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Blowing and Drifting - Christopher Tassava
Life in and around Northfield, Minnesota.
Updated: 10 weeks 6 days ago
With the Fat Pursuit and the Arrowhead rapidly approaching (70 days and 94 days away, respectively), I’ve been feeling the need to get out for some long rides. So far this fall, though, a heavy workload at the office and plenty of activities at home have made all-day outings impossible, so Friday I did the next best thing by going out after dinner for a few hours on the gravel roads.
Riding gravel roads in the dark is wonderful, especially on an unseasonable night like Friday – 60° F, an insistent but not harsh westerly breeze, a touch of humidity. I left home just as the sun set behind me, calling out for a picture or two. A stop to adjust my seat height – when did I acquire the unwelcome ability to feel that my saddle is too high or low based on the shorts I’m wearing? – and tweak the angle of some new grips.
Soon afterwards, I was in full dark, riding toward the white spot of road illuminated by my headlight. First more east, waving to a cyclist hiding behind his own headlight as he headed back toward town. Then some south paralleling the county line, waving to the cars and trucks I met, dropping into low spots where cool wet air had pooled, climbing up to ridges where the breeze warmed me. All around, I could see yellow, white, red lights at dozens of farms. Interior lights spilling through picture windows. A bonfire, the smoke almost more felt than smelled.
A turn to the west onto pavement for a passage through a tiny farm town, dark but loud with machinery at the grain elevator.
Then back onto gravel, passing the state park and the first deer, timidly watching from the trees from the far side of the ditch. A cat, sitting by a mailbox post. An easy downhill curve that the darkness turned into a mountain pass. A slow, tentative lap around the MTB trails at the county park – tricky to ride with only the headlight and a fading headlamp. Stopped at the high point, I could hears cows lowing, horses neighing, dogs barking, coyotes yipping. The night was really alive. Back on the bike, I found Gut Check Bridge downright scary: wet, banked, downhill.
After the park, one last westerly section, then northeast up a long, steady climb through a gorgeous stand of hardwoods. Some unseen dogs yapping angrily at me. More deer. Legs burning now from the gym at noon, from 2.5 hours of riding, from an empty stomach.
North now, back toward town. The last big climb, past a dead deer, gnawed open by night creatures. Another cat, darting away. The rollers on the straight drag back to the city limits. A combine crawling through a cornfield toward two tractor-trailers waiting for its load. The last stretch of gravel, up a hill now crowned with a new tract house, light pouring from every window, people moving around inside. Five minutes later, back inside my own house to stay up too late, buzzing with endorphins and looking forward to the next night ride.
Where: Whitetail Ridge MTB trails, River Falls, Wisconsin – really fun trails that loop up and down a wooded hillside. Apart for a couple straight stretches along the cornfield at the top of the hill (perfectly situated for recovery!), the trails are very twisty and turny, and very rooty, and not particularly technical except for a section – near the end of our lap – that featured some burly rock sections. Our lap also included two short but steep climbs, which did a very good job of exploding my legs.
When: 8:50 a.m. till about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, 2016
Why: I had hoped to do the Dirt Bag gravel race this weekend, but family plans made that hard or impossible, so when my friend Galen asked if I was interested in this event – rescheduled from July – I jumped at the chance.
Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi with a new 1x drivetrain.
My best gear was the bike, of course, and my new Revelate Wampak hydration pack – which I hope will be a key element of my winter-racing setup.
My worst gear was my new 1x drivetrain on the bike, which was wonky all day. Still, it never failed, so…
The low points were not very low:
- When I realized, halfway through lap four of five, that I wouldn’t be able to hold pace for six full laps. Not actually that bad a problem!
- When my Four Hour Energy drink wore off after three hours. False advertising!
- When the elite-class racers came ripping though about two hours into my race. Good lord they’re fast.
The high point was when, on my last lap – pretty much totally gassed – I still managed to clean all but one of the various fairly technical obstacles on the course. I had been hit or miss with them all day, so I was happy to put my experience with them to good purpose so late in the race. Now I just need to be able to do this on lap two, and at three times the speed!
It was in the bag when I made it up the last serious climb, a steep ramp covered with loose rock, and knew I pretty much just had easy, fun trails to the finish.
The key lesson learned was that Four Hour Energy isn’t, and that the Whitetail Ridge trails are great. I’ll have to try to do this race next year, at its usual time in July.
The takeaway is that the MMBS races are pretty damn fun. I did three this year (this one, the Red Wing Classic in RW in July, and the Singletrack Escape in August in St. Cloud), and found the race experience to be quite different from my usual kind of event – gravel centuries and fatbike ultras. I like the vibe, especially having racers around almost all the time. I look forward to getting better – smoother but especially faster – at this kind of racing.
Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.
Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.Schiller and Tassava
I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!
Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:Julia and Twigonometry
What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.
When I was growing up in the U.P. in the ’70s and ’80s, coyotes were considered the menace to farm animals. Back then, wolves were (temporarily, as nature assured) absent from the Yoop, so coyotes – kai-ohts – assumed the apex predator spot that Canis lupus should have held, and in fact resumed sometime in the ’90s.
I have no idea if any Yooper farmers lost any livestock bigger than a chicken to Canis latrans, but my male relatives were unanimous in their hatred of coyotes, and were eager to kill them all. I never understood why this was, but then I ever understood why it was fun to sit in a tree for hours in the hopes of shooting a deer either.
I did understand that the coyotes’ howls were thrillingly wild. When we stayed at our family’s hunting camp – a one-room shack in the northwestern corner of the Ottawa National Forest (almost a million acres of woods that covers almost all of the Wisconsin end of the U.P.) – we often heard coyotes singing at night. I lay there in my keeping bag in the bunk bed and imagined the coyotes sniffing around the building, drawn by scraps of food and our weird smells.
I don’t recall ever seeing any coyotes, but I must have, for as Dan Flores shows in his superlative Coyote America, coyotes are now America’s most ubiquitous big predator, despite continuing to be killed in the thousands every year. Some of the only actual coyotes I’ve ever seen – on a years’-ago bike ride – were three dead ones, dumped in a ditch not a mile outside of town. More recently I saw two skinny specimens patrolling a river near Island Park in eastern Idaho. They watched me and a friend bike along the opposite bank, then effortlessly scaled a sheer snowbank to get up off the river and onto the flat plain.
Notwithstanding this pair in the underpopulated West, Americans now live among more of these scrawny, intelligent, shy beasts than ever before – a story that Flores tells with care, detail, a bit on anger, and a lot of humor in his book and with indignation in this New York Times op-ed. After a century of incessant, brutal biocide against the coyote, we should admit defeat and admire the victor.
By rights, in fact, we Americans should do as generations of a Native Americans – from the Aztecs to the Apache – did, and worship the coyote as a nature god. Like God, Coyote is everywhere. As my friend Charlotte pointed out the other day, they’ve surely watched me on a bike ride. They’ve probably watched my girls playing in our backyard. A family of them might be right now in the field to the south, perhaps looking warily between the light spilling from my picture window and the harvester that’s growling along the rows of soybeans. Maybe they made a meal of one of the hundreds of Canada geese that gleaned in the field all afternoon. Regardless I’m pleased to know that they’re out there, outlasting and outsmarting us.
What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series
When: July 10, 2016
Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course.
Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.
My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff.
My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while.
The low points were
- when I crashed,
- when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and
- When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time.
The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course.
It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner.
The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon.
The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and 52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster.
Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me.
What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network.
Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests.
Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.
Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty.
My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.
My worst gear: my lower back.
The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much.
The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails.
It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.
The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!)
Today – Monday, October 3 – is the eleventh anniversary of starting my job at Carleton. I somehow still think of it as my “new job,” even though no it isn’t. Perhaps I think of it that way because it’s endlessly fascinating, and most of the time in a positive way.
Beyond my awesome ten-year mug, I have many reasons to like this job, including, foremost, my coworkers – especially Mark, Dee, Charlotte, and Nina but also other staff and faculty (except that one guy).
Beyond the lovely people, I relish the opportunity to contribute to an institution that I respect and value (and that has never once missed a payday), and to have the chance to learn interesting new information literally every day, and to talk with experts about that information.
More crassly, but objectively, I enjoy being able to tally up my effort in dollars and cents. From 2005 to the present, I’ve helped submit 620 grant proposals that yielded 225 awards worth a total of $7.4 million – annual averages of 50-some proposals, about 20 grants, and about $800,000. By all indications, this year’s results are going to exceed all those averages! Maybe I’ll get a new mug!
Today was a near perfect autumn day. Though I’d have liked to have done a hard ride on some local trails, instead I headed out with Julia on a big loop that included a little dirt in the Arboretum
before stopping at the Carleton library (where she checked out two Shakespeare plays – wha?) and then heading downtown to browse the art shop (cardstock for her new greeting-card project slash business) and bookstore ([this book on the famous Lewis chessmen](http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23848067-ivory-vikings) looks great) and get a snack at the coffee shop. Small business Sunday! While doing all that, we chatted about everything: school, work, college, stores, food, biking, being a kid…
On our way home we rode through a street-construction project, which is always good for a little frisson of riding, harmlessly, where you supposedly shouldn’t. Six miles of east, fun, relaxing outdoors time.