“A real cowboy would ride that horse to Madrid (pronounced Mad Rid in Iowa),” an older Lacona local said to another in a Thanksgiving Day meeting at the only gas station/convenience store open in that town of 360. “Shoot, I’d wouldn’t git there til late evening,” the horseman replied. My son Quin and I just stumbled into this conversation while taking a break from riding our own horses, one of steel the other aluminum—Trek 520 and an older Cannondale “criterium” series touring beast. We were 42 miles into what I estimated to be a tad bit over a century ride on our to my mother’s house on Thanksgiving Day. All we wanted here was some food and drink and a place to sit and read the map. Both tables were occupied so we settled for the countertop that held the microwave and condiments.
This ride was a stupid idea that passed through my head three days prior during the funk of impending holiday gloom. I was expect and require to travel by car with my family to my mother’s house where I would spend three days surrounded by my Mortal Enemies—mother, sister, and wife (do not tell the latter as she really is my best friend and biking partner). There would be absolutely nothing to do except hear what a failure I am and how the Great Apollo Obama was reversing the carnage of the Evil Bushinator. The kids would covet the television and the computer and I would be forced to retreat to a book since the latest issue of Bicycle Times was read months prior to this. I seldom get four days off in a row and I needed to do something. So why not ride ye olde 520 from Des Moines to Ottumwa, Iowa?
Last year I set a new annual mileage record for myself. Nearly 4700 miles. Almost 800 more miles than the existing record set back in 1999. 2009 would not be a record breaker. No big 90 milers on the LeMond like last year. I cannot remember my last century without digging out the bike logs. I spent to weeks in New Mexico backpacking in the Rookies with my oldest son Joe and our Scout Crew. Training and the trip itself took away at least 600 potential miles. We also moved which disrupted biking. And for some reason my wife and I never did any significant rides on the weekend. I think my longest ride of the year was 40 miles and that seemed to be a long, long time ago. My new 2 mile commute could be stretched some but by autumn the rain set in and the weight I lost for Philmont was slowly creeping back. I needed something.
The route Quin and I would take was very familiar to us. All but 17 miles have been ridden several times or at least once in recent years. The first 22 could be ridden before sunrise. Just a mere 11 miles to Carlisle from our house, lonely empty back roads without hills. A Casey’s General Store would await us for breakfast. A conversation a coworker from that town confirmed that the convenience store would open at 530 am. Another 10 miles to Milo where another Casey’s would have a couple of Mountain Dews to replenish our sugar supply. And yet another 10 to Lacona where a convenience store would hopefully be open before the big 30 mile stretch to Bussey, Iowa. We could opt to stop in Melcher-Dallas, perhaps almost half way to Bussey, but that would require riding about a mile off route. There is a convenience store in Bussey with tables which would make a good place to rest and study the map again. 13 miles to US 63 and perhaps 2 or 3 miles on that 4 lane to Eddyville before the final push. Desiring to stay off main roads we would take a county road into Kirkville and then swing south into Ottumwa. This would add 6 miles or so but would be “safer” than a shoulder on a 4 lane highway.
We have made the Carlisle/Indianola ride for years. It offers us a good 40 miler. Last year we used this on our family bike vacation to southern Iowa. That vacation led us to use the next section of the route, Indianola to Lacona. Mild rolling hills but a fast one at that S23 is one of my favorite roads. I have had the pleasure of exploring it on my racing bikes as well and would have preferred to take them if it was seasonable. Ragbrai has used this route in the past including this year. In the restroom of the Irish bar in Lacona you can find a wall full of photos from when Ragbrai has visited. This town is also home to Rudy’s Rendevous, a place famous for its food and attracting bikers but constantly for sale.
In recent years we normally continue south to Chariton but this time we need to turn east to get to Bussey. The Bussey/Lacona run had been made once, last year, from east to west. G76 is populated by hills and rolling hills. The two towns in between would not be much use to us. Melcher-Dallas is two close to Lacona to justify stopping and there is nothing in Attica except Kin Folks Family Restaurant which probably would be closed.
Bussey to Eddyville would be our last bicycle familiar road. Mary and I broke our first chain on our tandem on the last hill west of Bussey during 2000’s Ragbrai. 13 miles of hills descending and climbing from the Des Moines River valley marks G71. Last summer my oldest son Joe appeared to be suffering a heat stroke on this road. Not the best memories but lessons were learned and nobody dies from heat exhaustion in November in Iowa.
Eddyville to Ottumwa would be the virgin route, the last full measure. In an automobile one would simply take US 63 all the way. But we would be on bicycles. Kirkville, population 214, would be the safe bet. But the town and the road to it are an unknown gambit and a bit out of the way and we would still need to tango with 63 to get into Ottumwa.
I presented this plan to Quin first, since he of all my children would most likely agree and want to ride along with me. Mary would be the one that would have to grant us permission. Prospects were dim, however, as not only would she have the responsibility of herding the rest of our children and our dog there but had to put up with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, both of which would most likely be pissed off that I elected to fook off and play on a High Holiday. My mother has not been doing well since my father passed away a decade ago. Health wise she is ok for an obese diabetic but she constantly falls down and injures her limbs. In her quest for post-spousal happiness she purchases untrainable dogs that destroy her house. Patty, my only sibling, had to visit her the previous weekend to clean the house. Although Patty is an aspiring biker I felt her efforts in producing Thanksgiving at our childhood home would demand my complete compliance. Yes, the potential for F-Bombs were in the air.
I brought up the subject on Tuesday. To my surprise Mary consented. “I will give you until 2 o clock to get there,” she left as the only responsibility on my part. “No problem, I am estimating 7 hours of ride time.” Mary would purchase six Powerbars and two tubes for the journey. She is the best. I texted Patty on Wednesday morning asking her to bring my Saris bike rack for the trip home. She agreed probably since it is appears permanently attached to her Honda. Permission granted from the OKW. Time to prep bikes.
I would ride a 1991 purple Trek 520. Since the weather turned cold and wet Mary had been using it for her 20+ mile commute. Quin would be on a black Cannondale giving to us by Mark Greiger of Team DieHard on the condition that I would not strip it down to make a single speed/fixie and keep it rolling as a touring bike. This would be the third Cannondale given or sold to me by friends. Che’s Cannondale Sanctuary—I have two others, total of five, I purchased myself. I had to provide the wheels which was not a problem. For some reason I have a surplus of Hyperglide 7-speed bikes. I like it when bikes are compatible. Both bikes had new tape on the bars and new tires. The Can o Ale sporting a cheap pair of Bontrager H2 700x35s and the 520 the narrow 700x35 Kenda Pro knobbies (these cannot be 35s) on my cross bike wheels (Mary had a flat last week and it was easier to swap wheels than fix a flat—what did I tell you about compatibility? After all it is November and could snow. All Quin and and I had to do was air up the tires, add lights and pack.
November in Iowa could be many things. We were married the Saturday after Thanksgiving 19 years ago it was near 70. I remember driving home two weeks before Turkey Day at 40 mph on snow and ice covered highways. Last year it waited until Wednesday afternoon to drop 3 inches of sloppy slushy snow for the trip to Ottumwa. This year was different. Although not warm by any standard it would be dry with a strong NW wind, just the sort of favorable wind that would push us along our way. The forecasted temperature would range from 35 to 40F with a sunny afternoon. Despite Wednesday’s rain I felt that the wind and falling temp would dry the roads by 5 am. I was right.
For lights I used my trustworthy Turbocat Stealth Plus Secret Weapon set up with the Macho battery. Sure, it’s outdated tech but it is bright and has a long runtime. Multiple Cateye AA flashers on the handlebars for extra attention grabbing device.
I wore a pair of Smart Wool Hiking socks with a pair of Sock Guy biking socks as an inner layer. BellWeather thick tights for my legs, Pearl Izumi biking shorts underneath. Top layer was a long sleeve Cannondale cotton blend jersey with a generic poly-pro shirt above, a Trek rain jacket for outer shell. On me noggin I donned a Pearl Izumi balaclava and a winter stocking hat. My favorite pair of pearl Izumi gloves to keep my hands warm and face snot free. This worked. Although we had some minor sweat whenever we stopped we were very cold whenever we got back on the bikes. This brought a new appreciation for hills. Busting ass us a hill is a great way to warm up when you are poorly dressed in near freezing temperatures.
The alarm was set at 430 am. This would give us ample time to get out the door and to Indianola by sunrise. We left about 515 am. The road out of town was quiet, only a few commuters in their cars venturing out and a cop either napping or hunting speeders. Not a dog barking or raccoon digging for trash. We got to Carlisle easily but one of my flashers had fallen off. It was a flasher I had found on the Trestle to Trestle Train in Johnston. I hope another biker found it.
We encountered a pedestrian walking his dog at the beginning of the Summerset Trail. He warned us that the bridges could be icy, something I did not take into consideration. And sure enough we has right. This trail has about 7 bridges so we applied caution. A little bit pasted the halfway point we encountered another person. The darkness concealed his true form. At first I thought it was another dog walker. But soon he appeared to be wearing a backpack so I thought he was a homeless person lost. But as we approached we realized that he was a bow hunter on the way to his tree stand or ambush point. His bow was not ready and we exchanged greetings and he complimented our lights. Everyone celebrates this holiday in their own way. I was thinking that some people might be upset to see such a person and just as I was about to utter that thought to Quin two big ass deer leaped out the trail before us. Personally I am glad that someone is willing to thin the herd around the trail. I silently wished him luck.
The sun was almost up when we reached Indianola. Quin expressed a need to adjust his seat height and layers. Having shed the balaclava at Carlisle I needed to add a pair of booties since my feet were not warming up. We planned to stop at the restroom and shelter at the end of the trail and the beginning of the McVay Trail, a small trail that leads to state highway 92 our next destination. The sign said the restrooms were closed until April 15 so I had to pee outside. How long will it take society to answer the needs of bicyclists? Oh well it’s not like I have not pissed outside before.
Highway 92 was basically deserted for the 3 miles we rode on it. We did get passed by one semi that was hauling rocks and dust. We later would see that truck dump its load at a farm. He must have been a relative of that farmer to be willing to work at 7 am on Turkey Day. It’s still the economy, Stupid. S23 is a nice winding road with a few hills. Someone out here must grow and sell strawberries as their barn is painted in such fashion. Last year Joe broke one of the bolts holding the rack on my Trek 7.5 FX while following me off road. I saw the intersection where I repaired it. This time no horses to stare at us and we did not stop. Other than memories no other events interrupted the journey into Milo, population 839. This would be our second Casey’s stop. We each had a Mountain Dew and a banana to the amusement of the locals. When informed of our intentions I think they laughed. One hill out of town then several peaceful flat miles until the hills before Lacona.
Quin saw the water tower first and asked what town it was for. Ah, the first land mark of Lacona. We needed to stop here not because we were tire but because we had a 30 mile stretch afterward, about three times the distance we had encountered thus far. Lacona brought back memories. Mary managed to stick her foot into the front wheel of the 520 and crashed in front of the store. She was quite out of it and a local paramedic was almost to the point of calling in the ambulance. Could have been the sun as it was a hot day. Today we made sure that the bikes had only two contact points with the road—the tires.
I was disappointed that both tables were occupied when we entered but then again sitting down may have delayed us. We split a Deli Express ham sandwich, out second of the day, and each had a soda and bag of chips. No fruit here. Just horse talk.
G76 was our new road. Straight east with a cross/tail wind and hills for our comfort. As usual, I texted Mary and my friends on our progress. Mary never replied but my friends gave us encouragement. G76 contains two towns on our route, neither of which we used. I did find the graffiti funny when we stopped to text on a bridge outside of Melcher-Dallas. “Melcher is full of inbred animal fuckers” or something like that. Knowing a few people from there I could not help but laugh.
Attica was the next town. Unfortunately we had to turn north for a few miles directly into the wind. It is so queer how you never really notice a tail wind until you turn into it and feel its full wrath. I stopped once or twice to let Quin catch up but in the end decided to get to the turn and wait. It must have been eating time as we entered town as I noticed several men exiting a home seeking shelter on the south wall. After dinner smokers, the new discriminated group. We exchanged turkey Day greetings.
State highway 5 was our next road. Just a few miles of this recently repaved blacktop with rumble strips totally hogging up the shoulder. Let’s add a million cars and minivans on this narrow road to really make it fun. I hate it when they put rumble strips on the shoulder of the road. If falling asleep is such an issue why not have the damn strips over the entire road? Thankfully G71 appeared quickly. We did have one stop on 5 to consult the map and eat a Powerbar. I carried a Sportsman Atlas. This contains a map of every county showing every road and dirt path known to man. Much better than state issued maps. The powerbars were frozen despite been held in my jersey’s back pocket. I had to put one in my gloves to thaw it out. Yes, 36F aint Powerbar friendly.
As mentioned before G71 is full of memories. Ragbrai used this road in 2000. Mary and I used the restrooms at Twin Cedars High School, home of the Twin Cedars Sabers. Twin Cedars Sabers, say that three times real fast after a few pints of Fat Tire. We also busted a chain on a tandem on the last hill into Bussey. What a long shameful walk. The store in Bussey was open. No fruit, just Gatorade and chips. Need salt even in winter. It seemed really cold when we got back on the bikes. But God provided hills for us to warm up on. I knew the first bit would be hilly and then it would settle down as we hit the river valley.
Quin was getting a tad bit cranky about hills and my thighs were beginning to bark. We were 70+ miles into this. This was the longest ride we had done all year. Although I ride every day I was lucky to get 20 miles in one day. Fatigue setting in, time running out. 30 miles to go and there’s a thanksgiving meal waiting for us. Just 30 more miles to go. Just two ours on the right bike and right conditions and right fitness. Not today, Jack, we be averaging 12 on these hills. Focus. Panzers east! No quitting now.
US highway 63 I predicted would be the busiest. It was not as bad as 5. The extra lanes allowed cars to scoot over. The shoulder was wide enough and they thoughtfully left us about 18 inches of shoulder without rumbles. Perfect for those bikers accustomed to riding in traffic. Some parts had rumbles on the highway itself before the shoulder. Protection! As we entered Eddyville I saw our turn to Kirkville. Nice fresh blacktop with a steep hill. At 85 miles I do not want hills. I want flat direct route. We refueled at a BP and listened to the cashier talk about her families goats escaping the farm. Southern Iowa at its finest. I texted everyone that we were embarking on the final stretch but the lack of cell phone service delayed that transmission.
The sign said 14 miles to Ottumwa. It was 8 miles to Kirkville than another 3 back to 63 and a few more to the Ottumwa turn off. It was 255 pm. We were an hour late and I signed off the text with “bon appetite”. We were now fighting the advent of sunset. Turn the flashers back on. I asked Quin for his opinion. 14 miles on 63, no guarantee on the quality of the shoulder. Flat, maybe two hills. Kirkville is out of the way and of an unknown quality without support. He consented to using 63.
About 6 miles later and just past the intersection that the Kirkville route would have taken us (11 miles so we saved 5) Mary called. My text had not arrived told her we had maybe 9 miles left to the house. We continued and the phone rang again. I ignored it. No talking on cell phones while biking on US highways.
At last we reached Exit 42 and consulted the map. I was vaguely familar with the road but it had been decades. Take the northwest residential rout in to town. The map said take 138th or 135th to Sycamore Avenue. We opted for the later. No one told the mapmaker that 135th had been reverted back to farmland. We found out an hour later. Reverse course and ride up a hill in the headwind. We saw the “Road Closed” sigh. Those bastards! The rest of the way was smooth. Just another haunting of memories. It’s not like I could tell my 14 year old son that we used to have keggers here or smoked dope there. Keep it in your head and pedal onward.
When we finally reached home in the last rays of the sun I heard the electric knife. I was hoping that it was the vacuum and they ate hours ago. It was after 4pm. Dora, my 8 year old greeted us with a camera. I saw Mary carving the turkey with an electric knife, my job. But nobody was visibly upset with our adventure and tardiness. My 87 year old grandmother said that she worried about us. I asked her if she said a rosary for us. She said no to which I replied that she mot have been really worried. Later I learned that my mother thought that I might have a heart attack riding that far. Sore ass and legs yes, heart attack on a November century ride, no.
We had time to shower and dress before the meal. I said grace, the standard Catholic prayer with the added line “do not wait for my dumb ass if I ever attempt this again. Mission accomplished. Maybe if it is a little warmer and I can take a faster bike. Then again…