The Black Hills, a Triathlon, Bike Ride and Buffalo

By Bill Plock

Is there anything better for triathletes or cyclists than a road trip triathlon or the promise of new roads and trails? 

Well in 2020, yes any triathlon or bike adventure is wonderful, but there is something special about loading up the car and busting a move to somewhere new to swim or explore different roads and soak in the air somewhere new. 

About six hours northeast of Denver, the Black Hills rise mysteriously from barren plains and grasslands immediately resembling the mountains here in Colorado–at the least the front range. In my opinion, the very underrated or under-recognized Black Hills remind me of Colorado back in the 70’s. A time when Glenwood Canyon was still a two lane highway, and when you had to go over Loveland pass to get to Summit county. Yes I’m dating myself, but I do miss the open roads and uncrowded trails.

In these times, people from around the country are flocking to the mountains in record numbers both in Colorado and South Dakota. The hills known for buffalo and Presidents are alive and well. I can just hear Julie Andrews walking through the grasslands now singing at the top of her lungs. I can see the buffalo turning their heads in a “what the hell is she doing look” as turkeys scatter for cover and antelope prance away.

 Real Estate is selling fast here as people move from the coasts to work on line and as their kids learn at their side in coffee shops and other places. There are very few masks in South Dakota and people congregate in shops and restaurants like they did before March. Agree or disagree, that’s just the way it is here. 

I can remember my very first triathlon 12 years ago. Wow, time has flown. It was in Steamboat and not only was the adventure in doing a triathlon, but also in adding a bit of a road trip. There was a group of us and we even got fun henna tattoos to “psych” up for the trip. We rented a house and made a long weekend of it. 

I was heading to the Black Hills for a family reunion and it just so happened to be the same weekend as the Wildlife Loop triathlon in Custer State Park. I took the 303 Trailer and decided to check it out. The story this past weekend, for me at least, wasn’t the race but the feel of it. 

It started with texting race director Brandon Zelfer and asking him if I could park near transition, but that I was getting in late and wanted to make sure it was cool. He wrote back, “there should be plenty of room, no worries.” Thinking there might be a “village” and gates and cones I just didn’t know what to expect. Clearly he wasn’t too worried about it and for good reason as I would find out. 

I rolled in about 10:30—finally. Stockade Lake, is DARK. I found the “beach” area and you would hardly know there was going to be a triathlon in the morning. The bike racks were up but that was about it. 

The water was lit by the stars and the tranquility of it struck me. I parked overlooking the lake back up the main road a few hundred yards. Settling in and wondering what the area will look like upon sunrise I heard a truck peel off towards the lake. Soon, giggles and splashing followed and I knew a group of teens from town were frolicking in the water. I remembered some glory days of my own with my friends and loved the nostalgic feeling. The event was starting to feel a bit magical, or at least different. 

In the morning, with a little fog rising off the lake athletes began to trickle in. With the sunrise came a spectacular view. We were only at 5,300 feet of elevation but it felt more like the triathlon was set somewhere much higher, like maybe in Evergreen or Steamboat.

It turns out about 175 athletes competed in either the Olympic or Long Distance (half Iron) race. This course was tough with a very hilly one or two loop bike course and run. The bike course took riders on a scenic loop through Custer State Park—appropriately named the Wildlife Loop. 

Local triathlete, Kirsten McCay who won her age group and loves this triathlon said, “My favorite things about this race are the challenging but scenic bike course, the laid back atmosphere, no time limit for the course so everyone can finish, and the cash prizes for the top 3 overall men and women.” $800, $400 and $300 are given to the overall winners—not bad! 

During the race a couple of buffalo decided to graze along the road providing the most unique backdrop I had ever seen. Then a few miles down the road, a herd of wild sheep meandered around, antelope appeared and deer were all over. Turkeys roam the Black Hills as do the 1,400 Buffalo.

If you decide to try this triathlon, be sure to save time to explore the Black Hills. There are numerous towns to visit and you will meet some amazingly friendly and welcoming people. There is an awesome bike trail, the Mickelson trail that threads a 100 miles through the Black Hills from Edgemont to Deadwood. It’s an old railroad bed with gradual elevation changes on smooth dirt and crush gravel. It’s very smooth and almost doable on a road bike, but something with a bit wider tires will be more comfortable. It’s a big deal and draws cyclists of all sorts. There are numerous cabins and small “resorts” that cater to people who want make it a multiple day outing. 

check out this website for trail info and lodging for riders: https://www.mickelsontrailaffiliates.com/trail-info

All in all, check out the Black Hills for an adventure, triathlon or not, but keep it secret! 

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