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All in a day's work: Ellsworth resident goes the distance in 24-hour bike race

Jessop Keene, pictured in the red helmet, pushes ahead during the National 24-Hour Challenge in Michigan on June 20. (Photo courtesy of Al Stover)

Ellsworth native Jessop Keene wakes up every morning and travels by bicycle from his family’s home in rural Ellsworth to his summer internship in downtown St. Paul.

Although this 73-mile round trip to work in may seem like a lot, it’s nothing considering the 482 miles the Prescott High School graduate biked during a 24-hour race on June 20 in Middleville, Mich. Keene finished as the runner-up in the the National 24-Hour Challenge, behind only Scott Luikart of Ohio who biked 493.9 miles in the daylong race.

A record-setting pace in his last seven-mile lap helped Keene close the gap with the leader. The 23-year-old averaged 27 mph over the final 7 miles, which was well ahead of his race pace around 20 mph.

“They didn’t think I would make it, but I made it with a minute to spare,” Keene said. “They told me I made history with that one.”

Keene was already at a disadvantage after he was one of very few riders who did not have a tent and crew to help out during the race. Being a rookie to the 24-hour race, he did not know the benefits to enlisting help ahead of time.

“Luckily, some guys told me they could put my stuff in their tent,” Keene said. “Eventually I got one of the guys to fill up my water bottle so I could keep moving and not take any more time than I needed to. So that was pretty helpful, but I was all alone.”

Keene got the idea to ride the 24-hour race after fellow Pierce County-based rider Dan Woll had introduced him to endurance riding in a 12-hour race years ago. Woll, who has done the 24-Hour Challenge three times, had some useful advice.

“Stay on your bike, and don’t take breaks because breaks end up costing you so many miles,” Keene recalled.

Keene first got into biking with a River Falls-based riding group that meets every Wednesday. Woll said Keene, who at the time was still a student at Prescott High School, was inexperienced and did not have the high-level equipment many of the other riders used.

“He kind of took a beating the first couple of weeks, because some of the bikers are pretty good,” Woll said. “But it was obvious he had a lot of guts and determination, and he was a fun guy. He stuck with it, and pretty soon he had established himself as a talented athlete.”

Keene has since grown into an experienced rider, which is evident by glancing at the results sheet from the National 24-Hour Challenge. Woll said the second-place finish was impressive not only because many of the other riders had the help of crew members and familiar bikers to draft with, but also for the rapid final lap after 24 hours of racing.

“If you watch the Tour de France tonight, there are very few times they’re riding 27 miles per hour,” Woll said. “That was a phenomenal accomplishment to do that after 24 hours of riding, to do a lap at 27 miles per hour? That’s incredible.”

The 24-hour race was not Keene’s only long-distance experience on a bicycle this summer. Right after wrapping up his spring semester at UW-Stout, he tackled a three-week bike trip across the United States from San Diego to Boston.

Keene’s father, Cub Keene, who passed away a few years ago, was his inspiration to tackle the cross-country journey.

“Thirty years ago my dad biked across (the U.S.), so I wanted to try it myself,” Keene said. “Only I didn’t take three months, it took three weeks.”

Keene brought a bivy sack with him for sleeping at night on the trip, though he tried to stay indoors when the weather was bad. One help in the journey was a website for bicycle tourists called, which connects travelers to people who are willing to give up sleeping space in their homes for a night.

Keene said physically the trip was taxing at times. He was able to slowly build up his strength throughout the 21-days of riding.

“By the first week, I still felt pretty good mentally,” Keene said. “But my body felt like it was falling apart, so I just tried to eat as much meat as I could. You know, keep riding and see what happens. It got a lot better as I got stronger, somehow I made it.”

Keene, who still has three semesters left to complete his education at UW-Stout, said he did not have much time for bicycle training this spring with a heavy course load. So the 21-day cross-country trip was a big help in preparing for the National 24-Hour Challenge.

He said the secret to being successful in a long-distance biking race is to get as much practice as possible.

“That’s probably the biggest thing, is just getting time on your bike,” Keene said. “It doesn’t really matter how fast you are going, you just need to spend a lot of time riding your bike and getting the miles in your legs.”

Keene has no plans of slowing down from bike adventures. On August 1, he is planning an attempt to set the record for fastest trip across the state of Wisconsin on a bike. The record, which was set last year, is 16-and-a-half hours.

And yes, Keene still plans to give the National 24-Hour Challenge another try.

“Like an hour after I finished I was scheming for next year, how to improve and stuff,” Keene said. “It’s kind of addicting, it’s pretty sick.”