When a Good Plan Comes Together

ultracycling road bikes

Planning something is one of my favorite things to do regardless of WHAT I’m planning.  I especially like planning new cycling routes or coordinating rides.  I know I really need to spend more hours in the saddle heading into the Alexander.  Plus, I cut out difficult sections of my last few rides around here which makes me think I’m not mentally tough enough to hack it.  When you throw all this together, it reasonably explains why I decided to bike to Decorah, Iowa on Friday from my house south of the Twin Cities in MN.  It would be a one way trip of about 165 miles and my goal was to make it there in time for dinner with friends. We HAD a bailout option, but the goal was not to utilize it.

I figured no one would join me for the ride, but I threw it out there anyway and guess what?  My friend Pamela said she was up for the challenge!  She’s also doing the Alexander this spring and it’s her first dive into ultra cycling too.  We had decided to take road bikes down, loading them up with ridiculous amounts of bags.  It felt so wrong to strap on a frame bag and feed bags to my Cannondale Supersix.  Ugh!

Cannondale ultracycling bikepacking

We woke up to the sound of rain on Friday morning.  Damn.  I was hoping that business would have stopped earlier in the evening, but nope.  Luckily by the time we rolled out the active rain had stopped but everything was quite wet.  It didn’t take long for our bikes’ drivetrains to become covered in a fine layer of silt, tossed back up at us by our tires.  The roads haven’t been swept well after a winter of salting and sanding, so things can get a little abrasive out there. It was beautiful to start the ride and feel the wind pick up, watching it sweep away the clouds to the south and bringing in the sun. It helped the 30-something degF start temp feel fairly warm!

In the beginning we had our exuberance, nervousness, and excitement for the ride to spur us on.  It was a fast push to the first gas station, about 30 miles away.  We had told a few concerned family members that we’d text or post updates along our way so they knew we weren’t dead. However, we decided that 30 miles in was no significant achievement; therefore, we notified no one of our first fast stop.  We rolled on!  The next gas station was at mile 60 and we were over 1/3 done. We grabbed more food, notified the pertinent parties that we were still alive, and rolled out.  Our goal was to make it 60 miles to our next planned stop.

Me and Pamela with our loaded up bikes.  Ignore the sacrilegiously ugly tires on my road bike… I’m running older tires to wear them out and move on to the new!

At this point in the ride I went into “non-stop eating” mode.  I’ve had a lot of problems this year bonking on longer rides, so my goal was to see just how much food I could make myself eat.  By this point in the ride I’m usually not hungry and snacks (even fantastic junk food like Snickers bars) can be a chore to choke down.  I had a bag of caramel puff corn in my feedbag and ate a small handful ever few minutes.  This alternated with salty things like bacon (thanks Pamela!) and the occasional salted nut roll.

While we’re on the subject of fueling, it’s interesting to note that this was my first long and “warm” ride wearing a Camelbak.  I had tried wearing a Camelbak about two years ago during a ride and hated it.  I was a hot, sweaty mess almost instantly.  I upgraded to a nicer, better vented Camelbak earlier this year and had great success wearing it during the Fatbike Frozen Forty.  Granted, the start temperature was below 0F at that event, so sweating wasn’t a huge problem.  On Friday I layered a wool base layer, thermal jersey, and the Camelbak and felt just about perfect for temperature the entire ride!  Success!  It was great to have water immediate available (the way I routed the hose meant I didn’t even have to take my hands off the handlebars to take a sip), so I plan to continue wearing it on long rides as the spring weather heats up in hopes that it will work well for the Alexander.

Back to the ride story.  Miles 60-120 were … special for us.  The traffic picked up as we neared a major east / west thoroughfare and the shoulder on the side of the highway all but disappeared.  I felt stressed as cars passed us, some a little too close.  I worried about being seen even with our smart use of high vis yellow.  The landscape was punctuated by wind turbines, which whipped around much faster than usual with the sustained at 25+ mph.  I took a quick video of the wind turbines, and of COURSE that’s when the road happened to be full of semis. Dear father, I promise it wasn’t that bad … for the whole ride. 😉

In addition to the issues with traffic, Pamela started to fade a little.  She was trailing and through troubleshooting she figured out she had gotten behind on food and hydration.  We stopped and she got out her “emergency water bottle” and ate half of a ham and cheese sandwich that was stowed in her jersey pocket. (For the record, it was delicious.)  We rolled on, still mentally fatigued by the traffic and relentless winds.  During this section we kept getting batted around by the heavy cross winds that were gusting to 40 mph.  At one point she went to put her water bottle back in her water bottle cage and the damn thing snapped off, sending a piece of plastic into her chainring. She stopped and yanked it out, and thank goodness there was no major damage done. We had packed a fair amount of bike repair stuff in our frame bags but a mangled chainring would have done us in.

We made the push to the 120 mile gas station and spent extra time there. Now it was my turn to feel a little out of sorts.  I walked around the gas station trying to figure out what I wanted to eat next.  I bought a bag of puppy chow, the chocolate and peanut butter covered Chex, and yelped for joy when I got a text message that our friend was close to meeting us on the ride!  He was biking north from Decorah to meet us, battling headwinds for the first half of his ride (by distance).


Me, Chris, and Pamela!

I installed the bag of “puppy chow” in my front feed bag and we rolled out.  I took a few bites but quickly decided it was disgusting.  I stopped eating for a while, focusing on scanning the horizon for Chris. A small speck appeared and of course it was him. Who else was nuts enough to be out riding in the middle of nowhere on a windy day?  That’s right, just us.  Once he caught us he said he had never been so excited to see another human being in his life. He had a rough 60+ mile ride fighting the strong headwinds the entire way. Ouch.

Our group rolled on and we got a brief respite from traffic as we rode on a bike trail between Preston, MN and Harmony, MN.  The overall elevation change was a net “up” in this section.  Remember before how I said I stopped eating shortly after leaving the final gas station? This came back to bite me.  I hung off the back, struggling to keep up as the other two rode out front and chatted.  I decided it was time to admit defeat and asked the group if we could pull over for a bit so I could collect myself. Pamela said she knew I was in a bad place when I was tossing perfectly good calories on the ground with a vengeance. I was SO OVER the puppy chow that when some landed on the ground, I willfully crushed a few pieces with my cycling shoe.

We putzed around, me eating whatever food I could find in my bags that looked palatable. On Friday, all I wanted was salty foods … jerky, salted nut rolls, bacon, ham and cheese sandwiches, cheese, etc.  We took a few pictures and hopped back on our bikes, evaluating our leftover food and fluids and decided that we could make the final 40 mile push to Decorah without any more stops.

Lengthening shadows — let’s get there noooooow!

I perked up as the food kicked in and as the scenery got more beautiful as we entered the driftless area. I spent a lot of the final miles flying down hills, stopping to take pictures, and then jumping back on the bike as the other two sailed past and started their ascents.  It was a gorgeous few miles into Decorah, and I especially enjoyed it because I knew the roads and what was ahead.  We made it to our final destination with plenty of time for dinner and socializing — we had covered 164 miles in just under 9 hours of pedaling!
4 AM came and I couldn’t sleep…  My growling stomach had woken me up a few times, and I finally conceded and padded out of the bedroom to make myself some pop tarts.  I scarfed them down and noted that I had a MONSTER headache.  I felt hungover but hadn’t had any alcohol in days… you know what that means … poor electrolyte balance.  Ack!  I had drank plenty of fluids on the ride but had consumed plain water.  Next time, more endurolytes!

We woke up to howling winds.  We knew our morning bike ride was going to be difficult, but I had no idea how bad.  Winds were gusting to over 50+ mph with sustained winds above 30 mph.  I had never ridden in such windy conditions.  My current state of mind is that I need to practice riding in stupid conditions.  What if it’s windy for the Alexander?  Raining?  Muddy? I don’t want to not show up at the start line because I’ve never ridden in rough weather. I’m ok with quitting because of it, but I’m not ok with not starting.


One of the scenic farms around Decorah

The four of us rolled out, my boyfriend joining us this time.  He’s the most veteran rider of the bunch, having been riding since his teens.  He told stories of windy training rides with teammates, races where riders had been swept into the ditch, and truly believed that the winds on Saturday weren’t all that bad.  Well, they WERE bad to us rookies.  One peeled off to go home, and then we lost another.  It was just me and my boyfriend, pedaling along in the wind.

Between my headache, exhausted legs, and general brain fog I had a hard time drafting.  It took too much brain power to stay on his wheel so I kept falling off and falling behind.  I know I’m infuriating to ride with when I can’t get the basics down.  😉  I managed the headwinds and crosswinds section of the ride without throwing my bike in the ditch and without crying and on Saturday, this felt like a major accomplishment!  Drafting be damned.  We rolled back into town, got cleaned up, and began our drive back north.  I blissfully ate a VERY large blizzard-like concoction from the local ice cream place.  It’s about half cookie dough and half ice cream, and I decided this was my lunch.  Yum!

Now it’s time to get back into the swing of things with a normal week at work.  I am racing Ragnarok this weekend, which is 105+ miles of hilly gravel.  I haven’t decided if I’ll race it, ride it kinda hard, or enjoy the scenery, or some combination thereof.  I’ll probably make a last minute decision Saturday morning, or maybe I’ll decide based on how dead my legs feel heading into the weekend.

10 thoughts on “When a Good Plan Comes Together

  1. Great blog Melissa! Life is a journey and a long bike ride just seems to draw us closer to life’s sea h for the perfect…..journey. Half the fun is planning, and adjusting, and amazingly, commitment keeps reality at arms length. Keep the stories coming. I too enjoy a long discovery by bike but I’m no where near the writing talent you are!

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