The Almanzo 100, now in its 7th year, draws more participants than any other bike race in Minnesota. The event comes together through an old school grass roots effort and honest sacrifice. There is no marketing budget, no sponsorship deals, and a shoestring production budget made up of donations and Chris' personal savings. But calling the Almanzo 100 a grass roots bike event doesn't quite do it justice. More time and effort go into every detail of this event than I've ever seen, regardless of price tag. If you race, Skogen will host you to a pre event dinner at the Spring Valley VFW, give you a branded race number, full color cue sheets and a custom race packet that graphic designers drool over. And one more thing for those of you who don't know, the Almazno 100 is absolutely free.
I sat down with Chris during his off-season to talk about the Almanzo, what it's taken to build, and what he has sacrificed along the way. Like usual, a conversation with Chris about bikes easily strays into a few hours talking about humanity, life, religion and the other depths his mind is fixed on. Skogen is as intense as he is shy. Get him rolling and he's guaranteed to drop a few philosophical bombs that will leave you thinking for a few days.
The Almanzo has been profiled by plenty of media outlets by now, last year a production crew invested some serious resources covering everything that happened on race day. A few hours trolling the Internet you can watch the film, see the photos and learn how hard 100 miles of farm country gravel really are. What you won't find is much about Chris. If you only see him that one Saturday in May you'd maybe assume being an event promoter pays his bills. The reality is, 364 days of the year, he works his ass off at a grocery store supporting a family that needs a whole lot more from Dad than a bike race.
When I press him about how much six years of the race has cost, he comes up with a total figure of 60 grand but quickly says, "it's more beneficial for me to focus on the positive elements". You would too if you spent that much of your hard earned cash ensuring people you don't really know had a good day on a bike.
If you pay attention to the narrative of his twitter feed you'll notice that when winter rolls around, he's ready to throw in the towel. "Every year between October and December I just don't want to do this anymore. It just takes so much from my life…but then someone reaches out and talks me off that ledge." That 'someone' are the scores of Almanzo disciples that beg him to keep it going. "I get reminded of how important this is to some people, and how much it's impacted them."
He's not the kind of guy who can do anything half assed. On race day, he waits at the finish line, for as long as it takes, to shake every participants hand as they cross the line (that meant 17 hours in 2011).
The handshake at the end is the signature on the deal…you just finished something that's hard. Whether it's the hills, soft roads, or the wind that sucks…it's hard and that's amazing. If I invite you to do something it's my responsibility to acknowledge your presence. Whether it's 4 people or 800 I'll stay out there till everybody comes in. I'd hug everybody, but I'm not a hugger so much.
You can't talk to Chris about the Almanzo without getting into spiritual territory. He approaches the event with a reverence normally reserved for religion. Chris is a rare breed, operating with truly pure intention and motivation. "Every other race is about the podium, three people…three people can't grow the sport. If I can make something about everyone, why wouldn't you want to be a part of it?" And that's the catch, he genuinely cares that every single rider experiences something through the event that leaves them a different person than when they arrived.
This approach has inspired hundreds of cyclists and helped The Almazno grow exponentially year after year. Skogen expects over 1,000 entries in 2013. When I asked him why he thinks his event is growing while others stagnate, his answer is simple, "I've made it accessible…I've made the idea of racing accessible, to people who never would have thought of themselves as racers."
If you line up at the Almanzo, whether you're fast or slow, as long as you're on a bike Chris thinks it's amazing. "You see" Chris says, "if your bike is falling apart, that's awesome, race it. If you have a new carbon – whatever – that's awesome, race that. It doesn't matter what you have, it matters what you're doing with it." That attitude will be reflected on race day. Dozens of Cat 1 & 2 road racers will claim front row positions hours before the start while others line up at the back proud to be riding 100 miles for the very first time. Whatever the reason you're there, it doesn't really matter, only that you're there.
When I asked Chris what he hopes the race can become his response was simply this, "that it can just exist. I hope that if the first Saturday after mothers day is coming up, people think, I have to go to Spring Valley."