In Minnesota, the Almanzo is synonymous with gravel racing. In fact, I would go so far as to state that gravel racing wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for Chris Skogen, and the hallowed gravel century.
What started as a small ride with a group of friends ballooned into something that would draw riders, of all skill levels, from the Upper Midwest and beyond, to Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota. On a Saturday in mid-May, the population of Spring Valley swells by 50 percent, and spandex-clad, carbon-fiber riding enthusiasts might grab a stool at Elaine’s Diner, right beside a local reading the newspaper and eating the same eggs and toast he has ordered every Saturday for years.
I rode my first Almanzo on a Gary Fisher hybrid bicycle that I purchased a little over a decade ago. I had been commuting to work on that bike, and even participated in a fully-supported tour in northern Wisconsin a few years earlier. But to ride 100 miles on winding and rolling gravel roads was an entirely new challenge. After more than 11 hours I made it, completely exhausted, yet with a feeling of accomplishment. That night I was glad I did it, but knew I’d never be back.
As the days passed, the memories of the pain faded away, and I was left only with those of joy and accomplishment. I had to ride the Almanzo again. This time I would pedal all the way up the hill at Oriole Road, and maybe improve my time a bit (although that has never been important to me). I’ve since ridden the course a handful of times.
On one occasion I convinced my buddy Dan, who had never pedaled more than 20 miles in a day, to join me and two other guys for the Gentleman’s Ride (an autumn team ride along the Almanzo course). At mile 30 he stopped and told us he was finished, and heading back to town. We convinced him to try just 10 more miles and if, at that point, he wanted out, so be it. When we finished the ride as a team we shook hands and congratulated one another over a cold beer.
Meanwhile, Chris Skogen continued to pour his heart and soul into the Almanzo. Just sifting through some 1,000-plus postcards is a chore, not to mention the logistics that goes into organizing such a massive event. As if that wasn’t enough, he added two more races: The Royal, a 162-mile route, and The Alexander, a 382-mile behemoth of a race that crosses into Iowa and the Driftless area of Wisconsin, primarily on the less-traveled gravel roads.
While the winner of the inaugural Alexander finished in 42 hours, my principle cycling partners and I prepared to ride the course in the fall, as a bike-camping trip, rather than an endurance race. While injuries, soreness and mechanical problems made us cut some corners on the route, we had an amazing ride nonetheless. We felt the exhilaration of barreling down Whitetail Drive (into Lansing, Iowa), along with the lows of our luck running out on Irish Hollow Road, when one of our tires got a huge gouge in the tread. We experienced the hospitality of fellow riders in Decorah, who put a roof over our heads on a night of pouring rain. And a kind Amish man, who had never traveled more than five miles from his home, helped us find our way while explaining that the world is too small to get lost in.
Without the blood, sweat and tears of Chris Skogen, I never would have had these incredible experiences and enduring memories. Without his commitment to riders of all levels, I couldn’t have fathomed plotting my own 300+ mile bike-camping trip through back roads and wildlife areas. And I look forward to planning even more, but not before riding the Almanzo this May.
Last August, I was heartbroken and shocked to read that Chris was canceling the Almanzo for 2015, but I also understood. In order to make the ride such an incredible experience, at no expense to participants, it most certainly came at a huge personal cost to him. Mr. Skogen has a family, a job, and a life outside of Almanzo, yet those of us who ride can easily forget this. And while most of the riders are very respectful of the residents of Spring Valley and points beyond, it is Chris who has to answer for the littering, urinating and other incidents. So, while I was saddened at the loss of this great ride, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to ride it, and have Chris shake my hand as I rolled in, well after the competitive cyclists had gone home.
But this musing isn’t an obituary to the Almanzo. With the help of the Spring Valley Tourism Board, the ride will live on in 2015 on Saturday, May 16. City Administrator Deb Zimmer tells me that organizers plan to hold all three races, and keep them true to the spirit in which they were created. You are still responsible for you. It’ll still be free and you should still send in a postcard stating your intention to ride, although to Spring Valley City Hall this time (ALMANZO, 201 S. Broadway, Spring Valley, MN. 55975. Try to get your postcards in by Jan. 31, so officials can plan accordingly.) Updates on the races will be posted here.
Before and after you ride, consider patronizing some of the local businesses. Get some flapjacks at Elaine’s, have a root beer float at the A&W, or fill up your tank at the Kwik Trip. Thank the townspeople for their hospitality. And if you see Chris out there mashing on that sweet pink fat bike, thank him for all that he has done and, if circumstances permit, shake his hand. Hopefully, the new organizers will start the race off the right way, with a group rendition of “Happy Birthday” for young Jack Skogen.