There are two things I’ll go to hell for in a bike race: A good friend, and a good story. At the 2022 Pine Island Gravel Odyssey, I got to go to hell for both.
Marty and I drove to Spearfish, S.D., to climb Pine Island’s tallest tree: the 210-mile Lodgepole Voyage (formerly known as the Mother Lode). But this grassroots gravel event also offers riders shorter climbs. The main event is the 110. There’s also a 70-mile course and even a noncompetitive 45-miler that welcomes e-bikes.
Pine Island’s been on our list for years. The race was a favorite of the late Randy Gibson, who won the master’s division in 2017. But 2022 was the first year we could make it work. I hope it’s not the last.
The 210 drew its small field from a wide net. Just 30-something riders represented nine states stretching from Wyoming to Wisconsin. And race directors Kristi and Perry Jewett made sure our group of ultra-oddballs never felt like afterthoughts.
Our race started with a luxuriously long neutral rollout behind a bicycling Perry. That let me putter around the field, chatting with anybody who’d listen. Perry and I talked about his race’s history and about Randy, whom he remembers warmly.
While I was up here, I decided to chat it up with gravel pro Kae Takeshita, because when else would I have that chance? I introduced myself and said I knew her Nebraska teammate, Mike Marchand. Mike is (once again) recovering from a crash, and we talked about the slog of rehab. She knows what it’s like to deal with a neck injury, and we knocked on wood that I’d never join them in that club.
Then Perry peeled off with a holler and the racing began in earnest. The road immediately tilted up, and the pro men’s favorite went hell’s bells. Only Takeshita and an elite amateur male went with him. I wished all three well and tucked into the field for the long day ahead.
Within about 30 Mississippis, Marty notched his effort up to an eight and became the fourth human to ride away from the field. I thought maybe he was just tasting the air up front for a bit and might simmer back down. But Marty’s gap quickly grew to 40ish yards, and nobody volunteered to close it down.
Here we were, a dozen miles in, at the start of what I knew to be (I shit you not) 55 miles of virtually uninterrupted climbing. And already we had arrived at my story’s first Huck-Finn style existential crisis.
I was trembling because I had to decide, forever, between two things, and I knew it. If I wanted time racing with my friend, there he was, half a football field ahead and pulling away. Or if I wanted ease, it was back here in the field, behind the wheel of this steady stranger, his jersey pockets fat with plenty.
I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then told myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell” and tore it up.
I chased and felt one rider peel off to come with me.
We could still see the front three when I reached Marty. Aisenbrey’s pace was so hot that Takeshita had already cut the cord. A minute or two more, and the elite amateur relented too.
I asked Marty: “You trying to bridge to them?” He claimed he was not. But he kept his effort high, and I watched our gap to Takeshita shrink some.
It was then that I looked back on the rider who’d followed me up here. What kind of racer had we drawn from the deck? I was happy to see it was the womankind. Cindy from Wyoming introduced herself. We began working together pretty well. And this dynamic brightened my outlook.
You see: If Marty was the friend I’d go to hell for, maybe this Cindy was the story. Because if this bridge to Takeshita happened, then Marty and I would get front-row seats to watch the story of the women’s championship unfold. And I liked that.
Now, did I think Cindy from Wyoming could best a gravel pro, Gravel Worlds champion, and sole female finisher at Iowa Wind and Rock? No. But crazier things happen. And I was eager to help this story hatch.
Best guess: Takeshita let us bridge. She’d give some ground now to save energy inside a group of four. And if she was surprised to see another woman with us, I doubt it worried her.
Once we reached Takeshita, Marty and I had no reason to keep pushing. We weren’t the ones racing for first. So we sat up and the group’s pace mellowed.
That calm helped a small North Dakotan bridge up. He arrived, and a minute later, Marty needed a nature break. A male bunch might call a quick truce here. But that felt wrong in our coed group. “Mind waiting while the men pee?”
So Marty and I let the group go for a quick stop.
Noticing our absence, I guess the North Dakotan pulled through hard, taking Takeshita with him. And Cindy popped off. By the time we reached her, she was tiring. We worked together to catch the Takeshita pair, and she suffered valiantly. When she fell off, she did so quietly. I looked back and she was just gone. (Thus endeth the story of the women’s championship.)
Still, Marty and I kept chasing Takeshita—I guess for that story’s coolness factor.
And we almost made it back. Marty got delayed by a minor mechanical, and I pressed on alone for a bit. I got within maybe 80 yards before we hit a grade that separated the pros from the dads. And my gap tripled. Once that pitch relented, I needed to cool my jets. And she did not. Off she went, and I’d never see her again. (Thus endeth the story of my ride with the gravel pro.)
I can’t remember whether the North Dakotan was in front or behind us just then. But I do remember that, around mile 60, we had etched out a small lead through a short, rocky descent. And as the road quickly tipped back up, I suffered for real. My arrival in hell was complete. And it would only be a minute or two before the North Dakotan came back.
I rode up alongside Marty to part ways. “You’re third male on the road,” I said.
He tapped his brakes. “No. You are.”
We reviewed the relevant physics. I was a 210-pound dad pretending I could climb mountains. And Marty was a 160-pound athlete who actually could. Maybe 50 yards back, a 140-pound racer could plainly see I was faltering. He’d move on us soon.
Marty said he didn’t care about our placing. He just wanted to have fun and take it all in. Forget that guy. His inclination was to stick with me on the incline.
“You can be a moron if you like,” I said. “But that’s a podium spot. And your light’s green to race for it.”
He caught us on a dirt stretch of road blocked just then by a dozen munching cattle. They looked exclusively female, but all I could think about was the California race in February where several riders made the mistake of trusting a bull.
I braked to make doubly sure we were safe. But the guy from Fargo didn’t hesitate. He hollered. The cows scattered. And he cut through them fast. Marty gave chase, and I did not follow.
This was as good a place as any to quit playing the light man’s game. I’d tackle the rest of this adventure at my own speed. And that speed would steadily drop as I paid the devil his due.
Marty’s dad, Don, and his youngest son, Liam, ran excellent support for us both. They got Marty through quickly, then shifted pace to simply keep me upright and moseying along.
The solo miles gave me space to just enjoy the Black Hills. Like Nebraska, we don’t always associate South Dakota with the word, “beautiful.” But, Lord God, we should. And thanks to this race, I always will.
The course’s second half featured another major climb stretching nearly 30 miles, with its summit a mile or two beyond our final checkpoint. This climb broke me. I never wanted to quit, but I weakened and suffered and spent A LOT of time spinning in my lowest gear.
I knew I was hemorrhaging time to Cindy and whoever else was back there chasing. But if they wanted to catch me, I reasoned they’d better do it soon. Because the race finished with a long descent. And if I could just lug my body to that summit, I’d be free to roll down the other side like a 210-pound stone.
I reached hell’s last checkpoint in sorry shape. I took on calories like a good boy, then twisted over in my camping chair and threw up in five heaves. A blend of embarrassment and relief swept over me then. (“Liam didn’t need to see that,” mixed with “Well, now life can carry on.”)
And riding from there, all sorts of life did carry on—in strange forms I could neither predict nor trust.
I plodded up the race’s last bit of climbing with a fuzzy hold on consciousness. A deer stepped out from the brush above me and stood on the road’s precise summit. She turned her gravy-boat ears toward me—interested, but unimpressed—and watched me finish my ugly work. “I guess you did it,” she said, and stepped back into the thicket.
From there, the road tipped down and I hoped for easy speed. What came instead was a rocky and deeply rutted road where safe lines would emerge only to swerve, kick and crumble back toward trouble.
I wasn’t up for the snappy decisions required here. But I remembered five elite racers had also just passed this way. And when I looked for their tracks in the dirt, I saw a flowing uniformity in the lines they drew. I quit watching the threatening ruts and washouts, and focused instead on this living ribbon as it weaved. And that ribbon led me, like a patient dance instructor, down that long hill.
When the ruts finally gave up, the ribbon in the dirt said the same thing as the deer at the summit: “I guess you did it.” (That’s the highest praise any dance instructor has ever given me.)
From here, hell’s gravel grew faster—and weirder still.
I screamed down a straight, steep stretch at speeds nearing 40 miles per hour. And I saw my road ahead blocked, not by cattle, not by deer, but by two tight rows of beautiful young women. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder across this remote road, with their backs to me. And I had no clue why.
Now, maybe I hadn’t really heard a doe speak. And maybe those tire tracks hadn’t actually drawn a living ribbon in the dirt. But this was real. I blinked hard, and none of the women disappeared. I decided they existed. And that together, they were taking a stand against me. In formalwear.
Each woman wore the same long, open-shouldered maroon dress, with her hair up in elaborate fashion. My messy kit, in contrast, was caked in salt, splashed with manure and speckled by my own vomit.
In my defense, I only had a few instants to interpret all this. And I decided these women had gathered simply to express their disgust with me. Here it was, laid plain: Beauty turning its back on wretchedness.
And I felt wretched. Well, I’d show them. I gripped my bars and aimed myself at the narrow gap to the right of their blockade. That’s when I spotted the photographer. And the bride in the middle.
Oh! I get it now… A wedding party! In the road! For pictures! Silly me. See? I thought you were a militant anti-gravel cult of South Dakotans in ballgowns set out to destroy me. My mistake. I’m really very sorry!
I shot past saying something clever about crashing their wedding or bombing a photo, I don’t recall.
Later still, in the closing miles, on the highway through the canyon that led us back into Spearfish, I found the road ahead blocked again—this time by a foursome of mountain goats.
By now, I didn’t trust my eyes. And I sure as hell didn’t trust these goats. I swung wide right and watched them. And what began as noble, snow-white creatures of the cliffs became at close range far more haggard, sort of patchy coated, and ratty things. They looked familiar with hell. And I liked that about them. We had that in common.
I passed them, believing with 70% certainty they were real.
I trusted the sprinkle I felt on my face as I rode back into Spearfish. But I doubted the double rainbow at hell’s finish. I mean, crossing the line of a mind-bending gravel race between the colorfully bent light of a pair of rainbows?
I don’t buy it. It’s too absurd. Even for me.
2 thoughts on “The Pointy End at Spearfish”
I knew you would love this race. It may be my favorite race. Wish you would have joined Eric and I there when we stayed at the house of Durt.
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It’s very high on my list now, too, Tony. Would love to go back with friends and either do the 110, or tackle the 210 again (with cooler jets in the first half).