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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I had an epic day on the bike yesterday. I’d go so far to say it was my best day ever. It was long and that was part of it. Mostly, though, what made it special was execution. I set out with a plan and was able to do exactly what I wanted to. More on that in a minute.
For those who don’t know, Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic is a 205 mile gran fondo between Seattle and Portland. It’s one of the biggest cycling events in the country with 10,000 riders. Most of them cover the distance in two days, but 1,000 or so complete it in a single day. I have a good friend in Seattle who rode it last year and he invited me to ride with him this year. It was an offer I couldn’t pass up.
There’s just one problem. I’ve never cycled anywhere near 200 miles in a single day, and so my training this spring has been geared towards getting home. I’ve ridden more miles than ever before. I’ve ridden more long rides (30 days of 50 miles or more) than ever before. Still, I’ve never gone much longer than 100 miles.
So the plan yesterday was to cover 2/3 of the distance, roughly 130-140 miles. I know from years of distance running earlier just how important this is. You don’t train for a marathon by running marathons. That would break your body down. Instead, you train by running a lot of relatively controlled 15-20 milers. This builds the base necessary to finish. It also builds confidence and that’s what will get you home when the body is ready to quit.
So back to the plan. I knew I wanted to go at least 130 miles. My two centuries this year have both been sub-six hours, so I decided I wanted to ride this at six hour pace or roughly 16.8 miles per hour. I wasn’t at all sure I could go quicker, and I didn’t want to even if I could. The day was about riding under control and sticking to the plan, not setting personal records.
I’m also a firm believer in negative splits, which is to say that the second half of the ride should be faster than the first half. Every time I ride, I try to come home quicker than I go out. The longer the distance, the harder it is to pull off. It’s important. Psychologically, there’s nothing better than negative splits. The body wears down over long distance, and if you can hit your marks when you’re tired and not able to think as clearly as when you’re fresh, well, it means you have rock solid discipline and that will only help you down the road.
So now you know what I was thinking. How did I do?
Hour 1: 15.1 mph
Hour 2: 16.6 mph
Hour 3: 17.3 mph
Hour 4: 17.3 mph
Hour 5: 15.7 mph
Hour 6: 16.8 mph
Hour 7: 18.1 mph
Hour 8: 18.2 mph
Hour 5 stands out. It’s not that I slowed down in terms of effort, but more in terms of geography. I got caught in flood waters along the Des Moines River and had to crawl for awhile. It probably cost me 10 minutes. There were also some traffic challenges and signal delays in the city. What I’m most proud of is that I didn’t feel compelled to make up the time I lost. It just sort of happened. Discipline!Stick with the plan. I had a bit of a tail wind the last two hours, maybe 6-8 mph but I don’t think it contributed much…maybe 1 mph. I just felt really good coming in. I don’t think I was pushing the pace. Sometimes on long rides, finishing is a real slog. Yesterday was not a slog.
I left at 5:00 AM and told my wife that if everything went well, I’d be home at 1:00 PM. I actually got home at 1:01 PM, but then I looked at the Garmin and realized I started one minute late. There was still more than a little gas left in the tank. Nice.
Why am I sharing this? Mostly because I find it so empowering. It’s ludicrous, really. Four years ago I was 80 pounds overweight. Now I’m in the best shape of my life. It didn’t require surgery. It didn’t require much of anything at all. I love riding the bike. I ride it every single day. That’s all this was. Today I’m going to ride the bike. I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.
Seattle to Portland is 205 miles. Even now, I can’t really comprehend it. Lots can still go wrong. The weather might be bad. Equipment breaks. I might eat something bad the day before and not feel right. I understand that there’s a very real chance that I won’t finish. I certainly won’t finish first. That’s okay. After yesterday, I realize something I never knew before. It isn’t the event that’s the big deal…it’s the getting here.
I’m planning to ride the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic next month. It’s a 205 mile double century stretching from downtown Seattle Washington to downtown Portland Oregon. I’m riding with a friend and we’ve decided to take it relatively easy, so I anticipate being on the bike for about 13 hours or so.
I’ve never cycled anywhere close to this distance in one day before and so I’ve found myself trying to anticipate the challenge that lies ahead. I think it basically comes down to nutrition. I’ve done the training and built the mileage base. I’m almost certain that I can cover the distance unless I bonk. So the object of the game from my perspective is simply not to bonk. That means chowing down as I cross the great states of Washington and Oregon. Afterwards, I can load up on donuts and beer. They have some great IPAs in Portland. It’s like a dream come true. Really.
But it’s also totally foreign to me. Truth be told, I almost never eat anything on rides up to and including 100 milers. I can’t think of the last time I took nutrition on a century. I seldom go much further than that. I did bonk once, years ago way up high on Vail Pass but I was young and bulletproof back then. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. It was ugly. That can’t happen here. There’s too much traffic and too many ways to get into trouble. The last fifty miles are the worst, so bonking means not finishing. That’s a long way to travel only to DNF.
So I’m going to eat like a little piggy. I’ve been looking at a lot of articles online about how to do it and the best one I’ve found was written by Susan I. Barr, PhD, RDN and John Hughes. It’s well worth reading. Ms. Barr is a Professor of Nutrition at the University of British Columbia. She has completed a number of epic rides such as the Rocky Mountain 1200. Mr. Hughes wrote”Distance Cycling” so I guess you could say he literally wrote the book on what I’m about to do.
These experts say I’ll need approximately 350 calories per hour based on my body weight, the course, my bike and the pace I’m likely to ride. That’s 4,550 calories over the entire distance. Since I plan to burn close to 8,000 calories, I think that’s probably the bare minimum that will get me home with a clear mind and in one piece.
I went back and forth on this for a few days and came up with some simple rules to get me to Portland. Here they are.
Focus on carbs, calories and what will digest easily.
Avoid high fructose corn syrup and other “artificial” sugars.
Electrolyte replacement, Dude.
Eat small. Eat often.
Don’t overthink this.
I’ve decided to eat “real” food instead of packaged and promoted athletic “energy” food. The biggest bang for the buck in terms of carbs and calories comes from granola. As much as I’d prefer raw granola, I’ll probably go with bars. I’ll eat Clif bars, too, just to mix things up. It will make it easier to measure intake consistently. They’re also convenient and hassle free. At rest stops, I’ll eat fruit…mostly bananas but maybe some citrus and melon and berries, too. Frankly, all of that stuff tastes better than shrink wrapped jock food. It’s a lot cheaper, too.
I’ll also add calories by splitting my drinking between water and electrolyte replacement drinks. Most are laden with sugar, so I’ll water them down. I plan to replace most of my electrolytes with Hammer Endurolytes. Everything I’ve read suggests that this is the way to go.
Will it work? Beats me. I hope so. I’ll post a follow up after the event. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, feel free to share them. This is very much a work in progress.
I was invited to speak to the Rotary Club in my adopted hometown of Jefferson Iowa yesterday. I gave a brief presentation on why bicycle friendliness is so important to the overall health (both physical and economic) and vitality of small towns like ours. The purpose of this post is to share the slide deck as well as my thoughts about the presentation. Feel free to use the slides and images. If you do, attribution is greatly appreciated.
As I’ve talked to people about cycling over the years, I’ve come to realize that in the minds of many this is an “all or nothing” proposition. To choose a bicycle is to reject the automobile and everything that goes along with it. I think that’s part of the reason so many folks stubbornly resist cycling even when it makes more sense than driving. It doesn’t have to be that way.
So my presentation stressed that pro- cycling is not anti-car. Nobody has to give up their cars. You can get all the societal benefits of being bike friendly…things like civic vitality, a higher quality of life, economic prosperity…even if you never get on a bike. All you have to do is be willing to share your space with people who do.
I talked about the correlation between bicycle friendliness and the world’s best places. I provided examples from Pittsburgh (large), Boise (medium) and Park City (small) that illustrated shared spaces. There wasn’t a single slide of a bicycle-only place.
Even though I was hesitant to do so, I talked about our stubbornly high traffic mortality rate and our implicit willingness to accept carnage as unavoidable. I compared us to the Dutch and explained how they made changes that saved lives. I showed a picture of Dutch children riding without helmets to challenge the irrational assumption that cycling is somehow more dangerous than driving.
Finally, I explained that the best way to make a place bike friendly is to just get on your bike and go. The more cyclists on the street, the more naturally bike friendly the community will be. I understand that people who haven’t been on a bike in awhile may be concerned about safety, so I pitched the crowd on the League of American Bicyclist’s Smart Cycling course that is taught by League certified instructors like me.
I think it went really well. Will anything come of it? I don’t know. Jefferson is already pretty bike friendly but my wish is for it to become more so. I think it’s critical to our future, as well as the future of just about every other small town and big city in America.
If you feel that your community would benefit, feel free to use the slide deck as the basis for your own presentation. If you’re located between the Appalachians and the Rockies and would like me to present to someone in your community, please let me know. I would be happy to do so. We could do it online or I could come. Either way is fine.
If I was ever to ride a bicycle across the country, it would be about discovery more than speed. I’d use rail trails and lightly traveled gravel roads as much as possible, even if it meant bringing a heavier bike, going slower and facing detours. The US Bike Route system being developed by the folks at Adventure Cycling may serve their membership but it doesn’t serve me. There’s simply too much riding on the shoulder of relatively busy highways for my taste. That’s not what I’m all about.
So I’ve spent some time online mapping out alternatives. That’s what originally led me to the Hennepin Canal Parkway, a 100 mile plus canal towpath that spans most of the western half of northern Illinois and connects to other trails so that it’s possible to ride all the way from Joliet in the east to the Mississippi River way out west. I had a chance to ride the westernmost segment this past weekend while traveling back to Iowa from Indiana and I wanted to share my observations and some snapshots.
First things first. If you read the online reviews at Traillink you’ll find that a lot of people don’t seem to like this trail. I think that’s because they come here expecting something and then discover something else completely. Whenever you ride one of these trails, it helps to do a little online recon before heading out. Bring the right bike and the right gear and that may make all the difference in terms of your experience.
My journey started at a small city park in the town of Colona. I suspect that Colona is a bedroom community as it sits close to Moline and John Deere headquarters, but it very much feels like a stand alone small town. There are several places to park here. I chose the first one I came to, which was Lock 28 Park. There are no restrooms here, but trail access is easy. Other trailheads may offer more services…I don’t really know.
So after parking I hopped on the bike and headed east, passing under Interstate 80 via a flooded culvert. I didn’t spend much time thinking about what was in the water. If I had, that might have been the end of the trip. It was dark and spooky…real horror movie stuff. Shortly after emerging on the other side, I ran over a snake that looked like a twig until it started moving as I came up next to it. Then I passed under another culvert that required me to duck to avoid decapitation. Last but not least was the missing bridge. Fortunately, there was a crude detour that went down and around before heading back up the other side.
This was all in the first two miles. On my return, I passed a sign that indicated that this section of trail is officially closed (there was no sign heading east) and it makes sense in hindsight because the rest of the ride was relatively challenge-free by comparison.
So what’s it like? Well, flat, for starters. It’s probably the flattest trail I’ve ever ridden. Pavement is very much a mixed bag. It was paved at one time but in some places the pavement is crumbling and in others it is gone completely. There has been some maintenance, as there was fresh base and gravel in some of the spots that appear to regularly get wet, but this is not a smooth, well-maintained suburban kind of trail by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s also much more remote than I was expecting. Over the ten miles from Colona to Geneseo, I only saw a handful of houses. There are few road crossings. In addition to the aforementioned canal, the route parallels the adjacent Green River. Vegetation is dense along the route. It was as humid as could possibly be. There are lots of critters including bugs, snakes and snapping turtles. You’re in the bottomlands and it feels more a lot more like Louisiana’s bayou country than Illinois.
If you decide to tackle this (and I really think you should), I’d recommend having some decent rubber under you. I rode my Salsa Fargo, a 29″ drop bar mountain bike equipped with WTB’s 2.25″ Ranger tires. It was definitely the right choice. I think this is the kind of route the Fargo was made for. I was able to go relatively fast but stability on varying pavement was never a concern. I would be less inclined to use my touring rig, a Kona Rove with 700c x 35 mm Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. It would probably be fine, though the higher pressure those tires require make pinch flats more of a risk. Any hybrid, hardtail mountain bike would be a good choice, as would a fat bike. I would leave the carbon fiber road frame with 23 mm tires at home. If that’s all you have, there are better nearby trails to choose from.
I’d also pack the Deet as well as a lunch if you’re the type of person who likes to feed along the road. I didn’t pass any restaurants or vending machines although if I had more time and was willing to detour, I’m sure I would have found them in Geneseo.
I think the most important thing to pack if you want to ride this is an open mind infused with a sense of adventure. Most people don’t much care for bugs and snakes, but they’re the tradeoff for getting to experience a slice of raw nature and (mostly) natural wetlands in an area of the country where most people have forgotten what these things are.
Now that I’ve had a taste of this trail, I’d like to come back and ride all the way across the state. So much of modern life feels choreographed to me. This isn’t. This is real…a trail that isn’t all that different than it was 100 years ago. It hasn’t been over-engineered and prettified to accommodate tender, urban sensibilities. It reminds me of a time when the world felt simpler and more genuine. To an old-timer like me, that’s never a bad thing.