After realizing the impact that ‘Free Range’ gravel racing was having on the racing in and around MN, I decided to take a closer look. A few emails back and forth and Mr. Kershaw founder of the Heck of the North was kind enough to agree to speak with the Musette. Sensing that gravel racing could benefit from being in the northern part of the state, Mr. Kershaw took it upon himself to create his own event and do his best to build upon the community that was quickly growing.
Note: All photos in this piece are graciously provided by Chris Gibbs of C5 Adventure Photography.
MM: Let’s start with the Almanzo. Chris put it that you participated and then decided that Northern Minnesota needed a version as well?
JK: Yes. I completed my first gravel century the April before at the Ragnarok 105 in Red Wing. That was a great adventure and I felt proud finishing it singlespeed. When Skogen hosted riders at his place that May, I got to talking with him about how great I thought the idea was in general. After seeing what an absolutely amazing job Skogen does with the Almanzo, I was inspired. I finished that event, headed home, and started pouring over county road maps of Duluth area. I became obsessed.
MM: Did the Heck route come from roads that you already were riding or did you search out a route?
JK: It was a combination of some roads I knew and many that I ‘discovered’. I spent a lot of time trying to link up as much gravel as I could. To speed up the process, I did end up driving a fair bit to check the accuracy of the maps. I ended up throwing in some snowmobile trails to tie it all together. When I completed my first continuous ride of the route, I felt like I had located the Northwest passage. There are obviously plenty of riders who knew the roads I chose, but to me, the whole thing was a really fun creative process.
MM: And the first Heck took place in…?
JK: The first was late September, 2009.
MM: How many participated in the first Heck?
JK: I thought that maybe I would receive 30 cards. I think we actually started about 50 riders. Last year we had over 120 entry cards. I was pretty strict with a 75 rider limit last year and we started about 65. This year, I am shooting for 100 starters. I am easing up a bit on the whole entry process. One of the challenges, though, will always be the safety factor and the reality that it is me, my family and a couple of wonderful volunteers that put this thing on. I have no intentions of growing it to Almanzo size. I think Skogen is crazy, but in a way that I admire and appreciate.
MM: With the 100 Starter cap this year – how many do you think are involved with the AGRS as a whole?
JK: Good question. I would say there are probably around 50 actively participating in the AGRS. There has been a really amazing growth (or awareness) of gravel road cycling events in the Midwest. In fact, I would argue that the Midwest is at the epicenter of this type of riding. The answer to the question is that I think there are more and more people tuning in to these events. Who knows [how far it can g0] now that the Almanzo has 700 riders signed up. Maybe a 1000 rider [event] in Midwest? I think a lot of us forget that doing a gravel century is still really hard. There just aren’t that many people who will take a shine to the notion. But what I see for myself and many others – the harder the event, the more interest it generates. So it goes for the AGRS events.
MM: Speaking of difficult, endurance based events – how have other events such as the Trans Iowa influenced the Heck?
JK: I have a healthy respect for the Trans Iowa. This will be my first attempt at a ride that long. I am encouraged by my overall success at long, endurance events. But every one is unique and I never rest too much on the past. It is and has been a true stimulus for gravel cycling in the Midwest. He [Guitar Ted, the promoter] is a pioneer in the sport. It is the Queen of the Spring Classics. It also a beast in length, and I don’t think it will be included in the AGRS simply because it is in another class of distance events.
MM: Do you view free ‘epic’ endurance racing as the future of racing as a whole in the Midwest?
JK: The Heck of the North is free and always will be. I think it is safe to say that the events of the AGRS will always be free. It is part of the reason we created them in the first place. I am encouraged to see the success/popularity of free events in the Midwest. This is juxtaposed to others (the Lutsen 99er for example) that are charging $100 and up. What you get for that, I don’t know. Sometimes the more something costs, the more people are intrigued by it. It goes along with the whole ‘harder-it-is-thing’ we talked about earlier.
MM: I think that the AGRS and the fact that it’s free really brings an element of freedom but the idea is really rooted in childhood. Racing is simple. Just start, go and see who gets to the end fastest. This time, add some gravel.
JK: Funny. It’s cliche, but being on a bike is just plain good for the soul. It is returning to childhood a bit. [At these events] Many are simply trying to finish. I love that part about the AGRS. I and the other event creators really love the variety of rider we see. Singlespeeds, 26er’s, 29er’s, cyclocrossers, tandems – I am sure we will see a unicyclists within the near future. I love having riders that stop to take photos, eat, talk, even light a cig and share a beer. I’m an ex-smoker and it still cracks me up to see those guys lighting up. I’m glad they are on their bikes and in my event.
MM: Eloquently put, sir. Slick 50 really put that in perspective for me. Seeing what Hurl was able to do by just putting the word out and doing a ride was inspiring. What should we expect from the Heck in the near future/2011’s race?
JK: I was tempted to have a 130-150 mile event in addition to the 100, but I came to my senses. I like the idea of keeping the riders in one single event. I will probably not change a lot. The course is pretty dialed in. If I find a stretch of road that just has to be in, then maybe. I am thinking of designing a new jersey or kit for the Heck. I don’t know. I always want to present something a little new without changing the feel of the event too much. Actually, the big push this year is to encourage Duluth riders to host other riders from out of town. I’m sure this is a legal nightmare waiting to happen…but I really like the idea of encouraging the “community” side of the event.
MM: Speaking of community – will you be participating in the other AGRS events?
JK: I am headed down to the Ragnarok this weekend, the TI a couple after that, then the Almanzo.
MM: Busy spring.
JK: Somehow I am still working full time and raising my two lovely girls. I have an amazingly patient and understanding wife. We have both come to understand how important this stuff is to me. I think she likes putting the Heck on, too. Thankfully!
MM: One last question – Anything you’d like to say to the gravel racing community?
JK: The Heck of the North is truly about the journey. As much as I like watching the fast people roll in, I love seeing the riders just trying to finish the thing. Keep your eyes posted on the blogsite for updates and I look forward to seeing everyone out at the other AGRS events this season.
We’d like to thank Mr. Gibbs for his photography and Mr. Kershaw for taking the time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk to the Musette. Best wishes to Mr. Kershaw as he participates in the Ragnarok 105 this weekend.