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Crushing Gravel - An Interview With Chris Skogen

Chris Skogen is the founder and race director of the Almanzo 100. Each May, hundreds of cyclists take part in what has become Minnesota's most celebrated gravel race. Entry in the event is free, but the reward is priceless. Salsa is proud to be a sponsor of the 2013 Almanzo 100.

We took a few moments of his time to talk bikes, gravel, and the Almanzo.

Tell us how you became a cyclist?

My arrival at cycling is probably not unlike that of too many others. I got my first bike when I was pretty young. It gave me freedom. It gave me a release from the world I knew that was available by foot.

As I got older, the bicycle never changed for me. Sure the responsibilities in my life changed and my world "available by foot" expanded, but my time on the bike didn't change. It is still about freedom. In fact, I might argue that riding a bike these days allows me time to slow down. When I'm on the bike these days I often find myself listening to the things around me; birds chirping, dogs barking, kids laughing. I enjoy the opportunity riding a bike gives me to see the world around me. It's as much about freedom today as it was thirty years ago.

I should mention too, that every time I roll out of my driveway I feel exactly the same as I did when I rolled down the driveway on my very first bike.

Tell us how the Almanzo 100 came to be?

At the time, I was involved with some really grassroots racing here in Southern Minnesota. I was also taking another crack at attending college and bartending full time. The reason I mention the college thing is because I was taking a Sociology course at the time and it really got me thinking about communities and how people interact; especially my role as an "average" guy serving drinks to "above average" folks in a fancy restaurant.

Long story longer, I took what I came across in the college course, combined it with my ever-growing interest in different people (tending the bar helped fuel this part), my narrow background in art and my love for the bicycle and voila, a 100-mile, free-to-enter, self-supported bicycle race was born.

What was that first event like?

When the very first registration began, I had no idea what to expect. When the first postcard came in, I was actually kind of surprised. All totaled I think there were something like 25 riders signed up for the first race.

At the park the morning of I was pretty nervous. I didn't know what to expect, but I made sure I had plenty of pens and bananas. I had gone over the cue sheets so many times that I wasn't too worried about those, that obsession didn't develop until a couple years later.

Anyway, 13 people showed up that morning. Only 12 made it out of town and only four finished. I think it was a combination of a lot of things that sent so many home early, but it's probably worth mentioning that the first year saw plenty of sun, a good amount of headwinds, lots of fresh gravel, rain, hail and funnel clouds. To put it in a couple of words it was an extremely difficult challenge that most folks underestimated.

Did you ever imagine it would grow to become what it is today?

I guess I can't really answer that because I'm not really sure what it is exactly. I know that it's grown, I never expected that. I know that a lot of people really like it, I never expected that. To me, it's the same as it was when it started; just people on bikes riding from here to there (or back to here these days) under their own power for their own reasons. If its something more than that, I'll need to be brought up to speed, but maybe that's because I've only ever seen it from the drivers seat...

You seem to take an incredible amount of pride in every aspect of the Almanzo event: from the course to the rider packets, to greeting every finisher with a handshake. Tell us about what this event means to you?

To me this event is about everything that is possible at the feet of nature by the hand of man. I realize that may sound fairly ridiculous, but it's true. It's about doing something for no reason other than doing it. It's about undertaking a challenge. It's about meeting new people and seeing new things. It's about bikes.

As far as the packets go, it's always seemed like the right thing to do. This is an event. For me it's a special one with a lot of meaning. For somebody to take time out of their lives to come and be a part of this deserves attention on my part. I have always tried to make everyone feel welcome, as if they were a guest in my house.

Perhaps that is what it means to me? It is an extension of my life and how I try to live it. The race is my Christmas Day and the riders are my guests that come to unwrap presents (cheesy, I know).

The handshake at the end? It seems like the right thing to do. I know what it feels like to ride the course. I know what it feels like to undertake something as challenging as the Almanzo and finish. As the guy who invited you there, it is my honor to shake your hand and congratulate you on a job well done. As a fellow rider, it is the very least I can do to convey a heartfelt message of sincerity. Truth be told, I wish I had more time at the finish line to sit down with every rider and talk about their ride. I want to know what hurt and what went well. I really do, but there isn't time for that, so in my mind a handshake is my way of saying I'm proud of you...even though we may have never met.

How does it feel to be one of modern day pioneers of the gravel race scene?

It feels a lot like being a guy that has worked two or three jobs his whole life. I had an idea for an event that seemed like the natural, right thing to do. I put everything I have into making it the best I can. If that makes me a pioneer, so be it, but creating a scene has never been a part of my decision making process. As a result, being a modern day pioneer feels like being the guy I was before the race existed. Does that make sense?

Why is the Almanzo free? And how important is that/has that been to you?

My answer to that question has been the same for years. Why not? While I understand that is not exactly what you were hoping for, I'll try to expand a little bit.
So...more specifically, free  is important for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is because cycling is already inherently expensive. Bikes are expensive, clothes are expensive, traveling to and from events is expensive. The whole thing is, or at least can be, very expensive.

Second is because not everything has to be about money. Things can exist to just exist. Not everything has to be about benefitting someone or something. A gravel road race in middle America can certainly exist exclusively for those that partake in it. It can just be about one person finishing or it can be about everyone participating.
I think Almanzo has been successful because it is a challenge that presents itself as being equally difficult for any type of rider that comes to participate. I believe that getting such a wide variety of skill levels at the start line is immediately related to the lack of an entry fee.

In my experience, an entry fee brings with it a tremendous amount of expectation. When I decided that this event should be free, I was able to reduce the level of expectations for those that chose to ride. In my own life, when I can lower my expectations, I usually find myself a little bit closer to happiness.
I should mention also, that while the event itself is void of any entry fee, the truth is that as the number of riders increases, so does the cost of putting the whole thing together.

I never started any of this to make money, I think that's been clear from day one. Fortunately for me and the Almanzo, the cycling world is filled with some amazing folks who have recently joined forces to make sure that 2013 is the first year that the race will see no out-of-pocket expenses fulfilled by the Skogen family...my wife is pretty stoked about that.

Like most fledgling sports, it seems like the gravel racing scene is experiencing the move from friendly competition at the front to not-so-friendly competion. Any thoughts on that?

It is my belief that fun is relative. I think the folks at the back have just as much fun as the folks at the front. Sure, the front end of the race has gotten faster and more competitive, but racing, at its core, is fun.
I know plenty of "fast" folks that always come back and say they had a ton of fun racing Almanzo. At the same time, folks that finish off the front, all the way to the back, say the same thing.

I think gravel road racing is changing, but why wouldn't it? Everything changes. For example, if I paint a picture and keep it to myself it will likely always be the same. If I paint the same picture and hang it in a public space, it automatically changes because of other people's perception of it. The same applies to gravel road races. If I create an event it becomes something, but I invite people to come and participate it becomes something different for everyone in attendance. The idea that 1,000 people might come and race Almanzo in 2013 means that it will be a different experience for 1,000 people. I think that's what makes it great.

What is it about riding gravel that you enjoy most?

Solitude. Here in Minnesota, as you know, we have miles and miles of empty gravel roads. There is almost no traffic, plenty of rolling hills (at least where I'm at) and acres of vegetation in every direction. Sure, I enjoy the paved roads and the single track, but the gravel is where my heart is. With kids and a wife and a dog and work, getting away from everything, including cars and the people in them, is a pretty good release.

You've got a whole day on your hands with no obligations, the weather is sweet, you are dressed and your bike is ready to ride. Where do you go?

If I have to stay close to home I've got a couple of gravel routes that I like. Most of them are portions of old Almanzo courses. If I could be anywhere though, I'd love to ride the rock roads of Italy. I've seen them in photos and would love to experience them first hand.

While the gravel scene has taken off in the midwest, other parts of the country/world are just learning of it. What advice do you have for aspiring gravel race promoters?

Keep it real. Put an event together because you love the sport, not because you want to save the world or quit your job to promote and host events. If your heart isn't at the center of it, find someone else who can do it right. Beyond that, enjoy the company of others, treat everyone like a guest in your home, understand that things change and you should be alright.

 

This post filed under topics: Gravel Kid Ultra Racing Warbird

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Riemer

I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.

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