Sobriquet 93.1: Gravel Grinding One's Way To A Gran Fondo

Note: The following entry was part of a short-lived side-blog called The Ride.

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. 


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