Please check out race organizer Jeremy Kershaw's beautiful images!
For those not familiar the Heck is a relatively flat 'gravel' race on what are often bumpy/dusty gravel roads NW of Duluth. The route is punctuated with a long finishing climb and a scattering of trail sections. Most years the trail sections are very wet to the point of requiring dismounts. The flat nature of the course often keeps a large lead group together late into the race which has made for some exciting finishes.
I've been going good and was willing to try to take a flyer early in the race. Such a strategy had been bubbling up since late summer and was further reinforced by my experience at the Gravel Conspiracy. The pace always starts pretty high but I was looking for a way to get up the road from the start. Figured I had to get it done early as possible or else it wouldn't seem 'stupid' on my part and wouldn't be allowed to happen.
I couldn't make it happen. Each time at least one other rider went hard enough to join me and the group chased or I cut my effort because I knew it was futile. Finally, at mile 12 or so? there was a small group of us that the main pack was closing down and I decided to give it one more real effort to spring solo. As soon as they caught I went hard and again a single rider came with. This time I had hurt myself pretty good with the effort and had no desire in working more in a doomed effort and I dropped back. He wouldn't be seen again for a very long time.
The lead pack settled into an uneasy cooperation with some apparent team tactics/wheel sucking taking place from the start. Honestly, it was nice to see. This was a bike race.
First trail section and my cue cards were flipped wrong. Riding right on the wheel of the first rider lead to some interesting situations with deep culverts coming up fast. Had to bunny hop pretty big a couple of times to avoid total destruction.
Back on the road and more of the same with no one really wanting to work.
Knew where the 2nd trail section was to begin and made a point of getting in first. This was where I had flatted the year before, lost my GPS and literally 30-35 minutes of time. A repeat wasn't going to happen. Leaving the trail Ted was interested in pinning things and we did ride fast, but any effort to drop the lead 18 or 20 was quickly made obviously flawed.
There was again some jockeying as we neared the checkpoint. Legs felt great and so I decided to play along and went into the checkpoint hard and left as a solo first chaser (I didn't know that the solo guy had already gotten lost at that point). I had it in my mind that the group was moving slowly and that if I could get to the next trail section solo and pin it through there I could possibly bridge up and/or go back to my original plan. Once again it was not to be. Initially, the single rider on my wheel was OK. I thought maybe it would be a helper, but then he never pulled through and I shut it down again. This time there was some discussion amongst the lead group. Over the next few miles some allegiances both secret and otherwise were solidified. Ted (who should have been my number one rival...) and I plotted how to get away from the big group.
We hit a road I remembered from previous races and I knew it had enough of a grade to allow for something to happen. It was one of those moments where I could see the move, new it was the 'right' move from some perspective. At the same time I think I had lost track of what I was really trying to do out there- winning the race. I just wanted away instead.
I gave it most of what I had, then more and then everything and I didn't look back. Afterwards I was dismayed to realize there were still people with me. Ted Loosen, Charlie Schad, Dominic Talerico were all lined up right on my wheel. I was happy it was those who I most wanted to ride with and to help, but still a bit shaken that they had stayed with me. We had 28 miles to the finish and a widening gap as we rotated. I took another too long pull and then realized I needed to conserve. Everyone looked fresh and strong and I wasn't playing the game right. I had shown all my cards and only gotten 85% of what I needed. I thought about the seemingly random extra work I had done earlier. I knew my overall plan had failed.
Our gap widened. We rode another trail section and on the way out Dominic crashed. We waited for him. The chase was in sight... albeit much slimmed down. Chaos. I tried to dial up full gas and got very little. The four of us were spread over the road but we were finally able to regroup and begin adding to our 35-45 second lead once again. We knew it was about to be all climb to the finish and the gap was sufficient. We had made it.
There was a fire truck, I was in front and snuck by to the left... "you guys are going to die, there is a powerline down". It didn't have it's lights on or any signs. We were forced to stop. We agreed to neutralize the race and "tie"?
The chase caught up and locals knew how to get around the mess and back onto the route. "We" decided to restart the race from there with existing time gaps. I was frustrated all the way around. I heard others complaining, saying they wanted to protest and stop. I just put my head down and went. Again, I wasn't thinking clearly about what my actual purpose was. I lead to much but I felt rejuvenated from the bit of rest we had gotten on the reroute.
We hit the steep grade of the finish line climb and I knew it was too steep for anything but just riding. Ted and I traded some, he dropped back, we crested the top of the hill and both Ted and Dominic sprinted. I could not. I didn't cramp or really redline, I just couldn't sprint. They rode away and it was over fast.
Overall, I feel great about my riding. I know how much harder I've worked this year and how much faster I am in training etc.. I'm not sure the Heck is the ideal course for me or perhaps that I had the right plan for how to ride such a course. There is also no way to know what would have happened if I had snuck away at mile 10.
I really enjoyed the racing that took place. All of it. I wish the culverts had been marked or a warning had been given in some way. Other than that the course is incredibly scenic and I believe it likely is the best route/roads in the area. The event is well run and enjoyable. I regret missing the after party, but I was trying to get home to move on Sunday and also really wanted to stop by Yker acres fundraiser for Josey's cyclocross.
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