One Heck of a Good Time
It was October of 2015 and AJ and I crossed the finish line at Heck of the North…from that moment on I could not wait to get back there. It’s been a year since then, and we did go back. The experience, although a tad bit different, was nothing short of spectacular.
We took the Friday before the race off of work in order to get on the road a bit early and head straight to Two Harbors. We wanted to beat as much traffic as possible on the way up…ease any stress from the work week. Once we arrived there our plan was to get some late lunch, head over to Castle Danger Brewery and pick up our race packets and then meet some friends for a chat.
We were invited to stay with our friends Charlie and Jen at their cabin which is 20 miles north of Two Harbors. This is where we stayed last year as well and it was magnificent. Eventually Charlie and Jen made it into town and we sat with them for a bit at the brewery before heading out for dinner. We were waiting on a couple more folks who would be spending the weekend with us and as soon as they arrived we drove up the road and grabbed a spot at Carmody’s 61, which was thought to be a thai restaurant by our fellow racer Mark (who is as funny as they come). Later we learned that the establishment was irish in name and as north woods of a bar as they come. We had endless laughs and really tasty food, then headed back to county road 2 to hit up the cabin.
AJ and I had to make a quick pitstop at the Super One Foods to purchase some snacks, and other ingestibles, along with a chip clip for cue card holding. After having two dinners and a ton of water, one would think our shopping cart would be fairly empty…that would be a wrong assessment. After finding a really good sale on Clif Bars, the shopping basket filled up quite quickly. So we paid, and made our way back to the car and on our way.
Making our way north we take a quick right on Kane Lake Road and from there traverse our way into some gnarly gravel backroads and find our way to the Schad compound. Once there we unpack our goods into the cabin, pick out one of many beds in the loft area then sit and relax a bit with the other few folks who are staying as well. This year on the night before the race there are only six of us and Lola, the family dog. Last year there were more than twelve total individuals and the vibe was very different, but very good nonetheless.
We shared stories from years past, talked bikes, gear, nutrition, and course details…and soon it was time to hit the hay and dream of gravel roads and off the beaten path trails that most people will never have the pleasure of seeing, let alone riding. The eyes closed, the REM commenced and the snoring was kept to a minimum.
The next morning came quickly and it was time to get prepared for the race. The normal weather check was done in order to figure what spandex costumes would be best to wear for the mornings endeavors. As ordered, low of 51 race morning, high of near 70…wow, we are lucky cyclists to have such a perfect forecast for Northern Minnesota in October. We geared up, nerded out and headed south to the staging area.
Race start for the 100 milers was slotted for 8am…the ‘kiddie race’ (Half Heck) would be about 10 minutes later. So we arrived a bit early without being obnoxiously early and made our way to the parking area which is situated in a big clearing essentially in the middle of the forest off of County Road 2. Cars were everywhere…all sorts of different vehicles from old VW Busses, to fancy new Subarus…this race covered the gamut of pay grades and titles, but lacked any kind of attitude. That will hopefully ring true year after year, as it’s one of the least pompous* races we’ve ever paid for.
*Actually putting the word pompous anywhere near this venue is a travesty, but I’m leaving it there for the sake of understanding.
With people meandering, bonfire glowing, tires being pumped, children playing…it really is a sight. It’s actually fairly unassuming overall. A simple white tent housing some Heck of the North soft goods, coffee and treats, and a spot for volunteers to hang out to get out of the sun is all that is needed. A flag filled finish area held in place by wooden posts and a couple folding chairs creating a chute for the riders to come through when their riding day is complete. It’s pretty simple stuff here, and that adds to the charm and keeps any pretentious attitudes at bay.
After a trip to the outhouse and a re-check on air pressure, brakes and chain lube, we are ready to go. We parked up on top of the hill overlooking the start finish area so we headed down the little mowed grassy area to the start line. Jeremy Kershaw is the race director (pictured below center), and a good one at that…he gave some words of advice, some thanks to the sponsors that helped make the event happen and urged us to have a blast and be respectful of the rules of the road and the locals. With that, we were on our way.
The first 7 miles are on a glorious gravel road that meanders northeast. It’s a perfect way to get loose, get settled in and find a rhythm. After that, the route starts to change from smooth flowing gravel to deep woods logging roads. Rocky and rooted snowmobile trails, and potholed muddy back roads traveled just enough to keep them interesting.
Keep in mind, this write up is from a riders perspective. My perspective and that of the half heck route which ended up being just over 57 miles. So we ride, AJ and I…together, chatting, climbing, descending and having a pretty damn good time in the saddle. There were plenty of others riders out there with us, so navigating the route with cue cards is less than a worry for us at this point as we could see where others had gone, and the roadways way out in the middle of nowhere were marked by Jeremy. We rode along, passing a few, getting passed by some. Mostly it was just us and a few other riders switching spots depending on the topography. The route is always changing, the scenery is ever evolving right in front of you. The colors with the sun bouncing in the sky jump out at you and grab your attention, command your attention. It’s brilliantly beautiful here and as the miles pass, you get lost in it all…being on the bike is the only place you want to be.
As the terrain shifts and you power through some long sections, the miles seem to just drop and next thing you know you are near the homestretch. This years route takes you on a 9 mile gravel road before making the left turn back to the finish area which is a 5-6 mile stretch. Getting to this point was welcomed in the sense that the trails and roads had taken a beating on the body, specifically the personal undercarriage, but the realization that the ride was nearing an end was jagged little pill.
Our legs are feeling good, our lungs have enjoyed the plentiful clean air of the northwoods and our hearts are full of splendor from the morning adventure. AJ and her saddle are no longer getting along. The last 5 miles is rough. Rocks, potholes, ruts and, well, bone jarring trail…you want it to be done…the jolts of pain take the wind right out of your sails…but you proceed. As we near the finish we chat about the ride, comparing it to last year, enjoying it as much and already looking forward to next year. Riders must cross county road 2 in order to get to the chute. There are great volunteers there making sure you are clear to cross (as it can be a busier road with fast moving cars) and we were waved through and about a ¼ mile from home. Making a hard left back into the staging area there is a huge puddle and a bunch of cheering spectators. I let AJ go first, so technically she beat me by a second. At the finish is race director jeremy with a big smile. He thanks us for racing, we thank him for putting on the event, and move on.
The finish area is just as calm and relaxing as the whole race feels. There are no nerves, no anxiety, just a relaxing and wholesome vibe all around. We see some familiar faces, trade some stories and make our way back to the car to get cleaned up.
The day is gorgeous, nearly perfect. Legs tired as we stand. Dried mud, a little sweat, maybe even a tear or two because it’s done. As i stand atop the hill looking out over the landscape of cars and bikes…a fire burning in the background, the smell of pine and burning wood. You can’t help but wonder if everyday could be so sweet. If you did this everyday, would it be this sweet….
So we hop in the car to head to town to grab some goodies for the nights BBQ. our goal is to hit up town and get back in time to sit by the fire and watch our friends racing the 100 mile course finish their journey. Timing is great and we get back in time. Feeling refreshed, we sit and wait and soon they come through. A lead pack of 7 or 8 riders, then 3 more, and soon more to follow and flow into the finishing area. We watch, and chat and cheer. It’s community. A positive group of likeminded people that maybe share nothing but this in common and that’s enough. It’s more than enough.
The afternoon begins to wind down and riders continue to roll in. It’s time to pack up our gear and make our way back to the cabin for a BBQ with friends. A time to reflect on the day, enjoy some great food and perfect laughter and wind down another memory of Heck. night falls quickly, the stars are shining bright. And soon, slumber sets in and that day is well behind us. It was a good day to ride a bike. As is any day…and this one will forever remain in my mind.
Heck 2016 – Back of the Pack
For a different perspective, let me interject. This was actually my first race, and it was blast. What a great ride through the north woods. I didn’t win, but I certainly didn’t expect a podium finish.
My friend Jeff and I decided to do this race together. Maybe you saw us, we’re the ones riding vintage steel out there. Me on my 1994 Bianchi Peregrine, and Jeff on my old Bridgestone MB4 circa 1987, which he purchased from me some years ago. Our old bikes attract some attention from other riders, especially the Bridgestone. A great bike, very sturdy, and it’s short wheelbase makes its nimble on the single track. But lifting that one on top of the minivan is a workout all in and of itself.
Since my old tires were wearing pretty thin, while training I put on a new set of gravel tires – Continental (26 x 1.9) Town and Country. I’m pretty happy with these tires on the gravel and the pavement, but there were points where I wished I had little more tread. They’re a little slippery up the steep hill, and where it’s a bit muddy. Luckily things were pretty dry.
It started off a bit on the cool and grey side, and we left the gravel pit at the back of the pack knowing we’d just be in the way of those faster. Some of the race was on pavement, but you expect a bit of that getting from one gravel grind to the next and
then to the forest roads. You get a good flavor of the different terrain up the hill from Lake Superior. I had expected a bit more in the likes of hills, but there was enough challenging terrain to make it interesting and exhausting. Especially the last portion on an ATV trail. By far my favorite part of the race was flying down mostly deserted gravel roads while enjoying the fall colors.
We’ve been lucking out with the weather on our rides this year. This was another gorgeous day on a bike in the north woods.
It cleared up and warmed up during the race. There’s nothing like a blue sky to contrast the oranges and yellows of the trees.
And my tires held air the whole 57 miles. Which was lucky, because I forgot to bring an extra tube. Not smart. Live and learn.
It was a super fun ride, and I plan to do it again next year.
Heck of the North 2015
I wanted my weekends back so I quit my job. Smartly, I had a new one lined up, and it didn’t require me to work weekends…ever. Most things you miss out on while working the weekends you just can’t make up during the week because, well, they don’t have epic bike races during the week. Aside from Boston, most marathons or endurance running events happen on the weekend as well. As soon as we found out I landed a new gig we took to the interlinks and searched for a fun, challenging bike destination race. What we didn’t know at the time is that we had stumbled upon what was going to be one of the most fun times on two wheels that either one of us had experienced before.
HECK of the North is an extreme gravel cycling event in Two Harbors, just north of infamous Duluth, Minnesota. The ride has been around for 3 or 4 years now and has grown in popularity. Aside from hearing how tough the 100+ miles of racing was, we also heard musings of how it may be one of the more desolate and beautiful rides at the same time. Imagine northwoods weather in October, the leaves changing all sorts of fall colors, and that BIG lake that sits way below. Beauty and the beast at its best when it comes to nature. That wind whipping across the old gichi-gami, that cold-crisp air in the heart of the early morning, the smell of deep woods and burning brush. The sound of trees whispering, leaves rustling, wind howling, and nature calling. This ride isn’t normal, it’s awesome.
New for 2015 was the introduction of the HECK Half. What race director Jeremy Kershaw envisioned was taking all the great and challenging pieces of the Full HECK and compressing them into a shorter version. As far as I know, he did just that. Northern Minnesota gravel riding/racing is not like its bigger sister in the southern part of the state. It’s gnarly, it’s technical, it’s crisp…and it’s equally excellent.
So let’s recap the trip from the start.
Friday evening, after a long work week, we packed up the car with the necessities, racked the CX bikes and headed out of Rosemount toward the northshore. Then St. Paul happened and we stopped, a lot, in traffic…that was pretty lame. We slowly made our way up 35E and found ourselves stopping and going a lot along this corridor. Anxious to keep moving but ‘hangry’ from the work day we decided to pull off and grab a bite to eat at Chipotle. Generally Chipotle is a busy place. It should be too, cause it’s beautifully fresh and filling. This particular branch was very busy, and quite small…but we patiently waited for our ingestibles and then had a seat to enjoy, what we both decided, was one of the freshest and most flavorful Chipotle experiences to date. Ain’t no lie. Bellies full, we headed back to the freeway which seemed to have opened up a bit and we were on our way again.
Taking a quick step back into the week, it’s fair to mention that our original intent was to camp at Gooseberry State Park. We had all the camping necessities, tent, lantern, inflatable mattress, propane stove, coffee press, lighters, sleeping bags, etc. The day before we left I received a message from our friend Charlie…he offered up a spot at his cabin which sits just 10 miles north of the race start outside of Two Harbors. We thought about it for a bit then decided to take him up on the offer and we are so glad we did. Not only was the cabin awesome, but the company we shared was some of the best. Great guys and gals sharing stories of cycling, kid’s stuff, and life. Something AJ and I know just a little about.
We continued up 35 all the way to Two Harbors and made a quick left up county road 2. It was very dark, clouds laced the sky, and that smell of Lake Superior and the endless forest was gripped tightly by the night. We wound our way through some back country roads, onto some gravel back roads, then into a tight, weaving ‘no maintenance’ road that led us to Charlie’s hunting cabin. As we pulled in we were greeted with low lights, misty air, and the sound of laughter and story-telling. We quickly parked and headed into the cabin where Charlie and friends were reliving antics from last year’s HECK race. We met all the new faces, fumbled around with names, and grabbed some treats before heading out to the separate little cabin (coined the Love Shack) where AJ and I would be staying. We unpacked our stuff, laid out our riding gear for the next day, chatted a bit about the weather forecast, the route and our alarm time then quickly crawled into separate beds, no kidding, and fell right asleep.
The morning came fairly quickly. A brisk trip to the bushes and it was time to grab some coffee, brush the teeth, pull the cycling attire on then get the car started and warmed for our 15 minute trip to the staging area of the 2015 HECK of the North. The guys doing the 107 mile race had already left the cabin and headed in since they were also starting about 15 minutes before the HALF. We grabbed up our last few necessities and followed Bryon in towards town, he assured us he knew where he was going. A quick left off the county road and we were there. You could feel the buzz all of the sudden. It was about 25 minutes before The 100+ mile roll-out and we found a spot to park, found a spot to relieve ourselves, get our gear together, nutrition organized, tires pumped, and we were on our way to the start for the 55 mile race.
It was now 8:15am, we lined up with just under 100 other folks ready for the adventure that was ahead. Jeremy gave us a few cues, some fair warnings as to what was to come, and a wish of good luck as he sent us on our way. Straight out of the gates AJ was just in front of me and to the right a bit. Directly behind her was a young kid on a 29’er who accidentally ‘buzzed’ her rear wheel. For a moment the kid freaked out and lost his shit, over compensated his front wheel and hit the bricks. All the while, AJ thought it was me behind her playing some kind of joke. As she looked back to scold, she was relieved that I was still upright, and that it wasn’t me doing the buzzing, yet also felt bad for the young guy who hit the ground with his knee pretty damn hard. The beauty and peril of mass starts.
The first 7 miles was gentle gravel, fairly flat, no surprises. Actually, the gravel road may have been one of the best riding gravel I had ever been on. That first clip went by super quickly and the sights of huge pines and old maples along with the glow of golden leaves was spectacular. Then came our first turn. We went left and quickly off the smooth riding gravel into some thick woods that a much narrower passage led up and around with smooth rocks poking out in no specific pattern. This just became a whole new ball game. Not too far into this section were there riders pulled off to the side with repairs. Flats or seat slippage seemed to make up most of the issues. Having too much pressure, or not quite enough would serve unfortunate this quickly in the game. I had set my bike up with about 58 PSI as I was running 33.5mm tires with tubes. I set AJ up with a pressure closer to 52 since she was running a 38mm tubeless set-up. She got a much plusher ride for the day, and with less rolling resistance sans tubes, she was in heaven with the best of both worlds.
From here it’s tough to give you a good walk through, minds-eye idea of what the course was like. It switched up from great gravel, to old logging roads, to snowmobile trails with tall grass and tons of boggy goodness. Then out of the blue you’d come into a huge open area full of piles of logs and rocks, sand and mud, puddles and a shit-ton of shotgun shells. It was very odd. The knowledge that there were people there at some point recently, yet no one in sight for miles and miles made it kind of creepy and cool at the same time. Keep in mind there are parts, albeit very few, where we are riding with some of the 100 mile participants. You would never know it though, everyone looks the same at this point, they are just a few miles further into their journey, or maybe not. We come quickly to a spot where the cue card shows a left turn, around a ‘brown’ gate. There are 3 or 4 people there wondering if they are at the right spot, maybe a bit confused because their bike computer is a bit off. It’s relatively clear that this is the left turn at the brown gate though, because it’s the only left turn with a brown gate that we’ve seen all day and it’s where it says it should be. We ended up heading into this section after a long trip on awesome gravel…like 8 miles worth, but all literally uphill. My legs were fresh and AJ’s were too. From there we went for it. And never looked back. There were about 11 miles left. Mostly double track full of awesome rocks and narrow gravel paths on either side of a grassy center, yeah, that’s double track. False flats mostly all the way to the county road 2 crossing and back to the staging area and the finish line.
It was pretty underwhelming, the finish area, considering (but not caring) that we had come in 14th and 15th place overall out of 75 riders in the HECK Half….and all of the 100+ riders were still out except a few who had DNF’ed at this point and found their way back to the finish. One of the guys from the cabin, Ted, was a favorite for top 5, but a double flat and some wonky tube put his day to rest after 60 miles, so we sat with him around the fire, kept it stoked, and put wagers on who might win. We had finished in just over 4 hours and that was kind of our expectation going in to this. We were just happy to be a part of it, and although we were fine being done with the ride part of our day, we found ourselves really excited to being hanging out anticipating the riders coming in off the 100.
As stated, we sat around the bonfire for quite some time, ate chips, drank diet cola and talked about who may win. There was a group of about 5 people that could win if in position to do so coming into the finish. 3 of the five were all Metal riders from St. Cloud area and Revolution Bike & Ski or a friend who happened to ride for and work for Salsa. In the mix was a young phenom, forget his name now, but at 16 years for age, he could apparently mash the gears. Rumor had it that Ben Doom had flatted and was off the front. The lead group at the checkpoint consisted of over 20 riders, so at this point it was anyone’s game potentially. The front group, whether 1 or 10, was thought to come in somewhere around 6 hours. This put things in perspective for me, and I couldn’t believe they would ride that so fast. Six hours came and went, but not much later in the day (about 6 hours 20 minuts) we watched one, two, and three come in within seconds of one another. Ben Doom sealed the victory after a ‘flat, bridge, pull, ride harder than everyone’ kind of day. Charlie Schad wasn’t far behind for a second place finish, followed by the young kid, Bjorn, for a solid 1, 2, 3 punch. Sean from Salsa was then fourth after blowing up somewhere in the later part of the race.
The riders trickled in from there. 1 by 1 they finished. Some looked fresh, others looked tattered. The favorite finish was our friend Ryan Terpening with a bunny hop leap over the finishing tape on his HUGE Surly Ice Cream Truck. All smiles. We hung out and waited for more people we knew. Specifically we were waiting on Patti Schmidt-Iverson, whose hubby Al had finished a bit after the leaders, pushing himself to the limits of sanity. Patti soon joined the ranks of HECK 100 finishers. Great riders and good friends.
Riders kept coming in, and we decided it was time to go get some food and beverages. Patti and Al wanted to meet up at Blackwoods in Two Harbors for some appetizers, so we headed south and got a little grub. We had already planned on meeting up with Charlie and Bryon later that night at a little place called Dixie. They do up some mean burgers, an all you can eat fish fry, and some other original (and non-original) menu items. Dixie was back toward the cabin, right off county road 2…so it was a great place to meet up, share tales of the day and just kick back and relax while watching the locals. Angie Jane had an Alaskan Salmon salad and I tried out a burger; cream cheese, jalapenos, and bacon. Wow, it was great. We ordered up a couple diet cokes and they came in the biggest cups ever seen, it was great to not have to call over the server every few minutes for a refill. After dinner we were ready to get back to the cabin and start up a fire in the wood burning stove. On the way out of Dixie we spied a case full of pie…promptly asking the server what kind of pies they were, finding out they were fresh made caramel apple pie, we told her we’d take all 3 along with a slice of spice cake to go. Boom.
Back to the cabin, unloaded some wet gear and the pie, headed in for a quick bath to wash the day away (did I mention I still had my bibshorts on) then sat around the fire catching up, bonding in the woods, and enjoying homemade apple caramel pie and a side of spice cake.
Night came and went fairly quickly and we woke with the morning sun. A few things to get organized, cleaned up, and put away and we were again off. Saying our goodbyes to Charlie and Bryon, along with the trusty northwoods cabin…we hit the open rode and made our way to Duluth for the rest of the morning. A quick bite to eat at Little Angie’s Cantina on Canal Park, a cup of java at the local Caribou and a walk along Lake Superior shore. On our way back to the car I stopped in to the little bottling shop called Fizz. Grabbed up a couple new root beers and some Twizzler Nibs and we were on our way again. This time straight home.
The entire trip was 48 hours from trip start to our arrival back home. It went by too quickly and we were already on to the next thing. We washed up the CX bikes, unloaded our gear and headed out for a ride through UMore Park in Rosemount. After 20 more miles of gravel and some dinner, we were calling it a weekend. And it was one of the most fun one’s we’ve had in a while.
This year I rode the HECK on my Felt F3x (which coincidentally was ridden here year one by David Thompson):
Next year I would love to ride this bike…or the like:
Cheers to Obscure Days….