Elena Willmot has a tendency to do things on a whim. During the height of the pandemic and the low of a blah looking calendar, she discovered Le Grand Du Nord, promptly registered, and embarked on the adventure of her very first gravel race. Read about her accomplishment and the familiar mistakes we've ALL made at one point or another.
Le Grand Du Nord is an event of Heck of the North Productions. The 2022 event takes place on May 28, in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Options include 26-miles, 54-miles, and 110-miles and all routes follow the beautiful Lake Superior shore linen before climbing to their final destinations.
Story: Elena Willmot
Photos: Elena Willmot and Clint Austin
At the height of the pandemic last winter, with nothing to do and no one to see, I found myself glued to my phone for hours, sinking deeper and deeper into the couch cushions. Normally, this time of year was bearable - enjoyable, even - but not being able to travel meant we had no big events to look forward to. No family holidays. No ski trips. No trips to see friends in southern climates. It would be another month or two until the snow was deep and compact enough to ski on and several more months until I could get back on my beloved mountain bike.
I scrolled through an endless supply of photos and videos, swapping between social media platforms, looking for that hit of dopamine, when I saw it: an image of a cyclist riding down a gravel road banked by healthy evergreens and a small pond, ‘Le Grand du Nord’ in bold red letters across the top. The photo exuded warmth and sent my heart into overdrive - I desperately missed being on my bike. I clicked the image and was taken to the Heck of the North Productions webpage, where I read about a gravel bike race, called Le Grand du Nord, that was planned for the end of May. Registration was only a few days away!
There were three race options advertised: 20, 50, or 100 mile race along the hilly backcountry gravel roads that snaked around the small town of Grand Marais in Minnesota. Twenty miles felt doable… I had friends that biked from Duluth to Two Harbors and back in a day, which was way more than 20 miles. The course wasn’t advertised until the day of the race and I would be required to navigate using a GPS watch and cue card, neither of which I had any experience with.
I quickly sent the link to several friends, hoping to drum up some interest, and I just as quickly received several declines. I desperately needed something to work towards, something to look forward to, so I decided to do it alone.
While the countdown to race registration began, I fixated on learning as much as I could about the race and gravel biking in general. Was this doable for an average person, like myself? How would I train in the snowy, wet winter months? What on Earth is a cue card and how do I read it? I researched GPS watches and invested in one I could use across sports. I watched YouTube videos about cue cards and gravel biking. I read the Heck of the North website so many times, I could have re-written the ‘Event Info’ page verbatim. I went deep into past race archives hoping to spot a name I recognized - someone I could reach out to and bother with all my beginner questions. Being relatively new to this town, I wasn’t surprised that it was a fruitless exercise.
On registration day, a 9 am alarm reminded me to sign up. I tentatively opened the registration link and began filling out my information. My fingers hovered over the Submit button - I’ve always been anxious about trying something for the first time. My anxiety had been at an all-time high while navigating pandemic life, and I was tired. A wave of frustration hit me and I hit Submit. It was time to throw myself into new things. What was the worst that could happen? I suppose my bike could break down. On that thought, I researched bike maintenance clinics in town and enrolled myself in the first one I could find (thank you, Ski Hut).
With a new GPS watch, an indoor stationary bike, a bike-tuning multi-tool, and a spare tire, I was ready to start my training. I created a training plan that mimicked the half marathon training plans I had used in the past: I biked on the stationary bike 3 days a week with a longer weekend ride and some yoga mixed in. I followed various YouTube videos that helped add structure to my rides. When pavement finally emerged from under layers of snow and ice, I hit the trails.
As race day approached, nerves seeped into every part of my days. What if I couldn’t finish? What if I got hurt? Or lost? As if heard by the gravel bike gods, Heck of the North decided to release the course map 6 days in advance. However, in order to make a nice loop, they needed to extend the race an extra 6 miles (for a total of 26 miles). I poured over elevation maps, satellite images, and Google’s Street View, trying to memorize every turn.
The Friday before the race, I picked up my race packet and proceeded to find a cheap way to attach my cue card to my handlebars. My concoction ended up requiring a plastic sheet protector that held the cue card, a hole punch, duct tape, and several zip ties. My first rookie mistake was not testing my MacGyver set-up before the race…
My wave didn’t start until 10am, so I had plenty of time to eat breakfast and drive the 2.5 hours up the north shore to Grand Marais. I loaded my Camelbak with water, tools, some extra layers, and sunscreen. The weather was expected to be near-perfect for a bike race with light winds, sun, and temperatures in the 50s. I parked and walked my bike four blocks uphill to the starting line, too embarrassed to risk not being able to bike up the steep incline like all the other spandex-laden race-goers appeared to do. I gathered with others in my wave and was thankful to see an assortment of t-shirts, bike shorts, and leggings - these were my people.
I positioned myself behind two older women at the starting line and followed them closely when the timer hit zero. I used the cheers from the small crowd to propel me forward - I spotted my husband taking a video and waved. Within 100 yards, we hit a stoplight and waited for several cars to pass through. We all laughed, as it felt very anticlimactic.
The first three miles were along a gradual hill that climbed out of town. Vehicle traffic began to die down and the racers started to space out. I decided to pass the ladies in front of me and wished them well. I felt a scrape along my knee and looked down. The plastic corner of my cue card set-up repeatedly scratched my knee with every pedal stroke. Frustrated, I was forced to swing my right knee wide when pedaling.
At mile four, I turned a corner only to find myself gazing up a steep hill with at least 30 people scattered about, struggling to push their bikes up the hill. I knew this hill was coming, but it looked significantly more intimidating in person than it had on Google Maps. I pedaled as far as I could (likely a handful of yards) before I, too, had to push my bike up the hill, my heart nearly exploding my chest - I was sure it was the end of me. I stopped to catch my breath at the top, at which point the two ladies I started with biked past me, waving and smiling. I never did catch up to them again.
The next 15 miles went smoothly - I got into a groove and became immersed in the scenery around me. At one point, I attempted to grab a swig of water while continuing to pedal - like the pros do. Just as I reached down to grab the bottle, my handlebars jerked to the right causing me to drop the bottle and then bike over it. They made it look so easy on YouTube! As I turned around to pick it up, no fewer than 3 people asked if I was okay and if I needed any help. In that moment, although embarrassed, I knew I wouldn’t get lost or be left behind. I biked on.
Around mile 18, I started to lose my momentum. I was tired and irritable. I got frustrated easily and had to push my bike up a few hills, kicking myself for not being in better shape. I watched a gentleman with a small child strapped to his handlebars pass me, the kid waving and giggling as they passed. I was also passed by a group with toddler trailers attached, the kids happily bouncing along behind their parents. At this point I realized my second major mistake: I didn’t pack snacks. I was excessively hangry.
I slogged through the last 8 miles in a state of misery. I cursed myself for doing this and for doing it alone. Maybe someone to talk to would have made this last stretch bearable. Or snacks. Snacks would have definitely made it better.
La Fin du Grand du Nord
Just when I thought I was going to lose it entirely, the road curved down towards Highway 7 - the paved road we started on! Relieved, I crossed onto the highway and coasted down the gentle hill back towards the starting line. The sounds of cowbells, music, and cheers started to get louder. Adrenaline kicked in and I pedaled harder, ignoring the “SLOW DOWN” signs posted along the route. I turned onto 3rd Avenue and immediately spotted my husband trying to point me out to our dog, who looked utterly confused. Thankfully, he had a feast waiting for me once I sailed over the finish line.
We sat on the Voyageur Brewing deck soaking in the sunshine and reflecting on the past several months - how motivating it had been to have this goal to work towards and how biking, in general, had really brought us through the difficulty of pandemic isolation. I came into the race with zero expectations for myself, so I was extremely proud and humbled. It was a really difficult route for someone as un-athletic as myself (like really un-athletic), but I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive environment in which to try it out.
I know I’ll find myself on another gravel race someday (I started plotting my next race the following day), but next time, I’ll be sure to bring snacks.