For the past two summers, I’ve trained and mentally prepped myself for the 906 Adventure Team’s Marji Gesick mountain bike race in Marquette, MI. It’s a killer. Known for pushing you out of your comfort zone, the Marji director Todd Poquette has another event called The Crusher Gravel Race that I highlighted here at fat-bike.com earlier this month. When I discovered I wasn’t able to come to the Marji this year, Todd graciously let me transfer my registration from the Marji to the Crusher. Todd just laughed it a bit. “Sure. You can do that…sucker!”. I’ve never ridden that far before. Horrible idea or not, I’m committed.
The Crusher Gravel Race will send about 150 brave souls across the wilderness of the Keweenaw Peninsula in route to Marquette. The Crusher brags 225 miles of “enhanced gravel” promising to deliver one of the hardest days on the bike you’ll ever experience…more on that later. The format was pretty simple. Ride from Copper Harbor to Marquette and follow the rules. The rules are clearly printed in a required “passport”, discussed at the start of the race, and expected to be followed. You have to carry all the shit on the required list (including a snorkel) and take a selfie at five landmarks throughout the course. Simple, right?
Most racers arrived at the Noque Trail Head in Forestville Friday. After check-in including a vigorous gear check by volunteers, most riders opted for a hell-bound shuttle on a cramped and hot school bus to Copper Harbor.
Todd likes his event attendees to experience pain and discomfort, so he must have figured this was as good a place as any to start your suffering. (Todd, I have some suggestions on how to reduce the suffering a bit to without challenging your #dohardthings ethos if you’re open to some input). I caught the first of two shuttles arriving in Copper Harbor about 3:30.
I grabbed my bike and gear setting off to find my buddy Josh Stamper. Josh rode his bike from Calumet because he just felt like he needed a few more miles in his legs before the big day. There is literally no cell service up there, so I just had to ride around to find him and our accommodations. I found Josh riding around on a rented Kona trail bike. He arrived earlier in the day and decided he needed to crush a few of the amazing trails in CH. I opted for a spin on my gravel ride to warm the legs up agreeing we’d reconnect for dinner later. Once that was achieved Josh and I settled in for the night.
Stamper and I rolled into the campground to find a long line of riders patiently waiting to receive their Spot satellite trackers. Yes… We are going into the wilds and it’s a good idea for someone to know where the hell you are in the event of a mishap, and after all, it’s a race so many friends and family are interested to follow the action online. Being a little older and wiser than some, I opted to let the line go down before I lined up to get my tracker. That was the right call because the going was slow and there were breakfast burritos and coffee available. After I got my tracker I rolled around a bit and found the opportunity to say hello to mountain bike legend Tinker Juarez. Tinker has been to a few events up here. He’s a true gentleman and continues to crush the competition. At this point, we are a full 30 minutes off the scheduled 5:30 start. We received some final tips from Todd and hit the pre-dawn roll out.
I mentioned earlier that this is the biggest day on the bike for me. I’ve ridden 150 gravel miles before and completed the Marji Gesick twice, so I know what a long day on the bike feels like. This, however, at 231 miles (course file is longer than the advertised 225 miles), this is uncharted territory for me. The good thing is I have been preparing for it and had a plan and a goal. My goal was to ride straight through aiming for 20 hours. To do that I need to ride about an average of 13 mph knowing there will be some stops along the way. The Marji has prepared me for a few things. First, don’t lag around the checkpoints and aid stations. Keep moving. And second, the terrain up here is fucking crazy. Don’t underestimate some of the shit Todd is going to throw at you. Here’s a little course profile from someone that pre-road it. I’d like to give him credit, but I lost his name. It really helped me wrap my brain around the course and aided in my planning.
To keep with my unwritten goal of not blowing apart, I let the lead group of about 30 go up the road settling into a good rhythm with about 15-20 riders. We hit the first gravel section, and, like most gravel races, things start to heat up when you roll off the blacktop. I kept my cool and let a few young guns go. After about 10 miles we hit some gnarly downhill sections. I know to get myself to the front of these situations and was able to bomb it with another rider leaving the group behind. There were water bottles and other “I’m going to need that later” items littered yard sale fashion all over the trail for the next few miles ejected from bikes and bags from other riders ahead of us. It was steep, rocky, and fast. Pick the wrong line and you are in trouble. The end of this section dumped us along Lac La Belle on a long stretch of blacktop. There were only three of us from the group that made it through that first gravel sector. I kept a strong pace and left my group of three behind. I passed two others on the road. In hindsight, I wish I had about 12 riders on that section to paceline. I averaged about 18 mph, but a group would’ve done it 20+. The group behind had the power of numbers and caught me about 5 miles into the next gravel section. We rode as a group of about 15 stopping for the first of five required selfies at “The Cliffs”. I rode with this group all the way to Houghton at mile 70 for the first sanctioned aid station.
Houghton was an oasis of joy. There was a huge spread of food and drink to load up on, and more importantly, a bathroom to finish some #unfinishedbusiness. The crew of volunteers was super friendly and supportive. In that Houghton group was another rider that I later dubbed Chicago Steve. He and I pulled this group for the last 45-50 miles. In races like this, you try to size up other riders that you think you can ride with. Chicago Steve was definitely my bro. After my nature break, I found Steve visiting with his family. Turns out the group we pulled all the way to Houghton left without us. With over 150 miles to go, I knew I’d be seeing most, if not all of those folks later. Steve and I set out with another rider from our group named Tyler. Tyler was a strong rider, too. He was a welcomed addition to the small group we were now forming.
The next required selfie stop was on Beacon Hill at the Freda ruins, a super cool abandoned copper mill on the shores of Lake Superior. As we were rolling into Freda Chicago Steve and I saw the group that we pulled into Houghton heading in the opposite direction after completing their photo. They had about 10 minutes on us. Chicago Steve and I quickly grabbed our selfies of the Freda smokestack and began the chase to rejoin the group. After about 30 minutes they were in sight. I didn’t want to overcook the chase knowing I’ll need those matches later so, we just kept a steady pace for another hour and caught them. At this point, I was feeling much stronger than Chicago Steve, so I kept the pressure on all the way to the second and final aid station in L’Anse at 160 miles at 6:00 with about 14 hours of riding complete. We pulled a couple of riders with us that I will address later. Once again, the racers were met with smiles and a huge spread at the aid station. My friend Lisa Thompson was running the show here and did an awesome job making sure all of the riders were topped off. When we arrived, there was nobody at the aid station, so we took our time. I asked Lisa how many riders had come through. She wasn’t sure, but one of the guys there was checking in riders. He heard my question and did a quick count and said, “About 14”. Holy shit!! I downed my second hotdog and started on a coke when the group of about 15 we dusted after Freda rolled in with another small group shortly behind. All of sudden the aid station was buzzing with about 20 racers. I looked at Chicago Steve, “We gotta go now!”.
We grabbed our bikes and lit out for the road. We were joined by another rider that I will simply refer to as “La Cucaracha”. This guy sucked wheel for 70 miles going into L’Anse never taking a turn. And he wasn’t the only one, by the way. I don’t care if that’s your race game, or not. If you’re in a group for 5+ hours and you don’t take a turn you’re dead to me. Okay…that’s a little harsh. Let’s just say I don’t have a lot of respect for you as a rider. Do some work. Pull your weight. I told Chicago Steve and La Cucaracha that we needed to set a paceline so the group behind doesn’t sweep us up. Chicago Steve took the first pull. I rolled through and did about 3 minutes dropping back to give the La Cucaracha his turn. I looked at him and asked if he was going to do some work. “I can’t”, was his reply. Sure. No problem. See you later. We rolled him off the wheel and said goodbye.
Chicago Steve and I could see two riders coming from behind so we had a decision to make. Press on or let them bridge up so we have a stronger group. Without knowing their gap on the rest of that group in L’Anse we chose to keep riding. We were at about 175 miles at this point approaching
Mt. Arvon, the highest natural peak in Michigan. Chicago Steve is now Super Steve because the guy still had amazing power. In fact, it was too much for me to stay on his wheel. I let him drift ahead focusing on my breathing and legs to see if I could bring it back. All that work earlier in the day started to catch up to me. After about 2 miles I realized I needed to just ease it back and let him go. I gave Super Steve the high-sign. I think he was surprised, but I needed to ride my pace. He had the legs so he should go. It didn’t take him long to be completely out of sight. Now alone I had a sinking feeling I was going to get swept up by the group behind. I made a few wrong turns on my way to the base of Mt. Arvon, but still didn’t see anyone coming. I made the left turn onto the road up the mountain and heard voices. It was the two riders we saw coming. It took them about forty-five minutes to catch me from the point we saw them, so I knew they were not feeling too fresh, either. I tried to chat them up a bit, but nothing doing. And what is this? A third rider? None other than La Cucaracha himself. Thus his nickname. You just couldn’t kill this dude.I followed these three for the VERY long and steep climb to the top. It’s one of those climbs where you think you’re hitting the peak only to find that there’s another bend…again and again. It was about 2 miles in all averaging 10-12%. My legs were cooked, but I kept them in sight all the way to the top until we hit a completely mangled section of washout about four feet deep full of rocks and roots with about a 25% grade. It sucked. Pushing the bike was the last thing my depleted body needed to get to the top. Apparently, the riders ahead lost their way as I saw them backtrack to the left. I could also hear a rider coming behind. Shit. The group is finally here. To my surprise, it was not that group, but one rider I call Grand Rapids Tom or GRT, for short. GRT, like La Cucaracha, was in the group I pulled to L’Anse. He also sat in all day complaining he was too tired to take a pull. Yet he seemed to have recovered enough to make it to the fourth selfie checkpoint atop Mt. Arvon. He took his pic and then rode off only to stay about 400 meters in front of me for the next 3 miles. This surprised me because, like La Cucaracha, GRT let others do his work most of the day. If I were him, I’d consider this a golden opportunity to redeem myself and throw a little love to another rider that helped you out all day…especially when the lights are about to go out. We still had 40 miles to go and the sun was making its farewell exit. Seriously, you don’t really want to be out here by yourself in the dark.
I slowly started to recover and bridged up to GRT. I’m not a grudge holder and it was clear we were both happy to have some company to ride the last 40 miles in the dark. I gave him a little shit for sitting in all day. He said he wanted to help, but he felt sick most of the day. I gave him a few more jabs and we had a good laugh. Our next destination was the unknown location of a “white trailer” containing a pot-luck potpourri of drinks and snacks. I personally stocked a cooler full of mini-cokes for the racers so I was properly motivated to find the damn thing.
After a few more sandy ATV miles we pulled onto to a blacktop section, then rolled into a parking area along the Yellow Dog River. The trailer!!! GRT and I downed a coke, took a few pics of a sign we knew to foreshadow pending doom. Todd is no stranger to this tactic. The Marji course is littered with signs tacked on trees reading, “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny”.
These signs are your cue that you’re about to go up something that will rip your legs off, down something that will make you shit yourself, mangle a rear derailleur hanger, or all the above. In this case, Todd is letting you know you’re about to really discover what you’re made of. Somebody also left something special for Todd in the trailer…
The next sections of the course are pretty blurry for me. It was getting late and my brain was starting to feel the effects of the day’s effort. My friend at the checkpoint, Lisa Thompson of @girlunsupervised fame, rode the 190-mile HAMR version of this race last year. In fact, she’s the poster child for the back page of the passport we carried. I faintly recall her talking about a pit of hell called Mosquito Gulch. After we waded the Yellow Dog River, we began a climb unfit for goats or Sherpas. “Blame Todd” definitely came to mind as GRT and I started pushing our bikes up the gulch. True to its name, the mosquitos made an appearance, but I have to admit I’ve seen worse as far as bloodsuckers go. I’m pretty sure this disaster of a trail smashes you right into another shit-show section of the course called the “Mulligan Truck Route”. I did not see any trucks and I sure as hell wouldn’t advise trying to ride this mess in the dark. For the next 3 miles, you go up and down a washout full of ankle-deep mud pits and rocks the size of Herman Munster’s head. Good news, though…if you make it through this hell on earth you will be rewarded. You’ve punched through to the other side for a pretty smooth course to the end.
After a sandy section of double track, you come to a “T” on Red Road. There were some kind souls sitting at the intersection with a little fire going and coolers full of drinks. I topped off my water and readied for the next 25 miles to the Noque Trail Head and home sweet fucking home. We had one more selfie to take before we finished at the intersection of 510 and Red Road. The kind folks tending the fire told us all we had to do was stay on this road until we find it. “You can’t miss it!”, is his parting words. We road for what felt like a long damn time with no sight of this sign or intersection. I was getting nervous, but the road was firm sand and had a gradual descent…a welcomed set of circumstances as we eclipsed the 200-mile mark. GTR and I swapped some stories and to keep the mood high as we rode through the night in search of our last selfie stop. The road finally came to an end. This it. The last picture. Where the hell is the sign?
We turned around a few times looking for the road sign we needed to document. The words “You can’t miss it!” ringing in my ears. After a minute I see a black pickup parked on the side of the road. The window slowly rolls down and the guy inside tells us to look behind us. Sure as shit there it is. It’s not a road sign, but an orange construction barrel with reflective tape on it with the words Red Road painted on it in red paint reminiscent of the cover of Helter Skelter, the Manson Family story. We got our pics, took a quick nature break and headed out for the last leg. The miles ticked off pretty easy, but I was getting to that “I just want to be done with this” part of my day. We missed another turn about 3 miles from the finish allowing two riders to catch us. We had to jump over some railroad tracks to chase them down. My light was starting to fade and lacking front suspension, I decided to take it easy down the dark double track. No need to put myself in danger for two places. There was a dismount ahead where we had to get off the bike to cross a bridge, so we were able to catch them after all. They said they couldn’t find the Red Road sign and didn’t get their last pic. I’m thinking, “Cool…they can’t beat us because they didn’t get all the required pictures.” With that information, we rode all the way to Forestville as a small group. They missed the last turn into the finish line so I rolled in before them for 16th place in a time 19:03:00.
All in all, it was a great time and I strongly recommend it if you want full dose of U.P. adventure riding. I stuck to my plan and it worked (this time). I beat my target time by an hour and maintained my average speed to get there in time. You can do this race however it fits your goals and needs. Party-on ride? Sure! Go for top 10? Do it. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t miss those selfie stops. If you don’t want to DQ, you better roll back and get them. Turns out the two guys we rolled in with were disqualified…meaning #unfinishedbusiness for those two dudes. They did not take the news quietly either. One of them threw a man-sized baby tantrum swearing at the volunteers and throwing things around. That’s not cool. Read the directions, follow the rules. Man up. Be responsible for yourself and actions. Better luck next year.
The whip: I chose to ride my Lynskey GR260 gravel bike with 27.5×2.2 tires. I’m a big fan of the fast-rolling, racy Vittoria Mezcal. They’re amazing tires. Bike choice was exhaustively discussed with riders pre-race. I didn’t regret my choice until the Mulligan Truck Trail. That shit needs a full-on mountain bike with suspension to ride it. I used two JPak chuck bags on my handlebars for food and accessories, a JPak Barrito roll for clothes, and a Blackburn frame bag for the rest of my gear. My only addition for next year is a bigger seat bag to balance the load a bit. I ran a Garmin 1030 for navigation.
The People: I had so much fun with the guys I rode with. Thanks again for GRT for the companionship at the end, even though I cursed you under my breath earlier that day. La Cucaracha for pushing me to drop you (Ha!) and Super Chicago Steve for the pace all day. Nice job on that 12th place finish dude! Big shout out to Jay Henderson at One 0n One Bike Studio in Minneapolis. Your wrench skills are best on the planet and I love you like a brother. Rob Meendering did an amazing job covering the action out on the course (photo credit to Rob for the race pics). Lisa Thompson and Eddie Karrow you two always bring the awesome and you know why. Todd Poquette and crew of volunteers are absolutely amazing. Keep doing what you do for the kids in the 906 Adventure Team.
Give these folks some love…