Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Coffeenuering Rd 5

Coffee Shop #6
The Fruited Plain Cafe
Sioux Center
3.2 Miles

As promised  I saved the best for (nearly) last. I broke out the road bike for this ride, this perhaps being the final ride that I will take with this bike before putting it away for the winter. My old Sekai does many things well, but ice and snow are not one of them. Remarkably for this time of year, the weather was (relatively) wonderful.
The Fruited Plain Cafe is one of two shops in the entire county that you can actually order a genuine espresso at. That rarity probably makes me a bad judge of what makes a good/bad espresso, but I must say that I really enjoyed my double shot. The Fruited Plain also offers a pretty wide range of wine and beer (40 or so varieties of each) and makes some very fine baked goods (My wife being the producer of said goods has not influenced my opinion, I swear).
I remarked to the owner that things were quiet at the bike shop (fat biking has not caught on here yet, not sure if it ever will, we have almost no trails nearby). He noted that even with the nice weather, everyone is starting to hunker down for winter. Harvest is all in, gardens have been cleaned, leaves are mostly raked up, and now we wait for the white stuff.

Coffee Shop 6.5 (VOID)
The Fruited Plain Cafe
1.3 Miles

I know this coffeeneuing stop doesn't count, but it involves stroopwafels and cute small children with excessive amounts of hot chocolate.
Later this same day, I got a notice through Facebook that the Fruited Plain had home made stroepwafels for sale. I mentioned these Dutch treats before, but having them fresh is another level of tasty. I had also been promising to take my daughter out for hot chocolate, so off we went for another round of coffee (the things I do for this challenge...)
On our way over, we had to wait for a train. One side effect of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline has been more of the Bakken oil field product being shipped by rail. Train traffic in our town has almost tripled since 2011. 

Leg header. Grain/feed is elevated, then dropped down one of the pipes
 for storage before loading out on a truck
Back to Stroopwafels.
As mentioned before, these are a traditional Dutch treat, consisting of a thin waffle that has been sliced (think like a bagel) then filled with caramel syrup. In my mind, they are the ultimate coffee dessert.
Remarkably, my daughter did not find them quite as amazing as I do, but her hot chocolate was another story.

I tried to emphasize that I wanted a very small hot chocolate for my daughter. It still looked like she was drinking from a soup bowl.
But doesn't seem to have been a problem for her.

Coffee Shop #7 (without walls)
Lat: 43.064091°
4.5 mi
Yerba Mate

Obviously, Iowa is flat and open. And obvious to anyone who has biked here, it gets pretty windy. You know what goes well with wind? Kites.

Highly specialized kite packing rig. 
The kite of choice is a 5' wide parafoil. Two nice features of a parafoil kite are its compact pack (no spars) and it's durability. You can crash these kites as hard as you want, and as long as you don't tear the fabric, its all good. The kite is a two string, which allows for very precise control. I'll admit that it is a bit tough to drink hot tea while flying a two string kite.

The odd perspective on the kite lines is from me trying to shoot from the chest
while flying a two handed kite. For scale, the lines are 100' long
The wind was steady, the sky a brilliant blue, and I'm wringing every minute I can from this out of season wonderful weather. Weekend is looking cold and wet (just in time for the Living history farms race) but I'll keep riding.

Thanks again to MG for continuing to host such fun (and odd) events. I greatly enjoyed this challenge, and look forward to reading about everyone's adventures.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Coffeeneuring Rd 4: All this for a cup of coffee

Coffee Shop #5
Dutch Bakery
221 Central Ave NE Orange City
21 Miles

While the "Coffee Shop without Walls" has kept me in the running for this year's challenge, it does start to feel like cheating after a bit. And while I don't think I can avoid having at least half of my stops be the "without walls" sorts, I felt compelled to put in a few miles to make up for it. Entry #5 will probably be about as far afield as I go this year.

The Dutch Bakery is located about ten miles from my home in the nearby town of Orange City. To be clear, we do not grow citrus in NW Iowa, rather the orange references William of Orange, and is yet another indicator of the Dutch obsessed corner of the world that I live in. Almost none of the offerings that the Dutch Bakery cranks out have anything to do with the Netherlands, but what this bakery does have going for it is its hours. This place is open from midnight until 5 pm, meaning that I could sneak a 20 mile ride for coffee before I needed to be home by 7:30.

I was rolling a bit before 6 am, which was about a half hour later than I had wanted. There was a headwind that would be an issue on the way back, and I would be taking all gravel. While there are two paved route options, both are some of the busiest roads in my area, and I had no desire to test them in the dark. Absolutely no one expects to see a bike rider out a full hour and a half before dawn out in the middle of nowhere. So I clipped on an extra flashing taillight, slipped on a reflective vest, and hoped for the best.

We had had light rain the night previous, so the roads were nice and firm without being tacky. This is a blessing because my headlights are bit under powered, so it's hard for me to judge where the best track is on the road. The sky was clear, but no moon, and the roads were dead quiet. The stars were amazing, Sirus burned like a torch.

Riding in the dark with poor lighting is a strange experience  I would find myself gasping for breath without knowing why, until I finally realized that I had started climbing a hill. The ever changing nature of the roads also kept me on my toes. In the dark, I can't tell if a smooth patch is packed hard or sandbox loose. With my 200+lb frame on 32mm tires, I find out in a hurry.

About 40 minutes later I rolled into Orange City, a town completely dark and quiet, except for my bakery.
It's hard to see, but my bike is lurking just to the left of that garbage can.
Also: To people with light temperature obsessions, I'm sorry.
Perhaps the owners think that as long as they have someone on the clock baking, they may as well try to sell a few rolls. Most of the day's goods were still cooling on racks in the back, so the nice guy behind the counter (looked like a linebacker with a Red Soxs grade beard) let me in back to pick straight from the rack. The other nice thing about this place are the prices. A coffee, a doughnut (for my wife) a pink smiley faced cookie (for my daughter) and a roll (for me!) cost $3. No idea how they turn a profit.

With no time to enjoy my loot, I loaded up and rolled out of town. I had been nice and warm, but now that cold wind was in my face, and I had cooled down while in the bakery. My highly specialized bike clothing (old pair of khakis, heavyweight work shirt) kept me shivering for a bit, but a few miles down the road and I was good again.

Dawn started to catch up with me a few miles from home. I know I've taken dozen of photos of the sunrise during this challenge, but I never get tired of this view.

A few miles later and I was home with enough time to get cleaned up and open up the bike shop. Then I finally got to enjoy the coffee (still hot in my thermos) and the roll that I had hammered 20 miles on the dark gravel to get. Effort makes for good flavor.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Shameless Coffeeneuring Guest Post

In an an apparent attempt to bury herself in guest posts, MG has put out a call for posts from all participants in her Coffeeneuring Challenge. In an attempt to make my post more interesting, I will bribe you with a small child:
Beware, that smile hides at least six teeth.
And believe you me those things are sharp.

Guest Coffeeneuring Blog Post Questions

1) Where do you live?

Sioux Center, IA, which is in the NW corner of the state. Not to be confused with Sioux City, IA, or Sioux Falls, SD. Some of you may know of my town as the start of RAGBRAI 2012. For any of you who were there, you played a pretty big role in getting me started in biking, so thanks!

2) How did you decide to coffeeneur?
I find that having a goal, no matter how silly or odd, makes it way easier to get on the bike (especially now that the weather is turning cold). I'd participated in the (very chilly) Errandonee this past winter, and enjoyed reading everyone's stories. With the addition of the Coffee Shop without Walls rule, I found it possible to hit seven "shops" in my very rural area.

3) What bike are you using as your coffeeneuring bike? What makes it a good coffeeneuring bike?
I mostly ride a 1970s Schwinn World tourist, which serves as my town/errand bike. It's heavy and beat up, but it fits me pretty good (I'm 6'3", so used bikes in my size are rare). It also has Shimano's Front Freewheel System, which means that you can shift while coasting. Its a feature that is mostly good as a conversation starter, and I'm dreading having to ever repair it.

4) Where did you choose to coffeeneur for this coffeeneuring trip?
Using the Coffee Shop without Walls rule, the family and I headed out to a small park to enjoy the lovely weather. This late in the year you never know what the weather is going to throw at us, could be a blizzard or it could be beautiful so we take what we can get.

5) Is the coffee shop beautiful and the coffee delicious? Tell us a little about your coffeeneuring locale.
The park was actually quite lovely. Fall color is still hanging on, despite Iowa's perpetual wind trying to tear all the leaves off. Actual coffee shops in this area are few and far between. I am saving a coffee shop that I find quite lovely (and the espresso wonderful) for last.
Sioux County is an area in transition. One one hand, farming has been really good business the last few years, and that money circulates through the local economy, leading to more urbanesque things like nice coffee shops. In opposition to that is the history of this area being intensely conservative, both politically and fiscally. Its basically an area where it's fine to be rich, just don't flaunt it (too much).

6) What other types of riding do you do besides coffeeneuring?
I cycle with my family quite often. In September my wife and I picked up a longtail. We've really enjoyed being able to strap both kids to a single bike, and still have cargo room to run errands. I get a childish level of glee seeing what I can all load onto that bike. My wife bakes for one of the local coffee shops, and I usually manage to get the shop's early morning muffins delivered by bike.
I also do some road riding (first century a month ago) a fair amount of which is on gravel roads. Even in Iowa the traffic is not your friend, but about 90% of the roads here are lightly traveled gravel. My bike of choice for that is a Sekai 10-speed that I put some 32mm Paselas on. I'm hoping to do the Almanzo 100 this spring.
I believe the correct term is "Gravel Mutt"

7) What else did I forget to ask you that you want to share?
What about bike parking, accessibility, friendliness? There is really very little bike parking. The only business I know of with any sort of rack is the local mall. The schools and public libraries have been good about installing racks. Honestly, you hardly need to lock your bike around here, its a pretty low crime town.
Sioux Center is actually a really easy town to get around on by bike. Everything is close by, and you can route around high traffic roads without issue. We've also been putting in some separated trails that are nice for families to use. In my mind, if you don't feel safe enough sending a 10 yr old on a bike route, it's not good enough. Drivers in town are very well behaved, but I was run off the road by a semi last week while riding out in the country, which was an unpleasant first. People have noted that having RAGBRAI in town has really put bike planning on the minds of city and county officials, we've got a lot of projects in the planning stages, so I hope to see big improvements in the next few years.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Coffeeneuring Rd 3: If I were a rich man...

Despite taking last week off, I remain in the running for this years Coffeeneuring challenge. Even though last weekend I spend many miles on the bike, even while carrying a coffee mug, I failed to drink and ride at the same time.

See that battered thermos on the downtube? It's empty.
Coffeeneuring Fail.

Fall is going in a rush around here. Every morning it stays dark a bit longer, and temps stay a bit lower. Yesterday was a welcome break from the chill, we actually got into the 60s, which meant it was time for a picnic with the kids. A few sandwiches, quick scouring of the pantry for portable kid food, and we were rolling.

Coffee Shop Without Walls
Entry #5
Lat: 43.070
Lon: -96.166
2.5 Miles
My lookout, whose sole mission is to keep both eyes on mom.
Though the day had been warm, by the time we headed out around 5, the sun was racing to the horizon and the temp was falling. After riding through a local prairie restoration area, we arrived at a small park, simply known as Children's Park. (Apparently it was once known as Bear Park due to the bear kept in a cage on site. That attraction was mercifully put to an end a few decades ago, something to do with a drunk loosing a portion of his hand late one night)

My daughter, (riding in the back) does in fact have a head, she was just very
intent on watching the leaves running underneath her.
Since it was late, I opted out of an evening coffee for trying some yerba mate that my wife is fond of. In taste I found it a strange mixing of flavors, tasting a bit like coffee, a bit like chocolate, but also tea like. But it was hot and welcome on a cool evening.

I can handle this. Take bag, put in hot water, wait.
My wife and I managed to keep both kids held down long enough to get some food in them (both oddly fond of the smoked kippers) before the lure of the playground got the better of them.

Low-light hip shot. I'm not to be confused with Henri Cartier-Bresson.

My wife and I are not rich by American standards. Our income labels us as lower-middle/working class. We keep up with the bills and manage to stash a little bit away each month. Our cars are both over 100,000 miles. Re-shingling our roof last year ran us dangerously close to the red. Our clothes are almost all second hand. The cargo bike was the first wholly "new" thing we had bought in years.

Did you know I'm a rich man? Filthy, disgustingly, nauseatingly rich. I take long rides, luxuriating in quiet roads bordered by fields bursting with record-breaking crops. I live in a beautiful little town with almost no crime, blocks away from two excellent schools, with wonderful parks within a 5 min walk, a new library a half mile away, all for a well-below average cost of living fueled by a local economy that powered right through the recent recession. I spend my free time chasing two curious, trouble making children, both healthy and growing like weeds. I've got a beautiful wife who has stuck with me for 5 wonderful (sometimes turbulent) years, a wife who loves to ride and supports me in my obsession with bikes. I'm rich because my house is filled with the sounds of her playing the violin and the squeals and peals of her young students. I am the 1%, I eat tomatoes straight off the vine, make my coffee black, drink cider pressed from my parents trees, run down paths with only the moon to light my way, see the sunrise each morning, ride like I own the road (because I do), punish my legs and lungs because I can, beat my body stronger so that I can one-arm bench press my wriggling giggling daughter and live to see my son have toddling rug rats of his own.

So when the bank account gets lean, when I cannot afford the bikes I sell, when I walk through homes with rooms larger than my whole house, when I wish for what I do not have, I remember that I am the wealthy, the spoiled, the upper crust, the rich.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Coffeneuring: Rd 2

As the days get shorter and the mornings increasingly grow frosty, the appeal of a hot cup of coffee gets stronger. So strong that an otherwise well-adjusted cyclist will voluntarily ride out long before the sun is up. I will also admit that even though I only need to do one coffee stop per week, I'm front loading this challenge. By the end (even the middle) of this challenge we could be getting snow in the Fields of Dreams, so I've no guarantee that weather will be on my side in the coming weeks.

On to coffee. 

251 North Main Ave. #301
2.5 Miles

Saturday is bike shop day. I work part time at Brothers Bike Shop, mostly as an apprentice bike wrench. As I headed out for coffee, I drug our Sun Atlas Cargo along. Recently, the Sun had been exhibiting very odd behavior in the headset. Despite all my adjusting, the steering was stiff and the fork was rattling in the headset. I finally realized that a small spacing ring had gone missing during one of the disassembly sessions that the Sun had undergone in the last weeks. Without that ring, the spacers would contact the top of the headset without hitting the bearing, meaning that I had steering that was both stiff and loose. Thinking that I would save some time by dropping the Sun off at the shop on my way out to coffee, I pulled the longtail alongside my Schwinn World Tourist. I've towed bikes this way many times before, but this did not go well at all. A 50 lb longtail with stiff steering running alongside is a recipe for a wipe out, and I had to admit defeat after only a block. Mercifully, Brothers is a short walk away.

Left: Minivan.
Right: Dedicated muffin hauler. (The Schwinn has a porter rack
which I can get 2 doz  large muffins on) 
Released from the burden of the family beast of burden, I was free to find some coffee. While we lack a Portland or DC grade concentration of coffee shops, the few we have become institutions for their rarity.
Yep, still dark.
Casey's has been tormenting my town with delicious smells since 1946. They're mostly a bakery, but they do carry coffee, and most importantly for you, they enable me to tell you about the joy of stroopwafels. Unfortunately I was so filled with stroopwafel joy that I took no photo of the interior of the bakery, but gleefully fled the scene. This means that all food photos take place inside my home shop, not to be confused with the interior of a bakery.

While I cannot get fresh made stroopwafels, the imported versions are the perfect coffee snack. Since a stroopwafel is basically a thin waffle with caramel inside, a little heat makes them perfectly gooey.
Unforgettable snack. Forgettable Coffee

Take the lid off the coffee, place stroopwafel over cup. Doing it this way keeps the coffee warm, and in a few minutes you've got...
...something wonderfully gooey.

Now that we've had breakfast, and it's finally getting light out, here's the shop:
It's basically a small two story garage, about 24x36.
My Saturday office.
It has all the usual fixtures, though we mostly work in bike sales/repair, not so much in the apparel department. After working in an office all week, working here is a wonderful change of pace. Here I feel the work I do is a benefit for the people who come here. Plus it's a hobby that I turned into paycheck, so it's not altogether altruistic.
I don't know if it's possible to take a picture of a bike shop
without it looking claustrophobic.
We do manage to get a ton of bikes in a pretty small space. We carry lots of hybrids, entry level road and MTBs, and some city bikes.
I like to get people on everyday bikes. If you're looking for advice on Di2, better go someplace else. If your looking to do RAGBRAI, run errands, just ride around, we're your shop.
If you're in NW Iowa, come check us out!
(Oh, and I did get that steering sorted out on the Atlas. Longtails are a bear to get on the stand though.)

#4 Coffee Shop Without Walls
Lat: 43.08°
3.5 mi
Whoever says Iowa is flat...
is telling the truth.
I know that it's easy to knock on Iowa for its lack of hills, endless fields, and general dullness. Now I've grown up in this area, so it's easy for me to get defensive. To appreciate this part of the midwest, you need to slow down. This is a subtle country, if you're going 60 you'll never notice the small variations, you'll just want the ride to be over.

I recommend waking up early, go someplace quiet with an open view. Don't talk, maybe bring something hot to drink, and just watch the world wake up. You'll find that the stars disappear in a quiet rush, that the one lone dove cooing in the dark will be drowned out by the robins and blackbirds getting up with the sun. You can hear dairy farms miles off start milking, hear the industrial park spooling up for another day.

Something subtle, something hot.
I think that any place is better appreciated if you just sit down and be silent. The world is noisy enough on its own.
If you get snuck up on in Iowa, it's your own fault. Halfway between that tree and the light pole are two little
 dots on the landscape. They're water towers, eight miles away.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Coffeeneuring: Rd 1!

Courtesy the inestimable MG of Chasing Mailboxes, it is my pleasure to bring you round one of my coffee hunting exploits. The Rules can be found here.
Bit of a background; I live here:
My room is just to the left of the "F."
Now, while small rural towns are wonderful to bike in since everything is close together by default, it does present a challenge when trying to find coffee shops. To be clear, there are exactly two coffee shops in town, only one of which you can order an espresso at. That's why I was really happy that MG added the "Coffee Shop without Walls" as an option this year, but we'll get to that later.

Coffee Shop #1

85 W 1st St. 
Sioux Center

One great thing, one good thing, one bleh thing.
Collected poems by Wislawa Szymborska, 5 sp shifter by Suntour, Mocha
For an opener I went to Bulter's, which is about two blocks from the elevator heading up this post. Butler's has been around for about 8 years. It was one of the first Starbucks style coffee shops in town. It's been through a number of ownership changes over the years, though the name seems to have stuck. The shop itself is clean and pleasant with a nice fireplace that'll see heavy use in a few months. The mocha I ordered was bland, not creamy, and veering more bitter than you would expect from a drink that is 90% milk, foam and chocolate. To be fair I'm biased against this shop since my wife works for the other coffee shop in town, so keep that in mind. But I got a few quiet minutes of reading Szymborska in between some errands, so I'll take it.

2.5 miles

"Coffee Shop" #2
 Lat: 43.069483° Lon: -96.139549°
3.5 Miles

While I doubt the Coffee Shop without Walls rule was written just for my benefit, it sure feels like it. A Coffee Shop without Walls is simply "a place you ride your bike to proceed to make and/or drink coffee." Without this rule I'd be looking at 40 mile round trips to find seven shops. Now, I get to enjoy easy rides out to views like this:
The blurriness in this photo is a pretty accurate depiction of how I see the world this early in the morning. 
Early Sunday morning before it was light, before the kids and my wife were awake, I rolled a few miles out of town along the Sandy Hollow Trail. This is a nice little trail that runs out of town to a local campground. About halfway there is a picnic shelter, unremarkable except its wonderful views of a very turbulent sky. Also, that table makes low light shots easy.
The camera makes it look pretty light out. I really could barely see what I was doing.
The mug on the left is full of hot water, mug on right is a small french press, pre-loaded with beans I ground before leaving. We'll call this "Field Press" coffee. The process is a less controlled version of the French Press you all know.
Add Water...

Put on lid, use filter to press grounds into water, stir/shake.
Wait about 3-4 minutes

Enjoy view. Harvest is rolling along nicely.

Stir again, and press. Press using the just the weight of your hand/arm.


Drinker: Scruffy
Coffee: Underdeveloped, oily, not bad
Weather: Rainy, Windy
Morning: Sublime

Clodhopper def: 1) A large, heavy shoe. 2) A foolish, awkward or clumsy person.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The First Century

This past weekend I had the opportunity to complete a century ride with my brother. This ride has been the goal of my training this past year. I have struggled with how to write up such ride.

I have no stories of epic breakdowns-I had only the annoyance of a squeaking chain. There was no battles with traffic-I enjoyed 100 miles of bike trails in the open expanse of central Iowa. No hills-the trail was a converted railroad track. No beautiful photos-the ride started in the rain, so the camera stayed at home.

It was the culmination of over a thousand miles of training. Every road bike ride this summer had this ride in mind. After all that, I spent a day riding a beautiful, quiet loop in near-perfect weather. And now I'm not quite sure what to do. I have other projects to work for (The Living History Farms Run in Nov.), but the switch is still jarring.

The century ride went well, better than I had expected. At the end of the ride I was sore, and a bit bored of being on the bike, but I felt like I had another 50 miles left in my legs. We held a slower, 15 mph average for the ride. For about 10 miles in the later half of the route we experimented with pacelines, working up to a 18-21 mph pace. We were forced into a slower pace as it got dark.

It's only been a few days and already what I remember is getting blurry. I remember how cold and miserable the first miles were as we faced into the rain, and the relief as the trail moved into the trees and the rain tapered off. I remember dodging golf-ball sized walnuts that occasionally carpeted the trail.

There was the joy of being out on a bike that tapered down to drudgery as we reached the halfway point, in need of a break, and really, really needing something to eat. Then the vibrant rhythm of pulling for my brother, seeing if I could hold 20+ for mile long shifts.

Then the rapidly falling night, the dark tunnel through the trees giving way to small town centers. We were almost entirely alone, rare on a trail that sees hundreds of cyclists each weekend.

And then we were done, grateful to be sitting in the warm car, though jittery in our attempts to keep legs loose after an eight hour effort. I was tired, but not obliterated as I had by 50 mile rides. I expected some sort of epiphany as a rider, but I was simply tired and very hungry.

Now rested and with aches well in the past, I think what this successful ride has given me is a hunger. I will do this again. I will do it faster, on harder courses. I will not shy from foul weather, I will train in the dark, in the heat, even the snow if I can find a line.

The Almanzo 100 is May 17. It is a brutal gravel course with 6100 ft of climbing, capped off by a 8% grade climb in the final miles. I'm afraid of this ride.

But I'm going to be there.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Are you afraid of the dark?

After a late August and early where I struggled to stay motivated in my training, I feel like I'm back in the groove this week. The humidity is finally starting to ease up, daytime highs are more mild, and the mornings have a lovely crispness to them that I've missed.

All these good things come at a price, and that price is shorter days. Specifically, my early morning training rides (5:30-6:30am) now take place entirely in the dark. In the heights of summer I wouldn't even bother with a taillight, now I'm running full headlight/taillight and wishing I had some reflective gear to strap on. I plan on quitting the early morning rides (switch to running) after the century ride I have scheduled Sept 28, but that leaves me two weeks where I need to be on the bike every day.

The darkness has cut my options for routes dramatically. My small town is about 3 miles long, maybe a mile wide. There are a fair number of quiet, well lit streets to pick from, but it's tough to get more than a half mile without turning or stopping.

Having a broken up route is annoying, but the bigger issue is visibility. I have a half-watt taillight and headlight from Planet bike. I find this setup perfectly sufficient while in town where my visibility is augmented by streetlights.  Beyond the streetlights, I start feeling very, very vulnerable. My biggest fear is meeting a car and becoming difficult to see for overtaking traffic. I've snagged a reflective vest from the cycling section of the local hardware store, I guess it'll be an improvement, but I don't know if it'll be enough to be out riding without feeling invisible.

How about you? Any recommendations for riding in traffic in the dark?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Carry the weight of the world

As I've mentioned before, my wife and I are blessed with two small children. Our daughter E is 3 1/2, our son O is about 10 months old. When O turned 8, we judged that his head control was good enough to go into our Bobike mini, which we had also used with E until she outgrew it. All was well, until my wife K tried hauling E as well.

First we tried the trailer. E found this incredibly uncomfortable, and the limited 5 speed gearing on K's Raleigh mixte made pulling the weight difficult. We bought a cheap rack mounted child seat. E loved it, but the weight was still an issue, and K reported feeling the bike frame twist under the strain. K also wanted to be able to run errands, but the combined weight of children and cargo was way beyond what K or her bike could handle.

So we researched cargo bikes. We needed a bike that could:
1. Haul multiple, growing children safely. It needed to have a low step over, low gearing, and preferably have a double kickstand.
2. Manage significant amounts of cargo (groceries mostly)
3. Fit both K and myself. She's 5'7", I'm 6'3".
4. Be affordable, it was unlikely that we could swing anything above $1000.

We tossed around every permutation we could find. First up was a Workcycles Fr8 (pronounced "freight")

Yes, you can hold three children on that bike.

K wanted one desperately but spending 2500 to buy and outfit that bike was out of the question.

A bakfiets was also discarded for the same reason, though we both tried every justification to make such a purchase possible.
Who thought the lovechild between a bike and a wheelbarrow could be so beautiful.

Our options were starting to thin out. I thought about converting an old MTB to an xtracycle, but K discarded that due to stepover issues, and I knew it would be tough to find a stepthrough frame that would fit us both without twisting like a noodle.

The remaining option was a longtail. Both the Yuba and Surly models have been around for a few years, both receiving rave reviews from the families that use them. Both would run well over $1500 to $2000. K and I had pretty much given up at this point, but resolved to keep saving money towards some sort of solution.

Then, while digging through the J&B catalog searching for a folding bike for a customer, I noticed that Sun made a longtail, called the Atlas Cargo.

More digging showed that this longtail was also compatible with xtracycle parts. The step over is the lowest of any longtail, and it was compatible with the Bobike mini. Most attractive was the price, somewhere in the $650s for a complete bike. We would need to get a new rear seat, a Yepp, but that was a cost we were expecting.

Still more digging did turn up some concerns. Various buyers noted poor quality welds, and the components were very cheap. But users also noticed that the Atlas was one of the easiest handling longtails, and it's unisex/one size design would fit both K and myself.

K and I decided to go for it, and that's when things got complicated. There were exactly two left in the country, both down in Birmingham. Nothing against Birmingham, but it's rather expensive to ship a giant bike from Alabama to Iowa. My boss at the bike shop starting making some calls, and found that Varsity Bike and Transit in Minneapolis had one in stock, and they were willing to hold it for me if I wanted it. In a freakish coincidence, K and I were planning on heading up to the Twin Cities that very weekend to attend the state fair.

Pick-up at the shop was a bit of a blur. Varsity is a block north of the U of Minn, and students were swarming the area and packing into the shop. After waiting in this very cool shop for a bit, one of the wrenches wheeled up with the bike. A quick spin around the block confirmed that this was a very, very smooth bike, precise in handling, if a bit (understandably) wide around the turns.

Some Tetris style packing into the minivan, and we were on our way.

Now we are in a bit of a holding pattern. We're waiting on panniers and a part for the Yepp seat. Once those parts are in place, I'll be letting you know our thoughts. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Slow is seeing

Earlier today, John of onespeedgo.blogspot.com posted a few photos of storm clouds billowing over Phoenix, AZ. I'm not sure why, but they filled me with an incredible longing to ride in that place, a place so foreign from anything I've known.

If classified, I think that my various homes throughout the years would firmly place me as homebody. My parents never moved from the farm that my father and grandfather had grown up on. I went to a small college 60 miles from home, and got a job in the same town as the college, where I have lived ever since. I've never been out of Iowa or Minnesota for more than a week, never been in any other country than Canada (a few hours I spent in Tijuana does not count).

Now with two kids and steady employment for both my wife and myself, it seems unlikely that we'll move anywhere anytime soon.

I've spent much of my time this past year reading anything I could about cycling. Along with the technical reports have been multitudes of ride and trip reports to places that I'd never even thought of or knew existed.   Now filled with a longing to explore these places, I find myself in a position where achieving those trips is borderline impossible.

Now that cycling has filled me with desire that I cannot satisfy, it may be strange to hear me say that it has also provided an outlet.

Last weekend I led a small group of cyclists on a gravel ride down to a local pizzeria in the microscopically small town of Carnes (3 houses, an abandoned elevator, and the pizzeria). The food was excellent, but the ride back was sublime. Pushed by a cooling tailwind, we glided back, the setting sun no longer roasting us as it had in the afternoon. We spoke calmly of many things, or rode silently as we felt the need. We moved as a loosely defined organism, no sound louder than our laughter and the swish of gravel under our tires.

We explored and experienced anew a land that has been radically altered from its original prairie state. That may be a tragedy, or it may be a manifestation of the potential of the land. We moved slow enough to experience the undulations of a subtle land, a land that does not shock, but can still surprise. It's a land where you can see a person a mile off, but be startled by a dust colored dove winging out of a ditch.

Iowa is a land transformed into a near mono culture of corn and soybeans, dotted liberally with cattle yards and hog confinements  Few come here for vacation unless family calls them back. I will live here for a while, I may live a whole life and be buried here. It can be an ugly, crushing place if you try to rush though it. I may want to be elsewhere, but what I need is here. I want to move slowly enough to see its beauty, because slow is seeing.

Monday, June 17, 2013

How to train for a century

5:00 am and the alarm is beeping. Swat it silent. Do math on night before. Kids wake during the night? How often? How long? How much better will my day be if this next hour is spent moving or sleeping? Hit alarm again.

Shamble out of bed, dig out jersey and shorts, find socks. Cell phone in ziploc bag to keep out grit and sweat. Bagged phone in center jersey pocket. Eat half banana, few gulps of water. Fill bottle.

5:20 am. Take bike from hook in wall. Check rear tire that always seems to be a bit low. Thirty seconds with the frame pump. If rain is possible, lash jacket to rear rack.

5:25 am and I'm caged in, checking for new squeaks or clunks. First stop sign is also a check on the weather. Find the wind, turn my head into it. I ride the headwind for half my time and take whatever roads look suitable, trying to remember each by name and last known condition. I'm often wrong, and gravel often changes.

I find new hills, new combinations of paved and gravel. The unending checkerboard pattern of roads mean that any A to B has numerous variations to suit mood and weather. I grind up hills and try to hang on on the way down, hear the tires humming on paved and spraying grit on the gravel. Pick my shifts carefully, reaching for the downtube just before the loose patches.

Turn away from the wind. The sun is up and the jacket is off. Reach down and turn off tail light. Check watch, maybe add a loop if time permits. Legs are starting to burn. Return to town. Maybe chase a car, maybe sit up.

6:30. Return. 15 miles or so in for the day. Time to clean up, eat, brew coffee to share with my love, kiss the kids goodbye, and start the day for the second time.

Monday, June 10, 2013

WOW in the wet

I am eastbound, cycling into a quartering crosswind, attempting to draft while avoiding the rooster tails of the others in my group. We're about 35 miles into a 50 mile ride. It has been raining since mile 5.

We pass a farm where a hog confinement is being unloaded into a waiting semi. In my life I have loaded thousands of trailers with tens of thousands of hogs. I know exactly how warm and dry it is inside that building.

I'd rather be out here.

The Wellness on Wheels ride is an annual charity ride that takes a loop through the north central part of Sioux County. Generally intended as a rec ride, the two lengths (35 and 50) also serve as training ride for local riders prepping for RAGBRAI. Climbing is minimal, and the ride is fully supported with food at three stops, and SAG wagons patrolling the route.

I arrived at the start about 6:15, where about dozen riders were signing in before the 6:30 departure (an 8:00 start was also available). Typically the ride draws about a hundred riders, but the 100% chance of rain kept many away.

I saw a few familiar faces, and after filling out the (I-won't-sue-if-I-get-struck-by-lightening) waiver forms, I joined up with a group of four and rolled out. Heading west out of town,  we were immediately confronted with a deep dark blue horizon that could only mean rain. Two of our group immediately announced that they had no intention of riding in the rain at all, and would turn around if (when) it began to rain. We were all dreading that first roll of thunder that would immediately end our ride.

As we approached our first turn (look for an ethanol plant) the first sprinkles began. True to their word, two of our group turned around and headed home. I suppose when one has been doing rides like these for decades, the need and desire to ride in the rain begins to fade.

The remaining two of us continued north. After riding together for a few miles through increasing rain, I jumped onto a passing group. We rolled into Rock Valley under light but steady rain. I dismounted and started heading for the cooler full of food. Then I learned that the group I was with was on the 35 mile loop, while a group just heading out was on the 50 mile route. I quickly remounted my bike and tagged onto the departing 50 mile group.

One of the reasons for wanting to do this ride was the chance to ride with experienced cyclists who would (among other things) hold me to a slower pace. All my training rides are around 16-19 mph, which I cannot sustain for more than 30 miles. I have finished every ride longer than 50 miles utterly wasted because I always start too fast. B sticking with a group, I hoped to hold a more sustainable pace.

As we exited Rock Valley, the rain increased. The group was mixed, including a cyclist who had never rode more than 40 miles before, and another who was preparing for her second cross country tour. We held to a 14-16 mph pace as we turned towards Doon, the second town on our ride. This leg was quite pleasant, spent most of it talking and getting to know the cyclists in the group.

By the time we reached Doon, we were all soaked through. We were the lead group for this route, and the person responsible for bringing food and water had not yet arrived. A few calls through ziploc bagged phones, and the food was on it's way. This part of the course actually looped out before returning to Doon, so we decided to head out and reload on food on the return trip. We hustled on out, motivated by the thought of something to eat, and our quickly chilling bodies during the brief minutes of the stop.

While riding, I actually was quite comfortable. The jacket I wore eventually became saturated and ceased to keep me from getting wet, but it still kept me from being cold, and a light pair of gloves kept my hands from going numb. The dynamics of the group helped as well. Say what you will about the people of NW Iowa (boring, too conservative, narrow minded, etc.) they're incredibly stoic when it comes to enduring bad weather. No complaints were heard. If a person decided to drop out, they said so, wished everyone else well, and headed home.

Two of our group decided to return to Rock Valley rather than continue. The remaining riders were the cross county rider, and a college prof on his first 50 mile ride. A crosswind began thrashing us with the rain, which continued to come down steady. We set up a staggered pace line trying to keep a tight group despite the wind.

Even though this leg was only a few miles, it felt like the longest of the ride. We were just over halfway, we were soaked, barely staying warm, and alone. For all we knew, we were the only riders still attempting the course. The remaining miles would be all facing a growing wind, and rain that showed no signs of lessening. The rain was pouring down at this point, and running down the road in rivers. I think the concentration required by riding in a group kept me from dwelling on the fully deteriorated conditions. By myself, I don't know what I would have done.

Then came the turn south. Somehow, knowing that we were now getting closer to home helped my mood. We continued our staggered pace line, swapping every mile or so. We remarked that passing cars had been very respectful  I supposed the oddity of three riders riding nearly abreast (taillights ablaze) in the pouring rain was enough to get their attention.

Hull came up sooner than expected. We stopped long enough to pound bananas and granola bars, and I quickly texted "Hull. Wet." to my wife, before getting back on the road. The work of bucking the wind kept us warm, and I knew the distance remaining was now falling towards the single digits. The virtue of the slower pace showed as only now did my  legs begin to feel tired.

Sioux Center came up almost as a surprise. We pulled into the parking lot, got a photo of our drenched selves, and headed home to a very welcome warm shower.

Total Mileage: 55
Ride time: 4hrs
Average speed: 14.6

(I apologize for the lack of photos, but the rain meant the camera absolutely stayed at home.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

May in review

I suppose you could call it the blogger's paradox: When you have time to write, there is little to write about, conversely when their is much to write about, there is little time to write.

In May, spring finally showed up...sorta. The early part of the month gave us below normal temps, and we received nearly ten inches of rain over Memorial Day weekend, which caused some localized flooding and residential damage.

I was happy to work in significant use of bikes for my day job. My work requires taking photos of homes in the towns in this county, and using a bike seemed like a good alternative to a car. The experiment was an unequivocal success. I regret that the project is now done, and I can find no reasonable excuse to get out and ride for my work. 

In spite of the weather I managed just shy of 300 miles of riding. While not amazing mileage, I feel pretty good working in those rides while balancing 1.5 jobs and a young family. Almost all of my training rides happen between 5:30 and 6:30 am, before kids are up and before I need to deliver baked goods at 7.

The cool and wet spring has made a maintaining a consistent riding schedule tough. "No such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing" turns into a lie when lighting gets involved, especially in an exposed landscape like NW Iowa.

A big change in my training this year has been the inclusion of gravel roads. In my area around 80% of the roads are gravel, so adding them has radically increased the potential routes. By their nature, the gravel roads are less traveled, so I get to have the roads almost completely to myself. The catch is the ever changing nature of the roads. Weather, maintenance, and use can alter the road conditions overnight

I've found the increased difficulty of these roads has made me more confident in my bike handling and stronger while climbing. Initially I felt that my 1980's steel lugged bike would be a poor choice for gravel, but it easily fits 32mm tires. Unfortunately the 27" wheels do limit my tire options to sizes 32mm and narrower. I am very interested in trying tires 35mm and larger, and hopefully a 700c size bike is in my not too distant future. When the roads are in poor condition, especially when soft, the narrow tires do make handling difficult. That said, when I can find a good track, my pace approaches that of riding on a tar road. A side note: downtube shifters are not a good idea for a gravel bike, they make downshifting when managing bad road conditions way more trouble than necessary.

The first test is coming up this weekend, a 50 mile loop on paved roads with pretty minor climbing. This spring I have been unable to get in a ride longer than 30 miles, so I'm actually rather nervous. The biggest concern is the weather, I'm not much of a match against some of the headwinds that this region can cook up.

In regards to the bike shop, things could not be going better. Once the weather began to warm up business picked up dramatically. I should clarify, business picked up once people had a chance to take their first ride and realize they wanted something better to ride. I continue to be amazed how easy it is to sell someone a bike. My wife and I operate on a very strict budget, so I'm baffled that customers walk in, take a bike for a ride, and walk out with a new bike in under 15 min. Maybe I over think things, but I could never make a decision on a bike that easy, nor drop that kind of money without seemingly a second thought. I promise I'm not trying to shove them out the door, but people come in with their minds made up, and if they're happy and riding, I'm happy.

Repairs have tapered off a bit, mostly just assembling new bikes and fixing many, many flats. This weekend I passed a wrenching milestone when I tire I was inflating exploded. My boss was standing a few feet away with his back to the tire. I'm quite certain I removed a few years from his life. Sorry boss.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Biking at Work

As I mentionioned, I spent Thursday on my bike, taking photos of houses as part of my job. This was to be an experiment in the effeciancy of a bike versus a car.

I'm pleased to report that the experiment was a resounding success. Using the bike allowed my more maneuverability in some of the odd corners of town, and I covered about the same distance that I would have by car.

One fear I had was how suitable my office clothing would be for a day in the saddle. I did need to maintain the same level of dress as I would on any other day. Many bloggers(LGRAB most notably) have written extensively on biking in ordinary clothes for women. For guys, you really only need to be careful that none of your pants seams run in unfortunate areas. My only modification was to wear padded shorts under the khakis that I usually wear. My "photo bike" also has a pretty  padded seat, so spending a full day in the saddle never became painful. (However, I will admit that I'm glad today is a rest day off the bike because my legs are shot.)

Unlike Lovely Bicycle's speedy lightweight Rawland, my photo bike is a Schwinn Suburban, one of the heaviest bikes known to man. After adding the solid steel front rack, it became the heaviest. Mercifully, the hills in my corner of Iowa are pretty short in both height and duration.

In any event, my setup worked pretty good. The upright seating made being in the saddle all day comfortable, it was also easy to ride one handed and manage the camera. I strapped a clipboard with the maps onto the porteur rack, which made things very easy to see. The board did want to rattle, but some foam tubes from the new bikes at the LBS zip tied to the racks silenced that annoyance nicely. Spare batteries for the camera were carried in the small saddlebag that usually holds tire levers and multi-tools. My camera is pretty lightweight, so I carried in slung over my shoulder messenger bag style.

The big concern with this experiment was productivity compared to a car. I estimate I took photos of about 350-400 homes, which is right about what I would have done in a car. The increased maneuverability  coupled with ease of shooting from any angle (as opposed to out the window of a car) more than made up for time lost due to slower speed. In addition, being out in the open kept me more alert throughout the day, both in regards to my job, and to traffic and pedestrians around me. Instead of feeling lazy and lethargic as usual after a day in the car, I felt the comfortable, alert tired of a good long day of work.

Over the last year, I've undergone a revelation concerning bikes. I'm beginning to understand that they are a blank canvas that can be melded to a dizzying array of tasks if we're just willing to use some imagination and dare to try something a bit different.