Riding a bike from South Dakota to Wisconsin in one day in the heat of early August might be akin to hell for some people.
More than 110 cyclists didn’t see it that way on Saturday, Aug. 3. They rode from Gary, S.D., to Hager City, on a course that consisted mainly of gravel roads. And to heighten the challenge further, no technology was allowed in navigating the course. Note cards were given out with instructions at the stops along the 244-mile course.
The race is titled “Day Across Minnesota,” but it is known as DAMn for the cyclists willing to take on this challenge. While 115 riders finished the course, that is less than half of the total who started the race at midnight on Saturday in South Dakota.
The top two finishers in the race were both local racers, with Chris Stevens of New Richmond and Thomas Olek of Roberts finishing in 12 hours, 57 minutes. Stevens and Olek were both riding as part of the Team Apex Cycling. They are also members of the Big Ring Flyers race team. Other BRF riders who completed the race were Chris Stindt (24th), Jon Creed (34th) and Greg Ichell (85th). Three other BRF members withdrew after 189 miles, Brian Headlee, Jon Hailey and Mike Green.
Stevens said the cyclists who finished at the front of the pack ended up with an advantage, because they didn’t face the worst heat of the day. Stevens was also the champion of this race in 2018.
The paper cue cards that supply instructions for the racers are a major switch from the technology-based courses on which the riders often compete. Stevens and several other local racers will be competing in Nebraska next weekend in the 150-mile Gravel World Championships.
The DAMn race offers unique circumstances because it is ridden mainly on gravel roads. There are approximately 10 miles ridden on paved roads. There are also several miles spent on lower grade gravel trails, including one 100-yard stretch through ankle-deep water early in the race. Stevens said many of the riders carried their bikes instead of riding them through the water.
“You tend to wash the lubricant out of your chain. I didn’t want to take that chance that early in the race,” Stevens said of avoiding the water.
Getting slimmed down directions proved to be a challenge, because a number of racers took wrong turns at different times during the race. Stevens said he and Olek took wrong turns twice, with the second on putting them five minutes behind the race leaders.
“There was nothing we could do but let the clock run and see what happened,” Stevens said.
This came 180 miles into the ride, meaning they’d already been riding for hours and they had the part of the course with the most hills still in front of them.
“I heard Thomas mumble 'we aren’t here for you to get second.' That was the spark that really lit my fire and clarified our mission,” Stevens said.
As they reached Cannon Falls, the leaders came into view. Shortly after, they passed the leader, and as they kept up their charge, saw that he wasn’t going with them.
“I swear I teared up a bit right there. I was physically and mentally trashed with an hour of riding to go,” Stevens said.
They rolled into Red Wing with a lead larger than three minutes, crossed the Red Wing bridge and finished the race at the Harbor Bar in Hager City.
Stevens and Olek celebrated with giant 12-inch doughnuts from Hanisch’s Bakery in Red Wing.
They said their support crew was a huge part of their success. That included both their wives, plus Olek’s parents.
Stevens is more experienced at races of this distance than Olek, but he raved about the progress that Olek showed in the race.
“Easily his greatest performance. Probably by a ton,” Stevens said. “He had a mind-blowing day.”