This is the second post in a series of 3 talking about the beautiful and insane Alexander 380 gravel course, and how a group of us rode it in three days this fall. We called it “The Fallexander”.
Decorah to Spring Valley: 108 miles, 9K elevation
I had a restless night of sleep after our first long day of riding. I would intermittently wake up cold, then hot, then cold again. My body wasn’t regulating temperatures particularly well and I was exhausted but restless. I knew day 2 was going to be a rough one from the start. There was no allure of the finish line on that day, it was simply “the middle day”, the one I had to gut through to finish the event.
The skies matched my mood. If it was going to rain, this was the day. We rolled out early and hauled ourselves to the local gas station for breakfast. I scarfed down some breakfast pizza, donuts, and tried to anticipate what I would want to eat. This day was the one that had ZERO gas stations en route, which would be a challenge for me. I can’t predict my food whims well and often am surprised by what seems palatable (and, by what favorite foods I suddenly can’t bear to eat).
The pavement was somehow quite damp even though I hadn’t seen any actual rain fall from the sky. The humidity was pegged but temperatures were a little cool in the 50s, which made clothing a challenge. I got antsy and decided I would slow roll out of town before the other two, heading up the hill at my own glacial pace. My legs hurt, my body hurt, and my saddle sores were NOT happy. I began the slow churn, and at least the climb was on pavement.
I’ve decided that this route was created to be sinister no matter the conditions. You will always end up with a headwind at some point and it caters to NO ONE. Climber? You’ll do fine for a while. Diesel that can motor through the rollers? Yeah, there are sections for you. Tiny thing without much height? You’ll be strong when the flats get combined with a major crosswind.
The early miles of this day are a blur to me now. I know that getting from Decorah to Spring Valley in a more direct fashion would be half of the distance we were to cover that day — 50 miles vs. 100. I knew the route was meandering and indirect, but I had no idea how much this would irk me later in the day. I was the sluggish one this day, often trailing Jere and Leah and unable (unwilling?) to keep them in sight. I often had to focus on just one pedal stroke after another. I decided that when I couldn’t bear to go on, I’d ask myself if I could take XX pedal strokes more? If the answer was yes, I’d count out those pedal strokes and then repeat the process. When things were decent I would string together 30+ pedal strokes between questioning my existence. When the road pitched upward sharply, I’d get down to counting single pedal strokes, and when that became too much I would eventually dismount the bike, trudging along on the crunchy gravel, and swear a little.
I broke the ride up into short segments. I knew there was a campground around mile 30 and I was hoping they’d have a general store of sorts. The other two didn’t seem to need to stop, but I told them it was imperative for me. I said they could go on without me if they wanted, but because they are kind souls they stuck with me. I managed to find tums, gatorade, and other random snacks. All I really wanted was more liquids, more electrolytes. I had misjudged how many electrolyte tablets I would need and I was running low even though I was already carefully rationing them…! I had periods of dizziness and I was worried that dehydration or a bad electrolyte balance would end my ride. I tried not to focus on it while pedaling, telling myself that I was doing everything I could considering the circumstances and now it was my job to just try and move forward.
I thought we were in the clear when we crossed, only to look forward and see a thin fence. I’m from the city and the thought that it would be electrified only faintly crossed my mind. I sized up the fence and knew immediately that my tiny inseam would NOT clear it. Leah offered to hold down the fence while I hopped over, and suddenly she yelped – the fence WAS electric!
The next 20 miles of the route snaked west, and then made a frustrating turn to head straight back east. By this point there was a STRONG wind from the south. We had been excited about the prospect of a southern wind the day before, but because this leg of the journey makes so many twists and turns I think we had more crosswinds and headwinds than tailwinds. I’ve decided that this route was created to be sinister no matter the conditions. You will always end up with a headwind at some point and it caters to NO ONE. Climber? You’ll do fine for a while. Diesel that can motor through the rollers? Yeah, there are sections for you. Tiny thing without much height? You’ll be strong when the flats get combined with a major crosswind. It was obvious which sections of the course catered to each of our skills, as the three of us, while closely matched in overall pace, definitely had very different fortes.
I told myself that I just had to pedal 20 miles. I fantasized quitting after those next 20 miles, but I would be in a small town on the Minnesota – Iowa border with no bail out car anywhere nearby. We got to a small town bar and began ordering massive quantities of food. The waitress stuttered when I ordered additional cans of Pepsi — “FOUR?!” she asked incredulously. Yeah, I needed them all. It took over an hour to get our food in Granger and I could feel my legs locking up and my motivation waning. I couldn’t finish my cheese curds so I put a bunch of them in my feed bag and we headed back out.
There were multiple points where we’d bike towards a “dead end” sign, so I didn’t think much of the “bridge out” sign. The last time I had seen a sign like that on the course, it was easily passable by bike. This time, I rode up to find Leah and Jere gingerly walking across a rickety, lopsided bridge. I thought we were in the clear when we crossed, only to look forward and see a thin fence. I’m from the city and the thought that it would be electrified only faintly crossed my mind. I sized up the fence and knew immediately that my tiny inseam would NOT clear it. Leah offered to hold down the fence while I hopped over, and suddenly she yelped – the fence WAS electric! When she let go of the fence it rebounded into my crotch and I got a slight zap – thank god for chamois!! Ha! She grabbed a big stick and used that to hold down the first fence and then the second, and we hoisted our bikes over one by one and then got over the fence. The other two had almost a foot of height on me so they were able to clear it much more gracefully than me. 😉
I trudged up Oriole, hating the course, hating its maker, and hating the stupid idea of biking 380 miles of gravel over 3 days as a recreational ride. We had biked past the pavement road that swooped into Spring Valley, only to head north of town just so we could climb Oriole. When we reached the top, I knew why.
I knew the water crossing was somewhere ahead and Jere and I began conspiring to convince Leah that we should route around it. There had been a lot of rain in the area over the last few weeks and I was convinced that someone of my stature would get swept downriver. Leah, true to form, said she really wanted to cross it. We had done a ton of ridiculous things already (like getting shocked by the electric fence), so she wasn’t about to take a shortcut now.
I was lagging behind the others when we got to the water crossing. I was still struggling with being dizzy and holding it together. When I got to the banks, Leah and Jere were already on the other side waiting for me. Leah yelled that they had biked it, so I should bike it too. I stopped, sized up the stream, and decided to go for it. Lucky for me it wasn’t bad! I biked across … almost. I didn’t have enough speed at the far side, and when my front tire hit the sharper embankment I lost inertia and had to put a foot down. Plop, plop, both feet went into the water. Ugh.
Jere and I were much more of rookies than Leah on this escapade. Hopefully Jere won’t mind me “outing” us, but it’s true – Leah was much better suited to this adventure! Her mood was consistently better than ours and she seemed relatively unphased by each of the challenges the course threw our way. The two of us were a different story. After the water crossing, we said we wanted to die in the ditch. We’d be happy lying there in the damp ditch, letting mosquitoes drain the last of the blood from our carcasses.
We had about 20 miles to go, which would have been encouraging but we knew that some of the major, infamous climbs of the Almanzo course were ahead. I fell behind again quickly, angry at everything and nothing. I started throwing the cheese curds that had been in my feed bag out into the cornfields. They were disgusting now and I’d be damned if I was going to carry that extra weight around any longer.
We were on pavement again, blissful pavement, and then my Garmin notified me that the next turn was onto the infamous Oriole road. Fuck. I had heard about this road from many other riders and how sinister it is. I know that others ride up the whole thing, but not me, not today. I began throwing potato chips that I had carefully carried since the bar out onto the road. I was over it, I had had it, and I was throwing a mini tantrum to prove it.
I trudged up Oriole, hating the course, hating its maker, and hating the stupid idea of biking 380 miles of gravel over 3 days as a recreational ride. We had biked past the pavement road that swooped into Spring Valley, only to head north of town just so we could climb Oriole. When we reached the top, I knew why. I was breathless not just from the climb but the sheer beauty of the ridge. My exhaustion combined with the views made for a combination of emotions I can’t even begin to describe. I can only imagine what it’s like to finish the Alexander 380 course on these final few miles, instead of having it sandwiched into the middle of our event like we did. I was simultaneously grinning from ear to ear and almost in tears and the sheer beauty of it all. Chris Skogen, I salute your brilliance.