A few hearty souls rode the Fallexander, our rematch with the Alexander 380 course but held in the fall and split across three days. I’m still shocked that I finished it, can’t even fathom biking that many miles in three days let alone on gravel, but somehow it actually happened and my legs still exist – I have the Strava files to prove it. Because it was such an epic adventure and I have a lot to say, the story is split into three parts.
I had a gnawing deep down after not finishing the Alexander 380 this spring due to an ill-timed mechanical, and I was simultaneously determined to tackle the course again but also wanted to walk away and never look back. My tenacious attitude got me back on the bike and now that it’s over I’m SO glad I did.
Like usual, my SuperX cross bike wasn’t in working condition just a few days prior to the ride. That’s been the fate of that poor bike since the spring, since the first mechanical that took me out during the Alexander. The bike sat unused for most of the summer, non-functional, until some extensive repair work and drivetrain reconfiguration took place. I took the bike out for my 150 gravel tune-up ride a few weeks before and the bike broke AGAIN on that ride – I lost the ability to shift the rear derailleur. (Perhaps this is a sign I need to ride my single speed more?!) We discovered a splintered shifter cable inside the hood, and it had us removing pieces of splayed wire using a medical forceps, launching pieces of shrapnel across the garage. I took the bike out for a 20 minute test ride around the neighborhood and deemed it rideable for the 380 mile journey.
The night before I was set to leave for the ride, the bike fell over in the garage and landed on the derailleur. Seriously?! It was admittedly my fault, I didn’t really bolster it properly… Our garage currently houses TWENTY TWO bikes on a routine basis so let’s face it, we are running out of storage options and I was lazy and didn’t rack it.. This was my punishment. I ran it through the rear cassette and it SEEMED fine, so I left well enough alone.
The next day I loaded up my car and was doing final chain cleaning and lubing and once again did another quick run through of the shifting. The chain dropped off the big cog on the cassette, jamming itself between the cassette and spokes of the rear wheel. The wheel came grinding to a halt as I stared in horror. I made a few attempts to extricate the chain with no success. As luck would have it, my in-home professional bike mechanic aka boyfriend was at work fixing OTHER people’s bikes that night. I called the shop and sheepishly asked to talk to him. He answered the phone and when he found out it was me his tone changed from professional to sounding slightly irritated. I told him I broke my bike that he had just spent a few hours fixing and could I maybe come pay him retail to fix it?! He said “uh, sure” with some hesitation and my plan was hatched.
I grabbed everything else I would need for my journey under duress and took the bike to Valley Bike and Ski. I had to shoulder it into the shop as the back wheel was still completely locked up. Walking over to the mechanics area, I humbly handed over my bike so it could be assessed. I told him what had happened, he nodded and said that they could take care of that, and promptly told his coworker to fix my bike! He said he wanted nothing to do with the repair, not because he was being an ass but because I assume he felt like he would be ripping off work if he were to work on one of our household bikes during his regular hours, even if I paid for it. This seemed like a fine plan to me, and his coworker was slightly surprised when he realized that my BF was serious – he was NOT touching my bike. Haha! I left a little bit later with a bike that was shifting beautifully again, a re-cleaned and lubed chain, and aired up tires. I threw the bike on the back of the car and headed to Lansing for the night.
Side note: This is the SECOND time that Valley mechanics have bailed me out the night before I attempted the Alexander course. The first time had zilch to do with the fact that my BF worked there as he was still residing in Iowa. I got the same great service the first time as an “unknown” customer – a last minute emergency fix on a bike purchased somewhere else, a fair price, and a repair that lasted for hours and hours of riding and grueling use. If you need bike maintenance, go see the boys and girls at Valley Bike and Ski.
Lansing to Decorah: 144 miles, 13K elevation
I slept as good as could be expected before a daunting journey. Four cyclists left our motel shortly after 5 AM on Friday morning, carrying everything we’d need over the next few days minus what we could buy at gas stations and roadside restaurants. I had a sense of dread as I knew some of the wicked climbs up ahead, the climbs that had me trudging next to my bike up the steep grade last time.
As we rolled up the first hill I felt sluggish and watched two of the guys slowly inch away (Leah wasn’t with us yet as a last minute bike mechanical forced her to start late). The last guy had pulled over and was now back on the bike and gaining on me quickly, and when he got right behind me I asked him if my back wheel looked okay and he immediately said “no”. ARGH. I had had one isolated incident where the rear tire hadn’t held air the week before but it never repeated itself so I thought it was a fluke. We pulled over on the side of the road in the crisp dark air, I set my bike down, and got to work. I first tried to reinflate the tire since I knew it HAD been holding air. As I removed the pump from the valve stem, the core of the valve shot off into the woods. The mysterious occasional leaker situation made more sense after that! I changed the tire and it felt like it took forever in the sub-freezing temperatures. (I didn’t want to bring a lot of warm clothing because we would only be suffering in the cold for a few hours.) I got the dang thing reinstalled and mostly inflated with the small borrowed pump. I swear it took hundreds of pump strokes to get the tire inflated.
We continued with our relentless climbs as this section of the ride from Lansing to Prairie du Chien has the steepest pitches of the whole route. Luckily, I was attacking them with fresh legs AND they are on pavement (thanks, Wisconsin dairy lobby!) which makes it easier to “tack” the hills once you run out of gears. I had put a giant “pie plate” cassette on my cross bike specifically because of these very hills, and I was climbing on a mission this time. Last time I walked each of the summits because I ran out of gears and my knees were screaming at me. This time, my 36 tooth rear cassette allowed me to stay on the bike and climb at a glacial pace.
As the sun came up my mood shifted for the better. I HATE riding in the dark and am quite skittish still – let’s just say it’s a new emerging skillset for me that I’m working hard on. The world gradually got warmer and I felt less and less miserable due to being underdressed. As the world warmed breathing was easier (I headed into the ride with a sinus / respiratory thing that had me wheezing without the use of my inhaler.)
I had a small sense of dread as I got nearer to the place on the course where the mud ate my derailleur in the spring. I could feel the pit in my stomach, feeling slightly nauseous and scared of what was to come. I knew the bridge had been out the year prior for the Alexander too so I had low hopes anything would have changed from May until October. I made the sharp right-hand turn towards the former mud pit and yelped with glee when I saw that in place of the mud was a BRIDGE – a beautiful, paved bridge over the winding little stream. I stopped to take a picture to document the scene. I simultaneously wanted to flip off the bridge and go kiss it. I did neither and rolled along, approaching the next giant climb.
I was in a much better mood after getting past this spot – the spot that marked my failure for the first Alexander attempt. I began singing as I rode along, other times whistling, typically tidbits of irritating pop songs related to my condition. Prime example – Katy Perry’s “Hot and Cold” as an homage to the fact that some parts of my body were numb, and others were getting soaked with sweat.
By this time Jere and I found ourselves in the front of our band of four, pedaling along. He eventually rode away from me on the climbs but I caught him at our first gas station stop. I chugged a bunch of hot sugar laden gas station cappuccino and loaded my belly with food. Spirits were high and our journey was going well so far. Our other two companions caught up to us at the stop and we talked for a bit, and then Jere and I decided to roll out as we were getting cold.
The next miles passed in a blur. We rode hard, up and down and up and down the bluffs of Wisconsin. The Alexander route takes a winding circuitous route on purpose. No paths are direct, and if there is a hill you are guaranteed to be routed straight up it. If the road is out, no bother – you’ll be routed through whatever blockage exists too. (More on that from day 2!) We got to Prairie and stumbled into McDonalds. I decided to go big and order a double quarter pounder but couldn’t finish the dang thing. After lunch we saw our compatriots at a gas station, talked to them for a bit, and then rolled across the bridge over the Mississippi and back into Iowa. We had received a text from Leah saying that she had bought parts for her bike, she was ready to roll, and she’d meet us somewhere along the course in Iowa. It was great motivation to have a new face to look forward to, especially not knowing exactly where she’d find us.
The miles in Iowa got mentally difficult. I had told myself that most of the climbing would occur in Wisconsin. I knew the area between the Mississippi and Decorah was hilly as I’ve ridden gravel down there many times, but I think I underestimated just how hilly it could be. Once again the Alexander route would always select the worst hills and the least tended minimum maintenance roads. At one point I was descending a minimum maintenance road, clenching the brakes and hanging my butt off the back of the seat to keep the rear wheel on the ground and I thought “this would be SO much better as a climb….” Turns out I got my wish – soon enough I passed through the low point of the valley and started ascending. The chunky rocks and my 32 mm tires made the thing not rideable and I was trudging next to my bike. I caught up to Jere who had also been walking his bike but had stopped for a quick break. I paused to appreciate the beauty of the woods just for a second, and we pushed on.
Leah caught us around mile 90-something and it was great to have company, but less great because her legs were fresh and she was raring to go. She was out front pedaling along in beast mode and we struggled to keep up. Hours later dusk was beginning to fall and we were getting closer and closer to Decorah, so we stopped to turn on lights and I snapped one last picture for the day. The sunset was absolutely gorgeous with very few clouds to hide the dwindling light.
The final miles of day one were mentally very difficult for me. Since my boyfriend lived in Decorah for the first three years that we dated, I know the gravel and paved roads around there well. The Alexander course forces you to cross over them and bike way out of your way over and over again. Each time we’d head north over a familiar east-west thoroughfare into town I’d swear and get a little more angry.
The final descent into Decorah was the WORST**. We were on highway 9, a paved four lane highway with loose gravel for the shoulder. I decided to ride in the far right lane instead of risking getting bucked by the lose gravel. I knew my light was on its last legs for battery but I thought surely I’d make it into town. As I was sailing along at 30 mph down the pavement, my light finally gave out. Ugh. I quickly slammed on the brakes and skidded and weaved to a halt. I rummaged around in my bags, frantically searching for my spare battery. The other two were far ahead of me at this point and I knew they didn’t know their way to our Air BnB, so that put the pressure on even more. Finally I located the light, got it hooked up in the dark as the cars rushed by, and finished the final descent into Decorah. We met up with my friends, I ate about half a giant pizza, and then I attempted to string out my damp cycling clothes all around the basement. I laid down to sleep, my mind still racing and my legs restless. I knew I had another 230+ miles of gravel to go on dead legs, and panicked thoughts of the rest of our route kept me from sleeping well…
To be continued …
** If I ever do this damn route again and it’s not part of the official May Alexander event, I fully plan to reroute the final miles into Decorah on a safer road. Riding highway 9 in the dark is an experience I hope to not repeat. Be careful out there, kids.