IN THE ARROWHEAD REGION – Tractor treads pressed into the shoulders of gravel roads are a common sight in Minnesota’s southern farmland. So are truck and car tires after they round a corner stop sign and show the way to convenient resupplies of fuel, coffee and snacks. But tracks on the forested roads of northeastern Minnesota exude a mystique that’s especially intriguing for the gravel cycling crowd that travels to discover the uncommon.
Up North, the paths often are current or former logging roads compared with those in the pastoral areas farther south, said Jeremy Kershaw, creator and director of Heck of the North cycling events.
“Up here, I see wolf tracks and bear tracks and moose tracks. You just don’t see that on paved roads,” he added.
Kershaw, who lives in Duluth, said the Arrowhead region has special appeal. He spoke of a network of roads between Two Harbors, Minn., and Grand Marais that offer three or four veins which can take him across the Arrowhead without involving Hwy. 61.
“That discovery for me, over the last couple years in particular, has been really satisfying, to link together these small roads and get from Point A to Point B in a really beautiful way,” Kershaw said.
He sees renewed energy in promoting off-pavement cycling in the Arrowhead that forms a triangle between Two Harbors, Grand Marais and Ely. It’s a rich place to ride.
“It differentiates itself in the Midwest in the sense that there’s no corn, there’s no gas station. I mean, it’s remote.”
Kershaw, 48, established the first of three Heck of the North gravel cycling events in fall 2009. It started as the Gravel Cycling Classic. Heck now sports events in May, July and September. The Le Grand Du Nord, featuring routes of about 100, 50 and 20 miles, is Saturday out of Grand Marais. (It reached its 500-rider cap May 17.) A mirror event called Heck of the North is in September. Heck Epic is in July, covering 225 miles over two days.
Kershaw said gravel cycling is as old as the bicycle and predates pavement. But as cycling evolved and blacktop roads began stretching across the country, riding on gravel gave way to the hard stuff. For people back in the 1800s, and those who lived around farmland since they were children, all they ever had was gravel. Once given the chance, they took a liking to that slick, exciting pavement, as did untold numbers of cyclists ever since.
However, he said gravel cycling began a resurgence in the early 2000s and has really heated up within the last decade. Kershaw attributes its appeal to adventure for the sake of the journey. He grew up riding paved roads, but part of him is drawn to areas that don’t get ridden much.
“They have a sense of freedom and openness that’s not found on paved roads. They’re also, frankly, safer because [they’re] less traveled by vehicles,” he said.
Ben Doom of St. Cloud began as a bike-builder, progressed to a mechanic and service manager, and is co-owner of Revolution Cycle and Ski. Before competing in gravel races, he said a group of his friends would ride gravel as a way to avoid busy roads and explore new territory. Today when he takes longer rides, he typically doesn’t have a definite route. He just starts by heading into the wind.
“If I see an interesting road, I will take it and see where it heads. The unknown and the newness is a great appeal to me,” he said.
Doom, 43, said much of his gravel riding is on the flat, grid-formation roads around St. Cloud. He’s finished first or second more than once in Heck events where grid routes don’t exist, but hills do. He said the trees and even gravel differ from southern landscape. With fewer people in the Arrowhead, he can ride for many miles without crossing the path of a car.
“The roads are narrow, twisty, hilly and very scenic,” he said.
Focused on the journey
For Andrea Cohen of Iowa City, Iowa, a bicycle is her primary method of transportation. She hasn’t owned a car for most of her life there. She began gravel riding about the same time she commuted to college by bike. She’s ridden Heck of the North several times and said the event route is special.
“It takes you down snowmobile trails and different kinds of trails that you wouldn’t get to ride on your bike otherwise.”
As an athlete in high school and college, Cohen, 29, said her competitive career focused highly on numbers. But placing well in gravel events isn’t a top priority for her. It’s part of the beauty she finds in gravel riding. She enjoys the competition, but doesn’t mind finishing in the middle.
“It was nice to show up at an event where … there was a podium but no one was really paying attention,” she said.
Many gravel cycling events have begun incorporating shorter distances to attract new participants, Kershaw said. “It’s really fun to watch new cyclists come in and get that same sense of satisfaction on a 20-mile event.”
Though the timing component of the event is important, he said it’s more about the journey, and he’s leaning recently toward more of what he called “discovery riding.” He wants to continue a tradition whereby riders are winners just by finishing or simply making the attempt. That’s where the really great stories come from. He’s seen and heard of poignant experiences by people who have tested themselves.
“I have as much respect for the person in last place, if not more, than I do for the person crossing the line first,” Kershaw said, “because as we say in endurance sports, ‘If you’re going to be slow, you’ve got to be tough.’ ”
There also was a group of guys who Kershaw described as counterculture to cycling. He said they were good athletes, but their participation was a refreshing contrary to the norms.
“Some of my favorite riders at the start of the Heck were the guys (who) would bring beer, bring cigarettes and have a break at the halfway … then get back on their bikes and finish it off.”
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. Reach him through writingoutfitter.com.