About 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Dan Cruikshank rides his bike up to Spokengear, the bike shop he opened earlier this year, pulls off his helmet and walks in for a little breakfast. Riding a bike to work isn’t exactly surprising for a cycling enthusiast living only 7 miles from work, but Cruikshank isn’t just riding his bike to work for the heck of it.
Cruikshank along with 50 to 60 other riders will begin the second annual Heck Epic, a two day, 220-mile race Aug. 20-21 from Two Harbors to Ely and back on gravel roads and ATV trails. Riders will camp Aug. 20 on Semer’s Beach in Ely and then take a different course back to Two Harbors the following day. Race director Jeremy Kershaw said the race is an introduction to “bikepacking,” an activity growing in popularity in the U.S. where bikers carry ultra light tents and equipment and bike through remote and isolated territory.
“It’s a tight enough event that people can take the weekend off to do it, although it’s a long weekend,” Kershaw said.
Bike touring reached its peak of popularity in the U.S. in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the bikes used were road bikes with panniers, bags carried on a rack over the bike’s back wheel. Bikes used for road touring, however, are not suitable for the kind of back country roads and trails that bikepacking enthusiasts use. What’s more, panniers cannot take the sort of jarring and shock that happens on gravel roads and trails. Most bikepacking bikes use bags secured to the triangle in the middle of the bike frame and handlebar bags.
Kershaw said his race was inspired by the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile bike race along the Continental Divide from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border. Riders camp in often remote and hostile environments, and the race’s website tells visitors, “The world’s toughest bike race is not in France.”
“We designed this event last year to travel the roads less traveled between Two Harbors and Ely, two of my favorite places up here,” Kershaw said.
Cruikshank, who will be attempting his second Heck Epic, said he originally signed up because it sounded like fun and he was in really good shape last year. This year, Cruikshank is a little more nervous.
“This year, with the stress of opening two businesses here, I haven’t had as much opportunity to ride and train, but I take it as a challenge and have something to shoot for and motivate me to ride more, especially in the last month here,” he said. “I have to train fairly hard in this last month just to complete the ride, that’s my goal. I’ve never been out there to win, even though it is a race. It’s more of a personal challenge.”
Cruikshank said while he hasn’t been able to train as much this year, he feels like having already completed one race gives him an advantage. He knows the equipment to bring and he knows the course and, most importantly, he knows the course back to Two Harbors will be even tougher than the one they took to Ely, which Kershaw said is by design.
“I think people did well on the first day, but were surprised that the second day was quite a bit harder,” Kershaw said. “Just the cumulative effect of sleeping outdoors overnight on Saturday and then another pretty tough day on Sunday makes for a challenging event and that’s the way I want it.”
Cruikshank said he thought day one last year was “pretty fantastic” with the ride to Ely. Riders camping on the beach could go for a swim after they arrived or go into town and explore Ely.
Riders will start about 8 a.m. Aug. 20 from the Donald Ferguson Demonstration Forest on the Drummond Grade just outside Two Harbors. Riders will begin arriving in Ely sometime after 1 p.m. and then arrive back in Two Harbors late on Aug. 21.
Riders will be able to camp at the Demonstration Forest, Spokengear or at the Two Harbors campground the night before the race begins and registration will be at Castle Danger Brewery. Registration will remain open until Monday, but Kershaw said the event is capped at 80 participants. For more information or to register, go to www.heckofthenorth.com.
“There are some great roads in the Two Harbors, Ely and Grand Marais area and that’s what we’re really trying to utilize,” Kershaw said. “We really had a blast putting on the event last year, which is not something I’d usually say. I love my events, but we actually had fun doing it last year and we knew we were on to something.”