GRANITE FALLS, Minn. -- For 50.6 miles, Cameron Moore of St. Peter led the way over gravel roads, pedaling ahead of 53 other bicyclists as they climbed the bluffs and hills of the Minnesota River Valley south of Granite Falls in blazing summer heat.
Moore had one wish after crossing the finish line as the champion of the inaugural Bluenose Gopher 50 Gravel Bike Race on July 24.
“Next year, I hope you offer a 100-mile route,” Moore, 32, told the race sponsors.
Moore sped through the route in two hours and 37 minutes, keeping his pedals spinning like a buzz saw to stay ahead of friends and fellow competitors, Tom Claessens of Minneapolis and Charles Wolf of St. Peter. They finished second and third, respectively.
“Charles kept my foot on the gas,” said the winner.
Yet the top finishers appreciated the 50-mile course for the same reasons as did those who followed them at much slower paces. “Scenic” and “beautiful” is how they described the route.
“Super beautiful,” said Tanner Westmoreland of Hopkins. Like most of those riding, it was his first-ever trek through this part of Minnesota.
For many, that’s the point of riding a gravel bike: It’s an opportunity to explore.
“Nothing is off limits anymore,’’ said Jan Lasar, editor and publisher of Minnesota Trails magazine. Lasar leap-frogged the bicyclists in his air-conditioned vehicle to capture images of the race for the magazine.
The route took riders through Skalbekken and Vicksburg Parks and along other portions of the Minnesota River Valley in Renville County. It offered a mixed landscape of woodlands, prairie and farmlands. It seemed like there was a significant historic site every 10 miles, Lasak added.
“There’s something very special about the landscape in the river valley,” said Lasar.
There’s something special going on with gravel bikes, too.
“The (bicycle) shop owners tell me the biggest increases in sales have been in gravel bikes and e-bikes in the last three-to-five years,” said Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. Grilley is among the growing numbers of gravel bike enthusiasts. The opportunity to ride on roads with low traffic and go just about anywhere is what he appreciates most.
Organizers of the Bluenose Gopher 50 decided to host the race as an opportunity to introduce people to the area and promote tourism. The Bluenose Gopher is a cooperative taproom with over 300 member-owners. Race organizer Mary Gillespie said she and fellow organizers realized that the gravel roads with low traffic volumes and beautiful scenery are worth promoting.
“(We wanted) to show people we aren’t just a bunch of corn fields out here. There are cool places to go,” said Gillespie.
The inspiration for the race is attributed to the late Steve Hed, founder of Hed Cycling of Roseville. While visiting family in western Yellow Medicine County, Hed learned about an 1895 century bicycle run that went from Granite Falls to Marshall, Redwood Falls and Renville and back to Granite Falls, said Gillespie.
Hed also discovered that the county was once the home of Judge Ole Hartwick (1857-1945), who was known nationally for his bicycle riding. He tallied over 200,000 miles on his bicycles, sometimes making round trips of roughly 80 miles from Granite Falls to Canby on the western end of the county to handle his judicial duties.
With all of that history, Hed suggested that this was a perfect place to host a gravel race.
“The course is really pretty,” said Jed Danielson, a mechanic at Rick’s Cycling and Sports Center of Willmar, as he joined the first of the riders to reach the finish line at the Bluenose Gopher. Danielson said rode in two other gravel events this year, the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder in the Black Hills of South Dakota and a Heck of the North ride on Minnesota’s North Shore. He enjoyed them all.
He pointed out that it’s not so much about the racing as it is getting together with others who enjoy gravel riding and the outdoors. “The culture is really cool,” said Danielson. “The dudes you ride with are really cool guys. Call it a race, but it’s just an event, really.”
But he also admits: “The guys in the front go really fast and you challenge yourself. Really the point of the whole operation.”
Logan Hanson, sales manager with Jake’s Bikes in Alexandria, is an avid gravel bike rider as well. He said the Bluenose Gopher 50 route surprised him. He’s been through the Granite Falls area many times while driving from his home in Alexandria to Brookings, S.D., where he attended South Dakota State University. Those car rides had done little to show him just how much scenery and how much there was to enjoy in the Granite Falls area, he said.
Hanson said he plans to return next year, and he won’t be alone. Gillespie said the race organizers have already decided they will offer a 2022 version.
She said the turnout of over 50 participants for the inaugural run was encouraging. While over 80 had originally registered, Gillespie said there was little doubt that this summer’s heat wave had deterred some from coming. A forecast only a few days before the race had warned of a possible 100-degree high.
Temperatures during the race were in the 80s, and the heat mattered. Six participants accepted rides from a support team before completing the entire route due to the heat; they included a mother and her 9-year-old daughter on a tandem bike who had managed over 30 miles.
For those looking to discover the river valley scenery in cooler weather, registration is open for a Sept. 10-12 MnGravel 160. The three-day ride will start in Willmar and follow gravel roads to the Minnesota River Valley in Renville County, with camping in the county parks. More details and registration is available at: runsignup.com/Race/MN/Willmar/MnGravel160