Vasque's Director of Product Development Brian Hall, recently participated in the Black Hills Expedition, a
long-distance bike race through the Black Hills, a small, isolated mountain range in South Dakota. While he wasn't able to complete the race, he found value in the challenge of pushing his body's limits. Here, he shares some of his biggest takeaways.
Tell us about the Black Hills Expedition and what inspired you to compete.
The BH Expedition is a 460 mile mountain bike race/ride through the Black Hills of South Dakota. It follows the same ethos as races such as the Tour Divide, where you are completely self-supported and the only resupply you can take has to be open to everyone competing. Restaurants and gas stations are game, aid from family and friends is not. A friend of mine signed up for this in the spring and asked me if I would like to join him. The Black Hills is one of my favorite areas and I like throwing myself into big challenges, so I agreed to sign up.
How does this relate to your previous ultra-running experiences?
The farther you get away from an event, the more you forget about the struggles and hardship that you endure and the better memories rise to the top. I would consider this to be one of the more difficult efforts I have put in, but it was very different. Running long distances feels unencumbered in comparison to traveling on a laden, 55lb bike with bags, food and water. Multiple hard days in a row, like what I experienced in SD, also feels harder than one long, single push race. In the end, the mental challenges feel very similar, the mode of travel is the differentiator.
Even though you didn’t finish the race, it seems like it was a groundbreaking event. What did you learn about the Black Hills and yourself?
This quickly became a ride instead of a race for me. My hat is off to the local mountain goat riders that Spearfish produces. Out of the 10 riders who set out, only two finished, both from Spearfish, SD. They are riding up some terrain that I found impossible on a loaded bike, which equaled a lot of bike pushing for me. Typically, in ultra events, my experience has been one of solitude. Rarely do I ride or run with anyone very long. In this event, I had two companions the whole time, my friend Pete who I travelled to SD with and a new friend from Winnipeg, Lindsay, who is a 67 year old endurance cycling veteran and a great guy to ride with. Having companions during the long days was a nice change. One of the reasons I do these events and this one delivered in spades, is to dig deep and put in a big effort. To remove all the non-essential elements of life beyond food, water, rest and moving forward. Humans gravitate toward comfort and ease and that is an easy place to lose perspective. I find it good to push out of that comfort zone every so often as a reminder of what is important, what has true meaning in my life. Those things become quite obvious when you remove all the superfluous clutter, and although exhausted, at the end, there is a kind of regeneration.
Would you do Black Hills again?
While I love the Black Hills and I’m happy to have participated this year, I think I will set my sites on more rideable options in the future. I really am digging bikepacking right now and there is another 400+ mile route out of Boise, ID called Smoke and Fire 400 that I rode parts of earlier this year. That one is high on my list. I also just read about a Tour Divide-esque route that runs the length of New Zealand and I would love to figure out a way to make that happen in the next few years.
What were some of the most beautiful sights you saw?
The Black hills are pretty diverse, everything from high grassland prairie to endless, rugged, wooded hills. There were great lookouts from up high, and some fun, fast riding along the tops of ridges to following trails in deep canyons with multiple stream crossings. Honestly, one of my favorite sights was seeing the Hill City Diner come into view after we came off the trail. Hot food was one of the things I looked forward to most and didn’t get much of for three days.
What gear was a must-have for this bikepacking expedition?
Naturally, it was all about the shoes. The shoes for my bike were Maxxis Ardent 29x2.4’s which are great tires. The higher volume really helped on the chunky descents, which seemed like almost all of the descents. I went with a more unorthodox footwear choice for this event. All the other racers were using bike shoes with clipless pedals, but I opted to go with platform pedals and a custom pair of Vasque Grand Traverse outfitted with a Boa closure system. Wearing light hiking shoes worked great for all the times I was off the bike and pushing and I don’t feel like I had any trouble pedaling the flats while riding, so it was a win-win for me. The sticky rubber on these shoes works great on the pedals and in the rocky terrain of the trails out there.
Being on the bike for that long, your contact points are super important and I feel like I had those pretty dialed in for my ride. For my hands I used a pair of Specialized Enduro gloves, Ergon GE1 grips and a sweet new set of titanium handlebars from Moonmen with a perfect sweep angle. My saddle is a trusty Fizik Gobi.