Route Details

We know what you’re thinking: “the Midwest is flat with nothing but cows and cornfields”. The Minnesota Randonneurs and Driftless Randonneurs invite you to join us on a Grand Randonnée through some of the most beautiful cycling terrain in the world that will forever change your notion about cycling in the Midwest.

The ride starts in Apple Valley, MN, a southern suburb of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and quickly takes you out of town onto quiet roads through rolling farmland (and yes, you might see a cow or two!) with stretches through some forested areas near Lake Byllesby toward the first control at Cannon Falls. From there we head toward Wisconsin with a series of climbs and rollers that are rewarded with “forever views” as you pass through the 'high plains'. You’ll cross the Mississippi at Red Wing where you’ll then do a lengthy cruise along Lake Pepin which is a naturally occurring lake created by the backup of water behind sedimentary deposits of the Chippewa River delta. “Ol’ Man River” backs up and slows down there into the largest lake on the entire river. The locally well known Maiden Rock climb along this stretch will remind you of the challenges ahead.

Leaving the control in Pepin, you’ll head north to Elmwood then south to Alma before working your way eastward toward Black River Falls and a well-earned rest at the first overnight. Your registration includes overnights in hotels along the way, dinner and breakfast and progressive bag drops so all you need to do when you get to an overnight is shower, eat and sleep! Day two and most of day three are deep in the Driftless region of SW Wisconsin.

OK, what’s this Driftless stuff? Briefly, in the last ice age, retreating glaciers left behind silt, clay and boulders called “drift”. The glaciers didn’t make it this far South so the resulting area is “driftless” – get it? But the real benefit to randonneurs is an area of beautiful hills carved by rivers into coulees that generally drain toward the Mississippi River. You’ll get to experience all this first hand with challenging climbs up to ridge-tops and long sections through quiet river valleys.

The second day is when you’ll experience the full variety of the terrain on offer and if the first day wasn’t enough to convince you this is when you’ll erase that notion of the Midwest being “flat”. Although the total climbing on the route is fairly typical for a Grand Randonnée at about 34K feet you’ll find what the region lacks in altitude in makes up in frequency as you’ll either be going up or down for a good portion of the ride. You’ll appreciate strong legs or lots of gears (or both!) with 5%-11% grades the norm as well as a couple of 15% pitches to get the blood up. The good news is the climbs are linked together either by extended runs on the ridge tops or through valleys to give you a chance to cool off a bit and get in some faster miles. If you are planning on Paris-Brest-Paris in 2019, this is an excellent preparation ride.

Leaving the second overnight in Reedsburg you’ll head toward Richland Center then along the Pine River headed for Norwalk. The stretch from Reedsburg all the way to Viroqua is characterized by quiet roads, stretches along river valleys (both the Pine and Kickapoo) as well as some good climbs up to the ridgetops. As was the case on the previous day, your effort will be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding hills and valleys. This area also features a number of Amish farms so be on the lookout for horses and buggies.

From Viroqua you’ll head back toward your second crossing of the Mississippi at Bluff Siding/Winona. One of the things the locals know is that any time you cross the river your next move is “up” as you climb the bluffs around the river and this is definitely the case coming out of Winona which is where your third and final overnight is located.

Don’t worry though, the climb out of the Mississippi River Valley, now in Minnesota, is a gentle meander up a wide valley that will help you gradually get started on your fourth day.  For the next 70 miles you will experience the Minnesota version of the Driftless area, which is a little more open, mostly on the 'high plains' with fewer long hills. When you reach Hay Creek and a beautiful bicycle trail along the creek on the way into Red Wing you will know that the toughest challenges of the ride have been conquered and you can relax and enjoy the rest of the ride

Leaving Red Wing on the Cannon Valley State Bicycle Trail will be a relaxing, gentle way to ease out of the Mississippi River Valley for the last time. After the final route control in Cannon Falls, a short, fairly flat cruise will get you back to Apple Valley and the finish line!

High level Coulee Challenge 1200k route map


On Route Support

Riders will enjoy on route support throughout the entire course including a progressive bag drop each day and dinner/breakfast provided at the overnight hotels. Support vehicles will be on the route each day to handle neutral support, bike repair and emergency services. The route passes through several small lake and river towns that may have c-stores, cafes, restaurants and in some places, medical services. Minnesota and Wisconsin have been recognized nationally for their bicycle friendly ambience on the roads and in small towns and cities.

Pre-Ride Activities

With a Monday morning start, riders are encouraged to come to Minneapolis/St Paul for the weekend to get prepared, enjoy some relaxation time in a very comfortable city and sample one of the best urban bicycling infrastructures in North America.

On Saturday, there are two easy ride options to choose from. Leaving around 1p is a 100k Populaire tour of the Twin Cities cycling infrastructure. This will be an easy spin on bike trails and lanes, visiting several notable metro highlights and enjoying one of the best cycling environments in the US. The ride will stop around mile 50 at a very nice restaurant on a bike trail and the food and beverages are excellent. A shorter version of this ride will leave the host hotel around 4p and will arrive at the same restaurant about 5p. Pace is easy, about 25 miles total. You can also choose to rest up and drive directly to the restaurant to join the rest of the group. Participants are responsible for their meal and refreshments.

On Sunday afternoon two seminars are planned, both relating to PBP topics. The first seminar is a presentation on the History of PBP. We put this together for PBP 2015 for a large group of rando and non-rando people and it was very popular. There will also be some PBP historical ambience items and pictures available in the room to admire and view.

The second session is a panel discussion about preparing for and riding PBP in 2019. This will be valuable for first time PBP riders and experienced PBP anciennes as there are some changes from past PBPs, especially for North American riders, that you will want to know about. Questions for the panelists are welcomed.

On Sunday evening all riders and support people are invited to convene for the pre-ride buffet dinner with some general introductions, a brief ride overview and refreshments.

In addition to these pre-ride activities over the weekend, see the On-Site Services menu item for more information on other things to do near the AmericInn host hotel (e.g. theaters, book stores, restaurants, coffee shops) or connect with one of our ride organizers ( for more information on other activities in the Twin Cities area, for example, the Mall of America, Minnesota Zoo, downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, the famous Midtown Greenway bike path through Minneapolis, live theatre, music, etc.

A Great Paris-Brest-Paris Pre-Ride

Of all the 1200k events offered in in the US in 2018, the Coulee Challenge is closest to what riders will experience in France in 2019. The overall amount of climbing is about the same as PBP.  The Coulee ride has more overall climbs, some of them steep, but a good part of the course is rolling hills on quiet roads, very similar to Western France.  The road surface quality of the Coulee Challenge is very good to excellent, similar to PBP roads.

Riders that complete the Coulee Challenge in 2018 will be well prepared for PBP in 2019.

As part of the pre-ride activities, we are planning to hold at least one PBP based seminar on the day before the ride. This will be for first time and experienced PBP riders to get the details on how to plan your trip and what to expect. There are a number of changes since PBP 2015 that riders will need to know about.