JeffGreg Smith suggested to us at the pre-ride meeting (where many of us were concerned with the “nuts and bolts” of the ride—overnight control closing times, and so forth) that we remember to relax and just take it the scenery. He told us that the course had a good flow to it and that we’d find ourselves descending into valleys in the morning mist, catching sight of a barn glistening in the first rays of the sun and, you know, he was so right; these perfect vistas never grew old, never failed to make me appreciate how good it is to travel, how invigorating it can be to see new countryside and take in its unique character. I found myself becoming fascinated with grain silos and looking forward to my first Amish buggy sighting. Then there were those formidable Coulees, like mountain passes in miniature, twisting upward out of the valleys, through trees throwing glorious shade in the afternoon heat, until finally topping out on a plateau where we finally catch our breath and take in the expansive farmland views from on high. Then it’s just a matter of a few miles until the “truck on cheese” signs and we go soaring down yet another satisfying, surprisingly long lasting descent, largely on smooth roads and rarely technical in nature, the sort of bomb run where even the most cautious can likely just “let it go” and enjoy the payback earned from the previous tough climb. Soon enough we’d find ourselves in yet another beautiful, lush valley and this was the cycle we came to expect and enjoy for much of the ride, punctuated by the increasingly familiar Kwik Trip control.
Before the ride I had been cautioning my training buddy, Rob Tulloh, that sometimes something will happen to you on a 1200K that throws off your plans and you find yourself stuck playing a lousy hand, falling way behind schedule, scrambling to stay in the game. Oh, how that ended up happening to me— yet again! Just before reaching mile 85 in Pepin, I felt myself falling off pace with my Texas pals and shortly after I reached the control, I knew I was going to be sick. I urged Dan and Pam to take off without me, and then up came the contents of my stomach! Without wasting another moment, I topped off my bottles, tried to hold down a Coke, then starting turning the pedals, though it soon became obvious I was running on fumes. For the next 80 miles, I could not keep up with anyone for long, most especially on the climbs. Eventually Rob (who’d been riding at a sensible pace) caught up with me, though as the road tilted upward my pace slowed to a crawl. I suggested that he take off to bank some sleep time, as my condition was going to take hours to improve. Before I’d reached Alma at mile 166, I’d made two emergency trips into the bushes and I was feeling rather desperate. At the control I downed some Pepto-Bismol and anti-diarrhea tablets, ate some ice cream and hoped I’d found a cure. Jeff Lippincott saw me in the store and could tell something was wrong. “What are you doing back here?” I just smiled weakly, saying he didn’t want to know. In truth, I had not been my usual sociable self for the last several hours. I left Anda, Sarah, and Rodney at the control, figuring they’d catch and pass me before long, but as the sun began setting, something interesting happened. I saw a rider up ahead and soon enough I caught him, then began stomping the climb to see what I could do. My legs were back! I ended up teaming up with Hector and my spirits continued to rise as my intestinal troubles subsided. By the home stretch into Black River Falls (and after Hector and I had missed a turn) Anda, Rodney and Sarah had finally caught us and it was quite a lift to find myself riding in a pack again, genuinely enjoying the company of new friends. I think we made the overnight control by 12:30am and to top it off, I ended up sharing a room with Jim Solanick, one of the legends of our sport (and an absolute hoot!). The next morning I awoke refreshed, rejoined my Texas posse, but we all took it a little easier, mindful of the challenging climbing that was not letting up.
The Coulee Challenge was billed as excellent training for Paris-Brest-Paris and while I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment, I believe that many Coulee riders will find the grades in France somewhat easier going than the stiffer climbs we faced in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin. Indeed, I thought the last four Grande Randonnees I completed (Cascade, Gold Rush, Blue Ridge to Bay, and Coulee Challenge) were all significantly harder than PBP, although having said that, I know that deep in the heart of Bretagne I will find myself wondering how the road to Brest got so much steeper in just four short years. Perhaps it is always the case that the challenges we are currently battling tend to seem like the hardest—until, with perseverance and some help from our friends, we make it back to the finish, weary but happy, eagerly trading stories of the difficulties we have overcome. I hope to return for another go of it through that singular landscape and another helping of Minnesota hospitality. You betcha!