day 0 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Like the Beatles song above, we have no real reason to come together. No deep meaning. No profound message. No life changing experience. We just want to ride our bikes together for a week on back roads in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

Over long days of riding with Paul Brasby last year at the Cloud Peak 500 (Cloud Peak 500 Wrap) and the Pony Express Bikepacking Adventure (Take A Back Road), we hatch the idea of a multi-day, multi-surface bikepacking ride in the Black Hills. I'll create the route and he'll invite some friends to join us.

Over the course of several months, I piece together some of my favorite roads, scout combinations and connectors, ride into a few road blocks and dead ends, and discover more than a few gems. My biggest issue is simply choosing between the staggering number and variety of Forest Service roads in the Black Hills. Among many great options, I eventually create an outline for a 5 day ride designed for a rider like Paul on a bike like his Salsa CutThroat loaded for bikepacking. I call our ride The Black Hills Bounty for the abundance of treasure lying within. Scouting A Route For FriendsThe Good, The Bad & The UglyLooking For Black Hills Bounty.

With Crazy Horse in the background, Ben Cooper, Paul Brasby and Lane Bergen warmup on Day 0
with a ride from Custer to the start of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty atop Bear Mountain.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in North Platte, Nebraska, Paul rounds up a posse of strong, experienced endurance cyclists to track down this Black Hill Bounty. With his 30+ years of racing, Paul knows many accomplished cyclists and receives much interest in this ride from many quarters. The only question is who will carve out a week to journey to South Dakota to join us.

Right off the bat, Ben Cooper, a fellow engineer and endurance athlete from North Platte, jumps aboard and starts to sort out how to outfit his hard-ridden fat bike for bikepacking. He would have made it work, but a week before the start, Ben scores a new Salsa CutThroat. Yes, somehow that racing rascal and business mogul Jeff Caldwell, owner of White Tail Cycle Sport in North Platte, manages to find a new CutThroat for Ben. After riding a couple of paved miles to adjust fit, Ben calls it good and loads it up.

Also in early is Lane Bergen, a western Nebraska native now an HVAC professional in northern Colorado. Among other things, he is a Tour Divide veteran who bike packed with Paul last year in the high mountains of Colorado. Lane travels fast and light on his own Salsa CutThroat and brings a dose of quiet confidence and youthful vitality to the group.

"I go where you go," is the response to practically every question I pose to Jeff Bloom, an endurance cyclist and Lutheran pastor from Lincoln, Nebraska. But he's no patsy. Behind that easy smile and comfortable demeanor lies a passionate, tough competitor who powers his fat bike at gravel bike speed in endurance races all over. When he's in, he's all in. And he's sure to be the first to make coffee every morning.

Postmaster and Pony Express Race Director Mark Hoffman of Marysville, Kansas completes our roster. Rehabbing from knee replacement surgery in January, Mark custom paints his Salsa CutThroat an amazing candy coat of colors and then works his way back into shape. He runs a booth at the event formerly known as Dirty Kanza on Friday, rides the event on Saturday, drives home, packs up, drives to Lincoln to pick up Jeff, and then drives all day just to get to the Bounty by Sunday night. 

These guys are serious about having fun.

Ben Cooper and Lane Bergen steam up Custer Limestone Road en route to Bear Mountain.
Day 0 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Given their long journey that day, Mark and Jeff drive straight to the start at a dispersed camp site near the top of Bear Mountain. But, with a little time, itchy shifters, and frisky feet, Paul, Ben and Lane look to break out a little pre-ride. By mid-afternoon, Paul checks his family into the Custer Crazy Horse Campground, where they will be vacationing for the week. By arranging to park their vehicles there, Ben and Lane join Paul for a 16 mile, late afternoon warmup ride up Bear Mountain. To burn off some of their crazy, I send them up Custer Limestone Road for the big switchback climb ending with a view of the Crazy Horse Memorial.

By early evening, everyone arrives atop Bear Mountain. We enjoy a cool evening double checking bikes and gear, reviewing maps, and re-connecting. Beverages and chocolate chip cookies may also have been involved. In addition to digital maps loaded onto their various devices, I hand each of them a hard copy map for each day's route. If nothing else, they'll get a sense of how I find my way around these parts.

We talk through the route for Day 1. Right from the start, we change plans. Just two days ago, I checked out our planned descent off Bear Mountain to find the road barricaded with barbed wire and serious signs. So, I find another way that promises to be even better. Rather than a 2 mile technical drop to a Primary road, the re-route more gradually descends almost 6 miles on Low Standard roads and offers surprising views. Our first audible of the ride comes on the first mile of the first day.

Lane Bergen, Paul Brasby and Ben Cooper gather at our campsite,
as Mark Hoffman and Jeff Bloom unload bikes and gear in the background.
Day 0 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Our Black Hills Bounty is not a race, not an event, not a destination, and not even a fixed route over a set number of days. Yes, we have a route planned for each of 5 days and we definitely have a long list of highlights to hit. But we also have flexibility to shorten, lengthen, or just change the details as we see fit. In other words, the Black Hills Bounty is an outline for a week of backcountry riding and camping with friends. 

As the sun slowly sets on Day 0, we reluctantly slip into our tents to await the sunrise. 

It's like waiting for Santa Claus.

Our quiet campsite atop Bear Mountain on Day 0 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty.

Here's a link to the map I created for Day 0 of the 2021 Black Hills Bounty, as ridden by Ben, Lane and Paul. Black Hills Bounty - Day 0

Here's the Beatles performing "Come Together" in 1969, although I think the animation is more like 2019, probably by someone on 50 year old acid.

Come Together, The Beatles (1969)

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Gumption And Grit

More and more people are expressing interest in bikepacking, but many say they don't know how to get started. I often suggest an Overnighter, where you ride on the first day to a fun place to camp and ride back the next day. Neither ride has to be far or hard. And it's only one night. Right now, you can probably piece together stuff to make it work.

Just get out there.

3 bikes loaded for 3 adventuresome ladies on a 3 day bikepacking ride.
(photo by Jessica Reimer Tindall)

At this point, many hesitate, not sure how to respond. Then they often say that they don't have the right bike, or the right gear, or the know-how, or a place to ride, or whatever else comes to mind to put off trying something that may be a bit outside their comfort zone. It sounds fun, but it also sounds like too much. Someday. Maybe next year.

Tell that to Jessica Reimer Tindall, a Girl Scout leader from Sioux Falls, South Dakota who took her daughter and a friend on a 3 day bikepacking ride of the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills.

Looks like they're ready to roll on Day 2 from Rochford.
(photo by Jessica Reimer Tindall)

Last week, cycling friends Lucas Haan and Chris Grady were racing the 210 mile Mother Lode gravel grinder, which allows support crews at designated check points along the way. While they crushed gravel, I relaxed in front of the Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford, with drinks, snacks and bike bits at hand, waiting for them to arrive. A steady stream of tourists came and went.

Then a young woman and two girls soft pedaled heavily laden mountain bikes to the front of the saloon. They were utterly spent. Overheated, exhausted, and well beyond the time to stop. But all bore a steely resolve that must have carried them this far. They'd made it through their first day of bikepacking the Mickelson Trail.

Unexpected rewards when exploring new country by bicycle.
(photo by Jessica Reimer Tindall)

Jessica said that her daughter and friend were Girl Scouts who decided to go for a few merit badges on a 3 day bikepacking ride of the Mickelson Trail. No, none of them had ever ridden a bike that far, or carried camping gear on a bike, or even been on the Mickelson Trail. But they researched the route, prepared their provisions, loaded up the bikes they had, with gear they had, and went for it.

At first, they quietly, almost reluctantly, talk of their ride and their plans. Gradually, however, their voices rise in pitch, tempo and volume, as they begin to express their day and feel the depth of their experience. I want to listen to more from each of them, but sunlight is waning. They have camp to set up, bikes to attend, and dinner to prepare. And tomorrow will be another big day. I wish them well, marveling at their gumption and grit.

Three adventuresome ladies on a three day bikepacking ride.

It's all out there.

Just ride.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Heart Of The Hills Overnighter

Through their "Local Overnighters Project," the folks at sent out a call for cyclists to create and share overnight bikepacking routes that showcase their local backcountry, history, culture and people. Even following the constraints of their parameters, I know many routes that I'd love to ride, share, and recommend here in the Black Hills.

Nonetheless, I have to start somewhere and this is my route submitted - "The Heart Of The Hills Overnighter." I've ridden all these backroads many times, in many ways, but not in this combination while bikepacking for an overnight, until preparing this submission. For example, different stretches of this route have earned their way onto parts of the Black Hills BackBone, the Black Hills Bounty, the DED Dirt Ride, and several Black Hills Gravel Series rides. If you only have two days and one overnight for a ride in the Black Hills, I certainly recommend this route.

Know that this is a gravel and dirt road route, with about a mile of mellow single track, covering about 90 miles and 7,400 feet of elevation gain over 2 days, starting and ending in Hill City with an overnight at USFS Black Fox Campground. Several stretches can be rocky, rutted and/or muddy, such as Horse Creek Road, Castle Peak Road, the spur up Flag Mountain, Williams Draw Road, and a few unnamed connectors. A gravel bike may be appropriate for many cyclists, but when loaded for an overnighter, I think most would prefer a bike with 2 inch or wider tires. When riding in late May on soft roads, I comfortably rode my Jones 29+ with 2.35 inch Bontrager XR2 tires.

For an alternative with shorter riding days, one could ride 26 miles to camp at Castle Peak Campground on Day 1, ride 33 miles to camp at White Tail Campground on Day 2, and ride 31 miles to the finish on Day 3. Or just ditch the camping and ride the entire 90 mile loop in a single day.

I submitted the following narrative to Whether they publish it or not, I made this route publicly available at Heart Of The Hills Overnight

From charming Hill City, the Heart of the Hills Overnighter explores about 80 miles of rough, remote USFS roads and almost 10 miles of rails-to-trails Mickelson Trail for a two day tour showcasing the best of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

This forested, hilly loop passes a restored abandoned gold mine, crosses over a trestle, eeks through old railroad tunnels, follows trout filled streams, sidesteps to the iconic Moonshine Gulch Saloon, climbs along a beaver dammed creek to an abandoned stone lookout tower, and meanders up and down rough Forest Service roads through prime elk country back to Hill City.

At about 40 miles into this 90 mile loop awaits the idyllic USFS Black Fox primitive campground, a sweet spot to spend the evening. Of course, one may choose to disperse camp throughout much of the Black Hills. In particular, one may wish to climb another 12 miles past Black Fox to camp atop Flag Mountain by the lookout tower.

Potable water is available at the Mystic Trailhead of the Mickelson Trail (mile 16.5 of Day 1), at the Moonshine Gulch Saloon, the Rochford Mall, and the Mickelson Trailhead in Rochford (mile 32.5 of Day 1), and at the USFS White Tail Campground (mile 19.2 of Day 2). The Moonshine Gulch Saloon also offers bar food and drinks, while the Rochford Mall sells light snacks.

Located an easy 26 miles from Rapid City, Hill City is a thriving timber and tourism town of about 1,000 residents. It offers a variety of shops and art galleries, motels and campgrounds, and restaurants and bars, including the upscale Alpine Inn, popular Miner Brewing Company microbrewery, and relaxing Prairie Berry winery. Hill City also is minutes away from Mt. Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, and the granite towers of Cathedral Spires along Needles Highway. The Heart of the Hills is an ideal place to launch a Black Hills adventure.

Mystic Road passing under a Mickelson Trail trestle near the Mystic Trailhead.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Big Fat Mick

As a cyclist in the Black Hills of South Dakota, I regularly ride sections of the Mickelson Trail and usually ride its entire length in a day once a year. This week, I'm riding different parts of it between Rochford and Custer with out-of-state friends as part of my 5 day Black Hills Bounty bikepacking route. 

As I make final preparations for that bikepacking ride with friends, I think back to many rides with many different people on the Mickelson Trail. Not many were documented, let alone shared with a larger audience. However, in 2011, I wrote a report on my 218 mile up and back ride, the first half solo through the night and the second half very social through the day. Among other places, that report appeared on social media of the Big Mick event and the Mickelson Trail Affiliates. Now, ten years later, it seems appropriate to reproduce that report as part of this blog.

Cara's in Germany. Chani's in Colorado. Colleen's at work. What to do on a Saturday in June? How about ride the Mickelson Trail from Edgemont to Deadwood, join up with the Big Mick century ride and ride back to Edgemont? I'll call it the Big Fat Mick.

The Mickelson Trail is a rails-to-trails trail that winds along most of the north-south length of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Its surface is crushed native rock and its grades are a mellow 3-4 percent. To cover that many miles over and around that many hills on an old railroad bed, the grade is almost always up or down.

For the past five years, I've ridden support for the Big Mick, a well organized dirt century starting at the northern trailhead in Lead and ending 109 miles later at the southern trailhead in Edgemont. I ride my trusted Torelli cyclocross single speed, set up with a 42x18 drivetrain and 35 mm slicks. It's a dreamy ride. But a single speed on that trail means pushing a gear a bit tall up the hills and spinning out going down. Extra gears would be much less work and much faster.

I've abstained from off-road shifting, and a lot of road shifting, for almost 10 years now. However, as much as I love to single speed, for the Mickelson Trail, I admit to wondering about a gear with a couple of more teeth for the climbs and a second gear with a couple less teeth for the descents. After all, there's just not much that's flat and there's not anything steep. Then Sturmey-Archer announced that it was releasing a re-designed aluminum 2 speed kick-back hub, with a 138% step to the higher gear. Whoa. No shifters. No cables. No derailleurs. Just kick the pedals backward to shift gears. A stealth two speed. Cool. But would the gears be far enough apart, without being too far?

I grab a calculator. A 42x20 should be about right for me for those long climbs at the end of a long day. That would make about a 42x14.5 for the descents. That also sounds about right. A single speed for the climbs and a single speed for the descents. Easier and faster.

I order the hub from Cranky Jeff's, a local bike shop with nifty cycling things often overlooked by the shops catering to the go-fast Lycra crowd or the big hit downhill dudes. While building the wheel in the midst of a South Dakota winter, I break out in random smiles with visions of sailing along the Big Mick. Hey, wait! If this two speed works as I think it will, the century ride will be a breeze. How about starting at the Big Mick finish, riding to the start, and joining up with the Big Mick century riders for the ride back? 218 miles on gravel. That would be a ride.

Beginning at Edgemont (mile 0), Middle at Deadwood (mile 109) and End at Edgemont (mile 218).
These are the only pictures I can find of my 2011 Big Fat Mick ride.

So, the family schedule works out and I get a couple of days off work. Beaming with anticipation, I start pedaling from Edgemont (mile post 0.0/mile 0.0) at about 5:30 pm on a Friday on my now 2 speed cyclocross bike stuffed with Hammer Nutrition products, clothing, and gear. I kick back and forth between gears, checking it all out. Wow. This is cool. Even in the face of a very long night, starting with basically a 51 mile uphill, I fly through Edgemont, spinning the small gear like a track star and pushing the big gear like a time trialist. Hitting the old railroad bed at the edge of town, I settle into the big gear for the gentle initial grades.

Sooner than expected, I pull into the first stop for water, the Minnekahta Trailhead (mile post 16.2/mile 16.2) and then the second stop for no water, the Pringle Trailhead (mile post 32.1/mile 32.1). That's right. The Pringle Trailhead has a shelter, outhouse, parking lot, maps, permits, trail info, and no water. I misread the very detailed South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks trail map. I resolve to keep those water bottles filled at every subsequent opportunity.

The forecast spoke of thunderstorms, but the first four hours are cool and calm. As the sun slides slowly down, cattle, deer and buffalo work their way home and an irritated badger races ahead of me along the trail. I cruise into Harbach Park (mile post 44.5/mile 44.5) in Custer at about 9:30 pm, just as dusk turns to dark and the temperature plummets. Now it's time for a long break to prepare for the long night ahead. I add a layer of clothing, mix more Hammer Heed, add another layer, drink more Hammer Perpetuem, add another layer, eat a PowerBar, add another layer. Wait. No more layers. I'm cold. How did that happen so fast? I'm cold.

I spot a restroom in the park and step inside to do something about that first layer that apparently is too wet. Inside I discover a working hot air hand dryer! Sweet! Taking (almost) everything off, I dry one piece at a time. That takes some time, but makes all the difference. I emerge toasty and primed for the next 65 miles to Deadwood.

Now after 10:00 pm, the ride changes completely. The night is dark. The Black Hills forest closes in. Although a full moon would eventually come out, it isn't out yet. My CatEye headlights illuminate the trail in front of me, but not a lot more. The trail still reaches upward for another 6 miles, so I kick-back into the small gear and, this time, stay in it. The higher RPM and lower speed combine to keep me warm in the night air, without overheating. Finally cresting near the Crazy Horse Memorial, I cheerfully coast 9 miles into Hill City (mile post 60.1/mile 60.1) shortly after 11:00 pm.

The tourist town of Hill City rests in the center of the Black Hills, only a few miles from Mount Rushmore and many other attractions. For some reason, a fleet of Pennington County Deputy Sheriff squad cars block off Main Street. I take the bypass and later learn that three bystanders had been injured in an accidental shooting that day during the town's staged Wild West shootout. I pull into a convenience store for some water and buy the largest cup of coffee available.

At the store I run into Acme Bicycles owner Tim Rangitsch and fellow cycling enthusiast Shawn Nagel. They're starting their own Mickelson Trail adventure from Hill City at midnight. They're anxious to gear up and I'm ready to roll, so the pleasantries are brief. It is nice to know that a couple of other nuts are out there, too.

Leaving the lights and activity of Hill City at about 11:30, I'm back into the darkness and solitude of the Mickelson Trail spinning up another 8 mile climb. Now the full moon is out in full glory. Time and distance flow, as do thoughts. Hmmn. Where are all the deer? Oh, year. There are supposedly 200-250 mountain lions roaming the Black Hills, according to the State biologists. But they admit they really don't know. There are enough that hunters reach the quota each season. That was 45 in 2011 and will be 70 in 2012. I think the deer aren't moving because the lions are. I wonder how many lions have watched me pedal by tonight? A couple? A dozen? A couple of dozen? More? How many have I yet to pass?

Thoughts of lions abruptly end with the uphill grade. I gladly kick into the big gear and its higher speed for the 8 mile descent passing through the Mystic Trailhead (mile post 74.7/mile 74.7). Again, I don't see the change in grade, but rather feel it in the harder turn of the pedals. I kick back to the small gear for the final climb, about 18 miles to a spot just past the Dumont Trailhead (mile post 92.6/mile 92.6). I stop for water and stretch a bit.

The hours and miles drift by. A final 16 mile descent to Deadwood (mile post 108.8/mile 108.8) completes the first half of this ride shortly before 4:00 am. I take a couple of self-portraits at the trailhead and head back up the trail. For some reason, I think there's a shortcut trail to Lead, where the Big Mick starts. For most of an hour, I ride back and forth searching for this phantom trail until the growing daylight reveals that no such trail exists. I coast down to Deadwood and ride the paved highway up to Lead.

The eastern sky brightens. I slog over to the Lead Trailhead (mile post 103.7/mile 113.9), where 120 some cyclists prepare for their Big Mick ride. Grand PooBaa Aleen Golis and her crew stoke the crowd with food, fluids, information, and encouragement. The coffee, sunrise, and some human interaction gradually pull me back into the world most people live in.

The Big Mick start feels familiar, comforting and invigorating, all at once. It's like lacing up a pair of Chuck Taylors and stepping to the free throw line. I linger at the Lead Trailhead, soaking in the atmosphere and re-configuring my thoughts for the day ahead. Just like the two speed hub, it's time to kick-back to a different mental gear. The solo night ride is behind. The support day ride is ahead. Just ride today like you always ride the Big Mick. With a little warm-up. One more cup of coffee. OK. One more banana. Alright. Is that coffee gone already? I eventually turn pedals heading south at about 6:30 am.

Riding support basically is just paying attention to the needs of other cyclists, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. Of course, I'm no expert on any of these matters. But I can stop to help fix a flat, tighten a seat post or adjust a derailleur. And I can carry extra gear, food and water, and maybe some TUMS and Advil. I ride along and catch up to cyclists from all over the country. We ride together, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few miles, sometimes longer. My team kit sparks many inquiries from believers and non-believers. Several Colorado cyclists rave of the team's presence at the Winter Park mountain bike races and at the 24 Hours of Moab.

Now the mile posts count down towards zero. Before long, we coast into Rochford (mile post 82.6/mile 135) for a treat. A real breakfast - eggs, sausage, pancakes, biscuits & gravy, fresh fruit, toast, bagels, juice and coffee. After 24 hours of Hammer Perpetuem, Heed and Gel, it's a feast. Thirty some minutes later, or so, I'm back at the back of the pack. But now I have more ballast for the long descents ahead.

An 8 mile descent, followed by another 8 mile climb, and then another 8 mile descent lands me back in Hill City (mile post 60.1/mile 157.5). Now late morning on a summer Saturday, the town is bustling with tourists. And the place to be is Rabbit Bicycles, the official, and only, bike shop along the way. It's an attraction all by itself. The bike shop occupies the back half of an old house, with a tattoo parlor in the front. The husband runs the bike shop and the wife runs the tattoo parlor. I'm thinking not even the Tour de France offers that.

Ahead is the final long climb back up to Crazy Horse. This usually is the hardest piece of the Big Mick. You've already ridden about 50 miles from Lead, the sun is high in the sky, and you have a 9 mile climb that offers little shade and gets progressively steeper. It does not disappoint. The last few miles are littered with cyclists puttering or taking a break. Eventually, the grade levels and, shortly after the top at Crazy Horse, it's time for lunch at the Mountain Trailhead (mile post 49.6/mile 168.0).

Like the breakfast, lunch is a real meal:  sub sandwiches, fruit, chips, cookies and sport drinks. It's easy to stay too long at these stops. The food, interaction with other riders and volunteers, and the time off the saddle are most welcome. When I finally swing a leg over the top tube, it's basically 51 miles downhill to the finish at Edgemont. Oh, there's an uphill wrinkle or two, some sun and a little wind, as the trail moves into the prairie's edge. But I spin the big gear and coast most of these miles, thoroughly enjoying the rewards of that long climb last night.

Before long, I'm back at the Pringle Trailhead (mile post 32.1/mile 185.5). For those with a sweet tooth, this is the best stop yet. In addition to the standard aid stop fare, the Pringle volunteers offer all sorts of sugared treats, both store bought and homemade. The younger girls even put on a gymnastics demonstration. That brings a smile, as I reminisce of our daughters' own gymnastics exploits from just a few years ago.

I find myself back on the trail alone, with the finish rushing toward me. My mind drifts along and stumbles into a realization that, from Edgemont to Deadwood, the Mickelson Trail is roughly 75 miles uphill and roughly 35 miles downhill. The return trip flips those around. No wonder that today's ride south to Edgemont, with all the food stops, support checks and social riding, still took about the same time as last night's solo ride to Deadwood.

I look up to find myself at the Minnekahta Trailhead (mile post 16.2/mile 201.4), the last stop before Edgemont. Now, this is a purpose driven aid station. You see it on the face of every cyclist rolling in. It's all about getting to the finish. No one dallies here. Refill water bottles. Grab an energy bar. Exchange some encouraging words. Time to roll.

This final 16 mile stretch is firmly in the prairie now, passing through cattle ranches and a hardscrabble canyon. There's no relief from the sun or the wind out here. But the weather holds, as it has all day and the night before. From a ridge top over 5 miles away, the town of Edgemont pops into view.

Rolling towards the finish, I conclude that the two speed worked great. The small gear spun easily uphill at about 10-14 mph.  That's about the same speed I rode the single speed in the past, but was much easier. The big gear spun easily downhill at about 20-24 mph. That's about the same amount of work as the single speed, but about 4-5 mph faster. So, relative to me on a single speed, me on a two speed was 1) less work and the same speed uphill and 2) the same work and faster downhill. Easier and Faster. Just like the coach drew it up on the chalkboard.

I catch up with a group of about a dozen cyclists at the edge of town. We ride in together, joyful in our shared experience. At the Edgemont city park waits yet another Big Mick meal - a catered dinner. We clean our plates over stories of the day, and of prior days, and of days to come. Now, that was a ride.

Craig Groseth (c) 2011

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Bikepacking the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider

Rollin' rollin' rollin'
Though the streams are swollen
Keep them doggies rollin'
Rawhide, Dimitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington (1958) 

Leaping off a crowded 2021 spring racing schedule is the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder, a much anticipated 120 mile gravel race that dives deep into the steep ravines of the Loess Canyons in South Central Nebraska. Months ago, I marked this race on the calendar in pen and wrote a post about these remote roads through this wonderfully unique country. See, Knock, Knock, Knockin' On Odin's Door

Endurance athletes Jeff and Shea Caldwell, owners of the local White Tail CycleSport bike shop, spearhead this event and enlisted Paul Brasby to design the 120 mile course through rugged cow country. As a long time local racer and bike packer, Paul intimately knows all these back roads and set out to create a course to showcase the very best. I could not wait to ride it. 

Jeff Bloom steams up a rough road cut deep into the hills on the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

Then, several weeks ago, Paul asked me to confirm road conditions and cue sheets by riding the planned course in advance of the race with a group of friends. However, rather than ride it in a single day, he suggested a 2 day bikepacking ride with an overnight stay at a primitive campsite. More specifically, he planned to ride about 70 miles of the course on the first day to camp at the renowned Potter's Pasture and then the remaining 50 miles on the second day back to North Platte. I jumped at the chance.

Jeff Bloom, Ben Cooper, Jon Naaf, Craig Groseth, Luke Entz, Paul Brasby
Ready to roll from the start of the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder route.

So, on a cool morning in early May, a group of six intrepid cyclists assemble in the alley behind Paul's house, hauling a wide range of bikes, gear, experience, ability and age. Amidst the elevated chatter, we check and double check everything and, finally, launch our little overnight adventure.

"Craig! Stop!" belts out Jon Naaf, an engineer and endurance gravel grinder from Kansas. Not one pedal rotation into the ride, I look back to see an absolutely flat rear tire. Apparently, when topping off the tire with air, I did not fully close the Presta valve and lost all of it. Off to an inauspicious start.

Cruising out of North Platte on smooth gravel along a canal. Rougher stuff lies ahead.

Moving again, we roll through town along a nice bike path and stop for pictures at Fort Cody, a trading post that will be the official start/finish of the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider Gravel Grinder in June. This will be a fun, lively venue for everyone at the event, whether riding or not. We're all smiles and ready to hit the course.

Almost immediately, we ride off pavement, climbing out of the Platte River valley into the hills and ravines to the south. Thanks to permission from a local landowner, the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course crosses a stretch of private land otherwise closed to the public. As the route creator checking the route, Paul obtains a personal escort through this area for us on today's ride. Soon we're onto the back roads deep into cow country.

A glimpse of a Buffalo Bill Rough Rider road early on the course.

Unlike a typical ride report, I'm not writing or showing many details about the course in advance of the actual event. But, if you're riding the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider, bring your entire tool box of cycling skills and sagacity. You will need everything. And if the weather adds anything at all, you're in for a real challenge.

Bike packer's paradise at Potter's Pasture primitive campground.

On the other hand, I will report a little on the rest of our ride. When hitting a set of short hills early on our Day 1, I slip off the back of the main group and later stop for a short break. Beautiful country. Beautiful day. So grateful to be out there.

Remounting to go, my heart sinks at the sight of a flat rear tire. How did that happen? One look reveals no single, big leak, but rather a swarm of goat head thorns attacking seemingly every square inch around the tire. I stop counting at 30. This will test the 3 ounces of sealant I put in that tire a few weeks ago.

With 300+ pump strokes, I pump up that 29 inch plus tire, spin it a bit, and then watch it deflate in seconds. So, I pump it all back up again, spin it some more, and watch it deflate again. Alright. One more time. This time, it holds. A bit low, but it holds.

Craig Groseth, Luke Entz, Paul Brasby, Ben Cooper
Rolling along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

Babying that questionable tire down a steep, gullied descent, I check the pressure at the bottom. It seems to be holding enough, but I add some air anyhow. For the next couple of hours, I stop every 20 minutes or so to check that air pressure. Most every time, I add some air to keep rolling.

Cresting the top of the infamous Hanson Hill, I stop to admire the view and take a break. By the time I'm done patting myself on the back for clearing that climb, I notice that the rear tire is dead flat, again. This time, it refuses to hold any air, no matter how many times I pump. I even add 2 ounces of extra sealant and keep pumping. No sale. I empty a CO2 cartridge, which briefly fills the tire. Hmmn. Adding a tube, or even two, makes little sense to me, with so many thorns already embedded. This is going to take some time and thought.

With miles to go and the afternoon waning, I communicate with Paul, who directs me to a nearby rancher. Even with access to his complete work shop with an air compressor, I cannot get that tire to hold air and finally relent to a lift for the remaining miles to Potter's Pasture. While waiting for the inglorious sag wagon, I continue to work on that rear tire and, lo and behold, it finally holds air. 

As I install the rear wheel, I entertain a fleeting thought that, maybe, just maybe, I can still ride the rest of the course to camp today. Then I see that the front tire is dead flat now. Really? With the rest of the group now closing in on Potter's Pasture, I run out of time and take that lift to camp. 

No hill is too steep or too loosey-goosey for bike packer Paul Brasby.

Potter's Pasture is abuzz with activity and upbeat banter, as our merry band of bikepackers set up tents, tend to bikes, and fix dinner. Someone starts a fire in the campground fire pit, which draws everyone for warmth and conversation. Jeff Caldwell drives in from North Platte, bringing cold beer and pop, amping up the energy. Stories fly like sparks from the fire, burning brightly and drifting into the night, leaving lasting memories. The evening passes much too quickly.

The moderate May weather eventually cools and our crew hits the sleeping bags for rest and recovery. We awaken early to a cool, damp morning with a blanket of dew on everything left uncovered. Soon, however, bodies and spirits warm with hot breakfast and coffee over another roaring fire. We're ready for today's 50 mile ride back to North Platte. 

Pausing to soak in the view along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

Climbing out of Potter's Pasture, we string out a bit and then re-group at a cattle guard along a ridge line showcasing a view down the renowned Government Pocket Road. The day is young. The temperatures mild. The winds not yet awake. We're just cruising home.

We wind along ridge lines and through cedar lined valleys, eventually dropping back into the Platte River Valley. Now late morning, the wind picks up, the temperature rises, and thoughts turn to home. Just when it looks like a quiet spin into town, we turn south and west, into that growing wind and back up to another ridge line. This pitch hurts more than it should.

Even Big Foot is checking out the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

But that last hill is relatively short and the final miles smoothly drop to a relatively flat finish. It's still early afternoon when I soft pedal back into the Fort Cody parking lot. And there's Paul patiently waiting for me in the shade.

Over burgers, we recount our little two day ride. For a gravel event, I like this course a lot, as it is long enough and challenging enough, while still being fun and possible for many to finish, at least in our relatively mild conditions. Adding any sort of weather, at all, to this course would launch this experience to another level. Regardless of the conditions, cyclists unfamiliar with this area are in for a treat.

For an overnight bikepacking ride, I also like this route a lot. Well done, Paul, and thanks for letting me join your merry band of bikepackers.

History abounds along the Buffalo Bill Rough Rider course.

The lead goes to the Blues Brothers, who made Rawhide cool again forty years ago.

Theme from Rawhide, The Blues Brothers (1980)

But here is the original version from the television show Rawhide debuting in 1959.

Rawhide theme song, Frankie Laine (1959)