Riding The Big Mick
by Joe Rohner
The 12th Annual "Big Mick" Rally was held in South Dakota on June 16th. Carmel and I were going to be in Deadwood that weekend to visit Carmel's daughter, Kristel, who told me about the rally, and lives about 2 miles away from the start. I signed up without really knowing what to expect and found it was very different from the Rallies we see in Dallas.
The first big difference was that the rally was almost entirely off road. The George S. Mickelson Trail is one of the premier trails created by the Rails to Trails Conservancy. It stretches 115 miles from Lead to Edgemont, South Dakota, through the incredibly beautiful Black Hills on an abandoned rail line of the Burlington Northern Railroad. I heard there are plans to eventually extend it to almost 400 miles. The Big Mick rally ended in Hot Springs about 104 miles from Lead. While the trail has a net elevation loss of almost 3,000 feet from Lead to Hot Springs, we climbed almost 5,000 feet in the first 50 miles to the Crazy Horse monument and then dropped 8,000 feet from Crazy Horse to Hot Springs. The maximum grade was about 3%, but don't let that fool you, a 3% grade that goes on forever is tough. Due to some recent trail damage the last eighteen miles were out on dirt roads that had rolling hills more like we are used to riding in the Lancaster area. Except for the hills the dirt road wasn't much different than riding the trail. Some of the riders were complaining about hills on the road being too steep, but I found it to be a nice change. The trail surface was at different points either crushed limestone, clay or gravel. The distribution of bikes was about one third mountain bikes, one third cycle cross and one third touring or hybrid bikes.
Here's a good look at the trail surface. This looks flat but is really uphill.
Because it was a one-way Rally riders were on their own for transportation at the end of the rally. One option was to take a shuttle service back to the start for $75 dollars. Some people left their cars in Hot Springs, rode the shuttle the night before the rally and slept in a hotel in Lead so their cars were waiting for them at the finish line. Other people arranged for someone to pick them up.
The one way trip and the fact that it was an off road rally created some unique logistics issues. SAG vehicles would only take you to the designated finish lines, not back to the start. Also because the trail did not run close to the road for many miles at a time SAG support was limited. In between the rest stops, which were usually in towns that had grown up around the rail line you were pretty much on your own if you had a mechanical. There were sweep riders on the trail but there are limits to what they could deal with. I didn't see any buzzards circling over the trail, so I guess it all worked out. I later learned that fewer than 10 people abandoned the ride and that was pretty typical for the Big Mick. I guess most people knew what to expect and were ready for it.
It was a small rally by Dallas standards. The Century Ride had 102 riders, the Metric Century 9 riders, the Half-Century 9 riders, and the 32 mile Fun Ride had 2 entries. But the riders were more geographically diverse than we see; there were entrants from 18 states in the US and 2 provinces of Canada.
One of the railroad tunnels.
An unusual feature of the Mickelson trail is that it goes through several railroad tunnels in the first half of the ride. These were interesting, but I found them somewhat disorienting because they were so dark inside and your only point of reference is the light at the end of the tunnel.
In this rally, people start in reverse order of what you see in the Dallas area; slow people first, fast people last. This compressed the window of time that riders would be arriving at the later rest stops and the finish line. The first riders left about 5:00am the fastest riders left at 8:00am. I left at 5:45 and arrived at 4:30pm with about an hour or so for meals and rest stops. I think there were still 30 or 40 riders out on the course when I got in. The last shuttle to Lead left Hot Springs at 7:00pm which made me wonder what would happen if you had a bad mechanical problem and couldn't make it to the finish line in time?
The temperature extremes were a little hard to deal with. The weather forecast was for a low in the fifties and a high of 90. What I didn't realize was the forecast was for Rapid City, which was several thousand feet lower than Lead. The actual low was in the thirties and there were pockets that seemed even colder when you dipped into low spots so I froze my butt off for the first two hours of the ride because I only had a windbreaker.
Early in the morning, in one of the low spots. Brrr!
It was a relatively expensive rally to enter. The entrance fee for the Century was $75 but it was a good deal because that included 3 full meals plus four or five other rest stops. Breakfast was at the town of Rochmont in a tiny community center. By the time I got there I was chilled to the core from riding in 30 degree weather with only a windbreaker. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a pot belly wood stove crackling and glowing in the corner with half a dozen riders standing around it. Then the smell hit me; scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, sausage, coffee. A real life saver. It thawed me out pretty quickly. Lunch was hoagies, chips, cookies and fruit up at the Crazy Horse monument. A big cookout was waiting for us at the finish line with Hamburgers, Grilled Chicken, Hot Dogs, Brats, Chips, salads and soft drinks. And they sold cold beers for $2 at the finish line! They could have sold them for $10; nothing ever tasted so good. My only complaint was they only had light beer. Really? Really? I doubt anyone who just ride 104 stinking miles through the Black Hills would have cared about the extra 50 calories in a regular beer.
Breakfast at Rochmont. Note the pot belly stove to the left of the picture.
The rail line goes through open range, so there are usually Cows and cowpies on the trail. I encountered a small herd of Black Angus Cows, who moved grudgingly off the trail to let the riders by. I also saw several deer and what I think were either Marmots or Woodchucks.
Finally, I got the greatest first aid tip for cramps I ever heard. After 70 miles, I started getting terrible leg cramps and thought I was going to have to drop out. I managed to limp into the next rest area stopping every couple of hundred yards to stretch out my quads, and was disappointed to find they didn't have any bananas. One of the volunteers told me they had packets of the cold remedy, EmergenC and recommended I take a couple. Each packet of EmergenC contains 200mg of Potassium, about the equivalent of 10 bananas. I had two packets in a pint of water and the cramps went away for the duration of the trip.
So, it was really different than what we see in Dallas, but it was really good. The rally is scheduled next year for the third Saturday in June. There is a good chance Carmel and I will be back in Deadwood to visit next summer and I plan to do the rally again if the timing works out. If any of you get the chance to do it sometime, I highly recommend it. Just remember to dress warmer than the forecast and watch out for the cowpies on the trail.
Joe at the finish line. Note the knobby hybrid tires and the can of beer in my left hand.
Other articles in the series:
Talimena Scenic Byway by Warren Smith
Cycling in Italy by Philip Watson and Susan Medlock
Colorado Cycling - Great rides for all skill levels by Joe Rohner
From the Third Roman Empire to the Third Reich: Brittany and Normandy by Joe Rohner
10 things you always wanted to know about Ireland but were afraid to ask by Joe Rohner