Le Grand Du Nord Race Report
Race Date: Saturday, May 27, 2023 – 8am
What a race! I have rarely felt so underprepared in all ways, but the outcome was the opposite of my expectations. When the go-ahead was announced for the “casual roll” to begin, I expected my chain to fall off my bike. Instead, I cranked up the hill and away, not to be seen again for five and a half hours with no harm done, better than ever.
This race loomed over me all year. I knew I should be biking, I knew I should be putting in miles. I knew I should spend the time to tun up my gravel machine. I can do this in the winter when I’ve got nothing better to do. Do this now! But I left it all to the last minute. I started chipping away at my bike a few weeks or a month before the race, but it was no time to be biking outside anyways, with a brutal, long winter and pretty much non-existent spring. I knew if I was a hardened individual I would have been biking for weeks by May, but I hadn’t. I did a few short sessions of 30 minutes or 45 minutes on the trainer, but how is that to prepare somebody for a 100 mile gravel ride? I got my rig pretty well set up and was certain about the single speed setup for the race. I had confidence with a 17 tooth cog in the back for my 40 up front. After setting that back up, there was a lot of slack in the chain and it didn’t seem super tight or right. But, it rode well enough for a 15 mile, 30 mile, and 53 miler in the two weeks leading up to Le Grand. Despite my lack of preparation, I was very excited for the race because lots of friends were signed up and it had been on my radar since its inception. I felt relief when all of my friends said they felt unprepared with their bike setups and training just like me. At least I wasn’t alone there…
I planned to camp up the North Shore for days before and days after, but essentially bailed on that plan despite pristine weather conditions. One reason, of many, was to get my bike in race shape. I pushed that task off until the last minute, and opted to ride up and bunk with my long time racing buddy Ryan. While reflecting, I realized me and Ryan had done so many races together, including some very fond memories of traveling to race. Namely, we finished the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon in 2015 alongside Nick. Nick’s dad was at the finish line there, and all four of us, plus Nate with a frankenstein gravel rig featuring 26-inch wheels and electronic shifting, were set to ride off the start line of the Le Grand Du Nord 100 miler. What fun!
As I mentally prepared to pack and get ready for Ryan to pick me up Friday afternoon at 4pm, I felt like tuning my bike was the main priority. I didn’t like the slack chain setup using a 17 tooth, and figured if I reduced the number of cogs, I could perhaps take a link off of my chain to tighten things up. I had a 15 tooth from the same cassette, and a fat 16 tooth cog from a single speed kit that probably only took an 8 speed or BMX chain. Starting to tinker around, I messed up my chain and got my chain breaker tool badly stuck, which bent the handle. Crap…. oh well. I knew that chain breaker was going down the crapper for a long time, so good riddance. I put on a 16 tooth cog but the new chain got jammed up. I knew it would. Oh well, take it off, go down to Ski Hut, get a new chain break and keep fiddling around. I put on a 15 tooth and biked around the neighborhood. It was a real hard gear. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t do it. I could barely bike up the hills in my neighborhood. Granted, the hills on the course likely wouldn’t be that steep. But if I’m struggling to go .05 miles up a half block mashing on the pedals as hard as I possibly could… that just isn’t sustainable on a 100 mile gravel ride! I figured I’d have to try something else.
I heard my wise friend Nick’s words floating in my head: “you need a half link!”. I’d never heard of a half link, or seen one, or considered one. I don’t know exactly how to use a quick links, so I was skeptical to consider a chain with this half link trickery involved. But, doesn’t hurt to see, I figured. I went back to Ski Hut and explained my dilemma to my savior Ross, who has helped me tremendously over the years and is an all-around good dude. They don’t carry half links, but I did get a free cog from my trusted advisor Ross. He tossed me a very similar 16 tooth that I had in my arsenal, but the teeth looked just narrower to where it might work. I took it back, slapped it on in place of the 15 tooth cog, and gave the chain a few whips around the gears. No dice, chain was getting gummed up. Ahh, crap. Well, 15 it is, I guess! I figured that I’d rather roll a hard gear ratio than a little bit lighter one, albeit one I was a lot more comfortable with, because the course was purportedly flatter and easier, and I just plain didn’t like the loose chain that a 17 tooth rear cog gave me. So I slapped the 15t rear gear on my hub, ran it around the neighborhood, struggled up a short, steep avenue again, and saw my neighbors walking the dog at the top of the hill as I was huffing and puffing and talking gibberish about gear ratios and chain tension and the gear teeth. Don’t mind me! I set off to ride two blocks back home, and when I stood up and pressed on the pedals, a crack erupted. I looked down to see my chain dragging off of my bike, then slide off like a dead snake. My sweet neighbors saw it all. I’m glad somebody saw it! Crap. Triple crap. What the heck?? I picked up the chain, and spiked it!
I figured that breaking the chain over and over to repeatedly switch rear cogs over made it pretty fragile. So, back to the drawing board. I knew 15 tooth was what I was going to stick with, and I wasn’t going to take my wheel off AGAIN, remove the hub cap and reset the cog and spacers AGAIN. The other chain I had was with a bent-handled chain break stuck to it, and Ryan was set to pick me up in about an hour or 90 minutes. Damn. My new chain break worked like a charm and I was able to get my bike in decent working order in no time. Good, but by the time I loaded my bike onto Ryan’s vehicle, I really had no idea what would happen tomorrow, mechanical-wise.
I quick packed my never-used hand-sewn, custom bike bag (all black to match my bike aesthetics), along with my hydration vest, a full 1.5L water bladder, a bunch of snacks, and handful of bike tools, pump, helmet and shoes. A change of clothes and I was ready to roll. Ryan picked me up and we made record time to Grand Marais. We picked up our bibs and race packets, and enjoyed a beer with Dave and Eric across the finish line at Voyageur Brewing, then back past Cascade River to the motel. It was a beautiful night out, and I was super excited for the next day. I had faith my machinery would be in a condition to finish the race.
The next morning came quick, as I slept like an angel. It was a perfect morning, nice and cool and the forecast was extremely encouraging. Light enough winds, not too hot, bright sun all day. Perfect. Ryan and I packed up our sparse luggage to make it to breakfast at the hotel nearby the start line that Nick and company were staying at right at 6am. Nick’s pops Dave made a bunch of coffee, pancakes and sausage, which was the perfect pre-race breakfast as we all shared nervous and excited anecdotes about the upcoming race and past experiences of pain, suffering, joy and satisfaction. I recounted stories of my single-speed setup woes, which Ryan had heard at least three times by then. But before long, maybe 45 minutes from the race start, I got my bike off the vehicle, got my setup dialed in, did a last tire pressure check and started riding around. The gear ratio of 40/15 seemed easier than the day before and chain seemed strong. A nicely aligned, quiet drivetrain was a small boost of confidence as I tried to press really hard on the pedals to break something. It was a load test my system, and was passing all quality control measures. Perfect.
My timing colleague and dear friend Kris was the timer for the event and I used that privilege to stash a change of clothes, sandals, my phone and wallet in my backpack into her timing vehicle. We caught up a little bit, then before long a crowd started to form at the start line, pointed straight uphill. I had flashbacks of my one and only mountain bike race start, and only race DNF, way back in 2013 or ’14 or so where I started up the steep hill in Lester Park and my rear derailleur exploded after 2 minutes. Well, that’d always be better than halfway through the race, I figured… The race director Jeremy explained how we’d do a “casual roll” away from the start line to get out of the center of Grand Marais, to a left hand turn onto a paved highway-type road. Then, he said, the race is on. I was at the front and didn’t want to be there. I knew that if I got excited trying to stay with the lead group, I’d burn up and have a tough day. I absolutely had to stick back and be smart early on. My training was not optimal, my setup was questionable at best in terms of setting my legs up for an even-keeled day. It was all uphill to start and I had to really crank ass and mash the pedals to keep forward momentum on any grade. I knew this. I had to keep this in mind. In another blink of the eye, “GO”, and the casual roll started. I felt pretty uncomfortable in the big swarm of bikes, but made it up, standing up, with no issue and my chain intact.
Once we got onto the pavement, the group started formalizing. I fell to the back of the main pack and the decision-making started right away. I could either burn a match and latch on to the lead group right now, or fall back and go from there. I was too excited and pressed forward, getting sucked into the 30 or 50 cyclists at the front of the race. Once I got in the mix, it was easy pedaling. A smaller group clearly made its way further up front. Yeah, I’m not catching them, not even gonna try, I told myself. I’m right where I gotta be. We went up and down some large hills. Oof. Right outta the gate. A huge bomb downhill and I recognized the section of Superior Hiking Trail where the footpath splits in two to travel down each side of the Cascade River. At the paved bridge, I audibly grunted as the large climb out of the river gorge came into view. Burning matches right away… exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. At this time, maybe 10 miles into the race, I was with a smaller group of maybe 6 riders, but with lots of people around. I noticed Ross from Ski Hut right in front of me. As my trusted advisor and master bike mechanic and knowledge base, Ross has been integral in building my pride and joy Salsa Warbird gravel grinding machine. I knew he was racing and hoped I’d see him out there. We shared a couple miles at Heck of the North many years back, and I knew he was an asset to the paceline. I’d be smart to keep with him. I saw Ross suddenly extend his arm and pointer finger to our left, beckoning to a photographer in the ditch of the road, and our group cranked up the hill out of Cascade River.
Nearing an intersection, we got off of the exposed, dusty more main road onto a small, characteristic National Forest road. The best stuff. For the first time, we felt like a group and formed as such. Ross led the charge to get everyone on the same page – we are a team and we’re gonna work together. Everyone was on board, and we formed the paceline then and there, working together to zip through a shaded, narrow, twisty and turny forest backroad. It was amazing. I talked to a fellow Duluthian named Luke for a bit. He asked if I picked the right gear, beckoning to my singlespeed setup. I was unsure at that time, having felt that I burned up several matches already in the race, in just 15 miles or so. We will see! I took an opportunity to eat some food, not even an hour in. I figured that if I was to employ a smart fueling strategy, I ought to eat early and often, to be full until at least the turn around. If I am not feeling full, I have to keep eating, I told myself. I pulled out a pack of caffeinated gummies and mowed them down. With some big slurps of water from my hydration vest I noticed it was starting to get warm against my back. The water in the tube was colder, then after a couple sips I’d get a lukewarm swallow of water. It was a little hectic trying to bike in a group with a just the one gear, especially on the uphills. I felt the need to break out of the pack and use my momentum to push just a little harder than my geared counterparts were willing to do. Why would they? That’s why you have gears! But, I needed to utilize the momentum – every bit I could get – to avoid burning up more precious matches. I didn’t feel super confident on the downhills, especially on a curve. We passed a guy who was bleeding from his head, standing on the side of the road looking at his phone. Ross yelled to him and he confirmed he was good. Luke was concerned, and mentioned the guy several times in the following hours. But, we kept riding. All in all, we were a group of 7 to 10 working individuals to form a tight unit of gravel racing lore. It was fun and continued for many miles.
The weather was fantastic, but clear early on that it’d get hot and dusty later. Trying to drink my water all the way down then fill it all the way back up would be a smart strategy at the turnaround at mile 57 or so. I didn’t really think about race strategy otherwise, except that I should keep on with Ross and this group. It made me a little nervous, because I could tell I was pushing pretty hard, especially at the front of the paceline, and any hill. My breathing was pretty consistently heavy, I felt. Speed-wise, I was able to keep up on the flats and slight downs, which was a testament and major benefit to the hard gear ratio. We turned off to a more main road after an hour or two. I remembered Eric talking fondly of The Grade, which I thought was an interesting name for a forest road. We got onto The Grade and it was like packed mud – no loose gravel – very fast. We kicked it up a notch and we were screaming down the road.
There were a few cars out, but we didn’t see any other cyclists. Just our tight unit, cranking away and making excellent time. The miles clicked away: 10, 20, 30. I felt like I was a bit of a burden to the group but Ross was hyping me up so much, and really just acting like the leader, cheerleader anyways, of the group. He kept yelling out: “The One Gear Wonder!!” It was hilarious and I was so thankful to have him riding in the group. I felt like I might pay for the effort later, but figured that it was absolutely in my best interest to stick with them, and visualized and planned that I’d do so for the entire rest of the race. I fantasized about us all getting a beer at Voyageur right after. I’d have to get the round, because they are pulling me right along with them to my benefit. It was just awesome. Onto a paved road along Devil’s Track Lake, we all got down into the horns and pressed hard onwards on the flat, relatively smooth surface. I couldn’t believe we were getting to the halfway point already. Back across the pavement onto more lovely gravel, I took a peek at the cue cards and realized we’d be on this same road for quite some time – to get to the turnaround, then turn around and come right back, then essentially complete a figure-8 loop-de-loop.
To the turnaround, it was a relentless climb for a good handful of miles. Up and up and up, then a plateau and Ross joked that we were on top of Minnesota. I figured we’d see the front runners – we have to – and was excited to see my pal Nick. A few miles later, I was starting to really look forward to taking a little break, getting some fresh water, hopefully chugging pop and taking a leak. I was kind of looking forward to my bagged pizza that was in my backpack, but honestly felt like I’d been fueling pretty well, staying full with gummies as my plan had called for. Up a big grind of a hill, and I saw the front two guys up ahead. They were absolutely screaming down the hill. I’m pretty sure one had a hand off their handlebar. It was crazy. Just screaming down the hill. I would never take the hill that fast, I thought to myself. Nick was in the next group – he and another person in 3rd and 4th place. Then there were too many more to count, maybe 20 riders beyond that until I got to the aid station. It was a large descent to the turnaround, after climbing for what seemed like an hour, which was a bummer to me as I came into the aid station. I’d have to fuel up, take a little break, then crank straight uphill for a mile? Ugh! But it was nice to stop.
I got some gummi worms, some coke, filled up my bladder with cool water and took a leak. I moved my pizza from my back to the frame bag, grabbed a wristband and set off as soon as I could. I figured my precious group would catch me again as I biked away without most of them. Before I set off, a volunteer yelled out for sunscreen application. I walked over and turned around, beckoning to my shoulders. She said “oh boy”. What??? I was sprayed down and then raced off from there. Oh well, I figured, if I’m burnt I’m burnt. At least I got a re-application.
The hill out was brutal right away, but it was nice to see the action of other racers all around me coming in and out of the aid station. All in all, the climb was slow and steady, and not as bad as I’d dreaded. I enjoyed mostly downhill on the back half of the turnaround road and in no time was back to the pavement, and hooked a right. I was by myself at this time. Ross and another rider latched on eventually, but I broke away again on the next gravel road for some reason. I was just… bored? Overly caffeinated? I don’t know, but I chased another rider, caught him and we rode a mile together. Back to Eagle Mountain, and we turned onto a road we’d already been down. My comrades caught back up with me at this point, which was actually perfect. I was getting tired, the wind seemed to start picking up, and I didn’t like biking by myself. I was excited to get back into the tight group. We had a few comrades fall off, and few added on, but Ross was still in the mix, still as hyped as ever, and I was excited to see a guy in the red bike back in the pace line. I had been behind him for hours earlier in the day, and he was like a safety blanket for me. I’d tuck in right behind his wheel and he was steady Eddy. I even mentioned that to him, and he thanked me and said his goal was to be steady in the paceline. So, we cranked on. We started passing some other riders in different distance categories, and our once-tight paceline kept getting a little shaken up. I was probably the biggest catalyst for that because I wouldn’t take the hills slowly. I told myself that if I was feeling good at 70 miles, I’d probably be in good shape to finish strong. If I was feeling good at 80, lay it all out there because I knew the last 10 miles at least were fairly downhill. In the dusty, hot afternoon, I was slurping down water pretty well. My bagged pizza was gross and totally unappetizing, so I was still eating mainly gels and gummis. We passed more and more slow bikers from other races and it felt pretty cool when our paceline would just zoom right by, then out of sight. Yep, we movin’!! Get out the way!
When we hit 90 miles, I could tell the group was slowing down a bit. It seemed like the zip and the zing was gone from everyone’s legs. I was somehow feeling excellent. What a relief, to make it this far, have no issues, somehow get with a ripping group of riders totally willing (as far as I could tell) to pull this weird singlespeed rider along with. Ross was backing me up, and kept the encouragement up for hours and hours and hours. At mile 50, we were under 3 hours. I felt like a time under 6 would be great. The day before, I predicted 7 or 8 hours. Well under 6 was looking likely. With a looming uphill, I broke out from the pack once again, and decided I wouldn’t wait at the top of the hill this time. In fact, I figured I should remind my comrades that this is a race, and it’s every one for themselves at the end of the day. Who wants to catch me? And I pressed HARD on my pedals, looping them around in a perfect circle to get the maximum amount of power out of each stroke. My breath rate increased, I could feel my heart pumping harder and harder and I focused on getting away from the group. It was a challenge for me. And it worked when after a few hills I was out of sight.
The remaining 10 miles of the race were challenging without my reliable and helpful paceline. I was very much looking forward to getting onto the pavement again. That section seemed so minimal and easy at the start, which probably wouldn’t be the case on the way back as it rarely is. But, to me that signified the “home stretch”. However, before that were relentless hills. Sheesh. The big bomb back down into the Cascade River valley and arduous climb back up was tough. There were one or two even bigger climbs as well. I passed a 50 mile rider, presumably, on one of the hills, right at the crest. He must have not heard me coming, but I heard him get to the crest of the hill to see a huge bomb and massive hill on the other side, and cry out “not another hill!”. I bombed right down, smile on my face. I like hills. I miss hills, I said to myself in a show of positive affirmation.
Finally, after passing a few other riders without any sense of what race they were in, I finally got to pavement. A couple miles left, I reminded myself. I sipped the last bit of water that I had been rationing for an hour or two. I wasn’t hungry at all, but fantasizing about finishing the race and biking straight to the gas station for three items: root beer, white gatorade, and a chocolate milk.
The final stretch was indeed all downhill with few if not any flat or uphill sections. That was tough for me, because I was able to zoom along real nice but not pedal. When I wanted to pedal, I could only spin one or two rotations due to the high speed and limited gear ratio. The woes of singlespeed! Every thousand feet was five degrees cooler as I got closer and closer to Lake Superior. I looked at my watch and was extremely excited to be finishing well under 6 hours. Were my comrades chasing me down and reeling me in? I looked behind my shoulder. Nope, y’all got smoked by a one geared rider!! I was pretty proud, a little cocky that my push at 90 miles broke the paceline, although fully acknowledging that they helped me so much. Ross, my brother and faithful bike mechanic at Ski Hut, who has helped me so many times in the past with immense knowledge, stoking my love for cycling, and helping me select the right parts I need, had helped me once again by setting me up for a super solid race. I thought about how fun it’d be to enjoy a beer with him afterwards. Mmm beer. I was ready to be done, but, somehow my body was feeling fantastic. I’ve had so many rides, and one race at Heck of the North, where I’ve just fallen apart completely, and just can’t stand being on my bike any longer. This time, I was feeling good. Really good. It was mysterious to me.
With a definite chill in the air, which felt great after suffering in the heat for many hours, I turned onto a side street leading to Grand Marais. Yes. I bombed down, looking both ways at each intersection and acknowledging the volunteers at the corners. I zoomed through the finish line, slowing down right afterwards to set my bike down, probably in what was a bad spot. WOW. Done. Amazing. I saw my friends and faster finishers Nick, Nate, Kris from Thunder Bay Ontario, and Kris who was busy timing from the van. I collected my stuff from her, didn’t go right to the gas station, but eventually made it there and then enjoyed just about the tastiest root beer ever. The chocolate milk was crucial, and I drank as much gatorade as I could handle.
Later on, we shared race stories as a group at Voyageur. I has some tasty tacos and couple lovely beers, then me and Ryan headed back to Duluth from there. I didn’t see Ross at the finish, regrettably, but owe him big time for helping me through one of the most fun races I’ve ever been a part of. From the pre-race stress and uncertainty to completely blowing my expectations out of the water, Le Grand Du Nord absolutely lived up to the hype as a must-do race for me. I will be back!
Bike: Salsa Warbird
Singlespeed Gear Ratio: 40t front, 15t back