A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
Heck Epic: Northern Minnesota by Bike
Fatigue layed over my body like a wet blanket as I casually put my point and shoot camera into the back pocket of my jersey. Feeling good about the shot I just got of my three riding partners a peculiar sense came over me, something was different. I looked up to see Todd McFadden who had been riding first position shooting up a sharp rise with an intensity that had gravel spewing from his rear wheel. Ross Fraboni was second wheel and was now out of the saddle giving chase. The wheel I was connected to belonged to Matt Lee who was now laying the coals to his pedals. "This is it!" I said. Slamming the camera home in frustration, I had allowed a gap to form. Jumping from my saddle I went from tourist to full on bike racer in a split second. Fifty meters was what separated Matt and I, while at least one hundred lay between he and Ross who was stuck to McFadden's wheel like glue. "Don't get dropped, Don't get dropped..." I repeated to myself as I took huge risks while slamming through an ATV trail somewhere north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. It was day two of the 2 stage, 200 mile, Heck Epic.
The concept of the Heck Epic was spawned from the mind of Jeremy Kershaw, the man responsible for creating the Heck of the North, a 100 mile gravel race across northern Minnesota. The "Epic" is beautifully simple in it's design. All one has to do is load his or her bike up with the gear they feel they will need to not only sustain themselves on two very long gravel rides, but also allow them to camp overnight. Camping is required between stages, which brings a lot of decisions into the game. Should a rider opt for a light weight racing kit and run the risk of an uncomfortably cold night on the ground or run a little slower and heavier with the hope that a good nights sleep will pay dividends on day two? Being a man of simple means and lacking the latest in high tech, light weight gear I chose to carry more weight in hopes of a comfortable night of much needed rest after day one.
My good friend, Charlie Farrow knocked on my door at 5:00 a.m. sharp to find me no where near ready to go. He was my ride to the start line and my source of intel as he had completed the event last year. It wasn't long before we were on our way up the North Shore of Lake Superior to the sleepy little town of Two Harbors where we'd complete our final preparations. The start area is where I met Matt Lee who initially got my attention with his abnormally light set up. The man simply had nothing! I've taken more gear with me on afternoon rides than Matt had. Immediately, I began to question my whole kit. It was too late now, I was going to have "run what I brung". It didn't take long before I felt like a rookie as I examined other rider's gear choices. I had the overwhelming feeling that I had no idea what I was doing and they were all pros.
The starting line had some familiar faces and it was good to know I'd be riding with them. Ross Fraboni, Todd McFadden, Chris Finch, and the list goes on. Jeremy briefed us on some final course information and wished us good luck and confidently said, "I'll see you in Ely!" Ely, Minnesota on the northern edge of the state was our destination. I had no idea how we'd get there, but the cue cards mounted to my handle bars would show me the way.
Seconds before the start I was unclear how I would approach the day. With a recent family crisis involving my Dad's health I have been completely off the bike for weeks. I did not feel that I was in good shape, nor did I feel I had the mental fortitude to "race" this event. I was really leaning toward sitting back, telling a few stories, and just riding through the first day with some good company. However, with one turn of the cranks that all changed. I stopped thinking and let myself give way to the bike. I found myself stuck to last year's champ, Ross. He was gradually winding up the pace and it felt good. There was no rocket ship blast off like usual, just a slow methodical build up of intensity. Approximately twenty minutes in we were riding at a good clip and utilizing a pace line. I assumed that the rest of the field was strung out behind us, but I was wrong. There were five of us, with a large gap separating us from the main field. Soon we were just cruising along as if we were on really long ride together.
As the minutes turned to hours I couldn't help but absorb the vastness of the area. We were in a wilderness that was truly remote. I kept wondering who used these roads and how Jeremy ever found them. The times to take in the views came and went with the changing intensity of our riding. Twenty minutes of hard effort would give way to easy pedaling and casual conversation, followed by thirty minutes of short hard pulls and quick rotations. This pattern turned our group of five into four as Paul, from Kansas had drifted off the back. Little did I know at the time, but our little band of 4 brothers would make up the front group for the entire event.
The miles passed uneventfully until Todd was sidelined by a side wall cut on his rear tire. I didn't mind the quick stop for the repair. To be honest, I needed a little break. Ross and Todd diligently worked on the tire while Matt and I marveled at our situation and our location. We had no idea where we were other than what our little cards told us. The small two track road that stretched out before us was known as "Snake Trail" or something to that effect. It seemed to go on forever, straight ahead, leading us to some unknown destination. We hoped it was Ely.
With the flat fixed and us back on our steeds we pressed on. Eighty miles turned into ninety and the monotony was on me as was a general malaise. Drifting back after a pull I broke the silence by flatly stating to Todd, "I'm pretty tired". He responded in kind, but it felt more like he was being polite as I noted his smooth unaffected riding style. I knew this feeling would eventually end and I was assured that it would when we entered the tiny town of Ely. Ross knew the way to the camp ground and I gladly let him guide us while I rode second wheel. I watched him close as he seemed to have a bit of nervous energy about him. We hadn't discussed the finish so it was unclear how it would play out. Would we ride in like gentlemen or would we fight it out like dogs in the street? My question was answered when Ross suddenly rose from his saddle and started to sprint. "What? Is he serious?" I questioned. 109 miles in and I'm sprinting to a finish line that I can't see or even have a clue as to it's location. Finally, after a sharp downhill left turn I saw Jeremy in the distance. I rocked my heavy rig back and forth for the line to take 3rd on the day with Matt and Ross going 1 and 2. We laughed about Ross' antics and I teased him about the rude gesture, but it is a race after all. I was happy to have finished with these strong riders, but now it was time for some much needed rest, I had a big day coming up. I just had no idea how big.
Camp life was uneventful, save one major down pour that drenched the kit I had left dangling off the handle bar of my bike. The soaking rain came while on my way to dinner, there was nothing I could do for my riding clothes, except rest assured they were getting a thorough rinse. Dinner was relaxing as we shared stories from the day and had some good laughs, usually at Charlie's expense.
The morning of day two found me questioning my decision to carry a heavier load with the hopes of getting a good night of sleep. As it turned out I experienced a fitful night while my neighbor shook the nearby tree limbs with a level of snoring unlike anything I had ever heard before. Finally, I accepted the fact that I could no longer squeeze another minute of sleep out of the morning so I got up and started to work on getting things set for the long, rough trip back to Two Harbors. First and foremost, I needed to secure the load on my handle bar as it was shaking loose on the previous day's ride. With the purchase of some extra cinch straps at the local outdoor store in Ely and some redistributing of weight, my load was solid.
Jeremy pulled out all of the stops by having breakfast catered for all riders. This was a huge plus in my mind. A hearty breakfast before the days work would pay off later. I woofed down a meal and made some final tweaks to my machine. It was just a matter of time before we'd be under way. I was anxious to get started, but really didn't know how the day would treat me with 109 miles in my legs from yesterday combined with the fact that the 2nd day of the "Epic" is notably tougher.
Jeremy lead us out of Ely's streets and it wasn't long before we were cut loose. I took an initial long, hard pull on the front in an effort to get the four of us clear of the field early. To my surprise (and disappointment) the energy burn didn't take. A long line of some 20 riders trailed out behind us while the 4 leaders were the only ones wiling to work on the front. It was Todd who set the precedent and went to the back of the group forcing the newcomers to earn their keep. The pace seemed to increase, but was manageable. A look over my shoulder confirmed that our little "band" would be back together soon. The arrival of the first off road section of the day found the four of us clear of the field. Ross and Todd were putting on a clinic on how to ride rough two track, as their full suspension mountain bikes ate up the imperfections of the trail. Matt and I resigned to hang on to them the best we could as this was now mountain bike country and our rigs were not fully up to the challenge.
The riding was fun and intense at times, but it was the surges of energy that were starting to catch up with me. I was beginning to feel flat out tired! 45 miles into a 110 mile day and I was cooked! This wasn't good. It so happened that my "darkness" settled on me during a long stretch of gravel rollers. The three lighter rigs around me seemed to glide up the climbs while I went deeper and deeper for every summit. The boys were noticing that I was slipping, I could tell from their suspecting glances. I've never been too proud to admit when I'm tired, so I broke the silence by saying, "I'm in a dark spot guys". Immediately, my friends began digging through their cashe of supplies for whatever it would take to get me back up to speed, so to speak. Ross handed me a couple of E-caps, while Todd gave up an entire canister of them for me, "just in case I needed some later". These were the gestures that kept our little "band" together and in my mind made this ride so special.
I knew if I made it to the 50 mile check point with the boys I'd be o.k. There I'd get a Coke, some food, and a few minutes off the bike. In the meantime I languished in the back of our group, at times feeling bad about my inability to pull, but I knew they understood. These were bike racers, they'd been in my spot many times before. Soon enough the c.p. came and I followed my plan to a "T". Immediately, I felt better once I was back on my machine. I joked with the guys about how I'd see them at the finish, while I launched a mock attack breaking away. They laughed at me as if they knew something I didn't.
Ross hit the off road section that followed the check point as promised...HARD! He warned us that we'd be racing from here on in and he obviously wasn't kidding. I held my own with the attack, dodging the puddles and rocks the best that I could while we soared through the two track. Eventually, his strong push subsided and we were all still together. I doled out a solid effort on the front, but was unsure how it was perceived by the group. I wondered if it really tested them or was it more of an annoyance. I didn't know, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was doing the best that I could.
Todd broke next and with a level of intensity we had yet to see. He exploded off the front of the group with Ross immediately giving chase. I knew this would possibly be one of the last attacks I'd see before we broke up. Going FULL GAS I hung on for dear life as I took crazy risks in an effort to reel Matt back into my grasp. At the same time Matt had his hands full trying to nail back Ross who was on Todd's wheel. I could feel my bike loosing contact with terra firma as I blasted through huge puddles at 20 mph, my rig hydroplaning through the water gave me the uneasy feeling that disaster was imminent. The bends in my elbows burned from getting whipped by branches as I attempted to avoid the deepest parts of the water holes. Despite all of my problems I was doing it, Matt was coming back to me! I crested a small rise with a surge of speed and over took him on the top. We blasted down the other side a foot apart and closing fast on the two leaders. Finally, I saw Todd check on the damage he had caused and in realizing that we were back, he simply sat up. It was over. A twenty minute full on assault of power and I had managed to stay latched on. Todd later told me that he remembered that he was not dealing with normal bike racers on this day, he was dealing with guys who were mentally tough. I took that as a compliment and also took the opportunity to let him know that I would never go down without a fight.
Todd's attack had put a serious dent in my armor and I noticed that whatever was left in the legs for fighting purposes was now gone. I was very vulnerable and I think the guys knew it. I also know that I wasn't the only one who was tired as silence between us now prevailed.
Mile 82 had us turning off of asphalt and climbing up a rise onto the North Shore snowmobile trail. This would be the last time I'd be riding with Ross and Todd during the Heck Epic. Ross hit the climb so hard that he immediately separated from the group. Todd had the legs to give chase while Matt went off the back along with me struggling to simply clean the greasy climb. "That's it, it's over" I said to myself as the four of us were blown up by Ross' attack. The mountain bikes in the group exploited the section and simply pinned all the sketchy parts while I pointed my wheel at the safest routes I could see. Matt was a mere 25 meters ahead of me when the first snowmobile bridge appeared. The bridge was made for snow machines in the winter, not bike riding in the summer. Boards ran length wise from end to end with gaps between them wide enough to easily grab a bike tire. Hitting this bridge at high speed would spell disaster for even the most skilled rider. As I questioned my approach to the wooden beast my front wheel dropped into a slot while my rear wheel found a different track. I clipped a foot out and did the hop, hop, hop, move of a man about to go down. Somehow I stayed upright, but I was at a dead stop now and that's when I watched Matt ride away from me for the last time.
It was a solo flight for me now, but I was happy. I didn't even know I'd be racing the event until seconds before the start, now here I was destined to finish 4th, but more importantly I had done it with a great group of guys and in an effort that I could be proud of. With the remaining miles slowly passing I navigated alone, noticing from time to time Matt's figure a mile or so up in the distance fighting whatever demons may have been riding on his shoulders. My demons had left me somewhere after mile 82. I was riding in good spirits, my head was up, the sun was shining, and the critters of the wilderness were flitting about. I had started what I thought was another bike race, but ended what came to be an adventure of camaraderie and spirit. The Heck Epic lived up to it's name in every way. What a race, what a ride, what an adventure!
I crossed the finish line and into the handshakes of my buddies. Their slaps on my back and smiles let me know they were just as happy as I to have shared so many miles together. It was good to be off the bike, but I'll admit I took a moment to glance back down that gravel road, a piece of me wanted to go right back out there and do it again.
Amy Fullerton, in my mind and in my heart you were right there with me during those closing miles. Thank you for your support and thank you for reminding me that with all that is going on in our lives right now, I still need to get on my bike and ride.
Jeremy Kershaw and his crew, words cannot express what this event meant to me. Thank you for putting on such a professional operation. Most importantly, you know why we're all out there and that makes it even more special.
Rudy Project, once again I forget that your gear is even with me, which to me means it's working as it should. Thank you for keeping my head and eyes safe and for standing by me while I take on challenges that I'm not even sure I can do.
Schwalbe Tires, my Thunder Burts were durable, light, and fast rolling, perfect for the Epic. I never worried about them, not once!
FLUID Nutrition, you were with me for all 217 miles and you've been with me for thousands over the years. Cramping was never an issue and nothing was more important to me after day 1 than getting my FLUID recovery drink down, it made all the difference.
Charlie Farrow, not only did you get me to this race, but you've always believed I can do more than I think I can, for that I thank you. Thanks for all the miles!
Ross Fraboni, Todd McFadden, Matt Lee, I've ridden a lot of miles with a lot of people, but never have I felt more comfortable and more on the same page as I did with you guys. It seemed like we'd been riding together for years. Thanks for making my Heck Epic one I will always remember.