Discovering Heck of the North

Surprising things are happening on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Superior National Forest near Two Harbors, Minn., is well known for its October peak fall foliage, but maybe not as well known for its gravel cycling events. The Heck of the North is a 107-mile gravel cycling classic that brings 250-plus adventurous cyclists and the fall colors together. It begins north of Two Harbors and takes you south to the amazing Lester Park in Duluth on gravel, ATV, snow mobile and logging trails, finally looping you back to the north with a refreshing stream crossing thrown in at 10 miles to go.

My wife Kit and I enjoying an evening fire waiting for our table at the New Scenic Café (delicious!) ...

The Heck of the North course is different from any gravel event I have done to date. We prairie dwellers are accustomed to long stretches of mostly straight and treeless (save for the occasional shelter belt) routes with minimum maintenance roads thrown in just to make things a bit more interesting. The Heck of the North is more of a gravel/mountain bike hybrid, with an expansive mixed conifer-hardwood forest surrounding you. The gravel takes you winding among the foothills of the Superior National Forest, and is connected by twisted dirt trails, bumpy, rugged, grassy, boggy snowmobile trails, and rocky logging trails that appeared to have been created just the week prior. There’s even some singletrack sprinkled in to test your handling skills. (As if six and a half hours on a cyclocross bike was not enough of a challenge.) And the only means of navigating this maze of roads and trails was a dozen 4x5 note cards with turn-by-turn directions. What a great venue for an end-of-season event!

The gang: Greg Gleason, Andrea Cohen, Mark Seaburg, Ben Doom and Sean Mailen—photo courtesy of Kit Gleason ...

Friendly faces surrounding a well-fueled bonfire greet you at the Heck Gravel Pit, where we start. After a state-of-the-gravel update from Jeremy, the race director, we all moved to Alger Grade Road to line up for the start. Family and friends line the ditches cheering for their respective rider to start. With all us competitors laughing and kidding around with each other, I was starting to get the feeling I was at an end-of-the-year gravel-grinder party.

The start—photo courtesy of Janelle and Brad Jones ...

Once the race started moving, the pace was surprisingly relaxed—unusual for gravel events. The first 9 miles, we rolled on gravel roads and grassy jeep trail that circled us around back to the start, where we felt the awesome energy of all our gravel fans cheering us on as we darted back into the woods. The grassy jeep trail had managed to split the 160-plus starters up, and a small group of 25-plus riders had managed to create a nice-size gap. I was thankful to be a part of this group, because I managed to fall over on the jeep trail, taking too much time to remount my Warbird, but I pedaled back up to the front peloton and avoided a long day of chasing.

Back on gravel, I started feeling confident again, but that was short lived when we came upon another rocky, wet jeep trail. At this point, I started to understand Jeremy’s Annual Heck Route Scout Report and all of the advice he had offered in that report about tire selection and pressure. Before the race, I read the report, but I had no actual gravel bike experience in those conditions ,so I made the decision to go with the setup I always use in the flatlands of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Maybe not my best decision, but at this point I had to make the best of my setup.

Now 20 miles into the event, with less than half of it on actual gravel, I started to feel uncomfortable with how the bike was handling and wished I would have reached out to some friends for advice before heading north. Why is it I must always learn the hard way? Up to this point in the race, I was managing to hang with the group, but then we hit a nasty rocky, muddy logging trail that I’m convinced Jeremy had them create just for the Heck event. The peloton was destroyed. It was every man for himself, with riders dodging the baby head rocks and large mud puddles. Rocks and mud were flying everywhere. My tire selection now became a liability as I was bouncing all over, or as Jeremy puts it, “you’ll bounce a kidney out.” Boy, was he right.

After the logging road, we were back on gravel, where I’d hoped to try bridging back up to wherever the front was, but hope faded as we turned onto our first snowmobile trail. I approached the trail and thought, “Cool! A nice grassy section to ride. Looks fun!” Nope.

Northern Minnesota snowmobile trails are 15-foot-wide treeless paths with 6-12 inches of grass, complete with large water-filled holes scattered everywhere—so bumpy you would swear a herd of cattle had just passed through the area. I believe the world would refer to this path as more of a bog, and I am convinced some of these paths are only labeled “a path” because the trees have been removed, otherwise no one in their right mind would ride a bike on them. I definitely struggled to find a riding rhythm!

Looking down at my cue card, I noticed I was just about to the end of the snowmobile trail. I hoped for gravel. To my surprise, not only was I back on a gravel road, but the group had decided to take a nature break. I had bridged back up to the main group! In my mind, I had a small celebration, having completed the bog section, but more so to be riding in a group again. With the group all back, together we started to move at a much faster pace all away to the 60-mile checkpoint. It was mostly gravel with a small section of singletrack to Lester Park, where our fans were waiting to cheer us along. Many stopped for supplies in the park, but six of us rode right through up the only real climb of the day, regrouping at the top. Now the six of us started pushing the pace to make sure we put some distance on the others.

With the pace increasing, I was struggling to stay on the back of the group. Once we hit some rolling gravel sections, we lost one and were now down to five—that was, until we hit another bog section. I watched the four others slowly drift away. With gravel near, I was hoping I would be able to bridge back up to the four, but my late-season legs did not have the much-needed strength. Now I was alone in the fifth spot. I looked behind, and there was no one in sight, but in front, the group of four slowly drifted out of sight on the windy gravel roads.

My wife will tell you navigation is not one of my strongest talents when it comes to gravel racing (or driving, for that matter.) With no one around, I needed to pay attention to every turn. Luckily, there were only 20 miles to go. The cue cards riddled with cryptic messages like “stay straight on State Trail, left on gravel road (UNMARKED)” and just plain “stay straight.” Never having ridden in the area, navigating was very confusing to me, but I was figuring it out. Now on the last cue card my confidence was growing, but I needed a confirmation that I was on track. The cue had the perfect confirmation: a river crossing at mile 99.7. If I crossed a river, then I must be on track. Luckily the Knife River crossing was right on cue, and with only 7 miles to go, I was feeling very confident. At mile 101, the cue read “right on gravel road (UNMARKED),” so I made a right turn off of the jeep trail onto the gravel immediately coming to an odd crossroad section. Not looking very closely at the cue, I read “left on Drummond.” What the cue card actually read was turn “left on Drummond Grade intersection of Old Drummond Road and Drummond Grade.” I turned left on Old Drummond Road and proceeded to search for Briton Pit Rd (UNMARKED) which I was struggling to find. I finally realized I was lost after searching for 15 minutes so I decided it was time to retrace my tracks. I figured my mistake was back at the Drummond intersection but I was not sure. Once I returned to the corner, I actually read all the street signs immediately realized I turned on the wrong Drummond! Frustrated, I turned down the correct Drummond immediately seeing tire tracks in the gravel. I knew I was good to go.

The last cue card ...

Making my last right turn down Briton Pit Road, it was straight the rest of the way, with all but a lefthand turn at the finish, I knew I could not screw up. Looking up the trail, I could see another rider weaving between the trees, so I knew I was heading in the right direction. I focused on trying to catch him rather than focusing on the navigational errors of my past. It felt good to finish 11th overall after all the time spent lost.

Reflecting on my new experience up north, I have a few things I will do differently next time.

1. Reserve my accommodation early before all the good locations are full. Wife-approved.
2. My tire selection will be no less than a 38mm, tubeless, with 35 psi.
3. Read all street signs at intersections when navigating a new area.
4. Take a couple more vacation days to go exploring. The North Shore area is amazing.

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Thank you Jeremy Kershaw for an incredible event. The Heck of the North is a unique and fun course in an incredible part of the country. Thank you Salsa Cycles for supporting amazing events like the Heck of the North!

This post filed under topics: Greg Gleason

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