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.

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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!

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.

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Ken asking if this is a Strava segment.

 

 

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Up to no good

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Refuel

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Deathtacos

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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Quasi-bikepacking in the Chequamegon National Forest

With the Colorado Trail Race rapidly approaching, I’ve been seeking out some longer mountain bike rides and overnight destinations (I’ve also gotten back into the embarrassing habit of dragging a bunch of bags and gear on my bike at all times, and basically look like an idiot). This past weekend I made it up to the CAMBA trails in northern Wisconsin for two days of awesome camping and riding. Initially I planned on making the trip solo and doing a proper pre-CTR shakedown using all of the gear that I’ll be taking with me for the race. When my friend Curtis expressed an interest in joining me, I threw that plan out the window instead opted for tent camping, beer drinking, and riding awesome singletrack with friends.

The CAMBA trails are located within National Forest land, so any patch of grass is a viable campground so long as you follow USFS rules. We parked at a trailhead, pedaled to a service road, and then hiked back into the forest to set up camp for the night. This meant we didn’t get to use the waterslide at the $35 a night KOA campground, but the weekend wasn’t a total loss. Next time I’ll load up a backpack with my camping stuff, ride to one of the lakes situated just off the trail, and set up there.

The trails completely exceeded my expectations. Each segment we rode had its own character and something unique to offer (Including newborn deer obstacles that we chose to hike around). After nearly ten hours of riding we still hadn’t seen everything that had been recommended to us. During the drive home we expressed our amazement that people even bother driving to Cuyuna when a few more minutes in the car gets you to somewhere with so much more to offer. I’ll be heading back to Cable in a few weeks to take part in the Chequamegon 100, and I can’t wait to see the rest of  what’s up there. 

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Shared Suffering at the Royal 162

Finishing the Royal 162 with Tim Werts and Jeremy Kershaw

After a painful nine hour Ragnarok and an early DNF for no real reason at Trans Iowa, I approached this weekends Royal 162 hoping for some sort of redemption, and my goal for the weekend was to come out of the race not feeling like a total piece of shit. There was a lot to feel shitty about in the hours leading up to the start, with forecasts of strong winds and temperatures approaching 90. After arriving at the start, and I had just enough time to bum some life saving sunblock from Mike Johnson before lining up with the 50 or so riders tackling the “Longmanzo”.  Alex pointed out that I was the only rider with a visible headlight and offered to hold on to it for me, but I was adamant about keeping it. Last year I finished in full dark, and my experiences over the past few months didn’t leave me confident that this year would be any different.

As usual, worrying about the weather and my lack of fitness disappeared within the first hundred feet of the paved roll out, by the time we turned onto gravel I was actually enjoying myself. After sticking with the main group for around an hour I settled into a more sustainable pace and gradually watched them disappear into the rolling hills ahead of me. I usually spend most of these events riding by myself, and assumed that I would spend the rest of the day solo. I passed Preston, caught and passed a few riders, and continued on by myself. Soon the wind picked up and I started cursing myself for not sticking with a group. Jeremy Kershaw rode alongside me long enough to introduce himself, then took off. He seemed to be settling into his own groove and I doubt I could have kept up with him if I tried. I fought a headwind by myself for the next twenty miles into Harmony.

The Harmony Kwik Trip is the only reliable source of food on route, and I enjoyed some ice cream, jerky, and a Mountain Dew before hitching my wagon to a group consisting of Jeremy, Charlie Farrow, and Tim Werts. Leaving Harmony we passed the world’s least accurate bank thermometer which displayed a total bullshit reading of 75. In addition to the heat, we were faced with winds so strong that each of us was almost blown off the road at least once. I was beyond grateful to be riding with other riders, especially riders who knew exactly what they were doing and helped keep me on top of my cues and shouted warnings of the large swaths of fresh gravel that seemed to appear in front of us every few minutes.

Rolling into the Forrestville checkpoint at mile 120 we refilled our bottles yet again and tried to avoid getting sucked into conversation with all the Almanzo riders we saw there. Charlie succumbed to cramps on the long climb leaving the park, and Jeremy, Tim and I continued on. I was feeling excited to be so close to the end and still feeling like I could ride, but I was also dreading the last few brutal climbs of the day. Oriole Road, an absolute beast of a climb in the last 10 miles of the course, was rapidly approaching and I was jealous of Jeremy, who hadn’t ridden this race recently enough to remember it. Tim suggested that we agree to all walk it together if need be, but somehow we all made it up. Tim stood up and road away from Jeremy and I as we struggled to stay on top of our lowest gears. With what seemed like one excruciating pedal stroke per minute I somehow reached the top, continued past the scattered clumps of Almanzo riders walking their bikes, and made for the finish. I’m pretty sure there was one more climb before the end but I don’t really remember it. The three of us finished in just under 12 hours and my headlight turned out to be totally unneeded!

Despite the heat, wind, and pain, I had an absolute blast this weekend. The Almanzo/Royal really is a special event, and I’m grateful to have been able to take part in it again this year.  Thanks to Tim, Charlie and Jeremy for the company and motivation!

Events I’m Looking Forward to in 2012

I haven’t participated in many races or events since finishing the Tour Divide last summer, due to a combination of burn-out and brokeness. The next several months should be a most welcome return to the fold, as my calendar is quickly filling up! Here are some upcoming races that I’m looking forward to being a part of:

Ragnarok 105

Last year the Rok fell on my 26th birthday, and riding it made for one of the best birthdays I’ve had in the last several years. The race takes place on gravel roads surrounding Red Wing and the 105+ mile course contains a lot of climbing for southern Minnesota. In addition to a challenging course and beautiful scenery, last year’s edition even featured an impromptu support station dispensing artisan cheeses and San Pellegrino at the top of a particularly challenging climb! I’m excited to kick off the 2012 gravel season with this race, although I do plan on bashing its organizers on the internet if there aren’t any fancy snacks this year.

Trans Iowa

To say that I’m looking forward to this race isn’t totally accurate. Instead, I’m approaching it with a mix of awe and trepidation that seems appropriate for a three hundred mile race that claims one of the highest attrition rates of any race out there. I intend to post a lot more about my preparation for this race and my thoughts concerning it, but for now I’ll just say that I consider it to be the most intimidating ride that I’ve attempted and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Royal 162

This is the longer version of the Almanzo 100, aka THE gravel event of the year. It’s just two weeks after Trans Iowa, so I considered just signing up for the hundo this year. Maybe its a sign of gravel hubris, but when registration rolled around I felt compelled to go for the Royal again this year. After riding last year in some of the shittiest weather I’ve ever experienced, I’m looking forward to a (hopefully) more pleasant race this year. I’m also excited that this year the Almanzo weekend will include running events, and Alex will be coming down to Spring Valley with me to run her first 25K. The Almanzo is a big part of what makes being a cyclist in Minnesota so great, and It’s awesome to see the event growing and evolving again this year.

The Westside Dirty Benjamin

This year will be by first Dirty Benjamin, another gravel century that takes place in Carver and Winsted counties, just west of the Twin Cities metro. Obviously I’m a big proponent of this race based on its name, but other then that I don’t really know what to expect. In any event, the fact there’s a gravel event so close to Minneapolis is pretty sweet.

Chequamegon 100

This is an actual mountain bike event held in the Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin. This should be a nice change of pace from the gravel scene, and hopefully a good incentive to start doing longer ‘real’ mountain bike rides in preparation for some of my future goals.

For now, that’s it. For anyone reading this who isn’t already familiar with these events, I want to point out that all of these races are grassroots organized and free to enter. As someone who has only been participating in these things for a few years, its easy for me to take that fact for granted and forget that free races aren’t nearly this common in most other parts of the country. I really appreciate the hard work that all of the organizers put into these races, and I consider myself incredibly lucky for the opportunity to be a part of them.

 

Minneapolis exploring

Five weeks ago I moved to Minneapolis and promptly quit riding. Asides from a six-mile roundtrip commute to school, I’ve been on a bike maybe half a dozen times since leaving Northfield. I mostly blame this on an increasingly overwhelming workload, but in reality I know that classes and homework don’t add up to that much more than forty hours a week. A lot of my inactivity is due to just not being that excited about riding in the city.

Minneapolis is likely one of the best cities in the country to be a cyclist, but its still a crowded urban area. The twenty to thirty mile rides that I have been able to go on since moving here have been confined to flat, congested bike paths. Its tough to get excited about a two hour long, pancake flat out-and-back where the only obstacles to negotiate are grown men on Seqways.

Admittedly, I’ve been spoiled by the idyllic, underused gravel roads I’ve been able to ride on for the past few years. I’m unlikely to find any good substitute for Farmer’s Trail or Shady Lane in the metro, but I’m going to do my best to quit bitching and seek out the next best thing.

Despite the lack of gravel, Minneapolis does have one big advantage over Northfield: single track! Theodore Wirth Park is an eight mile ride from my house and has a fun, if short, loop of MORC maintained trail.  This trail pretty much ensures that my Fargo will continue to see regular use within the city.

Theodore Wirth Singletrack

Crosby Farm and Hidden Falls Parks are near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. Until today I’d just puttered around the paved bike paths that run through them, but this afternoon I detoured onto an overgrown stretch of trail that juts off of the pavement. An abundance of itch weed had me turning around within a few minutes, but I could see this area being fun to explore later in the fall.
Next weekend I’m heading up to Duluth for the Heck of the North. I’m out of shape the point where I don’t even need to think about the possibility of riding well, but hopefully I’m still at a point where the distance is manageable. I plan on taking it slow, carrying a camera, and enjoying a ride on some new-to-me gravel

Real Life < Riding Bikes All Day

I spent the first half of 2011 training for and obsessing over the Tour Divide, a 2700 mile long mountain bike race that essentially took over my life. I also hoped to document the process of getting ready for the race by starting a blog, http://anothertourdivideblog.blogspot.com. It never really took off and its few entries are exceedingly half-assed. Fortunately I proved to be better at training than blogging. I finished the Divide in twenty days and eighteen hours, a good deal faster than what I considered to be an obtainable time for a rider of my abilities.

Racing the Divide was my calculated quarter-life crisis: a way to pack three years worth of riding and travelling into a single summer before I hunker down and spend the rest of my twenties in a law library.  I hoped to get over my bike obsession by literally pedalling myself sick; the world’s longest mountain bike race seemed like an ideal way to do it. If this sounds like a stupid idea, its because it is! It didn’t work at all and I finished the race emboldened by my better than hoped for finish, already thinking about what I’ll do differently when I return for a second attempt.

The euphoria of finishing the Divide was awesome but shortlived. It didn’t take long before I sunk into a post race funk that I’m still trying to claw my way out of.  I’m not riding very much, and feel bored with my regular routes and trails when I do. Without the Divide as a focal point for my energy, I feel listless and unsure of what to do next; there are plenty of other ultra-endurance races that appeal to me, but they are many months ahead.  This blog is largely born out of boredom, and a hope that documenting it will somehow liven up my riding. Check back here to see what I’m up to, or better yet come drag my ass out for a ride.