Route Details

We know what you’re thinking: “the Midwest is flat with nothing but cows and cornfields”. The Minnesota 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. After a quick return to the Mississippi River valley, you'll work 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 will be spent 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.” 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 starts with relatively mellow rolling roads. Eventually, though 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”. A ride highlight occurs early on day 2, when you will climb and pass through the legendary Mindoro Cut.  At the Mindoro cut, the road passes between two towering rock walls barely wider than the paved road. The cut is the second deepest cut built by hand in the western hemisphere.

Although the total climbing on the whole 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 your 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 2023, 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 ridge tops. 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, then into Winona which is where your third and final overnight is located.

The great news about day 4 is that it is shorter and significantly easier than the previous days. For starters, 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 welcoming committee.

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, leaving at 1p is the Tour de Twin Cities 100k Populaire, a leisurely tour of the metroplex cycling infrastructure. This will be an easy spin on bike trails and lanes, passing by several notable highlights while enjoying one of the best cycling environments in the US. One of  the Twin Cities premier ice cream parlors will be a popular control.

A number of shorter open ride options will also be available, starting from the host hotel. Pick a distance (10-20 miles) and when you want to start. Cue sheets/GPS links will be provided.

On Sunday afternoon, starting at 1:00pm one or two seminars are being planned relating to PBP. This promises to be both informative and entertaining for seasoned PBP riders as well as riders that are planning their first PBP in 2023.

On Sunday evening at 5:00pm all riders and support people are invited to convene for the pre-ride buffet dinner with general introductions and a brief pre-ride overview to make the Monday morning start easy.

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 host hotel (e.g. theatres, book stores, restaurants, coffee shops) or 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 theater, art, and music.

A Great Paris-Brest-Paris Pre-Ride

Of all the 1200k events offered in in the US in 2022, the Coulee Challenge is closest to what riders will experience in France in 2023. The overall amount of climbing is about the same as PBP.  The Coulee ride has more overall climbs, some of them steep, but a significant 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 2022 will be well prepared for PBP in 2023. 67% of Coulee Challenge participants in 2018 went on to ride PBP in 2019