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.
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.