Gravel Conspiracy 2015: You’re Missing Out!

I’m lucky enough to get to do a few long, memorable bike rides in super beautiful areas throughout the year, but because I hate carrying a camera when I ride I usually don’t have any pictures to show off. Last year when I wouldn’t shut up for months about how incredible the Gravel Conspiracy is, people just had to take my word for it. Fortunately, this spring I turned 30, freaked out about not owning any of the material trappings of adulthood, and impulsively bought an iPhone.  I’m still rambling on about how anyone who missed this ride is a chump, but now I can back my claims up with some mediocre photos!

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Stamper gives us a stern reminder about not suing him.

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Drew looking pretty pleased with that paint job.

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Dennis Grelk, ’nuff said.

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Will looks super excited!

This year was my 3rd Gravel Conspiracy (I missed the first one). Each year I finish this event amazed that there aren’t 300 people demanding a spot on the roster. Admittedly, GC is hard to define. It’s not a race, but it attracts some fast riders who like to push themselves. It’s not bikepacking, but the route is as remote as anything you’ve ridden and you have the option of carrying your gear and camping every night if you wish. It’s not a party ride, but you’ll have access to a cooler of beer at some key points throughout the weekend.


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Morgan wants YOU to ride GC2016.

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Contemplating a swim to Canada.

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Overlooking the Pigeon River.

  Only a few dozen riders turn out for Gravel Conspiracy each year, but just about all of them come back. It’s one of the highlights of my year, and I’d bet that most other Conspirators would say the same thing. It attracts a diverse group of weirdos, many of whom I now call my friends. Said group of weirdos are also the type of people who host their own events, offer to drive you to races, invite you into their homes before taking you on a multi-day gravel tour of the Midwest, or teach you how to rappel down a frozen waterfall – in other words, the type of weirdos you want in your corner!

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These guys slowed down enough to let me hang with them on day 1.

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Another typical night for Will.

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This went on for miles, I didn’t get tired of it.

  If this sounds like your type of event, take the plunge and make it happen! 200+ rugged miles over three days is a big commitment in comparison to a sanctioned race or gravel century, but Gravel Conspiracy is 100% worth it! It’s also one of the most accessible ways to see this part of Minnesota from your bike. Josh has done such a great job of making this a dirtbag friendly event that even I can afford it!

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This box truck full of snacks was our moving oasis throughout the weekend.

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One of the more memorable sections of day 2 – the drop on the far side of the bridge was huge! Fortunately Tall Dennis helped me get down.

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Dave Gabrys doesn’t let a little beaver activity slow him down.

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Morgan rehydrating.

Trans Iowa Musings: You Can’t Spell Enlightenment Without “Lighten”

mr show

I was supposed to go to Des Moines and race CIRREM this weekend, but a winter storm left most of Southern Minnesota with a bunch of snow and truly heinous driving conditions that kept me home. Instead I spent time riding in the snow, seeing friends at the Cutter’s Ball, and freaking out about how close it is to April. I’m really looking forward to going back to Grinnell for my third Trans Iowa, and while gearing up for a race that long always leaves me feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared, I feel like the past two years have taught me a lot. My thoughts about gear choices and strategies have changed significantly since 2012 – here is some of what I’ll be doing differently this spring:

1. Riding the right bike.

In 2012 I started Trans Iowa on a 29er with WTB Nanos that I had previously used with some success on the Tour Divide. I knew that TI wasn’t a mountain bike race, but I chose the larger bike due to a misplaced gut feeling that it would be ‘more comfortable.’ Dumb!! There’s nothing comfortable about lugging added, unnecessary weight up a hill and stressing about not making a checkpoint before its cutoff time. I certainly don’t blame the bike for my DNF that year, but it didn’t help matters either.  Last year I rode a humble, well used Cross Check with 35mm rubber and was way happier. This year I’ll be riding a Jamis Supernova Elite, a crabon cross bike (Thanks to The Hub Bike Co-Op!) with similarly sized tires. Whatever the fastest bike you have that you enjoy for ‘regular’ gravel century events is probably the right choice for your TI rig.

2. Packing less food.

In 2012 I started with a ton of calories, probably enough for 15 hours of riding. I maybe consumed a quarter of them before my DNF, but even if I had finished I would have been carrying too much. Last year I cut my starting food stash roughly in half, and relied on convenience stores for the bulk of my fuel for the back end of the event. I’ll be doing the same this year, probably starting with even less. I find that no matter what food choices I make at the beginning of the race, they inevitably seem completely unappealing midway through. The numerous C Stores along route are the best source of a wide variety of high calorie, palatable junk food that will get you through the night. Being able to choose snacks quickly and efficiently is actually a really valuable skill. If you start practicing now its a great excuse to eat Casey’s pizza and ice cream sandwiches every weekend!

3. Minimizing Extra Clothing.

I’ll hopefully get to spend all night riding, so no need for a down vest, long sleeved wool baselayer, or any of the other things that would definitely go in my kit for a more leisurely overnight ride. Last year it got COLD, down to about 36 degrees. It was moderately uncomfortable, but manageable. After the race I talked to a friend who took a nap in a ditch after pulling on all his extra clothing so as to be warm enough to do so. I feel like if you bring that much extra clothing as a contingency, you will make an excuse to stop and use it. Obviously everyone’s needs and preferences are different, but I’d say that if your TI kit involves a large Viscacha style seatbag or similar, you are probably schlepping too much crap.

Needless to say, my exact gear list is a work in progress that will be refined over the next two months. If anyone actually cares, I can certainly write up a more comprehensive summary of what I will be using, but rest assured that I will be second guessing my choices and making changes until sometime on the evening of April 25th!

Tettegouche Weekend

This weekend Alex and I drove north to Tettegouche State Park for a stay at one of their ski-in cabins. Neither Alex or I actually ski (via being a Texan and a narrow minded cyclist, respectively), but the cabin provided us with an awesome base of operations from which we did some hiking along the Superior Hiking Trail. The cabin is billed as ‘rustic,’ but has an electric stove, heater, and refrigerator – pretty posh, especially in comparison to Curtis’s wall tent!



The hike into the cabin is 1.7 miles along a wide, well groomed xc trail. My half-assed pulk worked fine, but any more food or beverages would have required a second sled. Unlike my trip last month, the weather was just about perfect during our stay. Temperatures in the mid teens and plenty of sun made our longer hike along the SHT incredibly pleasant. We made our way along the trail as far north as the Baptism River – its waterfalls made a pretty obvious photo stop and hang out spot before turning around.


Please send me as many free Smartwool products as possible


Sunday morning involved plenty of relaxing, a shorter walk near our cabin, and then an obligatory Thirsty Pagan stop on the way home – a perfect conclusion to any weekend spent on the North Shore.


Beer AND a pop: living the dream.


I’m grateful to have gotten to spend a few weekends this winter exploring Minnesota on non-bike related trips – it’s always good to mix things up. That’ll change in the coming weeks as things start to heat up with races and rides with friends. I’m looking forward to CIRREM, Drew’s Untitled weekend down in Rochester, as well as some very necessary long solo days in preparation for Trans Iowa. 2014 is shaping up to be a very full, exciting year, and this weekend was a great piece of it!


Dorks in the woods.



Triple D 2014

This weekend marked my fourth trip to Dubuque, Iowa to take part in the Triple D Winter Race, a 100K snow race modeled after events like the Arrowhead 135 and Iditarod Trail Invitational. In addition to the bike event, Triple D also offers running and ski events, and it attracts an eclectic crowd of Ultra weirdos that gives the race a unique, fun vibe.


Milling around at the start.



Best Dressed, 2012, 2013 and 2014.


.The 100K course is made up of a mix of private snowmobile trail, alleged singletrack, and the Heritage Trail – a multi-use rail trail that comprises the bulk of the course. I love this course because although it never takes you that far from civilization, racers are still treated to views of wide open spaces and prime Driftless Region scenery. Finishing the race gives you a feeling of actually having gone somewhere and seen something — a nice alternative to the multitudes of short format fatbike races that are currently exploding in popularity.



Getting used to this view.


This year made for a challenging event, thanks to a combination of fresh snowfall and tropical temperatures in the mid 30s. Long sections of the course were marginally rideable, and I did more pushing off the bike than in any other year I can remember. Fortunately, things never stayed unrideable long enough to be really soul crushing, and I slogged through the rough sections in relatively good spirits



Alex Oenes and Mike Johnson leaving me in the dust


I eventually finished in just over eight hours – the longest day I’ve had on a bike in a number of months. I was satisfied to have finished, and admittedly a  little disappointed about not having been closer to the front. An 8 hour race in the middle of January is a great indicator of how much work is ahead of you to get ready for Spring!

As always, race director Lance Andre and his crew of volunteers did an excellent job of running the event, and the majority of riders who showed up seemed to finish with a smile on their face – an impressive feat given how tough things were this year.


North Shore Exploring

Shortly before the snow got really heavy

This weekend Curtis and I headed north with a station wagon full of gear and a loose itinerary – the plan was to test out his canvas hot tent in some real winter conditions and basically have as much fun as possible exploring the north shore with a combination of fatbikes, skis, and snowshoes. Acting on a tip from DeathRider, we pulled our sleds along the _____ River until reaching the campsite pictured above. We set up camp in increasingly heavy snow, stoked a fire, ate dinner and fell asleep. It was cool to be in a comfortably warm tent in 0 degree weather, even though the smoke from the woodstove kind of turned my stomach.

Luxury Digs
Luxury Digs

The next morning we woke up to 6+ inches of fresh snow, which effectively killed our plans to ride our bikes along the river. Before too long Deathrider and Mark arrived at our camp to make fun of us for sleeping outside. I talked Curtis into breaking camp and meeting them in Grand Marais for some exploring elsewhere along the shore. Curtis humored me, though I’m pretty sure he would have stayed out there permanently if he had the option.

Curtis in his natural habitat

Curtis in his natural habitat


Cool ice formation slightly downriver from our camp

Cool ice formation slightly downriver from our camp


After hauling our gear back to the car we met DR and Mark for a hike along the Devil’s Track river. We began by hiking through deep snow along the Superior Hiking Trail. This was the first time I’d been on the SHT this far North, and it really does seem to just get better and better the further you go – I definitely need to get back here soon.

The views were ok.

The views were ok.

After a few miles on the trail we hopped onto the river itself, and begun hiking downstream towards the shore. The river carves through a canyon that gets deeper and more awesome the further you go. DR led the way for the most part, picking the numerous lines we needed to cross the river to avoid thin ice and patches of open water. He seemed to know what he was doing and has survived enough of these trips to make me at least relatively confident that we weren’t going to die.

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Eventually we reached a waterfall that we had to rappel from in order to continue downriver. Curtis and DR gave me a crash course in how to affix a harness and not kill myself, and I made it down in one piece. I’m scared of heights to the point where I just didn’t look down to see how far the rappel was. Our group finished the rappel just as it got completely dark.


Once we were down past the waterfall we had a nice packed snowhoe track to follow and made great time along the river towards Highway 61. It was awesome hiking through the deep canyon in full dark on a clear night, with a sliver of moon just barely peeking through trees on the ridge above us. Then DR led us on a dubious shortcut back to our car that consisted of turning off the river onto a small creek, postholing through snow upstream until we finally regained the SHT and followed it back to our cars.

We headed back to Grand Marais for some mandatory Sven and Oles, then crashed out in DR and Mark’s hotel room. I was super grateful to get to crash out inside, as it gave us enough time to get up on Sunday morning and fit in one more hike, this time along the Kadunce river. This one only took about an hour, but was every bit as awesome as the Devil’s track. We scrambled up some small waterfalls to reach the top, then took a SHT spur trail back to our car. Unfortunately it was too cold for my camera lens to open, so I only managed to get one picture of Curtis looking badass.


We talked about trying to fit in some more snowshoeing during the drive home, but the warm car and the draw of the Thirsty Pagan proved to be too much for us, so we loaded up on pizza in Superior and went home. Even though we ended up not getting to ride bikes at all, this was a great kickoff to 2014 and I still can’t believe how much awesome outdoors stuff there is to explore just a few hours from where I live. I’ll be going back soon.


River Rambling

It’s that time of year where I tend to look ahead to races and events that are months in the future. Making travel plans, setting aside cash for registration fees, and psyching myself up for long lonely training rides in the dead of winter is actually surprisingly fun, but it also tends to take my focus off of enjoying the present and taking part in the cool stuff happening in my own backyard.

Yesterday instead of hammering out road miles while obsessing over Trans Iowa I joined some folks for a leisurely ride along beaches and through the river bottoms. I doubt we even covered a full thirty miles, but I ended the day exhausted, starving, and smelling a campfire. All in all a pretty successful day on the bike, and it reminded me to be thankful of living in a place where rides like this happen literally every weekend.


Ken asking if this is a Strava segment.






Up to no good





Dirty Benny Recap


This shitty mechanic let me leave the house with a filthy bike and missing cable end cap.

 Last Saturday I took part in the Westside Dirty Benjamin, a  gravel race held in Chaska, MN. I like the WDB because it’s practically in the metro but doesn’t feel like it – most of the course’s 107 miles have a distinctly rural feel, which is a welcome change of pace from what I usually ride. I went into the race feeling good about a ‘short’ day on smooth, flat roads, and my main goal was to end the day feeling like I had really raced the event in stead of just riding to finish. I was also starting the day in pretty high style, which probably contributed to my optimism:


Going full hipster for 2013.

Friday night I went to bed at a reasonable hour, and then drove by myself to the start and arrived early (-10 Hubster points). I at least partially redeemed myself by starting the race on a 6 year old cross check with at least one H20 cage held on by zip ties (+5 Hubster points). I snapped my one obligatory photo at the start of the race, then retired my camera to a jersey pocket for the rest of the day. The start looked pretty typical, except that the sun was out. Don’t worry, it rained later.


The race started with a controlled roll through Chaska, and we were then turned loose on some rail trail and grassy two track through the woods. I made a point to stay close enough to the front to stay out of trouble, then got spit out onto roads with a large lead group of what felt like 30 – 40 folks. I stuck with them for the first 62 miles of the race, which is an eternity for a slowpoke like me. Lots of full-blown racer types in the group, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the pace to be pretty mellow for several hours. Things picked up as we neared the checkpoint, and I burned a few too matches yo-yo-ing off the back.

I rolled into the checkpoint with the lead group, grabbed some water, and made it through the subsequent trail section without incident. By the time I made it through the the woods there was no group in sight, and I felt like shit. I basically limped along for the remaining 45 miles, eventually feeling better as my stomach calmed down and I was able to resume cramming calories into my mouth. Crossed the finish line in 6 hours, 13 minutes — still about ten minutes better than last year despite feeling awful for a big chunk of the race.


Photo stolen from gravel booster extraordinaire Chris Skogen.

I was greeted by this at the finish line – definitely the first brand that pops into my head when I think ‘gravel racing’. I hustled to the swag table to hopefully scoop up some canvas slip on sneakers, but I guess they had already been snatched up. Then it started pouring rain. Big ups to everyone who spent hours finishing the ride in the storm – they definitely had a harder day than I did!

This is what passes for a race recap around here.


Shamelessly stolen from Craig Lindner – See link below for full set.

I love the Almanzo reason for a lot of reasons, most of which are pretty obvious: the course is gorgeous, the event attracts a good crew, and race director Chris Skogen has so thoroughly infused the event with his personality that every person who participates walks away feeling like they’ve made a new close personal friend. With these qualities, the exponential growth of the event isn’t too surprising. But the thing I love about the Almanzo is a little more personal – it’s how closely I associate it with my development as a cyclist. In 2010 the race was my first ever century, and my first race that didn’t take place on a miniscule loop of singletrack. I rode away from the Forrestville checkpoint genuinely unsure if I was capable of completing it. In 2011 I finished the inaugural Royal 162, and that was my first time riding over 150 miles, but the miserable conditions were a lot more intimidating than the distance. Each year I feel like my riding has made some modest advancement, and the Almanzo has been there as a barometer for my progress each step of the way. No matter what other races I sign up for, I’m confident that I’ll keep making the trek down to Spring Valley as long as I have the opportunity to do so.

Last weekend was my third Royal, but it also marked another first. This was the first year that I’ve actually felt like I ‘raced’ the event, instead of simply struggling to survive to the finish. Not struggling with hypothermia or heat stroke, combined with a few more miles logged earlier in the spring, left me feeling like I was capable of going fast, not just going. I’m still pretty slow and allegedly non-competitive, but I finished 160 miles in 10:41 and got 7th place, and I think that’s pretty cool. Lately I’ve been thinking of replacing my 7 year old Cross Check, and maybe at least writing down how much I ride on paper somewhere. I don’t discount carbon fiber as a material anymore, and I even thought about buying a heart monitor once! I still only care about long rides that barely resemble races, but I care a little bit more about how quickly I ride them. Looking ahead to the rest of the summer and beyond, it looks like I’ll have a number of awesome opportunities to test my limits. I’m beyond grateful that the Almanzo has been here to help me start down the path towards discovering what those limits might be.

In addition to the above quasi-philosophical nonsense, I learned some practical stuff this weekend as well. Beef Jerky really hits the spot when I ride in the winter, but not so much in the summer. And the phrase “steel is real” is always dumb but seems even dumber when you’re hoisting 25 plus pounds of it over your head as you scramble out of a river.

As usual I took no pictures, but here are some that are pretty spectacular.

Trans Iowa 2013


Obviously super excited to be here.

This weekend I finished Trans Iowa, a 320 mile ultracycling race that took me 29 hours to complete. I hate writing about the races I participate in because I end up sounding like a douche and its really hard to distill an entire day of riding into a cohesive narrative of just a few paragraphs (via being a shitty writer). That’s doubly true for Trans Iowa, an event that’s so long that I’m pretty sure I’ve already forgotten entire segments of it.  While its probably impossible for me to offer a compelling recap of my race, there’s at least one big thing I took away from this weekend. Nearly every race I take part in is touted as a ‘self supported’ event. I think the sentiment behind ‘self supported’ is admirable (and the alternative truly wretched), but it’s also total bullshit! After Trans Iowa I have never been more aware of how much I really depend on others during these events. Early on Saturday morning another racer remarked to me that having company during the Trans Iowa’s mandated all-nighter was ‘critical’.  This proved to be incredibly accurate, and I’m confident that I wouldn’t have finished if it weren’t for the eight other racers with whom I rode through the night.


Contemplating another 140 miles of exactly this


I was lucky enough to cross paths with some seriously fit riders and capable Trans Iowa veterans. After a dinner break at mile 180 we coalesced into a group of nine and rode together through the remainder of the night. As the sun set and we pulled on extra layers for the long night it was obvious that we were all starting to wear. If it wasn’t for the leadership and navigation of a few members of our group, I would have been in trouble. By the time we rolled into a Kwik Trip at 2am, 290 miles in, I was almost ready to throw in the towel. Nearly hypothermic and unable to eat, I considered taking a nap in the Trucker’s lounge and calling my girlfriend for a ride. In the time it took me to choke down some chocolate milk Mike Johnson and already purchased pairs of gloves to pass out to the group (as well as a Mountain Dew sweatshirt that he wore to the finish!).  He grabbed me by the shoulder. smiled, and asked if I was ready to go. The unspoken message was ‘get your shit together, ‘ and somehow I did.


Mike Johnson taking care of shit was a consistent theme of the weekend.

Over the last forty miles our group drifted apart, some getting a second wind and attacking the final giant hills with alarming speed. I limped along, finishing at the back. Still, shaking hands with everyone as we sprawled at the finish line and cracked beers, it was clear that we had finished Trans Iowa together. Mike, Paul, Tim, Paul, Chris, Jay, Steve, Charles, it was a pleasure. Thanks for getting me to the barn!

Finally, if it weren’t for the support of one person I wouldn’t have made it to Grinnell in the first place. Thank you Alex for putting up with my obnoxious training schedule, hanging in Grinnell all weekend, and putting up with my sleep deprived rantings on the drive back home. I love you!



The best out of like five pictures of us at the start (srs).




Amateur Hour at the Colorado Trail Race

I’m back home after an early DNF at the Colorado Trail Race. Needless to say I’m pretty upset about it, but am trying to remain positive about the experience and learn from it what I can. This was only my second foray into multi-day endurance racing, and while failing at an event that I put so much energy into preparing for is frustrating, I know that there will be opportunities for redemption in the future.

My decision to drop out came mostly as a result of poor judgment and rattled nerves. Despite feeling the thin air and walking more than I would have liked, my first day went fairly well and I crested Georgia Pass around 10pm. This put me roughly 80 miles into the race, and was basically where I wanted to be given my aspirations of a midpack finish. I began my descent, and then for whatever reason made the purely idiotic decision to bivy midway down the pass to hopefully avoid rapidly approaching thunderstorm. This would have been forgivable if my sleep system included a tent or tarp, which it didn’t. I was thinking like a tourist but had packed like a racer, and I got soaked. Pounding rain, hail, and a soaked down bag had me shivering uncontrollably and seriously worried about my safety. Scared and unable to make myself do the right thing (pack my shit and move on in the rain), I instead pulled on every piece of clothing I could find and huddled in my wet bivy. I turned off the 4am alarm on my phone and mentally quit the race at that exact moment.

The following morning I waited for the sun to rise, then dried out a little bit on the way down the pass. Despite feeling that my race was over, I had a blast riding the remainder of segment 6. The final descent to highway 9 was such a blast that I considered detouring to Breckenridge, plopping down a few hundred bucks on a tent, and pressing on. This scheme lasted about as long as the adrenaline from the descent, and instead I called my Mom, turned off my Spot, and pedaled to a motel in Frisco.

I expect to return to the Colorado Trail someday in the future, though not necessarily in the context of this race. If I do line up for it again it will be with the assumption that I can race it at my full potential, something that may be difficult to achieve while living at 1000 feet above see level. Maybe I’ll just have to move to Colorado in order to prepare for it effectively! In the meantime I’m happy to turn my energy towards some events closer to home. I’m keeping an eye out for sleeping bags rated to -20F, and I hope to be seeing to some unfinished business in Grinnell next April. Plus, there seems to be more and more multiday events sprouting up all over the country, so who knows what opportunities I may have in the near future. If you’re a cyclist with an appetite for long distance, self-supported adventures, there’s never been a better time to be alive and riding than right now, so take advantage of it! Here’s a few pictures I’ll be looking at for reminders of that in the coming months.

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