Fargo to Sioux City – A 536 km (333 miles) bike ride in one day

How far can you go from Fargo in one day on the bike? What would it take to crack the 500km mark? This question has kept me looking up new routes using MapPoint. From previous trips to Minneapolis and Winnipeg I knew that it’s best to go parallel to an Interstate Highway for easy retrieval.

 

One promising candidate is Highway 75, which runs North-South parallel to Interstate 29 roughly tracking the Minnesota border with the Dakotas. What if I just went South on Hwy 75 and kept going? So ignoring common sense for a moment I looked at the map: After 400km I would cross from Minnesota into Iowa and after more than 530km I would reach the Nebraska border in Sioux City! And all of this on Hwy 75 in a pretty straight line.

 

Best of all: There is a Jefferson bus service coming back from Kansas City along I29. This opens several options along this route which I could use for retrieval: Sioux City, Sioux Falls or even Watertown, each about 125km shorter than the previous one. So depending on tailwind assistance and other factors I would just keep going and figure out towards the end of the day from which point to take the bus back. Of course, riding from Fargo to Nebraska in one day would make for a nice tag line…

Friday, August 27, 2004

”If you want to hear the Gods laugh, tell them your plans!”

On a recent visit at the Island Park Cycles bikeshop in Fargo I chatted with owner Tom Smith as he mounted a new rear tire (guess I was doing too many miles lately). He asked some probing questions about what I had planned. I prefered not to elaborate, as the idea was pretty far out there and I didn’t want ro ridicule myself. But he already speculated I had my eyes set on the 500km mark…

I had a busy week at Microsoft with lots of performance reviews – the last of which kept me in the office on Friday until after 5:00pm. I had followed the weather report for this weekend for several days. As this was going to be the last August weekend and I would be out of town for the following Labor Day weekend, this was perhaps the last chance to go really far this year. The days are already 2-3 hours shorter than when I rode to Minneapolis at the end of June and the sun isn’t turning up the heat as much any more. In fact the first leaves are starting to turn yellow up here in the Midwest – summer is almost over and autumn is coming.

The weather was overcast and light rain on Friday, with a forecast of generally sunny and dry on the weekend, light N wind on Saturday switching to SSW on Sunday. While this sounds like a great recipe for a two-day out-return ride with both days tailwind – like my trip to Watertown last year – I had my eyes set on the Sioux City route. I got back from work and grocery shopping Friday evening around 6:30pm. Due to the rather unfriendly weather and only light wind I thought this wasn’t going to happen. Nevertheless I cooked up some huge bowl of pasta – just in case I would change my mind and need it. I read a magazine and then watched the Olympics until almost 11:00pm. Then I stepped outside for a moment, saw the near full moon and skies clearing out, felt the light breeze out of the North – and thought: Heck, let’s just give it a shot! Whatever happens, it usually turns into a great adventure which builds lasting memories. So literally on the spot I made a decision to go and packed my little backpack – by now routine business.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

“Where should we ride on Saturday? How about Nebraska, not been there lately!”

Long-distance biker rule #1: If you want to go far, leave early. For Winnipeg I had left at 4:00am, for Minneapolis at 3:15am. Well, if you want to go all out and break records, it doesn’t get any earlier than 12:00am midnight! Hoping that I would be able to cope with the lack of sleep and my digestive system would “stomach” riding with so much pasta I stood at the front of my apartment for the usual departure shot at 1 minute to midnight.

I had also mounted a battery-operated front light to show the way and help me avoid obstacles on the road. The moon was almost full, and was helping quite a bit between some cloud fields for the first couple of hours prior to setting around 4:30am. I had ridden through the entire night before – but that was some 20 years ago with my friend Andi trying to cross the Austrian Alps heading to the Italian Garda Lake. How would it go this time? It would be dark for about 6 hours and the sun would not shine prior to 7:00am. It gets colder, you get tired and it is dark… - I expected a motivational low at around 5:00am.

The usual trepidation when you start something BIG: This is crazy! Is this really happening? How will it go? What will give the most trouble? My legs, the back, the neck muscles, or – most critical for endurance sports - the brain? I leave at 12:00am sharp.

I see only a few cars in the Friday night city traffic and wonder what they may be thinking of me – coming back late? or starting out early? After a few miles I cross the Red River into Minnesota and turn South on Highway 75 to stay on it for the entire day – no route finding skills necessary this time.

At least it is not too cold with 58F (14C) and I start riding in shorts. The cloud cover prevents it from cooling much further. For a long time when looking back I can see the halo of Fargo city lights reflecting off some clouds in the otherwise dark night sky. Since I can’t see the odometer I decide instead to use the clock to break the ride into smaller segments. Every full hour I take a picture.

There is practically no traffic. When I stop every hour for a quick 5 min rest, I just sit down in the middle of the road, which attracts less mosquitoes. Unfortunately there is hardly any wind, so no tailwind sailing like to Winnipeg last year L At times it all seems a bit unreal when I think about what I’m doing out here instead of sleeping in my bed at home – a separate reality. The clear night sky never fails to amaze me. Once the moon sets around 4:30 it is completely dark and the milky way shines clearly. I crane my head to gaze at the stars while on the bike, but have trouble riding in a straight line when doing so.

My best stop is at 3:00am in Breckenridge/Wahpeton {[2] in route map}, where a friendly hotel receptionist of the only place open lets me in and offers me free lemonade and some company. When she asks where I’m heading, I get that startled look of disbelief I have seen so often on long-distance rides. I will see this look on many more faces throughout the day…

Letting my mind wander to all kinds of thoughts I am often amazed how quickly the hours are passing by. The full hour always gives a short-term goal to look forward to, something as simple as having a few minutes to rest and nibble at some cereal bar. And eating will be important, as I will be literally covering 200km before breakfast today!

As expected I am struggling with low morale sometime between 4:00 -5:00am. It is cold, first fatigue sets in, you haven’t had any sleep, no shops are open in the towns along the way… In Wheaton I buy a soda from a pop-machine and put on the long pants. Everytime I stop for more than 5-10 min the muscles cool down and when you start again, the sweaty jersey makes the wind feel cold and uncomfortable. I now also put on my iPod and listen to some music to boost my morale. And I can already see the sky in the East turn blue-pink.

The 7:00am picture sees me posing in the bright morning sun. As expected, the morning sun feels great! The first tough part of the ride is behind me.

Half an hour later I arrive in Ortonville/Big Stone Lake [4] just short of the 200km mark.

“Honey, could you make an extra pancake – I rode 200km before breakfast!”

I stop and have breakfast, recharging myself and the iPod battery. The 3 pancakes are some of the biggest I’ve ever had. I struggle to finish them and keep thinking that with the pasta from yesterday evening there should be no shortage of calories and carbo-hydrates for a while.

Again some short conversations with other guests in the diner leading to that dazzled look on their face… Out on the road again at 8:15am it is still brisk and I freeze for a couple of minutes until sun and muscles warm from outside and inside. The “official” 200km mark rolls around at 8:30am just as I’m on a bridge over a railroad line near Odessa, where Hwy 75 turns South again after going East for a few km.

On the following long straight-away I start to feel some frustration about the lack of any noticeable tailwind. No push from behind, already fatigued legs, and there are so many more miles to go! I also have a bit of a stomach ache – maybe it’s from the large quantities of food, the unusual time, the crouched position bending over on the tri-bars, or simply all of the above. I stop for minutes only in Bellingham, keep on going and then allow myself a 15 min stop in Madison around 9:45am. I have a “Power-Nap” on the sunny bench outside a Dairy Queen store. Gosh – just laying there and resting in the sun after those tough hours in the dark and cold feels like heaven. When I am about to leave again the friendly waitress comes out and wishes me well for the remainder of the trip.

On the next leg down to Canby (near [5]) I am struggling big time. I have been riding some 10+ hours, the average speed is lower than usual, there is no tailwind and there are also more hills here. And I haven’t even reached the half-way point to Sioux City! I start having serious doubts and think about “bailing out” to Sioux Falls for a - still respectable - 400km ride. I buy some more bananas and drinks.

Near the nicely renovated Lund House I find a public park and decide to stop for a longer 30 min break. While this puts me behind the 100km / 4hrs average schedule, I feel it is the right thing to do.

Much to my delight the next leg is much more pleasant to ride and my fatigue and stomach problems are gone. Even though there is still no tailwind, I can keep much better speed going up the many little hills and riding under some textbooks cumulus clouds just feels good again.

I am positively surprised. It confirms what my friend Frank told me once during a motorcycle trip when the going was tough (due to driving in heavy rain at night): Just keep going steady and remember that the bad times usually don’t last all that long and will give way to some good times again. Well, definitely true for me today. In addition to my recovery, there are first gusts of noticable N wind which also help to accelerate my cruising speed. The 300km mark rolls around at 1:00pm. Only three times have I gone further, and never has there been so much daylight left at this point. Every now and then a quick pit stop gives a chance to stretch and assume different body positions.

There are several wind generator farms in the hills here. Most of them are spinning - slowly, but at least they’re spinning and pointing in the right direction. I’m approaching Lake Benton [6]. Another rest stop with coffee, pecan pie and vanilla icecream satisfies my cravings for sugar and coffeine. Heading out again the terrain reminds me of the “Dances With Wolves” movie shot at a South Dakota range with similar rolling hills.

The next stop is Pipestone. I have reached 350km and need to make a decision about whether to “bail out” to Sioux Falls – that would best be done here by leaving Hwy 75 to the E or SE. It is already 3:30pm and I realize that Sioux City is still almost 200km away. Most people would call this an aggressive goal when leaving fresh at that late point in the afternoon. But I am not fresh after 15 ½ hours on the road and skipping last night’s sleep! So pressing on would definitely be a bold move. But the “price” of my first 500 ride was waiting to be claimed and here I was, having come so far already. Lots of calculations go on in my head around average speeds and ETA in Sioux City.

There was also some road construction listed on Hwy 75 as listed on MapPoint which concerned me. But the locals tell me that there is no road construction going on, which helps me make the call: I decide to just go for it – this is the day of the all-out push South!

Soon the 400km mark is beckoning just behind Luverne [7], where Hwy 75 intersects with East-West Interstate 90. Like in a competition against former incarnations of oneself, I am now up to only one other ride where I went farther than sofar today. I stop for another power-nap. It always takes discipline getting up again after just 5-10 minutes, but there is simply not enough time in the day to rest more… I call my wife Tannaz to let her know my status since this is one of the few areas with cell-phone coverage (Interstate corridor). I pose for a picture next to the Interstate intersection.

More gatorade, cereal bars and nut-mix to prepare for the next leg. Mentally I now break the rest of the still considerable distance into three more manageable sections of 45 km each. Between those I plan to rest for 15 minutes. During the second section it will get dark and then it’s going to get very tough…

But first there is the 400km mark at 5:23pm, similar to the time I arrived at the same mark on my Winnipeg downwind orgy. (That wind last year saved me some sleep, as I started 4 hours later than today!) The next highlight is the state border Minnesota to Iowa. I have never ridden my bike in Iowa, to say nothing of riding from Fargo to Iowa on the same day!

The next little town is Rock Rapids. I detour a little bit to get to a grocery store and buy some more bananas. Your body has a way of telling you through cravings what’s best to provide next! I eat a total of 9 bananas today, among the many other things – long-distance riding a ka Monkey-business!

After Rock Rapids I experience to my dismay that Hwy 75 does no longer have a shoulder, only loose gravel on the sides. That is unfortunate and potentially quite unsafe, depending on traffic and light of day, as bypassing vehicles may come dangerously close.

Yet at the moment the evening mood is quite pleasant, with warm yellow sunlight and beautiful rolling hills to all sides. If only it could last a couple of more hours like this… My next highlight is the 440km mark rolling around just prior to 7:00pm, which represents both the first of the last three (mental) sections, as well as my personal best for a single-day bike distance. This deserves a break, laying barefoot in the grass next to the gravel shoulder. I’m in party mode, my body and brain serving up some more endorphines.

Whatever happens now, tonight it is going to be a new personal best distance. I keep thinking: This may very well be the farthest single-day bike ride of my entire life! It’s an interesting notion; not often do you think that it is the single best <insert your activity here> day of your life! In any event, this thought gives me extra motivation to put up with the agony of the endless series of hills grinding up in low gear on one side, rolling down to get up out of the saddle on the other side. At 7:45 pm the sun is about to set, so I stop for the last-rays-of-sun picture.

While the sun is setting in the West, the full moon is rising in the East. A few remaining clouds are glowing in the last warm red sunlight. It would be nice to just stop and watch for a while, but then I am pressed for time, as crazy as it sounds. There is a simple reason: The bus schedule! From previous phone calls I learned that there is a bus leaving Sioux City going North at 12:05am. Hence I have to get to Sioux City around 11:00pm to check in, pack my bike in a box etc. At this point I have maybe ½ hr spare time left in my schedule over the next 4 hours! The other concern driving me onward is that riding in darkness on this Hwy 75 without shoulders will be a dangerous affair, so the more miles I can cover while there is still daylight, the better!

I take the sunglasses off now. There are so many mosquitoes in the air it feels like a soft sandstorm piercing your skin. At one point a larger insect bumps into my helmet, then falls onto my left thigh and bites/stings! I immediately wipe it off, but it keeps on stinging for several minutes thereafter (and will still be red & itchy next morning). Not only is the road narrow, it is also in really bad shape with lots of bumps. And then those hills – relentless!

At 480km the daylight gets so faint that I can no longer read the odometer. Welcome back to the dark side of riding… The next hour is the most stressful of the entire ride. More traffic in both directions; I’m in constant fear that some vehicle may not see me or not care enough to slow down. A few close drive-bys suffice to put me in a state of high alert and fear. Other than this last stretch Hwy 75 is really ideally suited for this type of riding: wide, smooth surface, little traffic due to the near Interstate, mostly flat. It seems that towards the end Hwy 75 is reversing on all the above accounts. I start to feel like a zombie – tired, hectic, scared. On the upside, adrenaline is the most powerful of all boosters, so I don’t feel any soreness at all for a while.

Finally I reach Le Mars at 495km. I am happy to see Hwy 75 widen to a 4 lane divided highway with concrete shoulder! I stop at a Subway to get a sandwich and prepare for the last of the three (mental) sections. It’s funny how you play those little games of setting yourself arbitrary, but fixed goals, with discipline and reward, to divide and conquer.

Before heading out for the last 40km I put on long pants and shirt again. The first km are tough. Sitting still for just 20 mins made my leg muscles tighten up and the sweaty jersey chills me to the bone. When you’re tired, you freeze more. It really puts me to the test to keep going. But then it happens: The 500km mark is up at 9:42pm!

Sweeeeet! No time to celebrate yet, though. There are still another 35km to ride, which will take 1 ¼ hour. More number games go through my mind, and a little while later I realize that in less than 1 hour this extreme endurance test will be over! I hope nothing goes wrong at this late hour, no flat or other problem. There would be very little time to react and still catch the bus.

On the outskirts of Sioux City the Hwy 75 branches like an Interstate in an arrangement of bridges and on/off-ramps – where do I go? I feel very displaced here at night without a car and decent lights… Getting off and following what’s labeled “Hwy 75 Business” I approach an industrial part of the city. Thinking that the bus terminal most likely is in downtown I have these dreaded visions of having to go back or otherwise incur a big detour. Please no detour at this stage!

At the first gasstation I ask for directions. Luckily I was on the right track and it’s no more than a few blocks from here. Minutes later I reach the Jefferson bus terminal in downtown Sioux City.

It is 11:07pm. Unbelievable! It is done! The trip in numbers:

·        On the road: 23 hrs 7 min.

·        In the saddle: 18 hrs 15 min.

·        Trip distance: 536 km (333 miles).

·        Average speed: 29.4 km/h (18.4 mph).

If I catch that bus, I’m back in Fargo at 7:00am Sunday morning. Wouldn’t that be pretty cool for the fastest all-out and back trip!

But there is a wrinkle in this plan: The terminal is closed! Nobody there. A displayed schedule in the window confirms the 12:05am departure, but without the terminal open I can’t buy a bike box and thus not board the bus! I roll around a couple of city blocks to get a feel for the neighbourhood. Restaurants, hotels, shops, etc. But before I know it it is midnight and I don’t want to miss that bus…

I wait for 1 hour with nobody there except two cab drivers who care enough about my bike to stop, have a cigarette and chat a bit. Did I mention the funny look on peoples faces when you answer their question: Where do you come from? Fargo? Today? No way!

Then the bus pulls in to pick up any would-be passengers. My fear turns reality – no bike allowed on the bus without bike box! And there are no empty boxes in the storage room to which the driver has a key, neither does he have any on the bus itself. So here I am after 23 hours of pedaling and stressing to catch that bus and with one whiff – “sorry, it’s our policy” - the driver destroys my hopes of returning overnight and getting some well-deserved sleep! Holy-$@#!.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

”How about riding back with the bike!” [Cab driver when asked what I should do now]

What do I do now? The next bus runs at 7:10am, but the terminal won’t open until noon! So without getting a bike box from somewhere pronto I will not even make it back to Fargo until Monday! But where do you get a bike box in an unknown city on a Sunday morning at 1:30am? I had a feeling this would turn into some kind of adventure…

Well, at least I have 6 hours, so I’m not exactly in a hurry. But tired! Now that the excitement about reaching the goal and the endorphines are wearing off and give way to the unexpected disappointment of having to let the bus leave right before my eyes, I am so tired I could fall asleep standing upright. A little sight-seeing has me stop at some interesting waypoints like this mosaic on the Wells Fargo bank building.

From the cab drivers I learned about the nearest 24/7 store: A Walgreens just 3 blocks away. So I ride over there, roll my bike inside – wouldn’t want to let it outside unlocked anyway – and ask some friendly staff about a bike box. They sure don’t sell bikes at Walgreens, thus no bike boxes. However, the guy checks the backrooms to see “what else is there”. And as luck would have it, he comes back with a fairly big cardboard box. The thing looks like you could fit a small refridgerator in it, not at all flat like a typical bike box. This will be close. I quickly take out wheels, saddle and handle bar to see whether it might fit. And indeed, with some fiddling, the entire bike disappears into a card-board box originally designed for some diapers or stuff! I am hugely relieved and thankful for the guys passion to dig out a box from the backroom at 2:00am on a Sunday night. Sometimes there is compassion for the fellow man – ahem, bikerider.

For a short moment I’m thinking I should have thought about this 1 hour ago, then I might be sitting on the bus now. But the past is the past, and the adventure is now with the future, not before with the could’a should’s would’a.

Now what to do with the next 5 hours? Well, there is a Perkins 24/7 family restaurant right next door, and I’m still hungry. So I haul the box over there and get some food - the first hour is “planned”. I am surprised how many people come in for dinner in the middle of the night. Sioux City must have an active nightlife! After this dinner (my second for the night) I catch myself falling asleep sitting there trying to write the first pages of this trip report on a notepad. So I get up, pay and leave to haul the bike in the box over to the bus terminal. This will keep me warm and busy for a little while, which means the rest of the night will be a bit shorter… For the next 3-4 hours I retire to the (dis)comfort of this bench at the bus terminal. Guess what’s in the box!

I decided against a hotel – what’s the point if you can only sleep there for maybe 2-3 hours. Plus the cab drivers re-assured me that this is a safe neighborhood. In the morning the sun is here before the bus. At the time of this picture, I had had 3 hours of park-bench sleep in the last 48 hours. I badly needed a shower and some serious rest.

I ride up the elevator to the top of the parking garage in this transportation building and look around the downtown area. Sioux City is located at the corner of three states - South Dakota (NW), Iowa (E), Nebraska (SW) - and at the confluence of the Missouri and the Big Sioux River. The nearby bridge over the Missouri river connects Iowa (my side) with Nebraska (far side).

So there is an upside to have missed the bus: Getting to see a bit of the city and of course driving back during daylight! So I catch a glimpse of the Missouri and Nebraska as we get on the Interstate taking a picture out the bus window.

We change buses once in Sioux Falls. Our bus came from Kansas City and will return there. The next bus is going back and forth between here and Winnipeg. And believe it or not: I get the same bus driver as last year on the ride back from Winnipeg, back then when the bus had lost his rear-view mirror in a massive gust of the still hammering South wind. It is also here that I pay for the ticket.

The bus ride is wonderful. Mostly blue skies, endless miles on the Interstate, farmers harvesting, trees swaying in the strong South wind (would have been a good weekend for an out-return 2 day ride with double tailwind!). The bus engine is gently rumbling on – no more forcing oneself to getting up and moving on, just relaxing to the tunes of my iPod I take in the rugged beauty of the Dakotas.

With a few stops along the way the bus takes exactly 6 hours to get back to Fargo. One stop is at Summit between Watertown and Sisseton, where I had last year stopped on the July weekend ride to Watertown and back. I remember, I tried to get some sunscreen from passing motorists to protect against the searing sun and heat. A short while later on the bus we pass over the bridge under which I had back then sought shelter in the shade – funny how these trips edge themselves into one’s memory! Do you still know what you did on July 12, 2003?

Anyway, around 2:00pm I’m back in Fargo at the bus terminal. Same as last year after returning from Winnipeg, I first need to put the bike back together. I don’t bother with putting back on the tri-bar and just stuff it in my backpack.

The final 10 km or so I ride very slowly and “carefully” putting my weight on the saddle, often riding standing up in high gear. My legs are doing better than I thought, but my crotch isn’t. At 2:50pm, less than 40 hours after I left Saturday midnight, I’m back at my apartment.

After the first order of business – shower and brushing teeth – I clean the bike on my balcony and start typing this trip report. I have to get the bike in due to a big thunderstorm bringing an intense rainshower.

As I re-read these lines after finishing, I re-live the 536 km one more time, remembering all the highlights, already forgetting much of the suffering. What a gutsy adventure it was, round-tripping down to Nebraska and back in under 40 hours!

As a parting thought: It proved possible to top my previous personal best (440 km) by over 20% without any significant wind or special preparation. The mind is a powerful thing. Sure your body needs to be in good shape and you need to provide plenty of “fuel” along the way. But your mind determines your true limits. How close is this to my full potential on a perfect day? 500km may be the limit for now, but imagine a day with wind like on the Winnipeg ride, departure at midnight and 18-20 hours in the saddle cruising at average speeds of 35-40km/h… Do I hear 600? 700 anyone?