400 km Bike Ride
far can you ride your bicycle in one day? The great plains of the upper midwest
in the continental United States seem to be designed to let you find out:
Wind-swept plains, no mountains or windy roads slowing you down – just endless
straight-aways with so little traffic that you welcome any car just for
breaking the monotony of the ride. If “going South” is the expression for
things turning bad, then “going North” should be a good thing. Maybe that’s
what inspired Tom Smith, owner of the Island Park Cycles bike shop in
This year, the plan was put together again and the date was set for August, 23rd. 6 riders would sign up for this marathon, thanks in part to the trip report I had published about my solo-ride two months earlier, after I had pulled off this distance taking advantage of a perfect tailwind. Against all odds, the weather seemed to cooperate and the heavens would send 10-15mph SE winds!
left: Craig Lemieux, Kent Trolson, Tom Smith, Rick Laliberte and Dennis Nelson.
At we are taking off
into the night. At first, negotiating the well-known streets of downtown
As we get out of town, we try to get used to the beam of the flash-lights on the bikes, piercing the dark road in front of us. Hardly any traffic, everybody is trying to get into a good rhythm. We get on Hwy 75 North, we know the route all too well from the many Sunday morning rides. Except this time we won’t turn around anytime soon…
The first sign of trouble ahead comes in the form of a spectacular display of lightning on the Northern and Eastern horizon. It is a bit surreal: When riding at the front of the group, the lights behind you create a shadow of dancing legs in front of you, against the backdrop of flashing lights of a line of intense storms. Not quite your everyday ride – but then this is a very unique trip, so it feels kind of appropriate that the weather is unique, too.
We knew from the weather report that there would be some storms with rain in the early stages of the ride, followed by clear and sunny weather from mid-morning. Can you weave through the storms and avoid getting wet? After about 1.5 hours the winds suddenly shift to the NorthWest. We are riding into a head-wind! We still can’t see the speeds on our odometers, but it definitely feels slow. We are pace-lining for a while, when the first drops start to fall. Then suddenly, it is pouring.
We are mentally prepared for this challenge, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. Drafting behind the next biker, we are alternating between catching the wind or the water-spout from the back-wheel we are following. Your cloths get wet, the shoes and socks, every inch of your body. Well, the motor still keeps running while wet and it isn’t even cold. So let’s get this part over with.
Shortly after the rain starts, the lightning gets really intense and we decide to wait out the worst of it in the safety of the next town’s convenience store. Riding on open fields and being the highest points, our bikes seem like moving lightning rods and moving on seems like flirting with disaster.
the farmers in the convenience store at ,
drinking their first cup of coffee. The door swings open, and in file 6 riders,
drenched in colorful, wet bike jerseys, dripping helmets, gloves and boots, and
sit down to take in some hot chocolate or coffee! Where we come from?
farmers’ faces tell me that we are not convincingly answering the famous
question “Why?” Mallory and
The laughing stops when we get ready to leave again after ½ hour. Our muscles cooled off, our bodies still wet, our souls clinging to the last of the hot sips of cocoa, our minds searching in vain for answers (Why?), we set out into the grey dawn. There is still some rain, the roads are wet, the wind chilling. We are freezing the first couple of miles. I am thinking: This is pretty hard-core! Later I tell my friends that if I had been by myself, I would have packed it in and gone home. But in a group nobody wants to pack it in, at least not this early.
The good thing about hitting rock-bottom is that it can only get better from here. Slowly the day dawns and the rain eventually stops. We are drudging along, not talking much, just trying to stay warm and busy with our thoughts. While I am taking the following picture, I mentally give it the subtitle “5 butts drying up”:
exactly lifting our spirits, Tom has a flat on his back tire. He has one spare
tire and fixes the flat in minutes; but please no more, as for the next one we
would get in trouble. We reach the little town of
boosting our morale, the first of three support cars is arriving just as we
are passing along the Red River and crossing one of its contributaries in
There is a deer crossing the road in front of us. Briefly glancing at what’s coming down the road, it must have seen something like this:
feel like a cast in the movie Easy Rider, except the choppers of course.
Minutes turn into miles, miles turn into the next little village on the map
every half hour or so. From Tom’s detailed schedule we know what to expect and
when to expect it. A nice treat is that the support crew stops one more time
about 1 hour North of Grand Forks. So we rest briefly and refuel again. The
We continue and cross the 200km mark. Half-distance! Some of us have never ridden this far. And still going strong. We try different formations, and enjoy talking to each other – definitely a much more social ride than my solo-ride two months ago.
begins to get quite hot with no relief from the
Different styles of relaxing are exercised, head lower or feet lower, knock your socks off, your pick. The map is being consulted, the time is watched, how fast 10 minutes can go by when you’re just laying there enjoying the breeze and branches of the trees swaying in the wind…
guide Tom calls for discipline and drums up the tiring biker bunch.
are rolling around looking for the best spot and settle for the gas station and
convenience store. Just as we park the bikes and enter the store, the second
support vehicle arrives: Tom’s wife and
We have 250km or 5/8 of the distance. The Canadian border is less than 20 miles away. Our bodies are starting to tire and we definitely feel the pain of sitting on the saddle for 7-8 hours or so. The expression on our faces show mixed emotions, ranging from excitement of getting this far and almost into Canada already, to fatigue and doubts about how long we can continue this marathon. Anyway, we all pose in good spirits as we head off again:
next half hour or so is the best of the entire ride: Heading NorthWest, we have
strong tailwind, a perfectly smooth road and the border to
the border we realize that the Hwy 75 crossing has been closed this summer and
there is only one way to cross into
in cars point with the fingers at us, probably exclaiming: Mom, they go to
The next couple of miles we have to get back East to the road connecting with Hwy 75 North. We are fighting the cross-wind again. 20 minutes ago, we were flying effortlessly along the smooth surface road. Now we are working hard at half the speed on a somewhat rough road. Amazing how quickly the conditions change – as they say: Enjoy it while it lasts. The support vehicle is gone, the monotony is back, we are tired, morale is dropping. Tom is cracking a joke remarking that we are now sight-seeing in a foreign country. However, the scenery isn’t all that exciting:
In addition, we are entering a very long straight-away, so much so that we are beginning to wonder why this road was built, seemingly from the middle to the end of nowhere. You can’t miss the turns in the road if there are none…
Now the heat climbs to the top of our discomfort list. We are starting to dehydrate and count the water bottles left with each rider. Even finding shade is a bit of a challenge. We stop and cross the ditch to find a less-than-perfect, but shady spot. Tour guide Tom grants us another refreshing 15 minutes.
When we get up and going again, I fumble with my backpack and see a good opportunity to take a unique picture of my 5 compagnions departing – and not waiting!
By the time I get on the bike again, they are but a small speck on the horizon. Again, I am reminded of my solo-ride… After a rest, you always want to warm up and pedal smooth for a while, so I can’t crank up the speed much to catch them. So we just ride with that gap for a while – at least I have somewhat of a challenge and short term goal to pass time away. We ride past the 300km mark, further than most have ridden before. For the first time, we are allowing ourselves to think in terms of a count-down. How many more miles, how many more hours? We get more tired and our butts more sore, but we also grow more determined to make it, we have come too far to abandon this now.
As an additional challenge, we have to ride about 12 miles on a gravel road. Again, Tom did a great job preparing everything and outfitting us with different options and “bail-out” routes, in case the gravel would prove too punishing. But it is rather good – and the bail-out road is worse gravel than ours – so we just keep our heading and continue North.
We wonder where the third support vehicle is – knowing their location from previous phone calls they should be here already. Just as we are getting really thirsty and plan on how to reach the next village with pop-machine, just then Rick’s wife and kids arrive in the support vehicle. She is greeted by 6 sweating, exhausted, but solidly excited bike riders!
We feast on sandwiches, which taste refreshingly different from those by now dreaded power bars and prefer water over gatorade. Your body has an unfailingly simple and direct way of telling you what you need. Just follow the cravings and you’ll hit the right stuff! Several bottles of water and sandwiches later, our morale is pumped up at least as much as our high-pressure bike tires:
we are getting really close. And we better: The shadows are getting longer and
our butts are now VERY sore – to a point where you pedal standing up more
frequently then before. Then there are more homes, and we seem to be reaching
the outskirts of
Many a compagnion mumbles something about “How far is it?” or “Are we there yet?”. A strange mix of emotions: Exhileration about getting so close that you can almost smell victory, but yet so tired that you’re wondering how to keep going just another 15 minutes! Finally, we pull around a bend in the road and I call everyone for a stop to take THE picture:
We negotiate our way across the Perimeter Beltway and into the city. These guys all smile because of the pain relief from no longer sitting in the saddle – ahhh, it feels so good…
as the support crews are starting to wonder, whether and when we would finally
make it, we arrive at the famous
We had done it! We had overcome rain, storms, headwind, cold and heat, as well as some minor technical problems. We had endured the pain of 16 hours and 401 km in the saddle. None of us had ever gone further, some nearly tripled their personal best. I guess it is safe to say that this moment is among the sweetest any of us 6 riders will ever remember about bike riding. This day we will never forget.
And we had found what we had been looking for. We found new friendships along the way. We found a new inner piece, knowing that we’d done what we had set out to do. And we found the refreshing values of a hot shower and a cold beer. As well as the Spaghetti Factory just across the street at the forks. Together with the combined support crews we celebrated the evening over pasta and endless refills of lemonade or ice tea.
was one more high-light of this trip: The famous
See anyone not smiling in this picture? And we had an extra set of fresh cloths, courtesy of the support crew transport coming along the way. Feasting in style, packing away the calories by the thousands, even a chocolate fountain was available to fulfill nearly every food lovers fantasy.
Finally it was time to start packing, checking out and get the bikes into the various support vehicles. We pulled the bikes from a back-room, which coincidentally was right behind the chefs cooking your eggs. So we quickly took advantage of the situation, posing for what I call the Colnago-Commercial in the lobby:
Not long thereafter, at the chocolate fountain, one of the waiters approached us with a friendly, but assertive tone whether we needed help and directions. Yeah, where is the exit to the parking lot? We just packed the bike away in the back of the car and started for some more sight-seeing around The Forks with its market, restaurants and river boats.
After various shopping excursions of different intensity and success our support vehicles left for home one at a time. Adios, Fort Garry!
I stayed some more with Dennis family, making it over to the shopping center and watching an afternoon IMAX feature about the Kilimanjaro. Afterwards, it felt good just to sink in the car seat, letting the engine do the work on the way back, while diverting energy simply towards digesting the gorged down buffet and letting the eyes wander to the endless horizon, while the mind would wander back to the many miles of the day before…