Monday, May 21, 2018

Almanzo 100 2018: Cherry Grove Report

Arrival at the Cherry Grove Community Center, a former school house, was a bit early.
"Gee, you're here kinda early, aren't ya?", said the salt and pepper haired man. He was a local, and had been loading up a motor scooter on a trailer from what was once likely a thriving business 100 years ago, but was now serving as a storage shed. The village of Cherry Grove, Minnesota is not much on retail business these days. The man with the salt and pepper hair was curious as to what we were up to and I think he figured out we were with the Almanzo 100 in some capacity, so he sauntered over to have a word with my son and I. I replied to the man by saying, "Yeah, I like to be early." I said that because he was right, by the way. We were a bit early.

My son and I arrived in Cherry Grove a few minutes past 8:00am. The Almanzo 100 did not start until 9:00am. Riders probably would not begin to show up at our location until after 1:00pm, but I wanted to be there in plenty of time to help my partner Ben, who had driven down from Northern Wisconsin the day before. He had just texted me saying he was going to wait for a table to become available up in Spring Valley, the starting point of the Almanzo races. He would pick it up before he made his way on down to meet us. So, I was not really needed there that early. We'd have plenty of time to wait around, as it turned out. Meanwhile the curious local had left me and my son was off messing around somewhere behind the community center.

Don't'll miss it.
The village is one of those typical rural crossroads with a few scattered buildings. Many are unoccupied. Many are mouldering away to being untenable as useful for anything. A glaring exception to this would be the Cherry Grove Community Center, a building dating back to the late 19th Century. If there is any hope left in a rural community, it usually can be detected in the condition of its former school and/or churches. The Community Center was well taken care of, clean, and restored to its final version as a school house. Since it falls conveniently at approximately three quarters of the way around the Almanzo 100's course, it makes for a perfect checkpoint for the event. Right at that moment though, it was still just another building in the sleepy hamlet. Just as quiet as it usually was in Cherry Grove for the other 364 and a half days a year.

As the minutes ticked away to 9:00am, all I was seeing were songbirds flitting by. Robins, Red Wing Blackbirds, and various other feathered creatures warbled in the grassy yards and trees. A dog yowled a lonesome call which reverberated off into the distance. The local cemetery is across the street and boasts of the former residents of Cherry Grove's past. Hundreds of the tombstones sticking up like uneven teeth out of the green gums of the Earth. Silence is a peaceful sound in rural Southern Minnesota, only occasionally broken by the odd agricultural vehicle, car, or truck coming through on Fillmore County Road #5.

Ben Welnak, (L) sets out food and snacks while Jacob Stevenson, (R) cooks some of the 35lbs of bacon for CP#3

This would all soon change as riders would soon be filtering in from the East, crossing County Road 5, and then make their way West through Cherry Grove, right past our position. Ben eventually arrived with the table plus a pickup truck load of supplies including snacks, beer, soda pop, and 35 pounds of bacon. We then started to set things up in preparation for the riders which would be showing up after the leaders would go through. You see, the lead group never stops. 

It's kind of an odd thing. The Almanzo was at one time an unsupported event. Riders had to stop in the only "real" town on the route, Preston, and re-supply from there to finish the route which has a lot of climbing. However; in later years the Almanzo has developed into a route with aid stations. Then there are the folks trying to do the event as fast as possible.

Essential fluids: (L-R) Pickle juice, Fireball whiskey, and Jack Daniel's. Oh, yeah, and soda, beer, and water too!
I noted this during our first stint at Cherry Grove in 2016. Not long before the lead riders would steam through the village, various cars with "support" people would appear. They would strain their eyes down the road to the East, looking for any sign of their riders. Once they came through, musette bags, water bottles, or food hand-ups would be passed off and without stopping the riders would continue to hammer toward the finish. Fortunately only a small handful of riders deem the free-to-enter, no prizes given, Almanzo 100 worth winning, so the press of cars is not too overbearing. However; if much of this sort of thing spreads, it could get ugly out there. I think this is what the checkpoints of the Almanzo help prevent, but "support cars" were seen coming through all afternoon.

At about 12:50pm, the leaders blasted through Cherry Grove, not stopping, as expected. We saw about 20 go through, but a surprising thing happened. A few of those later riders actually stopped for water, bananas, and a couple quick snacks. The day was turning out Sunny, hot, and we heard the gravel was pretty chunky coming into Cherry Grove. Perhaps this was putting a bit of hurt into the legs of these speedy fellows. I was positioned at the cross roads helping to wave riders through if the road was clear of vehicles. Thank you's were heard and the general attitude of gratefulness was felt from then on from all the riders I met that afternoon.

Early riders into Cherry Grove take advantage of the offerings on hand. Not surprisingly, the bacon was very popular.
Once re-supplied, riders rode of to the West toward the finish of the Almanzo 100.
Once the first group trickled through I was standing waiting on riders to cross the County Road 5 intersection and was having a great conversation with a young lady from Decorah named Raina (sp?) who was waiting on her husband, Luke, to appear. She was lamenting having to miss riding her local gravel since she was pregnant, but being a part of the event with her husband seemed to make up for that a bit. Then there was Mary Grove, the wife of contributor, John Ingham, himself also riding the Almanzo. It was fantastic to be able to get to know a little bit about her, and through her, John as well.

The caretaker of the Cherry Grove Community Center, Ross, (here in a salmon colored polo) with a plate of fresh asparagus.
 Along about this time the caretaker of the community center, Ross, sidled up to me and asked, "Do you like asparagus?", to which I enthusiastically replied, "Yes!". It seems that Ross was good at harvesting wild asparagus in the ditches and had gathered 30lbs of the stuff. Later I noted he was offering spears of the freshly cooked greens to riders and they were gobbling it up. I got a few spears myself, and I don't mind telling you that it was the greenest, most flavorful asparagus I've ever had.

Ross also had another ingenious idea. He appeared out of the community center with a card table and a poster board. He asked if we thought it might be okay if he sat out the table and poster board and gathered autographs of the riders. We were excited about this idea and we were also dumbfounded as to why it was we hadn't thought of doing that before. Ross ended up getting two poster boards full of autographs which he is going to proudly display inside the community center this Summer.

Business picked up from about 1:30pm all the way up to about 5:30pm at Cherry Grove
Things started hopping at this point. Jacob, Ben, and I were busy refilling coolers, setting out more snacks, and gabbing with riders. Ben spent most of the time frying bacon, which ran out about 4:00pm. 35 pounds of bacon.......gone! 

Of course, I was gabbing my fool head off with lots of new faces and many old, familiar ones. Hugs were offered and given freely. Balvindar Singh, the only person to ever finish a Trans Iowa on a fat bike, was there and we talked for a while. (Thanks for the socks, Bal!) I saw Kate Ankofski and she was beaming. She gave me an awesome hug and made it through to finish later. Of course, I met John Ingham, as mentioned, and the joy in his eyes was palpable. I saw Northfield resident, Marty Larson, who was riding strongly. Tony, my riding buddy from here, also came by for a brief chat. There were so many others, and I am sorry if I missed you, but the afternoon was so busy I did the best I could do.

Things were winding down along about 5:30pm.
It is maybe cliche', but there really is a "gravel family", and the checkpoint, aid station, or whatever you want to call it, at Cherry Grove was a "family reunion" of sorts. New connections were made, like with John, Mary, and Raina, and old ones were continued, like with Pete Jaros, Joe Meiser, (even though I only saw him for a minute!), Andrea Cohen, and Trans Iowa volunteer, Kyle Platt. It is really about the people you meet. That's the special part. Taking a small, supportive part in the Almanzo is a really gratifying experience for me. Thanks to all of you who stopped by!

But as with Trans Iowa, or any good thing, there is a time for it to end, and the Cherry Grove checkpoint was winding down to a close at about 5:30pm.

We were condensing down towards the finish, but people kept streaming in, maybe not in the droves that they were earlier, but in smaller groups of twos and threes. Even without bacon and some pickle juice we were getting heartfelt thanks for being there. It was hard to be pulling down things while this was going on, but we were running out of stuff!
A tuckered out Ben finally gets to sit down at the end of a long day.

Earlier I had my picture taken with Joel Raygor, the father of Trenton Raygor, and part of the team that puts on the Filthy Fifty and the DAMn event. Joel was telling me almost everyone calls him "Trenton's Dad" now because Trenton has a bit of exposure as the race director of these two Minnesota based events now. Well, Joel was having a good time with that, and told me to be on the lookout for Trenton, but as we were closing up shop in Cherry Grove, and things were about to go back to being sleepy and peaceful there, I was wondering what had happened. I hadn't seen Trenton, and now it sure looked like I wasn't going to either.

The last riders we helped at Cherry Grove head out to finish the Almanzo 100.
I snapped an image off and was coming around my truck, ready to hop in and leave. Ben was already packed up and was giving a rider who was not feeling good enough to finish a ride back to Spring Valley. I looked up to see a rail thin, six foot plus man coasting up to me. It was Trenton! He immediately hopped off his bike, and with his breath coming in heaves, gave me a big hug.

It was a great way to end the Almanzo 100 for me. What a day! We were so glad for the great weather and the opportunity to serve the "gravel family" there. And Ross? He was also an integral part of the experience for the riders. Not only did he hand out that amazing asparagus, but he toted water out from the community center from mid-afternoon on after we ran out. He had a ball, by the way. What a great guy!

I was tired and beat, it was a really long day. Jacob and I were the last ones to leave, fittingly, at 6:40pm. Yep, it was "kinda late" late now. We left Cherry Grove just like we found it- a quiet Southeastern Minnesota hamlet on County Road 5 in Fillmore County.

Till next year........

1 comment:

Ari said...

That sounds like a wonderful experience. I am glad you got the chance to do that. Thanks for the post! Jacob looks really grown up. Ari