Sunday, October 6, 2013

Crushing Gravel? Part 3. Mammoth!

This year's sign for Mammoth

The day before:

As I drive Northeast the miles seem to slip away, and so do the years.  I turn off Highway 53 onto 8—heading towards St.Croix Falls.  Memories of a time, half my life ago, come rushing towards the forefront of my brain.  Towns like Cumberland, Amery and Turtle Lake make me remember a time when I’d go off on my own looking for adventure.  Funny.  My car knows where to go, even though I’ve never driven this route from Madison before.  I scroll through the radio stations.  Songs by Tom Petty, Def Leppard and Prince flow through my speakers.  Just another thing that takes me back to my late teens and early twenties. 

I’m heading to St.Croix Falls alone.  Tomorrow will find me riding the Mammoth Gravel Grinder.  I had planned on coming up here with a couple friends, however, an 80% chance of rain, temps in the low 50’s and strong winds made them opt out last minute.  I don’t blame them, since I did the same the weekend prior with the gravel event Heck of the North.  I see this as my redemption in a way.  Not to redeem myself to others, but to myself.

An old cruiser outside of the brick house
So here I sit, in this enormous brick rental house, in Centuria, WI, waiting for the morning and my next adventure to come—hopefully without too much rain.  As I said earlier, I used to do this sort of thing solo quite a bit twenty years ago.  I would have two or three days off work and I’d wake up, and decide to drive up to Ely to do some paddling, hiking or just camp.  I wouldn’t think of the possible dangers, I wouldn’t feel lonely to be alone, in fact at times I'd prefer this to traveling with others.  I got excited about the possibilities.  What wildlife would I see?  How far could I push my body?  Would I meet new interesting people?  Now, as I age, I’ve gotten somewhat attached to my creature comforts.  I have also no interest in driving five hours out and back for a one or even two day getaway.  This, however, was different.  After choosing not to do Heck of the North, and realizing winter is only a month away (it’s snowing two feet in North and South Dakota as I write this), I felt the need to push myself one last time this year. 

For me, gravel riding isn’t something that comes easy.  I wasn’t born on a mountain bike—I was raised on skinny road tires.  My bike handling skills in gravel, over mud and in sand, leave a lot to be desired.  I sweat in cold weather out of nervousness-- thanks to riding a few of these events I now use the word "nervous" vs. "fear".  And yet, there is some odd draw gravel events have on me.  Not knowing what’s around the bend, having to rely on maps, and troubleshooting when something goes wrong makes me feel like I did when I was doing more wilderness activities.  I remember days of hiking through pouring rain and sometimes knee deep snow.  I remember realizing complaining would get me nowhere and I better just find a way to enjoy my time.  Riding this gravel event, will I’m sure, bring me into that state of mind once again.  I will get wet.  I will be cold.  The riding won’t be easy.  And yet I’m looking forward to it.  Huh.  What a concept.  I must say, for me, I have to be in the correct frame of mind to even take this stuff on.  Last week I didn’t have the mental strength, so I opted for sunny warm rides instead.  Let’s hope the mental strength I have now, will pull me through the ride tomorrow.

Ride day!:

Frank Lundeen getting the swag ready

I wake too early.  My body's clock is set to wake before 5am regardless of my work schedule.  I eat breakfast in silence, except for the sound of light rain.  It's dark and I feel winter knocking at the door.  Being my usual excessively early self, I arrive at Cyclova a bit after 7am to sign up. The ride doesn't start until 9am.  What was I thinking?  Oh well, it gave me some time to chat with Frank Lundeen, co-owner of the shop and the guy who puts this event on.  After the 100 mile crew rolls out, I make my way back to the car to prep my bike.  I've chosen to ride my All-City Spacehorse since my Lemond Poprad won't allow me to mount 40mm tires.  Speaking of which, this was the first time I've ever ridden 40mm for a gravel event.  Thanks to one of my riding friends, Michael Lemberger, I was set to tackle deep sand, gravel and whatever else the course would bring.

The overlook from our starting area

Ben and Adam Turman

Scott on his first gravel ride and on his All-City Nature Boy

Fifteen minutes before the ride and I met up with Adam Turman and his friend Ben from Minneapolis.  I knew Adam through his artwork.  I've always been in love with his murals and prints and he's been kind enough to donate one of his pieces for me to use each year for Madtown Maidens Alleycat.  As we rolled out, heading North on 87 along the river, I still thought I'd be doing the ride alone.  No pressure.  A few minutes after turning onto the River Road, however, Scott rolled up next to me on his All-City Nature Boy.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again, bikes are great connectors.  What started as chit chat about bikes, turned into an actual conversation.  We caught up to Adam and Ben and hung with them for a bit.  When we hit the sand barrens, I stuck with Adam and Ben as Scott rode up ahead.  

Mechanical issues on the gravel

Speaking of sand, the rain we all hoped wouldn't hit us was actually a welcome reprieve on this seven mile stretch.  It packed the sand down to a rideable consistency, and as far as I know, no one had to walk.  We joked about the rain and how it seemed to hit around the same time it did the prior weekend at Heck.  We all secretly hoped it would stop once we hit the gravel and road.  Sand turned to gravel and in this stretch, we ran into Frank and crew handing up beer.  Adam grabbed a Hamms and we split it while maneuvering on the gravel.  That, my friends, was a first for me.  Actually riding gravel and drinking beer at the same time.  Priceless.

The miles clicked by.  We climbed our 1,200 feet of elevation gain in a matter of 15 miles on farm rollers.  We hit Luck, WI--a place I've known about by staying at a friend's cabin--and turned South onto Gandy Dancer trail.  All "downhill" from here.  Ten miles later, we turned off the trail and down a dead end road.  At the end--and I'm going to sound like a leprechaun here--was a pile of gold.  Five to six miles of cross country ski and mountain bike trails on private land in Big Rock Creek Farm.  Within minutes I knew this would be a challenge for my newbie mountain bike legs.  Only ever mountain biking a handful of times, I wasn't prepared for wet grass and tree roots as well as mud, rocks and descents.  A mile or two in, the guys disappeared.  At times I would open up and allow the bike to do what it's meant to, but when a guy crashed in front of me on a descent, I got a bit skittish.  I slowed my pace and decided to take my time to absorb the beauty--something that brought a couple tears to my eyes.  I was so lucky to be there.  To witness the leaves changing.  To ride by ponds with egrets, herons and swans.  To smell the earth awakened by the rain.  

Still smiling with ten miles to go

Me, Adam and Ben at the finish

I was happy to finish the last few miles alone.  It gave me time to absorb the morning and prepare myself for the long drive back home.  At the shop, we all met to congratulate each other and say our good-byes.  As I drove back to Madison, the skies opened up with a downpour.  The sound of rain mixed perfectly with my choice of music--The Talking Heads, Joy Division and The Velvet Underground.  Just another perfect day!

Thanks go out to Michael for letting me use his Clement MSOs, Adam, Ben and Scott for being my riding buddies, but most importantly to Frank who put this on.  I doubt people realize how much time and energy goes into planning these free gravel events.  If you ride any of these events, please offer to volunteer for one of them, and by all means, thank the organizers for supplying us with all this gravel goodness.

"Blue Velvet" got me through another adventure!


  1. Great post. That was a fun ride. I was going to start up a conversion with you when you rode by me on the sand. I was admiring the space horse and the two speedhounds.

    1. Tim, you should have caught up with me afterwards! Would have loved to chat with you. Yes, the Speedhounds are beautiful bikes. The guy who builds them trained under Chris Kvale--one of my favorite all time bike builders. Although I love my Spacehorse, it was painful seeing it get so gunked up since it's my touring steed. If you have any questions about it, feel free to ask anytime. Happy riding and I hope to meet you at another gravel grinder.