In the realm of ultra-endurance cycling, where riders push their limits to unfathomable extents, the North Star Bike Race emerges as a peculiar beast. Spanning 630 miles (632, accounting for the inevitable wrong turns), this self-supported journey takes racers from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the Canadian border and back, following U.S Bicycle Route 41. In the process, it reveals incredible stories of resilience, unpredictability, and sheer willpower.
In 2022, my first attempt, I found myself under heavy downpour with a fourth and final unfixable flat tire. After 355 miles, stranded in Grand Marais, I was forced to scratch. A year later, I was coming back with a vengeance.
On the pleasant Wednesday morning of September 13th, 2023, 22 of us lined up next to the Mississippi River to embark on the lonely journey of a self-supported, no-draft race. The field was an even mix of rookies and veterans, and the warm and open-hearted hospitality of Minnesotans is nothing short of exceptional. From racers to dot-watchers, they truly make you feel cherished and welcomed.
At 7 a.m. on the clock, we took the group photo, and race director Brian Rhea and two-time women’s champion Leah Gruhn led us out of St. Paul. These initial miles are a time to mingle, chat with fellow racers, and forge connections, as it is the only time in the entire race where you are allowed to draft and ride next to one another.
After 20 miles, you enter the Hardwood Trail, then you get back on the road, then back on the trail, rinse and repeat until reaching Hinckley. There, at mile 82, you go through the infamous Munger Trail, with its cracks every few feet for miles on end. The beauty of this section almost makes you forget about the bumps (almost).
Once in Duluth (mile 155), I had to navigate and weave through heavy foot traffic on the Lakewalk Trail, a challenge on its own. Before 6 p.m., I was already rolling through Two Harbors (mile 185) and the last reliable resupply until the following morning. Once you leave that Kwik Trip behind, there’s no other 24-hour convenience store along the shore.
Nighttime comes and temperatures drop significantly. The sky fills with stars and yet it is surprisingly dark, especially on the Gitchi-Gami Trail. Every now and again, I hear the crashing waves on Lake Superior and get sensory overload. What an experience.
By 12:30 a.m., I got to Grand Marais (275 miles), holding onto third place and closing in on Kate Coward. From there to Grand Portage is about 34 miles of rolling hills, and from Grand Portage to the border another six plus the dreaded Mt. Josephine double-combo of climb/descent and back again. Living in Utah, this isn’t a difficult climb for me (about 600 feet over two miles), but when your legs already carried you through 300+ miles non-stop and you’re facing borderline freezing headwinds, 600 feet back-to-back feels like punishment.
As I drop toward Canada, Kate climbs out. I yell words of encouragement, hoping the wind will carry them over to her. I boop the border at 3:40 a.m., and half the course is done. Time to turn around, chase Kate, see the sunrise and the friendly faces going northbound.
I check my dot and find myself in second place. I got a boost of energy that helped me pedal through the increasing headwinds. Plus, you can’t have a bad time when you’re going through those small lake towns during daylight and seeing Lake Superior in its full glory. It is absolutely beautiful. Passing through the racers also helps lift the spirits—some of them with big smiles, some of them looking surprised to see someone already heading back.
By evening, I was already grinding the climb out of Duluth, and soon enough, I was back on the Munger. The weather followed its forecast and began to turn, with rain clouds encroaching the sky. The air was warm and had a sudden stillness that lasted 10 or 15 minutes before the storm hit. More headwinds. More riding through cracks and bumps, but now under rain. Despite everything, I was overjoyed with the simple fact we had two women in the lead.
I make a push to close on Kate, and at mile 500, a sudden heaviness obtrudes my back. Ten miles later, I find myself unable to hold my head up: Shermer’s Neck, the classic woe of ultra-endurance cyclists. Not being able to physically look up meant not being able to be on the bars. The only less-painful position I could maintain was upright—as if riding a unicycle—resting my hands on the aerobar’s elbow pads. With only 120 miles to go, the “home stretch” where I was hoping to maintain 17 miles per hour, suddenly got much slower. At 40 hours of ride time with no sleep, the second night proved to be the biggest challenge. The gap between Kate and myself widened, and all I could hope for was that she’d push to break the course record.
My light died at mile 615, which eventually caused me to hit a curb at mile 627 and explode the front wheel. Three miles from the finish line, I decided to not bother with putting a tube and, instead, rode on the busted rim. By the Mississippi River, Leah Rhea and John Jarvis were waiting for me. Forty-five hours and five minutes, second place overall, second place women’s, eight and a half hours ahead of third place.
All thanks to the incredible powerhouse Kate Coward, who pushed me to my limits. Kate finished in 42 hours and 45 minutes, breaking not only the previous women’s record of 63 hours and 42 minutes (set by Leah Gruhn), but also the men’s record of 43 hours and 5 minutes. Out of 22 racers, 14 finished this year.
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