Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Chris Skogen--the man behind Almanzo

2013 Almanzo.  Photo by Nathan Vergin

This morning, around 4:30am, I open my e-mail and found the answers to questions I sent Chris Skogen for this blog post.  It's fitting I get his reply today.  Summer is on it's way out, darkness is lingering, it's the first morning I have to wear long fingered bike gloves plus a wind layer and I'm staring down the barrel of two, possibly three, upcoming gravel events.

Chris making announcements at Almanzo.  Photo by AJ Peterson
Since I first heard about Chris, I knew I wanted to write a piece about him.  Anyone who puts on a bike event, in my eyes, is someone to respect.  Anyone who puts on a free event which is funded solely by donations from sponsors and riders, and run by a slew of volunteers should be placed on the highest platform.

In 2007 Almanzo went from dream status to reality.  In the short six years it has been running, it has seen a transformation from an underground event for bike geeks to having a cult like quality throughout the cycling world.  This year, over a thousand folks signed up for the Almanzo 100, the Royal 162, and the Alexander--myself being one of the lucky "few".  Although gravel events existed prior to Almanzo, many believe it was this event that catapulted gravel riding into the mainstream.

I remember first being told about Almanzo on a group ride.  Several of the guys I ride with are gravel junkies and even go so far as doing Trans Iowa.  I'll be honest, it sounded pretty crappy to me.  I had no clue why someone would purposely seek out gravel roads when there are so many beautiful, lightly traveled, dairy roads in the Midwest.  But alas, the seed was planted and I wound up signing up for my first two gravel events--Almanzo being one of them.  If you're inclined, you can read about my experience here.

My 2013 Almanzo cue sheet

Something I didn't mention in the post about my experience at Almanzo was my impression of Chris.  First, I couldn't get over how calm he seemed at the packet pick up the evening prior--there was almost a zen like quality to him.  He just floated around the room, blending in with the volunteers, chatting with anyone who came up to him.  Some cyclists, I will mention, see this guy as a god, you would never guess it though by how approachable he is.  Although he looked a bit tired--I'm guessing he was running on zero sleep for days--he also seemed so damn happy just to witness how many people came out to "play".  I'm sure a bit of him is always a bit blown over by how much this event has grown in such a short span of time.  My second impression of Chris made me like him even more.  Up on stage, as he was making announcements prior to the start, he spoke about his family and talked about how this event began.  He got a bit choked up, and as he did, you could tell all the riders felt it.  The rest of the announcements were finished by his father and I'm sure there were many tears shed in the field out of compassion for this amazing guy.

When I asked Chris about what first got him into gravel riding, and riding in general versus, let's say running, he came back with a witty answer "Running hurts".  He also spoke about how riding gives him the feeling of being free.  He remembers riding away from his house as a child, tearing down the road and feeling like nothing could stop him.  I'm sure so many of us can relate to that exact feeling!  Chris first got into gravel riding simply by looking at maps and planning a route to visit a friend who had moved West for school.  He said that although the distance wasn't much, 90 miles, the most direct route would have been on a busy highway.  While looking for alternative routes, gravel roads kept coming into the the picture.  In his words, "What followed was never expected."

I shot Chris a plethora of questions.  In his uber busy world, he was so kind to not only send the answers back, but also include some pictures.  I wanted to include a few questions that may seem a bit out of the ordinary--one's that wouldn't show up in every bike magazine.  I have to thank Chris for being such a good sport.  I also have to urge you, reader, to either try one of his events, volunteer for one of his events or donate some cash (better yet, do all three).  Without your support on all levels, free events like this would not and could not survive.

Q:  Why do you think so many people are flocking to gravel riding?

A: I believe it's freedom (I realize I sound like a broken record). The roads are empty. The views are majestic. The challenge is as much or as little as one cares to make it. I think, in all of us, there is a certain desire to do more and go further. I believe that the gravel road riding that has emerged out of the Midwest is a definite outlet for that. A lot of the events are centered around the 100 mile mark, which is a pinnacle achievement in the cycling world. For a lot of folks, I think these milestone events offer an opportunity to push themselves in an arena that is not clouded with pretension and expectation. At least that's the environment that I've tried to create with Almanzo. Its something that I take very seriously and I think a lot of the other event directors do as well. 

Q:  Where would you like to see gravel riding go?

A:  If I've learned anything in my short time on this planet it is this: Gravel riding is right where it needs to be, much like myself. Where it goes is something to be dealt with tomorrow and where it came from only serves as a reminder that it is right where it needs to be. I realize that might not be the answer you were hoping for, but it's all I have. The present can be a fleeting thing. I have found myself tossing and turning for years, not getting sleep and not eating because I get too tied up in where I think things need to be. I far too frequently forget that the things immediately around me are the things that deserve my attention...gravel riding included. 

Q:  Could you give people an idea of how many hours it takes you to put on Almanzo and how many volunteers it takes?  I'm not sure if everyone understands what goes into an event like this and I think they need to know.

A:  Again, I'll go back to the last question. Every year I spend countless hours each day trying to look ahead and foresee potential windows for opportunity. I look at the past and I estimate the future. I get so wrapped up in attempting to one-up myself from the year prior that I miss most of what's going on around me. To answer the question directly, for the last eight years, I have spent at least 40 hours a week working on some aspect of the race(s). As for the volunteers, annually as many as 40.

Q:  If you could ride anywhere in the world--at no cost to you--where would it be and why?

A:  I would ride around the world. There are many places I would like to visit and many people I would like to meet. I would like to sleep on the ground and get my water from a stream. I would like to reach the language barrier and find a solution to breaking it down. I would like to capture the trip by photograph and written word and share it with my children and my grandchildren. I would like to encounter a serious mechanical, miles from anyone and be resourceful enough to carry on. This would be my ultimate bicycle ride. 

Q:  What are you riding right now/what's in your stable?

A:  Currently, I ride a fat bike that Erik Noren built for me. I ride a 32 inch cruiser that I bought from Walmart for $200. I ride my Salsa Warbird when I want to go fast and hit the rocks. I have an old Diamondback mountain bike that I've converted to a single speed that I love to ride around town. Then there is the consummate commuter...the San Jose. It's not much to look at with its fenders and mis-matched wheels, but its always therefor me when I need it. I've also got a Raleigh CX bike that I will occasionally take out for a quick spin if I'm feeling energetic. It's black so if I'm riding it its usually reflective of my attitude. If its going to be a slow night ride, sometimes I’ll take the Salsa Casseroll out. Right now it's set up as a brakeless fixie, which can be a little daunting as it’s geared at 50x16. I've also got a single speed 29er that I ride very infrequently as there isn't much for mountain biking in the fair city of Rochester.

Q:  What would your dream bike be if cost wasn't an issue?

A:  I'm not sure I have one. I guess I'd love to have a Brompton or a old Schwinn Predator. My neighbor had a white Predator when I was growing up and it was amazing. It had checked grips and it was the shit. My parents couldn't afford to get me one, so I rode my Huffy. Oh well.

Chris riding with his family.  Photo by Chris Skogen

Q:  You've got two kids and a wife, do they ride with you as well, or do you prefer your riding time to be "yours"?

A:  There is a little of both. I have finally figured out that to ride comfortably with the family I need to be on the correct bike. That bike is a cruiser. It doesn't allow me to pedal away and it keeps my attitude laid back enough to really enjoy their company. Two days ago, we all rode 16 miles around town...and it was perfect. Conversely, “my” time on the bike usually involves pedaling a bit more swiftly and really feeling the wind on my face. They're two very different experiences, one no better than the other.

Q:  The whole UCI/USA Cycling thing has caused quite a stir in the unsanctioned cycling community, what's your take on it?

A:  It takes all kinds. UCI/USA Cycling is a business and as such, has a vested interest in making sure it continues to thrive. Unsanctioned cycling is very much not a business and as such, has no real concern over whether or not there is a governing body. Having participated in the political arena as a candidate for Mayor, I know first hand how hard some people try to make sure they get their government issued paycheck. I'll say this: If your work is making policy, more power to you, but your on your own...I've seen how corrupt and addicting the system can be. If your work is stocking groceries, I'll probably get your back in a fight if it comes down to it.

Q:  Finally, if you had to pick an musician for a film made about your life, who would you pick?

A:  Sigur Ros.

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