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At the start of the New Belgium Cruiser Century

At the start of the New Belgium Cruiser Century

This past weekend I followed my Adventure Foot to Des Moines, Iowa to ride the New Belgium Cruiser Century with my husband and our two friends Ryan and Jayme.   Basically, when we heard there was an easy-going 100 mile bike ride featuring beer tastings at every stop we sad, “sign us up!”

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At Court Ave. Brewery

Our hosts showed us a great time in Des Moines the night before the ride.  Highlights included the Court Avenue Brewery where the beer and the food were both superb. I had braised duck with sweet potato hash… good lord. It was delicious.  And my husband and I partook in the Capitol’s Beer Flight, which was full of surprises and great flavors.  If you ever go, be careful with their 21st Amendment brew; its high alcohol content will sneak up on you!  We made one more stop at a really neat German-themed bar before we called it an early night.

Anyway, what was I talking about?  Oh, right.  Bike ride.

Jayme and Ryan on the High Trestle Bridge

Jayme and Ryan on the High Trestle Bridge

The New Belgium Cruiser Century, we discovered, was just conceived by 3 guys out having some beers.  They wondered if they could get guys on New Belgium Cruisers to go 100 miles.  Then they decided any cruiser would do.  Then they changed their minds a third time and decided to allow any kind of bike, so long as the rider knew this ride was about fun, friends and beer, but not speed.  Basically, this was a perfect first century for our friends, because it was very low pressure.

The route was a combination of 3 Iowa Rails to Trails projects- the Raccoon River Trail, the Great Western Trail and the High Trestle Trail.  These three trails combine to make over 80 miles of paved multi-use recreational paths through Central Iowa and are frequented by runners, walkers, bikers and more.

We rode to the start at a bar called Mullets (Party in the Back) that is just across from the Iowa Cubs’ stadium near downtown Des Moines.  The organizers of the ride had originally planned for about 30 riders… and then 150 showed up.  What a crowd! I’d say the mix was about 50/50 road bikes to cruiser bikes.  The oldest bike there was from the 1930s and was a true classic cruiser.

Justin "hydrates" with some Fat Tire by New Belgium

Justin “hydrates” with some Fat Tire by New Belgium

The route started out through Des Moines proper and over a gorgeous pedestrian bridge that’s suspended over the Des Moines River.  We were off to a good start and headed to an offshoot of the Des Moines called the Raccoon River.  The trail meandered with the river for 4 or 5 miles and the big group of bikes all stuck together.  It was lovely.  Until…

When we got out of the river valley, the route went up a climb and then out onto the prairie.  The windy, windy prairie.  The story of the next 45 odd miles was all about wind.  20-30 mph headwind.  The. Whole. Time.

The headwind wasn’t too hard to handle at first because our legs were fresh, but it can really start to wear you down mentally to pedal that hard and have such slow speeds into that wind.

There were stops along the way to resupply, but no organized SAG.  At around 15 miles we stopped at a gas station and then at 35 there was a bar called Night Hawks where we stopped for lunch and to wait out a short downpour of rain.  When the rain stopped and it looked a little better we hit the road until…

Kinda soggy after a downpour near the Flat Tire Lounge

Kinda soggy after a downpour near the Flat Tire Lounge

Not 3 miles out of the bar, another little black cloud decided to rain on our parade.  With nowhere to go, we just got soaked.  The water in my shoes was the worst.  Someday I need to find a pair of shoes with drain holes in the bottom.  Does that exist?

Anyway, we kept trucking until the rain stopped and shortly thereafter pulled into another bar called Flat Tire Lounge.  It was pretty neat to have so many bicycle-themed establishments there on the trail.  One of the best features of Rails-to-Trails projects is the impact they can have on local economies.  It’s neat to see the bike-themed restaurants thriving. I laid my shoes and socks out in the sun while we sampled New Belgium’s Shift Lager and then we hit the trail again.  Which was great…. except that the headwind had gotten even worse and it rained on us again.  Sigh.

It was a Century by a beer company, afterall ;)

It was a Century by a beer company, afterall 😉

On the High Trestle Bridge

On the High Trestle Bridge

The highlight of the entire ride had to be the High Trestle Bridge.  This artful half mile piece of trail spans the Des Moines River Valley from 13 stories above the water.  You can see for miles and miles in any direction.  The old railroad that was here before has been transformed into abstract squares over the bridge which give a tunnel effect.  It was my favorite part of the trail and I’m told it’s even more fun at night when the iron arches are lit!

Jayme and Ryan: Happy despite the rain!

Jayme and Ryan: Happy despite the rain!

The ride turned around in Woodward, Iowa at a bar called the Whistling Donkey.  Oh! It’s worth mentioning that somehow at nearly every single stop I ran into another rider named Jo and her husband. I told her she would make the blog- so Jo, if you’re reading, here you are!!

Ignore the grammar and embrace the beer.

Ignore the grammar and embrace the beer.

The whole ride was different when we turned around to head back to Des Moines. Excepting a few miles of crosswind at the beginning, once we turned around we had the wind at our backs and really flew.  We were riding 18-22 mph and barely pedaling. Our clothes dried out and the sun came up.  Ahhhhhh! Sweet, sweet tailwind.

When we arrived back in Des Moines a few miles shy of 100, we decided to head back up the Great Western Trail to finish the Century off.  I counted down the tenths of miles and shouted out 100 just as we were passing a pair of runners.  They clapped and I know it made us all feel good!

The 1st New Belgium Cruiser Century was a saga of ups and downs, but mostly I’m glad to have gone to Des Moines to share Ryan and Jayme’s first Century experience.  I presented them with Quincy Bike Club First Century Certificates and we celebrated with meatball subs and pizza at a restaurant Orlando’s on the Bike Trail.  I hope this becomes an annual event, and maybe sometime soon I’ll get up the nerve to try it on a Cruiser!

The Victorious Hundred!

The Victorious Hundred!

Jayme and Ryan finished their first century ride!

Jayme and Ryan finished their first century ride!

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TOMRV Day 2- Laura, Justin, Stephen, Jen and Tony (left to right)

You know in the movie Forest Gump the way Tom Hanks describes all the ways that it rained in Vietnam (big rain, fat rain, stinging rain…) or how Bubba described all the ways to fix shrimp (boiled shrimp, shrimp gumbo, shrimp stew…)??  That’s the same sort of list I’d make to describe the hills of the 35th Annual Tour of the Mississsippi River Valley ride.

There were big hills, long hills, steep hills, false flat hills, round hills, hills with bumps, hills with more hills on top of them, barbequed hills… oh wait.  Strike that last one.  You get the point though. It was hilly.

TOMRV Route Map

The ride is presented by the Quad Cities Cycling Club and this was Justin and my first year to participate.  The ride gives you the option of doing 108 miles Saturday and 89 miles Sunday, or doing 70 miles Saturday and 50 miles Sunday.  Justin and I had originally signed up for the longer ride, but since he’s been fighting some IT band issues since he ran the Bridge the Gap Half Marathon (he placed 3rd in his age division!) a few weeks ago  and since we knew it was a tough route, we decided to check down and do the shorter route.  That was probably a good move for our first time at this event.

Crossing one of the first bridges of the day.

The ride started from the town of Preston, Iowa early Saturday morning.  We’d taken advantage of the Friday night check-in, so we had everything we needed to just air up our tires and get on the road when  we arrived at 7:30 am.  High temperatures were supposed to be in the 90s, so we figured getting going early was the best move.

Saturday morning is kind of a blur to me.  Let’s see.  The very beginning wasn’t bad and we warmed up on some low hills.  No big deal.  Then there was a nice section of rolling hills, and they were tough, but still not so bad if you got enough momentum going.  Almost immediately we got to cross a couple of pretty bridges with great views of the rivers (I think the first was causeway near Sabula and the second was the steel-grate bridge over the Mississippi into Illinois) and I really enjoyed the views at both of these locations.  When we hit the first SAG stop at Mississippi Palisades State Park (about 20 miles into the ride), I felt pretty good about everything.  I ate a banana and some grapes, some peanut butter on a bagel, and a little pile of fig newtons and we were on our way.

Here’s the thing about being in the bottom of river valleys: you’re going to have to climb out of them at some point.  The first major climbs of the route were not far down the road from the SAG stop.   They were tough but manageable- I don’t think I slipped into my easiest gear in this stretch.  But then…

We turned onto Blackjack Road: home of the Chestnut Mountain.  This little monster tried to warn us with a sign that said, “Ski Area Ahead,” but we didn’t listen.   Those hills meant business.  While at home, there are only 3 hills that come to mind that have me in my easiest gear- there were at least three climbs in this little stretch that had me there.   I did a little search on Google and found someone else’s GPS map of the ride- I bet you can spot the hills I’m talking about! http://ridewithgps.com/trips/313472

TOMRV Day One Climb. I wish I could credit the guy who made the GPS maps, but it doesn’t say on his website 😦

On the top of Chestnut Mountain… evidently near the Schwarz farm 🙂

This section was also home of the hill known as “The Wall.”  It’s one steep, mean, quarter mile climb.  Nothing to do but sit and spin for this one, guys.   Justin made it up to the top, but I ended up stopping in the middle with my heart rate that felt redlined… I walked a few steps and then thought to myself, “hell no, I’m not walking,” got back on and struggled up the thing.  It was super tough, but at least it was short.  At the top of the mountain, we were rewarded with gorgeous views over the river valley and a nice stretch of flat road to enjoy.  Justin started calling the hills “paying the toll for the view.”

I spent much of the remainder of both days of the ride deciding which was more difficult: short steep climbs or long low ones.  I think in the end, the one I like better is the one I’m not on when I’m thinking about it!

Justin and I on the Sebula Bridge over the Mississippi

Anyhow, it’s worth mentioning that when you climb up a crazy thing like Chestnut Mountain, you will eventually have to ride down it too- and ride down we did- at speeds well over 40 mph.  I hit a personal speed record of 45 miles an hour.  It was terrifying.  No, awesome! Or maybe terrifying.  But awesome!  Lol.

I believe it was at the second SAG stop that my college friend Marinan and her husband spotted me.  We caught up a while, soaked up some shade, ate some much needed food and the headed off for the next section.  Marinan has done TOMRV several times (6 I think?? ) so she knew that the route didn’t get any easier as we approached Galena and then Dubuque, but I had no idea what was still in store!

So, normally, I’d keep describing the route in detail but I’m going to give you cliff notes of the rest of day one:

–          There were bike races the same day in Galena that shared our course for a couple of miles and Justin and I were passed by the race peloton at one point.  It was amazing to see those tightly packed riders heading past us at those speeds.  I just tried to stay to the right and stay out of the way.

–          There was another huge climb and steep decent not far after Galena where I got over 40 mph.

Marinan and I spell out IOWA at the top of Victory Hill

–          We caught up with another friend, Stephen Rogers, at a SAG stop in a town called Menominee.  Steven did the longer routes both days- the only one of my friends to accomplish this.

–          At mile 60, we entered Wisconsin.  I didn’t find out that we’d been to Wisconsin until after the ride.  They should put up a welcome sign.  Silly Wisconsin.

–          There was another ridiculous hill carved into the bluffs 10 or so miles from the end of the ride.  Justin asked Stephen Rogers if this hill had a name like the other hills, so Stephen, taking a cue from a sign he just saw, dubbed the hill “The Weigh Station.”  We also met a guy we called Texas there.  Texas rode the rest of the way in with us.

–          The decent going into Dubuque was one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen from my bike.  I wish I could show you a photo, but it wouldn’t do it justice anyway.

Justin enjoying a Fat Tire at the beer tent after Day One

–          The beautiful decent was followed by the second-steepest climb of the day- which also was the last quarter mile of the route.  I was so hot and tired by the time I got here, that it was really hard for me.  Half way up, Justin and Steven (who had already made the climb) started cheering me on, and at the top, Marinan was waiting for me to sing our college victory song: The Hawkeye Victory Polka.  (AKA “In Heaven There is No Beer!”)  It was a great moment.

–          The total elevation change for Day 1 of the Preston (shorter) start was +6554 ft. / -6365 ft.  Whoa. No wonder my quads were on fire.

–           At the top of Victory Hill (which is what I’m now calling it) was Clark College- our host for the night.  We enjoyed 2 Fat Tires apiece at the beer tent while we were waiting for two other friends to make it in from the long route.  Tony and Jen rolled up and we went and showered while they had a beer.  We dropped off our bikes in the tennis courts (all of those bikes in that tiny space made these the most valuable tennis courts ever!! )

–          Then we all went to the banquet!  I pretty much ate everything in sight.  Pasta, chicken, veggies, some really good coleslaw, corn, carrot cake…  Maybe it was just the heat and the exertion, but we all scarfed down a ton of food.

Most $ in a tennis court ever.

–          The accommodations we had signed up for were just sleeping bag space on the floor.  If we do this ride again, this wouldn’t be my pick because I had a hard time dealing with that many people moving around, snoring, turning on flashlights and the like.  Next go around, we’ll probably camp in a tent outside because it looked like fun and I imagine it would be quieter.  Barring that, I’d try to get one of the dorm rooms with beds.

Panoramic view near Bellview Iowa on Day 2

Day 2

I could hear people moving around and getting ready to go before light was even peaking in the window.  The heat had been pretty bad on Day 1 and was expected to be worse for Sunday so I guess everyone wanted to get an early start.  I was really exhausted from a long, restless night though, so I laid around as long as I could.  We packed up, dropped off our bags, retrieved our bikes and were ready to hit the road for Day 2.

Tony shows off his vintage Nishiki bike…

So Day 2 was 50 miles.  That’s chump-change for Justin and I anymore.  I mean, we do that distance regularly with no problem.  In fact, I had made plans for after the 50 mile ride (visiting a nearby cave) since I figured we’d be done in just a few hours.  But what I didn’t know was that Day 2’s climbs were even more gnarly than Day 1.

Justin, Jen, Tony, Stephen and I decided to ride as a group on Day 2.  We climbed a couple of decent hills coming out of Dubuque and had another beautiful, fast decent on to the floor of the valley (I got very comfortable with 35 mph on this ride. That’s pretty darned fast for me at home) but after that the climbs got crazy.

On the Mississippi River near Bellview, Iowa

And the crazy climbs? They were *not* helped at all by the straight-from-the-South headwind that started at about 10 mph in the morning but grew to 20+ mph by afternoon.  Every time you would crest a hill the wind would scream over the top and threaten to blow you back down.  In the late afternoon the wind was so strong that we’d have to downshift in the flats and even down some hills.  Talk about a momentum killer!  Anyway… what was I talking about? Oh, right, just the three hardest climbs ever…

The first climb out of the valley lasted for 1.7 miles and had an insane 7% grade in places.  Then we went back down.  The next climb out of the valley lasted almost 2 full miles and had a max of 6.8% grade.    I’m not kidding you- those were the toughest, slowest 10 miles I have ever done on my bike.  Then the last major valley climb was over the majority of a 4 mile stretch (one little downhill in the middle) and, frankly, I’m lucky to still have legs after the thing.  I stopped 3 times (walked none) to catch my breath and to make another go at that last climb.  It was so, so hard but I’m so, so glad we did it.  See GPS here http://ridewithgps.com/trips/313470

Day 2

More beautiful vistas were in store at the top of each one of these climbs, and the downhills all were over much too quickly.  I kept thinking that I’d never enjoyed a Midwestern landscape as much as I did at the top of these glacier-carved hills, but I’d never struggled uphill for a half an hour to earn a view either.

Tony at lunch!

We stopped in the picturesque riverside town of Bellveiw for lunch, where we once again were all quite ravenous.  We bypassed the Casey’s gas station where many bikers seemed to have stopped and found a lovely café in downtown Bellview that was serving a Biker’s Brunch.  We were treated to a leisurely and delicious meal before hitting the road. *My lunch, if you’re curious, was this terrific open-faced turkey sandwich on pumpernickel topped with charred tomatoes, béchamel (French-style milk sauce) and locally grown basil.

This is a pic from day one- all of us flashing W for the “Weigh Station” hill!

What else can I say about day 2?  It was great.  There were more hills, more climb, and more wind than I thought you could squeeze into 50 miles in the Midwest, but hey, we made it through just fine.  Catching up with my friends from far away and sharing a bicycle adventure made the weekend (and the sore quads I had on Monday) completely worth it.

The Quad Cities Bike Club deserves lots of credit for wonderful SAG stops, friendly volunteers, and a tough course that challenged every rider there.

And the views- earned the hard way- are something I’ll never be able to adequately describe;  their beauty makes me believe that the same farm-dotted landscape that inspired artists like Grant Wood will be around a long time to come.

As for my bike and I?  We’re feeling quite confident about our chances to complete the 500 miles of the Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) which, as I write, is only 37 days away.   I’ve also vowed to never complain about the two hills on State Street or the ones coming up Hampshire again, because I’ve met their big brothers who live up river and are much worse!

Thanks for a great ride TOMRV!  See you next year!

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