Minnesota Border To Border

Editor's Note: Story and photos by Neil Beltchenko

When I moved to Minnesota two years ago, I knew what I was getting into. As a mountain biker it’s not the kind of place you move to for the mountain biking, but when a new opportunity presents itself, you adapt to the circumstances around you. One thing I knew I could do was ride endless gravel roads and somehow relate my obsession of pedaling whole states with my newfound home.

After moving, I started to research routes and races. I found a gravel race that spans the width of Minnesota called The Day Across Minnesota, better known as The DAM. I liked that idea, but I also knew there was so much more diversity in this state beyond the east-to-west orientation of that route. With the pandemic this year cancelling all of my plans, I opened up a map and started planning my route on Ride With GPS.

A winding gravel road meanders down a valley in the driftless region of Minnesota.

After racking my brain countless times, I came up with a route that shadowed Hwy 61, hugging the Wisconsin border but remaining in Minnesota. The route spans roughly 650 miles, starting in the Driftless Area, which covers 24,000 miles across the intersection of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. This region was spared by the glacial flattening that plagued most of the surrounding areas. It’s a beautiful area and a wonderful place to ride a bike, so I figured it would be a great starting point for the route.

My idea behind the route was to ride as much gravel as I could; I was hoping for 75% but quickly realized that this would be a challenge. The area has plenty of gravel roads, but I wanted to hug the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers—rivers accompany hills, and hills equal beauty. I could have easily started in Southwest Minnesota, but I wrote that idea off right away for the aforementioned reasons. In the end, I traveled 403 off-road miles, 245 paved miles, 50 of which were on paved rail-trails. Much of the paved sections are less-used ranch roads where gravel roads would end. Much of the off-road section was gravel, but from time to time I had to enjoy a bit of underbiking, on two track, snowmobile trail, and a little bit of singletrack.

Neil’s loaded, pink Salsa Warbird stands with deep, dark, dense woodlands in the background.

The Bike

I made a video a few weeks back about whether or not a gravel bike is a bikepacking bike. I won’t get into the details here, but I will say the Warbird was a perfect tool for the job, and I would no doubt load it up again for a similar adventure. With that said, I did make a few changes to the bike to make it more bikepacking-friendly. For starters, the Warbird to me is set up very race oriented and understandably so—it’s a fast bike out of the box. Here are a few of the changes I made:

-       Swapped the 42 cm Cowbell handlebar for a 46 cm Cowchipper bar for more stability and room for bikepacking bags

-       Flipped the stem (-/+6*) for a more upright position

-       Added aero bars, mostly to give myself another hand position but they worked well for headwinds

-       Threw on a pair of 42 mm Teravail Washburn center slick gravel tires, which were great for the 245 miles of pavement and still handled the gravel well

-       Mounted four bottle cages

-       Added a few bikepacking bags

A gently rolling gravel road meanders passed red farm buildings and old windmills.

The Experience

After my wonderful wife dropped me off at the Iowa/Minnesota border, I was ready to pedal the state of Minnesota. Riding gravel and country roads is a nice introduction to a bikepacking trip because it allows you to ease into the experience. Much of the Driftless Area travels through rural frontcountry, where you are bound to stumble upon a small town or store every 50 miles. It’s a welcoming way to start a trip, and makes for easy logistics early on.

As I pedaled my way north, I passed through the towns of Winona, Lake City, Red Wing, Hastings, Afton, and Stillwater. As I observed the transformation north, I also saw the way our society and, in general, our views on the world change. I’m not here to get into politics, but it was eye-opening to see how divided our country is, especially during a pandemic and a national election.

A two-lane paved country road leads to a T, where an old white church with green roof sits at the stop sign.

The route north from Stillwater quickly became less fine-tuned, and rougher around the edges—more gravel, more two track, singletrack, bends in the roads and forests. The Driftless Area is stunning, but it was a bit busy too. After I left Stillwater, it was the kind of experience that you dream about when you're on your bike. The farther north I got, the better the colors and experience became.

I’m not one to leisure tour much and even with this being a somewhat relaxing trip, I still raced daylight each day. I gave myself five and a half days to complete the route, which added up to five 100+ mile days. After tapering the training plan for 2020 and riding for fun nearly every day this summer, it was encouraging to see how my fitness and mental state fared. In all reality, it was nothing but a pleasurable experience, typically getting to camp each day around 5:00 or 6:00 pm, where I made dinner, relaxed and scouted the route for the next day.

Neil’s loaded by lies on its side on a gravel road that runs straight to the horizon.

A wooden bridge surface with rusting, arching iron supports leads to dense green forest.

On the south end of the route, there is not much public land so you need to rely on established campsites. Once you get further north, state and national forests and primitive camping are much more prevalent. While the established campsites were expensive, it was nice knowing I would have water, a place to sleep, and even someone to talk with for a short bit.

Solo tours can be lonely but also introspective, it’s a time to reset, a time to think about the world as a whole, you as a person and the simplicity of a bike ride. From time to time, it’s really nice to have a conversion with a stranger. As an introvert, I typically keep to myself, but it’s hard to escape the realities of human interactions and it's pretty awesome to chat with someone about their life.

Neil’s bike leans against a small shed in the Northwoods with a sign on it that reads Nemadji HILTON.

A view looking down on Duluth and one of the bridges leading to Superior, Wisconsin.

As I made my way from Stillwater to St. Croix State Park up to Duluth, the leaves started to change colors and my excitement grew for the North Shore, easily the most wonderful area in Minnesota in my opinion. It boasts the greatest lake in the United States, its shoreline is majestic, its hillside is undulating and beautiful.

Neil’s loaded Warbird rests on the wooden railing of a small bridge leading toward a doubletrack trail.

After navigating the craziness of cars, bike paths, singletrack, and the beautiful Skyline Parkway in Duluth, I made my way out of the last big town on the route, and into what felt much more like experiences that are representative of sleeping next to my bike. Fewer people, more forests, freezing mornings, and beautiful but rough winding roads. The section from Duluth to Canada did not disappoint on any level, it was hands-down my favorite part of the route.

Neil’s loaded pink Salsa Warbird rests against the sea wall in Grand Marais harbor.

The grand finale of the route was dropping down into Grand Marais, a quaint little town on Lake Superior with good food and even better views. I stopped in at Hungry Hippie Tacos and would suggest it to anyone making their way into this area. After staying in Grand Marais for the night, I had 50 miles left to complete my journey to the Canadian border. After climbing up the busy Gunflint Trail, I soon found solitude. Frost covered much of the ground on another chilly morning as my feet and fingers struggled to warm. As the sun rose higher, so did my spirits and body temperature.

Sign reading: WARNING – It is a federal offense to trespass on Indian Lands to hunt, fish or trap without permit.

The route eventually crossed into one of the earliest Ojibwa settlements, the Grand Portage Reservation. It felt fitting to finish this route on tribal land. The Grand Portage Reservation is just one small remaining piece of tribal land left in Minnesota. The Ojibwa Tribe once inhabited much of the land surrounding Lake Superior, but much of their land was stolen by early colonization, and finishing here was a reminder of our country's Native American history.

It was also a grand farewell to the great state of Minnesota for me. Living in Minnesota was a journey, and the two years that I spent exploring the state gave me a great perspective on life after living in a small mountain town for 11 years prior. It was a big shock, but one I would never regret. It has created growth, patience, creativity, and joy and for that, I thank you, Minnesota. It’s been real!

Neil stands smiling with his loaded Salsa Warbird alongside a metal guardrail at the conclusion of his journey.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Gravel Neil Beltchenko Sponsored Riders Touring Warbird

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Neil Beltchenko

Neil Beltchenko

I’ve always had a bike since I was a kid, riding the dirt jumps in the park behind my house. It was not until 2010 when I finally got on a mountain bike again. Things kinda took off in 2012 when a friend and I took on the Colorado Trail in 10 days. It was an eye-opening experience that lead me to take on the Arizona Trail Race 300 in 2013 – my first bikepacking race. Basically, after that, the rest is history.

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