Almanzo 100

I’ve been a fan of the Rapha Continental for as long as I’ve known about it. In 2008, the Continental crew traipsed through Minneapolis during one of their early sojourns in the US, including a Stella Artois-fueled ramble through the local countryside. So when Continental riders Greg Johnson and Aaron Erbeck announced they would be riding the 2014 Almanzo 100 Gravel Race, in southeastern Minnesota, I quickly said, “You bet!” to their request that I act as their tour guide for the weekend. Greg is a Minnesota native, as is another hometown hero in our group, Derrick Lewis. It was imperative, therefore, to get Aaron up to speed on how to talk Minnesotan.

He wasted no time mastering the three bedrocks of the local vernacular: “You bet”; “That’s different.”; and “Whatever.” With Aaron’s verbal arsenal fully stocked, the next day we drove to the race start in Spring Valley, a two-hour transfer south and east of Minneapolis. Upon arrival, a quick stop at the Old Tyme Saloon got us acquainted with the locals, before we secured our hotel and race registration packets. At the campground Rapha showed some short films from their collection, while HED Wheels helped put on a grass-track race.

Luckily for us, the 9am start meant we were only slightly rushed the following morning, discussing arm warmers and embrocation before Aaron set off in search of gas-station coffee. We rolled into the start, on downtown Main St., where race director Christopher Skogen led the 1400-plus riders in a Gravel Race tradition, serenading his son Jack with a chorus of happy birthday. Before long, we were charging out of town with a police escort for a day of idyllic, if arduous riding, that would take us through river valleys and farm fields, not to mention over 8,000ft of vertical gain. After about 30 miles, Aaron was up front with the leaders, myself holding back in the second chase group, while Greg was somewhere else. Unknown to us, and in one of the most talked about moments of the day, three wild horses broke through their fence near mile 10 and raced alongside a pack of startled riders.

With Aaron up the road, Greg and I regrouped around the 50-mile mark, shared a snack, and surged on. A quick stop in Forestville for an ice-cold can of Hamm’s beer and we were soon climbing out of yet another valley, en route to the unofficial checkpoint in the small burgh of Cherry Grove, at mile 78. It was here that The Banjo Bros, sons of Minnesota and renowned bicycle bag manufacturers, had set up an oasis offering frosty beverages, and an Elvis impersonator who may well have been part of a witness protection program. It was good to leave Cherry Grove sooner rather than later, for it’s easy to be seduced by the fact you’re only 20 miles from the finish.

The reality is that you still have to contend with a river crossing, more rolling climbs and the vaunted Oriole Road climb at mile 97. It can be an unrelenting nemesis, with 15-20% grades, line choice crucial due to this year’s fresh layer of class-5 gravel, not to mention countless people walking and pushing their bikes. Greg and I made it to the top without dismounting and, with one final effort, were soon rolling into the finishing chute, where Skogen, a class act, was waiting to shake the hand of every rider. Nearby, we found Aaron. Firmly ensconced on a patch of grass and clutching an empty beer bottle.