Gone with the Wind

A bike ride from Fargo to Winnipeg, June 20, 2003

Have you ever been riding with a strong tailwind or on a long downhill slope? Doesn’t it feel great to speed along almost effortlessly? Haven’t you wished for this wind or slope to never end? Well, this dream came true for me on the longest day of the year, resulting in the longest and fastest bike ride of my life!

I had done three long weekend rides the last couple of weekends, all going out on Saturday and returning on Sunday. I always wondered what it would feel like to just wait for a good day with consistent winds and then just take off and coast downwind all day.

Friday, June 20, 2003 was just such a day: A strong high pressure system had been sitting over the upper midwest, bringing temperatures around 30 C and a cloudless blue sky for three days in a row. With the high pressure weakening and a storm system slowly approaching from the west, I checked the Yahoo weather pages on Thursday: It showed a “windy” Friday forecast with consistent 40-50 km/h winds out of the South, but still sunny with no clouds or showers expected until Saturday. The day I had been waiting for had arrived!

Not until Thursday evening did I really decide to go. Then I threw a mental switch and started to prepare – just like in the good old hanggliding days when the weather report rules your next-day schedule. I put some cloth, sandals, repair kit, camera, phone, wallet and toothbrush in my backpack – when you have to carry everything on your back, you learn to travel light. This time, not to forget, I had to bring my passport, as this was going to be an “international” ride to Canada.

Last minute I placed some phone calls and gave notice to my manager and peers via email instructions sent out around midnight. For a moment I contemplated to switch to an out-of-office note like “By the time you read this, I’m riding in Canada and my butt’s aching…” – of course I left it with a simple “I took a day off”.

Rule number one: If you want to go far, you have to leave early. After some short calculations I estimated I should leave around 4:00am to have a chance to get to Winnipeg in daylight. This left me with just a bit more than 3 hours of sleep. As I read in some book recently: Set yourself goals that get you so excited that you can hardly sleep at night! (or have hardly any time left, that is…) I got up at 3:40 and took a picture at 4:03am leaving my apartment.

The first challenge was to navigate the night time roads of Fargo and Moorhead. Various flags showed a moderate South wind already, which was promising. Was this really happening? I could still turn around, go to bed, and call the whole thing off as a fluke idea! The typical moments of doubt at the beginning of a great (read: crazy) trip. It took almost one hour to cross to the other side of Fargo/Moorhead as I live on the south side of town. Outside of town I started to feel the tailwind blowing harder unobstructed by trees or houses. I finally turned onto Highway 75 a few miles north of Moorhead, passing a sign telling my directions for the next several hours: Hwy 75 North. The dark black sky slowly turning into dark blue, no traffic at all, the road all to myself, with the re-assuring gentle push of the tailwind, this was the first time I thought: Hey, this could work out!

The half moon overhead, a few curious birds joining me for 100m or so, I had the world to myself with the dawn painting beautiful colors in the sky. What a great feeling – you just have to get out there; adventure still can happen right in front of your own doorsteps.

Around 5:30am it was getting light. I stopped for a Powerbar and drink. Also, I needed to give my behind a break every 60-90 minutes or so. The sun rose at about 5:45am, and blue sky was all I would see when looking upwards for the next 16 hours!

It’s time to bring out the sunglasses. One nice side effect of the wind is that it kept the mosquitoes away. So I did not have to rush as much when taking pictures or a break.

Just after 7:00am I had passed the 100km mark already! I decided to go all the way to Crookston at about 125km for my first longer break. There I placed a few more phone calls – further North I wouldn’t get any more cell pone signal – and I had breakfast around 8:00am.

Speaking of food: The night before I had feasted on an entire package of pasta to load up on carbohydrates – like the classic pre-Marathon Spaghetti party. In the morning, after a Powerbar and a bottle of Gatorade I had breakfast at Hardee’s in Crookston: 3 pancakes, a cinnamon roll, orange juice and coffee. Throughout the day I kept on eating and drinking: More Powerbars, 3 sandwiches, 2 icecreams, 3 bananas, 1 loaf of bread with tons of butter, minestrone soup, seafood pasta, more coffee and a total of about 8 liters to drink. One thing is for sure: If you ride all day, you won’t have a problem with obesity – you just can’t eat enough when you keep the furnace burning that high!

Back to the ride. As expected, the wind was now starting to kick into high gear, so was I on my bike. Without much effort I was cruising along at 40-45km/h. There were sheer endless straightaways with very smooth surface. I watched how the wind gusts would make my speed fluctuate between 40 and 50 km/h and thought about not having any wind in my face! This combined with the climbing temperatures and the low humidity (40%) made it feel very hot and dry. Drinking plenty would be the key to avoid cramps later on…

Another brief rest stop in Warren at 175km – how sweet it is to just lay in the grass, listen to the wind swaying the trees and not have to worry about mosquitoes. It started to require discipline to get up after a few minutes and not just keep laying there daydreaming…

When the 200km mark approached, I was in such a rush that I didn’t want to stop for a picture. So I fished the camera out of my backpack while cruising along at around 50km/h. When the wind is pushing so strong, you don’t slow down much even without pedaling for a while. I took the pictures of the 200km mark at 10:34am while doing 52km/h. Hey, slight euphoria was starting to take over. Just for fun, I took some more pictures, letting the camera looking back.

When the camera was stowed away in my backpack, I had probably covered another 2 km or so – it was just unbelievable. This sweet downwind trip seemed to never end.

From the map I figured to stop in Donaldson, before cutting east a few km to connect with another road going straight North to Hwy 59, which would lead across the border and all the way into Winnipeg. I was down to ½ bottle of fluids and planned to stop at a gasstation as so many times before. But to my surprise, the sign stated: Donaldson, population 41. With just a few homes, there simply was no shop or gasstation. I stopped in the shade of trees next to a small post office – the only “institution” around – and contemplated my next move. It would be another 30km to the next village, I didn’t want to run out of fluids in the middle of nowhere!

I saw a young man mowing his lawn and approached him. (He had a T-Shirt with the Gatorade logo and colors, I thought: How fitting! However, the shirt logo turned out to be a play on words. It read: Get’n Laid.) Anyway, I asked him whether I could buy some water. “The nearest shop is 5 miles that way (wrong direction).” Thankfully he invited me in his cool home and poured one liter from his cold drinking water jar for me. The next 20 minutes were pure heaven: Laying barefoot in the grass, watching the wind bend trees and picking up dust-clouds and small debris, all with a liter of fresh drinking water. The simple joys of life…

 

The next 8km were tough. I had to go East to connect with the right roads going into Canada. What a difference. Working hard to keep the speed at just 25km/h, swaying left and ride due to the wind gusts like a drunk rider. And that was just sideways to the wind. Going back South into this wind would have been forbiddingly hard. Working much harder I would still only have been able to maintain speeds of only 10-15km/h. Going back home on the bike this same day would simply have been impossible. Even though it was only 11:00am, I had passed the point of no return long ago.

Then after some patient side-wind struggle I could turn left on Road 5 heading straight North again – what a huge relief. The wind seemed to gain strength still – now it was really hammering! The wind painted patterns in the grass and some cars on gravel roads parallel to the main roads were shrouded in their own dust. When I passed under telephone wires overhead, they made a low humming sound like you sometimes hear from an approaching truck or maybe a high-speed hangglider. My odometer crossed the 50km/h speed mark more often now, and my endorphines were flowing. I remember reminding myself of not spinning too fast and then suddenly burning out with 150km still to go.

The only small technical problem I had all day was on this stretch of the road. It was so bumpy – every 20m or so there was a hump in the concrete – that my bike and body were absorbing a violent, high-speed shock treatment. I felt like a test driver on a course trying to break some equipment, measuring how long we could withstand these shocks. Unfortunately my odometer didn’t tolerate this beating for long and at 240km it reset itself and showed all Zeros. I stopped to figure out how to properly set everything up again. The same had happened a few weeks ago when riding to Lake Itasca and covering a 15km gravel raod incorrectly shown in my roadmap as paved. The hard washboard bumps had done the same to the odometer. I will have to get a new and more robust one.

While this took away the joy of seeing the 300 and eventually the 400km mark in a single day, it had another advantage: Without the much slower early morning city crossing and various stops along the way, this now allowed me to measure the average speed in the middle of a long stretch. So for the record: The next 19km I averaged 47.04 km/h, while my top speed climbed up to about 57km/h – all without sprinting or anything. (In fact, when you want to ride that long, you better make sure you never work your muscles very hard near 100%, otherwise you flame out quickly. I kept it steady at maybe 80% or so the whole time.) The km flying by almost as fast as the minutes – when was the last time I had that much fun riding a bike? The US and Canadian flags along the way were flat exactly pointing North, their fabric nearly ripping, tearing hard at their poles and filling the air with the flapping sound usually heard at good windsurfing spots. The next 130km I covered just under 3 hours at an average speed of 44km/h – this blew away all personal speed records I remembered. (In my Triathlon days back in 1986 I once did 35km/h over 100km– by yourself without wind going out and return with some hills that’s still a very good speed.)

I stopped at Lancaster 10km short of the Canadian border to refuel. At the cash register I had bottles of lemonade and Gatorade, 3 sandwiches and ice-cream. Paying with my credit-card, the lady asked: No gas? Another look at my dress and sweat made her realize that I was running on a different sort of fuel. I ate and drank in the convenience store. People coming in after refueling their cars complained about the hot wind blowing dust in their hair and being out in these conditions just a minute – not to mention an entire 16 hour day. When people asked where I was coming from and heading to, the looks on their faces will be remembered among the many little joys of this trip…

At 01:30pm at 275km it was time to stop and fish out the passport: Canadian border. Hardly any traffic, the customs official’s first words were: “You picked a good day!” He smiled when he waved me good-bye and wished me good luck and a safe trip.

There were some herds of bison and more trees along the way. For the first time I started to think about Winnipeg, now being less than 100km away and with this wind definitely within reach. I passed the 300km mark, the farthest I had ever cycled in a single day (in Florida back in the year 2000). Another short but tough west-ward leg was rewarded with a long bend in the road, where I could feel the wind picking me up and accelerating again to the by now “usual” 50km/h. Here were the only slight rolling hills, maybe 30feet tops. Going down I topped out at 60.7km/h – the cars didn’t pass so fast any more, I actually broke the speed limit of 50km/h in a few little villages. I let out cries of sheer joy – it was just too good to be true.

In St. Pierre I stopped at a bank to get some Canadian cash with my visa card. I rested in their air-conditioned bank building, drinking and studying the map – much to the astonishment of several bank customers. Bike riding out here is not something many people do. The distances are just too far.

I was now rapidely approaching Winnipeg. The last 30km on Hwy 59 were the worst and most dangerous stretch of the entire trip: Not only was the road littered with debris and potholes, but it also did not have a paved shoulder, so I had to stay in the lane all the time. As it was about 4:30pm, there was increasing Friday afternoon rush hour traffic going the other way. All the cars going my way thus had to squeeze by – very uncomfortable, narrow and dangerous. I was thankful to be able to cover this in short time due to the continuing high speed.

A short detour just a few km outside of Winnipeg brought some relief, but soon thereafter I was on the main road again. At least this now turned into a 4 lane highway with good shoulder. I felt like I was riding on the Interstate. When crossing the Winnipeg Perimeter Beltway I felt slightly out of place in a maze of 6 lanes going every which way and cars merging from the left and right side.

When I picked up the bike from the tall grass after taking the above picture coming into Winnipeg the light bike-frame swayed downwind like a sail. Just like the weather report had forecast, about 40-50km/h consistent wind straight out of the South. I had nailed the perfect day for this ride! I would say the wind reduced the effort to maybe a 250km ride with no wind. Up to this point, I spent about 10 hours in the saddle for 380km, followed by a much slower, careful ½ hour ride through the busy rush-hour streets of Winnipeg. I was heading towards The Forks – a nice open-air market and entertainment area at the confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine River. I still remembered this area from my trip last summer. A great sense of accomplishment overcame me when leaning my bike on the bridge at the forks.

It was 5:30pm and I had arrived, way ahead of my scheduled 08:00pm. The next hour or so, I just sat down amidst the people coming out on this perfect summer Friday evening celebrating the weekend and gorgeous weather. I was laying on a park bench when I noticed a strongly bending tree just a few feet upwind. I remember thinking whether I should pick another spot to avoid being crushed under a broken tree after all! One hour of day-dreaming later I summoned my last energy to coast around town and check out train and bus schedules for a return trip on Saturday. At the impressive legislature building the 400km mark rolled around, which made me pose at a fountain with naturally all smiles.

Just outside the train station – Sorry: no train service to the US! – someone took this picture of me with the famous Fort Garry hotel in the background. This hotel was built 90 years ago in 1913 to accommodate the train passengers of the time.

I checked into this classy hotel, my yellow jersey standing out from the more conservative dress-code of most guests. But all staff and guests were very friendly. Picture the people riding up the elevator in their fine cloths and me coming into the elevator with the bike tilted up and the sweat of 400km on my skin! Priceless moments…

After a shower and change into fresh underwear, shorts, shirt, socks and sandals I looked like the average tourist. Not unlike our mountainbike trips in the alps when going out for dinner after showering off a sweaty bike day. I strolled over to The Forks again and just watched the action from the observation deck 20m aloft.

Artists, musicians, outdoor dining, courtyard markets, kids on skateboards and the riverboats – all to the competing tunes of music playing from multiple restaurants and occasional rumbling of a freight-train across bridges in or out the nearby train station. What better way to top this glorious day off than with a sunset dinner?

While downing many glasses of lemonade and the incredible good taste of a fresh loaf of bread with butter, my thoughts wandered back to the day: 13 ½ hours, with about 10 ½ hours in the saddle, I had seen more road than ever before in a single day – gone with the wind.

The next morning I feasted on a fabolous breakfast buffet, where two chefs cooked eggs in every style to your order and I loaded an inch thick of raspberries and blueberries on one of the best tasting belgian waffles I ever had. Want to eat as much as you can, all the sugar and fat you are craving for and still avoid obesity? Well, how about riding all day – works guaranteed! After check-out I had a bellman take this picture in the glitzy lobby of the Fort Garry hotel.

Felt like a time-warp, posing with the high-tech Titanium bike against the old classic charm of the last century. There was little left to do other than to roll a few km to the central bus station and get a ticket to catch a Greyhound bus back home to Fargo. Luckily I had brought enough tools to quickly disassemble the bike, purchase a large cardboard box, put the bike inside, fit it into a nice flat compartment in the luggage section and take a seat in the front row of the bus. As a final reminder of the exceptional wind which was still houling outside, the bus lost his driver-side rearview mirror in a massive gust – which caused the driver to stay in the left lane for the next 4-5 hours. It felt good just sitting there and let the engine do the work into the wind.

After 20 minutes of putting the bike back together – some assembly required – I was heading home into the relentless wind. I stopped at the Iszler’s home – friends I met last year after one of the Fargo classic concerts. They invited me to stay for barbeque dinner and a glass of red wine – something I could not resist.

Some 40 hours after I had left in the predawn hours of Friday morning, and 800km of highway later, I was back at my apartment in Fargo. As if timed that way, a front with massive thunderstorms rolled across Fargo an hour later. I fell asleep to the soothing sounds of cooling rain, oblivious to the light-show of thunder and lightning raging outside.