In the increasingly populated calendar of gravel bike racing events, The Heck of the North in Northern Minnesota could present the perfect annual closer. After the rolling farmland of Almanzo, the red dirt of Land Run, and the exposure of Dirty Kanza, Heck of the North presents an entirely different, but every bit as challenging landscape at a time when Autumn is singing its last song.
It can be anybody’s guess which season will show up on race day, but one thing’s for sure, creator and organizer Jeremy Kershaw will, through his route, share with you everything he loves about the region. I asked him to share a little bit about himself and his unique event.
Heck promoter Jeremy Kershaw at the finish of the 2017 Tour Divide Race…
What is your connection to the Land of the Heck?
KERSHAW: I have lived in Minnesota since 1997. Seven of those years were spent guiding sled dogs at Wintergreen and co-managing the outfitting department at Piragis Northwoods in Ely, MN. The first twenty years of my life were spent in Nebraska. My family and I have been in Duluth for about 14 years. Ever since my first canoe trip as a three-year-old, Minnesota has had a special pull on me. Lake Superior is a gigantic magnet keeping us here. So, too, are the close (literally meters away) creeks and trails crisscrossing our neighborhood right in town. My wife and I walk to work, and the ability to get out of town quickly on rides would be very difficult to move away from.
To someone who hasn’t spent any time in the area, how do you describe the terrain/geography, the weather, the smells, the colors, the kind of people who live there?
KERSHAW: The Heck of the North route(s) have always been “found art” to me. I enjoy the process of piecing together these roads and trails into, what I consider, some of the most unique and beautiful routes in the country. The Heck (and Le Grand du Nord) courses feel remote to me, particularly in comparison to the southern gravel courses of Kansas and Iowa. There are no convenient stations on the route and very few homesteads. The roads weave predominately through wooded areas, crossing streams, and sometimes connect with snowmobile trails. We do not have the hills of the Driftless area, but our routes remain plenty challenging with the variety of terrain the riders see in 100 miles: gravel, two tracks, grassy snowmobile trails, and rocky logging roads.
The Heck typically lands right during the peak of Autumn color. That is always a highlight. Even for those that are dreading one last 100-mile gravel event of the season, the colors are enough to make them happy they rode. The mornings are often brisk, sometimes frosty. The coolness usually gives way to warmth either by human power or that of Fall sun. But as always, Northern Minnesota in late September can be a fickle creature. We have had cold rain along with bluebird days.
For some reason, maybe the water or the winters, the Duluth area grows some hearty, endurance driven athletes. This year alone, Duluth sent seven riders to the Tour Divide. Five of us finished. We could not find another town in the world that sent so many competitors to such an elite event. Pretty impressive if I say so myself!
What led you to create the Heck of the North? What opportunities did you see to make the race unique?
KERSHAW: I rode the Ragnarok in Red Wing and then the Almanzo in Rochester the Spring of 2009. I remember driving home from the Almanzo and feeling just blown away by the event. The level of design and care (Chris) Skogen put into the Almanzo that year rivaled that of any fancy wedding I had attended. And the Ragnarok was just simply brutal and beautiful. I thought, “Can I do something like this up here in Duluth?” I became obsessed with the project. I poured over county maps. Drove endless miles putting together rural roads and trails. And somehow, 35 people showed up that Fall to take part in the first Heck of the North.
The Heck of the North offered something that the southern Minnesota races didn’t have, and that was a sense of remoteness. And no corn stubble. I wanted to keep the same funky vibe and sense of inclusion for all types of riders. And I knew that the forested roads would offer a really different and unique feel compared to the gravel of the open farming region.
So today, the Heck of the North offers a 100-mile course as well as a 50. At first, I was reluctant to add a shorter event. But after creating a very Heck-worthy course and seeing all of the new faces being introduced to gravel cycling, I had no doubt it was the right thing to do.
How has the Heck evolved over the years, what can riders expect this year, and what is your vision for the future?
KERSHAW: The Heck started with a very naïve director and a few locals crazy enough to try it. Within a couple of years, the event grew, and we had to deal with a waiting list to get in. We continued the postcard registration and donation thing until 2014. My family and I realized that we needed the added protection of a business license and we all decided to charge an entry fee. Within the world of gravel cycling, these were two very important changes. It was a very difficult decision to add an entry fee but one that I stand behind to this day (and one of these days I will make this an entire chapter in my “History of Midwest Gravel Cycling” book.)
But the event remains one of my favorite creative outlets. I often liken it to people going to their favorite, small restaurant. The one where the owner comes out and makes sure your food is perfect and the experience all that it could be. The Heck is my place. And I want to make sure that my riders have the knowledge that I care about their gravel experience, good or bad.
Most years, I have to adjust some element of the event. Tweak the course. Find new roads. Make a connection that I thought was impossible. Bring on new sponsors. But above all, keep it personal, beautiful, challenging, and unique. That will always be my goal for the future Hecks of the North.
What do people need to know to register, get to the area, bike set up(s), and survival?
KERSHAW: I still support the premise that many styles of bikes will work in gravel cycling (mountain 29ers, touring, cyclocross, and of course gravel specific.) The main thing I remind new riders is that they need to be comfortable on their rig for at least six to eight hours. The fit of the bike is so important. And they should know enough to be able to handle the usual types of on-course repairs (flat tires, fouled chains, etc.)
Weather in northern Minnesota is a wild card in the end of September/early October. We have had crisp, bluebird days. We have had cold, rainy, and windy ones, too. Come prepared for it all.
Registration is easy via our Heck of the North website; just choose the event you are interested in riding. We are fortunate enough to have great local Two Harbors businesses offer up their land for free camping during the weekend. And of course, our registration and post-race festivities would not be complete without a stop by Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors. Such great beer and wonderful hosts.
Why do you believe it’s important to participate in and contribute to this style of racing? What does it mean to you, and what do you believe the experience offers people?
KERSHAW: I believe that gravel cycling is a transformative activity. It completely altered how I viewed bicycle racing and cycling in general (for the better!) It changed my world view. And it will go through growing pains. But at the core is this sense of adventure by bike. Every time I do a “route scout” of the Heck courses, I get that same feeling of pure joy. Every time I shake the hand of a finisher, and I see that sense of accomplishment on their face, and I am affirmed by the power of this type of cycling. I never take for granted how hard this type of riding is for most people. One hundred miles on gravel! That’s a long way for a majority of riders. And it brings me great happiness to provide a stage and an opportunity for cyclists to take on this challenge.
This year’s Heck of the North gravel race takes place on September 30th. Click here to learn more or register.
Salsa sponsored rider Greg Gleason gave a nice recap of his 2015 run here - salsacycles.com/culture/discovering_heck_of_the_north
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I had to live on both coasts a couple of times to realize that maybe being born in the Midwest wasn’t just arbitrary. I’m drawn to the terrain here, and if you catch me with one of this region’s supreme IPAs in hand, I’ll talk your ear off about my favorite spots. I’ll always take every opportunity though to explore every nook and cranny anywhere I can on a bike, because that’s what makes me feel most alive.