Mary and I successfully re-entered the world of the grand randonnees at the inaugural Coulee Challenge 1200, staged Aug. 13-16 in Minnesota and Wisconsin. While other randonneurs knock off 1200K rides (or longer) at a semi-regular pace, this was our first one since 2012.
It wasn’t our first 1200K – it was our fourth, actually, including Paris-Brest-Paris in 2011 – so we knew the drill. The question was whether our approach of mostly daylight riding still held up.
Good news on that front: we had a solid ride, finishing in 82:55, while nabbing three-to-four hours sleep per night and starting each day at or before 4 a.m. There was no rain save for a shower on the final day, which we missed.
The event was a lot of fun, though it was a difficult course at times. There were welcoming pre- and post-ride gatherings too. Congratulations to all the riders who got out there and to those that finished their first 1200K. More about that below.
Here are our top takeaways:
1. Great Organization Makes a Great Event
The Minnesota Randonneurs, led by Rob Welsh, and the Driftless Randonneurs, led by Greg Smith, helped us in ways big and small. Store controls were nicely spaced about every 35 miles and the overnight hotels had our drop bags, room assignments and hot food waiting for us, staffed by cheerful volunteers. The course was easy to follow via cue sheet and via our Garmin GPS.
In sum, we just had to ride. Greg and his helpers did a nice job of following the riders around and signed cards at a couple of controls. He even texted me about a spare rear wheel when we thought ours had a bearing problem, though it turned out to be OK. Thanks Greg! Rob Welsh came out the first day as well to see us, and Dan Diehn caught up to us on Day 3 in La Crosse.
2. Upbeat Riders Keep Spirits High
We were impressed by our fellow riders. A total 89 starters included veteran randonneurs; the Texas/Dan & Pam riders and the Colorado folks in particular rode together and kept up the banter. A well-prepared group of more recent randonneurs were out, some from the endurance/adventure scene, who took to the rules and rigors of the event with good cheer. In all, 76 completed the event, with 29 first-timers; 11 women finished, with seven first-timers.
We got timely advice from Ian Shopland of Seattle about our noisy rear hub (don’t worry, keep riding!) and lots of photo love from Deb Ford. Everybody shared extra ice and extra water at the controls, and a kind word.
This ride also included some of our far-flung randonneur pals from rides past, including Ian, Rick Rodeghier of North Carolina, John Lee Ellis and Tim Foon Feldman of Colorado, Jeff Newberry of Texas, Bill Russell of Massachusetts, Art Fuoco of Florida, and volunteer Mark Olsen. Great to see you all!
3. Driftless Means Hilly
This course was billed as a good tuneup for Paris-Brest-Paris, with about 32,000 feet of climbing. You might wonder how in the world the Minnesota Randonneurs and the Driftless Randonneurs came up with this much climbing though the corn fields of the Midwest.
Turns out Driftless means sections of climbing one short, stiff wall after another. The Coulee has much steeper hilly pitches than PBP, a feature of the driftless region in southwest Wisconsin, which features sharp ridges and valleys. Bill Russell counted 29 significant hills, and a number had sections of greater than 10 percent incline; Excelsior Road, mile 338, took everything we had not to get off and walk.
4. Western Wisconsin has Amazingly Quiet Roads
Greg Smith told us at the pre-ride meeting that we’d see few drivers, and that was wonderfully true. We rode many sections with a driver passing only occasionally. It wasn’t until we neared La Crosse on the third day and then rode through Minnesota on the fourth day that traffic increased. We only got negative vibes from two Minnesota drivers, both on an otherwise empty road; you win the friendly award, Wisconsin!
5. Wisconsin has Better Roads
We didn’t encounter any serious frost heaves until the return day in Minnesota, particularly US 63. Wisconsin roads were generally smooth and cracks were patched. I was told that the state paved all their back roads to get crops to market, and that they still put a lot of work into maintaining them.
6. It Gets Hot in Wisconsin and Minnesota
Greg said at the pre-ride meeting we would not need Camelbaks, as the controls were not far apart and we’d pass through other towns to get water.
As we prepared for the ride, I had this vision of days in the 70s or low 80s, like PBP. Not so! Temperatures rose into the low 90s three of the four days; our Garmin measured 99 degrees on the hottest day on one section.
We were glad we took our small Camelbaks – despite the relative proximity of towns – which we filled with ice water in afternoons. Cold water is such a treat during a hot climb!
7. Dual Overnight Hotels: A Good Idea
We were among the riders who stayed at the second of the dual hotels used as overnight controls on the first and third nights. This meant on the first one in Black River Falls, Wis. we had an extra half-mile ride to and from the hotel, and a quarter-mile farther in Winona, Minn.
I considered this unfair in the moment, but it had a silver lining. Each of the hotels was relatively quiet and we were able to relax without a lot of people rushing around. Plus, the volunteers at both were terrific, too. And the food was great, lasagna and spaghetti at the first one and chicken and mashed potatoes at the second one. Our overnight at the same hotel on the second night was fine, it had a big conference room and we saw more riders, but the smaller overnights were nice.
8. Look for That Nap Stop
On Day 3 we were dragging in the afternoon. I wasn’t falling asleep, but was not sharp, either. Mary and I started looking for a shaded place to get 10 minutes shuteye and she spied it, a covered pavilion space on the way to Coon Valley with picnic tables.
There was a light breeze to push away the mosquitos and make napping perfect. I felt much better afterward and it barely cost us any time.
9. Tend to Noises!
We heard a clicking from the rear of the bike just as reached Taliesin, the home of Frank Lloyd Wright, at mile 376. Ian Shopland, who has a lot of bike expertise, examined our hub and diagnosed a sticky bearing. He said it wouldn’t hurt to keep riding, though it would tick at times.
The next day the bike was clicking away on the worst uphills, which we ignored, but the noise came from the front of the bike. There was also a clinking noise on bumps and shifting became fiddly as we headed to the overnight. Thursday morning before we left I discovered one of our six S&S couplers, on the captain’s downtube, had loosened completely. Tightening it up solved our shifting woes and all the noises went away. I just wish I had done this Tuesday night.
10. Tandem Friendly? A Qualified Yes.
We slowed to a crawl on the hills, but most of the time we rolled along with respectable momentum, even though our steel Co-Motion Java touring tandem isn’t particularly light. I didn’t feel like we were fighting to make progress, other than a very hilly and hot 28-mile stretch into Alma at mile 165 on the first day and during parts of the first 108 miles of the second day, which included Excelsior and other difficult climbs.
The other tandem team of Ann and John Jurczynski were a delight to meet and watch. They flew away from us at the Monday start on their Santana titanium tandem with a big group on their wheel.
Later that day…!
We got ahead of them while they stopped for four hours getting a loaner tandem at the bike shop in quaint Viroqua, Wisconsin, at mile 307. Their Santana frame cracked and the shop owner offered them a Salsa Powderkeg flat bar steel mountain tandem that he outfitted with their saddles, bars and slick tires.
Ann and John were first to complete the ride, in just over 79 hours, and we were among the initial 10 riders. We were not racing, but we pushed it hard over the final 30 miles to outrun a thunderstorm. Tandems can get around this course! Bring low gears, though.
The Coulee Challenge joins the Cascade 1200 and High Country 1200 as a highlight of our randonneuring experiences and should be a must-do for anyone who likes riding hills. Like the others, the Coulee had an intriguing route that made the most of a region worth seeing by bike, terrific volunteers and solid support, and mostly quiet, scenic roads.
Greg isn’t sure when it will be run again, but we’d consider returning when that happens. We certainly feel better prepared for PBP next year.
Thanks for reading!