The 2022 Freedhem 76 took place on Saturday, July 2, 2022. Claire O'Leary raced along with a strong field of women. In this story, she shares about her own race along with the push and pull of the gravel community.
Story by Claire O'Leary
All photos of this Minnesota grave bike race by Markman Outdoor Photography (see the full race gallery here).
I slipped out of the family cabin at dawn for the drive south down Highway 371. It was the opposite journey of most of the field, but we were all coming to this tiny crossroads town on July 4 weekend to celebrate the community and competition popping up around Freedhem 76.
I put Freedhem 76 on my race calendar because I’d heard great things about the course and the community. But taking a peek at the “Who’s registered” tab on bikereg.com, I was excited to see so many strong riders signed up–and so many women.
At the start line, I overheard someone else say they were excited so many women signed up. I’ve been in more than a few races that only had a handful of women, and I couldn’t agree more. It speaks volumes to the team behind Freedhem 76 that so many people on different types of bikes and with different goals felt welcomed and included and made the trek on a holiday weekend.
At 9am, race director Don Griggs thanked everyone for coming, and then we were speeding down the pavement for the neutral rollout. We made the first turn onto the gravel and the overcast skies and blowing sand brought visibility to near zero. Tail lights of riders up the road were barely visible. The race was on. About a third of the way through I’m pulling my group of eight when I see another rider standing next to his bike on the opposite side of the road.
“I need air.”
Instinct to look out for other riders took over and I veered off the paceline and dug out an air cartridge. I had just signed myself up for a few miles of chasing in the headwinds to catch up to my group.
I made it back to the group and got a few “nice bridge” remarks from other riders. A minute later, Michael, the rider I’d just helped, joined me in the caboose. He said his day was over and told me how he had tried and failed to plug a puncture a few times. He finally put a tube in but didn’t have any air cartridges left.
“I owe you one.”
I laughed and was still a little winded from making up the gap. “Help me get to the next group?”
“You got it.”
Michael took the front and set a pace that would help us close the gap or blow up trying. We went through the Oxcart Road MMR fast, and I was grateful I’d just spent a few days riding the rocky ATV trails on the North Shore.
The middle miles were a blur, but there was tough gravel and good company. Riders stopped to help an injured rider, and when help had arrived, powered back through the course. People called out cars and obstacles and photographers waiting in the ditches to catch your pain face. We were all trying to accomplish what we’d set out to do that day–and look out for each other in the process.
My favorite part of the course was Koering Climb, or rather, the family that took it upon themselves to wear their best stars-and-stripes apparel and hand out cold water and other goodies to riders. What I (and a lot of other people) didn’t realize is that they decided to do that after receiving a flier about the race only the day prior. I dropped my first attempt at grabbing a bottle but they were so nice about it. After a successful second attempt I stuck it in my jersey pocket like a little ice pack. It would come in handy when I hit the sandtrap MMR.
I’ve raced cyclocross so I have experience riding sand on skinny tires. I also have experience absolutely nailing it and eating sand. I plowed my way through with a couple other riders, and we cheered for each other when someone found a line and managed to stay on their bike. After a sandpit I started to die a slow death in the sun and wind. Out of nowhere, Michael came up behind me once again. He had made a wrong turn. The guy had a rough day, but his kindness made my day that much better.
We rolled through the final miles together and fatigue mixed with thoughts of “this course is definitely longer than 76 miles.” I sprinted out of the final corner, not realizing there was the better part of a mile to go. Ouch. When it was all over, our small group high fived and hugged and I slumped over my bars.
The After Party
Enough about the race. The best part of any gravel race is watching friends finish, cracking open a beer, and telling stories about the challenges and triumphs of the day. Freedhem 76 took that up a notch with live music and catered food from a local restaurant. I didn’t realize I’d made the wide angle podium with 4th place so I missed the podium shot in front of the Freedhem General Store. The women’s race winner graciously gathered everyone she could find (we couldn’t find the 5th place finisher again) so that I could have a podium photo, too.
As riders came in, they gathered in the shade on the lawn next to the general store. Dusty bikes leaned up against the landmark’s white clapboard siding. Riders told stories about their days: who went OTB, who flatted, and who had a lucky break. I’m not sure what the “spirit of gravel” really is, but this was dang close.