Some Roads Are Less Traveled for a Very Good Reason

Rando Roundup

It has been a strange year, randonneuring wise, and a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that it is a Paris-Brest-Paris year.  This 1200k ride is the equivalent of the World Championships of randonneuring.  It only comes around every 4 years, and you have to ride a complete Super Randonneur series (a 200k, 300k, 400k, 600k) the year before to ensure your registration, and then ride another in the same calendar year to qualify.  Thousands of riders from all around the world meet in Paris in August to try and complete the ride from Paris to the coast and back in 90 hours (or less; there are other time categories for the genuinely insane).  Quite a few people from our local club were participating but I was not among them.

After completing the Super Randonneur series last year I certainly could have registered with a comfortable expectation of getting in.  And this year I rode another complete series that would have qualified me.  But last year I made the cut-off for the 600k (40 hours) with only 40 minutes to spare.  That did not augur well for an event twice as long.  After reflecting on my randonneuring efforts last year, it was clear that I had a lot to learn.  I made the bike a little faster with lighter tires, but probably not enough to make a huge difference.  I had very little expectation of making myself much faster, but certainly the fact that we rode three 300ks in a row earlier in the year, across varied terrain (one of which featured a crapload of climbing) did, I think, help with my overall strength and endurance, because my ride times were getting a bit faster.  But the big change this year was that I worked very hard at making my stops more efficient.  I was really pleased with my efforts in that area; on most of my rides I cut the stoppage time at least in half, and often a bit more.

The end result was that my rides this year were dramatically quicker.  The 600 was over 2 hours faster than last year, and unlike last year where I only managed a couple of hours sleep, this year I managed almost 5 (which doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between five and two is like day and night).

All year long people were asking me if I was doing PBP, and based on my improvement I could have given it a go.  But I haven’t done anything approaching that distance, and while I know some people who were similarly lacking in experience and just jumped right in, I’m not a “jump right in” person.  More to the point, PBP is, by all accounts, supposed to be an amazing event.  There aren’t too many events in the world where ordinary citizens come out to cheer riders who are not racing.  Despite the incursions of the auto-supremacist culture, cycling still runs deep in the French soul, it seems.  I wanted to be able to embrace that without the mental burden of wondering whether I would even be able to go the distance (of course, every 1200k is different, so there is always going to be the question of whether or not you would be able to go the distance this time).  My next goal would be to ride a 1000k, and then a domestic 1200k (and there are a few amazing ones in the US).

Now I want to be clear that no one in the club looked down upon me or anyone else for not doing PBP.  Randonneuring is very much a matter of setting and achieving individual goals.  Someone who is happy to ride only 200ks is no less a randonneur than someone chasing the K-hound award (biking 10,000 kilometers in randonneuring events in a single year).  But I was reminded a little of how some of the people on my triathlon must feel when Ironman season rolls around at the end of the year.  The largest event tends to become the center of gravitational attraction around which everything else is pulled into orbit, even if the majority of people are not doing that event.  So much of the talk at rides was about PBP, 90% of the messages on the club listserv were about PBP. . .it was all a little overwhelming and not very relevant to me personally.  That is what the delete key is for, of course.  So although I have had a great year and am very happy with what I achieved so far, it also feels a little like I am somewhere out around the orbit of Pluto in terms of the randonneuring world.

In August I took another research trip out to Minnesota, so I decided to take the opportunity to work on another type of randonneuring goal.  One of the awards offered by Randonneurs USA is the American Explorer Award, where the goal is to ride a brevet (an organized ride) or a permanent (a solo (usually) ride along an officially sanctioned route) in every state in the union.  The rides don’t necessarily have to start in a state, but just pass through it on a designated ride (this makes it easier to check off some of the “sneeze and you’ll miss it” states like Rhode Island, and some of the “Don’t make me go there” states like New Jersey).  You need a minimum of ten states to start working on this achievement and I was sitting on 7.  I had been planning to start working on this seriously next year, but the present opportunity seemed like a good one, so I contacted route owners and planned rides in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

It’s Ok, I Didn’t Need those Testicles anyway

Iowa River Valley Permanent

When you are biking in the Upper Midwest there is one indispensable piece of equipment:

Surly Moonlander

These tires still might be a little small

Unfortunately, I was riding one of these:

Penny Farthing

How do I put aerobars on this thing?

Because the roads in Iowa are crap.  This was true in the area in which I rode (east and northeast of Ames) and other areas where I drove.  Almost without exception, the roads consist of concrete slabs or cheap asphalt with expansion joints.  Cheaply made, and with virtually no maintenance apart from a bit of tar squirted halfheartedly into other cracks.  Now Iowa’s conservatism notwithstanding, it is actually one of the largest recipients of Federal welfare money in the form of the Great Ethanol Subsidy Scam.  It is very clear, however, that very little of that money is finding its way back into the state’s roading budget.  As a result, when people ask me what riding in Iowa is alike it can be described quite simply:

Ker-thunk. . .Ker-thunk. . .Ker-thunk. . .Ker-thunk. . .

In terms of appearance and terrain I had been expecting–well, dreading really–that the state would be a lot like Maryland’s eastern shore: a tedious, flat, windswept plateau.  So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Iowa is not flat but in fact rolls around quite a lot.  Most of the day was spent going up and down within a narrow range of about 300 feet, and never climbing more than about 100 feet in any one go, but the result was that you would often crest a rise in one of the many dead-straight roads and feel as if you could see forever:

Iowa Roads

The long and not at all winding road

Now it is true that Iowa lived up to its stereotype in one other respect.  There was a lot of this stuff:

Iowa Corn

Destined for the gas tanks of America

A LOT of that stuff.  For long stretches that constituted my view off to the side of the road.  But the corn and the rolling terrain also made me think that the place could be quite an interesting landscape in the spring and fall, before and after the corn had made its appearance.  For example, I never really saw the River promised in the title of the permanent.  From the map I can see that we crossed it, but I suspect that it was hidden behind the–what else–corn.

However, there were also signs that riding in this region could be more than a little challenging.  There were, for example, plenty of these:

Iowa Windmills

There was a peculiar kind of orderliness to the wind turbines that seemed to have been inherited from the long rows of corn.  While we in Virginia are still fighting wind power tooth and nail on the off chance that some seagull will get whacked by one of the blades, most of the midwest and upper midwest states have been embracing it aggressively.  Drive through Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and you can see entire fields of turbines stretching to the horizon in all direction.  They appear to have been dropped from outer space in a completely random pattern.  In this part of Iowa, however, they marched in ranks, usually 6 turbines in a row, in a single direction.  But where there are wind turbines, there is, naturally enough wind, and this built throughout the day, with the route gradually turning back into it for the final part of the ride.  It was nothing apocalyptic (not like biking in New Zealand, in other words) but a steady headwind of about 10-15mph at the end of the ride is a little draining.

However the real killer remained the roads.  It wasn’t just that there were expansion joints, but the fact that on each side of the joint the lip of the concrete had begun to slump, creating not so much a crack that you could skim over as a trench that you plowed into.  I did see that on a couple of roads they had devised a very effective means of patching this kind of damage.  But I saw that technique used on about a 3 mile stretch.  The rest of the roads remained insistently bone jarring in a way that gradually sapped your energy.  If you’ve read other posts you know that I’m riding a good steel bike with relatively wide and very flexible (Compass Bikes Stampede Pass 32mm) tires.  Now I could go a lot wider, and that will be a refit for the bike next year.  But honestly, I’m not sure that anything short of the Surly Moonlander in the picture above would have made a blind bit of difference.

The route owner had kindly provided a detour for a section of the route that was suffering, he said, from frost heave.  And it was pretty frightful.  But by that point it was a difference in degree rather than kind; the detour would have added a few more miles on what was already a long 200k (most 200s are never exactly 200, and this ride ended up being 133 miles) and all of it would have been on the same old jointed crap surface.  So by the time I had finished this ride my respect for Iowa Randonneurs had risen to extraordinary heights.  I can’t even imagine how you ride a conventional narrow tire road bike on such shit.  Of course, my respect was tempered by the fact that my jaw hurt, the first time I’ve ever experienced pain in that part of my body after a ride.

Are you High?  Why yes I am!

Before we leave the great state of Iowa, and before I leave you with the (deserved) impression of the ratshit quality of its roads, I should mention that I also had the genuine pleasure of riding a spectacular rail-to-trail conversion, part of the Iowa High Trestle trail.


Western End of the High Trestle Rail Bridge, near Woodward, Iowa.

The trail starts (or ends, depending on your point of view) in Des Moines, runs north, and then hooks out to the west, running through a couple of very small towns.  In that respect it was a little reminiscent of the Central Otago Rail Trail, in New Zealand.  The trail was well surfaced (unlike the roads) and the small towns did a great job promoting their services as you arrived at their outskirts.  The visual highlight of the trail is the High Trestle Rail Bridge, spanning a wide valley carved by the Des Moines river.  Pictures don’t really do it justice; the bridge is really long and really high.


High Trestle Rail Bridge

The bridge also features a creative iron sculpture that spirals from one end to the other:

High Trestle Rail Bridge art.

High Trestle Rail Bridge art.

This area, just to the west and south of Ames is in fact quite lovely, mainly because there are trees.  And no corn.  I camped near here at Ledges State Park, a place that features a completely unexpected and unlikely (if you were to judge from the surrounding terrain) series of deep canyons carved by the river.  Climbing out of that Canyon on a bike would probably be the largest elevation gain anywhere in Iowa.

Looking north from the rail bridge over the highway toward the area of Ledges State Park.

Looking north from the rail bridge over the highway toward the area of Ledges State Park.

So Iowa was a rather mixed bag.  Nevertheless, I was looking forward to my next ride near Madison, Wisconsin.

The Nutcracker Suite

East of Madison Permanent

Among the biking community the roads of Wisconsin are legendary, so much so that you can find them featured in spectacular photo spreads in all the major biking magazines.  These roads consist of miles and miles of gently rolling, lovingly maintained asphalt that is so smooth that you could run a bobsled down it in the middle of summer.  The story goes that the dairy farmers of Wisconsin were not keen to have their milk churned into butter before it arrived at the creamery, so they insisted on the smoothest roads possible.  And after riding 135 miles on those rides I am here to tell you that those tales of Wisconsin roads are

BULL. . .ULL. . .ULL. . .ULL…ULL…ULL. . .SHIT!

My experiential verdict?


What about all those magazine photos of blacktop as smooth as a baby’s arse, you ask?  In fact there are only ten miles of such roads as part of a theme park in an undisclosed location to which only the editors of cycling magazines are ever invited.  Cyclists from Wisconsin have collaborated in spreading The Great Lie because they are tired of being the only ones in the nation who can’t go for even a short ride without having to have to spread Preparation H on their entire lower half.

What Wisconsin roads really look like is this:

Welcome to Wisconsin, Motherfucker! Have a Nice Day.

Welcome to Wisconsin, Motherfucker! Have a Nice Day.

For mile.  After mile.  After mile.

After mile.

And for more miles after that.

By 100 miles I was starting to long for the buttery smooth pavement of northeastern Iowa.

In fact, the photo above doesn’t capture the worst of it.  There was one point in the ride where the cue sheet warned me that once I crossed a particular intersection the road would get “quite rough.”  I didn’t take a photo for two reasons.  1) I was trying to stop my back teeth from flying out.  2) No one would have believed that I didn’t photoshop the thing.

And that wasn’t even the worst of it.  As the day wore on, I began to encounter roads with grass growing up through them.  Not just patches here and there.  Entire verdant swales of the stuff.

Dear state of Wisconsin, here is a small piece of advice.  When there is enough grass growing through your roads that I could mow it and call it a putting green, that is no longer a road.  It is what we, in those parts of the country where roads are still paved, call a field.

Now this ride was all to the east of Madison, as the name implies, so I am sure there will be some smart-arse rider from Wisconsin, eager to perpetuate the myth for the reasons I have highlighted above, who will claim that roads elsewhere are not like that.  But in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised.  When I was training for Ironman Wisconsin in 2010 we went out there for a training camp and rode the course.  All those roads were on the west side of Madison.  And while the roads were generally OK (but again, no sign of the kind of surface that Bicycling Magazine and its ilk had assured me was everywhere in Wisconsin) there was one stretch that administered such a testicular jackhammering that one of my buddies immediately went out and bought a new carbon bike to try and soak up some of the pounding (or at least that was the rationale he gave, and it seemed to pass the spousal sniff test).

It has to be said that these hideously awful roads are quite unfortunate, because Wisconsin is a lovely state.  The countryside is pretty, and a lot more varied and interesting than that in Iowa.  The place also looks somehow more lived in, where Iowa really looks as sparsely populated as is in fact the case.  Indeed, this route takes you through a couple of towns that are so drop-dead cute that you just want to give them a big hug.  Or, failing that, hop off your bike and relax under a tree in a town square straight out of To Kill a Mockingbird (minus all the attempted lynchings and stuff. . .at least I hope so).  Unfortunately I couldn’t spend as much time as I wanted because I was racing some apocalyptic weather sweeping in from the west.

And I did manage to finish just as the first flash of lightning split the sky.  Leaning my bike against a post, I did my best John Cleese Ministry of Silly Walks impression toward the car.

All in all,  if I wanted to be beaten up that badly, I would be lobbying the World Triathlon Corporation to bring back the mass swim start at Ironman events.

A side note to my randonneuring friends. The elevation for both these rides was way off.  While the numbers between my Edge Touring, Garmin Connect, and Strava varied (no surprise) they all agreed in being about double the listed elevation gain for these rides.  I think we have to remember that many of these permanent routes are so old that they were laid out when the only way you had to measure elevation was to carry a yardstick and get off your bike periodically to eyeball it.

A glimpse of the Future

In the end I didn’t do the Ohio permanent. It would have been only a couple of days after Madison and a couple of weeks of some pretty long days working had tired me out.  But it was also the case that I felt broken and bruised, and while the roads in Ohio may, for all I know, have been better than those in Iowa and Wisconsin, I just didn’t think I could handle another ride like that.  While I don’t mind setting myself challenges I don’t do rides just for the sake of doing the ride.  I want to enjoy myself to at least some degree.  And each of those rides stopped being a lot of fun after about 50 miles.

The experience did make me appreciate our local Virginia and Maryland roads.  Now it is true that there are some roads around here (particularly around the Poolesville area) where the state seems to have decided to let them revert to a state of nature.  But those are relatively short stretches, and certainly not typical of the roads in aggregate.

However, I felt like I was also getting a privileged glimpse into the future of large parts of the US when the results of our national unwillingness to invest in infrastructure start to become fully apparent.  Most people have little conception of that future.  We don’t really see how antiquated and over-stretched our electrical grid is because most of the time the lights still go on and the AC still works.  The idea of crumbling bridges remains an abstraction, because most of the time the bridges don’t fall down.  But if you are a cyclist and you ride the back roads of America you see firsthand what infrastructure decay looks like.

True, I was riding in states where it is winter 9 months out of the year.  These are also heavily agricultural states, and it seems impossible to practice modern agriculture of any type without employing large fleets of trucks the size of battleships.  Those two things are going to make life very hard for roads.  But those two things are also facts of life; they are not going to change, and a responsible government, state or national, would deal with it.  But it was pretty clear that Wisconsin and Iowa had essentially given up.  And the real cost is a human one; it wasn’t as if the places I was riding through were devoid of people.  There were towns still trying to exist, families who needed access to and for good and services.

In Wisconsin’s case it would be tempting to blame it all on Governor Walker, and the fact he has spent his time developing that peculiar mix of callous indifference and incompetence that seems to be a pre-requisite for running for Republican Presidential nomination. But the roads were so bad that problems clearly predated his tenure.  No, what you see as a cyclist on a backroads odyssey is the result of decades of indifference, where generations of officeholders have been more interested in appropriating funds for their Senator Reacharound Memorial Driving Range than in actually governing.

For a long distance cyclist, it all adds up to a painful lesson.


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