Patrick Stephenson is a copywriter at Minnesota Public Radio and the director of 30 Days of Biking. Follow him on Twitter, @patiomensch, where he tweets like 5,000 times a day.

100 Miles of Gravel: Riding Almanzo

Posted by: Patrick Stephenson under Transportation Updated: May 19, 2014 - 1:45 PM


This past Saturday, a couple thousand cyclists from Minnesota (and around the Earth!) participated in the Almanzo 100. Named after Laura Ingalls Wilder's husband and staged in Southeastern Minnesota, the Almanzo is a 100-mile gravel race, with gnarly roads, epic hills and even river crossings. In short, it's a century that's a bit hardier than the norm. "Think of the worst piece of asphalt you've ever ridden," organizer Chris Skogen has told Men's Journal, "and it's just a little worse than that."

After not having owned a bike for 15 years, Robbinsdale resident Josh Freeman rode this year's Almanzo, on a brand-new steed. I asked him a few questions to get the lowdown: Why ride it? What makes it hard? And will he do it again?

Why’d you decide to participate in the Almanzo 100?

I got a new bike (after being bikeless for about 15 years) last October. Around the first of the year, some buddies showed me the route, and said we should do this. Your bike will work great, so why not?! I asked around on Twitter, and got great responses on how amazing the ride is (from folks who had done it) and that it was challenging. At that point, I thought: Okay, let's do it!

What was your training regimen like, and when did you start?

We started training March 29th. Our regimen was simple: Start off with a 20 – 25-mile ride, and increase our distance each weekend. We jumped to 35, then 50, 65, 88, 109, then tapered the week before at 50 miles. We also participated (most of the days) in 30 Days of Biking, which helped dramatically. The formula was pretty straightforward: Spend time on the bike, go farther each time, do leisure rides throughout the week, rest days when we felt we needed to.

What were the biggest obstacles you faced as you prepared for the Almanzo?

Time, and experience. Making the time to do the long rides in the weekends while managing family and work schedules was a challenge. But we committed to doing it, so some of the rides were done late in the day and into the night with lights. We spoke to a lot of people around the Cities who had done the ride before, got their tips and perspective and tried to piece together our own plan, based on what we learned from our training rides. That said, no matter how much you plan, until you do it, there is no way to know if you planned properly — but you work through it anyways.

How’d you feel the night before?

Excited, yet apprehensive. I checked, rechecked, and triple checked all bolts, screws and gear list. Biggest apprehension was: Had we trained enough? The answer was yes. But were we prepared for the difference of riding speed and separation? No. We didn't plan the ride coordination/who had keys properly. Having never done it, I thought we were underprepared. That said, we were probably a bit too overprepared in some ways. (Mostly gear packed.)

How’d the race itself go?

The race was good. Having not ridden in years, the goal was to finish, and I did, so I'm happy with that.

Will you do it again next year?

Yes. I’m already collecting thoughts and making a list of things I learned and will tweak for next year. That includes transportation logistics for when we all finish. We’ll make sure that everyone has at least a set of keys to the two vehicles; some riders fell behind. So, we’ll outline communication on separation, and whether to continue going solo, or if others will be mad/feel abandoned.

Also: bring more apples, less fuel bars. Adding an extra Camelback bladder either in bag, or as a backpack and removing 1 frame bag. Bringing my own sunscreen, not with one person in the group. Wearing a rain jacket even if the forecast is clear. And most importantly, bringing a handkerchief to use as a face mask on dry roads. The dust was absolutely horrible on my nose and lungs by the end.

Someone who has biked for years and very frequently will be able to complete this ride, and with some training, can do really well at this ride. A novice or casual rider can do it, if they put in the time. Knowing the effects on your body at mile 50, 70, 90, etc., and how to handle that was a lifesaver.

What was your favorite moment?

Getting off my bike at the finish line. Just kidding.

There was a point around mile 25 where we had gone into a valley, and it was a long and winding road ahead, huge hills to the right, and an expansive sky with some clouds. It was stunning.

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