75 miles of unimproved dirt

Last fall, a wrench at the small LBS in town alerted me to a new race that was being put on for the first time just south of where I live. The Heck of the North is organized by a former Ely local named Jeremy who was inspired by a couple other gravel road races in the region. When Dean told me about the race last fall it was too late for me to schedule it in so I set my sites on it for this year.

Registration is free and riders are picked through a mail-in postcard lottery to limit the field to 75. Coordinating all this, not to mention route recon, land access issues, and the race day itself demonstrates Jeremy’s commitment to cycling and the cycling community. There are no broom wagons, sag support, feed stations, race marshalls, or route markings which I think is cool. Self-reliance in navigation, mechanicals, and nutrition will all add to race tactics.

So yesterday I completed my first long gravel training ride of the year in preparation for the Heck. A friend of mine and local hardman named Mike left me a message when I was out in the field asking if I wanted to join him and some other friends on a similar route to the Heck that they’d been mapping since last year’s race. The three of them had competed in the race last year and their take-away was that they needed to train more on gravel.

The route started and ended in Grand Marais, Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior. This is a spectacularly beautiful area book-ended by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Lake Superior with the Sawtooth Mountains running directly through the spine. Our roll-out was along the Lake on tarmac for about 6 km. We then headed north up Lindskoog Road and the start of the gravel for about a thousand feet of climbing over 3 km. My legs were being beaten into submission after spending the previous eight days in a sea kayak. I hadn’t ridden in ten days and sea kayaking is as opposed to cycle training as couch surfing.

After Lindskoog the road turned into a fast rolling ribbon of dirt followed by a 50kph gravel descent back down to lake level. The next climb was much more gradual than the first where at 35 km we found a five gallon container of water and fresh carrots that had been left out for us by a friend of one of my mates on the ride.

From there we began heading into bumfuckedegypt looking for Green River Road. Once we found it we were treated with what can only be described as bone-jarring, filling-loosening rocks. We never did see the Green River but concluded that at one point we were riding atop its parched bed. It was fun while it lasted but I know at least three of us were happy to be back on to the gravel.

We caught about 500m of tarmac on the Gunflint Trail and began the climb up Pine Mountain which is the second highest point in Minnesota. Afterward we enjoyed a couple dozen km of rollers on a ridge top until our second stop at the Devil’s Track Lake Store for a bidon refill and snacks.

Heading along the north shore of Devil’s Track lake we made an easy 7 km or so on more tarmac until it terminated in more gravel. The tarmac allowed us to set up a quick four-man paceline which we continued onto the gravel for several km. I’d never ridden a paceline on gravel before, let alone a 32kph one, and I think we all relished the quicker pace and teamwork.

After contouring the ridge of an esker for a while we began a long, steady, rolling descent back down to lake level. This was perhaps the quickest pace of the day and was a testiment to Cory’s thoughtful route planning as it allowed for a fast-pace and the subtle use of different muscles.

At about 90k into the ride I found myself sliding off the backs of my mates wheels on the climbs. ‘No worries’, I told myself. ‘These dudes have done this more than I have and I’ll just settle into my own pace.’ Usually I’d catch them on the rollers and a couple times they were kind enough to wait at a stop sign for me to ride up.

The sufferfest hit me the hardest as we began our last climb of the day. Cook County Hwy 6 starts a bit above lake level off Hwy 7 and climbs for another eight hundred feet or so before linking up with the last stretch of tarmac back into town. I was expecting not to show my best on the climb and was fine with that. What got me was the freshly graded gravel that went on and on for about the next 7 km. At that point in the day I was pretty spent and was struggling a bit to find my rhythm on the fresh grade which felt like riding on marbles. What follows is a transcription of my conversation with my buddies as I rode up to them waiting for me:

Me: “That fucking sucked.”
All: Laugh
Mike: “Yeah that climb followed by the fresh grading was painful.”
Shawn: Laughs (this guy finished on the podium last year in the classic race at the American Birkie, he’s tough as nails)
Mike: “The fat lady has begun to sing, eh?”
Me: “The fat lady is not only singing, she just laid a Cleveland Steamer out on my chest.”

The rest of the ride was a blast. We rode pace a km or so up to the Gunflint again and drafted eachother on the tarmac for the final few km into town. When it was all said and done we’d ridden just shy of 150k, 130 of it or so on gravel, in just under six hours. The only downside was that I developed an odd knocking sound in the head tube of my ALAN, probably from the Green River Road. I’ll have to check that out soon. All in all it was a great experience and great training for the Heck of the North. I look forward to doing it again.

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25 Replies to “Gravel”

  1. Wow, what a cool ride! It’s fun hearing all those old names from my years training up in the Iron Range. That’s a cool place.

    Some other riders have talked about how cool it is to ride cross bikes on dirt roads like that; it’s the main reason I really want one so badly. With all the dirt roads out here in the Pacific Northwest, I can only imagine how cool those would be on a ‘cross bike.

    In any case, if I needed any more reason to go for bike n + 1, this was it.

    Great article.

  2. Gravelling is most fun! Since moving to southern Wisconsin, I’m stunned with the lack of gravel roads. When I do find them, I hit em hard! Good times!

  3. Every time buddies and I go out on a “Lets just take a County Map and see where we end up at” ride, we always hit oil/gas roads and abandoned county roads that might as well be twelve foot wide MTB trails. Hellish, I say… Somehow though, even at the end of a ride with 3000+m of climbing… I can still muster up enough anger/confidence to FLY on the gravel like it was fresh cement. Everyone’s face drops, and stares at me like I am nuts, while shrugging their shoulders and postulate that a body of my age must not feel pain or something like that. Gotta love it.

  4. @FoSmith
    The transwisconsin just finished I believe, north to south, eight days if i’m not mistaken. that’s one of regional gravel road races a lot of guys do around here. there’s also the ragnarok105 and the almanzo100 down in souther mn. here’s a cool little artsy vimeo about the almanzo

    From the Ground Up from Chris Skogen on Vimeo.


    it’s really cool blasting down gravel. after all that the only mechanical we had was a slightly untrued rim which was fixed with a 10 inch adjustable wrench at the Devil’s Track store and one puncture. I was quite surprised nobody crashed.

    @Dan O
    Cool vid. Dude has nice bikehandling skills.

  5. @Marko: can you describe your ride, as in the steed??

    The LBS wrench has mentioned doing the same to me, doing dirt road riding and racing. he rides a 29’r w/cush and loves that, but I was going to run my old steel steed w/700×35 or so tyres. Just interested in the setup for that ride for some good food for though.

  6. @Souleur

    I use an ALAN cross carbon excell. Here’s a little write up and pics of it I did a few months back:
    It’s of course a cyclocross bike. Nine speed ultegra with a compact, I had a cyclocross double (44-36) on it in those pics but it was too small and too heavy. I run Michellin cyclocross jet tires (32). I’ve got an older pair of vredestien 28 cx tires that I’m saving for the Heck. For gravel, I think you can go skinny(er) with a speed tread (smooth or chevron on the crown) to roll faster. I bet your old steel would be great. It’s not really riding cross so mud clearance isn’t really an issue. As long as your frame will take bigger tires your steel would probably give you a nice ride on gravel. My frame is big. I bought it for riding gravel so wasn’t concerned with dimounts/remounts and more technical cross riding. I wanted something to fit more like my road bike with a longer wheelbase to smooth out the washboard and go all day.

    If you get into it, keep us posted. Even if you don’t race it’s fantastic training and opens up so much more riding if you don’t take your #1 steed on the gravel. Have fun.

  7. Thanks Marko.

    I do race, old mans masters and here in the midwest, I thought this would be a great training/off season ride and the wrench wants to go around and ride these dirt road races in kansas/iowa and such.

    It sounds fun, but those climbs…ouch.

    Thanks for the tips, i appreciate it a bunch and will use it.
    will keep you all posted

  8. I love doing gravel rides. I’ve done a couple 160km rides here in Kansas. The Gravel Conspiracy out of Manhattan included 6,000 feet of climbing. The next installment of the M4 ride will feature 144km of riding sandwiched between two laps of singletrack. It’s also a non-support, free ride. If your in the Kansas area, look it up:

  9. @Aaron Santry
    Word up brother! It’s the new pave but available almost everywhere. I’m a little familiar with the gravel culture in the middle west (Iowa, Kansas, Wisco, and of course here in MN). Good action.

  10. @marko
    Looks awesome! Wish I was going to be in the neighboorhood but will not be able to make it.

    What are you going to ride? CX bike? Road? What tires?

  11. @Buck Rogers
    It’d be great to see some other peeps around in V-kits. Wiscot, Oracle…you guys are close.
    I’ll more that likely ride my ALAN cx bike with 28 gatorskins. It’s a good combo.

  12. @Chris
    Yeah, looks like Marko is in the doghouse again.

    As for the ride, that truly looks amazingly awesome. Now that I have my Lemond Poprad back and built up I need to find something like this around here in Texas. Looks and sounds like an almost perfect day on the bike.

  13. SCORE!!! This post totally inspired me and while searching for my March USAC road race (the VMH lets me race once a month :) I came across this beauty about 1.5 hours from my place in San Antonio:

    All registered for the “race”, not the “ride” and my new-to-me HED C2 Belguim wheels with 27mm tubular Vittoria Pave tires will be PERFECT! A great trial run before my actual Paris-Roubaix cyclo in June in France!

    Wow, I am so psyched! Total inpsiration for the next 6 weeks of training (not to mention my second road race this upcoming Saturday!).

  14. @Marko
    +1 on the whole focus group comment thing!

    Also, when is your race? Mine is on the 10th of March.

    On a side not of no revelance (but I have never let that stop me before), I was able to change to the 162 km distance in my race from the 125 km distance as I just got my upgrade to Cat 4 this week. Cat 5 ‘s are only allowed to race the shorter distance. Quite psyched to be able to roll the full 162 k’s!

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