Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Heck of the North DID NOT DISAPPOINT, but it hurt my feelings!

The saddest utterance a cyclist can ever declare in the heat of battle, when there is still a chance of success—“I have a flat.” Alone again, naturally…

Itz just not fair…Certainly life is not fair, if ya want justice, stay at home; I get that…but why at that moment when I felt great, me old legs were motoring, and with so much race left? Why a flat at that point in the Heck? I have been in many bike races, and so have you, where we have actually hoped for a flat so that we could end the pathetic effort with a semblance of honor or at least an ego-sheltering excuse. A flat can be an acceptable, societal means from which to escape the pain of being dropped and left alone. “Dude, I was right there, but I got a flat!” You know I am telling it the way it is…Admit it! But the last two races I have been in this season, I have flatted early in each race, when I was feeling really good, when I was hanging, even trading pulls with the top guyz. I really was “right there when I got a flat!”…My most recent flats have come at points where even an old guy, like me, still believes that he can be there at the end…So so sad. Life is so unfair. On Saturday morning during the third running of the Heck of the North, that now familiar, albeit wretchedly forlorn and awful sound of seventy-five pounds of air instantaneously escaping from underneath me, in a heartbeat, followed shortly thereafter by the silence of being left alone to consider all that is wrong with the world, nearly brought me to tears…so it goes…

As the leaders rode away from me, just forty-four miles into the hundred mile race, a classic melancholy 1970’s song popped into my head—“Alone again naturally, I truly am indeed Alone again, naturally…It seems to me that there are more hearts broken in the world that can’t be mended…Left unattended…What do we do? What do we do? Alone again, naturally.” …Misery loves company, so I was somewhat comforted by the fact that much better, talented men than me had similar fates on that recent Saturday morning (Buffington, Swank, Andrews, Gort, all flatted early and then much later, Ross Fraboni and Josh Tesch flatted on the Moose Mile).

But enough already…who wants to read the rambling philosophical lamentations of an old fool? People want to read vivid accounts of bold racers making courageous moves, they want to revel in the glory of high achievement, they want to celebrate champions…such is the culture of competition in this nation from youth soccer to collegiate athletics—NOT a bad thing, if kept pure and simple. By the way, a culture of competition that does not hinge on entry fees, licensing, or shiny age-group medals or the like. A great course, and bragging rights are about all that is needed to get a large group of highly motivated and talented riders together to race hard and fast; the success of these gravel road races is evidence of this simple, yet often ignored concept—The draw of pure competition is all that one needs. An ethos of intrinsic motivation, of comparing ones skill at riding a bike fast with others, as a calling card for participation clearly has always had merit. There is no need for anything else, ya don’t have to dress it up one bit, if you disagree, just look at the talent that showed up to race in this year’s Heck or any of the gravel road races. G.T. and Skogen, the two pioneers, have really tapped into something special (and fundamental) with these localized “free” albeit challenging, “no-support” bike races…Real racers want to be self-reliant, to compete on long, tough courses, AND they are much less concerned about being catered to…But I digress.

Thus giving the people what they want I now provide two perspectives on the drama that unfolded as the leaders vied for the glory of victory at the Heck of the North… The first one in which the author writes vicariously in an effort to capture the underlying thinking related to the bold break-away move exhibited by the veteran racer, Mr. Bell and the second, from notes obtained from the splendid endurance rider extraordinaire, Mr. Ek.

First, a recount of the now classic “Bell Move”—
So whilst the author and a host of others languished alone in their egocentric angst, dramatic events were unfolding up ahead where men sought both glory and kisses from beautiful podium girls. Rather than sit-in for ninety-nine miles and try to win it in the last few yards involving a desperate sprint up a steep climb, in a brilliantly bold move, Jim Bell of Saint Cloud went off the front of the fifteen plus lead group amid the spongy, mucky terrain along the North-shore Trail some sixty miles into it. It was a risky, all-or-nothing, move made by a savvy veteran and while in the end it cost him the win or even a top finish…this writer still thinks it was a brilliant move— Goethe got it right with, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” Ya don’t have to be Johan Bruyneel to appreciate that the Heck, given the lay of the land, only presents essentially three opportunities to a seasoned cyclist (aka “old guy” like Bell) to break away and have a chance to win it outright—Namely 1.) The Brimson Connector, some 43 miles into it and so too early if you are both old and bold; 2.) The North-shore Trail segment which comes around mile sixty; and 3.) The Moose Mile which comes with less than ten miles from the finish (and is a place where the race can be lost, but not won), so it makes perfect sense that Bell would pick #2 to make his move. Don’t get me wrong, Bell is an amazing rider but he is an older guy, like me, and thus his ability to out-sprint a youngster is perhaps diminished (or with this year’s headwall finish, to win a sprint up a steep climb). Bell took off and rode out front like his life depended on it for nearly twenty miles before his stalwart legs began to fail him. Was it a foolhardy move? I submit that it was a masterful move! A move of a champion... Now I am not talking about a man intent on a podium finish for which most of us would be aiming for or dreaming about, Bell was singularly focused on winning the race—I find such a "Damn the torpedoes, Full speed ahead!” tactic to be very inspiring! As stated above his plan did not end in a big smooch from a buxom podium girl, yet in my book it was a GRAND EFFORT!

Second: Eki’s Time (in his own words…so compelling, I wept when I read this!)—
“I attacked going down Lester River Rd. I got about 200 yards up on the field and for a moment thought they were letting me go. Alas, it was not to be as they quickly gathered me up when they had enough of my folly. Thirteen of us (I counted) came into the bottom of Seven Bridges Road together. I lead up the hill, they obediently followed my wheel. I did not have enough energy to attack on the climb as I could sense how strong they were, it felt too early to attack given the strength of the group. I believe Matt Ryan got into Amity first, then me. I quickly took the lead back from him as I knew things were going to go off like fire-works very shortly. About 1/4 of the way up Amity I decided it was now or never. I looked over my shoulder to see the group of thirteen still intact. I stood up and deliberately attacked! I felt like I was tearing my bike apart, I was going as hard as I could. Four men came with me, Joe Meiser, Todd McFadden, Matt Ryan, Ted Loosen, the rest popped off as they could not match the surge. A split formed at this point. We had maybe 100 yards on the rest. McFadden immediately attacked me back, but I was spent from my surge. I could not respond to his effort. Meiser, Ryan, and Loosen went with McFadden while I hung between the groups now in "no man’s land". I tried with everything I had to close down on them and at times I thought I was, but whatever I gained would somehow get erased by the cycling gods. Somewhere up ahead Loosen must have attacked Todd and gained some time on him or he got his gap on Pleasant View (the last steep hill leading to the finish). When I hit Jean Duluth Road, I could see Ryan and Meiser working together and I knew that was the nail in my coffin as I was alone. There was no way I could close down on two guys working together. Matt Ryan even told me later that when he saw me alone he knew that if he and Meiser traded positions at least twice there'd be no hope of me catching them. Shawn Miller chased me hard, but we were too evenly matched and he gained no ground on me, but he was one of the strongest riders on the whole day. The top 6 guys were all on Pleasant View together, it must have been cool to watch. It was soooooo close!”

So there you have it…a glimpse into the excitement of the chase by a guy that should win it someday. An insider’s view of the last few miles of an event that while still in itz infancy is destined to be considered a “classic” gravel road event.

I do not use the term “classic” frivolously. Races must earn the title of “classic” (and/or “epic”) to be included into my cycling lexicon and the Heck of the North is destined to become a classic. A very compelling element of the Heck is the fact that it attracts a large contingency of very strong cross-country skiers that are just entering the season and thus collectively are very strong. Adam Swank, Shawn Miller, Phil Rogers, Matt Ryan, Rhett Bonner, Rod Raymond, Mike Dietzman, Joshua Tesch, and Tyler Kjorstad are all really good cyclists but they are even better skiers. Adding them to an already stacked field of riders like Joe Meiser, Todd McFadden, Fraboni, Eki, Buffington, Glisczinski, Deathrider, Norrie, Struchynski, Gort, Andrews, Bell, Loosen, etc. makes the Heck of the North a real celebration of local talent. These 100+ mile gravel road races are really starting to take off….If you have not done so, YOU need to try one!

Special Kudos to Jeremy Kershaw and his top-notch team of volunteers (including Team Kershaw& ND Team Family Mangan) for pulling it all together and great thanks to the good family Buffington for hosting a most entertaining post-race party. The hand crafted IPA brought this man to tears of joy. Finally a special note to Ari, the inspirational leader of the secretive Slender Fungus Adventure Society—“Thanking you for the Irish whiskey (The DBD shall drink to your health come first snow) and the stirring photo of Sir Mallory, we all wept tears of pride! Also kudos on the work you have done in grooming the youthful Jay Barre…A young man for which there can be nothing but GREAT EXPECTATIONS!


  1. Thanks for the kind words Charlie...Train hard, we meet again in Iowa! Great racing with you guys!

  2. Beautiful!

    We'll work on those 'feelings'

  3. You are an inspiration! (Despite what I read about you on other bike web sites.)

    Thanks for the great write up!