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 ChristianCycling.org 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


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