Duluth’s Heck of the North race always lives up to its hellish name, being a self-supported 100-mile gravel bike race—but this year, it was especially difficult. Riders came into the finish fatigued, splattered in mud and soaked by rain.
Saturday was the race’s fifth anniversary, and it rained enough to make up for its past four years of sunshine.
“We’ve actually been wanting a day like this to add an element of adventure and challenge,” said Avesa Rockwell, UMD writing professor and wife of race coordinator Jeremy Kershaw.
Indeed, the race results reflected the weather. A lot of racers knew what they were in for and didn’t even show up at the start. Of the 300 registered racers, 205 started and 156 finished.
The winner, Nikolai Anikin, came in at six hours and three minutes, about 20 minutes slower than the average winning time. Kershaw points out that it’s hard to compare the winning time to past years, however, because of this year’s new course.
Kershaw decided to change the course in order to adapt to the race’s growing popularity.
“In years past, I think the most riders we had was 150,” Rockwell said. “And Jeremy had almost 400 postcards sent in saying they wanted to race. And he’s like, ‘I want to let them all in. I don’t want to say no to anyone.’”
Kershaw worked with the Minnesota DNR and found a parking lot located off of Highway 2 outside of Two Harbors that was just large enough for this year’s increased participation.
After he solved that problem, he had to redesign the course. This was his chance to give the race an even wilder feel.
The course once started and finished on the pavement of Martin Road in Duluth, but now it starts and ends on a gravel ATV trail and includes a lot less pavement in general, according to Kershaw. The course loops down to Duluth and back, winding through gravel and paved roads, old logging roads and overgrown snowmobile and ATV trails.
“We just wanted more of a north woods feel, and this definitely has it,” Rockwell said. “It’s like you’re in Alaska. . . . It’s like you feel like you’re going to see a moose.”
John Hatcher, racer and UMD journalism professor, said the new route happily surprised him.
“I don’t know how he finds some of these roads,” Hatcher said. “The last 15 miles wasn’t even really a road and then there was this river in the middle of it at one point, and you start laughing. But it was gorgeous.”
Although most racers chose cyclo-cross bikes or road bikes, there were plenty of exceptions. Many rode mountain bikes. One couple mounted a tandem. Even a few fat tires used for snow biking made appearances.
“It’s an alternative crowd, “ Kershaw said. “They like alternative music, sports, bikes—the lifestyle.”
Eric Serantoni, a race volunteer and vice president of the UMD Cycling Club, agrees that racers like the ones at Heck of the North are a little different from the majority of bike racers.
“The people that race gravel have kind of a different demeanor than the people that race on the road,” he said. “Gravel racing is more relaxed, but people are still serious about winning. It’s more friendly competition; whereas, I get the sense that the road racers in Minnesota are more out to win and crush their opponents.”
According to Rockwell, the community surrounding the race is also a charitable crowd. The race, which is free for riders, is supported by volunteers who help run the event and sell race T-shirts, as well as companies that make raffle donations and Carmody 61 in Two Harbors, which donated post-race beer this year.
Rockwell calls it the “labor of love.”
“Rather than the whole corporate fancy race thing, it’s getting it back to the spirit of adventure and community,” she said.
Garrett Copeland, a UMD Cycling Club member who volunteered at the halfway checkpoint while guarded by an umbrella, said he volunteered because it was his turn to give back to the biking community.
“Whether it was them building trails for us to ride, giving us discounts at a shop, or generally having people to ride with, it was good for us to be out there publicly helping with the biggest biking event in Duluth,” he said.
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