Day One: Pittsburgh, PA to West Newton, PA
Our first day on the trail began at Golden Triangle Bike Rental, located at 600 1st Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, where we picked up our bike rentals, purchased a few last-minute supplies, and topped off our water bottles. Once we had loaded our panniers, adjusted our saddles, and set up our GPS devices, Danesh and I decided to ride to Point State Park, which would allow us to start our ride at the GAP's Mile Marker 0. Although we had a bit of difficulty navigating the city streets where the GAP was not a dedicated bike path, we managed to find Point State Park relatively quickly, snap a few self-aggrandizing photographs in front of the fountains to share on Facebook, and head out on our way.
The first few miles of the trail were paved and took us from the concrete and glass towers of Pittsburgh's modern downtown, over the Monongahela River via the Hot Metal Bridge, and through some of the area's iconic industrial corridor, before delivering us to the suburban community of Homestead, where we stopped for a predictably mediocre fast-food lunch.
Heading southeast out of Homestead, the landscape quickly turned rural and would remain so for much of the rest of our trip. The farther we pedaled, the more I began to notice the high-pitched trilling of what I would eventually realize were cicadas. Due to some uncannily-timed traveling and relocating, I had never actually heard or seen cicadas previously, so the whole experience was pretty special. When Danesh and I stopped for him to pick up a bite to eat at the Yough Twister Buena Vista, I noticed a bunch of strangely beautiful insects crawling around and on our bikes and, for the first time in my life, saw the legendary insect. When we returned to the trail, I began noticing the carcasses of the bugs, which seemed to become more and more plentiful with each mile.
As the industrial and suburban sprawl gave way to thicker and thicker forest, Danesh and I eased into the rhythm of the trail and the miles passed beneath us in a blur. We enjoyed the occasional break in the foliage, which gave us an opportunity to stop and look out over the river. Although we occasionally encountered other riders and would often hear trains passing on the tracks on the other side of the water, we spent most of our time alone, soaking up our surroundings and getting a glimpse at what the Alleghenies might have looked like to travelers more than a century ago. These sensations only intensified with each day, prompting me to reflect on aspects of American history that I had not anticipated being particularly central to my experience of the trip.
By the time we rolled into the small town of West Newton, Danesh and I were ready for dinner. After checking into the Bright Morning Bed and Breakfast (which is actually a complex of several neighboring Victorian homes that the proprietors have converted into a small community of B and Bs), we walked to the Trailside Inn and enjoyed a nice meal overlooking the river. It was at the Bright Morning complex that we first experienced what would become one of the more special aspects of the trip: meeting fellow long-distance cyclists.
West Newton, like many of the small communities through which we passed, prides itself on being a trail town and local businesses, which benefit greatly from the constant flow of tourists, are eager to welcome cyclists and hikers. As a result, the patios of restaurants and places like Bright Morning teem with friendly conversation centered around cycling and travels. The free-spirited, easy-going atmosphere we encountered around the campfire at the B and B would reappear nearly every time we stopped in a small town for a bite to eat or a break from riding and we learned a good deal about local history, the cycling community, and regional customs as a result.
Earlier this month, my friend Danesh and I cycled from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. via the Great Allegheny Passage and C & O Towpath. Despite the fact that neither one of us is particularly averse to spur-of-the-moment adventuring, we decided to book a package through Bike the GAP, reasoning that, since neither of us had ever ridden the trails previously, it would be wiser to rely on the expertise of a highly-rated company than on our own wits for planning our first ride. In the end, I would say we made the right decision. Sara, the owner of Bike the GAP, we soon discovered, was well-known and highly-regarded all along the trail. In fact, she was so well-known that, at least among the small businesses in the trail communities, the mononym "Sara" often felt as noteworthy as Prince, Madonna, Elvis, Shaq, or Oprah. Everywhere we stopped, it seemed, restauranteurs and innkeepers knew of Sara, appreciated the business she sent their way, and expressed that gratitude by treating us like VIPs.
Because Danesh and I would be taking the Amtrak train to Pittsburgh from New York and returning to the New York area by train from Washington, we decided to save ourselves the headache of transporting our own bikes and rented a pair of hybrids that we could pick up at Golden Triangle Bike Rentals in Pittsburgh and return at Bike and Roll in Washington, D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza. We ended up with two Felt Verza Paths, which proved to be fantastic. The bikes are sturdy without being unwieldy, roll through mud and puddles without feeling unsteady, and dampen vibrations without sacrificing too much speed.
Once we got our bikes set up, signed some last-minute paperwork, filled our water bottles, and slid into our respective chamois, we hit the trail.
Although I've had no shortage of bike-related stuff to write about in the six months since I last updated this blog, I've been unable to actually sit myself down and tap out a single entry. I wanted to write about my first RAGBRAI experience (especially because the event rolled through the town in which I reside), my first century (the Ramapo Rally in northern New Jersey), my first ride over 110 miles (an out-and back jaunt on southern Minnesota's Root River Trail), my first major cycling injury (the result of a spill on Iowa's Cedar Valley Nature Trail), my discovery of the rolling Allamuchy Allegory loop, and all the cool gear I accumulated over the last half year, but I just never got around to doing so. While I still hope to draw upon some of those experiences for future posts, I'm going to continue putting them off for a while so that I can turn my attention to documenting a project that may interest some readers: my first bike assembly.
After I graduated from college in Minnesota, I had the local bike shop disassemble and pack up my Trek hybrid so that I could ship it to my parents' house. Although I'd planned on reassembling the bike, I ended up leaving it in the box at my parents' place when I moved to Montréal for graduate school. After a year or so in the city, I decided to start riding again and, since my Trek was still in a cardboard box several hundred miles south of my then home in Québec, I bought a cheap CCM Metric hybrid at Canadian Tire to use until I could be reunited with my "good" bike. Despite it's cheap quality, however, I ended up really liking the Metric and brought it with me when I moved back to the U.S. for my doctoral studies. Over the next couple of years, as I moved from one apartment to another, the bike was largely neglected and, eventually, it ended up sitting on a porch for a few months. Then I loaned it to a neighbor's brother, who did not treat the bike very well. When it was returned to me, the frame was scratched up, the rear derailleur was broken, the chain was messed up, the brakes were in bad shape, and much of the metal was encrusted in a layer of rust. It wasn't in rideable condition, so I grudgingly put it in storage and eventually bought a cheap mountain bike to take its place.
In the years that followed, that terrible mountain bike somehow hooked me on cycling and I finally had my old Trek reassembled, which meant that I really hadn't any use for the poor little Metric, so the battered steed languished forgotten in the garage, collecting dust and gathering cobwebs. On one or two occasions, I tinkered with the bike, fixing what I could, but never enough to get it back on the road. Eventually, after I had accumulated a few more bikes and had begun encountering pinch flats and started tinkering with pedals and handlebars, I started using the Metric as a mechanical guinea pig. Before trying out a new tool or attempting a new type of repair on one of my working bikes, I would experiment on the Metric first.
Eventually, an idea that has been floating around in my mind for quite some time took purchase, and I began planning to rebuild the Metric. At first, I though I would simply salvage what working parts were left and replace the broken or decrepit components. The more I tinkered, however, the more I realized the bike wasn't really worth restoring. After all, I already had a perfectly good hybrid bike that I had modified to serve as a touring bike. Rather than simply repair a bike for which I would have no use, I decided to build a bike for which I would have a use.
The Québécois is Born
Since the Metric had become the bike upon which I would experiment, I felt it was only natural to regard the build as a learning process. I know I could easily purchase a decent bike with a higher-quality frame for less than I am going to spend to build this one, but I am moving ahead anyway. I figure once I learn how to build a bike from the frame up, I can always swap out this frame for something better. But, you know what? I rather like the idea of taking what is, essentially, a decent 18" chromoly frame with enough clearance for some fairly wide tires (not to mention a nice dark green paint job) and using it as the heart of a one-of-a-kind bike. To hell with the cost, I say! It'll be an investment in my own education!
Once I decided to build a bike, I immediately knew exactly what sort of rig I wanted to build: a dedicated gravel grinder. Living in rural Iowa, I am surrounded by miles and miles of quiet, rolling gravel roads that offer some of the best cycling in the Midwest. While I've ridden hundreds of miles of gravel on my Trek hybrid, the ride can sometimes get a little dicey when I'm rolling along on anything more than the hardest-packed gravel and I often find myself longing for a steadier ride. Although I could certainly swap my town-tread tires out for something a bit grippier, there simply isn't enough clearance for tires in the 38-40 mm range, which seems to be the sweet spot for gravel grinding. Of course, both the 26'er mountain bike and my fat tire bike roll smoothly on gravel, but they're heavier and slower than I'd like for the sort of longer rides I enjoy. Likewise, while bar ends or butterfly bars (which work wonderfully on my touring rig) can offer some variation in hand positions, I want the flexibility and comfort offered by drop handlebars, which would necessitate an expensive reworking of the brake system to work on the other three bikes.
Happily, the Metric frame seems to be pretty well suited for the sort of riding I hope to enjoy once the build is complete. In particular, it meets three crucial requirements:
- Steel frame. Steel is excellent at absorbing and reducing vibration, which is a real concern on gravel roads.
- Relaxed geometry. As much as I like the aggressive geometry of my road bike when on pavement, I strongly prefer the more upright sitting position offered by a hybrid bike when riding on uneven surfaces. While I intend to use drops rather than, say, risers, the seating position will likely still be significantly less aggressive than a road bike, which should provide additional stability.
- Wide tire clearance. With terrain as unstable and variable as gravel, it's important to outfit your bike with wider, grippier tires such as Surly Knards or Clement X'Plor MSOs. The Metric frame can accommodate both.
Once I consulted with the mechanics at my local bike shop to confirm that the frame was worth working on and that it could accommodate the parts I wanted, I set to work getting the frame ready for it's new life.
But it needed a name first.
At first, I thought of naming it "The Gravel Grinder," but quickly dismissed that as hokey. Then, I thought of calling it "The Quebecker" because of its French Canadian origins. While I still refer to the bike as The Quebecker in my Anglophone mind, I have decided to dub it the Québécois because, frankly, the French just looks so much better.
So, here's to the Québécois! I'll try to be more diligent in posting as the project moves forward.
Until next time, then, Au revoir!
I've been using Strava to track my rides for a while now, but I only upgraded to the service's premium membership a little over a month ago, largely to access the app's new personal heatmaps feature. A heatmap, Strava's website informs us, is a way to "visualize the ground you've covered" running or cycling while using their app. (Of course, with a modicum of technological knowhow, one could create his or her own heat map using free programs available online, but I opted to go with Strava's service because I was drawn to the streamlined simplicity of it). As seemingly minor a feature as the heat map generator may be, it has turned out to be one of my favorite aspects of Strava. Initially, I'd merely been curious about seeing a map of the roads I'd biked, but my attitude towards the feature has since evolved into something altogether different. Once I "saw" where I'd been on a map, with my most frequently travelled areas colored a bright red, I began to think about riding the places I hadn't yet cycled to fill in the map, even if only with the pale blue of the once-ridden route. One result of this development, predictably, was my decision to ride around Bremer, Butler, and Black Hawk counties, "collecting" roads to add to my heatmap, which introduced me to a whole slew of places I'd never previously seen, all sitting right in my proverbial backyard. A second, related development has been the growth of an urge within me to unify the routes I've ridden in and around Iowa into a single, interconnected map by cycling the areas between the various scattered routes I'd ridden previously (I say "in and around Iowa" because, as aesthetically pleasing as the resulting map would undoubtedly be, connecting my rides in New Jersey, Texas, Montana, Colorado, and Alberta doesn't seem like a reasonable short-term goal).
Because I used to live in the small town of Decorah in the far northeastern part of the state, my heatmap included a blue dot indicating that, at one point long before I became a more regular cyclist, I'd once ridden my bike around town. About twenty miles north-northwest of Decorah, another blue line squiggled its way between Harmony and Peterson, two hamlets located along the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota, which I'd ridden a few times. Looking at my heatmap, I couldn't help but feel those two errant routes, so close yet so isolated from the rest of my Iowan rides, needed to be connected, at least to one another. I resolved to do so.
Taking advantage of the pleasant weather on Monday afternoon, I decided to drive up to Cresco, a town located conveniently close to both Harmony and Decorah. My initial plan was to ride an out-and-back route to Harmony and return to Cresco another day for a second ride into Decorah, thereby connecting the two routes through a town I'd eventually link to the rest of my Iowan heatmap later in the summer.
As I am wont to do, I plotted out my route from home, with the aid of Google Maps's satellite view. Although there are a number of possible paved routes between Cresco and Harmony, I was in the mood for some gravel grinding and opted to ride Yankee Avenue north out of Cresco towards the Minnesota-Iowa border. Sticking with gravel, I rode the undulating northern stretch of Yankee Avenue to 20th Street, where I headed east past St. Kierans Cemetery in Fremont and over the Upper Iowa River, before taking 333rd Avenue north to State Line Road.
As I rode up and down the hills, I enjoyed seeing the patches of forest that dotted the countryside, the sight of which contrasts with the otherwise heavily deforested Iowan landscape. While the day was sunny, I did notice a handful of rather dramatic-looking clouds bringing showers to the farms a few miles to my west. By the time I'd reached 295th Avenue in Filmore County, I realized I wouldn't be able to keep ahead of the rain. When the rain hit, it hit hard, driving into my left side and thoroughly soaking me. Fortunately, it was a comparatively brief episode and, almost before I'd had the chance to question the wisdom of riding up there on my own without any rain gear, the sun was back out and I was well on my way to drying off. From 295th, I turned east onto Route 44 and immediately noticed the huge, lane-wide paved shoulder, which, with the help of a strong headwind, I sped along all the way to Route 139, which becomes Main Street as one heads north into Harmony.
On the ride up to Harmony, I'd toyed with the idea of taking US 52 east and south to Decorah before returning to Cresco, thereby turning my ride into a 60-plus mile loop. Invigorated by the brisk rainfall and encouraged by a favorable tailwind, I decided to go for broke and headed towards Decorah. Like Route 44, US 52 is a paved highway with a huge shoulder, presumably designed to accommodate the region's sizable horse-and-buggy-riding Amish population. Normally, I find riding along roads with posted speed limits over forty miles per hour to be nerve-wracking, but the combination of the generous shoulder width and a traffic stream limited by road resurfacing contributed to my ride towards the Iowa border feeling about as relaxing as a leisurely spin on a rail trail. Once I crossed into Iowa, however, the paved shoulder gave way to Iowa's ubiquitous crushed gravel shoulder and I had considerably less wiggle room when riding in traffic. Fortunately, the traffic was light and what few drivers did pass by were overwhelmingly considerate and gave me plenty of space.
Because I would turn south to stay on 52 in Prosper, the robust tailwind I'd enjoyed between Harmony and Canton was destined to become an occasionally vicious crosswind as I headed into Iowa, a fact I'd neglected to consider when I made my decision to lengthen my ride. I began feeling tired shortly after I crossed the border back into Iowa and the ride to Decorah took a bit longer than I had anticipated. Forty-five miles into what would become a 68 mile ride, I was well-neigh exhausted and it was only the promise of huevos rancheros at Don José's in Decorah that kept me pedaling. That and the fact that the Driftless Area is absolutely breathtaking in the full bloom of summer.
The Driftless Area, for those unfamiliar with the region, is the part of the Midwest that doesn't look anything like what most people expect the Midwest to look like. Rather than endless acres of unvarying flat farmland, the Driftless area is the loess- and colluvium-covered bluff country of Clifford D. Simak's fiction. For a cyclist accustomed to riding around areas smoothed and flattened by glaciation, the Paleozoic Plateau in which Decorah is located is both a fresh change of pace and a glute- and thigh-punishing ordeal. For a cyclist whose strongest suit is anything but climbing, the Driftless Area is, frankly, kind of intimidating.
After a nice, large dinner at Don José's, I confronted the intimidation I felt at riding back to Cresco as evening approached by telling myself in no uncertain terms that I could do it. After all, those words of encouragement seemed to be of great help to Kerry Strug as she overcame an ankle injury in the 1996 Summer Olympics, so, clearly, I reasoned, they'd help a merely fatigued Erik in so humble a task as riding a bicycle in Iowa. Thus encouraged by my inner Béla Károlyi, I pedaled up the hill on College Drive, gleefully descended towards Route 52 and began my twenty mile journey on Pole Line Road.
For the first few miles, I felt great, conquering the gradual hills and relishing the beautiful views of the forested bluffs on either side of the snaking Upper Iowa River. Then, suddenly, I came upon another hill. You can do it! I told myself, You can do it! I began my climb, willing myself up, up, and up, damn it!
Then, I stopped. I stopped to drink a bit of water and to assess the situation. You can do it, I told myself again. You most certainly can do it! And I resumed my climb up. I was determined.
I climbed on.
For, like, twenty feet. Then I stopped again. I tried to summon my Béla Károlyi. He wasn't anywhere to be found. I think he may have stayed behind at Don José's. I hear they have good margaritas.
So, there I was: alone, on a hill, tired, the sun setting, and without an enthusiastic Romanian gymnastics coach to cheer me on.
Fuck, I said, which seemed like the only thing to say upon realizing that there weren't enough gods in all the pantheons on earth whose names I could say in vain to express my feelings towards the hill. I tried everything: I stayed in my saddle, I got out of my saddle; I broke the climb into several small segments to make the task easier; I shifted down to the easiest gear I could; I drank water; I tried riding at intervals. Somehow, I made it up, covering just under a mile with an average grade of 5% in 11:36, which amounts to a scorching 4.8 miles per hour clip. Leonardo Piepoli I am not...
The rest of the ride, almost all of which took place on Pole Line Road, was pleasant, though I don't remember much more than feeling a strong desire to get home. I'm pretty certain that I cursed every single hill the rest of the way but, like many people who have suffered trauma, I seem to have repressed the memories. I suspect that, had I been fresher when I started the ascent, the ride up Pole Line Road would have been my favorite part of the entire trip because it cuts through some of the the loveliest countryside I've seen in Iowa. Unfortunately, I was too busy catching my breath and grumbling to myself to soak it all in as much as I would have liked. I do, however, vaguely remember stopping to photograph an exceptionally colorful sunset...
Call me crazy, but for some reason I really want to try that hill again.
I bought my first road bike last October, just as the cycling bug was taking hold of me and, while it is an only entry-level model, I have been extremely protective of it. Naturally, I use it, but I have a tendency to take my trusty decades-old Trek hybrid out whenever I am a bit wary of the road conditions. If there's the slightest hint of rain in the air, for instance, I leave the road bike at home. If I suspect I may encounter gravel, I leave the road bike at home. If it has been windy and I suspect the rail trails will be littered with tree branches and other debris, I leave the road bike at home.
In other words, I treat my road bike like an overprotective parent would treat his or her child.
Since a good deal of this week's riding has consisted of gravel grinding on my slow, steel-framed hybrid on the rural roads linking my small Iowan town to even smaller, more Iowan communities, I'd begun craving the faster ride of my road bike. Although I hemmed and hawed a bit, I decided to forego the comparatively short group ride organized by my local cycling club so that I could take a longer solo ride and explore some county roads I'd not yet ridden. Being the careful fellow that I am, I fired up my computer and scoured the satellite images of the roads I'd be riding on Google Maps to ensure that I'd be riding a well-paved route with sparse automobile traffic. I double-checked everything, reassured myself that it would be a good ride, and set out for a nice forty mile tour of the county that would take me through a few small towns, including one I hadn't yet visited. I was excited.
While I didn't exactly zip along, I enjoyed the smooth, speedy feel of the road bike and the miles passed quickly. I inhaled the cool early evening air, thanked the Fates for keeping the winds from whipping across the plains, and tried to notice the subtle changes in the landscape. I churned up a few hills, coasted down a few more, and marveled at how green everything was getting. It was a lovely evening and I knew that the ride would be satisfying once I got home, where I intended to revel in the post-ride calm and treat myself to a nice dinner.
I was getting a little hungry, though, so my thoughts turned to picking up a bite to eat at the Kwik Star convenience store in Readlyn, which I reasoned would be a good place to stop since it is located at the other end of the the rail trail I would be taking back to Waverly. The sun was setting as I pulled off Route 3 into Readlyn, the sky streaked with oranges and purples. Initially, I'd planned on turning onto Reed Avenue, a road on which I'd ridden previously. Instead, I turned one road before Reed, onto Quarter Avenue.
Quarter Avenue, it turns out, is an aptly-named road. There are so many potholes and fissures splitting the pavement that it seems to be just that: a quarter of a road. Actually, scratch that. Quarter Avenue is less a road than the absence of a road. Seriously: the surface of the moon has fewer craters. This, for example, is probably the most smoothly-paved section of the road:
So, just as I turned onto Quarter Avenue, a little over one mile from the familiar territory of the Kwik Star, I found myself heading straight for what can only be described as the Grand Canyon of Iowa or perhaps the Marianas Trench of the Heartland. This gaping crevasse--several inches deep, four or five feet long, and more than a foot across--was, for me, much like the Sirenum Scopuli of mythic antiquity. Like the mariners lulled to sleep by the unearthly singing of those birdlike Sirens, I was too becalmed by the beauty of the moment to recognize my peril before it was two late. In a futile effort to avoid my fate, I pulled on the handlebars, launching the front wheel of my bike into the air, but my rear wheel crashed, like a shipwreck, into the rock wall and, with the telltale hiss of a wounded inner tube, my tire went flat.
This was it: my first flat tire. Somehow, it's not nearly as exciting as it might sound.
I hadn't brought a patch kit with me, so I called a friend to ask for a ride and walked the mile to the Kwik Star, carrying my once-proud, now-maimed steed. I passed several people who, with typical Midwestern politeness, greeted me and, with that same typical Midwestern politeness, pretended not to notice the fact that I was carrying a bike on my back as I lurched towards the gas station in the gathering dusk.
It all turned out okay, of course. Although it was a bit chilly as I waited for my ride, I was metaphorically warmed by my beloved Canadiens' Game 7 win over the Bruins, the ESPN mobile gamecast of which helped pass the time. My friend got me home and I changed my first-ever flat. Removing the tire wasn't as difficult as I'd feared, but it was more difficult than I'd hoped. As I'd predicted, I got myself a pretty nice pinch flat. I decided to replace the inner tube with a new one and I am keeping the as-yet-unpatched damaged tube as a spare. Getting the tire back on after I'd replaced the tube was a royal pain in the ass, but I did it. As I pumped up the tire, however, it seemed I couldn't quite reach the PSI I'd expected and I was a bit concerned. I heard a couple of strange pops and, at one point, thought I'd caused a small explosion.
But nothing happened.
The tire seems all right, for the most part, though my rear wheel appears to be a bit out of true and there seems to be something off in the shifting. What had once been an occasional slipping or skipping as I pedaled in a lower gear seemed to be more of an issue during my brief test ride. Still, I was able to ride around the block a few times and I seem to have succeeded in my attempt at completing a very basic, yet crucial task for any cyclist.
I'll take that as a positive. I mean, anytime you learn something, that's a good thing, right? I now know I can change a bike tube, that carrying a patch kit is essential, and that Bremer County, Iowa really, really, really needs to fix Quarter Avenue unless they plan on using it to test the durability of the Mars Rover. If that's the case, though, I feel really bad for that poor robot.
I've been kicking around the idea of starting a bicycle blog for quite a while now but, while I have had several ideas I thought worthy of posts, I couldn't figure out where to begin. And so I put off starting the blog. Today, however, having just returned from the longest ride I have ever taken in my life, I think I finally have a subject interesting enough to justify a first post. Furthermore, it allows me to touch upon several of the subjects (my recent conversion to gravel grinding, Strava's influence on my training, etc.) about which I would like to write at greater length without having to go into too much detail for an introductory post while also allowing me to avoid beginning the blog with the possibly clichéd "how I came to cycling" story through which I initially thought I might introduce myself.
Day One: Waverly-Independence
I'd decided over the previous weekend to take a longer-than-usual ride on Tuesday because the weather was forecast to be in the Goldilocks Zone (neither too cold nor too warm, but just right), sunny, and comparatively windless (Iowa, for those readers unfamiliar with the state, might be unaware of Euroclydon's long residency here). My decision to ride a little over 80 miles was motivated, in part, by a Strava challenge to pedal the length of a 130 kilometer gran fondo in a single ride. Once I'd decided how far I wanted to go, I had to figure out whether I preferred a single out-and-back ride (which might be boring on the return) or a loop. Opting for the latter and curious about the Cedar Valley Nature Trail for which I'd seen many signs between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, I decided to pack an overnight bag and head south, towards Cedar Falls.
The route I took down to Cedar Falls is one of my favorite local routes: it consists primarily of undulating, hard-packed gravel roads cutting through some of the scant forest remaining in the region and past a number of small farmsteads. This first segment of the ride, beginning at the point at which I turned off the Waverly Rail Trail onto Grand Avenue, really set the mood for the entire day. From the point I left the pavement in Waverly until I hit the outskirts of Cedar Falls, I was lulled into a sense of wellbeing by the white noise of the gravel passing beneath my tires, the sights of spring's vanguard buds awakening on the trees, and the not unpleasantly pungent odor of the new-turned earth in my nostrils. After a long, brutal winter punctuated by a seemingly endless series of polar vortices, it was nothing short of blissful to feel the earth coming alive all around me.
My return to the paved world in Cedar Falls, while jarring, provided me with a nice opportunity to rest and stop at Bike Tech and Cup of Joe for a spare tube and espresso before heading on my way.
The Cedar Falls-Waterloo area has one of the more extensive multi-use trail systems in the state so, with only a few small interruptions, the next segment of my ride--from Cedar Falls, through Waterloo, and into Evansdale--was almost entirely traffic-free. The trails are well-maintained and frequent signs and maps let riders know exactly where they are and how to get from place-to-place. There are a few confusing sections and one or two rather abrupt breaks in the trail, but nothing a pocket map or cell phone app wouldn't clear up. Once in Evansdale, I followed the signs first to the town's local trail, then to the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
At this point in my ride, I wasn't certain exactly how far I'd take the trail, as it runs more than fifty miles to the town of Hiawatha, just outside Cedar Rapids. I calculated how far I'd have had to go to reach the magic 80 mile mark and decided to play it by ear, stopping at one of the towns on the way if need be (I'd already checked to see where hotels might be located). Since the first dozen or so miles of the trail are paved, I made really good time and began thinking hey, maybe I can make it to Cedar Rapids before dark! Then, about half the distance between Gilbretville and Brandon, after crossing a bridge a couple miles south of La Porte City, the pavement ended and I was on gravel again. While the paved section of trail had a fair amount of bicycle traffic, the unpaved section, predictably, was almost empty. I passed one fellow cyclist in the 25 or so miles I rode on the gravel and only saw a few pedestrians walking with their dogs near the trailheads I passed.
So, I had much of the trail to myself as I contemplated what to do next. Although most of the trail passed through farmland and small agriculturally-oriented villages, there were a few really beautiful marshy areas and some clusters of trees to enjoy. As I approached Urbana, I noticed that my cell phone battery was running low, so I rode up to the Casey's and plugged in while deciding if I wanted to continue riding on the trail, stop at Urbana (even though it was "only" 65 miles or so from home) for the night, or start heading back the way I came. Then, I saw a sign on Iowa 150 reading "Independence 15 [Miles]." I did the math, realized that it was the perfect stopping point because I would not only reach Independence just as darkness swallowed up the landscape but would do so just as I hit the 130 km mark. It didn't hurt, either, that the next day's ride back to Waverly would be shortened substantially by my heading north for those final 15 miles.
Day Two: Independence-Waverly
I was more than a little worried about the return ride. For one, I had never ridden more than 60 or so miles in a day previously and did not know how my body would respond to the back-to-back days on the road I would be demanding of it. Furthermore, the weather forecast wasn't nearly as optimistic as it was for the day before: rain showers and temperatures south of 50 all day.
Fortunately, though I was sore, I wasn't anywhere near as stiff or uncomfortable as I had feared might be the case. After breakfast at the motel, I packed up some leftover pizza from the night before, filled up my water bottles, and consulted Google Maps to see what my options would be for the ride home. I knew I could continue up to Oelwein on IA-150, then head west on Route 3, which would take me back to Waverly. Now, while I am not especially fond of riding on roads with 55 miles per hour speed limits, I seriously contemplated taking the route because A) it was pretty straightforward and B) I figured that I would strongly prefer not to ride on gravel in the rain. Ultimately, though, I opted for the shortest route, which would take me through farm country on gravel roads all the way to Dunkerton. I gambled on the rain and, despite a few errant drops here and there, I lucked out and had a dry ride the entire way. It wasn't until I hit East Dunkerton Road (North Nesbit Road was closed for construction north of that road) that I'd be on a paved surface again. Both Dunkerton Road and North Canfield/IA-281 were comparatively free of traffic, which made for a quick and stress-free ride up to the gravel roads that would take me to Readlyn and, ultimately, the Waverly Rail Trail, which would take me home. And, just as I approached Waverly, the rain started, making those first few moments in the warmth of my house after riding 128 miles that much sweeter.