The Interview: Ken Blakey-Shell
Editor’s Note: The following interview was conducted by kolo rider and start center on our imaginary basketball team, Tim Bottrell. Tim wanted to introduce, or for many, re-introduce a true legend of Michigan mountain biking, Ken Blakey-Shell. KBS is a knobby-tire god in the Manistee area and has decades of experience in the sport. He’s ridden every bike out there, most trails, and has gotten hundreds of people to join our sport. Be sure to check out Ken’s excellent writing over at fat-bike.com.
Via Tim Bottrell:
About twenty years ago I was introduced to a small group of mountain bikers in the Manistee area. I had been mountain biking there for a few years at this point, but mainly in basketball shorts. I was a little nervous since these guys seemed really into riding, but it ended up being a great day with people who were just happy to have another person in the woods with them. This is where I met Ken Blakey-Shell. (KBS) Ken was always smiling and always stoked to be out in the woods. He was also really fast and a great bike handler. What stuck out most to me on one of these early Big M rides was his willingness to re-group and wait for others at the top of the hills. He was also willing to adjust someone’s bike with a smile on his face. A particular time I remember involved KBS going back down a tough climb to help someone with a mechanical at the bottom, then turning around to do the climb again.
Ken is always up to something whether it’s bike packing, finding new dirt roads, fat biking on motocross trails, writing bike reviews, building wheels, trail work, winter grooming… You get it. He’s a great ambassador and the Shoreline Cycling crew is full of top-notch human beings. Kolo TC flew KBS up from the Manistee Blacker Airport and put him up at the Park Place Hotel for a night so we could ask him some questions.
When did you start riding?
Like most kids, my parents got me a bike when I was 4 or 5 years old. It was a sweet orange Schwinn 3 speed with a big car-like shifter mounted to the top tube, banana seat and ape hanger bars. The bike was rad but got run over (accidentally) by my mother. I went through a couple of other bikes in the years following that including a pretty cool 24" road bike that my dad hooked up with racks and panniers so we could do some overnighter trips. Not long after that I first saw the Tour de France on TV, got an early 80's Univega mountain bike... and the hook was set.
Preferred frame material and why?
I am a sucker for Ti. It is super durable (I break a lot of stuff), has a magical ride to it and needs little to no maintenance. Steel is a close second.
Whatever trail I happen to be riding! Really that is a super tough call because there are so many good trails for so many reasons. That said, NCT between Dillings and Marilla will always have a spot in my heart because I have been riding it for 30+ years now.
That is probably my favorite trail as well. It seems like you guys put a lot of time in there with trail maintenance. I know whenever I ride with the Manistee group we stop and try to move anything off the trail that we can. Without those continual efforts it seems like that area would be un-rideable before long.
Luckily the Manistee area has a dedicated core group that all chip in to keep our trails in decent shape. Everyone contributes and we have a good culture of people taking action instead of thinking someone else is going to do it for them. The Shoreline Cycling Club has been the organizational structure that all of this falls under, but it is really the work of a bunch of individuals that care deeply about the trails and making sure everyone has a good time.
Who are some of the people helping?
There are a bunch of people that contribute in a lot of different ways. Like you mentioned above, on most rides we are moving logs and removing sticks so pretty much all of the local riders are helping. It is something easy to build a cultural expectation around because that stick, log etc. is still going to be there next time you ride if you don't move it. Outside of that, Mike Peterson, Dave Beadle and I are all chainsaw certified with the NFS so we do the cutting of stuff that can't be done with a handsaw or moved with a group. Andy Amstutz, Dan and Erin Secord are our primary Big M area team and almost year round one of them is carrying a silky handsaw with them to cut stuff out. I help out a lot on Big M but also cover NCT from Freesoil Rd up to Marilla, and Arcadia. Dave Beadle, Todd Hendrickson and Mike Peterson do that for NCT south of Freesoil. Todd and Dave Maclean are the primary people that have built the Ludington Urban Single track system which is a really cool trail network with around 10 miles of single track. There are a lot of other people that do a ton of work too.
That is all of the non-winter work. For grooming, Mike P and I are the people that groom the outer loop of the Big M and keep the tracksled running. Dan Secord and Andy Amstutz are the primary groomers for the little loop at the Big M. Andy Klevorn is the primary groomer for the Ludington trails. Jeff Zeller does some grooming at the Big M but is a huge help keeping the snowmobiles running at Big M and the Manistee Trail Park. If we get a mega dump of snow at Big M, a bunch more people will help out by snowshoeing in portions of the Big M trails so Mike and I don't kill ourselves or the equipment trying to get around the loop.
How big of a part is the Shoreline Club in making the Lumberjack 100 happen?
We do a fair bit of trail prep and clean up. That mostly involves removing all the sticks and trees that are constantly falling on the trail before the race and then removing the course markings and trash left over after the race. Rick Plite and his crew handle all the course markings and organizing, so they really do the majority of the work with the race.
Tell us about the grooming efforts at Big M.
A few years back we got that going and it has turned into something pretty cool. We groom about 20 miles of MTB trail at Big M currently with a 6ish mile little loop that is beginner friendly and then the remainder is the "outer loop" stuff that is hilly and more narrowly groomed (20" wide) so that it is similar to summer singletrack. We use a traditional snowmobile and roller combo for the little loop and a tracksled for the outer loop. The tracksled is really cool because it allows us to bank out corners, get up and over big hills and go through fairly tight trails. It gives the trails a pretty unique character compared to many other groomed fat bike trails. Because the outer loop is about 17 miles around you get more of a backcountry experience doing it and it can be pretty challenging.
How is this paid for?
It is primarily donation based. The Shoreline Cycling Club is a registered non-profit so donations for everything from trail work/building to grooming funnels through the club. We also apply for grants to help with the costs. For example, we have teamed with the Manistee Cross Country Ski Council (the group that grooms the XC ski trails at Big M) on fundraising and grant writing to build a storage building for grooming and trail maintenance equipment out at the Big M. It is pretty similar to how TART operates in the TC region.
You’re good friends with Scott Quiring. Tell us a good Scott Quiring story.
Q has always had an entrepreneurial streak in him. Combine that with his competitive nature and you basically have two of the big components that have gotten him to where he is today. Back when we were around 8th grade, clipless pedals for mountain bikes hadn't been invented yet and they were still only just getting going in road cycling. Both he and I were riding on the road with traditional road shoes that had a slotted cleat that would lock your foot into the pedals when you reefed the toe clip straps down. We were tired of riding around in hiking boots and wanted similar power transfer and a secure connection to the bike off road, but road shoes wouldn't work with most MTB pedals. To get around this Scott designed these metal plates you could bolt to the backside of your MTB pedals and then you could use your road shoes on your mountain bike. It was great as long as you didn't have to get off the bike. You couldn't get your foot out of the toe clips unless you loosened the toe strap first. I can't even count how many times he and I crashed and ended up tangled up in our bikes because our feet were still attached. The worst case of this was when Q and I were riding on some trails and there was a tree down over the trail near the bottom of a hill we were ripping down. He was leading and decided to bunny hop the log but clipped his rear wheel on it and the bike went flying with him attached. I had to help him out of his pedals so he could get detached from the bike. He literally knocked the snot out of himself and his whole head was just covered in snot. At the time he had long hair and a ponytail so he was a total mess. I am amazed he didn't get really hurt. Anyway, Scott went on to figure out how to manufacture the metal pedal plates, was talking to bike shops about distribution, and then Shimano released news about their SPD pedals and his plans went up in smoke. Regardless, it was pretty impressive for a kid to be that industrious in 8th or 9th grade.
I know you love fat bikes and 29-plus. Tell us a bit about riding dirt bike trails on the plus rig.
Yeah, fat and plus bikes just open up a ton of additional great riding options. For example, the MCCCT is basically like NCT but for motorcycles, so being able to ride those trails has opened hundreds of miles of new trails to us in the area. They also have a far different character than "normal" MTB trails with banked out corners, whoops, really steep drops and other trail features that you can't find on our MTB trails. Mixing in the moto trails helps to keep things fresh while also tuning up handling skills for other riding destinations outside of this area.
Did Founders name the KBS beer after you?
Nope, they came up with some other silly words for that acronym.
You’ve been riding a long time and you seem to have the same excitement and passion for riding. Where does this come from?
Bikes are fun! Not much else to it.
You don't race all that much. What's up with that?
There isn't a single reason, rather a bunch of little things adding up. I have raced for over 30 years and over that time I have realized I am not a very good racer. I am an "even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then" kind of racer who has had an OK race now and then at best. Second, I have found I like just having fun riding with people more than beating other people. Racing and being really competitive can just get in the way of having a good time, doing a cool adventure, really soaking in a cool moment or your surroundings. Third thing is a "putting all your eggs in one basket" kind of thing. When all your emphasis is on a big race, there are a ton of factors that can cause you to be "unsuccessful" in one way or another (bad luck, bad legs on the day). Maybe this is just re-stating my first point.
Currently I am way more motivated to take on some sort of big adventure like the Colorado Trail, Oregon Timber Trail, Arizona Trail, Tour Divide... or on the other end of the spectrum an overnight bikepacking trip. Bikepacking basically guarantees I will have an amazing experience on a lot of different levels. The big rides like the CT and OTT are super challenging and rewarding because of the physical accomplishment (like a race) but are also true life changing events. Not only do I get to ride amazing places on awesome trails and have a wonderful time riding, I also get to meet a bunch of really cool people, have some pretty profound experiences interacting with them, have my faith in humans restored by all the really kind things complete strangers do to help you out. There is just something about the simplicity of it, the speed you move through the world with, the approachability/relatability of someone on a bike. I am not trying to knock racing, which can be a lot of fun and it is great to hang out with people at events, but the bikepacking thing is such a rich experience that it currently gets me way more stoked than racing.
* I dug for some results, and a little over fifteen years ago Ken took 2nd in his age group at Iceman Cometh. I’d also have to bet that there aren’t too many people who could shake him at a place like Arcadia.
Can you give us an example of mileage and elevation for one of these trips?
The Colorado Trail is about 550 miles, 75,000' of elevation gain, 55% singletrack and about 92% rideable but the thing that makes it tough is that it is almost all above 9,000' in elevation. The Oregon Timber Trail is about 670 miles, 69,000' of elevation gain, 62% singletrack and about 95% rideable. The Arizona Trail is about 740 miles, 65,000' of elevation gain, 65% singletrack, and I am not sure yet of the rideable percentage (riding it in March, sounds like it will be similar to the CT and OTT). The big challenge with the AZT is crossing the Grand Canyon because you have to carry your bike (it is a national park and against the law to ride or wheel it). Those are what most people would consider to be the three premiere long distance mountain bike routes. The Tour Divide/Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (2,700 miles, 150k' elevation) sometimes gets grouped with them but it is more of a gravel route and contains almost no singletrack so it is kind of a different category of bikepacking route. Each of the three MTB routes (AZT, CT and OTT) have their own very distinct character and challenges. For example, the CT is one of the premier high elevation singletrack routes in the world. The OTT crosses back and forth over the Cascade Divide so you bounce back and forth from high desert to lush rainforest and then there are the volcanoes too. The AZT is a mix of premier low elevation desert single track and high elevation desert single track with a bunch of sky islands mixed in to offer an incredible range of biological diversity.
The elevation and mileage don't really do justice to the difficulty of the terrain you cover. The closest comparison I can make for Michigan riders is the Marji Gesick 100. The riding difficulty averages out to a similar level (but there are sections that are far harder and other stretches that are far easier) but you are doing it with a full bikepacking setup and 5ish days of food (so typically a 50ish lb bike). I am guessing a lot of people read that and are thinking "Screw that! Sounds miserable," and they would be correct about small portions of the routes. Overall though, the riding is really, really good and totally balance out some of the tough sections that make you wonder why the heck you are doing this.
A big thanks to Ken for taking the time to answer our questions. A bigger thanks to Ken and the Shoreline Cycling Club for the work they do to keep all of these trails in great shape. If you’ve been looking for some different trails to check out this season, the trails in Manistee/Mason County are worth the trip. There is also amazing road riding in the area. Manistee is a great little town with beautiful beaches, and most of the trailheads are a 15-30 minute drive.