Almanzo 100, Spring Valley, Minnesota – May 19, 2018
It’s the Saturday after Mother’s Day in the town of Spring Valley in the southern corner of the state of Minnesota. About 70 miles to the east is the Mississppi river, past Bratsberg, Houston, and Hokan, you will find the big river down below the bluffs and across from there, La Crosse, Wisconsin. The land on either side of the Mississippi in this area, once you are above the bluff line, is wrinkled and rolling where streams and creeks have dug their paths, leaving high grounds, natural quarries, and rolling vistas of green lushness.
It was here, at the edge of the rolling valleys of the great river around 1870, Almanzo Wilder arrived from upstate New York. They were here for about a decade before moving on to the Dakota Territory, where 15 years later he married Laura Ingalls. Most certainly, Mr. Almanzo Wilder would have been barely recorded in the history books if not for the literary gifts of his wife. (Maybe there should be a section of the race called the ‘Laura 101’ where the last mile is only open to the femme riders?)
Almanzo the race, like Almanzo the man, is about the frontier. Beauty all around, but struggle on the ground. Land that provides and punishes, skies that shine and shower, and downhills that cross a flowing creek and turn back up toward the trees. A day on gravel backroads, even riding on two wheels with the technology the day can provide, is a return to a core of joy in the midst of struggle. To persevere and to finish in whatever speed or condition — it’s a day-long blessing to the land and the sky.
For this year’s running, we had weather that has only come once previously to this event that I know of — warm and calm with a soft cover of clouds. The charting of the weather starts once a day about two weeks out, and moves to ten times a day (or more) as the day comes closer. This time it held and improved much to the surprise of us all.
We met, as tradition demands, for breakfast — a group of Gravelleras & Gravelleros — at Tarsilla’s in Stewartville. Dan G. has sworn since the first time he rode gravel that he would never do it again, and I think he’s ridden four Almanzo’s since. He was there, packing and unpacking stuff at the far end of the table. We had a couple of new friends from the Miesville join us too, Don and Amber from up Brainerd-Lakes-way. A little chit-chat, some oatmeal, kielbasa, and pancakes and it was onto Spring Valley, a couple towns south on US-63.
Registration in Spring Valley was moved from the Community Center to the VFW hall, which is quite alright with me since I like VFW halls. The line stretched out onto Broadway Street which for the day was empty except for anxious riders and their variety of mostly calm bikes waiting against storefronts or laying on the ground.
Despite all the planning, but really not too different than normal, we were arriving at the start line with about one whole minute to spare. Enough time for a quick photo. (NOTE: I am not sure what kind of sacrifice Paul W. was involved in here on the left, but I promise there were no animals hurt or deified.) (OTHER NOTE: there’s nobody around us because we were a couple blocks from where the other 1,000 riders are lined up and ready to roll — the gun went off just a second later and then it was back to the plan).
I had a plan, and as per normal I fully expected some three to ten things to go wrong with it. If nothing goes wrong, then there’s nothing to write about (you’d think!) so I don’t exactly tempt things to go wrong, but I don’t exactly guard too much against them either.
What went wrong first was being two or three blocks back in the pack within 30 seconds of the start. Kevin E. and I had said we would try the oft-failed strategy of riding with the first group and then fall backward as the protests of the legs and heart grew too loud in the brain. To do this now required a surge effort in the first five minutes, racing up through the crowd as it wound down Broadway and then past the high school on its way to the gravel start point. Squeezing between riders and parked cars, thinking about hopping up on the sidewalk a few times, I made it within sight of the front edge as we hit the gravel — but I was still a ways off, and there was no established second group, so I kept pushing ahead. I didn’t see Kevin, but I was only looking ahead.
For the first 10 miles, I was averaging 22mph — that was quite a bit hot and I knew it. I was hoping to find a group that was forming and finally, I did around mile 15 or so. Still moving along quickly — at mile 18 average was just under 20mph and we were holding speeds near 25mph. The gravel was fast and hard-packed, the wind was at us but at an angle, and we were about to turn with it shortly. Were were on a fast pace to Preston, the first stop at mile 40.
I was feeling good and lucky for having survived the early gamble on moving through the group. Was settling in with a group being pulled by a few riders from the Holiday Hills Cylcing Club(?). Strong pulls, and a solid draft (and, yes, a bit of a tailwind too). I stayed tucked in for a while to get some recovery.
Starting talking with one guy and realized that his story was familiar — DC to Mpls, Macalester College, rides with NOW group from St. Paul — turns out he was one of the 15 riders in the annual “San Facundo 100” which is a road ride quasi-event I run in September to honor the Patron Saint of the Five Hour Century Ride, San Facundo. Slap on the back for that!
Well, it lasted for a while and then was just a bit too much to stay attached on the bigger rollers so I let go and spent some quality alone time. Still clipping along pretty good with a little tailwind, looking over my shoulder at each turn to see if I could spot another group coming up that I could jump into — and settling down my legs so I’d be able to stay attached as they came through.
And then they arrived! A pretty-well organized group setting a solid clip. I joined in, and was able to do a bit of pulling at the front at this point as I was feeling rested.
Good to learn that there were so many first-timers in the group — people getting to experience this great ride for the first time — all of it new. There were lots of smiles and some chatter. Good quality social ride — all is good when the roads are flat and packed and the wind is at your back!
This was my eighth time starting the event — the first being in 2011 when the temp dropped to 39F and rain started as we were headed into Spring Valley. We finished because we had no Plan B, we were crusted over with grey gravel from head to toe and finished in something like 10:30. In the years since, it has been everything from cold to insanely hot with 25mph winds. Always finished, on a gravel bike or a fat bike, riding social or riding like a demon.
That was the worst year until last year when it was 37F with rain and wind (link to JOM’s 2017 Almanzo 100 race video). Give me two of those three elements and we’ve got a deal — but all three, combined with a fat bike rolling 4-inch tires that stick to the peanut-butter roads? It was too much. After taking four hours to make the 40mi to Preston, Sullivan and I were shredded (and we had a support vehicle), so we looked at each other and spoke the words that had been thought but not spoken for three hours — “I’m done.”
So, this year, as the week progressed and the favorable weather became more certain, I started to plan out an attempt at a besting my personal record of 6:40.
I know the roads of the Almanzo pretty well. The fabric of the roads and fences and specific trees, specific views — they are familiar to me. I can remember places where we have stopped before — places where I have pulled out a piece of fried chicken from my jersey pocket and praised it and eaten it with delight. On a given day, I would never be able to navigate the whole 100 miles alone — but with some sense of things, and some tire tracks in the gravel, I have stopped using cue cards (though I certainly do ask the people with GPS as we come up to turns!)
I know the final stretch into Preston along the river — a canopy of freshly leaved trees. As it dips down and to the right, it crosses the river, and rises slightly before you see people’s support cars lined up on either side. There’s an ambulance converted to a mobile bike support — and this is for Penn Cycle. They have water and whiskey. I zipped ahead of the group, sensing that a line would form and that I was stopping quickly only for water — not riding into town to the vortex of the grocery store even though I love their fried chicken!
I pulled out of Preston after just a minute, up the paved road for a mile or two the gravel re-starts. A few riders ahead and one behind. Knowing how desolate this section can get if alone, so while on pavement I decided to dig in and close the gap to the ones ahead — playing the rollers up to 28mph and then holding as much speed as I could on the upside. Caught them just before the gravel started, and then we caught another. As we grouped up, the rider behind me, Erika M. and I sat up in the draft to recover. She said she had not stopped for water in Preston, and I knew it was another 26 miles of slower roads to get to Forestville. I let her know that I had a spare and all 3 were filled. Rationing water is a sure path to dehydration — “drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry” is the rule (when riding only!!).
Our group became about 8 strong. Good riders, solid pace. Being at the lower end of the Clydesdale category, I was outweighing most of the riders by 40-50lbs — so I was barrelling down the descents with great pleasure, pulling ahead and then they would catch me on the climbs that followed as I ratcheted upward like a creaking roller coaster.
A few miles out from Forestville, I ate up some food knowing I was going to stop only for water. Once a few years ago, I arrived there in a flash, and then ate something and walked about a bit, only to get back on the bike and suffer incredibly on the hills that immediately follow the stop — eventually requiring a nap in Craig-o’s van where he was parked at Cherry Grove just 14mi farther.
The Forestville stop is at mile 66 and as per usual there were a ton of riders there — a bit of a curiosity since you come off a road where you may be alone or with a group of eight, and then you roll into this stop to see 100 people eating pickles and drinking Coke or Hamm’s or whiskey or eating donut holes. I once rode straight through without stopping because I fear climbing out of there onto Maple Road too much to let my legs stiffen up at the stop.
Keeping the stop brief, I grabbed some water and a half a Coke and started rolling out of Forestville easy. Erika M. followed and then went ahead onto Maple. There are a couple of “dark sections” in the event, sometimes you experience one, sometimes both — where fatigue turns to doubt and voices bounce around in your head as you pull every drop of energy forward and vaporize it in your legs. This is one of those sections, so I was guarding against it.
As expected, speeds dropped as the section was new gravel, headed north into the wind which had been slowly building all day in anticipation of our arrival. We averaged something like 12.5mph for the next 20+ miles, heading from Forestville until Oriole Road at mile 90.
There’s a last climb before Cherry Grove and then you start to see something unusual — a stop sign. At the community center, there’s bacon and M&M’s — and beer and whiskey. A friendly youngster grabbed my water bottle as I stumbled around in a semi-daze, fills it and then handed it back to me.
Three of us rolled out of Cherry Grove together to tackle the wind — Erika M., Kelly N, and me. We rotated to share the draft, road the ribbon of grass on the side of the road in an attempt to find a faster line.
At mile 80, the road sign “Minimum Maintenance Road Ahead” appears and there are a few houses on either side as a descent begins. At the bottom, the roads curves a bit and then reveals the water crossing — some years it’s dry, and others it flowing. Once it was so high that Skogen had re-routed us to another crossing point to avoid being washed away (as happened to a few of the first riders to arrive).
Today, the crossing was nearly rideable — so I shouted out to the folks spectating on the other side, “Are people riding it?” and the response was, “Some of them — just stay to the right!”. I entered and started pedaling through, trying to stay to the right, but balance brought me to the left and into some water that was over my knees — so I dismounted and walked it the rest of the way. Got out and snapped a photo, then soft-pedaled up the hill.
The cool water felt really good. My feet had been burning up from the pressure of all the grinding miles in thick stone. We were making progress, but we had several more miles to go north before the route would turn west and then south. At that point, the wind would start to help us out.
We arrived at mile 90, after a section of pavement on Hwy 8 it’s a right onto Oriole Road. With softness in my legs, I pedaled up just a bit and then switched to walking. Not uncommon at all, and while difficult to walk, it’s a bear to pedal up. I’ve done it a couple of times, but once was on a fat bike with a huge gear and the other time I was wearing road shoes and knew that walking would be excruciating.
At the top of Oriole, my pals Kelly N. and Erika M. had waited for my slow arrival. I thanked them, reminded them they didn’t need to wait for me, and then we started back into the next section.
For hours I had been watching the time and the speed. I knew there’d be some really slow sections to tackle, but I did the math (maybe a hundred times) and I could see that a personal record time, around 6:30, was in the making if everything worked okay.
It did, but it was close — on Quarry Road, around mile 95, I noticed that I had lost air in my rear tire. I suppose it was from my adventure through the creek (and refusal to buy tubeless tires that have been recommended over and over). I popped some air into it quickly and proceeded up the hill. Again, my pals slowed for me and when we re-grouped, we ended up finding a larger group to crank through the final five miles. Erika M. set a fast pace on the last parts of the gravel, and then I picked up the pull on the pavement, into time trial mode squeezing every last bit of juice out of my legs.
Around the corner and into the park trail that leads to the finish, then across the line ….
I slowly rolled toward a tree, then set down the bike and lay down in the damp grass — huffing and moaning.
I haven’t seen anything official yet, but I think I may have come in around 6:15 or 6:20. Nothing near the speeds of the leaders who were closer to 5:00, but a personal record for me — and given the ideal conditions of the day (and the rumor that I am getting a year older each year), this could be one for the books.
After a brief rest, I eventually made it to the car to get cleaned up a bit and to grab the beer cooler. Hanging out under a tree waiting for my friends to roll in — drinking beer and chatting with the other characters from the road and congratulating dazed strangers.
All said, it was a great day. Mostly uneventful, which had me concerned since I didn’t know if I would have anything to write about. But, a surprise for us all, this thing has a lot of words! — and if you made it to this point, then you have completed an endurance event of a different category!!
Now the roads for me will turn to pavement for a while — then it will be about getting some big miles in before the Day Across Minnesota (the DaMN) in August. 240 miles from South Dakota to Wisconsin.
Until then, be well and ride.
Mas Gravelleros pics below….
Representing “Gravel News Network (GNN)“