[Friend of Tiny Fix Erik rode the Heck of the North race a while back and almost immediately wrote this awesome, lengthy recap. My
lazybusy ass just now got around to posting it. Sorry! I also can’t decide if this recap makes me think these people are crazy, or want to join them. Probably both. -kaz]
Thursday evening found me in my friend Jon’s basement, drinking beers while Jon and Jeré tried to remove the gravel from their wheel bearings. And that’s perhaps an appropriate intro to this year’s Heck of the North, my inaugural experience with the event.
The Heck of the North Gravel Cycling Classic is Northeast Minnesota’s contribution to the Upper Midwest gravel racing boom–103.x miles, the great majority of it on unpaved rural roads between Two Harbors and Duluth. The course changes every year, but I am assured that the pattern remains pretty consistent: there are a few miles of pavement between gravel stretches, where you can get overenthusiastic, and a few miles of snowmobile trail, where you can get over all that. Prior to this year, the race always left from the outskirts of Duluth and headed north–this year, the pattern was reversed: the start was at a big parking lot on the North Shore snowmobile trail outside Two Harbors, which allowed for a larger field, a couple hundred people, I think (formerly there was a lottery). Entry was via a postcard sent to the race organizer during the month of May, fee zero (free is a very good price). So you kind of have to plan ahead. That’s probably a good thing.
On Friday evening, I went to the pre-race check-in at SkiHut, a Duluth ski/bike shop. Leaving there it was pretty funny to drive around town and spot the telltale signs of racers from out of town all over the place–here a group in a parking lot with a bike cap, shaved legs, etc.; there a car with three dropbar bikes on the rack, etc. I was riding with my friends Jon and Jeré, both of whom had done it a few times, and Jeré’s coworker Mark, another rookie. All of us were on cyclocross bikes, which is the most common choice of steed–looking around the parking area beforehand was kind of entertaining though, as there was a wild variety of bikes–lots of mountain bikes, a few fatbikes, even a couple of tandems. Apparently even one loon on a fixed gear (he finished way ahead of me, I guess). The organizers transport a drop bag to a volunteer’s house about 60 miles in–otherwise, the race is self-supported. Consequently I had two water bottles on my bike, a Camelbak, as well as two bananas, about 8 gels, and 5 granola bars stuffed in my vest pockets and top-tube box–I had about the same, plus a big lunch, several giant cookies, and a large Thermos of coffee waiting in my drop bag. Have I mentioned that I have a history of bonking? I had also stashed a full change of clothes in the drop bag, as the NWS had sworn with ironclad certainty that it would absolutely pour down rain Saturday afternoon. With that in mind, I’d lashed my rain jacket to my Camelbak too. This wound up being a good idea.
We set off on a glorious Northern Minnesota fall morning–it was in the 50s, so I was in shorts and knee warmers with a short sleeve jersey. Oh, and no gloves, because I’d put both pairs in my drop bag. I was surprised by how much the leaves had turned–20 miles south and closer to the lake everything is still green. I didn’t have a lot of time to gawk at the trees though, as the first few miles were on a snowmobile trail that featured an entertaining assortment of large-ish rocks, which were the more exciting given that we were two abreast and packed in pretty tight. There were a couple of hills that were too steep or too loose to ride, at least with so many people packed in. Somewhere in there there was a water hazard that required some shin-deep wading for a while, bike on shoulder (not the last of these either). We eventually got off the snowmobile trails and out onto actual gravel roads, at which point things opened up. We collected our group and hit it.
We were bombing along merrily through about 37 miles when the promised rain showed up. And boy did it. It was raining hard enough that I couldn’t decide which was worse–trying to ride with my sunglasses on with the lenses covered in spray, or taking them off and getting pelted in the face. Neither option was that great. It was absolutely pouring–enough so to wash all the sweat out of our helmets and into our eyes, which was kind of irritating for me and positively debilitating for Mark, who had to stop and turn his helmet backwards (!?) for a while in an effort to change the drainage pattern. I wound up being really glad I had the Camelbak–although it was cool and we were taking it easy and thus I didn’t need a lot of water, the bottles on my bike were so muddy that I would have had to have been pretty desperate to drink out of them. About this time the lead pack passed us, completely hammering–there was a re-ride loop near the far end of the course. It was a little humbling to see one of the tandems not too far off the lead–I can’t imagine how they managed to ride that thing through the snowmobile trail portions, but clearly they handled it, heh.
The apogee of the course was about a mile and a half from my warm, dry house, which was seriously tempting at that point. We soldiered on though, climbing the paved but nasty hills of Seven Bridges Road and made it to the “halfway” point (which was actually at 60 miles, I think). At that point, I suddenly became a minor hero for bringing hot coffee (and several adorable little metal cups, which I doled out to my cohorts). I put on a dry jersey and gloves (finally); also decided I’d take a chance on getting too hot and put my rain jacket on. Jeré and Mark got out ahead of Jon and me, as we’d agreed to wait for Doug, another Duluth guy whose wingman had decided to ditch. We picked up a fourth guy and headed out.
By mile 70, Jon and I had dropped the other two guys, but were totally hating it. We were climbing in driving rain into the wind, and the road surface was super-soft, enough so that it felt like my 35 rear tire was buried to the rim–we were pulling all of about 8 mph. On the bright side, I was having no problems getting too hot in my rain jacket–in fact, we were both freezing. I kept looking down at my computer, which seemed to be permanently stuck at about 73 miles. Both of us were seriously dragging at that point, but we kept listlessly spinning the cranks and finally got through that portion onto a brief pavement section and then onto Fox Farm Road, a familiar stretch of great quality gravel, flat or downhill. By this point, I was the only one who still had a set of cue cards to call out the turns. This was funny because I’d despaired of coming up with a good way of mounting them, so I’d just used a bulldog paperclip to clip them to the top flap of my top-tube bag–I assumed I’d lose them and Jon or Jeré would tell me where to go. Instead, Jon had been among the dozens of people who’d scattered his cue cards along the snowmobile trail near the start and here I was, trying to clear the rain off the packing tape I’d laminated the cards with in between dodging ruts.
Anyhow, we got up some speed again and were doing great until with about 15 miles left, Jon flatted. Really if you saw the crap we rode on, it’s a freaking miracle that anything short of a dumptruck wouldn’t flat in about half an hour, let alone after half a day on skinny bike tires. Still, this was not quite optimal timing given that it shot our momentum all to hell. We eventually got that put back together, the chief complicating factors being that 1) our fingers were really cold, which made it hard to manhandle the tire; 2) everything (including us) was so muddy it was hard to keep the inside of the rim from getting absolutely filthy.
We got going again but promptly had to turn off onto another snowmobile trail stretch. By now, an ark-floating rain had been falling for 3 or 4 hours and 100+ people had already bombed through the trail ahead of us. Consequently, what was left of it was a complete morass. We rode most of it, slipping and sliding and bouncing over rocks and roots, but periodically had little choice but to bail and walk the bikes through some stretches. It was about that time that I discovered that I basically had zero brakes–not exactly optimal. Still, we slogged through, and eventually caught up to Doug, who’d passed us while Jon fixed his tire. The three of us rode the rest of the way, finishing the last few miles on a gravel trail where we got up a modicum of speed again.
My whole group made it, and nobody was too much the worse for wear. Our bikes were another story–I was actually riding my wife’s bike, ahem, as I haven’t bought a cross bike yet. It turned out that when I got the mud off (which took about an hour), I’d managed to grind the brake pads all the way down to the flats. So it wasn’t just the mud, heh. I got off pretty easy though–Mark’s bottom bracket had enough grit in it to refinish a hardwood floor, and Jon and Jeré’s aforementioned wheel bearings were pitted like they’d been dredged up from a sunken submarine. So it goes.
It was a wild day and lived up to the name. I enjoyed it a lot, even the more arduous portions, although the moreso after we were through them. Our pace was comically slow, but I don’t feel too bad about that–I’d actually never ridden more than about 65 miles, let alone in such forbidding conditions, so I was definitely playing it a little safe. We rode a bunch of gravel this summer to tune up, with numerous 50+ mile rides, including some really rugged abandoned logging roads-turned-moose tracks (literally). I’m glad we did that, because I was a lot more comfortable on the snowmobile trail portions (even in the mud) than I would have been otherwise. I ran a 28 front and 35 rear tire and that worked ok. My friend Jon had a 35 and a 40, I think. We all had semi-slick tires: mine were Kenda Happy Mediums; Jeré has a set of Clement LAS’s that he swears by.
I’d recommend the event highly–it’s really well-organized; there are tons of volunteers who did a great job, and a raffle with some nice prizes. Out-of-towners should be aware that scenic Duluth has lots of lodging options and a shocking profusion of brewpubs.