In late August, I rode the Big Rivers Classic 1200k permanent with a group of eight randonneur friends. Our group consisted of Minnesotans, Mark Olsen, Rob Welsh, Jerry Hofmann and Hall Sanders. Rob is the current Minnesota RBA and has been riding randonneuring events since the late 1970’s. Mark Olsen is well known in RUSA circles and has completed around twenty 1200’s. On the other end of the spectrum, Hall and Jerry, both strong riders, were attempting their first 1200k. The Wisconsin contingent was made up of Bob Booth, Jerry Christensen, and myself. Bob has completed both PBP and LEL. Jerry is a veteran long-distance cyclist who completed the Granite Anvil 1200k in Ontario last year. I have completed five 1200k’s in the last five years. Mike Fox was the lone representative from Iowa. Mike started the ride just 100 kilometers short of earning RUSA’s Mondial award, given to riders who have accumulated 40,000 kilometers on RUSA sanctioned rides.
Heading out on Day 1, still in Minnesota.
Like most randonneurs, I spent the days leading up to the ride obsessing about the weather. The forecast for the Big Rivers Classic looked ominous, calling for rain and headwinds for the first three days of our ride. Five of us got together for dinner on the night before the start. The dinner conversation was dominated by talk of rain, wind and hills. It became pretty clear that what I had envisioned as a rolling frolic though southwestern Wisconsin would be anything but. This would be a serious and challenging 1200k with all of the associated highs and lows.
Our group of eight experienced randonneurs rolled out of Apple Valley, MN under dark, overcast skies. We hoped to sneak in three or four hours of riding before the inevitable rain showers settled in. We intended that the group would stick together throughout the ride. As we crossed the rolling terrain in East Central Minnesota on our way to Red Wing the conversation was flowing and the mood was light. Fifty-Five miles into the ride, we crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin and turned south along the Great River Road. It was hard not to revel in the scenery along the Mississippi River, especially near Maiden Rock where the river widens to form Lake Pepin. Our first brush with the theme of the first two days emerged about five miles from the control in Pepin. Rob Welsh had a pinch flat so he and Bob Booth stopped to change it. The rest of the group rolled into the control for a slightly extended break. Over the next two days, the group would have at least eleven more flats, mostly likely attributable to riding extended periods of time in steady rains on wet roads.
Mike Fox, Rob Welsh and Jerry Christensen fixing another flat in the rain.
The weather finally caught up to us around 2:00pm. Our group slogged through heavy, steady rains for the rest of the day as we passed through beautiful coulees punctuated by hard steep climbs. As darkness settled in, the descents became very treacherous as the heavy rain splattered glasses and cut visibility to next to nothing. Despite the tough conditions, the morale in the group stayed high and we made steady progress.
We finally reached the first overnight hotel in Black River Falls, Wisconsin at 1:30am after riding 234 miles in 19.5 hours. Rob’s GPS unit recorded 13,767 feet of climbing. We were met at the hotel by my parents, serving as our volunteer support crew for the ride, and local randonneur and good friend, Dave Overlien. We devoured a couple plates of lasagna, cookies and a well-deserved Wisconsin beer and headed for bed. The anticipation was that Day 2 would be shorter, allowing us to get in by midnight.
Day 2 started out in a light drizzle but the weather would be dry for most of the day. After a couple hours of rolling terrain, the climb through the Mindoro Cut got us back into the serious climbing. The Mindoro Cut is the second largest hand-hewn rock cut in the Eastern United States. At the top, the road passes through a gorge cut that is only a couple feet wider than the pavement with walls towering 74 feet over the road. The theme continued to be flat tires and steep climbs.
Regrouping at the top of the Mindoro Cut.
Throughout the day, frustration was building about our lack of progress. Despite being a reasonably strong and experienced group, we were barely averaging 10 miles per hour of total time although we were enjoying some great roads, beautiful vistas of farms and virtually no traffic. Late in the afternoon, on a bucolic road, we had our most serious incident of the ride. Mark Olsen was leading the group when his front tire went flat. Mark lost control and fell hard on his side, earning a large gouge in his elbow and road rash on his knee. While some of the group worked on cleaning up Mark’s elbow, others changed the tire and got his bike up and running. It was apparent to the group that he needed medical attention and stitches. During the approximately 45 minutes that we were on the side of the road, not a single car passed us. None of us knew the area towns very well until Mark, a doctor, remembered interviewing at a hospital in Boscobel, about twenty miles away, many years before. Mark’s bike was ready and he was patched up so he decided he was well enough to ride that far. Mike Fox volunteered to escort him and they headed off. Mike would join up with us again for part of the next day. Mark was picked up by his wife. Our mood was pretty somber as we separated and continued riding. The steep pitches of Excelsior Road (16-18%) right after the split brought us back to the task at hand. The fastest riders to the top earned a short conversation with a young Amish gentleman armed with a compound bow who was out practicing for hunting season.
Our next bout of adversity struck several hours later. As we were approaching the small town of Highland, Wisconsin, flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder threatened all around us. We stopped at the local C-store just as it was closing. According to the radar on the worker’s computer, the thunderstorm had passed. However, the radar didn’t seem to match what was happening outside, so we doublechecked radar apps on our phones on the theory that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our radar apps showed a very different picture. A very strong storm cell was just a few miles away and heading towards our location very quickly. We moved across the street to a bar/restaurant that had a wide, covered porch with benches. Just about the time we got settled in, the skies opened up with sheets of heavy rain and we got to enjoy a very impressive electric storm from our cozy porch, thankful not to be out on the roads. After waiting for about an hour, the owner of the bar came outside with a large box of leftover food from the restaurant’s buffet. I enjoyed a late night Wisconsin fish fry with shrimp and French fries. Not exactly typical randonneur food, but it really hit the spot. After the weather finally cleared, we had a beautiful night for riding. Little did we know our next challenge was just a few miles down the road.
Our route called for nine miles on the Military Ridge State Trail. The trail was billed as a heavily used hard packed limestone trail. Instead we found a sandy soupy mess with lots of downed branches and small washouts, probably from the storm that had just passed through. By the time we got off the trail, everything from the tops of our wheels down was covered in wet sandy mud. Fortunately, the next gas station had a hose so we were able to spray our bikes down to a reasonable degree of cleanliness. The remaining 30 miles of the day were sharply rolling quiet roads. As we rolled towards the second overnight in New Glarus, Wisconsin, our group of six was fairly discouraged. What had been expected to be a shorter day had turned out to be a long, hard trek. We finally got in to the hotel at 4:45am and ate some quick, cold pizza with our tired volunteer crew. Day 2’s 188 miles had taken us over twenty one hours! Rob’s GPS reported 13,500 feet of climbing. At this point of the ride, I was seriously questioning the concept of the ride and route but hoped things would improve over the next couple of days.
Things did start to turn around on Day 3, but not right away. We took a calculated gamble to maximize our sleep. With just 18 miles to the first control, we planned to leave as late as possible to grab some extra sleep. We ended up ridding through heavy rain and made it to the control with less than ten minutes to spare before it closed. The clouds parted shortly after and we were back to enjoying the beautiful roads that southwestern Wisconsin is famous for.
We had a chance encounter with our support crew at our lunchtime control in Spring Green. Hall who was struggling with some back pain on his first 1200k decided he needed to stop and took the opportunity to catch a ride towards home. Although we knew he was disappointed to end his adventure, Hall rode two and a half really tough days.
After lunch, we finally got to experience an extended flat section in the Wisconsin River Valley. Another change happened around mid-day that helped the success of the ride. Without really discussing it, we gradually abandoned the idea of riding Audax style and broke up into smaller groups. This seemed to help as we had several more tough climbs in the warm afternoon sun. Two evening climbs, including a quad-killer past Norskedalen near Coon Valley, Wisconsin presented the last major challenges of the day.
The last thirty miles up the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River were fairly easy except for a thick fog that made seeing the road and road signs tricky. Rob had a scary moment when he encountered what he at first thought was an apparition, a guy dressed in white pants and a white dress shirt, stumbling along the shoulder of the road at 12:30am on a Sunday morning. There were no buildings in the area so it was hard to know what he was doing or how he got there. Similar thoughts must have occurred to the apparition as he stared into the single bright light heading towards him before he staggered off the shoulder and out of the way. The 185 miles of Day 3 ended when we crossed the Mississippi River Bridge to Winona, Minnesota and our hotel, manned again by my parents and Dave Overlien.
Because everyone got into Winona late (between 1:00amd and 2:45am) after three long, hard days, we opted for a relaxed 8:30 am start to Day 4. Although we tended to be riding within a few minutes of each other, we rode pretty independently throughout the morning hours. Returning to Minnesota meant less climbing, although warm temperatures and a couple of tough climbs were enough to test our tired legs. The day progressed with visits to several Mississippi River towns as we headed back towards the Twin Cities. By the time we got back to Red Wing in the early afternoon, with fifty miles to go, the toughest challenges were behind us. The group came back together for a 20 mile scenic cruise on the paved Cannon Valley trail. The final 30 mile segment on flat roads shared with many other Minnesota Randonneurs’ routes made for a relaxed finish to our grand adventure. We were met at the finish by my wife, Heather, and Maddie and Bailey waving a balloon they had appropriated from the hotel lobby. All in all, a great way to finish a 1200k.
Riding a 1200k is always a serious undertaking and this was no exception. The Big Rivers Classic Permanent presented more adversity than any of the 5 other 1200k’s that I have ridden. For starters, the route had approximately 40,000 feet of climbing, including many steep four hundred foot climbs. We had extended periods of rain on three days, three days of headwinds, too many flats to keep track of, a wet sandy trail, and a scary crash. There were many times that I wondered if this ride was cursed! Despite the challenges, all of the riders in our group showed impressive randonneur spirit, persistence, and positive attitudes. Having my parents help with support for the ride was another big factor in the success of the ride. This is a ride that I will remember for years to come.