Sioux Falls in the Snow

Jan and I headed up to Sioux Falls the weekend before last.  I had planned to ride the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile gravel grinder through the wilds of eastern Nebraska, but a confluence of events had caused me to reconsider.

First, I’d started a new job the week before and was in Dallas right up until the day before the event.  I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to get to Nebraska in time to start.  Second, weeks of heavy rain had turned the roads in these parts into a quagmire.  I decided to bail on the event before I left for Dallas and it turned out to be the right decision.  Nobody finished.  The two guys who made it the furthest covered around 90 miles in 14 hours.  It hurts just to think about it.

Downtown Sioux Falls. Sasquatch is a local hero. I like that.
The twenty mile bike loop makes it easy to get anywhere in Sioux Falls by bicycle.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny…not.
But I ride on because that’s what I do.
I am rewarded for my troubles. Just beautiful.

So we headed up to Sioux Falls instead to explore a little corner of the country I’ve passed through many times but never paused to check out.  For those who don’t know, Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota with a population of around 175,000.   It’s located in the far southeastern corner of the state, not far from the point where South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota come together.

Named for the waterfalls on the Big Sioux River in the heart of town, it’s a delightful little city.  Downtown was vibrant and fun and they have a trail network that forms a 20+ mile loop around town.

We stopped into Two Wheeler Dealer, the local Surly/Kona bike shop and learned a little about the local cycling scene.  People here are friendly and helpful as can be.  Just about any place in town is accessible by bicycle, and bike racks are a common sight.

We also discovered that motorists here are probably the most mellow and cautious of anywhere we’ve ever been.  Nobody’s in a hurry.  They typically come to complete stops (and sit, and sit, and sit) at stop signs.  This is pretty typical in this part of the world, but if anything it seemed even more pronounced here.

Climate is a little drier than the Twin Cities and north central Iowa, which means that temperature fluctuations are a little more extreme.  The highs are higher and the lows are lower.  This is exactly what happened during our stay.  Saturday was delightful with lazy sunshine and highs pushing 70 degrees.  We rode in shorts.  A cold front passed through late Saturday night and we woke to three fresh inches of snow on Sunday morning.  It was snowing hard, so even though the sun wasn’t up yet, I headed out figuring it was only going to get worse before it got better.  It wasn’t a big thing except for the fact that I’d brought the wrong pair of gloves with me.

Sioux Falls is decidedly Midwestern, but in many ways it felt more like a Rocky Mountain town to me.  There’s a little bit of Boise here.  The vibe was more laid back than is typical in the heartland.   The local river runs fast and clear.  There were restaurants with rooftop decks and mountain gear stores.   If you looked towards the horizon and squinted, you could almost see the peaks.

The falls up close. 
The big picture from the city run observation tower. It’s free.
Most places wouldn’t allow you out on the rocks. I like this…a lot.

On a scale of one-to-five, I’d rate Sioux Falls a solid four in terms of cycling experience.  There’s not much to dislike here, though I suspect that winters are pretty brutal.  Snowfall totals vary widely, with a recent low of 15 inches in the winter of 2011-2012 versus a recent high of 69 inches just three years later.    I don’t know if they plow the trails like they do in Minneapolis.   The average January low is a bone chilling +7°F.  December is +10° and February is +12°.  That’s three long months hovering around single digits if you ride early in the day.

Great Outdoor Store. We did some serious damage here. The sales racks are upstairs.

If you find yourself heading this way, I’d recommend checking out the Clubhouse Inn and Suites on South Louise Avenue.  It’s located right on the bicycle loop and just minutes from everywhere.  It was clean, quiet and breakfast was awesome.  We got a suite, and it was a real suite as opposed to the pretend suites so many places sell these days.  There’s a strip of typical chain restaurants including Chevy’s and Granite City within walking distance.  Downtown is five minutes by car, fifteen by bike.

Must visit stores downtown include Duluth Trading (our first visit and lots of fun) and the absolutely delightful Great Outdoor Store if you’re into outdoor gear.

You also have to visit Falls Park.  Pictures don’t do the falls here  justice.  They’re quite a bit larger than they appear to be when viewed in two dimensions, and the  surrounding park is just delightful.  Sioux Falls isn’t into protecting you from yourself, so you can scramble right up to the water’s edge on the rocks.  This will probably change soon enough, but for now it’s still possible and one more thing that made me fall in love with this quirky little Rocky Mountain town hidden deep in the heart of the Great Plains.





The New Normal

It was dark and I was cold. Sunrise was still an hour away. There wasn’t a hint of orange or even gray in the eastern sky. I’d rolled out of bed not thirty minutes earlier and my eyes were still waking up. If it wasn’t for the 700 lumen blowtorch mounted on my handlebars, I never would have seen the skunk in the middle of the trail, dead ahead…

I skidded to a stop not more than ten feet from the little critter half expecting all hell to break loose. It never did. The skunk wasn’t bothered by me at all.  She eventually turned and ambled down the trail before turning into the brush. It was only then that I clipped in and moved on.

Shortly after the skunk, I hit my light and sent it flying. It was easy enough to find.

Welcome to the Iowa Outback after dark. This is my brave new world since starting a new job two weeks ago. The first week I was in Dallas, not far from downtown. I rode in the dark there, but it never really gets dark in Dallas or any other city for that matter.  If there are people around, there are also street lights and security lights and lights in store windows. Even the Katy Trail, my preferred route, was lit from end to end. I’d read reviews before heading out where people complained of “dark spots” along the way.  If only they knew.

The torch does a nice job of lighting my way. Without it, darkness wins.

Out here, darkness is pretty much absolute.  I pulled over this morning and turned the torch off for a moment just to see.  I held my hand six inches in front of my eyes.  I couldn’t see anything.  Then I looked up, drawn by the light above.   The heavens were ablaze (that’s the right word) with stars, none of them closer than 100 million miles to us.  Is there intelligent life up there?  Yeah, of course there is.  The universe is too big to believe otherwise.

I know that there are risks to riding in the dark, but it’s not like I really have a choice.  I ride when the time is available and they need me at work when the sun is out, so I’m riding early.  I bought the 700 lumen torch and it helps a lot. The biggest risk I face is a collision with wildlife.  In just three days this week, I’ve seen everything from raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, deer and a fox or coyote…not sure which…to the aforementioned skunk.   Just because a critter is small doesn’t mean he or she is not capable of doing some serious damage.

That said, I’m not afraid of wildlife.  Through numerous close encounters,  I’ve learned that most of nature’s critters are better at assessing and responding to risk than we humans are.  Animals don’t overreact.  Take this morning’s skunk, for example.  She didn’t spray me.  I probably would not have been so reserved if our roles had been reversed, and so I think that maybe I still have some things to learn from nature.

Morning breaks.  I can’t think of too many prettier sights.

Luther Standing Bear, the wise Oglala (Sioux) chief, once wrote that our hearts become hard when separated from nature.  I know this to be true in my own life.  Perhaps it explains some of our collective angst as a people.  We’ve been doing our level best to eradicate nature and beat it into submission for as long as I can remember.  This is one of those times when even if we win, we lose.  I wish we could see the damage we’re doing and then just stop doing it but I know better.  That’s not how we’re wired.

It seems to me that the real magic of cycling, the thing that makes it unique and special,  is that it allows us to slow down to a speed where we can see the world as it really is instead of just passing through it at the fastest speed possible on the way to some lit up big city at the end of the line.  When I look at it that way, riding before sunrise isn’t a hardship at all.  It’s a gift and a blessing and one that I feel very fortunate to have had foisted upon me.

Omaha + Council Bluffs

The plan was to go down to southwestern Iowa and ride the middle section of the Wabash Trace. It’s in the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame and it’s relatively close to home, so why not?   The Trace would be my third RTHoF trail.  The other two were Indiana’s Monon Trail and Cardinal Greenway.  Ranking trails is subjective, but neither of those trails crack my top ten list so I’m not sure why I thought the Trace would be different.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was pleasant enough…just not worth the three hour drive.  There are nicer trails much closer to home.

Hall of Fame? OK.

Fortunately, Omaha was right down the road.  I love Omaha.  Most people don’t give it a second thought, but it’s one of my favorite cities.  Why?  Mostly because of the  rich tapestry of neighborhoods in a place you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them.  The economy is surprisingly vibrant here as well with headquarters for companies like Mutual of Omaha, Kiewit and Union Pacific scattered around.   It’s not a college town but it feels like one.  Jan said it reminded her of Austin back before Austin went corporate and turned into Boulder 2.0.  I can see that.  It reminds me of Seattle…in a good way.  People are smart here.  Pleasant, too.

This was my third time cycling in Nebraska’s largest city.  My first visit was in December a few years back and it was bitter cold.  I had fun, though.   I also cycled here on a beautiful spring morning en route to Ogden Utah.  Each time I’ve come I’ve discovered more infrastructure than the time before.  Omaha may still have a ways to go, but the city and region have obviously embraced cycling in a big way.

I always park on the Iowa side of the river not far from the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.  This is how my journey always begins.  Bob the Bridge is the region’s signature piece of infrastructure and one of the best bicycle bridges anywhere.  It connects Council Bluffs Iowa’s surprisingly robust trail network with downtown Omaha.

There were some big changes on the Iowa side of the river this time.  What used to be an empty field is now a  work zone with apartments springing up all over the place.  The riverfront includes a park with a hall overlooking downtown Omaha.  It’s surprisingly scenic, especially if all you know of Omaha is what you’ve seen from I-80 while zipping through on the way to Colorado.  There’s bikeshare here.  Through the middle of it all is a cycletrack that will extend into downtown Council Bluffs when completed. I’ve long felt that this waterfront was prime for development and when it’s done it will be easier and faster to get to jobs and entertainment in Omaha by bicycle than by car.

Council Bluffs cycletrack.

Of course, Bob the Bridge was the highlight of the visit as it always is.  As I said previously, I think this is one of the best bicycle bridges in America…maybe the very best.  It was built from the ground up especially for cyclists and pedestrians and to spur the development that is now taking place.    The bridge is about 3,000 feet long and rises gently before swooping gracefully over the Missouri River.    This is no small thing.  Bob the Bridge is a centerpiece as opposed to an afterthought.   There were lots of people out and about on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Most were on foot but there were a few cyclists, too.  It’s de rigueur to stop at the apex of the bridge for a photo op.

Bob the Bridge from the Omaha side of the Missouri River.
Downtown Omaha from the bridge deck
The obligatory photo op.

Once you roll off the bridge on the Omaha side, there are trails into the center of the downtown district.  One choice is to head straight west towards TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series.  It’s probably the most beautiful ballpark in America that doesn’t have a permanent major league tenant.  You’ll pass CenturyLink Center and Arena on the way.  This is Omaha’s convention center.   They’ve held the NCAA swimming and diving championships in the arena.  They built a pool just for the event.  There are numerous hotels, restaurants and watering holes here that are easily accessible via bicycle.  Head west just a few blocks and you’re in the heart of the Creighton University campus  There’s a trail and sidepath heading north that takes you almost all the way to the  departure lounge of Eppley Airfield.

You can also head south along the river.  Cycle through Lewis and Clark landing, pass under Interstate 480 and then follow a series of bridges through Heartland of America Park and on to the Gene Lahey Mall, a beautiful canal side park that extends into the very heart of downtown.  It’s just over a mile from the bridge to the end of the trail here.

Passing under Interstate 480 along the Missouri River.
And then up and over a series of bridges into the heart of downtown Omaha.
The water features at Gene Lahey Mall were very nice on a hot, late summer afternoon.

If you want to explore further afield, you’re going to have to ride on the street for awhile.   Like most cities, Omaha is adding bike lanes all over the place.   Many connect to other trails in different parts of the city. If you feel like exploring beyond downtown, check out the city’s interactive bicycle map here.   The good news is that riding on the street here is relatively easy.   I recommend heading into Midtown.  That’s where we found Ponderosa Cyclery, a great local bike shop in the heart of a neighborhood strip with lots of used brick buildings and locally owned restaurants and shops.  This is a surprisingly hilly city, though, so be forewarned.

Neighborhood pride. Omaha is a city of vibrant neighborhoods, each with its own identity.

If you want to stick to trails, I’d recommend crossing back over to the Iowa side of the Missouri where you’ll find a riverfront trail that extends both north and south of Bob the Bridge for several miles each direction.  I didn’t ride it this time but I have  on previous visits.  If you head south, you’ll find yourself at Harrah’s Casino.  There’s even a connection to the Wabash Trace, so we could have ridden all the way back to Shenandoah and on to Missouri if we wanted to.  Maybe next time.

As the largest city in the state ranked dead last in terms of bicycle friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Omaha shouldn’t be this much fun but it is.  That’s the thing about bicycle friendly rankings.   Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Omaha is proof positive of that.  If you find yourself here, I definitely think it’s worth the time to get out and explore by bicycle.

Last Long Ride Before Seattle to Portland

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.

Sunrise near Jamaica Iowa. Just beautiful.
Between Perry and Woodward there was a three mile stretch of gravel. They’re building a connector trail here.
Routefinding via cue sheet. I stopped to use the restroom twice in the first 50 miles and never got off the bike again.
The High Trestle Bridge…quite a thrill and yet another bucket list item done.
Des Moines River. No barricades. The goal is to make the bridge ahead and it’s barely passable so I keep calm and carry on at 1 mph.
Ahhh, there’s the barricade, even though the city’s website said it was open. Brilliant. It’s impassable so I have to retreat through the water I just passed through.
And deal with this on the detour.
Perry never looked as good as it did at mile 110. 25 to go.

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.