Tag Archives: epic

Low to high point fat bike fun in Minnesota

Ice beard less than halfway through the ride.
Fun adventure in the north woods of Northern Minnesota today. I rode from the lowest point in Minnesota (Lake Superior, 603′) to the highest point in Minnesota (Eagle Mountain, 2301′). It was a tough ride with lots of uncertainty. I had attempted this same ride in 2016, but failed. In 2017, I was hit by a car a month before our Christmas trip and was still on crutches while the rest of the family went skiing. This year, I had set aside a day to forgo skiing and try this same ride again, but this time a bad winter storm was bearing down supposed to hit about the time I made it back to the cabin. Lots of uncertainty – the only thing in my favor this year was warm temps in the teens, but that was actually a problem as I sweated a ton and had one water bottle for an 8 hour ride.

Highs and Lows
I have been on some fun adventures on the bike over the years. Here’s all the state high points I have climbed on my bike in reverse order of when I climbed them.

  • Minnesota – 2018
  • Virginia (second highest point, haven’t climbed highest yet) – 2017
  • Mississippi – 2016
  • Florida – 2014
  • Arkansas – 2012
  • Tennessee – 2009
  • Georgia – 1997
  • North Carolina – 1995
  • South Carolina – 1995
  • Alabama – 1994

Minnesota and Florida are special, though, in that I have now ridden in both of them from the lowest point to the highest point of the state in a single ride. South Carolina is interesting, too, in that I rode from the highest point to the lowest point in the state in a single ride, but not the other direction. Ok, let’s get back to this Minnesota adventure.

2016 failed attempt
In 2016, I was thwarted by lots of snow and a late start after skiing half a day. I made it to the start of the trail at sunset (without a light) only to find the trail covered in half a foot of new snow from the day before plus who knows how many feet of snow under that. I tried to ride the first few feet and slid out and decided it just wasn’t going to happen. I made it home well after dark (almost 7pm). I vowed to come back the next year and start earlier in the day and take a light. Here’s a timelapse video of the first 9 miles of the ride before my battery died in the cold.

2017 crutches
In 2017, I was recovering from surgery on my foot after being hit by a car traveling 45-50+mph on a county road south of Birmingham. I was going 13mph up a hill at the time of impact. Very, very thankful that my worst injury was a torn-up foot. I impacted the car’s windshield which acted like a cushion and saved my life. The damage to my foot came afterwards sliding alongside the road after the driver slammed on his brakes. I have no memory of the collision or aftermath. My memory from before is spotty, too, the only thing I specifically remember is stopping at the gas station in Sterrett to buy gatorade about 10 miles before impact. I was on crutches while the family went skiing.

2018, success!!!
Our plan for this year included three days of skiing, but we only bought a two-day pass for me so I could try this ride again. The weather forecast for Lutsen down on the lake was for a temp in the low teens rising to the 20s by the afternoon with a big winter storm coming. 12-18inches of snow predicted with wind gusts blowing to 35mph starting by about 4:30PM. My worst case scenario would have me back to the cabin by about 4PM, so I thought I was safe.

Ice falls at the top of the first plateau step 750′ above the lake.

It was really interesting to see the freezer effect of cold snow up on the plateau above the lake. As soon as you do the big 750 foot climb from lake level up to the first step of the plateau, the snow level increased quite a bit and the temp dropped quite a bit. The temp was hovering in the mid teens but fell down to 10-11degF as soon as I made it up to the first step of the plateau. The road continues to climb for a bit before entering national forest and turning to dirt (snow).

The dirt road is plowed through the winter, but not as thoroughly (or as frequently) as the paved roads get plowed. They leave a layer of snow probably so that the plow doesn’t mess up the rocks and gravel underneath the snow. The resistance that even a thin layer of snow can add to a fat bike is amazing. I could experiment with this as the amount of snow varied from place to place and there were a few places where you could see down to the frozen dirt – this was noticeably faster and easier than sections that had maybe 1/4 to 1/2 inch of snow.

Somewhere through this section, I realized my Garmin 1030 had drained down to 36% battery after just an hour and a half of riding. I forgot to bring a micro-usb cable and had the sinking feeling I would need to record the second half (or more) of the ride with the iphone Strava app and then merge the first part from my Garmin. But I also remembered that I have switched around cable locations quite a bit on this trip, so I was holding onto hope that I would find a micro-usb cable buried in my backpack. When I made it to the Eagle Mountain trailhead 25 miles into my ride, the Garmin was down to 9% battery. I dug around in my backpack and thankfully found a micro-usb cable, but when I plugged it into the Garmin nothing happened. I tried all sorts of things including powering off and powering the Garmin back on to see if that would get it to charge, but no luck. I had a hunch that it might be the cold weather keeping it from charging so I opened one of my hand warmer packets and stuck it up against the Garmin while I continued doing all the other things I needed to do before tackling the trail. Lo and behold a few minutes later, the Garmin was miraculously up to 17% battery already and would continue to charge all the way up to 98% by the time I made it back down from the summit.

But before all that, after messing around with the Garmin, I switched into my nice winter hiking boots that I had carried with me in my backpack and put my winter mountain bike shoes back into the backpack. This was good because my feet were getting really cold and exposing them to air very briefly and getting extra blood flow down into my toes would help. Also, I knew that the trail would involve a lot of hiking and clipping in/clipping out so I thought I would avoid all that just by using my hiking boots. I took the ice beard selfie at the top of this post and ate a big chocolate/nut covered donut we still had leftover from the Donut Vault in Chicago. Then I headed to the trail.

Eagle mountain summit trail … 6 miles of this round trip was really hard!!!

The trail was surprisingly rideable and grippy from all the hiking on it. I didn’t see any other fat bike tracks, but it looked like a lot of people had been hiking on it. From the yellow snow I saw occasionally, it looked like someone had hiked on it very recently. The tiny beaten down portion of snow was walled on either side by a lot of firmer snow that would bounce your tire back into the track if you went off course. There were some snow covered rocks and roots that you had to be careful with but you could anticipate which way it would shoot your rear tire if you pulled the front tire up on top of it. This was really fun, even though I did have to step off into the snow numerous times where I didn’t get it right or the turns were too tight to clear on the bike. Also, some of the uphills you could ride, even some that were steeper than I imagined would be possible in the snow, but some of them were just too steep or had sharp turns in the middle of the hill. I had to talk these which was tricky to fit me and my fat bike in the trail.

The entrance to the boundary waters area was about a mile or so into the trail, and this particular boundary was right at the first creek/marsh crossing. These were tiny bridges with running water under some of them – not sure if that was because of warmer than usual temps, or from natural springs close by. The trail made it to Brule lake where it followed the lake and became quite rooty and unrideable. At the end of the lake, you made a left turn and started a steep climb to the top gaining a few hundred feet in half a mile. I decided it didn’t look rideable at all so left my fat bike down at the base and hiked the rest of the way to the top.

There was a clearing near the top where you could look out and see all the way back to the Lutsen mountains where I started from. The top itself had a cool historical sign explaining the high/low point connection and also included a historical note that Eagle Mountain wasn’t recognized as the highest point in Minnesota until a 1961 survery to correct an earlier barometric pressure device reading from the 1800s on a nearby hill.

The return trip was pretty straight forward and a bit faster. It was generally downhill, but I was pretty tired by this point and downhill in the snow on a fat bike isn’t particularly fast or easy. I started out just trying to ride in my hiking boots all the way back but it made it difficult to stand on the climbs. So I stopped at the Caribou Trail intersection and changed back into my winter biking shoes. I had run out of water at the Eagle Mountain trailhead because it was warmer than I had anticipated and the fat biking through the trail was really hard work so I sweated a lot. Thankfully, I had plenty of food though to stave off a bonk late in the ride, so I was able to end on a high note and make it back to the cabin by 4pm just a few minutes after my family had made it back off the ski slopes.

A note about cars – I got passed by 20 cars on the mile or two I had to ride on MN-61. Then I didn’t get passed by any cars at all for nearly 40 miles where I got passed by a few cars on the descent off the plateau and then a few more cars on MN-61 although it was quieter with the storm moving in. I was passed by a bunch of cars on the climb back up the resort with everyone trying to make it to the resort to check-in before the storm hit. The storm itself was moving slower than anticipated and is just now hitting us with lots of snow as I type this up near midnight.


The cars per minute ratio on this ride was 0.1, whereas my normal rides around Birmingham average about 50-70x that amount!!!

Thanksgiving Adventure

Michigan! 706 miles from Hoover, Alabama to New Buffalo, Michigan in two days!Michigan! 706 miles from Hoover, Alabama to New Buffalo, Michigan in two days!

It has been a while since I’ve posted here, so I’m happy to be back with quite the adventure – a 706 mile ride from my home in Hoover, Alabama to New Buffalo, Michigan at the Northern Indiana border to meet my family for Thanksgiving in La Porte, Indiana. I started this post a few days after finishing the ride, but it has taken a while to fill in all the details given how busy life has gotten recently. Kristine and the kids drove up on Monday (11/19/16), but I had to teach on Monday and Tuesday. We decided that I could just ride up there after my classes on Tuesday and then drive back home with them after Thanksgiving. Little did I know how challenging that would turn out to be. Below the stats and videos, I give a state-by-state summary of the ride.

di2stats.com shift map - Alabama to Michigandi2stats.com – interactive shift map and data from the ride – https://di2stats.com/rides/view/21752

Timelapse video from first “day”:
Timelapse video from second “day” (no audio):

Vestavia Dr overlooking Samford University on my way into work.Vestavia Dr overlooking Samford University on my way into work.

Warm and sunny, Beautiful Alabama
I rode into work with all my clothes and supplies crammed into my backpack and taught my two classes. By about 12:30PM, I was on my way heading north. Most of campus was already deserted so I just rode right through campus and out one of the back bike/pedestrian only entrances straight into Homewood. It seemed surreal as I was riding familiar roads to think that I would be riding my bike for the next two days covering a drive that normally takes 11-12 hours. In fact, it seemed more overwhelming than any of the rides I’ve done recently. I didn’t have much time to think about that, though, as lunch time traffic was awful through Homewood and downtown Birmingham. I was taking AL-79, which I knew would be busy, but was the straightest, fastest way I could get to Huntsville. I had a nice tailwind and the road stayed 4 lanes until not too far from Locust Fork.

My original plan had been to take the low water bridge crossing outside Locust Fork, but I made the decision to alter the route and take the Swann Covered bridge instead. I had two reasons for this decision – 1) I was going to be crossing cool abandoned bridges later in the ride, so it would be good to throw in one of the more scenic Alabama bridges instead of the paved cement across the river (although that is pretty cool when it is flooded) and 2) I was making great time on AL-79 with its perfect pavement and tailwind. So at Cleveland, I detoured and crossed the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River at the Swann covered bridge, one of three covered bridges in Blount County. This really didn’t add too much time, and it was nice to be on a nearly traffic-free road for a few miles before hitting Hwy 231 through Blountsville.

The simplest way to get to Huntsville from Birmingham is to take AL-79 up to Hwy 231 and follow Hwy 231 the rest of the way into Huntsville. There are literally zero turns as Hwy 231 joins AL-79 and then continues straight towards Huntsville whereas AL-79 veers right towards Guntersville near Cleveland. But AL-79 and Hwy 231 are both pretty busy roads with high speed limits and poor visibility in places due to all the hills. My preferred route is to take Co Rd 55 after Blountsville and head due north towards Holly Pond and Apple Grove Rd. The first time I road on Apple Grove Rd was during the Alabama state road race a few years ago. Nearly a year later, I ended up on the road again (by accident) as I was training for Race Across America 2015. I was 200 miles into a big loop up to the Tennessee border and coming back down from Huntsville when I suddenly recognized the road as the state road race course. Instead of turning to make a loop, I continued straight and after a couple miles encountered the “wall” – a 1/2 mile 15+% climb up to the Holly Pond plateau. Ever since then I’ve liked to incorporate this road into my route to/from Huntsville. Coming from Birmingham in the reverse direction, the Apple Grove wall is an incredibly fast and straight descent.

I was keeping up a good pace because of the tailwind and because of the desire to hit the Apple Grove Rd dropoff before sunset. As the sun dipped lower and the temperature started to drop, I started having a lot of negative thoughts realizing that the sun was going to set at 4:38PM and wouldn’t rise again until almost 6:30AM – that’s almost 14 hours of riding in the dark. I was wondering if I would have enough battery to last through the night on my front and rear lights. I was wondering if I had brought enough clothes (trying to save weight and anticipating rain, I had only brought my long sleeve rain jacket, a second pair of bibs, and a very lightweight wind vest). I was wondering if I was going to get rained on much earlier than anticipated. These thoughts and questions didn’t last too long, though, because 10-15 minutes after sunset I hit the Apple Grove dropoff, and a half minute / half mile 55 mph descent later I was feeling quite rejuvenated.

I made it back up to the top of Apple Grove Rd by the time it was really dark and was trying to figure out what to do clothing-wise because the temperature was fluctuating quite a bit with pockets of cold air in any low spot and warm air at any elevated areas. At top of the Tennessee River dropoff, I merged back onto Hwy 231 at the tail end of rush hour. Thankfully most of the traffic was leaving Huntsville instead of heading into it, but it was still tricky crossing the road to get to the northbound side. I ended up setting a KOM trying (unsuccessfully) to stay ahead of traffic on the descent. Still, I made it to the Tennessee River and was rattled enough by the traffic to abandon Hwy 231 as quickly as possible and cross the old abandoned bridge over a side channel of the river after crossing the main channel on the Hwy 231 bridge. Also, from the other side of the bridge I was able to hop on one of Huntsville’s greenways and take it a few miles north before veering off of it to get to downtown Huntsville.

By this point I had been out of food for quite a while and stopped at a CVS next to a McDonald’s so I could buy a micro-usb cable (mine wasn’t working because it has gotten so worn down). Then I went over to the McDonald’s to eat and put on warmer clothes. I was cold from the descent so I put on all the clothes I had, but it was too hot and I sweated a lot and unzipped everything by the time I made it to Alabama A & M University on the north side of Huntsville. From here, I had to battle heavy traffic on Hwy 431 north until I turned onto the first road that takes you over to Butler Rd, home of many road races and time trials over the years … so many memories!

A night time crossing of Tennessee
I followed Butler Rd north pretty much to the border (one jog right on stateline road), and Kristine called me literally as I was crossing over to Tennessee. By this point, it was well past sunset, dark, and rural. Pretty much zero traffic until I got closer to Tullahoma where the traffic started to pick up for a little bit before dying again as soon as I made it to the other side of the city. I left the city on a 4 lane state highway that was long, flat, and very straight. Right about the time I was starting to struggle with sleepiness, I got a phone call from my 2017 RAAM crew chief, Jeffrey White, who wanted to check on my progress. This was perfect timing as talking to him for a few minutes helped wake me right back up.

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