From Route 75 to backroads

August to do list:

  • Get to Allen Texas before Mark goes on holiday – done
  • Get to San Antonio and meet Sue at the airport – done
  • Have a great Texas road trip with Sue – done
  • Catch up on admin, plan route through Mexico, check schedule for Sue’s next visit in Peru, set up another GPS tracker, backup photos, pack maps and supplies brought over by Sue, bike service – done
  • Catch up on blog – right, where was I? Ah yes . . .

After getting a world wide top 100 place in the Strava July Distance Challenge, I was hoping to have an easier day on the 1st of August. But the road I’d been traveling along for almost a 1000 miles was becoming increasingly bike unfriendly – ie it was going to turn into a freeway (ie motorway) well before my next stop on the Reading Reunion tour.

Navigation for the first 2000 miles was easy – three roads (Dalton, Richardson and Alaska highways) and that was it. After that, the rest of Canada and North Dakota were sufficiently sparsely populated that the direct routes were relatively quiet, and without any bike restrictions. But after Fargo where my route went due south, the towns got bigger, and the direct roads became Interstate Freeways – ie motorways where bikes were banned. Luckily I found Route 75 – an interstate road that went due south from Fargo, all the Way to Texas – perfect. When I say “found” I mean on the map – trying to get on the actual road was not so easy. My scenic route through suburban Fargo/Moorhead did not escape the eagle eyes of Mr Minto:

(My daily Strava updates can be seen here: Strava )

When I did eventually pick up signs to Route 75, there were further detours caused by extensive roadworks, and even a train that parked on a level crossing for what seemed like ages. Just when I thought I was past the worst of it, the bridge over the Interstate 94 was entirely closed, with a detour heading back to my suburban scenic route. By now it was almost 6pm, so rather than go back to where I’d come from, I waited a short while for the workmen to finished for the day, and pushed my bike past the bulldozers. My aversion to detours is a curious thing – you’d have thought that after cycling 1000’s of miles, a few extra miles here or there wouldn’t make a difference, but I find myself with the attitude of a non-cyclist – “Cycle 2 miles? That’s way too far!”

But after a shaky start, Route 75 served me well. It was everything from a country road (with no shoulder) to a city bypass with 2 or even 3 lanes and a full hard shoulder:

(yes, that car really did pull into the outside lane to pass me, even though I already had more than enough space on the shoulder!)

As with the Dalton and Alaska highways, there were mile posts – a small sign every mile counting down the miles. While route 75 is an inter state route like the Alaska highway, the mile posts here counted down the number of miles until the next state, not the end of the road. This helped break the journey down into state sized chunks. Though they were sometimes a curse – on the long days where I was slowing down because of the heat and the head wind that was bringing it up from the south, it sometimes seemed to take forever for the next post to appear, or they were a reminder of how little distance I’d covered in, say, the previous hour.
Because Route 75 was a relatively major road, it would have motels, restaurants and gas stations + convenience stores along it in any sizeable town. So not only was it easy to follow, but there was a minimum of time spent looking for food or aircon.

While short sections of dual carriageway with slip roads were OK (eg around Sioux City), as I approached the Texan border, it was going to be like this all the way to Allen. It was also the 1st of August, and as I’d made up so much distance in July, the thought of taking some quiet back-roads was appealing. Looking at the large scale state map and google maps I worked out what looked like a direct route south from Atoka.

It started out OK – I got an early start, made good progress while the temperature was in the relatively cool low 30s C, and found a terrapin that I moved from the road before it got squashed like many others I’d seen:

But my paper map had too small a scale to show the detail of the back roads – like when the tarmac road I was on split into two dirt tracks. As I had already covered 20 miles, I was not that keen to go back, so I took the south turning and carried on. The map did show a river running east-west and some sort of road on the other side, but not whether there would be a bridge to cross this river, or even if the road on the other side was rideable. As I headed down the road to find out if it was a dead end, the wildlife continued. I saw a snake – just a small one, and too fast to capture on camera. There were also Cicadas – a small insect with a cricket-like mating call so loud it disables its own hearing to prevent it from being damaged by the 120dB volume!

Cicadas

As well as the sound of the Cicadas, the video clip also shows the substantial bridge over the river! It was a great relief to see a solid bridge – not only did i not have to decide between turning back or carrying my bike and gear over the river – but it increased the chances that this dirt track would lead to a road. Then a few miles later, there was a house – with power lines. I just had to follow the power lines, and I’d be back to civilisation!

The appeal of backroads was now long gone – especially after a particularly short steep gravely hill that I had to push my bike up – the  first time I’d done that this trip. 

It was 2 hours of dust before I eventually joined a main road at the halfway point between two villages, each one with a road heading south. Fifty-fifty decision – I chose to go east because the road on the map looked slightly larger, and got to a petrol station just before Bennington. This was very welcome as it was now starting to get properly hot (high 30s C) and a cool drink in the air conditioned convenience store / cafe was just what I needed. The lady working there asked where I was going – and she was very definite that I should not go via Bennington, despite it being just around the corner. I was told that going that way would involve going through a place called Wade that was a “bottom of the bucket place”. Every time she went to Bonham, she always went via Bokchito. To me it looked like 2 sides of a rectangle, but she was very insistent with her advice. To compound this, her niece who was behind me at the till, generously insisted on paying for my drink and snack. I now wasn’t going to be able to stick to my intended route without appearing to be ungrateful – so I relented and went back the way I’d come.
After reaching Bokchito I headed south, and past the “Museum of Creation Truth”. I thought about taking a look, but it would probably just be too frustrating / depressing, so I carried on.

I saw an armadillo, but unfortunately like all the other ones I’d seen in Oklahoma, it was very much an ex-armadillo. These appeared to be the unfortunate local equivalent of hedgehogs in the UK.

I also passed an ex-house – it appeared to have been quite some time since the tree crashed onto it – all adding to the impression of the low value of property and land:

Shame it hadn’t been built as robustly as the remarkable mailbox on the right:

The gravel road earlier had slowed me down and tired me out, so despite the early start, it was now the hottest part of the day and I wasn’t anywhere near my destination. I had also underestimated how far it was from the petrol station to Bonham, and despite being back on tarmac, I was going slower because of the heat. So by the time I got to the deserted village of Yuba I had at least another 2 hours to go to get to Bonham, but only enough very warm water for half an hour. While I wasn’t suffering any specific heat exhaustion symptoms, I was concerned that I wasn’t feeling any cooler when I rested in the shade. I was also more conscious of over exertion after the previous day when I stopped for a break, drank 3 litres of fluid and then slept for an hour! OK body, I get the hint.
I could see on the map that I was about half an hour away from another river, and I had a water filter – so I consumed the last of my water knowing that I would at least be able to get some from the river. But just before I got to the river I came across this oasis: a drive-in off-licence:

I was to busy refilling containers with water and ice, and gratefully consuming a couple of cans of cold caffeinated carbonated sugary drinks to get answers to questions like “drive-in off-licence – is that not encouraging drink driving?” and “why is this off-licence here in the middle of nowhere?”.

What I hadn’t noticed on the map was that the river wasn’t any ordinary river – it was the Red River, the squiggly border between Oklahoma and Texas. I was now in my last state of the USA!

Almost 10 hours after leaving Atoka, I finally got to Bonham – but even finding somewhere to stay wasn’t simple. Now that I wasn’t on the main route any more, I was away from the motels, restaurants or shops. I didn’t have the energy to shop around , so decided to just stop at the first place I came across. This turned out to be a very new Holiday Inn Express – a far cry from some of the very dodgy motels I’d been staying in recently. It was more expensive than I was hoping for, but the receptionist obviously felt sorry for me as I got a suite for the price of a basic room. It might not have been quite the rest day I’d been looking forward to, but I was going to have a comfortable and sound night’s sleep! I think I deserved it 🙂

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July – going the distance

The last day in Kansas also saw my first rain since Canada. It was full on torrential rain, thunder and lightning – the works! Normally this much rain and wind would bring on a chill without rain gear. But it was too warm to put on anything over my cycling shorts and base layer T-shirt.  So as the rain started,  I just carried on cycling, expecting to get a chill despite the heat. But the temperature of the rain was perfect – warm, with just a bit of coolness to take the edge off the hot air, and no chill from the wind. So I carried on cycling through these surreal conditions – simultaneously comfortable and soaking wet!

This took away the humidity that I experienced in Nebraska and Iowa, but the heat is still there, and with clear skies it feels like a furnace at times. The southerly headwind is back, which helps take the edge off the heat, but it’s a headwind,  so it does slow me down. But despite all this, progress is good.

After buying a better phone at the end of June, I was able to record the actual distance traveled (detours and all) without the problems with the GPS tracker.

I’d used Strava (the cycling equivalent of Facebook) during my training, and thought it would be interesting to upload at least part of the ride I’d been training for to make comparisons.

Every month, around a quarter of a million Strava users across the world sign up for that month’s “distance challenge” – to record how far they cycle in that month. To ecourage a bit of competition,  everyone gets a ranking of how their distance compares with others in the same challenge. During my training I was ranked around 15,000th – but where would I be ranked now that I wasn’t spending 40 hours a week working? I certainly wasn’t expecting to be No 1 – cycling a heavily laden bike on unfamiliar roads would put me at a disadvantage. Early in the month I set myself a target of a top 100 place.

With the flatter roads in central Canada and the American mid west, I was expecting to do better in July than June  (2850 km, 1780 miles) . But I was not expecting to go as far as 3600 km (2250 miles), and with 12,500 meters of climbing, it was far from flat! Satisfyingly,  this is just further than this year’s Tour de France (3519km). OK, so the Tour riders did this in 21 days to my 31, and they went through the Alps –  but I didn’t have any support team, and they didn’t have 30kg of luggage!

Here is the distance I cycled in July on a map (my Strava heat map) :

Or how it would look from space!

My July Distance ranking? 76 out of more than a quarter of a million cyclists across the world. So comfortably in the top 100 🙂

Kansas

After the achievement of reaching the quarter way mark (and on schedule), and all the activity surrounding the Ragbrai, Kansas started out as a bit of an anticlimax. The striking big wide horizon was replaced by ordinary rolling hills. The industrial strength agriculture was replaced by either patchy crops or patchy fields of grassland without much in the way of cattle. There were also many signs of a rural decline. Many of the wooden houses along the road outside of the towns were in a poor state of repair. In fact is was sometimes impossible to tell if a house had been abandoned,  or was still someone’s home. Some had up to a dozen old rusting cars, trucks, farm equipment and maybe an RV. The long grass around them (or growing out of them!) an indication as to how long it was since they’d last been used, and the slim chance them still working. Other signs of decline were businesses that had long since ceased to trade. Sometimes it was obvious – grass growing up through the concrete around a former petrol station, or bushes growing up the side of an old shop. Other times not so obvious – as if when the business went bust, there was no money left to buy a “closed for good” or a “to let” sign. After several instances of these I just looked for a neon “Open” sign – at least this meant that the electricity hadn’t been cut off, so a good chance that the shop was actually open! It looked like this part of this state had “let itself go” a bit, and that enough weedkiller, skips and a wreaking ball could go a long way to help look to a future rather than dwell on the past. But the reality appears to be that the land has little value – no point in clearing a site when you can just build somewhere else nearby. A strange concept for someone living on Jersey! Given that it was obvious that this state wasn’t as prosperous as it once was, I wasn’t surprised to read that it had recently had its credit rating dropped – there are now only 4 states in the USA with a lower rating. This state was an obvious target for the “Make America great again” message – and it certainly seemed to be a popular one.

But the people I chatted with were no less friendly,  interesting and kind. From the couple I chatted with briefly while I was having lunch, who paid my bill when they left (so i didn’t  get a chance to refuse or thank them). The guy called Craig from Wichita – just another customer at the petrol station, who, after short chat and on parting told me that he was the brother of a Hollywood & TV actress. No way to prove it, but it was so out of the blue, and the way he told me, I’m inclined to believe him. Another guy who pulled up in his car while I was drinking some water (I pour the water that goes luke warm in the heat into a flask of ice for a gloriously refreshing and cooling drink) and asked if I needed anything – food, drink. On saying that I had enough of everything,  he got his wallet out and offered to give me some cash (obv I declined that too). Instead I gave him a quick description of my trip that he videod on his phone and he drove off happy. Those will be my lasting memories of Kansas. 

Even the dogs were friendly – and happy to pose for a photo:

First night in Kansas at Sabena – motel beside a supermarket – cerial, cold milk and air con: bliss after a long hot day!

Harley dealer in Topeka – complete with it’s own Harley-ville highstreet! 

The original Little House on the Prairie :

Ragbrai 

A conversation at the beginning of April between myself and a good friend Ian Richardson went something like this:

Keith: “you riding much?”

Ian: “Not riding much but will be riding across Iowa in July! ”

Keith: “Iowa in July? Care to be more specific? Planning traveling south along the Iowa-Nebraska border, getting to Blair on 20th July. ”

Ian: “… I’m riding the Ragbrai (West to East) starting around the 25th.  I’m in the state from the 17th.  Hmmm…this is crazy. ”

Three and a half months, and almost 4000 miles later, crazy happened at the Ragbrai expo in the town of Glenwood, Iowa:

I also met the people he was cycling with Connie,  Missy, Ron and the support team Jarrod, Brian and Connie & Rons dad. Missy also took this photo:

I can’t remember what Ian had just said – but “Keith, your legs – what colour do you call that?” or “Keith, your bike has a kick-stand:  what’s that all about?” are quite possible. 
The original plan was to meet at the campsite some 30 miles away, and I would carry on south the next day while Ian, Connie,  Missy and Ron would return to Glenwood (where their bikes were stashed) for the first day of week long Ragbrai ride. Someone suggested that I join them on the ride – I could leave the bike in Glenwood and get a lift to the campsite and back. After cycling on my own for so many miles, the thought of taking part in a ride with these guys and 8000+ other people was a very appealing one. It would mean that I’d be a day behind, but given my success at making up time so far, there was enough time for me to make up the day it before meeting Mark, and then the lovely Sue Powell in Texas. There was also the logistical challenge that there wasn’t enough space in the car for all my bags (I really am carrying that much stuff!) so I had to work out what to take and what to leave for the first time this trip. With 4 of us in the back seat, it was a bit cramped –  but I was greatful not to have to do the 60 mile round trip, and enjoyed the novelty of traveling in a vehicle for the first time in nearly 2 months! Leaving the bike in Glenwood also made this the first rest day in 3 weeks . The ride from the southern suburb of Omaha was just under 20 miles – the last time I had a day this short was when I left Beamont just south of Edmonton –  back in Canada!! I realise that to most people, cycling a loaded bike for 20 miles would not count as a “rest day” – but its a good indication as to how well I’ve adapted to the physical demands of this trip.

I’d never heard of the Ragbrai (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa)  but it has been running every year for over 40 years. With the number of places limited to 8000, it is also huge – and at seven days long, a massive undertaking for riders and organisers. Every year the route is different, with towns in the state keen to be one of the start/finish points, or just to be en route. It originally started out as two journalists taking to the road on their bikes for a week in search of news for their paper the Des Moines Register.
Given that there was a good chance I’d cycled the furthest to be at this event (I did bump into a couple of cyclists who had ridden from Washington state on the west coast. Fortunately they didn’t seem unhappy that I’d trumped their journey!) I thought the organisers or newspapers might be interested. But given that I was only one of 8000 cyclists, infact worse than that, I hadn’t actually entered, it was with some trepidation that I approached one of the organisers and said “hi, my name is Keith and I’ve cycled here from Alaska. Do you know anyone from the newspaper who might be interested?”. An hour later I was chatting with one of the journalists and a photographer! Here is the resulting article.

The next day, after a super early start, we got ready:

and rode out of Glenwood as part of a continuous stream of cyclists of all shapes, sizes and ages – many in teams and wearing some sort of fancy dress so they could be picked out in the crowd. It was much more relaxed than a European sportif – no official start time or timing chips. And there must have been way more than 8000 people taking part – I wasn’t the only one who turned up on the day! It was unusual to be cycling in single file, and the line of cyclists stretching  out into the distance along some of the straight rolling sections of road looked like a busy line of ants. It reminded me of the time I rode the London to Brighton ride in the early nineties. There were a couple of points where there were so many cyclists, a traffic jam formed, and everyone had get off their bikes and walk. But everyone was relaxed about it – i didn’t hear anyone complain, and nobody was trying to push through the crowd. 

For me, the relaxed, slightly off the wall yet organised nature of event  was best summed up in this moment  – in one of the small towns en route someone was giving encouragment to the riders over a PA system that was also playing MC Hammer (Hammer Time) at a right turn where the marshal was dressed as Santa Claus:

Ragbrai randomness 

Ian and Connie rode on ahead, and I rode with Missy and Ron. Ron was the only person in the group who had ridden it before – so he knew all about the iconic Ragbrai food stops – for example the Beekman’s icecream stop where the icecream is made fresh, and was very welcome on the hot sunny day:

Beekman’s icecream stop

Missy had never done a ride like this before, but she was doing really well, especially as she was more used to running and horse riding, and had only had her bike since February.  I rode with them most of the way, but after I stopped to take some photos, I was behind them and trying to catch up when this couple rode past:

I had a great few miles drafting, then doing my bit at the front – hard work on the touring bike, but great fun! I met up with the othes at the end of the stage in Shenandoah. They stashed their bikes for the next day while I rode the 25 miles back to the campsite –  by the end of which I was starting to wish I hadn’t ridden quite so hard with the two riders earlier!
The next day, the Ragbrai riders headed east, and I got back on ny ride south. It was a great couple of days, and one of the highlights of the trip so far – catching up with Ian, making new friends, and bagging a stage of the famous Ragbrai!

View from the campsite overlooking Iowa fields in the foreground and Nebraska in the distance:

Bidding farewell to Iowa, and hello to Missouri: 

Then back into Nebraska: 

Then south into Kansas: 

PS Ian: I found my headtorch – I’d put it in my food pannier. Numpty!