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Founder Of World-Famous Gravel Race ‘Almanzo 100’ Hands Off Event

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A tiny Minnesotan town’s tourism commission will now oversee and manage one of the biggest gravel races in the world. The first event under municipal management takes place next week.

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Endless gravel ahead… racers on course in 2014. © 2014 Bjorn Christianson

Chris Skogen, founder of the Almanzo 100, has handed off the race to the Spring Valley, Minn., tourism committee. The small town on the western edge of Fillmore county has hosted the event since 2010, but the race has been organized by Skogen and his network of volunteers since 2007.

Skogen will ride the race for the first time in the 9th annual event on May 16th. The event evolved from a Rochester-to-Mankato race with a dozen people to 1,400 participants in three races through the scenic rolling hills of southeastern Minnesota.

Considered to be one of the largest and best-known of gravel road events, the Almanzo 100 has always been free to enter and focused on self-reliance. At Skogen’s helm, the event has a unique spirit and draws a cross-section of cyclists, not just dedicated racers.

Of its transition to operating under Spring Valley committee, chairperson Kathy Simpson promises continuity. “As long as the gravel grinders want the peace and enjoyment of southeast Minnesota’s countryside we shall welcome them with open arms.”

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In 2010, the race started in Spring Valley for the first time, with over 500 in attendance. © Bjorn Christianson

She noted the only change will be that Skogen will be riding the race, not organizing it. Traditions like postcard entry, starting the race with a birthday song for Chris’ son, and a handshake at the finish line, will be preserved.

I caught up with Skogen this week to talk about the switch-over and his history with the event.

How do you describe the Almanzo 100 to someone who knows nothing about it?

It is a 100-mile gravel road cycling event. It’s very much a road race if you choose it to be, and it is very much a long distance, day long ride if you choose it to be. Whatever your choice, the Almanzo 100 exists to challenge you to be your best.

What was your inspiration behind the race?

In the years that led up to the first Almanzo I felt like we, as a society, were being inundated with pay-to-play events that were cloudy at best when it came to telling the participant where the money went. I felt like the world needed something different, something that only stood to benefit those that actually participated, and so it was born. [Note: The Almanzo is a free event; racers must mail in a postcard to gain entry.]

What were you thinking on that first race day, in 2007, when there were just a couple of dozen people in Central Park in Rochester?

I was nervous and uncertain about a lot of things. I had spent several years working in the service industry as a bartender so I knew how to be hospitable. What I didn’t really know was how to run a bike race.

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Tandem racers Sam and Allison Ahrens cross the finish line to a handshake from Chris Skogen at the end of the 2010 race. © Bjorn Christianson

How did you feel when that first one was over?

I was relieved and excited. I got thirsty for it. It was great to be a witness to the accomplishments of others and I just wanted to recreate that and share it with as many people as I could.

Can you explain the history and the growth of the race?

The history is pretty simple: 12 people raced in 2007; 60 in 2008; 90 in 2009; 400 in 2010, and so on. I think it grew because it’s a real thing that lives and breathes through myself and through all the folks that come out to ride it. I think the spirits of generosity and good will have been the prevailing winds. What I tried to do was create the best possible cycling experience with the least amount of barriers.

The original starting point was in the city of Rochester. What was behind the move to Spring Valley?

Rochester is an interesting place. There is a lot of business there that attracts visitors from all over the planet. When the numbers of Almanzo made the first real jump from 90 to 400, it caught the attention of the powers-that-be. At that time I tried my hardest to work within the confines of their requests, but there just wasn’t any money to pay for the legal requirements the city and county demanded. Frankly, I think because Almanzo wasn’t a formal organization and wasn’t trying to financially benefit the next super cause, the officials looking it over didn’t take it seriously. For me it was a pretty hefty slap in the face from a community that I had previously tried to become the mayor of. Here was a town that I loved telling me that what I had wasn’t worth their time.

In the days that followed that crushing decision, a few pieces fell into place and I ended up meeting with the tourism committee in Spring Valley, and the rest is history. Spring Valley opened their arms and welcomed all of us in. It’s been a tremendous experience and crucial to Almanzo’s success.

What’s the allure of the Almanzo, from your perspective?

It’s genuine. People meeting new people and seeing old friends simultaneously. It’s pushing yourself to limits you didn’t think were possible. It’s a great experience.

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The traditional water crossing toward the end of the race is a welcome rinse for some, a freezing hassle to others. © Bjorn Christianson

After directing for eight years, I’m sure you’re excited to ride it, but there must be some pang from letting go of the baby you created. What motivated you to turn over the reigns?

I can’t afford it. For me to continue to produce the level of experience that I wanted to produce, the time and financial expenses are just too much. I have a great career with Trader Joe’s and doing both was just too much. When Spring Valley expressed interest in continuing it, I agreed and here we are.

For what it’s worth, I believe wholeheartedly in the following. If I make something, anything, be it a painting or a photograph or a song or a bike race, as soon as I decide to share it with the world, that is to give it away, it no longer belongs to me, and as such belongs solely to those that have the opportunity to experience it.

A lot of innovation in the bicycle industry has surrounded the gravel scene, in terms of bikes and accessories, but also in the number of backroad events happening all over the country. Many credit you with creating the scene from which many have profited, but you’ve run this as a labor of love. Does the dichotomy there bother you?

It used to bother me. It was difficult to watch people make money off of what I helped build while I was struggling to make ends meet and skipping payments on things like mortgages. In fact it bothered me so much that when I was finally convinced to try and create a format where I could potentially break even, I jumped at it. Little did I know that what I would feel in the wake of that decision was more painful than trying to get by the way I had previously. Does it bother me today? No. It is what it is. I’m not a capitalist and I’m not trying to make the next best buck. I did what I did because I love it and wanted to share the feeling of accomplishment.

When you decided to hand off the event, did you immediately think of Spring Valley as a possible solution? Were there other options that you considered?

There were others along the way. Plenty of rumors along the way as well. Spring Valley is the best choice. Hands down.

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Riders cruise down a ribbon of ‘hero gravel’ on the Almanzo course. © Bjorn Christianson

Do you expect to return to the helm of Almanzo, or have more involvement in the future?

I’m done. In the words of a parent, it’s gone off to college.

What’s next for you? Any plans in the cycling world?

I’m working on something called One Medora. It’ll show up later this spring or early this summer. Or maybe it won’t. [Editor’s note: It did.]

–Bjorn Christianson writes “The Low Five,” a weekly column examining the world of biking through the lens of the Minneapolis cycling scene. See Spring Valley’s tourism site for info on the 2015 Almanzo 100, to be held May 16.

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