Sunday, November 30, 2014

GDMBR Trip - Day 2 and 3

Still fighting the mosquitos, we ate breakfast, packed up and left. Tom was running a little slow, but somehow managed to sneak off ahead of Joe and I while we were taking some photos and waiting for him. It turns out that Tom thought we had left him, and since we were only about 100 yards from the start of the descent, he was irritated about us bombing ahead of him. After a bit, he realized that we were behind him, so he stopped and waited for us. The slope was generally downhill, but there were a few good sized rollers on the pavement around Whitefish Lake. Once we hit the edge of town, we stopped at a local burrito place for more food and then rode a few miles to Columbia Falls to buy some additional supplies for the few days. By this time, it was starting to rain a bit, so we put on our rain gear and headed out of town, criss-crossing the paved and gravel roads of the Flathead River Valley. The rain was picking up, and we were starting to get hungry plenty cold when we rolled through Swan River, but there was a line outside of the cafe and they were not taking any more people. We opted to roll on and then go off route a couple of miles to Big Fork in search of food. We pulled around to the back of a bar, pulled our bikes into the courtyard and went inside to warm up. 

The radar indicated that the rain was not letting up for a while, so we ordered food and a beer and pondered the rest of our day. It was still relatively early in the day, so we planned on eating and seeing if we could wait out the storm. After talking to a guy and his girlfriend outside, it turned out that they owned a bar and restaurant down the street. He offered to let us use his dryer to dry our clothes out. We took him up on his offer and returned the favor by purchasing a couple more drinks at his place while we waited. After a while, it was obvious that the rain was going to last a while longer. Since this was a vacation, and not a race, we opted to call it a day and find a place to camp in Big Fork. The gentleman that owned the bar, offered to take Joe to the local state campground in his car, while Tom and I gathered up our now dry clothes. Joe secured us a campsite, and we rode the mile or so to the site, set up camp along with some GDMBR riders, and called it a day. 

The next morning, we loaded up, and then rode uphill to the other side of town for a delicious convenience store breakfast and and additional resupply. A short ride along the river took us back to the route. After about 10 miles, the road turned upward. An hour and half of climbing and a little over 7 miles later, we were at the top. The descent was fast and twisty, and it took a bit of self-control to keep from going too fast. We continued riding in the foothills on the west side of the Swan River for most of the day, so the road just continued to inch upward without much of a break. We met a few more people touring the route, and also saw our first bear tracks. A sow and her cub had walked in along the edge of one of the dirt roads. The sow's paw print was as large as my outstretched hand.

By the afternoon, we approached Holland Lake. Since all three of us were running on fumes, we decided to take an extended break at the lodge. We dried dried out our clothes, soaked our legs in the cold waters of the lake, and, eventually, ate a very expensive dinner in the lobby of the hotel. After dinner, we took advantage of the daylight and got a few more miles in. Another 10 miles of riding up, led us to the shore of Clearwater Lake for the night. The lakeside spot was occupied by a couple of families, and after a search around the edge of the lake, we opted to make camp in a flat spot near the parking area. Since we were in the middle of the forest and there was no bear box, we put all of our stuff into a couple of our seatbags, and hung it from a tree for the night. After 85 miles in the saddle for the day, all three of us crashed out quickly. Before I fell asleep, I looked out of my bivy and marveled at how quiet it was, and how many stars were visible due to the lack of light pollution. It was a gorgeous night to be camping in the woods. 

GDMBR Trip - Travel and Day 1

For a number of years, my friend Tom has been trying to get a group of people to come back to his native Montana with him for a week of riding. There had been a number of attempts to put a group together, but they never worked out for various reasons. When the discussion came around in winter of 2013, I decided that committing to the trip was a good thing to do. A few days of riding on the GDMBR would allow me to gauge my climbing fitness, help remove some of anxiety about the route conditions, and let me discover how remote things really were. After getting an additional commitment from our friend Joe, we decided that it would just be the three of us for the week. This would simplify travel, and, due to vacation allowances, allow us seven days of riding.

Fast forward a few months, and while many of our friends were preparing to leave for RAGBRAI, we loaded three guys and three bikes into Joe's Toyota pickup and headed west around 4 PM on a Thursday evening. The plan was to take shifts driving and sleeping and make the drive to Columbia Falls, MT in one straight shot. Thinking ahead a bit, I opted to take the first leg, so I could drive when it was light, and so I could get two shifts worth of sleep in a row. The drive was, thankfully, uneventful. We made it to the WY/MT border on I-90 around 4 AM or so, stopped for coffee and breakfast in Bozeman, then took a side trip in Butte, so I could see where the Outdoorsman Bike Shop was, as well as do some sightseeing at The Berkeley Pit and through the hills outside of town. Afterwards, we kept heading west, making our way to Missoula for a good lunch and a couple of beers, along with a stop at The Adventure Cycling Association headquarters, where we were able to meet with some of the people we had been conversing with via email and Twitter, as well as enjoy a free ice cream bar. Tom had been up since we had left Des Moines, and was starting to flag now that the caffeine was wearing off. Joe and I split driving duties heading north, taking a few minutes to stop and pick up some fresh cherries from a roadside stand. We rolled into the home of Tom's parents around 5 PM or so, ordered some pizza for dinner and had a couple of drinks before going to bed.

On Saturday morning, Tom's dad drove us from Columbia Falls to Rooseville, MT where were unloaded our bikes, checked our tire pressure, and headed south on the GDMBR. We had rough idea of where we wanted to end up at the end of each day, but we were also smart enough to realize that things can change at any time, so we needed to be flexible with our planned schedule. We ran into an ACA tour group as they were crossing the border, and as they rode by one of the riders shouted y name out as they passed by, causing both Tom and Joe to give me a weird look. It turned out that this was a gentleman that I had been talking to via email earlier in the summer, and he had just happened to cross the border at this time. I had told him to look for a bike with a bright white frame bag, and he had managed to spot me. We chatted with the group for a bit after we caught up to them at the edge of Eureka, with a number of them making comments about how lightly we were loaded up for our trip. Many of them were pulling trailers or had panniers, so the comments made some sense. After a somewhat long stop in Eureka for lunch, we started riding in earnest, hoping to make Red Meadow Lake before nightfall. We rode over the first long climb, to Whitefish Divide, not too long after leaving Eureka, and I was already worried about how my legs were going to be the rest of the week. I was really hurting by the time we got to the top, and I was glad to stop and take some photos, as well as use my water filter for the first time. There was still snow at the top of the pass, and the fresh sawdust was evidence that the road had only just been cleared. We descended off the pass and through an area of burned out forest, and, after a few hours, began the climb to Red Meadow Lake. It turns out that Whitefish Divide was only a warmup. The climb to Red Meadow Lake was longer, and finish steeper than our earlier climb. However, a few hours of riding had given me time to sort out my climbing pace and gearing, and I was able to get to the top of this climb feeling less worked over. We camped at the lake that night, taking the time to chat with some other people camped there, including a couple of people who were riding solo tours of the route. The mosquitos were extremely fierce, so I opted to turn in early and get a good night's rest, while Tom and Joe continued to talk and share a beverage or two with the other campers.


Since it's announcement, I had been trying to work out when to try my TIMP attempt. With an August deadline, and a trip to Montana planned for the end of July, the end of June seemed to give me enough time to prepare and wait out some of the rain and flooding that had been affecting northwest IA. With my friends Scott and Andy having completed the trip in the middle of June, things looked set. I was a little concerned with being the the first solo attempt of the route. Being the first, I also felt quite a bit of pressure as well, especially considering how well my riding had been going to this point.

My wife drove with me to the start point in Harwarden on Thursday night, after a quick meal at Pizza Ranch, we went to our hotel room, where I prepped my bike and myself for my 5 AM start time. Morning came early, and I shoveled food in while we drove to the start line. After a couple of photos and a quick kiss on the cheek, I clipped in an headed East. Storms with lightning were making their presence known southwest of me. With the flat, sandy roads, and a lack of cover, the start was not looking too good. I stopped to put my raincoat as drops started falling from the sky, but 30 minutes later I had to take it off. The rain had stopped, the storms appeared to be dying out, and I was starting to overheat. I took a quick break outside of Orange City for some food and to strip another layer off and then kept moving. Not too far in, I saw the sign for the first section of B road. I was afraid of the condition of the roads having noted how soft the gravel was up to this point. When I hit the surface, it was a touch soft, but smooth and completely dry. My spirits lifted a bit at this point and I kept moving forward, keeping food and water in my system. The section between Orange City and Paulina was alternating flat sections of gravel and B road, some of which were 1.5 to 2 miles in length. It was fun riding all of the buff, lightly used B roads in this section, and I was happy that all of them were dry.

After a short break in Paulina, I continued on. The roads were getting a lot less flat now as I was nearing the Little Sioux River. The route through here was very scenic with lots of big rolling hills and views of the river valley from above. The reach of the previous month's flooding was very obvious. The route leaving Paulson crossed the river, and was marked as closed. I could see where the river had washed out the road, but pressed on, hoping that the water had receded enough to allow passage. After a big climb out of the valley, I was a ridge south of the river, and then on the north side after passing through the town of Linn Grove. I skipped past Sioux Rapids and kept motoring east. Soon I was on 510th Street, and the first real test began, as this stretch of road was 20 miles long and dead straight, until I stopped to take a break in the town of Mallard. It was getting warmer by now, so I opted to grab food and refill all my fluids in Mallard. I took a quick break again in West Glen and made my way towards Algona, where I stopped for some real food and a beer. I was about 13 hours and 150 miles in at this point and was getting sick of convenience store food. After a quick stop for spare headlamp batteries, I was on my way again. I hit another long stretch of flat straight road outside of Algona and it really started to zap my spirits.

As the sun set, I was really starting to lose the drive to continue, especially in the dark. At this point, I should have pulled out my iPod, but I had forgotten that I had packed it. I stopped in Crystal Lake around 10 PM and mulled my options over. The mosquitos that settled in around me certainly didn't help my mood any. At this point I called my wife and told her that I thought I was done, but I'd make the final call after a bit. Pulling into Forest City I knew my TIMP attempt was done. I pulled up a hotel on the GPS, routed myself to it, and grabbed a couple of misery beers from the convenience store across from the hotel. One shot to finish, and I had blown it.

Even now, a few months later, I'm not completely sure what happened. There wasn't a lot about the first half of the course that was interesting from a scenery standpoint. It was mainly flat roads with fairly flat land around them, other than the section near the Little Sioux River. Being alone for that amount of time had definitely started to take its toll as well. When your interactions with people are mostly "will that be all" and "here's your receipt" it makes for a long day. Despite not finishing, I did gain the knowledge that I will need to develop some coping techniques for when the loneliness sets in during Tour Divide. If I thought I was by myself in IA, then parts of the GDMBR will really going to be a wake up call.

I do want to take this time to thank Mark Stevenson for taking the time and making the to put this challenge together for us to attempt. I still have the route and the cues, so maybe I'll give it a shot sometime in the future, with the intent of finishing in two days, with a bit of a camp in between.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Long weekend w friends

Two short weeks after the Alexander, I met up with my partners in crime, Taylor, Kyle and Rick for what has become an annual ride for Kyle - The Great Memorial Gravel Ride to Cedar Rapids. Since this ended in familiar territory and I had to be in Waterloo that weekend for a family event, a plan was hatched - Ride to CR on Friday with "The Group" and then ride the Cedar Valley Nature Trail end to end on Saturday, finishing at my inlaws' house east of Waterloo.

I rolled out of the house at 4:30 Friday AM to meet the rest of the group on the Neal Smith Trail. From there we rolled pavement and gravel north at a fairly stupid pace until we turned east onto the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail and settled into something a bit more sustainable. Our route was a bit more seat of the pants than I would have liked for a ride of this length, but I opted to relax and enjoy the day with friends. We took a break in Maxwell, and then headed back out onto the trail, which is unfortunately a bit broken up due to right of way issues that plague some older railbeds. After a brief route reset at the trail's terminus in Rhodes, IA, we worked our way onto the paved trail which parallels Hwy 330 and rode that into Marshalltown, where we took our second break of the day, with about 67 miles between us and the start.

After leaving Marshalltown, we wandered north for a fair bit, arriving in Conrad, where we grabbed an ill timed adult beverage and rested in the shade for a bit. The temps were starting to climb and, although a cold drink sounded good, it didn't really sit well in anyone's stomach. We then hopped on the limestone Comet Trail, which, despite some weather related issues carried us into Gladbrook. Rick, Taylor and I wanted to stop in Gladbrook to get something cold to drink, grab a quick bite, and refill water bottles. Kyle estimated that we were just 7 or so miles from the next town, which had a restaurant and convenience store. Since we all had water left, we opted to head east and not take a break. Leaving Gladbrook, which I've now visited three times in less than two years thanks to TransIowa, we headed out onto a hilly section of road that was used for both TIV9 as well as TIV7. Estimating your distance via a small GPS screen is difficult, even when the route is on screen. It wasn't long before we passed the 7 mile mark and wondered which hill was hiding Traer. The hills kept coming, and the heat kept building. I pushed ahead and quickly realized we were still a long way from Traer. After an extra 10 miles, I hit the edge of Traer, sat in the shade, and waited for the rest of the guys. Rick came in next, followed by Kyle and eventually Taylor, who had run out of water a while back. Neither Rick nor Taylor looked too good at this point. We rolled into Traer, found a restaurant and made some decisions. Taylor and Rick took a ride to CR with Kyle's dad, while Kyle and I opted to press on. I put 10 lbs of unneeded clothes and camping gear in the SUV, and then Kyle and I then headed east in search of fame and fortune.

About 10 miles later, we pulled into Dysart and I needed to stop and grab a drink. I had dug a bit of a nutrition hole and was having a hard time getting out of it, despite the burger, fries and cola in Traer. After a bottle of iced tea, we hopped on the limestone surfaced Old Creamery Trail and worked our way through Garrisson and then to Vinton, where we took another break due to the heat. With 135 miles or so in our legs, we were starting to feel the day's effort start to hit. Knowing that we had just a bit of gravel left to ride, we headed out to Urbana, dodging some wild driving kids in a Lumina a few too many times on our way there. We caught the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in Urbana, which took us gently downhill to Center Point, where I told Kyle that I needed a break. The hole I had dug myself was getting deeper and my stomach was starting to turn. Despite the nauseous feeling that was starting to rise up, I forced a couple of pop tarts down and told Kyle it was time to finish this up. About 2 miles outside of Center Point, the trail turns from limestone to asphalt. This was also the point where all of the food I'd eaten finally became usable and our pace picked up measurably. I could hear Kyle spinning out his one gear in my draft and then coasting for a bit. We held a solid 16 - 18 MPH pace to Hiawatha where the trailhead was located. A few more miles of wandering through NE Cedar Rapids, and we finally arrived at Kyle's childhood home with just over 170 miles behind us. We both had a highly welcome cold beer, took a shower, and then all of us sat around and ate and talked for a few hours before collapsing on air mattresses in the basement.

After a walk and a good breakfast the next morning, I loaded my Fargo back up and headed north towards Waterloo. I took a side trip to my mom's house for a short visit before making my way to Center Point, where I stopped for the best pork tenderloin I'd ever had. Afterwards, I kept a steady pace north on the limestone portion of the trail, stopping occasionally to take a photo or stretch, since I planned at riding at a touring pace and just enjoying the day. I stopped at a bar in Brandon for two much needed gin and tonics, and again in La Porte city for ice cream and some udder balm for my seat. The trail turned to pavement from here on so it was fairly easy going, other than the sight of storms brewing to the SW of me. After a quick GPS check, I rode north out of Waterloo on a county highway, working hard to stay ahead of the storms. With the rain getting closer and the wind picking up, I took a right hand turn on to the 4 miles of gravel that took me to my final destination. Unfortunately, the rock was loose and chunky and it took a good amount of effort to cover the those last 4 miles. I pulled into my in-laws' garage just as the rain hit. Another 75 miles in for the day, bringing me to 245 for the weekend.

My Salsa Fargo was once again the right ride for the job. Steady and sure on all surfaces. Fast on gravel or pavement, despite the load and the mountain bike tires.

I managed to drag the camera out on both days of the trip. Photos are all here.

Alexander 2014

Three short weeks after TransIowa, I was rolling out of Spring Valley, MN at 5 AM on a Friday. This was the start of The Alexander, a 380 mile race across some seriously scenic and hilly areas in SW Minnesota, SE Wisconsin and NE Iowa. My goals for the event were to get serious miles on my bike loaded up with a representative Tour Divide level of equipment, finish, and finish on Saturday evening. The course encompasses almost all of the Almanzo 100 and Royal 162 courses, plus adds a third stacked loop for the additional 120 or so miles this goes beyond the Royal. A group of about 15 - 20 of us took the start, with a minimal amount of fanfare, with Chris Skogen telling us little more than to have fun, and enjoy the experience. We rode out of town in a fairly tight group and once we hit the gravel, things slowly started to string out. After a couple of hours, a decent sized group of us got together and things just kind of fell into place for the rest of the race. The group had plenty of big motors and long mile experience - Corey Godfrey, my teammate Mike Johnson, Ben Oney, Alex Oenes, and Derek Weider from the Slender Fungus Cycling Association. We covered the first 127 miles to Lansing, IA in just under 11.5 hours. After a well earned food and maintenance break, we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin. After a short time, I started recognizing many of the areas we were in as being part of the first day of the 2010 TransWisconsin, including a spin through Mt Sterling, on through Seneca, and finally to Prairie Du Chien where we ended our day with a bunch of pizza, a beer, and 196 miles or so in our legs. 

We left PDC a little later than I and some others would have liked, but we snagged breakfast, resupplied our food and were really back on it by about 6 AM. The paved climb out of the river valley was long, but steady. Afterwards we were treated to a about 50 miles of fast descents and beautiful valleys, followed by some long hard climbs. What was easily the best rode of the route came in this section - We crossed a closed intersection, descended down a steep dirt road to an isolated creek crossing, and then proceeded to climb put on what was nothing more than a worn path over bedrock through a gorgeous grove of trees, finally exiting onto regular gravel next to a small farmstead. As the day went on, the breaks became a bit longer and more frequent. Some time after we left Decorah, Mike figured out that unless we picked up the pace, our chances for a Saturday finish were going to disappear. At this point, the group broke apart a bit as Mike, Ben, Derek and I drove the pace into a flat headwind section. After a brief break for food at mile 335 in Graf (which straddles the IA/MN border) we regrouped and started the drive to the finish. After a post creek crossing break to wait for a flat tire change, pressed on towards the ominous Norse Rd/Oriole Road section. Corey and I were able to bomb and ascend on this section with relative ease since we were on mountain bike tires. After the climb out of Masonic Park, our pace picked up on the flats, especially since we were within striking distance of our midnight finish goal. I recall being on the front and driving at 20 - 22 MPH for what seemed like forever. Finally, we took the descent into downtown Spring Valley and finished on the corner of Washington and Main at about 11:59 AM, just under our goal time.

A big crew of people from Des Moines that were there for the Alexander and Royal met us at the corner with pizza and beer, thanks to a generous offer from my friend Kyle Sedore and a well timed phone call. After a bit of food, photos, and interactions with liberally lubricated locals, we loaded our bikes up and headed back to the hotel. Too hyped from the finish, and the liberal application of caffeine, I stayed up a while longer after a well earned shower talking to friends and trying to get more food and fluids into me. I didn't sleep very well that night as my legs were sore and I was just generally excited about the ride and the finish. I think I ended up waking for the final time around 5 AM or so, heading down to the breakfast nook and devouring whatever I could get my hands on. I was very happy that my friend Ali offered to drive home so I could rest. It was also nice to chat with her for a few hours, which is something that I don't get a chance to do very often. 

My Salsa Ti Fargo was the perfect bike for this event, even with the gear load, it felt steady and sure, even on fast, loose, gravel descents. The stock gearing was low enough to allow me to finish the event, although I do plan on dropping it down a touch for Tour Divide, just so I'm not stressing myself so much on long climbs. I had no mechanicals during the event, other than my Garmin freezing up on the descent into Decorah.

Final Stats:

Day 1 - 196 miles. 12,800 feet of climb. 17:20:41 total time
Day 2 - 189 miles. 13,000 feet of climb. 17:59:23 total time

I managed to take quite a few photos over the weekend. They are all here.