Almanzo 2013

What’s an Almanzo?

100 miles of gravel and hills, south of Rochester in Spring Valley, MN.  The race is free: a labor of love by a cyclist and organizer named Chris Skogen, supported by sponsorship and community donations and volunteers.

From the Almanzo website:

We drove this course over a period of two days. The first day was under sunny skies and a decent wind. The gravel was very soft and pock-marked north and east of Spring Valley. As we drove further south the course seemed to dry up the further we went. There were a couple of highway maintenance vehicles out along the course doing what they do best, scraping the bumps out and getting down to the soft stuff. Our expectation of the weeks to come is that the roads will continue to get maintained, smoothed out, and added to to make up for the heaves and the ruts brought to us by a long winter and a non-present Spring.

On our second day we picked up the course at 142nd St and traveled west through Forestville State Park, Cherry Grove, the  infamous and sometimes (it’s currently flowing) dry water crossing and back into Spring Valley. We mention this second day because over the course of 24 hours the gravel had dried out nicely. There were a few sections of new rock that had been laid down and a coupe of corners where the truck got a little loose. As we mentioned above, the roads should be all set up and ready to roll come race day.

Towns you’ll see along the way and the services they have,

1. Preston, Minnesota (all services) Mile 39
2. Cherry Grove, Minnesota (soda machine, bring change) Mile 79

My ‘manzo

I have never done this or any other gravel ride before, but when I went to an Almanzo fundraiser this winter, I met a lot of people that said so many nice things about the organizer and the race that I was positively peer pressured to participate!  I felt I could do the distance, but I was nervous about this “gravel” stuff, because I’ve never ridden on anything like 1-3 inches of pea-sized gravel laid over a hard-pack road before.  But how hard could it be, right?  Not to mention my doubts about how to ford the river where the bridge was out.  (I usually just caulk the wagon and float across if there’s no ferry.)  But how hard could it be, right?  Right??  For better or for worse, I still believe that if I’m given enough time and gears, I can do anything.

My good friend and roommate Kat and I planned to ride together, at a moderate pace, taking lots of stops and enjoying the scenery as we rolled along.  I think we did a great job of being realistic about what we wanted to get out of the ride, taking lots of breaks,  pushing our limits without punishing ourselves, and enjoying the course.  Our ride time was just over 9 hours, and it took us about 11 hours to finish.  (I think the course record is something like 5:16:30 hours, for reference.)

That equals a full day in the sun, working and laboring up hills, bombing hills down a single track cleared in deep gravel, Nutella sandwiches, dinging my bell at cows, shaking my legs out after climbs, dreaming of fishing all of the streams and creeks we crossed, and taking my shoes and socks off to wade across the water hazard.

Not bad.

cyclists crossing a construction area with a backhoe

The “first” water crossing was our only water crossing, because they rerouted the second crossing over the Root River


The “first” water crossing was our only water crossing, because they rerouted the second crossing over the Root River

Things That Went Well

Kat and I knew what we wanted out of this race: Ride it like a tour, take our time, ride well, and enjoy the scenery.  Knowing your riding partners expectations is key!

SANDWICHES.  Nutella and sunflower butter on sour quinoa bread?  I’ll take three.

HYDRATION!  My kidneys were full of lemon-lime Gatorade.  Level up with Shot Blocks.  It was 85 degrees and there was not a lot of shade on the course, so I made sure to arrive at every checkpoint with empty bottles.

Just about the only thing I was truly prepared for was the handling required to climb a hill through loose gravel and bomb down on 4-6″ of single track either on the edge of the road or in another cyclist’s track.  Surfing through pea-sized rocks 1-3″ thick isn’t so scary when you’re used to turning on ice and navigating through snow.

My gear was totally nerd core, and I think I freaked some people out when they saw my pannier full of sandwiches, but I did what made me feel comfortable.

Sunscreen.  Mama said, mama said.

Slow and steady.  Although we were in the last group to finish, there were a lot of advantages to rolling out last and keeping a steady pace, besides being in good shape after the race.  There was usually a path cleared through the deepest gravel by racers that had gone before us, and we didn’t have to deal with people passing us or feeling pressure to move to the right when there was only enough room for one bike in the track.

Lessons Learned

This race seems to attract, well, racers.  Words like “crushing,” “grinding,” and “killing” were used a lot to describe this gravel race and there was definitely a tiger blood vibe.  I wasn’t the only randonneur there, I definitely saw some touring bikes with handlebar bags and triple chain rings, but we were a small minority.  I’d like to see more people out there “touring,” “riding,” and “lollygagging,” but that’s just me.  =]  I had no idea what to expect, but I’m glad I didn’t- because once I showed up and started climbing the same hills as the crushers and grinders, I didn’t feel self-conscious anymore.  Lesson: Channel the honey badger.

I ride at least 20 miles a day, which equals over 100 miles a week.  Other than that, I did no “training” or “preparation” for this ride.  Lesson learned!  Haha.

My legs recovered pretty well and weren’t giving me too much trouble during the ride, but YOWZA was my lower back sore from stabilizing my bike against deep gravel and crosswinds.  The next day my shoulders were a bit stiff.  I should have taken some ibuprofen.  One pro move was rolling a whiskey bottle over my leg muscles after the race.  That’s probably why I forgot to take the ibuprofen?

More sunscreen next time.  This helmet strap tan does not say, “Consummate professional” in the workplace.

The combination of my Time Atac pedals and Specialized Motodiva shoes are terrible in the mud!  I had to stop so many times to find a pointy stick to clear my cleats.  Not optimal.

bottom of shoe and cleat with lots of dirt and gravel caked on

Thanks for the mud times, Almanzo!


Speaking of pedals…

rider showing the bottom of foot with pedal attached, pedal broke or separated from bike crank

My bike was in tip top shape for Alamanzo.  Cleaned, overhauled, new cables and housing… Unfortunately it looks as if I didn’t tighten my drive side pedal enough, or the bouncing down gravel roads might have loosened it a bit.  Thank the bike goddesses I was able tap that puppy back in there and finish the last 40 miles, or I’d STILL be walking home!  (If this happens to you, try to thread the pedal in through the back of the crank to set the threads, and then carefully thread the pedal in the right way and cross your fingers.)

Next year I’m bringing two panniers so I can pick up more gu wrappers and stinger waffle wrappers.  *finger wag*


In conclusion, this was one of the most physically challenging things I have done in a long time.  I’m so proud of Kat and I for finishing, and finishing with smiles!  If the conditions are as dry and perfect as they were this year, I can’t wait to do it again.

Thanks to everyone that rode with me, gave me high fives, Hamms hand ups, and encouraged me to ride!  Most of all, thanks to Kat and our pal JZ for hanging with me the whole ride!

riders with bikes around tents or kiosks

Photo by CraigLindner

Photo by CraigLindner

Update 6/4/2013:

Here are some Almanzo race recaps.  Let me know if you find another I should post!

Girl Unsupervised: “We Did This”

On Friday morning, probably around 10am, I was waiting for a ride to pick me up in Preston, MN. I was in a coffee shop at mile 39 of the Alexander version of Almanzo. I’d broken a pedal at mile 33 and run/pedaled one-legged to get here. I stood at the counter, giving another rider my phone number, just in case he needed help later in the race. After he wrote it down, I introduced myself. The woman behind the counter, looking shocked, said, “But you don’t even know him!”

“That’s just how we are,” I told her.

I had absolutely no idea how true that was when I said it. I had no idea that in the next few hours, 3 different people, including the race organizer himself,  would offer to loan me pedals. I had no idea that I guy I barely knew would give me a ride to Spring Valley, wait for me to regroup and then return me to Preston. I had no idea how many people would help me ride nearly 400 miles.

Two Wheels From Home: “Crushing Gravel? Part 2”

Somehow, I found a rhythm in it.  I began to follow solid lines and I stopped getting nervous going down the constant rollers even if my rear tire fishtailed a bit.  Essentially, I relaxed and let my bike do what it was made to do.

Amy Oberbroeckling of Gear Junkie: “100 Miles of Twisting, Climbing, Gravel Road Biking at Almanzo Race”

Shifting down into my lowest gear, I attempted to spin up the monster but my legs couldn’t keep up. I unclipped–totally burnt out. Thankfully, the end was in sight. I put my head down and mustered up every remaining bit of energy I had left to push through.

As I rolled in to the finish line 7 hours and 23 minutes later, I forgot about the pain I was in. The rush of crossing that line, and getting high-fives and cheers from friends, is what this race is all about. That feeling is why I love to race gravel. I’m already counting down the days until next year’s Almanzo!

Gravel Shark: “Century of Gravel”

My alias fearlessly sent a social networking message to The Great Almanzo inquiring whether he had an opinion on riders that may show up without RSVP, but of course would take sole responsibility for themselves. Then I waited, half expecting a disgusted reply from a man that was exhausted after months of preparing to host fourteen hundred cyclists. The reply came within 12 hours: “The roads are not ours to govern.” That my friends is the true spirit of gravel adventure! We were IN!

Brianna Prahl: “Almanzo 2013”

I walked up a lot of hills. I fell down twice when my legs were so weak I could hardly clip in or out, and have matching bruises to show. I wolfed down an unknown amount of calories and I felt for the first time both of my thighs seize up and cramp after the last significant and insane climb (which I walked).
After the last climb we were something like 7 miles from the finish line. I drank water the whole way and choked down one last GU to try and prevent my legs from cramping up again. At that point we knew we had made it and you could feel the energy as everyone picked up the pace and enjoyed the sunset the rest of the way in.
The air was just buzzing at the start. Bikes were filling several sloping blocks of the main street in Spring Valley, curb to curb. When Chris Skogen, the race organizer, took the microphone from the bed of a truck atop the hill, he welled up. He was quickly saved by his radio announcer-father, who shared in a beautiful baritone how this was his son’s dream come true. Chris then shared that if you like this event, go home and start your own. Community building at its finest. It was really beautiful.

We rolled through the streets of Spring Valley, including a fun moment of going around both sides of a traffic island that felt like the overhead shots of pro pelotons look, and we hit the gravel and were off. Got several early compliments on the kit, not recognized as local and bearing our “Women Taking The Wheels” boldly across the back. Damn proud of that bit of copy, am I.

Best memory of the day: around mile 30 or so we followed the pack up a hill, our legs were on fire climbing that thing, Salsa drove by with their film crew and they got footage of all of us suffering. At the top of the hill we reached a fork in the road, there sat the Salsa film crew getting footage of about 35 befuddled cyclists that realized they made a navigation error. Half of us grumbled, the other half whipped out their iPhones to find a map to get us back on course. Salsa filmed the entire thing laughing I’m sure! Maybe they knew we were headed off course when they filmed us climbing! We laughed at ourselves a little, too!
Note: I was definitely laughing!  I took that wrong turn up the hill too, and I think I ended up riding next to Kristen on some hard climbs.  She was making it look easy.
I had just finished a grueling (emphasis added, please) 102 mile bike ride on a mountain bike in Minnesota.  TheAlmanzo 100 (named for Manly on the once popular and innocent show of “Little House on the Prairie”) started out on a beautiful 70 degree morning in southeast Minnesota.  Gentle rolling hills of white, grey and brown gravel  punctuated side-views of open farm land, tree-lined parks and forests, and in places, a horizon that would never be met by our two-wheeled steeds.  To put into words by Louise Erdrich (MN author, of course), “some people meet the way the sky meets the earth, inevitably, and there is no stopping or holding back their love. It exists in a finished world, beyond the reach of common sense.” It was a ride of nearly 1000 people looking to spend a day beyond common sense, and people met passion of life and an expression of freedom on untamed roads.
I went into it knowing it would be hard. And it was hard. My two goals were: “don’t crash” and “finish the whole thing.” With the help of two close friends and scattered sightings of other determined riders, I did it. All my anxieties about following the route properly, mechanicals in the middle of nowhere, bonking X miles before the finish, were erased by positive attitudes and eventually channeling Jens Voigt with a “Shut Up, Legs” mantra.

Update 5/24/2013:

Almanzo 100 results have been posted.  Not like it matters, but for a finishing time of 11h 20m, I was 746/787! Out of 953 bikes (inc. tandems) that started, 787 finished. The fastest male came in at 5:12:20, the fastest woman came in at 5:50:34, fastest tandem came in at 5:20:07, and the last rider rolled in at 12:19:00.  Slow and steady is how I roll.