Weekend in the Black Hills

Two weeks ago, finishing Gravel Worlds got a nice long recap in these pages, and now I’m going to attempt to do justice to my other pinnacle event of the season, the Dakota 5-o. I had heard so many good things about this race last year that when the registration opened in something like March, I set my alarm and signed up, clinching one of the 600 spots. That click of a button would influence my entire mountain bike season, from buying Black Betty to racing in the Marathon class in the Psycowpath race series all summer. Add in my weekly Women of Wednesday ride, where I lead a group of beginner through experienced women in off-road riding, all the gravel riding, and my daily commute and I felt ready to tackle the finest singletrack the Black Hills had to offer.

Saturday course recon & leg spinning with Casey.

Well, that is until we did a little course recon on Saturday. After a nice long drive with Nathan Swanson and Matt Gersib in caravan with Casey Sheppard and CVO on Friday, we settled in to camp and beers by a beautiful little stream in the Spearfish City Campground. Scott Showen had already been in town a couple of days, securing Fort Lincoln just a bit to the west of Camp Omaha. Yeah, we’re like that 🙂

So Saturday morning comes, we sleep in a bit, aided by the crisp fall air, roll in to a yummy burrito place, and then pack up for a ride. Instead of taking the steep 3 mile gravel climb out of town, we decided to drive to the trailhead to hop straight onto the singletrack. No use burning energy the day before a race on stuff you know how to ride without a problem. Though Casey was running support and not racing, she had her bike along, and since I wanted to be extra sure I didn’t overdo it, I was happy to ride with her instead of try to keep up with the boys. She’s only been riding since the start of the summer, but she is really putting in the effort and the miles.

So we hopped into the singletrack, and were immediately greeted by something Nebraska trails really don’t have. Rocks. Lots of rocks. And steep edges along the track. Take a deep breath. Oh wait, altitude. Excitement about the race was quickly replaced with some major apprehension. Can I really do 50 miles of this? And if I’m feeling like this, what the hell must Casey be thinking? The fellas are way ahead, we’re all kitted up, and it’s time to put on the gameface, ovary up, and ride this thing!

We took it nice and slow, trying to learn to read the lines over the rocks and trust the bike to do what it’s built to. This isn’t a road bike, after all — the tires and suspension (which was new to me at the beginning of the year) are meant to deal with this kind of terrain. After awhile, Casey decided she’d had enough of the climbing and told me to go on so I could round out 5 miles out, giving me 10 for the day. We met up with the rest of the crew, descended back to the cars, and headed back to town to get our race numbers.

 Tall-bike powered ice cream churn courtesy of the Spearfish Bike Co-op.

The check-in was really well organized, and it never hurts to have beer from the local brewery on sale to ease in the process. I picked up a pint of Crow Peak porter to accompany my fresh-churned vanilla ice cream. If you’ve never tried a porter float before, I highly recommend it! When we picked up our packets, we were asked if we wanted to start in Wave 1 or 2, basically a split of people in race mode or in tour mode. I had asked several veterans for their advice on placement, and the consensus was to line up at the back of Wave 1 — those who intend to finish in under 6 hours. After the day’s recon, I was far less confident in this decision, but remembered that part of the reason that wave was suggested to me was that in that position, I’d be likely to spend less time caught in traffic with less skilled riders but still wouldn’t be in the way of more skilled ones. Good call. We headed back to camp and made dinner, with everyone gearing up for an early night and an early morning.
 CVO, chief firemaster

 Showen’s hat and jacket are an indication of how chilly it got. 

 Casey & Sarah Johnson fireside, with Gersib and India in the background.

Bedtime, and sleeping was easy in the crisp air. It was getting out of the sleeping bag at 5:30 when it was 39 degrees out that was the hard part! At least the sun came up fast, and since everyone in the campground was moving, it was easier to get going. Soaked muesli in apple juice and a cup of coffee and I was ready to go. 
Dressing for the temperature was a little challenging, since we knew the 3 mile climb out of town and the following 7 miles of slowly climbing singletrack would ensure a pretty quick warm up. Still, I didn’t want to be cold while waiting at the starting line, so I threw my Sheclismo jacket on over my summer kit, arm warmers, knee warmers, and trusty wool War Axe Socks. Even though I generally dislike wearing it, I chose to go with the Camelbak for this race, knowing that the technical terrain would have me drinking less if I had to reach for bottles, and knowing that a dropped bottle would either mean lots of lost time or a serious hydration problem. Plus, I could stuff my jacket in it until the first aid station where Casey could pick it up. 
I lined up next to a few other women who seemed to be employing the same hang-out-at-the-back-of-Wave-1 strategy, and after a little bit of waiting, we were off! A huge field of riders snaking through town and up out of it to the clang of cowbells and the cheers of onlookers bundled in their sleeping bags. Brr! As we went up the gravel, I met Kelly MacWilliams, a super rad woman from Minneapolis who was riding a Day-Glo singlespeed Independent. Hard woman, no doubt, and really nice to boot. I was happy to see her smiling face throughout the day. 
We entered the singletrack, and things stopped almost immediately. Though a little bit of a letdown, it gave me the opportunity to grab a couple shot blocks, since I was already feeling the need to eat. We rolled through a good bit of stop and go, coming through a few early walking sections due more to the fact that they weren’t rideable with no momentum to get up them. Eventually, though, things evened out a bit, and I felt great following lines through the stuff that had kind of scared the crap out of me the day before. 
After the long climb I’d done Saturday, we got into sections beyond what I’d ridden and there was this series of creek crossings down in a valley. More new experiences. I watched the guys in front of me (rocking the Cars-R-Coffins kits) go right through the water and figured the worst that could happen was that I’d fall in the water, right? Worse yet, I could chicken out and let a bunch of people pass me and then get wet feet from walking through it. So I rode across. That was super fun! We crossed another and another, and the woman who had been right on my tail wasn’t behind me anymore. In fact, with a few flat pasture sections, I was gaining on people. And my mountain bike, all muddy, looked like a real mountain bike!
Before I knew it, I could hear cowbells and cheering — the first aid station, 12 miles in. There was a huge crowd, and I spotted Casey in the Cycle Works rasta jacket right away. She and another aid worker got me a banana, a gel, refilled my water and sent me on my way with a huge hug. Then, in what may be the biggest ego boosting highlight of the day, I overheard a guy standing there taking pictures say “that’s a crosser” as I remounted my bike. Hell yeah I am! With the weather and the cowbells, I was darn near fooled into thinking I was at a cross race for a moment. Back to singletrack business.
After that aid station, we had some big open pastures to go through, and I felt much more at home, even though the cows alongside these trails had pine trees and aspens to hang out in instead of cottonwoods and cedars. After a bit, we came on a section dubbed Cardiac Climb, and while my 1×10 got me more than halfway up, at a certain point my legs were burning and I had to get off and walk. Luckily, I was in good company, as only one person rode by me. This was steep. After it leveled out a bit, we got on a fire road and headed downhill, and somewhere along the way, following in the dust of a couple guys, we all missed a turn. About a mile and another big steep walking climb later, the singletrack disappeared, and these two guys and another woman I’d been leapfrogging with since just before the aid station and I realized we must be off course. 
Back down we went, then back up, across a pasture, and back up the fire road to meet an oncoming field of riders (including Kelly Mac) turning off the road and onto another section of singletrack. At least 20 minutes and a bunch of field position lost there, plus an almost certain goodbye to my ambitious 6 hour goal. I tried to use my frustration productively, but at this point, I was definitely stuck behind riders who were slower than I was, and I wasn’t feeling confident about passing on the rocky terrain unless they were moving over. I knew an aid station was coming up and figured I’d just cool my jets behind some folks, but then it was further than I thought (duh, when you take a detour, your bike computer isn’t accurate anymore) and I just kind of fumed unproductively, turning the pedals and hoping not to make a stupid mistake.
I pulled in to the second aid station, and as I told Casey and Melissa from Minnesota that I’d gotten lost, they confirmed that I had in fact lost quite a bit of time. Bummer. I’d really never had an idea of where I was in the standings, but whatever it had been, now it was worse. Refocus, re-prioritize, and remember I’m only 22 miles in to a 50 (or now 52?) mile race. 
I rolled out and on through another series of beautiful terrain, reminding myself how absolutely beautiful it was and how fortunate I was to get to spend the day riding in this gorgeous country. Both CVO and Rafal were strong proponents of the “just riding around” theory, and I really took that to heart as things got wicked technical! We were riding through pastures again, but these were like pastures on steroids or something. More little creek crossings, tight blind corners, twisty roller coasters around rocks, and little cattle guards to cross kept me on my toes and slightly terrified — it was a little like riding at Platte River State Park, I’d try to tell myself, but oh-so-much less room for error. I think this was the part where I started telling folks who came up on me that I was a chicken sh*t descender. After this went on for quite awhile, I started getting tired and a little demoralized. Something hit where I just felt like I might burst into tears. Maybe it was the constant fear that I would fall on my face way out in a field? I don’t know. Anyway, I rolled into the third aid station in serious need of moral support, and Casey and Melissa delivered. Coconut water, a little shoulder rub, and a lot of encouragement later, and they told me they’d skip the fourth aid station and catch me at the Bacon Station, the last stop before the finish.
I pushed on, more climbs up ahead. At this point, I was actually relishing the climbs, knowing exactly what to do with them and being pleasantly surprised that I was stronger on all but the very steepest ones than I’d expected to be. All the time spent on the 1×10 this year had me trained to push a harder gear than those with granny gear options, so I found myself motoring past folks slowly spinning their way uphill. And after these climbs, there was a sweet reward, a super long stretch of downhill fire road to the next aid station. Now, with my little detour earlier in the day, I was super nervous about missing another turn, so I was keeping my eyes constantly scanning for the little pink ribbons marking the trail, slowing down to make sure I was still on track. Kind of a bummer again, since this was something I felt good doing, though arguably not in anywhere close to that capacity. We simply don’t have downhills that go on for that long. At one point, I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud as I looked down and saw my speedometer hit 35mph. On a road bike, that’s cool, but on a mountain bike on a dirt road in the forest, that’s crazy. 
As I rolled in to the fourth aid station, I saw the familiar Elkhorn Valley Cycling kit, and waved to Buddy Houts, one of our local junior racers. It looked like he was getting loaded up into a car, and since this kid is really strong, I knew something bad must’ve happened. He cheered me on, and it wasn’t until the finish that I found out he’d busted his rim. Even worse, his teammate and our other junior Cole Skiba had succumbed to a bad crash himself, hitting his shoulder and ending his race, too. To top it off, they’d been holding on to 1st and 2nd place in the junior division. Next year, guys!
Leaving aid station number four, I saw Kelly Mac again, all smiles. Singlespeeders are awesome. I feel like the 1×10 is a baby step in that direction…
Onward, upward, pedal over pedal. Next up was the Bacon Station, a tradition of bacon and beer handups. I couldn’t wait. I had to go through some more gnarly steep hiking and some really loamy forest first, and this was another section of reminding myself just how amazingly different this was from home. It was like videos I’d watched. Cool. I was in a funny group of folks at this point, all people I’d pass going uphill and who’d catch me going down. Occasionally, we’d catch a glimpse out through the trees at the hills across the valley. So gorgeous. 
Then the Bacon Station appeared, improv reggae tunes wafting through the trees, and I was ready for a PBR. Mmmmm, delicious beer.
 No bacon for this happy vegetarian. Just a PBR and a smile…”only” 12 miles to the finish!

At this point, I knew I was going to finish, and with a smile on my face. The worst of the climbs were done, the mood was awesome at that stop, and Casey took my picture with an “only 12 miles to the finish” caption. I think I said something along the lines of “that’s like one way through Wilderness,” and totally cracked myself up with how much harder it would actually be. 

I left confident, though, and had overheard a couple other riders talking about the upcoming ridge and amazing view. About that ridge. Holy cow, that was some scary, gnarly stuff. I ended up walking a bunch of little rocky switchbacks just because I felt like I might fall on my face if I stayed on the bike. Having one faceplant already this year had me very adamant about not adding another, especially here and now. So I walked and enjoyed the scenery, apologizing for my newbie Nebraskanness to riders coming up behind me.
“Look Back!”
At the end of the ridge, the race organizers had placed a little sign that just said “Look Back!” The photo above, and pretty much the only one I stopped to take, was the view. Absolutely breathtaking, all the more so because I’d accomplished it all on my own humanpower. I took a minute, then got back on the bike and down to business. We had a few descents and one little climb, then a long climb up a gravel road, where I again passed several folks pushing their bikes who’d passed me earlier. I smiled and thanked them as they spit out chagrined cheers of “good job” and “keep it up” — thanks for the prep, Gravel Worlds!
Then, before we knew it, we were back on the first few miles of singletrack of the day, but this time in reverse. And downhill. WOOOOOOOO! Almost there! I flipped through the turns and over the rocks, recognizing things here and there to know I was getting closer. Then came the gravel roads back in to Spearfish, and I absolutely let loose. After spending the majority of the day in my lowest three gears, I went all the way to the smallest cog and spun out at top speed down the road, passing a few people and grinning like mad. I had done it!
As I came down the pavement into the last turn, there was Ryan Feagan, cheering “Lincoln, Nebraska, represent!!” on the side of the street. I threw up some devil horns, rounded the corner, and tried to keep my cranking momentum through the false flat to the finish. I high-fived some little girls. Yes, chicks can race bikes. I crossed the finish line at 6 hours, 52 minutes, putting me 8th in my age division and 36th for women overall. Mission accomplished. 
I can’t possibly thank everyone adequately, so if you feel like you might’ve helped, you probably did. But thanks do go to my teammates on Sheclismo for helping build a supportive women’s scene in Lincoln, Joyride/Specialized for the bike, Casey for her outstanding aid station presence, and all the veteran riders from Lincoln and Omaha who’ve offered advice, support, encouragement, and challenges over the last 16 months. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been that short of a time ago that I first rode singletrack.

3 thoughts on “Weekend in the Black Hills

  1. Great write-up Lis. It was fun traveling with ya’ and I’m glad you had so much fun racing your mountain bike in the high country at the Dakota Five-O. It really is mountain biking at its finest…

    Thanks again for all the great memories.


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