|Jeremy Kershaw sends out final instructions|
It's been my experience that the great gravel road races seem to have a feel all their own. The Trans Iowa has it's haunting mystery, The Dirty Kanza, it's breath taking views, and the Ragnarok's stunning bluffs. These are just a few examples of how races become known for something that their director's never really set out to establish. The young "Heck of the North" would be no different. Just in it's infancy, the "Heck" as it is known struggled to find it's own identity. Jeremy Kershaw, the race director (DBD member) neverously tweaked the details of the race almost as if he was looking for that certain something, yet not sure what it was. I often wondered what Kershaw wanted the "Heck" to be, as he seemed to force feed his young child. I was just a competitor in his game so I vowed to roll with whatever direction he pushed his young upstart. Maybe some where deep down I knew that it wouldn't be Kershaw who found the "Heck's" identity, but rather the race itself. Year number three for the race would do just that. Like a small child who's personality begins to shine through the race began to squirm out of it's cocoon and leave it's mark on all who would toe the line as well as spectate. It is my hope to convey the emerging personality of the "Heck" in the words that follow. The race as experienced through the eyes of one of it's competitors, who was truly touched by it's big warm embrace.
A snappingly crisp morning had all the riders confused by what to wear as temps were expected to sore from 31-61 degrees F throughout the day. I wanted/needed to go light in order to stay competitive with the likes of this field. Some of the best gravel riders, mountain bikers, and road riders in the state of Minnesota would be attending this race. The field was extremely deep, with what a fellow DBD member, Charlie Farrow, claimed could be any one of twenty who were capable of winning this thing. To say that I needed every advantage was an under statement. I resigned to start the race cold and accepted that I'd finish hot. So goes fall racing in northern Minnesota. 112 riders left a little known parking lot that marks the start of the North Shore snow mobile trail at about 8:10 a.m. with Kershaw buzzing ahead on a super cool little moter scooter. I coughed up his exhaust as I stayed at the front end of the field, too nervous to even settle back into the pack during the roll out. Eventually, Kershaw pulled off and set us free. He glanced in my direction with a look that he might have if he was sending his daugher out to her first day of school, or was he telling me to be good to her, meaning the "Heck" (his baby). Maybe he was looking my way to let me know that he was pulling for me. All these thoughts ran through my mind as I inched up to the pointy end of the race. A simple email the day before the race from him let me know what he couldn't let every one know, he was rooting for me. It meant a lot and I wanted him to be proud. The "Heck" was in my hands now and I wanted to take good care of her for him. She was also in the capable hands of two other DBD'ers, Big Buff and Charlie Farrow. Big Buff had let me know that he'd shelter me under his big draft and watch out for me at the front of the field, keeping me safe from harm. Farrow too acknowledged that we were all in this thing together, but Charlie was aware that he posessed late season horse power that he wanted to test. I knew he had it as did Big Buff, I'd be content to ride in their shadow for as long as I could.
|Joe Meiser and Tim Ek ready to start.|
I had the pleasure of hosting fellow Salsa teammate, Joe Meiser at my house the night before. Joe needed a place to stay and our door is always open for him. Joe and I hit it off the first time we met on the dusty gravel of 2009 Trans Iowa. Ever since that day the two of us seem to come together like magnets in races. I'm not sure why, but it seems clear that we understand how each other thinks when were on those bikes. Our like mindedness has proven itself time and time again, this day would be no different. As the race unfolded Joe and I began to do our best to control it the best that we could. Knowing glances, anticipated surges, and fast rotations would become the name of our game as we would attempt to "one, two" our competitors with jab after jab. However, like a heavy weight fighter, they just wouldn't succomb. We'd fight on and on...
I used to wonder if the "Heck" struggled to find her legs, because she was so flat. The terrain didn't seem to dictate the physcial well being of the racers. Large groups of racers could stick together for huge lengths of time which often frustrated the front runners. In other words, it was a course where attacks resulted in little damage other than spent energy from the front of the field. This factor changes the approach of the riders who are trying to control the race, as experience has taught them that the beauty of the draft will allow many a rider to stay in the "hunt". Therefore, the only way to blow up the field is in the trail sections. There are three off road sections in the race. Veterans of the "Heck" know that this is where things will and must go sky high if there is any hope to seperate the group and create a fast moving break away.
Please don't think for a second that there weren't attempts to shatter the hugh peloton that rolled through the country roads north of Duluth. At one point I was riding comfortably in about 4th position when I felt the presence of a fast moving rider approaching on my left. A small little double whistle only audible to me came to my ear. I knew it was Joe and he was telling me to get out of line and grab his wheel. Immediately, I peeled out of the pace line and jumped on his wheel. My heart rate sky rocketed as he and I moved into a fast rotation followed by two other riders. A tiny gap began to form, but not for long as the peloton simply strung out into single file and reeled us back in. I knew it had to happen in the trail, it just had to.
|L-R: Joe Meiser, Tim Ek, Jason Buffington (Big Buff) make final preps.|
The second and longest trail went off without incident. It was long steady slog at maximum effort, but I was able to keep Joe in my sights while he lead the train through the trail. It seemed I was comfortably going as hard as I possibly could, if that makes any kind of sense. Shortly after this trail the strong Jim Bell went to the front and began to lift the pace, but something was amiss. I didn't want to chase his wheel and neither did any one else. So, there we all sat watching him ride away. A few riders flatly stated, "let him go", "I'm not chasing him anymore", I even chimed in, "I can't chase him, it takes too much energy". We were all racing for 2nd now as he disappeared from our sight. However, it was still early, we had just crossed the halfway check point. If he could hold that solo break away to the end, then he most certainly deserved the win, but there'd be a head wind and he had no help. He was "all in".
|Tim Ek tops out the Pleasant View climb.|
The dolldrums of the race snuck up on me and I began to feel extremely tired. A glance at my gps had me at 65 miles in. I reviewed how much time I had spent at the front and I was mad at myself for doing it. I wondered if I'd be able to survive the attacks that I knew were coming. I went to the back of the group to eat and collect my thoughts. The always strong Ross Fraboni joined me. He was nursing an earlier injury and wasn't expecting much from his day and had resolved to hold on for as long as he could. He commented about my efforts at the front and offered me his extra bottle knowing I was short. I thanked him, but shook off his offer as Joe had already forfeited one to me. I continued to wallow at the back of the twenty man pack as we rolled over my favorite training road, the Fox Farm. I thought back to days of laughing and riding along through this stretch with Big Buff and Hondo (Charlie), but it sure didn't feel that way this time. I needed to recover, and fast!
If a guy holds any chance to win the race he MUST get through the Moose Mile in a top position and unscathed. The Moose Mile is the final off road section and the roughest. There are a lot of long sections where the rider is forced to carry the bike and run. The riding is picky and tricky. Hidden rocks and roots had talented racers rolling in the bushes every 10 feet. Meiser and I moved through in 1st and 2nd position, with one of the best mt. bikers I know, Todd McFadden on my wheel in 3rd. A couple twisted ankles, slips and falls later and we were clear of the trail and starting our descent toward Lake Superior. I was still in the front and the group was being chiseled down. The "Mile" had torn a handful of riders out of the group, there were now 13 of us begining the Lester Park Rd descent, a four mile drop to the big lake. Earlier strategizing had told me that if I was still in the lead group at this point that I had an honest chance at winning the thing. I was there and I would implement my plan.
|Completely done in!|
I expected attacks on this stretch, but none came. In fact, the group had a hard time organizing and my sense was that the guys were pretty tired, I knew I was. I was beat! Under 10 miles to go in this race with the last 4 being uphill had me wondering about this full water bottle of Joe's that I was carrying. I wouldn't need it, so I began to spray it out on the road. "NO EKI!", McFadden yelled. Then came one of the coolest moments of the day. I held the bottle in the air as Todd rode to me. He took it from me, proceeded to take a long pull, then pass it on. Our little band of 13 all got a sip from that bottle before it was empty, our last act of compassion toward each other. The battle was about to begin.
|Joe Meiser shortly after finishing.|
|Joe and Tim go 4th and 5th.|
My training buddies Big Buff and Hondo, never gave up the fight, but their's was of a different nature. They battled mechanicals and wind, alone to their own thoughts and devices. Sometimes that fight is the worst of them all.
|3 of the 4 Duluth DBD'ers at Big Buff's post race party.|
L-R: Tim Ek, Jeremy Kershaw, Jason Buffington
The finish line parking lot was buzzing with excitement from riders and their families. I took it all in and realized that the "Heck of the North" was on the gravel racing map with a personality all it's own. What that personality is? You'll have to come up and ride the race to find out. When you're done, you'll know.
Thanks Jeremy, thanks.