Hanging out at the start line before the race began in 2012, a sea of bicyclists fill the road going into the Bucknell subdivision, which was the starting area last year.  This year, more than twice as many racers have signed up and the start will be downtown.
Hanging out at the start line before the race began in 2012, a sea of bicyclists fill the road going into the Bucknell subdivision, which was the starting area last year. This year, more than twice as many racers have signed up and the start will be downtown.
When plans were finalized in 2010 for the first Almanzo 100 in Spring Valley, City Administrator Deb Zimmer joked that she made sure to see the start of the race because she wondered just who would do something like this.

After all, she didn't know any people who would jump on a bike to ride 100 miles at one time.

Even many veteran bicyclists were wondering about the race, which is self-supported on gravel roads, something relatively rare at the time. The fact that it is completely free for participants made the race even more of an anomaly in the bicycling world.

However, it quickly gained a dedicated following and now as the race enters its fourth year in Spring Valley on Saturday, May 18, the question isn't who would show up, but how big can it get? A record field of nearly 1,500 bicyclists has signed up for the 2013 event, which has grown each year to now feature races of three different lengths plus foot races and other activities.

Origin of race

When Almanzo 100 founder Chris Skogen called City Hall before the 2010 race, Zimmer said that, despite her wonderment at such a race, she was "ecstatic" that someone was interested in holding a new event in Spring Valley, which had just set up a tourism committee.

She referred Skogen to Kathy Simpson, a member of the new tourism committee who turned out to be the right person to take the lead on making the event happen in Spring Valley. In the months before that referral call, she had a vision of mountain bike trails in the area, but after attending a session with the DNR and other officials, the process seemed daunting and she had buried the idea for the time being. So when a bicyclist called looking for a home for his race, she wasted no time in making Spring Valley feel like a welcome location.

She met with Skogen and his wife, Annie, at the A & W she owns with her husband, Mark. Then she introduced Skogen to officials at the school, where the race would be based the first two years, as well as other leaders in Spring Valley.

Skogen had already been sold on what he refers to as "the stunning landscape" of Fillmore County gravel roads. After meeting with local people, he was sold on Spring Valley as a welcoming home for the race.

That was in contrast to the feeling he got in Rochester, where the race started in 2007. Fees that he thought were exorbitant and other factors led him to seek out another base community for his long-distance race. He chose Spring Valley after reading about Spring Valley's new tourism committee.

When plans were finalized for that first race in Spring Valley, neither Simpson nor Skogen really knew what to expect for the race that was still in its infancy. The first three years when it ran out of Rochester, the entrants had never totaled more than 100. And, the race was starting in a community that Skogen had no interaction with prior to his call to City Hall.

However, over the years, community leaders and Skogen have grown to admire each other as it has been a mutually beneficial relationship. Spring Valley welcomes the visitors to the city and the recognition it receives as a result of the growing stature of the race while Skogen appreciates the cooperation from the city and a growing list of volunteers that helps him stay true to his mission of keeping the race free for participants.

Simpson said right from the start she could sense the sincerity and passion in Skogen's presentation. She was "grateful" to be a part of this event and believed in his confidence that it would be a major Midwestern race and his commitment to making it free.

"He's adamant that the race remain free because he wants everyone to have the opportunity to get on a bike," said Simpson.

Instant success

Both Skogen and Simpson were pleasantly surprised when about 400 bicyclists signed up for that first race in Spring Valley. Little did they know that the race would continue to grow every year while gaining national and even international recognition.

A magazine in the United Kingdom recently featured the race, highlighting Spring Valley in the opening paragraph, adding that the race is demanding, featuring almost 8,000 feet of vertical climbing, but it is also "one of the most beautiful, traversing through southern Minnesota farm country - gravel style!"

The event has been featured in several other magazines and websites throughout the country, mostly geared toward bicyclists. The race has also been featured in other general interest media and Skogen was preparing last Thursday for an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.

A big factor in the increasing recognition of the race is a movie made at the 2012 event by Royal Antler, a creative film agency in the Twin Cities. The premier was shown at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis last August.

"I thought Royal Antler did an excellent job of depicting the race, of small town living, and of our beautiful Fillmore County. Chris and his vision for Almanzo was well done, too," said Simpson at the time of the showing. "I was pleased when a roar from the crowd and much applause sounded when the city of Spring Valley was first mentioned, showing their appreciation for the city and surrounding area."

Simpson has been a tireless volunteer for the event, now known as Wilderfest, which has grown in size and number of activities each year. She has been the key community contact reaching out to Skogen to take care of the logistics locally while Skogen has also put in many hours reaching out to the bicycling community to grow the event.

Simpson said he struggled with getting corporate sponsors, but he did that this year so he could keep the growing race free. A bicycle tire company is also producing tires named the Almanzo and other companies are producing products with the Almanzo name on them.

Changes each year

After the success of the first year with the Almanzo 100, Skogen decided to add the Royal 162, a 162-mile race on gravel roads in 2011. In 2012, three foot races, also on gravel roads, was added. This year, the newest addition is the Alexander, which begins Friday at 5 a.m. It takes bicyclists on a journey of nearly 400 miles through three states.

The big change in the community this year is that all events will be downtown. It was always meant to be downtown, said Zimmer, Simpson and Julie Mlinar, three tourism committee members heavily involved in planning the event this year. However, in past years there were conflicts with scheduling the community center, which often gets booked up a year or more in advance for weddings.

The community center will be the base for bicyclists and runners all weekend with the starting line and finish area just outside its doors.

One potential problem turned out to be of little concern as the Minnesota Department of Transportation granted permission to close Highways 16 & 63 for 15 minutes the morning of the race so bicyclists could get from downtown to the gravel roads east of town.

Broadway Avenue downtown will be blocked off early that morning for the bicyclists to start. The starting line is a bit fluid at this point as there is uncertainty how many bicyclists can fit in the downtown area. It is tentatively set for the intersection with Jefferson Street, but it may be pushed northward to the post office or even beyond.

Skogen said "the move to downtown this year should create a more central location for everyone to coexist - riders and locals alike."

Although the race will shut down the highway and a few streets in town for 15 to 20 minutes, this will be a "very minor inconvenience," said Zimmer, as the tradeoff is increased visibility and tourism for the city. It can also lead to economic development as she pointed out that the Salsa Guy Shop that opened last year came about in part because of the relationship of owner Daryl Boettcher with Skogen.

Community event

The community has been involved in the event in many ways. Businesses have been supportive of the people it draws and community groups have also tied into the event with related events, including a spaghetti feed and market.

More and more people are also helping with the logistics of the races as they grow. Although Simpson, Zimmer and Mlinar have put in many hours preparing for the visitors, Kevin Beck, a Fillmore County sheriff's deputy who was policy coordinator for Spring Valley, has been the official starter for the race the past three years. This year, he will be joined by other law enforcement and fire department and ambulance service personnel to keep the city streets safe for the bicyclists as they make their way from downtown to the gravel roads.

The tourism committee has also made a map with various parking spots throughout the city for bicyclists to leave their cars and bike down to the starting line. Packets also include local information and coupons for local businesses.

Zimmer noted that many people aren't aware that Skogen has often made donations to community groups in the past for their assistance with the event. She and Simpson note that he is very modest and tries to keep the focus on the races, not himself.

Although many local people still wonder who would do some of the events, such as a 400-mile bicycle race new this year or the 63-mile foot race added last year, the community has embraced the annual event.

This weekend, local residents will find out how many bicyclists and runners have embraced the challenge of going the distance on their own during the fourth Wilderfest event in Spring Valley. Although the races have had some additional challenges from the weather, such as the cold and rain two years ago or the heat last year, Spring Valley can be assured there will be a large crowd at the starting line this weekend.