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.

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  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.