Tornadoes + Winter: A Wild Weekend of Cycling

When I went to bed last Thursday night, I was looking forward to my Friday ride.   According to the forecast it would be our first 70 since last autumn and what fun it would be after the winter we’ve had.  There was a chance for big storms, but it was going to be warm first…and that was a good deal all around as far as I was concerned.

Too good, as it turned out.  It was Friday the 13th after all.   The actual high barely broke 50 degrees.  Still, it wasn’t uncomfortable.  I took my Salsa Fargo out and got in 42 miles on the Raccoon River Valley Trail.   Even with the stiff wind I battled to get home, it was a good day.

They might have missed on the temperature part of the forecast but they got the storm part right.  Because it was cooler, I thought maybe we wouldn’t get them.  I was wrong.  The really bad weather rolled in long after I was done…at about 6:00 PM.  I stood on our back porch and watched a rotating cloud roll on by as I was being pelted with all sorts of sticks leaves, grass and other stuff.  The power went off and the yard critters and birds were acting a little bit squirrelly.  Then it passed and got real still.  Oh, oh…not good.  I’ve lived in this part of the world long enough to know what that means.  Five minutes later the tornado sirens went off.  Better late than never.

The rotating cloud that started it all.

Jefferson took a pretty good hit.  Thankfully, no one was injured.  There was significant property damage.  I didn’t know how bad until I got out on the bike Saturday morning.  I suspected that power lines might be down and so the plan was to head down the trail into the countryside.  I made it about a quarter of a mile before running into the first downed tree.  I was expecting this, but this was not an easy tree to get past.  I might have tried except I could see the second downed tree in the distance and figured there would be many more before I emerged into the open some five miles later.  There was no point to it, and so I shifted to Plan B.  I’d ride through town and keep my eyes open for those power lines.

Best laid plans…

What I saw stunned me.  When you see the cloud and you hear the sirens you know that the danger is real, but you always seem to come through it unscathed and so when you see the damage in your town, well, it comes as a real shock.  It was a classic F1 tornado debris field…maybe 100 yards wide and on the ground for six or eight blocks.  The weather people called it a “twisting storm.”  They apparently won’t call it a tornado now unless their Doppler radar shows a hook echo.  They’ve been trained to trust their computer screens but not their own eyes and mind.  Not me.  When you’re on a bike, you generally see the world as it really is.  This was a tornado.

The viaduct over the UPRR provided the best views of the damage.
Another warehouse with a peeled roof. This one’s older. It survived a lot of weather up until now.
It appears that debris took out one of the crossing gates as well as the warehouse wall behind.
…and the local baseball park.

Saturday’s ride was cold and wet.  The temperature was barely above freezing. To me, these are the worst possible conditions to ride in.  I got in 18 miles and felt like a waterlogged shoe when I was done.

And so even though I knew I’d be riding in snow today, it was actually a more attractive proposition than another day like yesterday.  They got this part of the forecast right, too.   I woke to 2″ of the white stuff and 23 degree temperatures.  The wind chill was +9.

That made it a fat bike kind of day.  As luck would have it, I was able to ride through a field next to the high school and gain access to the Raccoon River Valley Trail just past the first downed tree.   I tried to do this yesterday on skinnier tires and I got bogged down in the muck as the field is very wet.  It wasn’t completely frozen over this morning, but it was firm enough to cross on the wide tires.   The second tree was easy to get around and so I headed on out with a 20 mph wind at my back.  I wanted to see how bad the trail was.  Turns out it wasn’t bad at all.  I was able to get in 24 miles.    That’s a win.

Yeah, it was as cold as it looks.
Reaching Cooper was a major accomplishment today, but I was able to go further and so I did.
The key is not to stop. As long as you keep moving, it won’t lock up.
Never let anyone tell you that Surly Bikes are not up to the challenge of winter weather. They never let me down.

Riding a bike through the winter as I have this year has taught me a lot about the natural world.  I’ve learned to adapt and take things as they come.   I roll with it.   I notice that the wildlife I pass on the trail does much the same.  I’ve also learned a lot about myself.  I wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything.  Spring will get here when it gets here.  Summer will follow as it always does.  This, too, shall pass.   Life is good.


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