Road to Heck: Get into Gravel Cycling

Jeremy Kershaw’s Heck of the North race series has led gravel cycling’s prodigious growth up north
Duluth cyclist Matt Ryan leads the group on Stony River Road during Heck of the North 2018
Duluth cyclist Matt Ryan leads the group on Stony River Road during Heck of the North 2018

Photo by Tone Coughlin

Miles of pastoral dirt roads leading to remote natural splendor make Duluth a perfect incubator for Minnesota’s gravel cycling scene. Road racing’s ragged cousin favors hardy self-sufficiency and navigation—two centuries-old, benchmark qualities of North Shore living.

This year, 400-some riders will converge north of Two Harbors on the North Shore State Trail and cake their bikes with gravel paste for the 11th annual Heck of the North race on September 28. Creator and director Jeremy Kershaw first brought the sport to his adopted home city after competing in the Ragnarok and Almanzo races (in Red Wing and Northfield, respectively) that kicked off this brand of endurance-oriented cycling in Minnesota. In 2009, there were only 40 bikes on Heck’s starting line.

“My mom made a cinnamon roll for every rider, which I later used as payoff to a guy whose land I had trespassed on,” Kershaw cracks. “But no one died, and the police didn’t get called too much.”

Heck of the North Productions has grown into a three-race series that includes the classic, 100-mile Heck of the North around Duluth as well as the 110-mile Le Grand Du Nord race in the Grand Marais area. A few years back, Kershaw also expanded the original Heck of the North to include shortened courses, to welcome more riders into the fold.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Kershaw says, of these 20- and 50-mile courses. “I work with extremely unhealthy people [at his day job as a registered nurse], so my whole lean is to just get people out riding. We’re introducing people to gravel at a much more humane level, and I’m really happy about that.”

Photo by Tone Coughlin

Despite those warm-and-fuzzy sentiments, Kershaw still works tirelessly to ensure that his races provide a significant challenge. Unlike sanctioned road racing or even the dirt-oriented cyclocross, gravel courses are generally unmarked, requiring the rider to chart their course using just a cue card with simple directions and a distance-tracking odometer.

“You’re out there, often by yourself, and you’re lucky to see anyone on course,” Kershaw explains. “People often say it’s kind of remote-feeling. Outside of a couple of checkpoints, it’s you, the birds, and the bears.”

If that wasn’t enough, grinding away on gravel for 100 miles requires focus to sustain an efficient line around creeks, punishing rocks, and frigid streams for 8-12 hours straight. Even with purpose-built gravel bikes like the Salsa Warbird, the ride can be a bumpy one.

“I do like to have sections that people will curse my name out for,” Kershaw says. “It’s rough. You get thrown around, and there’s times where the gravel really works you. It takes more energy, more calories, more power than it does to ride pavement.”

But for Kershaw, the solitude and punishment are exactly what make gravel cycling so fulfilling. The sport is all about testing the far reaches of your individual capabilities, rather than photo finishes and podium poses.

“What keeps me going in gravel cycling is this constant process of discovery, both physically, of new areas, but also, frankly, self-discovery,” he says. “It’s very therapeutic to me and my health and my mind. It’s where I do my best thinking. I want people to look at cycling as a lifelong sport and activity, and not just something that they did in college and quit.”