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REMEMBERING THE FINAL DAMn: CHRIS NELSON'S 242 MILES ON A SURLEY PUGLSEY


The 2021 Day Across Minnesota (DAMn) marked the end of a much loved endurance gravel cycling event. In this event recap from last summer, Chris Nelson shares his play-by-play race as well as how he ended up deciding to do the event on a Surley Pugsley fatbike.

Day Across Minnesota is a ride that started in 2017 and closed the final chapter in 2021. The challenge is to traverse 240 miles of Minnesota gravel roads by bicycle in a single day from Gary, SD to Hager City, WI.


Story: Chris Nelson

Photos: Markman Outdoor Photography & TMB Images



The DAMn (Day Across Minnesota) first became a race in 2017. I was interested in riding this first year, but I was honestly scared that I had what it takes for this epic challenge and I didn't sign up. After seeing the 2017 DAMn ride reports, I committed myself to training and gearing up for the adventure, and I was rewarded with a successful 2018 DAMn. After the 2018 DAMn, I felt no need for another DAMn ... but a few months later, the 2019 DAMn was announced and I signed up again and was able to became a DAMn Champion a second time. I signed up for the 2020 DAMn, but the pandemic forced me to take a rain-check which rolled into 2021 ... The Final DAMn.


For some perspective on completing The DAMn, during the open ceremony video, Erik shared these stats: 409 riders have become DAMn champions from 2017 through 2020; 329 of them have completed the DAMn one time; 60 have done it twice; 15 riders have complete three; and 5 have finished every DAMn year!


Fatbiking the DAMn

When the 2021 DAMn was announced, I posed the question: do I ride my gravel bike and go for my fastest time; or ride my Pugsley to go for the fastest fatbike ... Trenton (The DAMn creator) encouraged me to go fat, and that's all it took!


The DAMn has challenged me to push myself into the unknown. Having completed the ride twice on a typical gravel bike (Breezer Radar Pro), riding a fatbike brought me back into the unknown. My longest day with the Pugsley was 140 miles, and that was a rough day that left me crushed. I've spent countless hours over the last 8 months getting the Pugsley and my body ready for this challenge.


My drop-bar Pugsley (AKA The War Rig) was created in 2016 with the help of Kyle when he worked at The Alt. This bike is a 2015 Surly Pugsley that's mostly stock, with Salsa Woodchipper handlebars, Gevenalle GX shifters, and Fat B Nimble tires (riding with tubes - the Marge Lite rims are not tubeless compatible). Over the last few years the crew at Tonka Cycle & Ski have been taking care of this beast. In preparation for the 2021 DAMn, Tyler at Tonka got the Pug ready with a mostly new drivetrain and other tweaks and adjustments.


In addition to the work Tonka did on the bike. I met with Paulie at GO PHYSIO for an body analysis and bike fit. We focused on dialing in the Pugsley for comfort and efficiency for the long day. Also, Paulie has a custom bike trainer in his studio that will fit a fatbike tire, which is really cool!


My Loaded Pugsley Ready for The DAMn

In the months leading up to the race, I did many training rides, focused on building endurance. This included racing the Freedhem 76 and winning as the fastest fatbike; this result was very encouraging. Additionally, two weeks before The DAMn, I invited some DAMn friends (Rene, Dan, Arik & Robb) for a night training ride. We met up at midnight to ride the Luce Line from Plymouth to Hutchinson and back (3 of us started in Hopkins for some bonus miles). It was a very basic course, with little challenges in route or climbs, but great test of lighting and ways to stay awake/alert all night.


The DAMn COVID


For the first three years of The DAMn, there were three assigned check points on the course: mile 60; mile 120; and mile 186. These were the only places your support crew could meet you for fresh water, food, bike maintenance, etc. In 2020, this changed in reaction to COVID-19 and restrictions on group sizes, and the organizers allowed riders and crews to pick their three support stops along the route.


I worked with Lisa to pick general locations and gave her final say on the exact place to meet. I picked Morton at mile 86; Henderson at mile 151; and Cannon Falls at mile 214 (this became Spring Garden/White Rock at mile 222).


The DAMn Route with Past and 2021 Check Points

Additionally, this change required releasing the whole route in advance of the race. On the first three years of The DAMn, riders would navigate with cue sheets, and you'd only get enough cue sheets to get you to the next check point. I was so happy that 2021 riders were officially allowed to use a GPS device with the route, that really helps to avoid wasting time and energy with missed turns.


The DAMn Eve


It won't be The DAMn eve without a last minute panic. On a short ride with Lisa Friday morning, my rear brake started making an awful noise. I went straight to Tonka Cycle & Ski and Brett got Pugsley right on the stand, confirmed that retaining spring broke ... And the pads were shot. I am so happy this happened at home and not in Gary (or on the way to Hager City)! Also so grateful for the outstanding support from Tonka!


I spent most of the afternoon packing the car with all our gear, food, and supplies. We decided to drop off our three dogs for boarding as we left town, so I needed enough space for the dogs and their gear too.


The car reminded me of a Looney Tunes cartoon from childhood - ready to explode when you opened the trunk!

Gary to Morton


We arrived in Gary with a little daylight left to allow us time to set up my bike and create space in the back of the car for Lisa's sleeping bag. We also had time to catch up with so many friends around the Buffalo Ridge resort.


As it approached midnight, riders started to gather for the start. As I was talking with Birchwood teammate Nick, last year's top finisher (Chase) rolled up and down the street with a bike that look more like a pro time-trail bike than a gravel bike, and his wheels made the most intimidating noise rolling over the fresh chipseal on the street. Chase and I were clearly going to have a very different rides!


Chris and Nick Ready to Start The DAMn

The roll out is always fun with the fireworks signaling the start of the race and a short neutral roll out on the paved highway, then we make a right turn on to the first narrow gravel road. The pace is always fast with lots of pent-up energy. The early roads were soft, it felt like beach sand under your tires, they were some of the worst gravel roads I can remember riding (2017 Westside Dirty Benjamin is the only other one that comes to mind).


Pacelines were forming, I got into a group of 30 to 40 riders. We were fast, averaging 19 mph, but it was stressful in the dark with the loose gravel causing riders to lose control. Add to that the cloud of dust and constant peppering with small gravel kicked up by tires. I went to the front for a long pull to avoid the dust and not worry about somebody wrecking in front of me. I know the riders behind appreciated it, so it was a win-win, but there's was only so long I could keep up that kinda effort. When I fell off the front, I tried riding in the line for a couple minutes and hated it. I made the excuse that I needed a pee-stop (and I kinda did). After that I rode solo or with smaller groups.


The long line of riders leaving Gary - Photo Credit: Markman Outdoor Photography

I was very happy to have my fatbike to ride these soft sandy roads. I would have had a difficult time handling a normal gravel bike in these conditions, slowing me down and stressing me out.


It was a cold night, my Garmin was reporting 46℉ over night, and not just a little dip, but from 1:45 to 7:30 AM! I've checked with other riders and their devices were recording the same temps.


Through most of the night, I wasn't able to get at my bottles or food with the fast pace and the loose conditions. It was good to roll into my first support stop around 5:30 in Morton to get a couple ham & cheese buns. It took longer to get out of Morton than I'd hoped and I started getting the shivers - it's a good thing I kept my vest on!


My Cheering Section at the First Support Stop in Morton

Morton to Henderson


These were fast and uneventful miles, the cool morning helped keep the legs feeling fresh. Road conditions improved, making it easy to grab food and bottles.


Shortly after sunrise, I got into a good group that was a core of two single-speed riders, one with a standard gravel bike, and me with Pugsley. This group would grow and shrink over the miles, but this core group of four of us worked together for more miles that I can count. We were keeping our average pace around 16 mph, and that felt GREAT ... sadly, I knew that pace couldn't last. Our core group started to splinter a little after the classic check point 2 (mile 120) as we all had different locations for our support stops.


The group that made the morning miles roll by fast

I was planning a longer break in Henderson (mile 151) to get some whole food, lube the chain, reload on-bike supplies. It went smooth and was a great way to refresh and recover energy for the hard miles ahead with rolling road and the heat from the midday sun. I was happy and shocked to leave Henderson just after 11:00, well ahead of my personal record pace.


Rolling into Henderson for a break

150 Miles of Gravel Dust

Henderson to White Rock


Leaving Henderson, you cross the river and immediately go into a rough single-track trail. The single-track started with sandboxes and down trees that required dismounting and to lift the bike over them ... oof that fully loaded Pugsley is HEAVY! In the single-track section, I passed Nick getting footage for the documentary ... I'm excited to see what he's doing with this year's ride! I was one of a small number of riders able to ride most of this trail, the Pugsley's tires gave plenty of float over the sand and rough trail conditions.


The next rapid-fire challenge coming out of Henderson is my least favorite climb on this course, it's just kicks up to 8% to 9% and stays there for so long.


Around mile 155, I saw another fatbike, this was on the only other fatbiker I saw all day. We rode together for many miles, talking about bikes and other races. After a while, one of the riders I worked with in the morning caught up to us. I grabbed his wheel and the three of us worked together for a while; I looked back after a pull on the front to see the other fatbike had fallen off. Then the other rider got to his support stop ... and I had some long, lonely solo miles.


It felt like there were no other riders around me. I was starting to suffer the heat load of the sun and the many miles. My pace was slowing mile-by-mile, slowing to 10 to 12 mph. Rolling across Hwy 52 south of Cannon Falls, I knew another infamous climb was just around the corner. This one isn't that bad, but with the heat and hurting legs ... it fells very mean.


The lonely dusty hot road - Photo Credit: TMB Images

Dan (Birchwood teammate that joined my night training ride) caught up to me, it was nice to talk with a familiar face for a few miles. He made a support stop at a friends farm, right at the bottom of another climb. I think if I'd joined him at that stop, it'd been the end of my DAMn ... I was just so tired and looking at that climb as the first thing after you get started again, I knew I needed to keep moving.


Lisa had a hard time finding a place to meet me in Cannon Falls and moved 8 miles further east than we had planned. It was a terrible thing and a great thing all at the same time. I had 222 miles behind me as I rolled into the stop planning to be quick, dropping off the CamelBak and exchanging water bottles; but I collapsed into a chair after damned near falling off my bike. I was in a deep hole with heat exhaustion, I was light headed and nearly passed out. Lisa was quick with wet towels and cold drinks. There was a moment when I wasn't sure I'd be able to get back on the bike, but Lisa nursed me back to healthy. It was 5:30, and I'd spent 35 minutes in the shade of our SUV recovering, before I was able to remount the Pugsley.


Rolling into Check Point 3 in rough condition

White Rock to Hager City


Riding out of my check point 3, I was refreshed and riding lighter/cooler without the CamelBak and sunsleeves/legs, plus the temps were starting to slide back down.


The last support stop being further up the road than I planned had the benefit of shortening the last leg for the ride. I had 20 miles to get to the finish, in my mind, I'm thinking this is just a lunch ride, I do 20 miles nearly every day, no big deal! It also helps that this miles are mostly down hill. I was watching my Garmin's ETA for the finish, it was holding around 6:40, 20 minutes ahead of my personal record.


It was odd that I thought I was totally alone on the road for many miles after Cannon Falls, I rode with a many riders on the last miles into Red Wing, including some familiar faces.


Riding into Red Wing is a nice break with mostly easy descents allow you to cover the miles with little effort. Also, you get into tree covered roads, helping the body continue to recover from the afternoon's heat.


I made my only route error in Red Wing, I was enjoying the sights and missed that we turned a couple blocks earlier that in years past. The new/earlier turn routed us onto the new river bridge, opened in 2020. The new bridge includes a protected bike/ped crossing ... SO NICE!


As I crossed the river bridge, my Garmin battery gave up and it shut down. Annoying, but I could see the finish line from here and didn't need it to guide me any more.


Finish Line


When I posed the question: should I ride for my personal best time or go for fastest fatbike? I thought I was asking and either-or question, I didn't expect 'all of the above' was an option ... But I finished as the fastest fatbike and took 16 minutes of my best DAMn time. When Trenton gave me a finish line hug, he informed me that I was the first fatbike, adding that that's my thing now. I guess I'm gonna have to claim it, I am a fast fatbike-gravel rider.


The DAMn Champion

The finish line moved since I last rode in 2019, now a short distance further and in a shady park-like area. It felt so nice to be in a cool shady space, cheering for riders in as they arrived. This year was the first time I felt like I could enjoy a finish line beer! And a bonus, somebody had a bunch a pizza he could eat and gave me a few pieces ... that was a little heaven, beer and pizza in a shady chair! The finish area was a great place to share stories with friends I've known for years, and some I'd just met.


The Shady Finish Line

Nick was filming lots of footage at the finish line, at one point I looked back to see he has his camera behind my calf tattoo filming a big group coming in to the finish. I hope that make his documentary!


My DAMn tattoo

It was awe-inspiring to watch riders get back on their bikes and start the return trip to Gary, SD chasing the unimaginable Double DAMn.

I have so many mixed emotions about the Final DAMn. I'm so grateful for the opportunities to challenge myself on this ride three times. I'm feeling sad that there won't be another DAMn, on the other hand, I feel a need to move on to other races and challenges. The DAMn demands so much time and energy, it becomes that one pinnacle ride for my year, I can't fit more than one ride of this scale into my year. I'm hopeful that Trenton will bring a new challenge to us gravel nuts. I'm also happy to know that I'll continue to see my gravel family at upcoming events ... and that's what I love most about these rides, these stone-cold crazies that are the family of gravel!


Statistics


I was 79th place of 231 finishers with an official time was 18:42:49. For reference, the fastest fatbike in 2017 was Bal Singh at 17:26; in 2018 Bal finished in 19:30; in 2019 Jake Cohen finished in 19:22


In the Final DAMn, 563 racers signed up, 393 made it to the starting line, 231 became DAMn Champions by crossing the Hager City, Wisconsin finish line 242 miles later, and then there are the incredible 11 who became Double DAMn Champions by crossing the Gary, South Dakota finish line 495 miles later!


Thank you for the support:

  • To start with, I'd like to thank everyone I will forget ... 'cause I'm bad like that

  • Trenton, Erik, Joel, and countless others that created, organized, hosted, and made this DAMn ride a reality.

  • I was humbled be the number of folks on bikes and along the road that cheered me on by name! I recognized many of you ... but there were too many that I couldn't figure out, sorry!

  • Having the course public brought something totally new and enjoyable: FANS! There were support crews and farms along nearly the whole route cheering riders on, it truly lifted my spirits. Thank you!

  • Thank you to Paulie at GO PHYSIO for the great bike fit, I was as comfortable and efficient as possible for a 242-mile day on a Pugsley.

  • Tonka Cycle & Ski: Tyler and Brett both helped me have the Pugsley ready its longest day ever.

  • TMB Images and Markman Outdoor Photography for capturing the good, the bad, and the ugly that is The DAMn

  • Saving the most important for last: I have to say THANK YOU again and again to my best friend, Lisa! For the third time, she drove back-and-forth across the state, through the dark & cold night, the blazing heat of the day, and going without sleep for 40+ hours to chase my DAMn ride. There are riders that complete this ride without support; however, my success has always been a team effort with Lisa play a critical role supporting my training leading up to the race, the long day on the course, and the post-race recovery. She's my DAMn Champion!!

Lisa & Chris in Gary
 

To read about more of Chris Nelson's bike adventures, check out the stories on his blog, "Bikes, Beer, and Other Stuff I Like".

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