Some Thoughts On Tires for Gravel

One of the problems with riding a lot of miles is that I go through a lot of tires.  Tires aren’t cheap and if I’m not careful, I find that I can spend as much on bike tires as car tires.  This makes no sense to me, but it is what it is.

So it is with a certain amount of dread that I go shopping for new tread.  I’m not a gear junkie or a bike snob, so I typically head straight for the clearance rack. As you might expect, I’ve made some mistakes but other purchases have resulted in pleasant surprises.   I can’t say that I’ve ever found a tire I liked well enough to want to buy again, that is, until now.

I needed new rubber for the Salsa Fargo I plan to take to Nebraska next month.  I’m riding the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile unsupported gravel grinder that promises to push some boundaries a little further out for me.  That’s good.  Unsupported means that I’ll be on my own and while I understand that eastern Nebraska is a far cry from the Australian Outback, it is somewhat remote.  I’d rather not be changing tires on the side of a dusty road some sixty miles from the finish while watching the sun melt gently into the southwestern horizon.  Mid-October can be quite chilly when the sun sets in these parts.

So after putting more effort into tire research than I put into my entire senior year of college, I purchased a pair of Vittoria Mezcals.   The Mezcal is a 29″ x 2.25″  tubeless ready tire that fits ISO 622  (29″ or 700c) rims.  I mounted it on WTB’s STP i23 (23 mm) rims and it fit great.   I played around with mounting it tubeless but in the end I discovered I was going to need to retape the rims and I decided to throw tubes in as I am running out of time and don’t have the tape.   I’ll play around with tubeless once the snow flies.  For those who might be interested, the tire was extremely easy to seat and popping the bead was a breeze.  I used an Airshot at 130 psi to do so.   Fit was pretty much perfect.

Buying the folding bead version of a tire is one way to save a few grams of weight.
Already dirty. That’s good.
The center ridge lowers rolling resistance on pavement.
But the tires also performed admirably well in the loose, deep gravel that is typical in Greene County.

Most people probably wouldn’t choose the Mezcal for gravel because it’s really more of a cross country MTB tire.  It’s big and relatively heavy compared to most gravel tires, but the Fargo offers enough clearance to mount it. The reviews I read suggested that the Mezcal offered the most attractive combination of suppleness, grip, rolling resistance, weight and durability.  I paid $41/tire at Jenson USA.  If I was running a gravel racing bike like the Salsa Warbird or Raleigh Tamland, I would have chosen the Donnelly X’Plor MSO 40 mm or maybe the Panaracer Gravel King.  I think both would be excellent choices for the right bike, but they would have been very odd looking on the Fargo.

So I finally got to ride on the Mezcals this past week and I have to say that I’m a bit blown away.   They’ve completely changed the whole gravel experience for me. They are night and day different than the WTB Rangers I had previously mounted.  They’re very grippy and stable at speed.  In fact, there was a moment on Sunday when I took my hands off the bars to snap a picture.    I was going almost 20 mph…on gravel.   This is not something I would have tried on any other tires.  That’s stability.

Stability breeds confidence. 19 mph and no hands on gravel. Nice.

I decided to push them a little and for the next hour or so, I was bombing corners and diving from pavement to gravel and throwing everything I could at those tires and they handled it all.  I didn’t lose the back end one single time…not even a little.    The only time they got a little wonky at all (and it wasn’t a big deal) was leaning heavily into turns on pavement.  They didn’t feel bad there…just different.  I don’t think it will be an issue as I get used to them.

As I rode, I found myself thinking of a blog post from Guitar Ted where he talked about the fact that you really didn’t have to give up speed on gravel if you chose to run wider tires at lower psi.   This is counter-intuitive, but it resonated with me because I don’t care for the feel of skinny tires on the kind of loose gravel that is so prevalent in this part of Iowa.    The front end seems to have a mind of its own and if I’m not bouncing all over the place I feel like I’m sinking into quicksand.  Neither feeling is good and with these wider MTB tires I can avoid both.

So far, I’m very pleased with these tires.  We’ll see how they wear.   That’s really the only thing I don’t know at this point but it might not matter.   Riding the Vittoria Mezcal is good clean (dirty) fun.  I might just pick up another pair while I’m thinking about it.

 

Why “Bike Rage” Is So Pernicious

Cycles of Rage the headline screamed.   I knew it was clickbait designed to trigger me.  It was like passing a crash on the side of the highway.  I couldn’t resist looking.  I clicked and immediately wished I hadn’t.  It was more of the same, this increasingly common refrain that feels to me like it is poisoning all that is good about cycling.   It goes like this.

  • Motorists hate us.
  • Pedestrians hate us.
  • City planners hate us.
  • Law enforcement officers hate us.
  • Traffic engineers hate us.
  • Politicians (especially Republican politicians) hate us.
  • Cycling is very dangerous.
  • We could die.
  • Protect us.

The story I referenced above appeared at Streetsblog NYC.  It tells of a city cyclist who keeps getting ticketed for running stop signs.   He doesn’t “blow” them.  It’s more like a slow roll…the Boise Stop.  His behavior would be legal in Idaho but it isn’t in New York.  Maybe it should be, but it isn’t.

I think he knows this, but he keeps doing it anyway and the fines keep piling up.  He looks like a smart enough guy.  Surely he’s done an informal cost benefit analysis on his behavior, right?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Seems to me that an awful lot of people these days are perfectly willing to blow themselves up if it allows the opportunity to show the rest of us how they really feel.  That’s fine right up until it starts hurting the rest of us.  More on that in a minute.

Way back when he was running Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher was saddled with an unfair law that prohibited flying out of Love Field in Dallas to destinations beyond Texas’ border states.  Called the Wright Amendment and named for Congressman Jim Wright, it was passed at the behest of Braniff International and American Airlines, ostensibly to protect the new DFW mega airport when in fact it was just good old political payback.  It was costing Southwest a lot of business and so Kelleher was asked about it in an interview.  I’ll never forget what he said in response.”

 “The Wright Amendment is a pain in the ass, but not every pain in the ass is a constitutional infringement.”

This is a good place to apply that quote.    Having to stop at stop signs on a bicycle may be annoying, but in the end it is just not that big of a deal.  Everybody is expected to stop at stop signs. You stop and then you roll.  It happens dozens of times in the typical city ride and yet life goes on.  Still, the comment stream accompanying the article is full of frothing, irrational rage.

I’ve long suspected that some people genuinely like being angry all the time.  Last year, The Atlantic’s CityLab website published an article titled “The Joys of Bike Rage.”  I can’t figure out if it’s intended to be satire or not, but taken at face value its premise is that bicycle commuting is terrifying and dangerous and just not worth the effort.  Interesting…  On the plus side, the article did introduce me to this video that tends to reinforce the stereotype of the angry cyclist.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so counterproductive.  Here’s my concern.  If this stuff turns me off as a cyclist, I wonder how many people who don’t cycle might read it and decide that cycling just isn’t worth the effort.  I suspect it’s not a small number.   It might be part of the reason why we can’t move north of 10% when it comes to percentage of people who get on a bike regularly.   Meanwhile in Copenhagen 50% of the people ride daily.  Raging cyclists claim it’s because they have protected infrastructure but I’ve been to Copenhagen and I know that they cycled BPBL (before protected bike lanes) and they’d continue to cycle if it was all taken away.  I wonder how we can possibly move from 10% to 50% when our narrative is one of rage and hate and lunacy.  I don’t know that we ever will.  What was it that Gandhi said?  If you want to change the world, change yourself first?  Hmmm.

From the Citylab article. Extreme care must be taken so as not to reinforce this  mindset.

And so I think that the obvious answer is that the bicycling as dangerous narrative needs to change.  New laws and new infrastructure are worthwhile goals, but what we really need more than any of that is new cyclists.   It’s time to put the bike before the bike lane.  If we cycle, they will build it.  They won’t have any other choice.

I’d love to see the advocacy community (because this is really where the problem is) shift its focus from everything that’s wrong to everything that’s right with cycling.  Perspective matters.   It’s no secret that most laws favor motor vehicles over cyclists.  So what?  The other side of the equation is that cycling is still healthy, both physically and mentally.  It’s low impact and good for the environment.  It helps build strong communities.  It saves money by the billions.  I could go on and on.

Back to the stop sign story.   Close your eyes for just a minute and imagine a New York City where the same percentage of people cycle as in Copenhagen.  Imagine what that city might look and feel like.  That’s what those of us who love cycling must be working towards.   This stop sign stuff is just a distraction…an insignificant battle in the war to get to 50%.  I don’t know how you feel about it, but in the end I’d rather lose the battle and win the war.

Summer’s Last Stand

The windows are open and a cool breeze wafts in as I write this morning.   Sunrise is still an hour or so away and so perhaps it will warm up later but maybe not so much that we’ll have to turn the air conditioner back on.  Fall is coming.   It won’t be long now.

It has been a summer of endless blooms along the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
Roundup time.

It has been an amazing summer.  I’ve ridden more miles than ever before and I’ve seen the most incredible things.  On the wildlife front, I’ve ridden with the bulls.  Okay, technically they were cows but you get the idea.  Most people never get to see cattle run.  It’s quite a sight…all that weight charging forward.  I’ve also seen copious deer, eagles, beaver, one curious gray fox and even a bobcat.

I’ve added Montana, Oregon and Washington to the list of states I’ve now cycled in.   I’d been to all of these places before, but seeing them on a bike is different and better and I have a new appreciation of just how special they all are.   Portland was everything I heard it was.  Billings and Missoula are completely different, but both delighted me in ways I didn’t expect.   If you ever find yourself heading to Billings and are looking for suggestions, let me know and I’ll share with you where to stay and where to eat.  It has blossomed from the gritty little oil town I remember into a nice smaller city.

Downtown Billings. I like it here.
I liked Missoula even more.
I crossed both the Mississippi and Columbia by bike for the first time this summer.

Closer to home, I crossed the Mississippi River in Davenport and rode the Hennepin Canal towpath in Illinois as well as the Three Rivers Trail in Hampton Iowa.   We also visited Cedar Falls for the first time.  If I was young and just starting out and looking for an affordable Midwestern “mountain” town, I  might consider moving there.  It reminds me of Boulder way back when.

The passing of summer doesn’t mean that cycling season is over.  Minnesota beckons.  The Root River Trail is one of America’s best and this month they’re having a Taste of the Trail.  That’s a good excuse to head north before the snow flies.

I’m also heading to Nebraska in a few weeks to ride the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile gravel grinder.   Like Seattle to Portland earlier this year, I have absolutely no idea what this entails.  It’ll be fun to find out.

The Loess Hills…another one of my “happy places.”

I plan to ride through the winter again this year.  I probably won’t go as many miles as last year, especially on those below zero days, but you never know.  I do plan to get out in it regardless.   I’ve even found myself looking wistfully at my Surly Wednesday fat bike these last few weeks.

That’s a good thing.

Ride on.

The Real Cost of Commuting (And What To Do About It)

“Living’s mostly wasting time.”  -Townes Van Zandt

I know that a lot of people don’t understand my “obsession” with the bicycle.  They find it peculiar because they don’t understand what the bike gives me in exchange for what it asks of me.  Interestingly, the people who least understand often have another similar obsession…their cars.

So I sometimes ask these nice people if they know how much their cars have cost them.  If they’re really passionate car people, I usually get defiance in return.   They don’t care.  They can afford it.   It’s better than riding a bike like a poor person or a child or a spandex (it’s lycra but they always say spandex) clad elitist.  Yada, yada, yada.

Most people, though, simply don’t know what it costs to own and drive a car.  If they did, I suspect a lot of them would make some changes, so maybe not knowing is a defense mechanism of sorts.   Maybe it’s what keeps the tears at bay.

Time spent commuting is a sunk cost. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
Bike + train saves money and reduces stress, but can still be a time sink.
This is not a commute.  This is pure joy.  This is living.

For what it’s worth, owning a car costs a king’s ransom.  Don’t believe me?   Using numbers provided by the AAA, if you’re married and own two cars most of your adult life, it’s one million dollars out the door.  This is not an investment, either, no matter what the nice young man or woman at the dealership tells you.

But even worse than the financial burden car ownership imposes  is the inevitable decline in your quality of life that is a non-negotiable part of the deal.   Most of us already know motoring is not good for our health.  Sitting in a car is a sedentary activity.  It’s also very stressful.  They call it road rage for a reason.

Yeah, right.

That’s all bad enough, but I’m not done.   .  According to the nice folks at  EducatedDriver.com,  it turns out that a lot of us are literally wasting years of our lives commuting.   It’s not just  cities like LA and Houston.  It’s pretty much everywhere of any size.  Let’s say you live in Denver.  Who wouldn’t want to live there?   Better get their soon, though.   Denver residents waste  427 days of their lives commuting.  Bummer.

So maybe you’re thinking that this is unavoidable.  It’s not.  That’s just what people who feel trapped tell themselves to make the medicine go down a little easier.  Of course it’s avoidable.  You may have to make some trade offs to get there, but in the end it’s all a matter of what that commuting time is worth to you and how you might use it if you weren’t using it to sit on a freeway and inch forward at five miles an hour while raging that the other lanes are all moving faster than yours.

Ames is commute-free, bike friendly, economically vibrant and less than an hour from DSM International Airport.

I’m not of a mind to tell anyone else what to do.  How you choose to live your life is up to you.   That said, if I was twenty-something and just starting out, here’s what I would do.  I would move to a college town in either the Midwest or the Rockies.  College towns in this part of the world are typically affordable.  They have good bicycle infrastructure and robust economies.   Primary jobs are being created in these places…often the kind of tech jobs bigger cities dream of.   They’re not so large that you can’t bicycle everywhere.

The combination of these factors make them easy places to achieve financial balance.  Because they’re smaller, you can get from end to end very quickly.  Quality of life is generally very good.

If I was worried about having access to an airport, I’d find a college town close to a big city (Ames,  Lawrence, Lincoln, Bloomington, West Lafayette, Lansing, Ann Arbor, Provo, Fort Collins) or one that’s big enough in its own right to have  an airport (Boise, Madison, Missoula) that could get me to the big city in one hop. I’d move to one of these places and choose to live car free.  I’d pocket the million dollar dividend and reclaim the 1-2 years of my commuting life and call it even…

…but that’s just me.

 

 

The Joy of Route Finding

Back in 2014 when we were still living in suburban Indianapolis, the guy who owned the shop where I bought my Kona Rove told me of how he had once cycled from his home in Lafayette to Indianapolis International Airport to catch a flight.  I remember having trouble getting my head around that at the time. Lafayette is 60 miles from IND and some of the roads in between are not very bicycle friendly.

A few years later we were living in Utah and as I pedaled past SLC on the way home to Ogden I realized I was kind of doing the same thing.  Even the distance was about the same.  That’s when I started thinking about cycling from place to place a little differently.  The final nail in my “can’t ride from here to there” coffin came just last month as I headed into Portland from Seattle.  I’d just completed a trip across the better part of two states and so it was now official.  The bike was something more than just a local transit vehicle.

I spend more than a little time looking at maps and as I do, it has occurred to me that there are a number of places I’d like to cycle to from our home in Jefferson.  I’ve started to develop routes to these places. I just finished the first of these…a 130 miler to Omaha Nebraska.   I am also working on routes to Lake Superior and the Black Hills.   When those are done, I’ll figure out where to go next.

Developing these routes is great fun for me…almost as much fun as cycling itself. There’s a huge cache of resources available online including state and county DOT maps that can be used to gather data about traffic counts, road configuration and other information.  With the help of these tools, I develop and then plot the route in Google MyMaps and RidewithGPS.com.  I’m certainly not an expert, but I want to share what I’ve learned so far in case you might be interested in doing this.

First and foremost, I’ve learned not to delegate route finding to someone else.   What they choose might not work for you.  Even the pros sometimes leave me scratching my head.  When I was in Portland last month, I picked up an Adventure Cycling Association route book at Powell’s.  The ACA is the gold standard when it comes to this sort of thing and yet some of their route choices puzzled me.  I know that there are better ways to get through that territory than what they suggest.

I’d also be very careful before letting some tool choose your route for you.   I tried this in RidewithGPS and discovered that when I changed the base map from Google to the Open Cycling Map, I got two dramatically different route recommendations.  In theory, OCM should be better as it is a compilation of routes chosen by cyclists for cyclists, but I actually ended up using more of the Google route.  Go figure.

Experience helps.  I try see as many of these roads as possible with my own two eyes.  It’s best if you can see them on a bicycle but that’s not always possible.  If not, seeing them through the windshield can still be valuable.  Whenever I take a trip by car now, I’m scouting cycling routes along the way.   If I have to, I pull over and take notes before proceeding.

If I can’t do that, I rely on Google Streetview.  Before Seattle to Portland, I used Streetview to become familiar with the course.  The route information provided by the Cascade Bicycle Club was really helpful.    They provided a list of all the potential trouble spots and I pulled all of them up on Streetview and internalized them before heading west.   During the ride, I was able to recognize all of these places as I came upon them.  It was like I had been there before.

The official Iowa bicycle map. Road color communicates average traffic volume.  Purple roads like E63 east of Coon Rapids have the lowest counts.
This is  a snapshot of that stretch of E63.  This is why I love cycling in Iowa.
Even downtown, traffic is pretty much non-existent in Iowa’s small towns.

So I built my route to Omaha using all of these inputs.  It includes sections of two regional rail trails, long stretches of mostly empty, paved two lane county roads, city trails, and about 30 miles of gravel.  I’ve already cycled close to a third of the total route.  Here’s a fully functional embed of the route from RidewithGPS.  You can click on the link to view a full version of the map.  Check out that elevation profile!

Crossing the Missouri River into Omaha in the fog via the spectacular Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
The fog began to lift as I roll into downtown Omaha.

Even if you never plan to go on a long ride like this, I think the ability to identify and map routes can be valuable.  I’ve discovered by trial and error that a lot of urban bike routes are placed on streets I find less than desirable,  so when I visit a new place I go through much the same process (in abbreviated form)  before heading out to ride.   I think it increases my enjoyment. I suspect it probably could do the same for you.

So now you know a little about my route planning and finding methodology.  Let me know what you think.  If you have ideas that might help me with this, I’m all ears.

Thirty Minutes a Day Changes Everything

Yesterday was a milestone day for me. It was my 600th straight day on the bike without a miss. I’ve cycled five miles or more every day since December, 2016. I’ve covered a lot of ground over these 600 days…20,195 miles to be exact. That’s a little over 33 miles per day. Not bad for an old man.

The streak was just a crazy thought back in early 2017. I’d ridden more miles than I thought possible the previous year and didn’t want to fall into the trap where I felt like I constantly had to ride more so I changed my focus  instead. Why not just try to ride five miles or more every single day for the whole year? At the time, I thought it would be fun to see if I could stick with it for 365 days.

Day 20, Ogden Utah.  Snow is mostly an excuse.  It doesn’t have to stop you.

I almost didn’t. Eight days in we were still living in Ogden Utah and I woke up to eight inches of wet, slippery snow. It was nothing like the Utah powder the ski people love to brag about.  It was more like wet cement.  I headed out and couldn’t get any traction at all. I didn’t know how I was going to get five miles in that day.  I was almost ready to give up and then a snowplow came by. I stuck to plowed streets and managed to cover seven miles. This was my shortest day…so far at least.

Day 72: The trails above Ogden finally dried out and so I climbed.
Day 200: I begin to explore Iowa’s B Road kingdom.
Day 362: The wildlife I’ve seen has been such a treat.
Day 365. It was the wind more than the snow…
Day 513: Crossing the Mighty Mississippi at Davenport Iowa

When I was starting out, I had people tell me that I couldn’t ride every day. They told me I’d need to take days off to rest, probably because I’m not as young as I used to be.  I don’t hear that sort of thing any more.

So how does an old guy pull this off?   Well, I think part of it is luck.  I’ve been relatively healthy over this period.  But maybe I’m healthy because I ride everyday.   There’s also the challenge of finding a bike when you’re traveling but even that’s not as difficult as it used to be.  I’ve used bikeshare on several business trips. It’s not ideal, but we’re only talking about thirty minutes so it works.

Day 600: Pure blue sky ahead.

I think that another reason this has worked is that I don’t take it too seriously.  I often go long and hard, but if I feel like backing off that’s what I do. Some days I ride shorter or slower. I’m not training for glory, so it doesn’t really matter.   I’m cycling because I enjoy cycling and how it makes me feel.  When the day eventually comes that I don’t feel like heading out, I won’t and that will be that. The streak will end and that will be fine. I have no idea when that day will be. It might be tomorrow. It might be sometime later.  I suspect that whenever it happens a new streak will start the next day.

The streak has changed me and how I view cycling. Now it’s no big deal to go out and ride five miles.  This is true no matter what the weather.  I can do it in about 20 minutes. That’s important, because you get most of the benefits from cycling in the early miles. I still think five miles is the magic number. Most people can do it and that’s where the magic happens.

If you haven’t exercised in years, you should see your doctor and get a checkup.  That’s the first step.  Then, if he or she tells you to incorporate physical exercise and you decide that cycling is the way to go, just go for it. Go as long or as short as you want.  If you need a benchmark, I think thirty minutes a day is about right.   You’ll know.  It all starts with one ride.  You just might be surprised at where it takes you.

Cedar Falls: Cycling Iowa’s Oldest Trail Network

When Jan and I attended the Iowa Bike Expo in Des Moines way back in January, we met a tourism guy from Cedar Falls.   “You should come over and ride our trails” he said.  “It’s the oldest paved trail network in Iowa…over 110 miles long.”

Trail along the Cedar River near downtown.
Downtown from Gateway Park. The Cedar River is big, but crossing it is easy.

I guess I filed it away wherever it is that deep thoughts go to percolate,  because when we were looking for a new place to explore  last week I suggested going to Cedar Falls.  Jan was nonplussed.   “It’s east Iowa” she said and I understood. East Iowa is the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids and  Waterloo…old world manufacturing town more akin to struggling smaller cities in Indiana, Michigan or Ohio than our little corner of Iowa.  Such places generally leave me feeling  blue.  Take Davenport, for example.  During a recent visit, I loved the updated riverfront with the fancy minor league ballpark and ferris wheel  but there were no people around.  In the city, no people means no fun.

Cedar Falls (pop 41,000), on the other hand, is not that.  I’m willing to concede that maybe we just got lucky and picked the right weekend to come here.  There was a gran fondo and downtown streets were closed off, the beer was flowing and cyclists were everywhere.   College students were returning to the University of Northern Iowa for the start of classes.  There was a lot going on and the vibe was very much alive.

Whatever the reasons, it felt really good.  So we rode.  When I visit a place like this, I try to get my arms around how the trails work and what their primary purpose is.  Some communities build trails mostly for recreational purposes.  Others try to position them for commuters as well.

Cedar Falls is a mixed bag in this regard.  Many of the trails we rode were in floodplains along the Cedar River and through adjacent wetlands.  The Cedar is not an insignificant river, and there were telltale signs that these trails flood regularly and likely close when water is high.   That means that they aren’t necessarily a reliable transportation option.    There are days when you’re going to have to take the streets to get where you’re going.

Ahhh, connectivity. The signage was really helpful to those of us who come in from out of town.  Kudos.
More signage. It’s hard to get lost here, even if you don’t know your way around.

But Cedar Falls has pretty good connectivity overall.  Most major destinations are on the trail network.  Even so, I urged Jan to get off the trails and take the streets through the heart of the city.  I ride streets all the time so I’m comfortable there.  She doesn’t.  That said, she found riding the roads in and around downtown to be easy and delightful.  Motorists were considerate and sharing the road was the norm rather than the exception.

I missed these floodgates at Washington Park when we cycled through them, but they’re obvious in the photo.

There’s a typical suburban commercial node out on University Avenue that we didn’t get to cycle to, but it is connected to the network and they’re busy installing traffic calming roundabouts out there.  It appears to be relatively easy to get to now and I suspect it will be easier to get to in the future.  The same is true of the University.  It’s located southwest of downtown and is on the trail network.

One thing that surprised me about Cedar Falls is just how outdoor focused the town is.  It felt more like Boulder or Boise to me than the typical Midwestern college town.  In addition to bike trails, there are soft trails for hiking and mountain biking as well as water trails that cross many of the areas small lakes.  There are also winter trails for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.   Everywhere we went, people were outside and having fun.

Cedar Falls is more than just cycling. This is a true outdoor town in every sense.

And so after careful consideration, I’m going to add Cedar Falls to Pedalfree’s Bicycle Friendly Hall of Fame alongside Missoula.    It’s that good.

If you have an interest in coming here, I recommend parking at Gateway Park, directly across the Cedar River from downtown.  It’s a good central location.  From here you can head southeast to George Wyeth State Park and on to Waterloo or you can go north and do the loop around Big Woods Lake and even go further on out to Black Hawk Park.   You can also get to the University via the trails.

For more information and a trail map, visit the Cedar Trails Partnership website.   If you want to stay overnight and make it a weekend, consider the Blackhawk Hotel downtown.  There’s the original old world hotel and a mid-century modern motor court out back.  If you want to stay in the main hotel, be sure to specify that in your reservation.

There are also a number of good restaurants, several brewpubs, and a surprisingly eclectic mix of stores where you can browse or shop to your heart’s content.  We ate at Toad’s, bought popcorn at Here’s What’s Poppin’, and filled a couple of half growlers (because I like IPAs and Jan doesn’t) at the very highly rated Second State Brewery.

All in all, it was a really great day.   I’m glad that Cedar Falls is close enough to Jefferson to allow us to return.  We plan to do so, soon.

 

Iowa’s Loess Hills: A Little Bit of Bicycle Heaven

I recently had an opportunity to grind some gravel in Iowa’s Loess Hills. It’s a beautiful, mostly undeveloped area on the far western end of the state, about two hours from Jefferson.  I’d read enough articles about the cycling here to know that I wanted to come and so when the opportunity  presented itself I didn’t hesitate.

For those who don’t know, the Loess (pronounced “luss”) Hills are really just large sand dunes.   They were formed out of blown dust and glacial grime deposited in what is now the Missouri River valley when the glaciers from the last ice age retreated.   You wouldn’t know this from looking at them, but when you cycle through them you have a chance to glimpse the underyling geology.

B road cut reveals the underlying geology.  There are no rocks in these hills.

The plan was to identify a course and then ride it with two different bikes, back to back, to see which one performed better on this kind of terrain.  I’m riding an organized 125 mile gravel race in October.  It’s located just across the river in Nebraska, so I thought this would be a good place to form an opinion on which bike I’d rather ride.  The two bikes were my 2016 Kona Steel Rove and my 2018 Salsa Fargo.

The Rove (left) and Fargo (right). These bikes are both drop bar, but there the similarities end.
The route and elevation profile. I wanted hills and I got them.

So I mapped out a 25 mile loop using Google Maps and RideWithGPS.com.  It included 1,800 feet of climbing in the form of four significant climbs.  Peak grade was 11%.  The steepness and volume of vertical was pretty significant over 25 miles.  Riding twice would be 3,600 feet and 8 climbs.  I’ve spent days in the Rockies where I didn’t climb that much.  So much for the widely held belief that Iowa is flat.

I set off on the Rove first.  I was immediately taken with the beauty and simplicity of this part of Iowa.   The air was hazy with smoke from western wildfires and that was a shame because some of the vistas would have been spectacular on a clear day.  The climbs were work but that only made them worth climbing in my mind.  I had no trouble navigating and was back to the car soon enough.  I swapped bikes and did it again. It went even faster the second time.

Pisgah, my base, was utter charm and simplicity…
…though it did have a little bit of a Hitchcock/Steven King vibe to it.
Within the first two miles I knew I was going to like cycling these roads.
There are a series of loops on and off the main byways. I had them pretty much to myself.
And every climb was followed by a roller coaster ride back to the bottom.

I don’t know why places like this are out of favor with the masses.  I saw maybe three people over the four hours or so I was riding.  They appeared to be local residents in pickup trucks and they were friendly and courteous to a fault. I got chased by the same dog twice, but he was more playful than a threat. I’m not complaining.  The emptiness of this place is a big part of its charm.   If it was overrun with tourists, there’d be noise and litter and all the stuff I go to a place like this to get away from.

This hill is reserved for a return visit. I know where it goes and I’m taking it next time.

At about the 18 mile mark on my loop, I came across a road that plunged down a steep hill and literally screamed “ride me.”  I didn’t because I wanted to stick with my plan and 50 miles of hills is already a good day’s work without looking for more.   But more kept finding me.  This is a beautiful area and now that I’ve had a taste of it I plan to come back and explore the rest of it.

Missoula

Some of you already know this, but I get around.  I’ve ridden my bicycle through the heart of cities as large and diverse as Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle.  I’ve crossed rivers with names like Columbia, Mississippi, Missouri and Monongahela.  I’ve climbed out of canyons and cycled through countless small towns and across miles and miles of countryside.  Most places are navigable, at least to some degree. Few are exceptional.   None are Missoula.

Lots of places have signs, but in Missoula they actually seem to mean it.

I came to this storied seat of education on the far side of Montana expecting to leave just a little disappointed.  Missoula sounded too good to be true.  It has serious cred as an outdoor town…kind of like so many other places that were less than perfect when it came to actually turning my crank.  I’ve heard it all before and so this time I listened to my jaded heart and tempered my expectations.  But Missoula didn’t play along and that’s a good thing.  Missoula blew me away.

This bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street is the most ingenious piece of bicycle infrastructure I’ve seen in the US.
It was early and not much was open yet, but it’s hard to miss all that bicycle parking.
Kim Williams Nature Trail along the Clark Fork. There’s a hiking trail up to the M on the mountain as well.  It looked crowded from down below.
Protected bike lanes on Higgins – Photo: Google Streetview
The Higgins underpass along the Kim Williams Trail is wide and easy to navigate.
Love locks on the footbridge to Albertson’s.  I saw this on the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh as well.

This is without a doubt the best place I’ve ever ridden a bicycle. There is no honorable mention I can think of.  This city is that far ahead of the other places I’ve cycled.  It’s the gold standard, the place against which I will now measure all other places.  It is the one and only city in Pedalfree’s Cycling Hall of Fame.

So what did I like?   Connectivity, for one thing.  I felt like I could go anywhere here by bike.   Crossing the Clark Fork was no big deal.  There’s a foot bridge that sneaks up behind the Albertson’s grocery store.  It’s full of padlocks and inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. There’s also this incredibly pragmatic bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street.  I call it America’s Hovenring.  There are trails here and there and everywhere.

Missoula is an active place and so it seemed as though all of those trails were clogged with walkers and joggers.  Instead of weaving through the crowds, I hit the streets.   I cruised the protected bike lanes along Higgins Street downtown and passed a law enforcement officer. We exchanged greetings, which was easy to do since he was also on a bicycle.  Everywhere I went, motorists were kind and courteous.  They still respect crosswalks in Missoula.

It might seem like a small thing, but I passed countless bikes in front of businesses here.  Few, if any, were locked.   Apparently there’s no need.   Helmets are optional, just like in Holland.  Speeds are low for both bikes and cars.  The folks I saw were not training for next weekend’s gran fondo.  They were just going about their daily lives on bicycles.

It seems as though the total community is engaged.  There’s a local organization called Missoula In Motion that works with employers to encourage people to commute sustainably.  They hold a commuter challenge and have a leaderboard on their website where companies compete with each other. It reminds me of my time in Denver when RTD, the local transit organization, worked with employers to get people out of their cars and clean up what was then the country’s worst air pollution.

Of all the places I’ve been, I think Missoula would be the easiest to live without a car.  The town itself is relatively compact.  There’s free bus service everywhere, even to the airport.  Roads are being redesigned in a way that incorporates Vision Zero principles.  One major exit off of Interstate 90 is a roundabout with no stoplights.  Another is under construction at present.

Not everything is rosy here.   As I understand it, air pollution is a serious problem in the winter.   The lay of the land suggests that this is the case, as Missoula sits in a relatively tight little valley the likes of which typically produces temperature inversions.  Growth is also creating sprawl outside of the city limits.  People want to be here and it’s bustling.  I saw this same thing destroy Boulder, and so I keep my fingers crossed and hope that Missoula can work through it.

We weren’t even going to stop here.  It was just a fluke that we did…a matter of making time work in terms of other stops further on down the road.   I’m glad we did.   It was serendipity.   I can honestly say that Missoula is in a class by itself when it comes to bicycle friendly…at least from my perspective.  I can’t wait to come back.

 

 

What I Learned from Seattle to Portland

I rode the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic yesterday. StP is a 205 mile Gran Fondo that took me way outside my comfort zone in more ways than one.   It starts in downtown Seattle and traverses Washington state west of the Cascades before crossing into Oregon and finishing in downtown Portland.  In between, there are a couple of big river crossings as well as a mix of suburban and rural riding including a 40 mile segment on the shoulder of a major highway.

So what did I learn from the experience?   Lots, but these are the  big three…

Our cities are becoming very crowded places.

Living in a small town in the Midwest, I sometimes lose sight of just how crowded other places have become.  With the exception of Chicago and parts of Minneapolis, the Midwest doesn’t really do density.   It has been years since I’ve been to either Seattle or Portland and they’ve changed a lot.   There are more people in the same space and this creates a whole host of challenges for cyclists.

Bicycles are especially loathed where they are especially loved.

In many ways, the Pacific Northwest leads when it comes to cycling.   The accolades keep pouring in and I get it.   Bike lanes are everywhere.  Even the protected variety is common.  I believe this is demand driven.  I saw a lot of everyday cyclists along the way and it’s the rare business here that doesn’t have a few bikes parked out front.  That said, there are still far more people in cars than on bikes here and traffic is mostly a mess.  This leads to frustration on the part of motorists and I observed more than a few acting out in dangerous ways.

Portland deserves its bicycle friendly reputation.

The last 12 miles of the course took me into the heart of Portland via city streets.  After 200 miles on the bike, I was tired to the point of maybe making bad decisions and yet had no problems at all.  Traffic was horrendous as a nearby interstate was shut down for the weekend, but connectivity and signage was the best I’ve ever seen. Navigation was a breeze. Most motorists here were considerate and willing to share the road.

Rolling through Seattle…4:45 AM
Crossing into Oregon via the Lewis and Clark bridge. Not a lot of room for error here.
Rolling through Portland. Bike lanes are wide and well marked here.
Finishing at Holladay Park, Portland. I made it!

I’m glad I rode StP.  It was a once in a lifetime experience.  For one day, at least, I got to live the Pacific Northwest bike culture.  If you have an interest in and ever get a chance to ride an event like this, I encourage you to do so.  There’s no better way to feel the essence of a place than from the saddle of a bicycle.