TWO HARBORS, Minn. — The Heck series of gravel road bicycle races continues next weekend with the 225-mile Heck Epic: a two-day endurance race taking cyclists up the North Shore from Two Harbors to Grand Marais and back on some of the most scenic — and less traveled — gravel roads of Cook and Lake counties.
The Epic is the second of three Heck series races this summer. The Le Grand du Nord race was in May and the third race — the 10th annual Heck of the North — is coming in September.
The popularity of gravel road bicycle racing seems to be growing quickly in Minnesota and the Midwest, Heck series event director Jeremy Kershaw said.
“We had 360 (racers) for the Le Grand du Nord race over Memorial Day. We’ll be somewhere between 350 and 400 for the Heck of the North in September. We’re filled out with 70 people for this coming weekend — that’s all we can handle for this race,” Kershaw said. “We’re not as big as some of the big gravel events that get 2,000 or 3,000. But it’s growing.”
Gravel road racing is a little less technical than single-track mountain biking, Kershaw said, but is a definite change of pace from paved road biking. There’s more resistance with gravel racing, but most participants enjoy the additional effort. There is also less vehicle traffic to deal with and the pace makes it easier to admire Minnesota’s scenery.
“You see things, a lot more beautiful country, you notice that more on gravel roads,” he said. “You can take a gravel road and rediscover beautiful places right around your home. Or maybe, if you grew up in the city, discover new places you didn’t know existed.”
Kershaw said gravel cycling should mean more than just cranking out hundreds of off-pavement miles. It should mean adventure, which is why he started the Heck series along the North Shore and the Superior National Forest.
The Heck series attracts both hardcore speed racers aiming to win as well as novices and veteran gravel riders who are in it for the experience — like camping in downtown Grand Marais next weekend — as well as finishing a challenging course.
“My focus is on people in the mid-pack or toward the back who are trying hard to do something that’s really pretty difficult,” he said. “The speed guys are the ones getting lost and blowing red lights and giving me the most headaches.”
The Heck of the North name comes as a Minnesota Nice spoof on the famous Paris-to- Roubaix race, a grueling, one-day professional road race in northern France often referred to as the “Hell of the North.”
“We wanted to signal that these were races that require training, require effort, that they are more than a jaunt,” Kershaw said. “So 10, almost 11 years ago we came up with Heck of the North.”
Registration for next weekend’s Heck Epic ends today. The race is already full at 70 participants but a waiting list is open to fill cancellations.
Registration for September’s Heck of the North runs through Sep. 26. The tenth annual Heck of the North cycling classic is set for Sep. 29. with 100 mile, 50-mile and 20-mile gravel races set. The 20-mile race is new this year.