The Hodag Country Ramble is a ride. It’s a tour, a campout. But it has also become so much more. Read on for an insight into the event and what makes it so special for its founder, Jeff Frane with some marvelous photos by Alex Horner…
It’s hard to know what’s important when talking about an event, so the place I’m going to start is what I’m left with after it’s all over: joy, hope, and optimism.
I grew up in Rhinelander, a small logging and mill town deep in what locals call the “Northwoods” of Wisconsin.
Rhinelander is also known as Hodag Country. The Hodag is a part of local folk-lore. A late-night campfire story turned into an epic logging camp prank. Its popular depiction is a green, somewhat dragon-like beast that only eats white bulldogs on Sundays. It’s the town’s mascot, and the chamber of commerce really leans into it with full force. You’ll find Hodag statues, Hodag Park, Hodag socks, Hodag Country Fest, Hodag salt and pepper shakers, etc.
The Northwoods is a land of towering trees, clean and clear lakes, and endless miles of gravel roads and two-track. It’s spitting distance to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and at least growing up, it felt like it was exactly nowhere. My family’s home was a few miles from town, and as a teenager, I was too afraid of the power to maim and kill to obtain a driver’s license, which meant anytime I wanted to see my friends, go to the bike shop, or go to work I rode my bike. I explored all the alleys, shortcuts, trails, etc. It’s an incredibly beautiful area, but my teenage heart was often preoccupied with escape.
A bit past my moody adolescent years, I’ve been trying to find more and more reasons to go back. My folks are advancing in age, and I don’t know how long I’ll get to have them. I love the mountain bike trails, the gravel roads, swimming in the lakes, going to my nephew’s baseball games, and most of all, spending time at the “forty.” My father’s hunting land, where he has a garden, orchard, and a small cabin, is a twenty-minute drive from the village center.
The problem is that I have no idea how to “relax” or “chill.” If I’m not working or moving, I don’t know what to do with myself, and so I needed a grand project to provide me with a reason to be there more often. This is how the Hodag Country Ramble was born; I thought to myself, “If I like being and riding here, maybe my far-flung friends will too.” I’ve been organizing cycling events in Minneapolis for almost twenty years, from innumerable alleycats to Bandit Cross, group rides, and more. I have a love for bringing folks together to ride bikes and build community, so what better place to share than the place my family calls home?
The concept was simple: a weekend of riding, swimming, camping, good food, and revelry out at the forty. From attending other events, I knew that there was magic in the multi-day format. There’s something special that happens when we’re together for an entire weekend, camping, eating, and living with one another. Arrive on Friday for Bandit Cross (non-competitive short dirt crit), vending, and camping; then, on Saturday morning, there are rides of 26, 54, or 93 miles to choose from. After riding, stay to swim, hang out, and share a family dinner before the big bonfire. For the food, we import our friend Chef Adam Blake from Iowa to serve gourmet fare to all in attendance.
At the genesis, the idea was, “How can I share this place with my bicycle friends,” but quickly, the real satisfaction came in sharing the bicycle community with my family. My mom follows my social channels so she has some idea about the ridiculousness of Bike Life, but the real power and magic of it isn’t something that can be translated via an app. At every gathering, instant friends are made on the road and trail. There are common values and beliefs and a shared experience of riding the terrain and passing through the countryside that tends to bring out the very best in people and create quick bonds.
My sister gets so stoked to work the aid station and cheer on the riders, my mom is proud of all of them for putting in such a big effort and is bewildered that they’d travel from all over the US to be here. My dad has been obviously moved by riders thanking him for hosting and complimenting the beauty of the place he takes care of. A dude who asks me, “Are you on drugs?” if I tell him I love him too much, I am absolutely melted by the vibe that emanates and surrounds the festivities. For all of us, seeing every corner of the land filled with so much life and love is a very powerful thing. I know that it has allowed me to feel an optimism that is often hard to come by in this world.
To a person, the riders who have come have shown the very best of themselves, they’ve come with hearts open to the experience and to each other. The Hodag Country Ramble has become my absolute favorite weekend of the year and something my whole family looks forward to. I’m always so glad to get to go back home to work on improving the routes or the festival grounds.
Can’t wait to see some of you in Rhinelander this Fall.
These photos were made by Alex Horner in 2023 at the second annual HCR. You can register for the 2024 HCR at BikeReg.