Riding from Iowa across Minnesota to Canada

701km (433 miles) on a bicycle in 24 hours


Earlier this season I had completed two major long-distance bike rides: One from Fargo to Minneapolis (440km) and one from Fargo to Sioux City (536km). In both cases there was little wind. So naturally I wondered just how far I might be able to ride with a good strong tailwind blowing me downwind for 24 hours... If it was anything like the strong wind I had in 2003 when riding up North from Fargo to Winnipeg (400km), then a new record would certainly be possible.

Having all but given up on the idea of breaking records this late in the year, you can imagine how surprised I was when checking the weekend weather forecast on Friday, September 17. The Yahoo weather page showed its telltale windy sign for both Saturday and Sunday: Wind from the SSE with 25-35 mph and as a result very warm temperatures would provide one more opportunity for a record long-distance ride! From previous planned scenarios going North I recalled a route similar to the Sioux City ride 3 weeks ago, just going in the opposite direction. My plan was to start near Sioux Falls and just keep going North past Fargo. After studying MapPoint again I decided to start just South of the Minnesota / Iowa border in Rock Rapids and follow Highway 75 all the way North to the Canadian border near Pembina, ND. There were three particular elements which made this route stand out for me:

  1. Break the 700km barrier.
  2. Cross the entire state of Minnesota from South to North.
    (For US cross-state records, click here)
  3. Qualify for the solo Race Across America (425 miles in 24 hrs).
    (For details on how to qualify for RAAM, click here)

In addition, I knew and had ridden the entire route before. Hwy 75 is a great road with little traffic, broad shoulders and good surface most of the way. Interstate 29 running largely parallel also simplifies transport and retrieval. Transportation logistics of such a ride are not trivial. How do you get to the starting point and back from the endpoint after the ride? How do you transport your bike? So the preparations start way before the 24 hours.



Saturday, September 18, 2004

To get to the start, my plan was to take the Greyhound bus down to Sioux Falls. I had already looked up the schedule for previous rides. The bus heading South leaves Fargo 2:25pm and gets to Sioux Falls at 7:00pm. I still had an empty bike box back home which I had picked up at the local bike shop (IPC) couple of weeks ago, just in case First taking the bus away from Fargo and then riding back would be a new variation for me; so far I have always ridden away and then come back by bus or car. So this time the by now familiar routine of disassembling the bike and putting it into the box just happened before the ride To get back after the end of the ride I had asked a friend of mine, Matt Keller, to retrieve me on Sunday evening, from wherever point I had reached going North. Matt agreed and thus made this ride possible. More on Matts selfless contributions later in this story

Back to the beginnings. The bus ride sort of set the tone for the day to come endless long straight-aways, sun and strong wind (shaking the bus in gusts). This picture shows our bus at a reststop in Watertown, SD. If the wind tomorrow was going to be anything like today, shrowding cars and trucks in clouds of dust when they pulled in and out of the reststop, it would be a great ride going North!

On the fund-raiser MS 150 bike ride last month in North Dakota I had met Troy Thompson, who lives in Sioux Falls. He invited me to call him up whenever I was planning to visit Sioux Falls. So I called him and told him Id be in the area Saturday evening. Luckily Troy was in town and came to pick me up from the bus terminal just as I had finished putting together my bike again. Timing couldnt have been better as there was a Germantown festival dubbed Octoberfest and it was unusually mild out late in the evening. They had turned a few down-town blocks into a pedestrian zone, served up German food like Bratwurst and Sauerkraut, and played German Volksmusik just like at the real Octoberfest. Made the German in me feel right at home J

After a light dinner you guessed it: Pasta for the long distance rider, and light because it was merely 4 hours prior to the beginning of the ride we went to the nearby Falls park. Definitely worth a visit. They illuminate the Falls until after 10:00pm, which provided a nice photo opportunity.

An additional logistical challenge was to get from Sioux Falls to the actual starting point: Rock Rapids is just South of the Minnesota / Iowa border about 30 miles away from Sioux Falls. So Troy called a taxi company operated by a friend and around 11:00pm I filed my bike into the cabs back seat. After a warm Good-bye and Well-Wishing from Troy and his family the cab driver headed East towards Rock Rapids [1] {index shown in mappoint chart}.


Sunday, September 19, 2004

I am not quite sure what the cab driver thought about this, but he dropped me off at a closed gasstation in the middle of Rock Rapids, leaving me to my adventure. I mounted the battery light and left all the long cloth in the backpack it was above 70F (20C) so it would be plenty warm to ride. Having another 15 minutes to myself, I took a self-timed picture and mentally prepared for the 24 hours ahead.

At exactly 12:00am I took another picture of the city sign Rock Rapids and set off. Right from the very beginning the wind was blowing at 10-15mph and pushed me gently downwind. North of Rock Rapids Hwy 75 is very smooth, which is even more important at night when you dont see all the bumps like in daylight. Being pushed by the wind felt great, and I thought: Well, you better enjoy this, it will last for a while! After 15 minutes I reached the stateline Iowa / Minnesota.

I had taken a picture of this sign also on my Sioux City ride 3 weeks earlier, so I knew where to look for it. It was unusally warm: Both the absolute temperatures as well as the lack of any wind on my face made me sweat profoundly and that in the middle of the night. I drank at least every 15 minutes to stay hydrated and hoped that the heat of the afternoon would not be too difficult to bear later It was also completely dark out of town, with no moon and hardly any other man-made light. A clear sky of brilliant stars was sparkling down rarely have I seen the milkyway any better than tonight. I experimented with turning off the headlight, but found it to be too risky. Not that you miss the road or cars wouldnt see you (I always turn the light on when cars approach). But there is always a potential for some pothole or roadkill appearing right in front of you. And the faster you go, the more dangerous it would be to encounter any unseen obstacle.

Preparation pays off: When the batteries of my head-light inevitably gave out, I had spare batteries in my backpack to replace. Except it was so dark that I had to continue riding until I found some farm-house or street light. At the next farm I replaced the batteries just in time to get moving again when the farm dogs started barking aggressively. It just felt so good to take off into the night again, effortlessly cruising downwind and leaving the barking farmdogs behind, heading for the calm and dark road ahead.

The first couple of hours I made excellent progress. In Luverne when crossing Interstate 90 I saw that my average speed was around 36km/h, which greatly lifted my spirit. I expected the wind to strengthen during the day and hoped for an overall average speed of 35km/h or higher. (To reach 700km I would have to pedal 20 hours at 35km/h!) Town after little town was reached and left behind in reverse order from my Sioux City ride: Pipestone (2:00am, 70km), Lake Benton ([2], 2:50am, 100km), Canby ([3], 4:15am, 150km) and Madison (5:30am, 190km). It definitely helped to have ridden this same route before, so I knew what to expect. In the towns I usually stopped for 5-10 minutes to eat a snack and buy more drinks from any soda-machine I could find. In Canby I also took a picture of the Lund house just like three weeks ago.

Between 3-5 there was absolutely not a single vehicle on the road. It is very pieceful and quiet out there at night. While I enjoyed riding at night it was also much cooler then during the day - I started to look forward to the hour of dawn followed by sunrise. My last stop for this night was in Madison at 5:30am, where I had some more drinks and a cereal bar.

Not long after this stop the sky turned blue and pink to the East just after 6:00am. Now in the middle of September the nights are as long as the days and there is at least 3 hours less daylight for long rides. After many hours in the dark you always look forward to the sunrise, so I often leaned my head right while tucked down on the aero-bars to watch the dawn-lit sky, only occasionally glancing at the road ahead. Then it happened: I heard an accelerating tapping sound to my left very close nearby. I turned my head around to see what caused the sound. Two deer were crossing the road right in front of my bike, perhaps no more than 10 feet away! I just saw the tail ends of both of them disappear off the road to the right. Before I could react it was already over. Still, adrenaline shot up as I pondered what could have happened: A deer running into your bike at high speeds will certainly take you down, potentially leaving me laying on the road harldy visible to the sporadic traffic a horrible thought. I had often contemplated the danger of being hit by a deer at night, but I had never gotten this close to actually being hit. As sudden as this had happened and as scary as it was, it only lasted for an instant and I quickly got back to my rhythm on the bike. Lets hope for no more problems

The road was smooth, the wind was consistent and aside from a few hills I can harldy imagine going any faster at night. At exactly 7:00am I reached Ortonville [4] / Big Stone Lake and stopped for breakfast in the same caf like 3 weeks ago. I had covered 230km in 7 hours with less than 45 minutes of rest time and an average speed near 37km/h not bad for a start. But to reach the Canadian border I would still have to go 450km! Not that I spent much time thinking about this, for now I just satisfied my growing appetite! I had coffee and pancakes, sitting in the same spot and taking the same self-timed picture like 3 weeks ago.

Today I allowed myself only 20 minutes to maximize time spent riding. Better to have many short stops throughout the day than to have fewer, longer stops. The next section somewhat unexpectedly turned out to be the most frustrating of the entire ride. There was very little wind, the road surface was worse than before and the pancakes were again sitting in my stomach. (No more pancakes during rides from now on) Most importantly the lack of wind greatly concerned me. I knew I had to be patient and pace myself. I felt like a sailor trapped in the doldrums when sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. Without the wind picking up again there would be no hope of breaking records today, much less of reaching the Canadian border

I assume the regional fluctuation in the wind was caused by the North-South Continental Divide, which I was crossing near Ortonville. About an hour after breakfast the wind returned, moderate at first, but then picking up strength and allowing me to ride between 40-50km/h on the endless flat stretches of Hwy 75. The 300km mark rolled around at 9:47am, and combined with the now strong wind I had renewed confidence that my goal was reachable.

It got progressively hotter, and by the time I reached Whapeton [5] / Breckenridge, I needed to cool off. I stopped at a local Taco Bell, washed myself and ordered an icecold drink.

It was 11:30 at the end of my stop and the odometer read 340km the halfway point. I had serious doubts when thinking about going that same distance one more time! But in terms of the time available in 24 hours it would be doable. The riding was hotter and faster than before. The next 80km to Fargo/Moorhead felt like a very familiar home stretch. I covered them under 2 hours.

The 400km mark rolled around at 1:04pm. Not long thereafter I arrived in Fargo/Moorhead [6]. It felt odd to be midway into a long ride and be so close to home. I could turn 1 mile to the West where I had parked my car, drive home and could call it a day a nice temptation. But I had set my sights on a bigger goal and the wind continued to blow unrelenting. I called Matt for a quick status check, stopped at a grocery store to buy some bananas, and continued slowed down by several traffic lights on the way to the Northern end of Moorhead.

When I entered Hwy 75 after the last intersection in town, the downwind orgy continued. I was doing 50km/h more often now. Many times I stood up from the saddle to rest and enjoyed the wind just pushing me along and my speed only slowly decreasing over time. The main concern now was the heat. With the full sun, temperatures above 90F (32C) and the tailwind there was a serious chance of overheating. The lukewarm gatorade didnt help me to cool off anymore. About 50 km North of Moorhead in Hendrum I stopped at a gasstation. I ate icecream, drank 1 liter of icecold water and poured water over my face and hair. That helped to keep my cool.

The 500km mark rolled around at 4:13pm. Only later did it occur to me that I took a picture of the 300km mark while riding 30+km/h, the 400km mark with 40+km/h and now the 500km mark with 50km/h. I was ahead of schedule. My legs still felt reasonably well, my main pain point being sitting in the saddle. The thought of riding another 200km or so was definitely a huge challenge, mental as well as physical.

Many more small towns passed by which I remembered from previous rides. One added challenge was the last stretch towards Crookston, the longest stretch of Hwy 75 not going straight North, but North-East. The strong cross-wind made for slow going. I watched the many combines and tractors working on the harvest and kicking up huge clouds of dust I could see and smell when passing hundreds of yards downwind.

This spectacle would go on until way past sunset. With the weather forecast to change to cold and rainy over the next couple of days it was a race against time for the farmers to bring in their harvest. Just like I was racing against time. More endless straight roads past brief stops for food and drinks in both Crookston [7] and Warren [8]. I had no more appetite due to the heat, and was just interested in mineral drinks and water lots of water. Typically I would leave each town with the two bottle holders filled and 1 additional bottle in my backpack.

Due to me being ahead of schedule I could relax a bit more. I rode sitting upright and just contemplated the vast open fields around me. After hours of listening to my iPod I actually turned it off as I found it somewhat distracting. There is a certain element of freedom in this wide-open environment which makes me really enjoy this sport despite all the physical discomfort after many hours on the bike. Nobody here to tell you what to do or not to do, you set your own rules, everything refreshingly simple and free.

Slowly the sun was approaching the horizon and this time of the year it would be dark before 8:00pm. The 600km mark rolled around at 7:37pm. Never had I gone this far in a single day! Here are the 300 400 500 600km marks all in one picture. Note the time of day and increasing speed as the day progressed!

I noticed the little stub on my aero-bar where I had mounted both odometer and the heavy headlight started to vibrate and come loose. I stopped, pulled out my tools and tried to tighten the bolt. As I leaned over the bike at dusk I wondered what passing cars would think of me in the middle of nowhere. But when youre prepared to rdie all night anyway what difference does it make where it gets dark? I fiddled with it for several minutes but somehow failed to fix it. So I just mounted odometer and light at different spots and kept going.

Now that I was past 600km with still 4 hours left in the day I started to think about the finish and how many miles would be left. Riding at night is always psychologically challenging, and here I was back to the dark side after so many hours in the early morning already. As I mentioned earlier, the harvest was going on everywhere in full swing, which made for some interesting sights with the big machines illuminating the fields between the dust-clouds carried away by strong winds. So the miles continued to go by, with my main reference point being my Breitling watch with its fluorescent dials. Instead of counting down miles I was basically counting down minutes.

My next and last - big stop would be in Hallock [9], only about 30km from the border. I vividly remember our stop from the group ride to Winnipeg last year. Since I am now clearly inside my self-imposed time limits and ahead of my anticipated arrival time at the border crossing for pickup by Matt I stop and eat a sandwich in Hallock. Now that the outside heat had subsided my appetite had returned. And then I departed for the last leg of this trip between Hallock and the border. I looked for the lights of the border crossing, which were clearly visible in the night-sky from quite a distance. Slowly it hit me that soon this endurance test would be over! What a rush it was, going downwind for more than 22 hours. And then I arrived at 10:20pm in Noyes (near Pembina) [10] at the border to Canada. I stopped and sat down for a picture at a border flagpole.

After 680km Minnesota and Hwy 75 came to an end. This particular border crossing has been closed in summer 2003 and all traffic is re-routed via the nearby Interstate border. But Matt and I had agreed upon this crossing as our meeting point. While I waited for Matt to arrive, I had some discussions with the border patrol guards coming out to see what I was up to. Where do you come from? From Iowa? Today? On the bicycle? No way! (They actually thought first I had snuck across the closed border with my bike from the Canadian side! I assured them I would not want to ride South into that wind) Did I mention those long faces you get when telling people how far youre riding?

Just 15 minutes later Matt pulled up in my car. I was very happy to see Matt and that everything had worked out as planned. There was only one more thing to do: I still wanted to complete the 700km now that I was so close. Since we would have to go out of our ways and lose some time to the repeated border crossings had I wanted to continue North into Canada, we just decided to head back South for 20km into the wind. There I unloaded the bike and got on the saddle for one final spin, riding again down-wind with the additional benefit of Matt driving close behind and thus illuminating the road ahead. I made short work of this in slightly less than hour. (My overall average was exactly 38km/h, slightly faster than I thought possible over such long periods of time.) What a great support by Matt! His generous and selfless support made this possible. Would you support a friend by driving around for about 5 hours on a Sunday evening just for fun?

Matt, I thank you for retrieving me this evening. You are the real hero behind the scenes in this story. Needless to say that I was VERY happy when the above picture was taken at 11:32pm, with the final tally of 701km (433 miles).

Not long ago I was breaking new ground surpassing 400km and then 500km in a single day, often wondering about my ultimate potential on the bike. Given that conditions were so favorable as to allow me to reach 700km - strong, consistent winds, fairly flat, straight roads, a well-known route with no surprises along the way and relatively short cumulative rest time - I rest assured that I am pretty close to whatever that personal limit may be. By many measures this was the ride of my life.

Now all I needed to do was eat, drink and sleep while Matt was steering the car into the still raging wind. What a great adventure it was, crossing all of Minnesota in a single day. Adventure is out there for all of us, whatever our undertakings or self-imposed rules of the game just go out and do it!