This is part three of a series from our sponsored rider Greg Gleason about turning his pedals into the new-to-him world of bikepacking. New tricks to bikepacking reveal themselves every time you head out, and Greg shares what he’s learning as his journey begins and he prepares for the Tour Divide.
On September 21, 2016 at 6:00 a.m. ten bikepackers lined up with fully outfitted bikes ready to race the Black Hill Expedition, a 443-mile adventure through the amazing Black Hills of South Dakota.
Waking at 4:00 am, I started my final prep for the 3- to 4-day bikepacking race. Before dressing I always like to check the starting temperature so I can make my final decisions on what to wear and what I need handy to get me through the day. But with this event being a multiple day event, I also verified the long range forecast. It had changed from prior reports (of course) for the worse. Instead of a 30% chance of rain it was now an 80% chance starting late the second day and continuing early into the fourth day.
Salsa Spearfish setup…
Memories from my first attempt quickly flooded my mind with panic. What if I have to drag my bike again? Do I have what I need to stay warm and dry? Will I have to pull the plug again? Ugh! Taking a very deep breath I went down the mental check list. No, I would not have to drag my bike this time I packed straps to tie it to my back. Yes, I had everything to stay warm and mostly dry. And finally, I promised myself that no matter what happened I was going to do everything in my power to get this done this time.
I grabbed some breakfast, loaded my bike, and drove to the start line at Crow Peak Brewery for the 6:00 am start. Lining up with the nine other racers in my first mass start bikepacking race I went over my race plan one more time. It was simple. FINISH. Follow the entire course this time, ride as many miles each day with as little sleep possible and have fun!
Mass start group…
Promptly at 6:00 am Jason Thorman, the race director, announced it was time to go. We all began pedaling at a comfortable, easy pace, which is uncharacteristic of most other races I’ve competed in to date. We all joked and laughed as we twisted our way through the Spearfish side streets and many city parks. Clearly Jason, also the course architect, wanted us to enjoy the many things Spearfish had to offer before the race started.
We started the race with a tour through the back streets and city parks of Spearfish before we began the first of our more than 50,000 feet of climbing on the beautiful single-track of the very popular Dakota 5-0 race course otherwise known to locals as the Tinton Trail. This was the last time I had contact with any of the other racers.
Trail 89 Mile Zero selfie…
With the weather in the 60’s and 70’s most of the day I was able to ride 135 miles arriving in Nemo around midnight. As I approached the campground water spigot I decided I had had enough of Trail 89 (the Centennial Trail’s notorious hike-a-bike) for one day so I bivvied down for a few hours of sleep.
At 4:00 am it was time for more Trail 89 hike-a-bike and nighttime single track. I had never ridden single track in the dark before so I found it fun but challenging. Needless to say I was moving slower than I wanted but anytime you are moving forward is a good thing.
Finally finishing the grueling Trail 89 around 1:30 pm I was behind my race plan schedule so I started second guessing my 3-plus hour rest in Nemo. I viewed it as one of those moments or opportunities I should have toughened up my mental game. Another lesson to note.
Now it was time to ride the Storm Mountain single track section, this is the section of single-track I missed in my second attempt so I was on high alert not to screw-up again. At least it was daylight so hopefully I wouldn’t miss the turn. Sure enough I zoomed right by the turn again but quickly realized it, laughed, and turned around thinking to myself, “Ugh, NOT again!”
With a successful (but slow) run at Storm Mountain I started working my way over to Foster Gulch hoping to make it before sunset. The Foster Gulch descent is a heavily-wooded, rocky ravine with no visible trail so navigating at night without knowing the area would be difficult.
First, you jump a barbed-wire fence onto a log cut with arrows pointing in the direction you need to go. The arrowed log and your GPS tracks are the only indication that you are proceeding in the correct direction. Following your GPS tracks and little white painted dots on the rocks every so often you work your way to an actual trail head in the valley below.
Fosters Gulch entry point…
Now in the dark and rain, I was excited to be riding trail again. I quickly started descending further into the valley noticing that my GPS tracks were to the right of where I was riding. Thinking this was a little strange I shrugged it off, enjoying my new found fast trail. After passing through two cattle gates and finding my tracks still off, my gut sank as I realized I missed a turn several miles back. I remembered from my past attempt that a very narrow trail went up the side of the mountain and I must have missed it.
Returning to the spot where the tracks went up the mountain in the dark I could not find any sign of the trail. Frustrated, I started going over scenarios in my mind. Bivy down and wait for dawn was my first thought, but with the rain I decided that wouldn’t be much fun. I needed to find the path so I decided to set my bike down and walk straight up the hill side over all the fallen trees and overgrown grass to find the trail. Success! I found the trail after 100 feet of crawling my way up the hillside. Back on track I walked my bike on the rim of Fosters Gulch the next couple miles on a narrow trail scaling several hundred feet above the canyon below. (I’m glad it was dark for this section of the course because I have a healthy fear of heights.)
In the dark and pouring rain the course tracks (not an actual trail) zigzagged through a heavily-wooded meadow area crossing Iron Creek over and over. After slipping on the slick, wet rocks crossing Iron Creek my feet were soaked and my morale was draining quickly. Keystone was only 10 miles away and I decided I needed to find a motel to get warm, dry and rest a while.
Waking at 4:00 am dry, warm, and rested, my morale was restored. I dressed myself, pulled up the local forecast and radar so I could start planning the day. It was still raining and the long range forecast indicated rain for most of the day. My original race plans were shot. Remembering the course had many miles of mostly paved sections for the next several hours I decided my new goal was to keep moving forward until I could no longer and re-evaluate if needed.
Around 9:00 am the rain had thankfully stopped. But with more rain in the forecast the saturated trails ahead were weighing heavily on my mind. The plan was to keep moving forward as long as the trails would allow.
Quickly approaching the Custer State Park loop section of the Expedition, I was sure the 50-mile loop had enough mixed surfaces I would be able to pass with no major delays. With the rain still holding off I was able to complete the 50 miles to Legion Lake Lodge in time to get a quality bite, load up on supplies and get back to yet another section of Trail 89.
While hiking up a long, steep climb on Trail 89 I heard thunder in the distance. Once to the top of the climb I was able to assess the storm. It was dark, loud and moving towards me at a very fast clip. Once over me it opened up in a complete downpour. With the wind howling and the heavy rain flying sideways past me I ran for the cover of a large spruce tree where I hurried to get all my rain gear on again. As I put my gear on I could see Trail 89 quickly filling, turning into a 12-inch deep stream of water. I tried riding but with the raging river of water and rocky trail, I was sliding all over the trail. It was time for more hike-a-bike. While walking along in a massive downpour, Trail 89, now a stream, my front wheel started spraying Stan’s fluid every revolution as I walked. Thinking to myself, “What!?, I’m not even riding my bike and I get a flat! Of all the luck. Really!?” I stopped under a tree to rotate the tire so the Stan’s would seal the tire again but no luck; it was just too wet. The Stan’s wouldn’t seal. Only a mile away from Sylvan Lake Road, a paved section of the course, I decided installing a tube would be easier on black top. I made my repairs in the pouring rain.
As I repaired my tire, I reviewed my course notes and figured I was 30-35 miles away from Hill City. Now the plan was to get to Hill City where I could get a room and hopefully a washer and dryer to get clean and dry. Dark and raining all 30+ miles, I arrived in Hill city around 11:30 pm, just in time to resupply at the local gas mart that closed at midnight. Found a room, washer, dryer, shower, and bed to rest.
Leaving Hill City dry and rested had me in high spirits even knowing it had rained all night and was still raining as I pedal down the soggy highway. I was looking forward to the sunrise and fifteen miles of gravel before I hit the very difficult to navigate Trail (aka the Deerfield Trail). Trail 40 is one of the most scenic trails I’ve ever encountered. This 24+ miles long trail starts in Silver City at 4600’ taking you straight up Gorman Gulch crossing Rapid Creek nine times and Slate Creek more than 20 times. The gulch Slate Creek sits in is a narrow, technical, and rocky trail. The bridges used to cross the creek are 12+ inches wide sitting a foot or more off the ground. This part of the trail is very slow with all the dismounting and hike-a-bike sections. At the end of the gulch alone you shoot up 800’+ feet on a very steep technical trail turning to excellent single track that eventually takes you over 6000’. Despite the rain I was able to complete the Trail 40 around by mid-day.
Now at Deerfield Lake, Mt. Meadow Store was my last opportunity to resupply before the finish. About an hour and half later I was well feed, dry and resupplied and hit the trail again. Cold air turned the rain to sleet. The wind was howling out of the WNW at 20+ mph gusting well over 40 mph and I was heading directly into it. First on gravel then on rocky jeep trail. I started to worry that I would be stopped dead in my tracks by the mud packed on my bike. I kept thinking to myself that I would take it one mile at a time and adjust as needed.
Trail 40 Slate Creek Trailhead…
At 6600’ it started snowing. Snow started to collect on my body and I got chilled. Chilled in a way that I was going to be hypothermic soon if I didn’t make some needed clothing adjustments. So I stopped, put on everything I had to keep warm-my 750 fill down hooded coat, a wool hooded SmartWool shirt, and my rain gear. Worried I might not warm up, I started planning what I would need to do to survive. All I had left for warmth was my bivy and sleeping bag so the plan was to keep riding but to push all the hills to get my internal engine warming me again or find a spruce tree and bivy down to warm up.
Knowing my wife was sitting at home watching my blue dot (new to her husband bikepacking in the middle of nowhere) I thought she might worry if I stopped for an extended period of time. I checked my cell phone to see if I had signal and, amazingly enough, I did. I called her to update her on my status, shared my plan and what I needed if my plan didn’t work.
Example of the muddy gravel roads I had to endure. Sorry for the selfie but it describes how I felt at that moment…
Pushing every hill, I was able to get my heart rate high enough to start warming me again. The only issue I had was freezing hands and feet but that only lasted for a few hours. Now warm, but soaked to the bone with rain still coming down, I had 80 miles still to cover. My plan was to keep moving forward or bivy down when it was not possible to move forward any longer.
All through the night I kept snaking and sliding my way through 2-3-inch-deep sandy mud-gravel occasionally walking when it was too muddy and slippery. Pine beetle-infested trees snapped all around me as the massive wind continued to howl. Snap….boom….snap….boom for hours in the dark, never knowing where the timber would land. I finally turned my headlamp to high so I could at least follow the sound with my light and hopefully move out of the way if needed.
Slowly fighting my way up muddy climb after muddy climb, I reached the Cement Ridge Lookout gravel at mile 390. The rain stopped but now pea soup thick fog set in. Cement Ridge Lookout sits at 6600’+ feet atop an open mountain top so I was having great difficulty controlling my bike in the howling wind and fog. It was 1:30 am and I was unable to see anything so I decided to look for a place to rest at the lookout tower but everything was locked up
With less than 50 miles to go and no more rain in the forecast I decided the trails should be good enough to push through the night and finish in the morning. At a little before 9 am I hit Higgins Gulch Road. With seven (mostly) downhill miles to go to the finish, I was almost done. It felt like a victory lap. I had finally conquered this route. I arrived at Crow Peak Brewing at about 9:25 am to a crowd of bikepacking fans cheering me to the finish. What a great way to close this adventure!
I completed the entire course in 4 days 3 hours and 22 minutes. This would not have been possible if I had not attempted my previous two individual time trials. Everything this rookie learned on those two attempts was used to get to the finish this time around.
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