An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Local Intelligence: The Dakota Five-O

"Now that's a mountain bike race!" That was on the lips of at least one Dakota 50 newbie, and I have to concur, now that the brain swelling has gone down and the typing fingers work again. The 50 mile race in the Black Hills of South Dakota is in only its 7th year, but word has spread to Colorado, Montana, Minnesota, Washington, and even Texas.

Lining up at the start line in Spearfish City Campground on Sunday morning, it immediately became clear that the race is drawing a certain crowd -- the strong, the hip, the highly skilled, the rabid enthusiast. All the cool kids were here. In a field of some 260 riders, an astonishing 40 were on singlespeeds-- many in costume. Sean Burns was resplendent in his western shirt, jeans, cowboy hat, and cowboy boots, and an authentic lassoo tied to his Camelback. Astonishing, when you consider the race profile and the well-earned reputation the course has for its relentless technical singletrack, its monstrous powerclimbs and its breakneck descents.

The race begins early -- 7:20 AM -- in anticipation of the five or six hours it will take most riders to put fifty miles behind them. At the gun, riders immediately ascend three miles of gravel road, then cross a cattle grate and dive into piney hardpack trail. The singletrack ascends another brutalizing five miles before topping out in rolling highlands. But it never offers much respite. One Rapid City racer said, "There's gotta be less than a mile of flats in the entire race."

The peloton immediately strings out on the climb up Tinton Trail. Nervous racers who like their odds push hard for position before hitting the singletrack; the opportunities to pass are few and far between for the next two or three hours.

The Dakota 50 is widely celebrated for its variety. Imagine singletrack in Moab, in Minneapolis, in Salida, in Wales, in Marquette, in Colorado Springs -- very different surfaces and surroundings. At some point along the way, the Dakota 50 features each of these. There are long sections of hardpack through tall goldenrod overlooking violent canyon views. There are winding cowpaths through dewey ravines. There are sketchy mile-long descents on pea gravel and grass.

Five hours in the saddle may seem long for a point-to-point race, but the Dakota 50 trail is so relentlessly enjoyable that I never experienced the typical internal race monologue. You know the one: This hurts, when can it end, why do I do this? Part of that is a function of the endurance event. Knowing you'll be spending the better part of a workday riding your bike in wilderness on world-class singletrack, it's hardly an all-out sprint. Taking a cue from the singlespeeders, I selectively walked up many of the highly technical ascents -- it seemed a foolish game of pride to burn so many matches and load up the legs. "There is no shame in walking," said Joe Meiser after the race. No shame indeed; Meiser won the singlespeed division clocking in at just 4:14, a time that put him into the top 10 overall.

I very nearly had to walk down some of the more epic descents, or sit on the toptube and barefoot it; after one especially crazy rodeo ride down a rooty rocky clove, I lost the pivot point in my rear brake lever. Luckily a volunteer at the next food station had a bobby pin. Race Chief Perry Jewett happened to stop by, shuttling supplies up the trail. He cheered, "Yeah! MacGyver it!"

Carrying a Camelback and an extra bottle of water, I normally have worries about cramps in events like this. I stayed well hydrated and hit all four food stations, taking water and a banana. Cramps never hit until the disastrous final miles. Others, though, suffered badly for under-eating and under-hydrating. With temperatures climbing from the low 70s to the high 80s, there was a lot of fluid exchange going on, for those not wishing to DNF. Looking down at his frosted black wool jersey after the race, Gene Oberpriller said, "Wow, a lot of salt came out of me!"

The course is often described as a lollipop-- the initial ascent leads to a thirty mile loop that rejoins at the top; the final 8 miles take riders down what they rode up out of the start. It's a sweet reward after 42 miles of riding at average speeds under 10 mph. Designed by mountain bikers, it isn't a straight shot as is so often the case in the West with multiuse trails laid down by motocross bikes. It's reminiscent of the flowing intentional trails of Wirth and Lebanon in Minneapolis, or Jockey Hill in the Catskills -- but with 6000 feet of elevation and gravity as your friend.

But maybe not your best friend. Having pre-rode the final section on Saturday, I felt like I had a handle on the runouts and the corners. I let all the dogs run, being especially motivated to cross the line before the five hour mark. Two thirds of the way down the singletrack, and feeling frisky, I shifted into the big ring and hammered blissfully toward Spearfish. On a straight coming out of a sweeping right turn, I suddenly found myself ejected, bikeless and freefalling. I landed in the center of the trail on my left shoulder, and quite literally sat there wondering whether to scratch my watch or wind my ass. Trying to reconstruct what happened, I'd apparently caught a pedal on a six-inch stump hidden in brush beside the trail. The stabbing pain in my shoulder was quickly overwhelmed by the spontaneous and system-wide cramps that conspired to shutdown all below-the-waist operations.

I painfully climbed back on the bike, spun out of the cramps, and cruised the rest of the downhill back to the finish line, where two kegs of local microbrew waited -- an awesome and effective painkiller and tongue loosener.

Hanging out streamside in Spearfish Park and looking forward to steaks at the Chop House, newbies from all over asked each other, "Will you be back next year?"

I'd be back next week, if Perry managed to put it together that quickly.


cvo said...

best race i've ever done, and I'll be back next year for sure as well....

heck, we may have more nebraskans there next year than minneapolis maffia....

Anonymous said...

Nice work on and off the bike, Pinchie! Your summary is just the prose needed to attract like minded friends for an annual Labor Day tradition.

Perry has done a wonderful job capturing the mojo of the MTB scene and nicely bottling it up into one dy-NO-mite race.

A return trip is emminent and know that there's always room at our site! I might even tighten up my QRs next year.

Time to wind my ass.

Anonymous said...

Excellent report! Next year that stump isn't going to reach out and grab you. By the way, the can of snoose visible in the picture is still nearly full. Let's share a pinch next week on the dock.

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