Looks like some runners are going to try Challenge #3, really looking forward to see how it goes for them. Until they finish their run and post their stories and since there is nothing else in the Muerto story hopper at the moment, here is a run down of some bikepacking that I did in South Dakota.

For about a year or so I have been thinking about doing the Black Hills Expedition, a 430 mile bikepacking race that takes you through South Dakota and a bit of Wyoming. I couldn’t make the grand depart date in September so I decided to come out in August and try an ITT, a week before Laura’s marathon which was also in South Dakota. 

I contacted Jason Thorman, organizer for the BHX, with a few questions about the course and about parking my vehicle in Spearfish. Jason not only gave me info on parking he provided me with an updated GPX, list of water sources along the course, advice, and some great hospitality.

With that I was ready to go. What follows are some impressions and experiences about the ride, what worked and what didn’t.

THE PLAN

The plan was to take 6 days to ride the course which worked out to be an average of 70 miles a day. Talking with Jason, he thought the course was as difficult as the Colorado Trail Race which he rode the same year that Dan and I had. Okay, I had not thought it would be that hard, I knew it would have challenges but did not think it would entail that type of difficulty. Still, having done some big events (CRT, Highlands 550, and others) I felt comfortable with what lay ahead

Sunday morning I was up at 5:00 and Jason and I were at the Millstone Family Restaurant for breakfast at 5:30. He wanted to see me off in the morning and planned to ride with me for the first hour. After  we finished breakfast it was off to the Crow Peak Brewery, the official start of the course.

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After a quick jaunt through town and short gravel road section it was immediately into the single track.

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Hello morning and the start of a great ride

THE COURSE

The course is a great mix of single and double track, forest roads, gravel, and some pavement. The off road trails are everything from buff trails to loose dusty rock sections which make traction a challenge. On this course you find yourself in meadows, creek bottoms and everything in between. My favourite sections are always in the ponderosa pines. What the BHX definitely is not is flat, up or down is all there is. The altitude is not monstrous but not insignificant, peaking out at 7120+ feet. The elevation gain however is significant with 45,500+ over 432 miles (mistake-free miles, you will do more if you go off course). Some of the elevation gain is gradual but portions of it are very punchy (24% grade) which forces you into the hike-a-bike.

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A sample trail shot
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More trail
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Riding on top of the ridges
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Forest roads
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Loose rock climbs. You can ride some of these trail but it really depends if it is the beginning of a long climb or at the end, if it’s at the end it is much better to walk and save your energy for the next climb
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Some of the trail was not so visible, thankfully there is very very little of this
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Up in the meadows in the thinner air, definitely exposed to the sun and heat
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Creek bottoms. This is trail 40, I think they call it that because you need to cross this creek 40 times
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Gravel roads. Got 3-4 dust showers as logging trucks zoomed by
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The pavement sections are kinda pretty too

THE SCENERY

South Dakota is nothing if not beautiful and bikepacking puts you into the middle of that beauty. It puts you into some of the beautiful places that you will never see from a car. I wish I had more shots of South Dakota but the ride was shorter than originally planned (more on that later).

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Lots of meadows in the woods
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Views from the top
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Sunrises are a favourite
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More views from the top
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Sometimes you’re out of the canyon and riding their edges
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Rock faces are everywhere on this course

THE GEAR

What bike should you ride on this course, FULL SUSPENSION. Not to say that you couldn’t do it on another bike, hell, if you wanted to carry a road bike for 300 miles of the course you could say that you rode it on a road bike. No one has finished this course on anything but a full suspension, so here’s your opportunity to be the first.

For this ride you need the typical bikepacking gear, one thing that is a must is a way to filter water, you will more than likely have to pull water from a stream or lake because of weather (heat) or time (some of the campgrounds where you can get resupplies are closed if you do this out of season).

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Brought the beer can stove, stopping to make coffee after the first long climb of the morning is cathartic
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Thank god there are no bugs in SD, slept on top of the bivy sac and under the tarp this night, it was a little too warm

PLACES

If you get bored by endless spectacular wilderness there are plenty of other things to see on this trail: towns, mines, graffiti (Mt Rushmore) and other oddities. I did not get to every town or place on the trail because I cut the ride short but here are few of the places I did see.

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Deadwood on the Sturgis motorcycle weekend
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Sturgis at 5:30 in the morning, where are the bikers now
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Wharf mine on Terry Peak
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Keystone South Dakota, the whole town is a live western show. Great place to buy all your batshit crazy motorcycle t-shirts, that and a slice of pizza and Bud.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

Bikepacking is the good. I love being out on the trails and backroads on a bike, getting to the places you typically can’t get to by car, add camping to the mix and its pretty much perfect.

The bad in bikepacking, there will always be some bad, will be mechanicals (flats don’t count), weather, injury, dogs chasing you (there were none on this course but I am going to start carrying pepper spray for those bastards), wrong turns, forgotten or broken equipment. The only way to deal with the bad is with a good attitude. You will need that on this trail because there is always bad on any bikepacking endeavour and this trail will definitely produce some bad for you, all tough trails do.

The ugly for me is the darkness. Not the night time darkness but the inner darkness that creeps into my brain every long ride. I seem to get a bout of darkness on every trip and the challenge is to deal with it. Usually Dan helps me with this by telling me to chill and eat some food. The darkness is usually abated with food because I often let myself get run down because I have not eaten enough during the ride. There was darkness on this trip and it had to do more with riding by myself for that long in a place that was unfamiliar, something I need to figure out for future solo rides.

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The good – the wildlife you see on the rides
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The good – early mornings on a bike
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The bad – beef. Why beef? Because we eat too much of it and thereby there is the need to raise too much beef and therefore there is too much cow shit on this earth, a lot of it on the trails of the BHX
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The could’ve been bad – weather. In this case I missed this bad weather. This is hail from the previous day in a meadow that I rode through on the fourth morning, it would’ve really hurt to have been caught in that
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The ugly – your thoughts, sometimes

PLANS CHANGED

So my plans changed. I hoped to do the full ride in 6 days. Day 1 went pretty well save for a thunderstorm that kept me from getting as far as possible on that day but not by much. Day 2 is where the difficulty of the course became apparent, coincidentally the same time as I hit the Centennial Trail . I was pretty happy with the 65 miles covered that day but it was a tough 65 miles. Day 3 it quickly became apparent that I was not going to complete the course in my time frame, not so much that I was not on pace but more due to the weather forecast that was changing. Early in the week it looked like I had good weather for the week, but that did not hold, rain was being forecast for day 5 in the afternoon and day 6 all day (which is what happened). Rain can be okay on some courses but not so much on the BHX where the mud can become very slick and awful. Rather than risk getting caught out in the crud I called it early and kept the ride to 4 days of fun.

Here’s hoping that I get to go back and do the whole course.