Sunday, October 3, 2010

The "Heck of the North" Lives Up to it's Name

Gettin' ready to start.  Jeremy gives final instructions.

The final race of my season fittingly takes place in my home town of Duluth, Mn.  After a spring, summer and fall of travel a race in Duluth was a welcomed relief.  Also, appropriately the race is on gravel roads, just as the season began back in the spring with the Ragnorak 105.  The "Heck of the North" is laid upon us by fellow DBD'er Jeremy Kershaw.  Jeremy knows gravel and has chewed on it with us many a time.  I've seen him suffer as he has seen me do the same.  Therefore, he knows how to put together a race course!  Now, I've done my share of gravel road racing and it is an animal only known to itself.  I've traded punches with the big boys in some of the big boy races such as the Trans Iowa and The Dirty Kanza.  The "Heck" slides into this family nicely as the ill behaved little brother.  He (Heck) comes complete with shin deep swamps that seem to go on forever, flat fast hard pack dirt, tar road sections where attacks from nervous riders are imminent and climbs that make your head spin.  Mmmm, what a recipe for racing. 

I failed last year as a broken chain forced me out at the halfway point of the race, I was determined to leave my mark and wrestle the "Heck" into submission if I could.  As usual nerves were running high as this was a home town race and Duluth boasts a lot of talent in mountain bikers and road riders, both categories were well represented.  A contingent from the Twin Cities showed itself as well.  Joe Mieser and Ryan Horkey would find there way to Duluth and represent Salsa Cycles with me. 

Once underway the pack stuck together with an unusually slow, easy pace.  It was fine with me, but I knew from experience that this would have to change.  Determined to not be a bit player in this event I spent more time at the front than I probably should have, but I wanted to have some control over the race if I could.  Wise words from my training partner and old sage, Charlie Farrow would tell me, "Eki, just sit in!  You're spending too much time up front!"  I dismissed his advice as I felt I knew exactly what I was doing and honestly I didn't want to get tangled up in an ugly crash as the field was about 35 riders strong at the 20 mile mark.  Fellow DBD'er and after race party host Big Buff took some marathon pulls at the front in an effort to split the group, but only succeeded in stringing them out into a huge single file line that cruised comfortably at about 25 mph.  Seeing that BB's efforts were resisted by the group I proposed to Ryan and Joe that we try to lift the pace and get some solid rotations going at the front and break this thing up if we could.  Shortly after the conversation we entered a right hander and I saw Joe hit the pedals hard and the surge was on.  Ryan and I followed suit with about two other riders.  Like clock work we assimilated into a fast rotation that broke clear by about 15 yards.  However, the main field was not having it and they quickly linked back up.  It was not to be, yet...

The course contains three off road sections, the Brimson Trail, the North Shore Trail and the Moose Mile.  I suspected that something significant would happen on the first of these trails, the Brimson.  As the field moved down the tar road leading to this first off road trail I warned Ryan that a move would most likely occur on the tar leading in the trail or on the trail itself.  I was right!  As I prepared to leave the road and hit the woods, local fast rider Ross Fraboni flew past me like his life depended on it.  This would be the break, I needed to be there.  I jumped in with him, but bobbled on the first uphill, spinning out on a loose rock.  I was forced to clip out and fast walk my bike to the top while watching the new leaders slip away.  It wasn't long before I was behind a 100 yard gap looking at about 8 riders quickly moving through the mile long trail.  I knew that if I didn't link back up with them before they hit the gravel I may not see them again until the post race party.  As I exited the trail I figured they had about a 40 second lead on me and they were organizing.  They immediately formed a pace line and began to rotate.  I was one man against eight, these were not good odds.  Experience has taught me that you have to be present in the break away if you even want to entertain the thought of a possible podium.  If one is caught out of the break you begin to race the clock and respect.  This being the last race of the year and in my home town I would make it to the break away group at any cost!  I turned myself inside out as I tried to solo my way to the back end of the group.  I was riding at an all or nothing effort that would only last for a few minutes at best.  Then, I felt the presence of another rider, a saviour of sorts.  Local strong "roadie", Tim Andrews was coming to my wheel and riding on his limit as well.  "Thank God!" was all I could muster in my clouded mind.  If Tim could get to my wheel that would mean he could get by me and I'd draft, getting a bit of respite from this suicide mission.  He pulled through with some encouraging words and I snugged into his rear wheel as tightly as I could.  I remember staring at the 1 inch gap that separated our rubber.  We took 20 second pulls that seemed like 20 minutes, but it was happening, they were coming back to us.  In about 5 minutes we were within reach and soon enough we were settled in on the back end of the break away.  It must have been about 15 minutes before Tim and I were able to congratulate each other on chasing back.  At 31 mph in a group of approximately 10 riders we were expanding our gap on the main field with a few solos trying to bridge back, one being Ryan! 

Ryan and Tim.  Ryan overcame cramps and solo'd to the break away - Amazing!
The "Heck" only has one checkpoint and it is at 54 miles.  My kit was fitted out with everything I'd need to get me through the 102 miles.  All I needed to do was grab my new cue cards and begin the second leg of the race.  I was literally in and out of the checkpoint in about 3 seconds.  As I rolled down the road I reset my gps and organized my new cards and an unusual silence befell me.  I turned around to find I was completely alone.  Had I taken a wrong turn?  I didn't think I'd gone off course, there were no turns to take.  I continually checked over my shoulder until finally about a mile in the distance I saw riders on the top of a hill.  I was leading the race and had a large gap.  Could I get to the next off road section alone and get out of there sight?  I went to my drops and started to lay down some pressure to the pedals until the voice of reason came to me.  "Tim, you're one man against about ten.  You won't be able to stay away from them, just sit up and let them come."  So, I sat up, soft pedaled and let them come to me and I humbly slipped into their waiting arms. 

A new comer emerged within our group suddenly.  A bedraggled and spent looking Charlie Farrow appeared next to me.  "Welcome back!", I said.  He commented on how the effort to get to the break away nearly killed him.  I knew that feeling.  I assured him that he'd come around as he later did.  He demonstrated his renewal by taking consistent turns at the front.

It was clear that this race would be decided in the woods.  None of the riders in the break away would allow anyone to escape on the roads.  Whomever was able to best navigate the gnarly trails of the "Heck" would emerge as the possible winner.  Charlie and I had discussed race tactics in detail and he always felt that the "Moose Mile" would be where the race was decided.  He was right!  The "Mile" is the last trail section and I use the word "trail" loosely.  It should be called the "Moose Swamp".  As we approached this section the pace went skyward as everyone wanted to be the first into the woods.  Jake Boyce, Ross Fraboni and Nikoli Anikan would get into the trail first and absolutely FLY through it.  My heart rate was out of control as I ran carrying my bike through shin deep swamps with water splashing over my face.  I recall hearing the deep thud of a body behind me hitting the ground and a voice saying, "are you o.k.?" with urgency.  "Don't turn around, don't worry about anything but you.", was my thought.  I popped out of the "Moose Mile" in 4th position and no one was in sight in front of me, they had gotten away.  Suddenly, I heard from behind, "We're with you Tim, Go, Go!!"  A quick glance showed me that Charlie, Tim and the rest of the contingent were in tow.  We'd go after the leaders together.  A fast descent to Lake Superior lay in front of us and we'd take advantage of the downhill hitting speeds of 38 mph.  However, at the bottom completely gassed riders had trouble organizing as frustration built in others.  Our group just couldn't pull together a workable pace line.  I knew the leaders were slipping away for good.  I resolved to try to be the first finisher of my group of 9 or 10.  Charlie continued to bolster my confidence telling me that I'd be able to out climb everyone in the group and the "Heck" ends with a 3 mile climb from the lake up to the finish.  His words would echo through my mind for the next 30 minutes.

We hit the first pitch of 7 Bridges Road and the start of the climb.  I moved to the front and refused to relinquish this position.  Periodically I'd check the status of my followers and slowly I'd see them pop from my wheel, save one.  Tim Andrews stuck to me like glue.  I attacked the "roadie" three times on that climb and I just couldn't shake him.  Finally, on the final and steepest pitch I had 20 yards on them and I felt I was clear.  With about 2 miles to go to the finish I'd be able to solo in for 4th or maybe 3rd.  In the short distance I noticed a completely wasted Ross Fraboni swerving around the road.  He was all used up.  He had burnt all his matches trying to drop us and he'd payed the price and as a result set two other riders free.  I was now heading for a possible 3rd overall.  Suddenly, without warning one of the riders from my group showed back up on my wheel.  How he did it I don't know, because I was giving everything I had and I know he was too.  I allowed him to pass and I tucked into his draft.  I figured I pulled him up the hill, he can pull me into the finishing stretch.  With about 150 yards to go I saw him lift from his saddle for the sprint.  I immediately did the same and slid out of his draft with a nice slingshot I was able to move past him taking 3rd place.

The smile on my face tells you how I felt about getting 3rd place.
The "Heck of the North" marked my final race of the season and one of my best.  It is a classic race course and definitely has a niche in the Minnesota gravel race family.  A special thanks to Jeremy Kershaw for creating the event and Jason Buffington for hosting the after party.

Next up, The Year in Review...


Anonymous said...

Bravo Eki!
Great write-up.
Great race.
Great season.

Charlie Farrow said...

BRAVO EKI!!! King of the Mountains :)

TOMMY GUN said...

we've never really met, but you guys sure as hell know how to ride up there! The Brimson Trail threw a few of us off, but damn if that wasn't a great, fun day on the bike. Thanks for being part of something spectacular. Congrats to you and all the other hammerheads.

-Hurl Everstone

Ari said...

Good job guys. Now to more serious business we must start to think about the Mega Classic in april. Rides in the rain, snow and freezing temps.
Some whiskey to all of you for your efforts.

grady said...

Fantastic end of season effort, Man! And I'll be damned if your writing hasn't improved as well!

Now lets grab that pint and trade tales!