On Thursday, June 19th, my friend, “Yaboi” Greg, and I embarked on an endurance bikepacking race, the 650-B. It goes from the most northwestern point of Minnesota (Pembina, ND – pronounced Pem-bin-ah, not Pem-bean-ah like yours truly walked around saying until corrected) to the most southeastern point (New Albin, IA). The mission? You choose the route, surfaces, and pedal from point A to B, riding as close to 650 miles as possible, without going over. Of course, it’s unsupported. I’ve done many unsupported bikepacking rides on my own, and plenty of endurance races, but this was my first bikepacking ‘race’ so I was excited. Having done many multi-day adventures of my own, I know they are always more fun with a friend, and I’m so grateful Greg was willing to be my adventure companion.
Knowing we would likely have route mistakes, need to do backtrack, and need extra miles for food stops, Greg and I planned a mixed-surface route (“single track,” gravel, pavement, and paved trail) of about 625 miles. We figured 25 miles to spare would be a reasonable estimate of the extra distance we would take.
We headed off the first day in good spirits, though tired. A 4 am start is a brutal reality. We didn’t exactly make the 4 am kickoff. We were a bit slow packing, so we met at the start location and then went back to our campsite, packed, and didn’t start till 5:45 am. Greg was using some of my bikepacking gear, and we struggled to get it attached (I didn’t realize his seat rails were different, a huge oversight on my part). Eventually, we got it together. Even though we got a late start, we were treated to a marvelous sliver of sunrise in the photo below, which made the wakeup call worthwhile. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We started on gravel and quickly made our way to mud (see “Mistakes Were Made”) and then slowly, yet as swiftly as mud allowed, made our way to the pavement. Our route, very promptly, moved away from what we figured would be muddy segments. The roads were a welcome cruise after clay mud, even though the wind in the open plains can either be your best friend or worst enemy. We made a stop for lunch in Kennedy at a cafe (aka the only place to go in Kennedy). We met the locals and placed our bets with Mr. Erickson, a farmer in the area, that we would finish by Monday. I’m sad to say he won by 11 hours and 11 minutes. Yes, I got his phone number and called him. Nonetheless, it was fun to chat with the locals.
After an afternoon water crossing, a visit with Joey the farm dog, (who followed us for a few miles), by about midnight, we made it to Fertile, MN (yes, we made the jokes). I realized that I was running on fumes due to multiple days of little sleep before the race. Greg was ready to carry on, but we decided to call it a night, find a camping spot, and sleep a few hours.
The second day was when Greg discovered that I could get fixated on destinations. Indeed, if I have a target city in mind, I will not want to stop until I hit it. We woke up early to head out of Fertile. Having looked at the weather the night before, I knew we were either going to be wet all day, biking into headwinds, or just pushing into headwinds. As with any ride, on any given day, it’s all a gamble. We were supposed to follow a gravel route this day, but since we were biking directly into the wind (we missed heavy rain), we decided not to make this stretch more strenuous than necessary and stuck to the parallel county road. We rode 80 exhausting miles straight into 20-30 mph headwinds. Once we hit the Detroit Lakes area, hills were a ‘fun’ addition to the wind. Despite our misery, this area is stunning and has many lake-divided county roads you cross, and I quite enjoyed them. Of course, I made us stop and take a picture because if it’s not on Instagram, it didn’t happen.
Of course, now I can’t remember the name of the city I was focused on, but I would have kept going until I made it if Greg hadn’t talked some sense into me. Realistically, it was probably for the best. We re-routed to Pelican Rapids upon discovering a “town” we thought we’d grab some food in wound up being a township. (Note: this usually means there is nothing there). I ate one too many tacos in Pelican Rapids, and we stopped to refill water and use the restroom at a gas station on the way out of town. I was watching a storm front blow in and had the feeling it’d be best to wait it out there. Sure enough, the storm came through quickly with heavy rain and lightning. I knew once it passed, we’d be free of the headwinds we’d fought all day, and the line of storms would be ahead of us. We were treated with a rainbow as we headed out of town and followed the storm clouds throughout most of the night. It was pretty awesome to watch their flashes of light dancing in the darkness. We finally made it to the Central Lakes Trail, which would take us to St. Cloud.
Once we got on the trail, I got a new rush of endurance and was ready to bike through the night. My partner in crime, however, experienced the same crash that I had the night before. When biking as a team, you do what is best for the team. We ran into a detour on the trail because a bridge was out, so we headed into the nearby town. It turns out Evansville has a 24-hour laundromat. We popped our chamois and other hand-washed clothing from the day before in the dryer, and I slept happily on my sleeping pad, underneath a table, on the floor of the laundromat. Indeed, this is the sleep of luxury during an endurance race.
We hadn’t yet conquered near the distance we wanted to on this ride, and knew we’d have to make up some distance on Day 3. We hopped back on the trail, St. Cloud-bound. It was a speedy day and, thankfully, uneventful. The trails were quick, we didn’t have wind, and besides stops for repacking (again, see “Mistakes Were Made”), we quickly made our way to St. Cloud. We had a power nap in a park with families playing around us, but no one seemed to mind the dirty bikepackers.
I was suffering some knee pain after pushing into the wind for so long the day before, and the Ibuprofen-popping began. Still, we were in good spirits and decided when we got tired enough; we’d stop and sleep for a couple of hours and then do it again. We made it to Prior Lake by morning and asked a woman at a local convenience store if there might be a place we could hide and discretely sleep for a bit. Coincidentally, her daughter trains endurance racers, so she was familiar with our type of people. She directed us to the nearby park to sleep. We found a gazebo and pulled out our sleeping pads to crash. I slept instantly but was later woken up by the sound of Greg talking to someone. The local police were our (earlier than we wanted) wake-up call. He informed that “normally” no one probably would have bothered us, but since it was grounds maintenance day, the maintenance workers turned us in. I doubt that dirty cyclists are a norm through that area, and we tiredly yet happily went about our way.
This day provided lots of hills as we cut through the Northfield area toward Rochester. Having grown up in the southeastern region of Minnesota, I appreciated this part of the race. We passed through towns that, previously, I had only whizzed by on the highway while traveling to visit relatives. Seeing these towns with a new perspective was my favorite part of this race. When we reached Rochester, we knew it was time for another substantial meal. We stopped to recharge our lights, eat, and make a plan. We also knew we needed another chunk of sleep, and I realized we would be routing near my Aunt’s house. I put in a call. As we would be arriving in the middle of the night, and frankly, I’m sure we didn’t smell good, I requested the use of a garage. My uncle recently built a “shed” – basically a massive garage with a woodworking area. We rolled up in the early morning hours, slept on our sleeping pads for a bit, and then headed out again. (Thanks for the snacks, Aunt Mary.)
It wasn’t long before we’d reach Rushford, and then we knew we were in the final stretch. Rushford, by the way, was a pleasantly beautiful town. It has massive hills, which, in my opinion, are the closest geographical features to mountains in Minnesota. In the fog-covered morning, Rushford reminded me a lot of Puerto Rico. I also made a mental note about hill-training here. I will be back, Rushford.
We hopped on the Roots River Trail and quickly made our way to Houston. Next, we cut over to the border and made a straight shot south where my dad was awaiting our arrival. Indeed, we had finished at 11:11 am on Tuesday, June 24th. Longer than we wanted, but with many lessons learned and adventures had. And that’s the best anyone can ask for an endurance race. Greg and I, who have both completed the Day Across Minnesota on multiple occasions, had finally finished a new crossing of my incredible state.
Mistakes Were Made
As one would expect, very few rides ever go off without a hitch. There’s almost always mishaps or unexpected occurrences – and isn’t that part of the fun? There were definite errors this time, that I hope to correct for next time. Bikepacking always proves to be a learning experience. I’ve determined that I will never be an “expert”. Just when you think you’ve got it handled, is when it teaches you a new lesson.
Lesson 1: Sleep
- I repeatedly seem to forget that I suck at sleeping in a tent until I’m utterly exhausted. To get thoroughly exhausted, I need to go a few nights with little sleep. That doesn’t lead to the fastest cycling. Melatonin needs to be my next trip must-have. For me, this meant that the first night, with a 4 am wake-up call, I did not get proper rest. In turn, at about 1 am and after 140 miles (we were delayed because of other mistakes – read on), I wasn’t making sense and couldn’t carry on, which cut us short on the first night.
Lesson 2: Komoot Lies (Sometimes)
- If Komoot tells you a surface is singletrack in northern Minnesota, but it looks like double track, and it appears to be through farm fields: Do. Not. Ride It. I promise you, you will regret it. Northern Minnesota farmland becomes an extraordinary sort of clay mud after it gets wet. Coincidentally, it rained – a lot – a few days before we arrived. Initially, the “singletrack” was okay. Halfway into it, my fork was clogged, and I carried an extra 10 lbs of weight on my shoes. It took us about 2 hours to carry our bikes 1.5 miles and probably another 1.5 hours to clean the mud off of our bikes so we could turn our wheels again. Seriously, that mud swallowed the sticks we were using to try and clean our pedals and derailleurs. Do not mess with it. Consider yourself warned.
Lesson 3: The Packing Game
- Just when I’m sure I’ve got packing down, I change some gear and ride with it a little bit, but not the amount of an endurance race, and immediately regret my decision. I got a new frame pack that my womanly inner-thighs rejected. By day 3, I had scabs on my legs and couldn’t do it anymore. I ripped it off, packed it away, and found another way to attach my hydration bladder. Furthermore, I had a new sleeping pad that I should have mounted on my fork rather than on top of my rear pack. I was continuously stopping rearrange my gear if it fell onto my rear tire. It not only slowed us down but also defeated my spirit. I will be continuing to find a new setup for these on some camping trips, and I’ve got a new plan.
Lesson 4: There Will Always be a Lesson
I don’t think I’ve had any bikepacking ride or endurance race where I haven’t learned a new skill, found a new way to carry items, or discovered something I can do differently. Like life, bikepacking seems to be a continual learning lesson. Even though it can feel defeating at moments, accept it for what it is, and be grateful for what it teaches you. Namaste bitches.