400 km Bike Ride FargoWinnipeg

How 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 Fargo, to come up with the idea to organize a bike ride from Fargo to Winnipeg, testing each rider against some 250 miles or 400km – or 401(k) for the financially inclined American reader. Tom had dreamt about this ride for 2 years; but each time he planned to do it, bad weather or lack of spirited participants voided the plan.

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!

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Island Park Cycle Shop, 4:00am: 6 riders are preparing their bikes and bodies to take off in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, mustered skeptically by anyone who happened to still be up late-night. What are these guys doing there?

From left: Craig Lemieux, Kent Trolson, Tom Smith, Rick Laliberte and Dennis Nelson. At 4:30am we are taking off into the night. At first, negotiating the well-known streets of downtown Fargo, heading over to Moorhead and for the Northern parts of town. One important question on my mind: Which way is the wind blowing? In fact, slight tailwind from SE, that is re-assuring!

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.

Picture the farmers in the convenience store at 6:00am, 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? Fargo, some 35 miles South of here! Where we are headed? Winnipeg, some 215 miles North of here! You are kidding, right? No, that’s our story, and we are sticking to it. Even if it doesn’t look so good right now – but it’s still early in the day, heck, the sun isn’t even up yet!

The farmers’ faces tell me that we are not convincingly answering the famous question “Why?” Mallory and Irvine got famous in 1923 quoting “because it’s there” when asked why they pursued to climb Mt. Everest. Thinking back now, I don’t think the farmers would have believed us with that response. “Are you doing this for some kind of charity?” asks one farmer. Responds Craig: “No, we are just doing this for stupidity!” At least we are all sharing a hearty laugh.

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”:

Not 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 Climax and leave Hwy 75 heading NorthWest for East Grand Forks. It is on this stretch of the road that the wind catches us again from behind and accelerates us the first time to speeds ranging between 25-30 mph. The sun comes out, the roads dry up, the wind pushes, team morale soars. We are moving fast, and life is good. All too soon we are at East Grand Forks. After conditions have been bad, and then suddenly turn good, if not great, you don’t want it to end quickly, you just want to revel in it and enjoy – that’s a big part of what we came for, right?

Further boosting our morale, the first of three support cars is arriving just as we enter East Grand Forks: Dennis wife Kaye and daughter Sarah had decided to join our trip via mini-van and bring along drinks, food and much appreciated morale support. We all rejoice like kids with a free pass in the candystore and recuperate with as many mineral drinks, bananas and slim fast bars as we can eat and stuff in our bike jerseys.

We are passing along the Red River and crossing one of its contributaries in Grand Forks, leaving town heading North. More straight-aways, but that’s a great thing when the wind is blowing from behind. Well, not a perfect South wind, but SouthEast instead, it still helps quite a bit. We have 1/3 of the distance and the bad weather clearly behind us now. We get into a new rhythm and take in the scenery.

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:

I 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 sun reflects off our bikes at rest:

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.

It begins to get quite hot with no relief from the sun and dry, hot wind out here. After pedaling another hour or so we eye what appears to be a church building on the horizon and vow to stop there for a good break. It takes a long time to get there – distances can be deceiving with no familiar structures between your position and a target on the horizon. When we finally get there, a nice carpet of grass with tall trees and enough shade for all of us greets the tired bikers. We greet the rare passing vehicles to the following sight:

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…

Tour guide Tom calls for discipline and drums up the tiring biker bunch. Canada is waiting. (How about a Canada Dry, first of all?) Ok, we are coming, the train is leaving the station again. We are heading for Hallock, again on Hwy 75 North. Riding towards Hallock, we have to negotiate some stretches of the road going East with a cross- if not head-wind. We ride in echelon formation 6 riders all across the two lane road. The two outermost riders have to occasionally look back to see whether a rare vehicle would approach and swing right to allow them to pass. Just outside Hallock there is another gruesome stretch of road with lots of wind. We have to be patient, its slow going and tough. But at least there are the 5 other riders, so you never have to pull very long and can draft behind others for most of the time. Strength in numbers; teamwork works well for bike riders! One more long diagonal line and we are in Hallock.

We 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 Kent’s girl friend catch up with us at the right time. They bring plenty of food, drinks and more morale support. And so we occupy the benches of the convenience store for quite a while:

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:

The 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 Canada within spitting distance. We are all fired up about cruising along effortlessly. This reminds me of the solo-ride two months ago: Listening to the wind humming in the telephone wires overhead, watching the wind painting patterns into the grass, spinning in high gear and with great speeds down the highway – this is almost too good to be true. Here is another shot I didn’t get on my solo-ride:

Near the border we realize that the Hwy 75 crossing has been closed this summer and there is only one way to cross into Canada: Via the Interstate Highway I29! So we battle the cross-wind to the West, turn on to the Interstate – you are kidding, right? – and pedal North for about a mile or two. Trucks and RVs passing at 65mph, I feel strangely out of place, but this is nothing compared to what’s next: We get inline with all other cars and wait our turn to cross into Canada:

Kids in cars point with the fingers at us, probably exclaiming: Mom, they go to Canada with their bikes! We finger out our passports and roll up to the counter. The official smiles and performs his routine checks, except he doesn’t ask what’s in our trunks. (Note the wind in the Canadian flag.) Our support vehicle is still with us and they take pictures and feed us some more mineral drinks and cereal bars. We chat a bit, then they take off and we are left to ourselves again.

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:

Now 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 Winnipeg.

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 had left Fargo 15 hours ago and pedaled 380km – I think by myself: Winnipeg is for Winners!

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…

The sun is almost setting and we turn our flashing red tail lights back on. We need to find our way towards the center of town, the forks and finally the Fort Garry hotel. To “officially” complete the full distance of 401 (k)m, tour guide Tom shows us some of the back roads and the scenic route along the Red River. I help out by leading us to the Legislature building, posing in front of the same fountain I had two months ago (albeit 3 hours earlier in the day due to the super-strong and consistent wind).

 

Just as the support crews are starting to wonder, whether and when we would finally make it, we arrive at the famous Fort Garry hotel, amidst the hoopla of three wedding receptions. We stand out in all regards, from the (in)formal and colorful attire, the big grin on our faces as well as the vehicles we pull up in:

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.

There was one more high-light of this trip: The famous Fort Garry Sunday brunch! All you can eat – and believe me, after this trip, you can eat a lot! – the entire lobby is transformed into an endless array of delicious food items. We woke up just in time to drag our tired selves down to the lobby and file in the queues to sample all of the goodies they had dished up – and then some.

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…