A favorite fall adventure of mine is the Heck of the North gravel cycling race, taking place this September 25 north of Two Harbors. Not only does it have a really cool name, this event can change you as a person. I had never tried bicycle racing until I was 37, and that memorable first Heck race in fall of 2016 opened a new world to me, and a new part of my soul.
I was never a competitive person, but something about the Heck brought out some primeval inner desire to test myself. Maybe it was the excellent race marketing that hooked me? The fascinating photography of the racers and the course? I wanted not only a physical endurance test, but a mental one, too. Could I manage riding 55 miles on gravel roads and ATV trails, navigating over rocks and submarining gaping puddles, taking on a course that could break me? I was skeptical. Yet for the first time, I felt an odd pull to give it a shot. My general familiarity with biking gave me the fool-heartedness to try taking on this beast of the Northern Wilds.
I was a nervous wreck the morning of the race. I picked up my friend Nahom before sunrise in Duluth, and we drove out to the start location in the enormous North Shore State Trail parking lot. I was fumbling my way to the start line, feeling intimidated by all the racers in spandex, the special language that they used, and the raw energy in the air. But once that start horn rang out, it hit me: the fresh fall air, the autumn scent of the Superior National Forest, and my inner drive were all making me race-worthy. I was suddenly up for the challenge. Nahom was my guide and I just tried to hang on for dear life as we sped through the woods. Come to find out, I had it in me all along.
As Nahom and I put more miles behind us (I signed up for the 50-mile race), and the crisp morning began to warm, I figured it out: this was exactly what I had been looking for subconsciously. It was the camaraderie of being with like-minded people in the great outdoors that I found so satisfying. These were my people. I was part of something bigger—our welcoming North Shore biking community. I was a direct part of nature’s intense beauty, too. Every crank of the pedals brought me a little more harmony, an impulsive rhythm. The next four hours were a transformative experience.
Five years and many more Heck races down the line, I’ve signed the whole family up to do our first 20-mile Heck together this year. I’m looking forward to exposing my wife and daughters to the same awe I always feel on this amazing north woods ride. I know they’re ready for this fall tradition, too. Biking through rugged northern Minnesota’s fall colors is a special way to discover who you really are inside, and to embrace a community of outdoor enthusiasts who pay their respect to nature on two wheels.
By Chris Pascone