In 2007, Chris Skogen would ride his bike the 90-odd miles from Rochester to Mankato to visit friends. Then he figured he'd invite some others along for the ride. That first year there were 13 participants in "the Almanzo," named for a historic marker along the route in homage to Laura Ingalls Wilder's husband, Almanzo.
The second year there were 60 riders in the Almanzo, then 90, then 400. This year, the Almanzo 100, as it is officially known, has more than 700 registrants, and will start and end in Almanzo Wilder's hometown of Spring Valley, Minn. (about 100 miles southeast of the Twin Cities), on May 14.
The race is part of the larger Almanzo Gravel Road Series -- a series of six 100-plus-mile rides from April to October, largely on gravel roads. Each ride is different, from the Gentlemen's Ride to the Dirt Bag to the Heck of the North near Duluth, and each has its own route. But all of the rides take place "on some of the Upper Midwest's finest backroads" and are "guaranteed to take you to places you've never thought existed," writes Skogen on his website (raceforthecup.blogspot.com).
There are no race marshals, no vehicle support, no aid stations. It's "about as low-key and grass-roots as it can be, for as big as it is," says Skogen, 33.
The races are free to enter and open to all, so you don't need a fancy bike to participate. Races are judged on a point system, so if you don't want to race it, you can still take the ride. Riders get a certain number of points for participating, and those finishing in the top 10 accumulate more points. At the end of the series, the man and woman with the most points each wins the "Cup."
"It's the bastard son of the Stanley Cup," Skogen jokes, describing the trophy the AGRS winners will receive: a bell jar filled with -- what else? -- gravel.
Chelsea Strate, 26, of Minneapolis is the proud women's Cup holder for 2010. "The most challenging thing is the ride itself," she says. "It's not only 100 miles, on gravel roads; on top of that there are a lot of hills to climb and go down, which can be precarious -- you don't want to hit a patch of loose gravel.
"You're in the middle of nowhere," she adds. "One minute you're riding by farms -- the next, the forest. It's very low-traffic and the scenery changes. The rides are absolutely beautiful -- that's one of the biggest draws for me. It's peaceful."
Former Cars-R-Coffins shop owner Tom "Hurl" Everson, 43, has done every Almanzo ride since the first one in 2007. "There's still that feeling of being out exploring and discovering new areas," he says. "Chris' biggest cred is that he is adamant that these races are free. It's important for people to support him -- click on the donate button of his website! I bow in his general direction."
While the rides of the AGRS typically attract a late-20s/early-30s crowd, participant ages have ranged from 12 to approaching 70. They range from casual riders to commuters to deeply committed cyclists, and they all find the sense of adventure and discovery through the rural byways of Minnesota appealing. "When I'm on these backroads riding, I feel freer," says Everson.
Bobby Brown, 23, of Minneapolis is doing the series for the first time this year. He finished the first race of the series, the Ragnarok, on April 9. "Everyone roots for each other and everyone wants everyone to do well," he says. "It's the coolest thing in biking in Minnesota."
THE ALMANZO GRAVEL ROAD SERIES
- What: A series of 100-plus-mile rides on Minnesota gravel roads, including the Almanzo 100 and Royal 162 (May 14), the Westside Dirty Benjamin (June 11), the Gentlemen's Ride (Sept. 24), the Heck of the North (Oct. 1) and the Dirt Bag (Oct. 29)
- Info: almanzo100.blogspot.com and raceforthecup.blogspot.com