This is part of a series of posts written during my cycle from Vancouver, BC to Minneapolis, MN in June 2013. For the most part I followed the Adventure Cycling Association’s ‘Northern Tier’ Route, but deviated where I saw fit. It was a great experience, read on to find out more…
I woke up after 10hrs sleep feeling refreshed from the efforts of the last few days — I think the combination of 350 miles in two days and three and a bit hours sleep in a storm had taken their toll. Included with the hotel was a free cooked breakfast, which I was determined to make the most of. I think it’s an unwritten rule that offering a hungry cyclist a lot of free food is a bad idea — I spent 45 minutes eating my way out of the calorie deficit of the last few days, making short work of pancakes, bacon, sausages, and a flagon of orange juice.
I hit the road just after 9.00, feeling well fueled and well rested, a good thing seeing as my first task was to ride 75 miles south to Fargo against a strong headwind. I tucked into a streamlined position on my aerobars and clipped along at around 16mph despite the wind. The road was relatively flat and the scenery uninspiring, so I went into ‘introspection’ mode — zoning out and letting my legs take care of the miles. I think the ability to go into yourself and not worry too much about the negative aspects of a ride is important in endurance events: if you worry too much and focus on something like the wind or bad conditions, then you end up wasting valuable time and energy on frustration and anxiety.
I made it to Fargo at around 1.45 and had a quick 20-minute lunch stop. After seeing the forecast for strong winds from the south, I’d planned to stop in Fargo for the night, leaving me around 225 miles to cover until Minneapolis — but I was feeling good and decided to push on. The next city on route was Fergus Falls, 136 miles from Grand Forks, I thought that even if the conditions were bad I could manage it. The wind was strong and the road surface was the worst I’d experienced on the trip, huge cracks every couple of meters that jarred my hands. To make matters worse I had a flat — the 4th of the trip — that saw me scrabbling around on the side of the road while the mosquitos had a free buffet.
The one redeeming feature of the ride to Fergus Falls was the reappearance of some hills — which have been in short supply since western Montana — although they require more effort than a flat road, they keep your mind occupied and allow for a change in position on the bike. One of the biggest challenges presented by hundreds of miles of flat is holding the same position for hours at a time, creating aches and sores where consistent pressure has been applied. Eventually I made it to Fergus Falls and stopped for dinner. While I was eating I looked at the map: I had just over 160 miles to get to Minneapolis, if I could get a few more on the clock I would have a good chance of arriving on 25th rather than the 26th. Plus, I knew that my girlfriend’s family had a cabin in Alexandria where I could camp for the night, only another 45 miles away.
Cycling into a headwind is often compared to having a giant hand on your face, pushing you backwards as you force yourself against it. As I set off again it seemed that the giant had finally gone to bed: the wind died and I felt like I had fresh legs. It was a clear night and I saw the sun set over a lake — easily the best view I’ve had since entering the Great Plains. The only downside to cycling after dark was the mosquitos being attracted to my light — it was like being dive-bombed by squadrons of miniature kamikaze planes, hundreds of them pinging off helmet, legs, and face.
I always find night rides to be a surreal, but quite enjoyable, experience; in fact, I was appreciating it so much that at some point between Fergus Falls and Alexandria I made the decision that I was just going to push to Minneapolis. In retrospect in sounds mad. Well over 300 miles in one go is a ludicrous distance, but after riding 200 with energy still in the tank I knew that I hadn’t reached my limit, plus I knew that I’d be able to have a good rest when I got in. On a more practical note, there were heavy thunderstorms forecast for the afternoon of the 25th — getting in before they started would be a major bonus.
I had a bit of an energy ‘crash’ at around midnight, with around 180 hilly, windy, miles in the legs it wasn’t unexpected. I stopped at a gas station and grabbed some Gatorade, coffee, and a huge cookie — the combination of fluids, caffeine, and sugar did their job and I was soon back on an even keel. My world was reduced to the narrow illumination of my headlight and the moonlight gleaming off trees and lakes. I caught the odd glimpse of deer running alongside the quite back road, but for the most part it was just me and the miles. By the time the sun rose I had well over 250 on the clock — the first 200 had taken me much longer than the other two doubles this week, mainly due to the headwind. I pulled into Saint Cloud for breakfast, refueled and pushed on, counting down the distance to go.
Typically, I wouldn’t be allowed to finish without one last obstacle. Just after breakfast I hit eight miles of roadwork, eight miles of sandy, graveled road that took me just over an hour of hard effort to push through. One of the workers asked me where I was going, when I said Minneapolis he looked astonished, exclaiming “Dude, do you have any idea how far that its?” I gave him a weary smile; too tired to tell him that I’d ridden from Vancouver, covered 1000 miles in six days, and was nearing the end of a triple century.
At midday I rolled into Maple Grove, a western suburb of Minneapolis where Elizabeth works, and finally stopped pedaling. Well over miles in one push — it was new, exciting, exhausting, challenging, and a real test of endurance. I’ve never felt so physically shattered in my life, but I was buoyed by seeing Elizabeth and somehow managed to keep my eyes open while we had lunch. I now have a few weeks to relax, recover, and consider my next challenge.
Thoughts after finishing:
This trip has had a different character from anything I’ve done before — it marks a step away from touring and step towards the ethos of unsupported ultra racing. While completing my previous rides over 1000 miles, the Transam Trail and across Europe, I’ve been content with covering a maximum of around 100 miles a day, carrying more weight and taking longer overnight stops. Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time preparing to race the Tour Divide, only having to pull out at the last minute with knee issues, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that I approached this trip with a similar attitude. I packed the lightweight setup that I’d put together to race the Divide, and after the first day into Marblemount from the west coast, it became apparent to me that that 100 miles a day would not be enough — I wanted to push myself and see where my limits were.
I loved riding over the mountains. Some of the passes were tough — Washington and Rainy passes in particular on my second day stand out as being particularly hard work — but it was always worth the effort. I would roll into a small town at the end of the day, 13hrs and 10,000ft of climbing in the legs, feeling shattered but satisfied, a big smile on my face. I can’t get enough of that kind of riding. Long days and big miles felt a lot more like hard work when riding across the plains — the wind and storms were a constant headache and there wasn’t a great deal of interesting scenery to keep things entertaining.
Nonetheless, I can look back on the last couple of weeks with some pride — 14 days (and 4hrs), 2000 miles total, first double and triple centuries, and one day off. Not bad. It was certainly a challenge, and definitely pushed my limits. Exactly what I was looking for. Now I can spend a couple of weeks relaxing in Minnesota.