When you get the call, you have to decide if you're going to answer. Tuesday morning I got the call. Okay...it was actually a text. It was Frank. "Want to ride the hundred mile Mammoth Classic gravel course today?" It's 7:15 in the morning, sleep is still squeezing it's grip on my brain. I don't know about you, but I don't make any big decisions before coffee...at least two cups.
After the cobwebs cleared, I thought about it more. Hmmm...100 miles. On gravel. Today. Like, in an hour or two. Throwing nutrition, hydration and caution to the wind, I accepted the invitation. Did I mention I just rode a 4 1/2 hour century Saturday at the Trek 100? You might recall the Mammoth Classic was cashed due to a pile of snow dumping on the region two days prior to the event. To that effect, no one has actually ridden the 100 mile course yet. Never one to shy away from the opportunity to be "first", I was pretty stoked to disappear into the wild for the day. Frank on his All City Nature Boy single speed, and myself on a freshly built custom All City Macho Man. After a little wrenching on our bikes at CyclovaXC, Frank and I departed with 200 oz. of water, a pile of Stinger snacks, some Sport Beans, Cliff Bars, and a zip lock full of homemade Quinoa salad (thanks, Katie...super tasty by the way). Armed with a cue sheet we leaned into it. At 10:30 we rolled out north on Hwy 87, turned left on the River Road and began our march to madness.
The skies were clear for the most part. The sun warming us up quickly. We rolled through Wolf Creek, mentally paused to reflect on what cold offerings the Wolf Creek Tavern might be serving the early arrivals, and pushed on to the first section of gravel. The conditions were awesome. The previous night's rain left the first sandy section very rideable. However, as we pressed on I remembered the soul sucking power of those 5-7 miles of sand. The sand is deep, unforgiving. You'll be riding along safely surfing across the top of the hard sections of sand when, without warning, a demon from below grabs your rear wheel and sucks you to nearly a stand still. All of your energy powered through your pedals to free yourself from it's grasp. At some points you are thrown virtually sideways trying to fight your way out of the deep sand. The demons fight hard, but the gravel God's are forgiving. This section of torture is found in the first 20 miles of the 100 and 70 mile Mammoth Classic course. Once you're through and pulled yourself out of the pain cave, you are greeted by a few miles of black top...ahhhh...recovery. But don't get too comfortable!
Throughout the last hellish section my chain was hopping around on my cassette. At one point I threw it completely. While climbing a brief roller, I heard the unmistakeable grind of a broken chain jammed into my chain stay. After a few four letter words, I assessed the situation. The link broke where I dropped a few links before the ride, replacing the chain pin with a new chain pin. Rookie mechanic move. Note to self. Don't replace a chain pin with another chain pin. Break a new link and drive in the new pin. Frank worked his magic and got my chain back together. With only 30 miles on the odometer, I was tempted by the little voice in the back of my mind..."Turn back. You can ride the road all the way back to St. Croix Falls." I told Frank about my internal dialogue. He quickly gave me the confidence that my bike will be fine. Onward!
The 100 mile course includes a handful of miles on an ATV trail. The entrance to this section pulls you into the unknown. The double track looks sandy, but it was surprisingly rideable. After a few miles I looked over my shoulder. Frank was gone. Out of sight. I doubled back expecting to find him tending to a flat or something related. He simply pulled up to read the cue sheet and decided to refill his bottles. Good. We rolled out, but somehow missed the next left into the final section of ATV trail. Nearing Grantsburg, we decided to stick to the road and drop the hammer gunning for a cold coke, snickers and other assorted snacks available at the Wild River Outfitters. After missing a few sections of gravel on the Wisconsin side, we rolled into the outfitters with 44 miles on the odometer. Fortified with some sugar and drink, we set out to battle the second half of the course.
The next brief, but hairy section of the course takes you across the St. Croix River on Hwy 70. There's a healthy sized shoulder, but you will share this 4-5 mile section with semis hauling all kinds of business. Eager to pull off, we made a premature left turn and had to hop back on the highway until we made it to the correct road. With a mild tailwind, on a lightly descending blacktop road, we began the return trip to Taylors Falls.
The first mile or two is blacktop. Reminiscent of Shel Silverstien's "Were the Sidewalk Ends", I watched the blacktop disappear under my Bastogne's, reconnecting with the gravel we came to conquer. Unlike the sandy hell pit known as the "Barrens", the Minnesota side is hard pack sand and gravel. We easily kept a 19-20 mph pace for many, many miles. It was a welcomed contrast. Approaching the 60 mile mark I began to feel the fatigue of the day. It was the same earlier this spring at the Almanzo. Did I eat enough? Did I drink enough? Will I start cramping? Turns out Frank was fighting the same voices. We pulled over, devoured the quinoa salad and topped off our bottles. We turned onto the next section of gravel greeted by fresh, and I mean super fresh, groomed gravel. It was a little soft, but nothing compared to the Wisco side. We rolled for a mile or two and discovered the source of the conditions.
We cruised past him, with a slight nod and a wave. This section led to the another brief section of blacktop just west of Sunrise, MN. We crossed the road onto "Pleasant Valley Road". Aptly named, this section was one of my favorites. Tacky and fast, we rolled at 20 mph with a slight descent into Sunrise. Earlier in the ride Frank mentioned an awesome pizza place in Sunrise. He noted it has never been open when he sought it out, and today was no different. With 75 miles behind us, we both felt a little defeated when we saw the dark windows in the pizza joint. We needed calories, so I dug out the final reserves. A pack of sport beans and a Cliff bar. We shared the spoils, continuing our tour. Shortly after sunrise I watched a bee fly straight at me and into my helmet. I was too slow to react, receiving a burning sting on the crown of my dome. I this happens, but not to me! These little monsters find a helmet vent or unzipped jersey. Frank shared a story about his bee attack during a team time trial, but I'll let him tell you that one. I forgot how painful a bee sting can be. My head throbbed for the next 20 miles.
As we approached the entrance to Wild River State Park you can see the road disappear into the woods. Visually from a mile away it appears to go straight up. I had visions of Oriole Road, the crushing climb at the 90 mile mark on the Almanzo course in my head. Fortunately it was about 1/3 of the distance. Frank told me he was going to take it easy up these climbs, giving me the green light to gas it back to town. I told him I don't roll like that and we will end it as we started as a duo. This section of the course is beautiful...rolling, deeply tree lined, the gravel road rolls up and down a few times before leveling off on top of the river bluff. Hmmm...what goes up must go down.
Ten miles to go. I was feeling pretty good, so I took the pulls to get us back to Taylor Falls. I guess the 100 miles Saturday was good for me after all. At about the 90 mile mark you hit Hwy 95. You only ride for about 100 yards before taking an immediate left onto the final leg of gravel. The wind was supporting us, as was the gently descending road. Farms, open fields and a mild slope rolls back toward the highway. After a right turn onto Unity Avenue, a short gravel section leads you back onto Hwy 95. Its all down hill from here! I claimed the Taylors Falls sign sprint, though I will admit it was uncontested. We crossed the St. Croix again, rolling into St. Croix Falls feeling good and completely satisfied with the day. As I mentioned earlier, we missed a section of gravel on the Wisconsin side, so our final distance was 91 miles, just short of the 96 course design. My computer displayed 5:40 for time. A respectable finish to an awesome day!
I am so glad I answered Frank's call. More to come!