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!

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Quarter of the way there!

Passing through the small town of Blair in Nebraska, 2 months and 2 days after leaving Deadhorse in Alaska. Unremarkable except this is the end of stage 6, which means that I’ve cycled 6000 km (3750 miles) and so have reached the quarter way point of my ride! So far the scenery has been as spectacular as I was hoping for, but the people have been far more friendly, interesting and generous than I was expecting, and the animal encounters more remarkable. 

This is the route I’ve taken – unfortunately the projection used makes it look like I’ve covered more than a quarter:

Feeling propper chuffed with having completed the “easy quarter” on schedule in a fifth of the time I’ve got with no major incidents. This gives me cautious optimism for the rest of the ride. But there are many many more miles and new challenges ahead, so nothing is certain. That’s all part of the adventure! 

I’m now off to Glenwood to check out the start of the Ragbrai (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa ) and hopefully see a familiar face from when I was working in Maidenhead.

A mention for a few other travelers  who have reached significant milestones – Johan and Baerbel who I met in British Columbia are heading back to Europe after 3 years of cycle touring the world,  and a former colleague who has just completed a trip from the tip of South America to Deadhorse after 2000 days!

Finally thanks to Sue for helping out with the admin back on Jersey.

Digging out my inner pioneer 

Something that has struck me so far is that while the history of this part of the world covers just a couple of hundred years (rather than a couple of thousand in the UK) a huge amount has happened in that time. All of this by people brave, lucky or just tough enough to make a new life through the extremes of the environment. While what I’m doing isn’t easy, I’m benefiting from good roads (mostly), a ready supply of food and other services and the latest technology to help me along. So I was amused to see this piece from a similar perspective in a local paper in the weather forcast:

(Here’s more about the current weather ” the most uncomfortably hot weather in 4 years.” from his blog)

Have I found an inner pioneer?  In some respects, yes – despite temperatures in the mid 30’s, humidity in the 80’s and a constant headwind that feels like the blast when you open the oven door, I’ve been managing around 100k per day. A very slow 100k – rests and cycling have taken up more than 12 hours of the day. Those of you following me on strava will have seen my average speed dip below 10mph! 

But I’ve also made full use of air conditioned petrol station shops, and consumed the refrigerated sweet drinks on sale. At one point I lay in the shade of some corn for a quick rest and snooze – all sounds very pioneer like, except the corn was genetically engineered! Not so pioneer. 
Despite my reduced pace, since my last post from Minnesota, I’ve been ticking off the states. From Minnesota I popped into South Dakota:

Then back into Minnesota 

Then onto Iowa 

And I’m now in Nebraska 

What’s next? Well if all goes well, tomorrow I should be passing through Blair – yes, the end of stage 6 and the quarter way mark of the trip!
That’s all for now except for a couple of photos:

Fortunately I’m eating well and have not had to resort to this for a fresh snack:

An impressive display of more bugs at the motel i stayed at by Ortonville:

Far more impressive than this was the old gentleman from Minnesota  I’d only briefly chatted with at breakfast – who wanted to pay for my room ! I politely declined his offer – but continue to be  amazed (and shocked!) that what I am doing is inspiring this level of generosity from complete strangers. 

Goodbye North Dakota, hello Minnesota!

A slightly less than grand sign in the suburb of Moorhead:

Looking back on my time in North Dakota, I realised I’d stayed in a different type of place every night. After the boutique designer hotel in Bowbells, there was chain hotel in Minot where i found something i’d not seen before by the remote control. Now if your reaction to the next photo is something like “What? Why? Really?? Nnnnnnno, surely not!!!” then you’re normal. If it is “OMG, i need those in my life!”, then you have an OCD and need to get some help.

Then there was Norman’s log cabin in Fessenden followed by a small motel in Cooperstown. I finally got a wild camp in on my last night in North Dakota. Good sites for wild camping were becoming rarer, and with all the hotels and motels i was thinking that I was getting soft!
On my first night in Minnesota I was expecting to camp again in the village of Wolverton. With no official campsite, I approached a nearby house with people sitting in the garden to check that it was OK to camp near by. I was invited to join Chad & Christine, and their neighbours Jef and Heather. After a good chat around the fire, Chad & Christine asked if I wanted to stay the night in their family sized Recreational Vehicle. With a forecast of rain overnight , and having been passed by so many of these on the road i accepted this very kind offer. And it was yet another different type of place to sleep!

I also met their sons Austin and Carter in their break from Pokemon Go. I was impressed with Austin’s propane “guitar” (my dad would never let me have built one of those!).

After a very comfortable night’s sleep, and being treated to breakfast,  it was to move on south through Minnesota (with its mini hard shoulders!) . . .

Wheat, Corn & Weapons of Mass Destruction 

With the only highway heading East to Fargo being the interstate 94 (a motorway, not good for cycling) I was taking increasingly smaller and quieter roads. This took me to this lovely quiet, smooth road just after Ayr – with perfect calm clear conditions making for a memorable end to Friday’s ride

The photo shows the corn and wheat that makes up much of the landscape – a change from the quinola in Saskatchewen. Here quinola is seen as a problem because it is a good “volunteer crop” – ie it’ll keep growing like a weed if the farmers try and grow something else. Earlier on Friday I took a break from the cycling to go on a guided tour of another part of the landscape. But not on the surface – do you know where? Underground! Or more specifically the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility of the 321 Missile Wing.I’ve always been interested in the Cold War, so a tour around one of the underground bunkers where the nuclear Inter Continental Balistic Missiles would be launched from was not to be missed! From this console, up to 150 missiles could be launched from their underground silos spread across this part of North Dakota (spaced 3 miles apart so that if one got a direct hit from an incomming ICBM, the others would not be affected).

Surface of one of the missile silos:

The control centre bunker was 30m underground and shaped like an hour glass on its side – this photo from the generator room through the two blast doors (as thick as my gangly arm is long) to the control centre shown the huge shock absorbers that the floor was suspended from.

This place was decommissioned along with the 14 other similar control centres in North Dakota as part of the START arms reduction treaty. But we were re-assured that three of the original six missile wings are still fully operational and defending the nation. While it is an impressive feat of science, technology and engineering, the thought of 450 missiles being armed and capable of delivering the equivalent of half a billion tonnes of TNT to their targets in less than 30 minutes was far from reassuring! 

Ever since Fairbanks, my journey south has been more of a journey east. This right turn at this very unassuming junction marked the point where it became a journey south once again. The edge was taken off the celebration by a strong southerly wind for the rest of the day!

Turning South

Shortly after this I stopped at this very unassuming hall to top up my water:

I was surprised to walk in on a hall full of people playing bingo (I think they were equally surprised to see me!). But in tge short time that I was there, everyone I spoke with from Barry the hall manager to the bar man and the regulars were very generous in one way or another. I tried my first root beer float – i wasnt sure what to expect beer (6%!) and ice cream to be like, but it was surprisingly good!
Finally, I’ve appeared in not one, but two newspapers this week! The Jersey Evening Post and on tge front cover of the Hearald Press. Time magazine – here I come!! 🙂

End of stage 5

Yesterday I passed through the tiny village of Balfour, and so completed Stage 5 of the trip. Celebrating this in a rodeo style:

(Fortunately I managed this stunt without breaking me or the statue -or getting caught!)

My last post was sent from the Bowbells Hotel – thanks to Theresa for accepting a late guest (i hadn’t realised that North Dakota was an hour ahead of Saskatchewan) at her newly renovated hotel . I was lucky not only in that the hotel was open (it opened last week!), but the next night they were fully booked!

Yesterday was damp, but I had a great tail wind. As well as Balfour,  i passed through the amusingly named Anamoose. It was good to see that the locals shared my sense of humour with this sign:

The moose theme continued later with some very nice dark beer:

The village of Harvey, however, were perhaps just getting a bit too carried away 

“Not Just A Place . . . It’s An Experience!”. The true experience was to be had in Fessenden. It was after 6 in the evening and the rain wasn’t showing any sign of easing off – so time for dinner. I stopped at the Motorheads bar, wondering if this was the right place for a cyclist. I pulled on some trousers – you have to be pretty sure about a bar before walking in “with out any pants on” (ie just in a tshirt and a pair of lycra cycling shorts). But not only was the food great (and it was a buffet – perfect for a hungry cyclist) and the beer tasty, but the locals on both sides of the bar were very welcoming to a stranger from out of town. Danny was great – he had the sense to leave me to finish my meal (cyclists are a bit like bears in this respect – don’t get between them and their food!) and was happy for me to join him at the bar. Amy was also there, and she tipped off Anne from the Herald Press and I had my first face to face press interview! Norman joined us later – a former farmer – real North Dakota cowboy! 

He very kindly offered a place to stay – the cabin in his yard that was hand built in a 19th century style by his father-in-law:

I now know how Americans feel when they visit Scotland and see a man in a kilt, then stay overnight in a castle! 

The stay was rounded of with some very sticky cake at the Main St Diner. A big thanks to everyone in Fessenden for being so welcoming! 

Back in the U S of A!

Stage 5, day 8 – just crossed the 49th parallel – the line of latitude 49 degrees north of the equator. This marks the border between Canada and America – so after 5 weeks of cycling across part of the huge country of Canada, I am back in the USA! I am also, for the first time, further south than Jersey. It’s also a new timezone (GMT-6), a real sign of heading east as well as south.

It’s also a milestone for the trip – I’ve now cycled 3000 miles since I left Deadhorse 53 days ago! Or to put it another way, 20% of the way to the bottom of South America. That destination is still a very very long way off – by but a fifth of the way there is the first meaningful proportion of the journey. I’ve also cycled up hills totalling over three times the height of Mount Everest (not an entirely valid comparison-  I’m sure Everest is easier!).

For those of you following me on Strava, in closing in on being in the top 1% of cyclists in the July distance challenge – a top 100 placing by the end of the month would be cool!

The wild weather continues in this part of the world – as does my luck in avoiding it. Yesterday I passed through the town of Estevan, currently under in a State of Emergency following 13cm of rain in 2 hours the day before! Estevan also marked a change in landscape – if Saskatchewan is the Breadbasket of Canada, south of Estevan is the messy corner at the end of the garden where you dump the weeds and cuttings. Gone are huge fields and huge elevators :

Replaced by open cast coal mining for power generation:

For a place with quite so much wind, they really are missing a trick!

Finally, for those of you following my tracker, it has gone on the blink again. I’ve reported this to TrackerShop – hopefully it should be working again soon!

Stage 5 day 7 – Big weather in Seskatchewan

In my last full day in Canada yesterday, there was some dramatic weather just after I passed the town of Weyburn. I was enjoying a light if slightly humid tailwind when this monster appeared on the horizon:

As I passed under it I felt like a very small sea  creature walking down the seabed with a huge wave breaking overhead.  Here’s a video clip of that moment: under the cloud

I was expecting to get a good soaking because, surely, that amount of water couldn’t  stay there for ever! But in the end it was only very light rain, and then i was out the other side into some sunshine and another striking scene:


As an indication of how flat it is here, there is a railway line between the yellow quinoa (a bio fuel crop) and the green road side grass.

 Those of you following me on Strava or keeping an eye on the GPS tracker will see that I’m only 50 miles away from the US border – so I should be back in the USA by the end of today!

Stage 5 day 6 – The Corner Gas Station

I spent the night in Rouleau at what looked like a quiet spot, but turned out to be a family TV shrine – the location of the Corner Gas Station show! 

I had to wait for over an hour for it to get too dark for people to stop off had have their photo taken – but it wasn’t time wasted as I managed to get this shot to replace one of the many photos I’d unintentionaly deleted earlier in the day (Grrrrr!!!)

Time for breakfast and head off towards Estevan before more fans (of the TV show) turn up! Hopefully my last full day in Canada – its been a great 5 weeks cycling through just 3 provinces of this huge country – but I’m keen to move on south.

Too late – literally as I was typing the last paragraph, the first pilgrimage of the day arrives:

Grrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!

A blog post I’ve been working on for over a week has just gone blank! 

Don’t by a cheap phone!!!!

Producing interesting blogs while on the move with limited screen, battery, internet access and time is proving to be much harder than expected. The tracker is still working, and I’m managing daily updates on Strava. Losing the post I’ve spent loads of time on, and accidentally deleting a load of photos yesterday is forcing a rethink on how i go about letting you know how things are going.

All is going well apart from the blogging! I expect to cross into the USA in the next couple of days.