Getting to know Jeremy Kershaw: gravel cycling and hosting cycling events around Cook CountyMay 12, 2022 08:29AM ● By Laura Durenberger
Submitted photo by Jeremy Kershaw.
Exclusive to Boreal Community Media • May 12, 2022
Recently, Boreal’s Digital Content Editor Laura Durenberger-Grunow had the opportunity to interview Jeremy Kershaw, who, along with his partner Avesa Rockwell, founded Heck of the North Productions. Heck of the North Productions hosts gravel cycling races around the Arrowhead region of Minnesota.
Laura: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Jeremy: I live in Duluth with my family of two girls (11, 14) and my partner, Avesa Rockwell. I am a mental health registered nurse working in the emergency department. Avesa works as a writing instructor at UMD. Together, we have produced Heck of the North Productions from our kitchen table for 14 years.
L: You live in Duluth. Why brought you to the area, and what makes you stay?
J: Avesa moved from San Francisco to Duluth for a grad program at UMD. I had been working in Ely as an outfitter, dog sledding guide, and carpenter, but had been with her for a year in San Francisco. I wanted to get back to Minnesota so I was pleased with the possibility of being closer to the woods again.
We have been in Duluth since 2003. We have grown to really appreciate the mix of work opportunities and access to outdoor activities that keep us healthy and happy. We sometimes consider other parts of the country, but family, reasonable cost of living, and the North Shore keep us grounded here. We feel fortunate. I love the ability to travel in the woods, wilderness, and back roads with an easy peddle or drive from our front door.
Submitted photo by Jeremy Kershaw
L: I think a lot of us can relate to your love of outdoor activities that keep you in this area. One of your chosen outdoor activities is cycling. How long have you been doing that?
J: I have been cycling in earnest since the mid-’80s in high school. Gravel cycling took a hold of me in 2009. It’s been a passion ever since. (To be clear, our events are gravel cycling, not mountain biking. One can certainly ride a mountain bike in our events, but the primary difference is that our races are on unpaved roads, not trails.)
L: That’s great to know. Thanks for the clarification. So, what got you started in organizing gravel cycling events?
J: I raced my first gravel events in Red Wing and Rochester, MN the Spring of 2009. I was blown away by the creativity, hospitality, and challenge of those first two events. On the drive home from the Rochester race (called The Almanzo 100 at that time, created and hosted by Chris Skogen, one of the primary forces in gravel cycling) I began thinking that it might be interesting to create something like that up around Duluth. It became an obsession from there.
L: How hard is it to come up with a route?
J: When I put the first Heck of the North route together (that is our oldest and first event and namesake) it took months of pouring over paper maps, driving, and cycling potential sections. Finally, I got something together that I felt proud of. The first time I rode it in its entirety, I knew I was onto something special.
L: Why did you decide on the Arrowhead region of Minnesota to host bike races?
J: In 2009, as far as I know, there were not any events like what we have created. For sure there were people riding the roads that we built into Heck routes. But the North Shore has unbelievable cycling opportunities and it felt like a natural thing to do.
L: Supporting local communities seems to be very important to you and Heck of the North Productions. What are some ways you do that?
J: We recognize that the small towns that host our events are a big part of the overall experience for us and our participants. In particular, Two Harbors, Grand Marais, and Ely all serve as great towns for gravel cycling. We also know that these days, it is sometimes difficult for the businesses providing services to have enough workers. We love the idea of providing customers for these communities but also know it is a burden at times. We try to do more good than harm with our events.
We are proud of the sponsors/partners that add depth to our events. I prefer working with local (North Shore and Minnesota-made) businesses that make great stuff and value their workers and communities. It helps add to the identity of our events while supporting local workers and creativity.
L: You are a self-described “graveleer”. Can you tell us what that means, and how you came up with it? I imagine it is a descriptor many in the area can adopt.
J: Late this Winter I was lying in bed thinking of the events as I often do. I realized that, in my opinion, there was not a word that I felt described this type of cycling and cyclist well.
Though a descriptor like this is meant to be used for fun, Graveleer is, in my estimation, a cyclist that prefers to ride, race, and explore unpaved roads, especially gravel. A Graveleer is up for a challenge, welcomes new and veteran riders of all abilities, and respects the people and the land that call our countryside home.
L: One of the things that stood out to me about your gravel cycling events is your goal to make cycling more accessible for all ages and income levels. What does that look like? Let’s start with age accessibility first.
J: It has been really cool to watch cyclists of all ages accomplish the challenging events we host. We began with events that were only 100 miles long. But we soon started to see real possibilities if we designed shorter routes that might be gateways into gravel cycling. So we added 50-mile events, then 20 miles. All of a sudden, we had high school-aged kids and older riders that had not been on a bike for decades. Some of my favorite stories are those from the folks riding for the first time, or doggedly bringing in the back of the pack at dark thirty. Those are the truly tough riders we have. And the kids! They just seem to be able to handle so much if given the opportunity.
My goal is to encourage participants to think of cycling as a lifelong activity, not something that fades after childhood or maybe competitive years. I want people to be riding until they can no longer walk. Cycling is a powerful and health-giving thing.
L: And how are you working to make cycling accessible to more income levels?
J: Like all sports, cycling can get expensive quickly. Though we charge money for our events now (we used to be donation only) I still welcome riders who may not be able to afford the entry fee (just email me!) I do think having some financial stake in the event keeps people motivated to get out and train, though. Overall, I think our entry fees are modest.
There are great used bikes available which serve as a wise way to upgrade to a bike suitable for gravel cycling. Reaching out to one of our “Gravel Go-To’s” (a select group of knowledgeable cyclists) and asking for advice is something we really love to offer. We or friends with more cycling knowledge can help point new riders to a better bike.
The most important part of gravel cycling is having a bike that fits well and is comfortable on long rides. It does not necessarily mean having an expensive bike. Lots of bicycle styles will work for gravel cycling.
L: What are one or two tips you’d give to someone just starting out cycling?
J: The first is to have a bike that properly fits them, as I mentioned above. This can be done either via a local shop or by an experienced cycling friend. I see all too often people riding bikes that I know will only cause discomfort. This does not lend itself to the joy of cycling!
The second is to know that cycling is for every body type. It is for every skin color. It is for every identity. All our welcome at our events.
L: Tell us about your upcoming gravel cycling events in Grand Marais and Two Harbors. What can we expect?
J: There is truly something different about being part of a cycling event. Usually, riders come away with the realization that they did more than they thought they could. Sometimes, there are “failures,” though on race day. But even these become learning experiences that drive riders to have a better day the next time they ride or race.
Our events have become pretty popular over the years and I encourage those interested in riding to register early. Our spring event (May), Le Grand du Nord in Grand Marais, and summer event (July), The Fox, filled within just a few weeks after registration opened.
We still have a few spots left in our fall event, The Heck of the North in Two Harbors.
Or, volunteering is another great way to help and be part of the action and see what it’s all about.
We welcome spectators this year and thank the great North Shore communities that help host our events!
A huge thank you to Jeremy for taking the time to talk with us about gravel cycling. You can find more information about Heck of the North Productions and the gravel cycling events on their website here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The views expressed on BOREAL COMMUNITY MEDIA’s website and in our publications are those of the individual authors and interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official positions or policies of the BOREAL COMMUNITY MEDIA.