PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — For 40 years, zealous bicyclists have converged on Park Rapids, Minnesota, in September for a splendid autumn sojourn.

Established in 1980, the Headwaters 100 began as a 100-mile bike race and touring ride. In peak years, participation often topped 1,000 registered riders.

Nowadays, the Headwaters 100 is a casual, noncompetitive ride. Participants can choose between a 45-, 75- or 100-mile excursion.

This year's event is Saturday, Sept. 25. Registration begins at 7 a.m., with the ride starting at 9 a.m. (Find more information at www.itascatur.org.)

To this day, the scenic trek remains a venerable tourist attraction, drawing about 400 cyclists from across the country. As of Monday, there were 218 registered for this year's event.

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“Entrants are from across Minnesota as well as Montana, Kansas, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, Delaware and Rhode Island. There are some entrants from the local area, but most are coming from other parts of the state,” said Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club member Barb Jauquet-Kalinoski. The club has managed the event since 2002.

Typical of northern Minnesota, the weather has been varied and unpredictable over four decades. This year’s forecast looks to be sunny and in the 60s.

Curt McCabe, who rode the Headwaters 100 for roughly a decade, recalls, “They had the absolute worst luck with weather. Oh, my goodness, they had terrible weather.”

Riders have experienced snow, rain, frigid temps and even some warm, sunny days.

From about 2001 to 2010, he pedaled in the 45-mile route with fellow Hubbard Biking Group members, many of whom still participate in the Headwaters 100.

Dedicated riders

Lee Podoll, 83, has participated in the Headwaters 100 for 20 consecutive years, only missing 2020, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He lives in Bismarck, North Dakota.

“This year will be my 21st event,” he said. “I rode the 100-mile route the first year, but switched to the 45-mile route for the other years. It snowed 3 inches the year I decided to ride 100 miles. For several years, the event involved three generations in my family: son, daughter and grandchildren.”

Podoll started riding Minnesota bike trails in the 1990s. He bought a cabin in 1997 to be near the Heartland Bike Trail.

“Spending time in the area is how I discovered the Headwaters 100,” Podoll said. “I love the north woods and lake country, and fall colors are a bonus for the Headwaters bike ride.”

An annual tradition

Susan Steffen lives in Minneapolis, but owns a cabin on Big Sand Lake, “where we have a garage filled with bicycles of all sizes for family and friends.” She has been a substitute math teacher in St. Paul Public Schools since she retiring.

“Our neighbors on Big Sand Lake participated in the Headwaters 100 from the very first year and invited us to try it with them,” she said.

Steffen transformed her collection of Headwaters 100 T-shirts into a keepsake.

“In 2013, I had my shirts from 1989 to 2012 made into a quilt and had enough to make two pillows to go with it,” she said. “I've missed only a couple of years for family weddings and family illness, so I still have plenty of Headwaters T-shirts in my closet.”

The ride through Itasca Park is “amazing,” Steffen said, but the biggest attraction “is biking with our group of friends who have done the Headwaters 100 with us all these years.”

“The Headwaters 100 is an annual tradition for our family and friends,” she continued. “Most of us live in Minnesota, but some come back from the East Coast or West Coast to join us.”

Susan Steffen had this quilt made out of her numerous Headwaters 100 t-shirts.
Susan Steffen had this quilt made out of her numerous Headwaters 100 t-shirts.Contributed/ Susan Steffen

A favorite ride

Rich Freyholtz is from North Dakota, but lives in the Twin Cities. describes himself as “a big fan of the Headwaters 100.” He joined the event in 1986.

“During that time, I have missed only three Headwaters events — two years when I was working on my master’s degree, and last year’s COVID cancellation,” Freyholtz said.

The route has been altered throughout its 40-year history, but the trek through Itasca State Park is a pièce de résistance for many riders.

Freyholtz said the local countryside is a major attraction, “with the highlight being the loop through Wilderness Drive in Itasca Park. Since the ride is held in the fall, the changing leaves provide a spectacular backdrop to the route.”

The volunteers for the Headwaters 100 — usually numbering about 70 or so — are “all very friendly and welcoming, and we especially look forward to the hot soup at the gun club stop.”

Freyholtz has completed long-distance bike trips in North Dakota, around Lake Superior, the Central Cascades in Oregon, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Canadian Rockies and a handful of other places. But the Headwaters 100 is his favorite — possibly because it lands on his birthday. He’ll celebrate turning 70 this weekend.

Freyholtz rides his trusty 1986 Trek 520. “I have other bikes, but this is my Headwaters bike, and has been for many years,” he said, noting it has “a good steel frame, a triple crankset up front and a comfortable seat.”

The magical Mississippi

Mark Siepker’s first ride was around 20 years ago. He loves the scenery, especially the stop at the Mississippi headwaters. He’s from Omaha, Nebraska. A cycling friend from South Dakota told him about the Headwaters 100.

Due to age and changes in health, Siepker said his next ride would have to be with an electric bike. At 66, he’s battling cancer and recovering from stem cell transplant surgery.

“My ability to do long bike rides in the future is uncertain, but my memories of the ride and Park Rapids are wonderful,” he said. “Make sure to train enough. Pace yourself on the ride. Make sure to refuel at every rest stop, and enjoy every single beautiful mile.”

Milton Ospina of Louisville, Colorado, only participated once in 2019. “It was memorable,” he said, adding he hopes to return many more times.

“I loved the fact that the route went by just feet away from where the mighty Mississippi is born. Through business travel, I've been to New Orleans, where the river ends, and to St. Louis and other destinations along the river. Having a chance to actually see where the river is born, and doing it by bicycle, was something I could not pass.”

Ospina warned novice participants to study the elevation profile.

“Don’t make the mistake I made thinking that Minnesota is mostly fat,” he said, adding that pausing for photographs at the Mississippi headwaters is a must. “It's magical being there, so enjoy it so it stays in your memory for the rest of your life.”