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On May 20, a caravan of bike rack-mounted vehicles will arrive in Spring Valley, Minn., to honor one man’s vision to hold a cycling race that welcomes one and all.

In 2007, Chris Skogen of Minneapolis convinced 12 friends to spend the day on their bikes riding the gravel roads of the southeast, around Rochester. Hours later, four of those friends finished the inaugural Almanzo 100 gravel ride.

“I thought, if we are going to ride we should invite other people, if we are going to invite others we should probably race, and if we are going to race we should probably find the safest route,” Skogen recalled. “Going into the back roads made sense. Getting on to gravel was probably the safest, most logical route.”

But Skogen’s intentions for the race ran deeper still. He wanted something “that was heartfelt and genuine,” he added. “The response was people coming to an event where they felt they were included regardless of their social or financial background. My goal was to create a moment at least at the start line where everyone there was equal. And I think I did that successfully.”

The perspective of Pat Sorensen, president of Penn Cycle and a key supporter, is equally matter-of-fact. “[Skogen] had this harebrained idea about riding 100 in gravel and challenged his friends. It just grew from there.”

After seven years of juggling a full-time career and single-handedly managing all aspects of a race that grew to 1,000 registered riders, Skogen transferred the Almanzo 100’s race management to Spring Valley Tourism.

Juggling the responsibilities of family, career and race management took a toll.

“I hit a point where I felt I had done everything I could do. The work outweighed the benefits. I was working full time 50 hours a week and trying to do this 40-50 hours a week. I was burned out and felt like I had done everything I wanted to do and everything I could have done,” Skogen said. “Handing it over to Spring Valley made the most sense. They were investing in the race as a community.”

Spring Valley officials and other race supporters concur.

“We continue his vision of a free, self-supported race, accessible to anyone with a bike and a desire. Chris put this heart and soul into this race,” said Kathy Simpson, chairwoman of Spring Valley Tourism.

“Spring Valley Tourism has always wanted to keep Chris’s vision for the race alive. Free race with no trophies or prizes. It’s all about getting out and riding 100 miles with your friends,” said Chris Chavie, who produces the popular MN Bike Trail Navigator blog. (A Penn Cycle employee, Chavie has worked behind the scenes of the Almanzo 100 and also ridden it.)

A community of cyclists

With the start and finish in Spring Valley, the 100-mile route traverses limestone and gravel roads. The course winds through farms, river valleys and enough rolling hills to turn even the best trained rider’s legs to jelly. If that’s not enough, there’s a water crossing at mile 81.

“Almanzo was the first gravel event to broadly expose the masses to that type of riding. It helped create a community of cyclists that wanted to go take on a reasonable challenge,” said Mike Riemer, Salsa Cycles’ marketing manager. “It also helped teach folks that they might want to consider riding on these gravel roads just for fun. Less cars, more peace and quiet, more beauty, and maybe even a bit safer because of the reduced traffic.

“For most folks Almanzo isn’t really a race, it’s a personal challenge. At the front they’ll be full on racing, but for most folks they just want to get to the finish line, and some might care to do it as quickly as possible, but not everyone. Many folks enjoy the looking around, taking it all in, socializing aspect.”

Penn Cycle provides management and race-day services for the race. Although adhering to Skogen’s insistence on free participation, Sorensen isn’t concerned about charging for the race.

“I don’t even think about that. I throw as many as people at this event as I need to ensure the quality of the event and maintain Chris’s original concept. In honor of Chris’s devotion to developing this and his focus on keeping this a free race, I embrace that as well.”

Skogen’s vision also called for an unsupported race. Although there are three rest stops along the 100-mile route, riders are expected to bring food, water, bike repair tools and everything needed to reach the finish line. “Riders need to know how to fix their bike in case you get a flat. In many areas because of the big rolling hills you may not have cell reception from some companies,” Chavie said. “The Almanzo is a big get-together. Riders will stop to help people get back on and going.”

First-time riders can count on help from passing cyclists. “The cycling community is very tight knit, and we’ve found that everybody helps everybody else,” Simpson said. “We’ve told riders that the race isn’t for the faint of heart. A lot of people go as far as they can and then arrange pickup from friends.”

Year-by year, the number of registered riders has increased. More than 1,000 riders are expected this year. The average time to complete the 100-mile route is about eight hours. The fastest riders finish in just more than five. Minnesota weather adds a wild card element. Over the last decade riders have often experienced blue skies and sunshine. But not every year. Last year riders experienced the worst of Almanzo. Thirty-two degrees at the start and strong winds all day. In 2016, 1,000 riders started and only 500 finished. The last rider crossed the finish line 13 hours after the start. “When it’s windy the crosswinds are relentless,” said Simpson, the Spring Valley tourism official.

“I’m glad that the race still happens and there are aspects of the race that still adhere to the vision that I had. Some things have changed and that’s OK, too. As long as people want to go, I hope the race continues to exist,” Skogen said.

The number of gravel events in Minnesota has expanded quickly. Sites like MN Bike Trail Navigator and list more than 25 races with a variety of distances.

Online registration for the Almanzo 100 is open until April 30. Riders can register the day of the race, too. Simpson offered advice to first-time riders. “Train, train, train. This might be the hardest race you’ve ever ridden.”

Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer from Richfield. He focuses on outdoor recreation.