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Nov 12, 2019

A conversation with John Kirlin from Wyoming's The Dead Swede Hundo gravel cycling event.

The Dead Swede Website

The Dead Swede Instagram

Automated Transcript (please excuse the typos).

John, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

Awesome. I'm excited to learn about the dead Swede hundo. It definitely, I think captures my imagination as the most clever race name I've heard of in recent memory. But first let's start off by telling us where you're located and how you got into creating the event in the first place.

Great. So yeah, located in, shared in Wyoming and kinda started looking around that, just the terrain. There are not a lot of folks that live in Wyoming. There are about half a million people in the entire state, but we're the 10th largest land mass in the United States. So we've got a lot of great terrain and a lot of big mountains and a lot of great gravel. And so riding gravel is just kind of an obvious choice for us out here. I moved to Sheridan from Casper, Wyoming and started just looking over the maps and just kinda seeing what roads were available, ride and started going into a local bike shop sharing bicycle company and chatting with who's now my business partner in the race. Jordan with Duke and looking at, you know, what the gravel scene lawns out here who's riding what, what's, what's big, what's Epic, how can I, what's a a hundred mile a loop that I could maybe sync up and everything started pointing towards the big horn mountains and cause we, we had the beauty of the big horn mountains that are just right in our backyard.

And so it just started looking at potential ways we could loop up a a hundred mile loop and started looking on the map and everything drew me to kind of this grow that's kind of famous around here called red grade road. And it's just basically an old Jeep road almost that just goes straight up the mountain. You climb about three, 4,000 feet in a matter of seven miles. So it, it gets up and going, but we just started thinking, well maybe I'll put together a ride, maybe a group ride. And then I said, well, if I'm going to just formalize this thing and make it a real thing, how about we just put on an event and see if we can get some people more than just a handful of locals. The cheaper we can get some other people from around the state and the region to come out. And we at first year anticipated about 50 riders. We had about 150 show up for our first event and we just had our third year this year in June and that 580 riders show up.

That's great. When you, when you moved to Sheridan, John, were you already writing a drop bar gravel bike or did you come from a mountain bike or road background?

Yeah, I was riding a drop bar, gravel bike or cyclocross bike really. I'd actually yet to switch to a real specific gravel geometry. I'm currently on a, you know, a five year old specialized crops. Then just kind of retrofitted it. And I came from ride racing side cross and I raised mountain bikes and rode in college and I actually grew up as a cross country skier. And so that's where my real racing background came from.

Great. And then you, you had mentioned, and I'm sure in people's imagination, the state of Wyoming, it just sort of screams that it probably has a lot of gravel roads. And you alluded to that. For those of us who haven't been to Wyoming, or at least in my case I've been through, but I haven't peddled in Wyoming at all. You know, what, what, what is the terrain and what are the roads like?

I mean we have just all sorts of different regions over here. Anything from kind of where we're at on the Eastern side of the state is more high grassland. And so like Sheridan for example, is kind of rolling Hills with ranches and farm land and the kind of the open grassy lands. And then we've bought up to the big horn mountains. And so then we get into more like 9,000 vertical feet and mountain roads to track single track and rough feel, us forest service type riding. And then the opposite side, the Western side of the mountain is kinda high desert basin that is very similar to like the Fruita and grand junction area and Moab area. And so there's Wyoming really has a whole lot of different regions and it's kind of fun.

So it sounds like there's a combination of, of roads, dirt roads, which would be automobile accessible to S to stuff that cars couldn't get over and it's just for off road bikes and, and offered vehicles presumably.


Access to that terrain. How did that kind of shape what type of event you wanted to put together?

Yeah, so I, I just looked at, as we were talking more and more about an event, we wanted to do something that would start and finish in town versus just somewhere out in the boonies. My wife actually helped me realize the value in that. She says, you know, it's, it's great for the racer out there, but what about the spouse that not raising, what are they going to do? And so we, we kinda cater to that and the families. And so having it start and finish in town and providing them with where to lodge, what are the fun things to do in town while you're significant others out suffering for 10 hours. So at the time I was working at one of the breweries, black dude brewing company in town. And so we partnered with them saying, well, let's just start and finish at the brewery. What's better than finishing arrived in finishing at a brewery? And that worked great for the first two years. But as this last year, we grew in size, the, the street out in front of the brewery was just not adequate for what our raisers wanted and sides. And after riding for, you know, 10 hours in the sun, then trying to stand around on hot black pavement, we've decided to move it to our city park in town, which was just, you know, half a mile away from the brewery.

Okay. Yeah, I think it's, you know, it's one of those great opportunities that is unique to gravel that you can start in town and it's easy enough with these bicycles to, you know, cover five or 10 miles to get out of town and get into the wilderness. And then all of a sudden, as your wife astutely noted, and as the event has progressed over the last couple of years, you end up with this great economic opportunity for the community, a great opportunity to showcase the small town or if their city that you live in. And I think you see that time and time again with gravel races around the country, that they're really just creating these great weekend events that even the towns, folk who aren't interested in cycling can appreciate that. It just brings some, some energy and economic vitalization to the community over the weekend.

Absolutely. I mean, that's a big part of it. And even just myself as a writer, I anymore more, I like to just go, well, there's a new place and they've gotten any bet and I plan my vacation and my, my weekend around that event. Like, yeah, we'll go hang out with some friends, meet some new people and do some riding, check out the country and its place that we normally wouldn't probably see if we were just driving through.

Yeah, that's right. Know you said something, something I loved over email. To me that said, I love throwing challenges at riders, giving them a glimmer of hope with some recovery sections and then throwing more at them again. Can you tell us how that plays out over the long course for the, for the dead Swede?

Absolutely. So some people might say I'm a bit of a masochist and I'm climbing that, but I also love to descend and when mapping out the course, I really looked at where are going to be a good challenges and if I've got a really big long climb, what's my recovery all look like afterwards and where can I really capitalize on getting recovery? And so as riders go out the course, they'll get few miles of pavement, then they start the, hit the gravel and do some rolling Hills and break up into their groups. And then they hit this, the base of the mountains and they climb and climb and climb and climb up just this steep road. And a lot of people end up walking it because you're going about three miles an hour climbing this thing. There's sections of it that are of, you know, 16 to 22 degree angle our percent.

But in the middle of one of these climbs, we had a little section of single track. And so I thought, you know, that'd be a fun way to break it up. So they're still gonna get the elevation but get a little bit more distance, aunts and single track. And so they do about a mile seeing the track in the middle of this climb and kind of mentally it's a reprieve there before they then hit the steep grades of the red grade road. And then once you get up on top, that's where the, the views really open up and you can see into what's cloud peak wilderness and these 13,000 foot peaks with snow on top of them still as you ride through the forest. And we've got some punchy rolly Hills in there, but then do some loops and get some descents. And then I, okay, it feels fun. And then I'll throw just a big gut punch of a, a hike, a bike section in the middle after crossing the stream. And we kinda have a sign that I always like to put out on the course. Kind of to poke fun at my riders, give them a little bit of sarcasm. But the sign I say, can we still be friends?


Then I'll put it in various, I'll put in a different section each year. Just cause it is one of those where you think you're done climbing and then you realize it's a, it's a false summit and you turn and you got another thousand vertical feet to go and it just kind of deflates your balloon right there. Yeah. And so I, I asked them, can we still be friends? And, and I'll always have writers that come in that after the finish they're like, well, I saw that sign and I really wanted to punch you.

My answer was no at the moment.

Yes, absolutely. But yeah, I really like to strategically place our, our Clines and technical sections if it's going to be super rough and technical, then afterwards put it, you know, section and on just buff gravel or even a little section of pavement in there if the course allows it.

And as the course remained consistent over the three years or have you made changes?

Every year for the long course has been different because of the timing of our race. It snow conditions are a big factor. We had the first, the actual inception of the course was supposed to be a 100 mile loop and that then rolled through the, the entire forest and came back down. But as we got closer and closer, I realized we're not going to be able to get through this section as snow. It goes up too high and there's about a five mile section that doesn't get plowed or maintained and that would've just been a five miles off hike a bike through postholing snow. And I just didn't want to put our riders through that,

Which is funny as a coastal person because your events in June, the idea to think that you're, you know, you're going to be tapped out because of the snow line in June is pretty funny from my perspective.

Yeah. Because yeah, we're, we're up high in the high elevation mountains. So there it's, it's funny, last year we had a late, we had a late and wet spring and snow fall and so we had to do a reroute of our course last year. We weren't even able to go all the way up top and we actually ended up doing kind of two loops of our lower course last year, which made for some really fast times. But yeah, just the snow is, is a factor for us.

Yeah. I got to imagine it makes the stream crossings a little chilly as well.

Absolutely. And so we don't have many of them, but there where you do cross, it's, you're, you're going through glacier melt.

I like what you've described with the course because I think it's, for me, when a course becomes just a battle of attrition along fire roads, it becomes less interesting. And I think less apropos for where I want to see gravel go. I, you know, I want cyclists always to be challenged across the full range of disciplines. They're not only Watson horsepower, but handling skills you name it. I think that that makes a great event that it sounds like you've pieced together a day that depending on the conditions, not depending on the conditions, it's always going to be a day that the rider remembers.

Absolutely. That's what I like with cycling is just going out and getting a little bit of everything. And I come from just, you know, not just a road background or not just a mountain background or gravel background, but I really kind of want to do them all in one ride. And so that's kind of the idea behind this course is to bring people that come from multiple backgrounds and they're going to feel comfortable and confident in sections and they're going to feel, you know, vulnerable and uncomfortable in other sections. But that's the best part of the cycling is that when you get into that vulnerability stage and it only makes you a better rider when you get through it.

Yeah. And I think that it makes it really interesting when you're riding with others and you see their skillsets versus yours in different areas. And it gives you an opportunity if you're more technically inclined to kind of catch up on those single tracks sections a while the, you know, the people with the great engines are climbing away from you on the fire roads.

Absolutely. I mean we definitely see that in our results. We have people that they just, they know they're not a climber and so they hang out for a little while in the back. But then what we do is after that climb, they do Wally pop up top and then they come back and descend all that road. And so some of these good climbers that unite not be a great descenders or they might blow up, they might not have the legs to get through the rest of the course because they spent it on the climb.

Yeah, yeah. Have you seen other events start to crop up in your region?

Yeah, we have. It's been, so there was for a little while, we kind of pieced together this Wyoming gravels series and there's a erasing Casper that we always kind of hit. And that's in the central part of the state. It's the rattlesnake rally and they've got 120 mile as their long course and then like a 60 mile in a 30 mile as well. Here's a ride out of Lander, the WYO one 31, which hits a big section of gravel and that's a, that's a lot more self supported of a ride and, but they've got a big 131 mile course one over in Gillette right next to the black Hills. And then the black Hills has a big following the folks that do the Dakota Fibo, which is a big mountain bike race over there and Spearfish Perry Jua is the ratio organizer over there.

He puts on the gold rush and it's a 200 miles through big group. And so it's starting to pop up all over the region. And we actually reached out to some folks on the other side of the mountain and did our inaugural or we call the bad medicine ride this September and partnered with some people over there and kind of the same thing, one of those mixed bag rides where you're, you're gonna climb a lot and it's like the long course is a, a 96 mile loop with 10,000, 200 vertical feet in elevation. And the probably the best bike for that would be like the salsa cut throat or you know, something with a big dual inch drop bar, mountain bike almost just because of some of the, the technicality up top. But then there's also a 17 mile paved descent through this Canyon.

So one of those rides where no one bike is the best. But yeah, there's, it's, it's been interesting watching the gravel, seeing rural out here because it's just, it is a great way to get off the pavement and when we don't have roads that are paved all that well anyways, and a lot of vehicle traffic going 70 miles an hour next year, it's not that fun. But, and so a lot of people I know are selling the road bikes and just kinda the gravel bike or they just picked up their first $500 entry level hard tail and looking for something to ride. And so they're not a technical writer, so is a huge appeal to them.

Yeah, no, it's, I mean, as you've described Wyoming and at my own personal experience there, I mean you've got, I think you've got a great training ground for all levels of gravel. Like you said, you can have a basic bike with 30 to see tires and ride miles and miles and miles of just gravel roads that undulate for, for long distances. And then you can start layering in some of the double track and ultimately the single track and then combine these crazy adventures like you were talking to the other side of the mountain. It really does sound like an ideal area for gravel riding.

Absolutely. We love it over here and all of our rides we put on are just, they're meant to be super encouraging. I, I joke about the masochism but I also I like to make sure that we have support out there and so that anyone can really come out and feel safe and comfortable with it and just kind of take some of that, that level of risk and the unknown out of there. So like all of our rides will like, between the dead suite as well as the bad medicine, we'll put an aid station approximately every 10 miles that'll have food, nutrition, minimal bikes support like at pump and some patch kit if someone runs it, just to allow that little bit level of comfort for these people that they just bought their first bike and they're, they're looking for something to do and they're loving it. And signing up for 120 miles. Self-Supported just doesn't sound that fun to them yet.

And you've, you've you've done three different routes at this point, right? For the different distances?

Yeah. It's for the, for the dead sweet. For the, the a hundred miler. We've done three different routes and we have what we plan on being our, our standard route. But it has to, if weather's on our side, we'll continue that standard group. Otherwise we did come up with a, a good alternative to lap course down-low.

Great. And then I can't let you go without understanding. Where did the dead Swede name come from?

So it's funny, there's a campground not bond off of what was originally going to be the, the main loop called the dead sweet camp ground. And so when I moved to the area and I saw it on a map, I was like, what is this all about? And there's, there's three grave sites right there at this campground and it used to be up on top of the big horns. They had a big logging operation and logging camps and this tie flume. And so they would send these railroad ties down a, you know, a 30 mile handbill water slide down the mountain into town for the railroad and kind of legend Hagit is this for men. And a couple of other guys are doing some mining for and gold panning and silver and just trying to find some minerals and get rich. And apparently maybe they found it and between the three of them they got a quarrel and guilt each other over this. And so yeah, this kind of that, that true Western mystery of the high mountain panhandler.

Yeah. Fascinating story. Well, John, thanks for telling us a little bit more about the event and sharing about the region over there in Wyoming. The event is in June of 2020, is that right?

Correct. And June six of 2020 it falls same day as dirty Kanza and that is one of those things that we couldn't get around just cause of all the other events in our region. But you know, if you don't get into dirty Kanza come see us at our event.

Yeah, it sounds good. I will put a the link to the dead sweet Hondo website in the show notes and post about it on social media so people can start thinking about it for their 2020 calendar.


Right on. Well, thanks John. I appreciate the time.

Yeah, thanks for having me.