Bicyclists visit with each other in downtown Spring Valley prior to the start of the Almanzo 100 in 2013. About 1,000 riders eventually filled the street for the race. DAVID PHILLIPS/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Bicyclists visit with each other in downtown Spring Valley prior to the start of the Almanzo 100 in 2013. About 1,000 riders eventually filled the street for the race. DAVID PHILLIPS/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Spring Valley will be the focal point for gravel road bicyclists - and grass track racers - Friday and Saturday during the annual Wilderfest bicycling weekend.

The three gravel road races, including the original Almanzo 100, which is by far the most popular, set another record for entries with just under 1,800 signed up for the 2014 events. Last year, the fourth year the race has been held in Spring Valley and the first time it started from downtown, approximately 1,500 signed up beforehand and around 1,000 participated.

The thousand bicyclists crammed into downtown Spring Valley at the start last year was quite a sight to see. Even event organizer Chris Skogen was overcome with emotion during his pre-race address as the reality of something he envisioned in 2007 came to life, bigger than ever.

His vision of a free bicycling event open to anyone got a little bigger once again this year as the bicycling activities spread to Friday evening with a new event called Run Wha Cha Brung, a series of grass track races near the city camper area two miles east of Spring Valley.

Although the event takes people outside Spring Valley, the rural setting is ideal for families, said Kathy Simpson, a local tourism committee member who has been working with the race organizers since the event came to Spring Valley five years ago.

"The rural setting lends itself to plenty of physical activity with wide open spaces for the kids - and their parents," she said.

The site will have a gravel bike expo, a bike themed film festival and other entertainment in addition to the grass track racing. Gravel road racers will also be able to check in from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday at that location for the Saturday events.

There are at least 18 vendors in the expo, including bicycle related businesses such as regional custom frame builders, bike manufacturers, clothing vendors and parts manufacturers. Local businesses include the A & W, the Pizza Place, Minnesota Joe's, and Sparrow's Closet.

There will be a stage trailer with a PA system for announcing and even music as Simpson has also arranged for blues musician Joe Scott to perform. At dusk, bicycling related movies will be shown. Craft beer and root beer will be available.

The main focus for the evening, though, will be the grass track races organized by Andy Tetmeyer of Hed Cycling Products of the Twin Cities in conjunction with Skogen. The expo and track will be set up in the afternoon, opening about 3 p.m. with the races beginning around 6 p.m.

Tetmeyer said this Friday event was added "with a view toward growing the event into a weekend destination instead of a one-day thing." The gravel road races have a large geographical draw - last year, racers came from Europe, Canada and Australia in addition to many states - so "we're trying to give them something else to do and get them into Spring Valley."

The first couple of years, Skogen had an open invitation for racers to camp in his backyard in Rochester the night before the race. As the race grew, that became unworkable. This year, many Spring Valley residents are opening up their homes for the bicyclists to stay overnight. Many of them, though, may end up pitching a tent Friday night in the camping area just outside Spring Valley.

"With cooperation from the city, we're bringing back the early years with an invite to camp in Spring Valley's backyard the night before and enjoy some entertainment at the same time," said Tetmeyer.

Area residents are welcome to join in the evening activities, and even participate in the grass track races, which may have beginners or youth divisions if there is enough interest. For more details on how grass track racing works and how this type of racing has the potential to grow, see this week's edition of the Spring Valley Tribune.

As is with the case for all events over the weekend, the grass track races are free. That has been a consistent focus for Skogen over the years, even as his races have expanded.

"All of our events are free to enter because we believe whole-heartedly in eliminating barriers to the sport that is bicycle racing," he said during one of the earlier races.

The Almanzo started in 2007 in Rochester as a very informal group getting together for a long ride. Skogen built on that modest beginning and expanded the field of races after the move to Spring Valley in 2010.

The Almanzo 100, the original race of Skogen's, is a 100-mile self-supported gravel road race. The concept is simple, explains Skogen in his blog. The course is laid out and riders are given cue sheets to find their way. If a rider has a flat tire, no one will come to the rescue.

"Everything you do is up to you," he wrote. "It's really like a long group ride. No support. No sag. No aid stations. Just you, your bike and the road in front of you."

The event has an elevation change of about 7,000 feet as it winds through the hills and valleys of Fillmore County. The event starts at 9 a.m. with a finishing window of 12 hours.

The most current roster had 1,653 riders signed up for the Almanzo 100.

The Royal 162, added to the mix in 2011, is a longer one-day version of the Almanzo. At 162 miles, the route dips down into northern Iowa, but follows much of the Almanzo route in Minnesota. Again, it is self-supported on gravel roads.

The elevation change is about 10,000 feet. Participants start at 7 a.m. and have 15 hours to finish. More than 100 riders had signed up for this race by the deadline last winter.

The Alexander, which was added last year, "exists to push all of the envelopes," wrote Skogen in his blog. Covering 380 miles of mostly gravel roads, this event goes into Iowa and Wisconsin and has 27,000 feet of elevation change.

It starts early Friday morning and there is no deadline to finish. As of Feb. 11, there were 28 persons signed up for this race.

"With no finishing window, your effort is entirely up to you," wrote Skogen. "What that means is that if you want to hammer it out in 36 hours (it's been done), go for it. If you want to ride it over the course of three weeks, please do."

Last year, the wet spring caused problems for the participants, making one crossing treacherous as the river rose throughout the day. It hasn't been as wet this year, but Skogen drove all three courses April 29 to inspect conditions.

The Almanzo course was completely open, he reported. Although there were no major concerns, he did note that the first 40-mile stretch from Spring Valley to Preston was littered with potholes, which could change depending if graders got out for spring maintenance.

There were also no major concerns with the Royal 162 course, although he noted that there is a troublesome seven-mile section across northern Iowa "in the form of squishy roads" that has existed in the past.

The Alexander course was completely passable by bicycle or on foot, but had three places that weren't passable by automobile.

Simpson said they will be watching the water crossings carefully and reroute if the water looks like it will be hazardous. Although experienced bicyclers handled the crossing, putting the bikes on their backs and using a rope to navigate the crossing, the conditions could be terrifying for novices, she said.

Since Skogen wants the race to be for all riders of all levels, he will make changes to accommodate them if conditions worsen, reported Simpson.

One series of events missing from this year's Wilderfest weekend is the Wilder Foot Races. They started in 2012 to give runners the chance to experience the gravel roads in self-supported races that ranged from about 20 miles to 62 miles.

The organizer of the events, Dustin Harford, has had an unusually busy year that made it impossible to hold the event the same weekend. An alternative weekend originally planned didn't work out. He hopes to return next year with the foot races.

There will be other related events in Spring Valley, including a Sunday breakfast put on by the Spring Valley Ambulance Association, museum tours, city-wide rummage sales and the Eliza Jane Market in Spring Creek Park on Saturday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Also, community members will be more involved in the start of the race with a color guard and the singing of the national anthem by Julie Mlinar. As was the case last year, the races will start downtown and travel through Spring Valley to the school before hitting the gravel roads on the north side.

The race itself will be more back to the basics for Skogen, who got corporate sponsors last year and had elaborate bags for participants, said Simpson. Although Skogen keeps a low profile, he pours a lot of effort into this event and supports community organizations behind the scenes, said Simpson, who has a lot of respect for the race organizer.

"He's the man who made it all happen," she told a crowd at a Spring Valley Kiwanis meeting where she spoke recently.

Although the race has grown, he still keeps the personal touch, congratulating each bicyclist crossing the finish line. Last year, he had to deal with the rising water situation at the crossing near Preston, so missed out on part of the tradition, but his wife, Annie, filled in.

The rest of the family is also involved. The first race was held on the birthday of his son, Jack, so each year the participants sing "Happy Birthday" to him prior to starting off on their journey. His father, Steve Skogen, helped announce the pre-race details last year, taking the microphone when Chris was overwhelmed with emotion.

The annual race is often on Skogen's mind, even out of season, and he takes time to reflect on the event throughout the year on his Almanzo blog.

"It has been a very interesting journey and one that I am very grateful for. I have met a ton of people along the way and received endless amounts of help and support," he wrote last winter.

He also noted that although there will be "a lot less frill" this year, he looks at it as an opportunity to get back to what truly lies deep in his heart, riding bikes just to ride bikes - to "continue down the path that isn't paved...the path I've come to love."