Ride The Wind On Buffalo Ridge

August 30, 2003

Alta, Iowa

36.3 miles

Bicycle:  Bike Friday New World Tourist

Ride Info: none (one-time event)

I took advantage of the long Labor Day  weekend to travel to Alta, Iowa to " Ride the Wind on Buffalo Ridge." Buffalo Ridge is a tall pile of glacial rubble that extends northwest from Alta through northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota. Because the ridge is a high point on the plains, it is an ideal location for a windmill farm. The Buena Vista County Wind Farm is one of the largest in the world, with 259 turbines (plus another 100 planned, someone told me). Incidentally, although the windmills are situated on prime farmland, the turbines are much more profitable to the farmer than growing crops (like as much as ten times more profitable). For an interesting article about wind power in the Upper Midwest, click here.

As part of Alta's 125th birthday celebration, the Depot Steakhouse hosted a 36-mile ride on county roads through the wind farm. The Depot is a neat old place, a combination of Alta's old railroad depot and a 1912 railcar from Washington state that was added onto the building. The proprietors, Bob and Karen, were very friendly. Karen gave me a tour of the restaurant before the bike ride. I was a minor celebrity, since I was, as one person said, " the guy who drove 400 miles to ride 36." I came equipped with my Bike Friday, which fit neatly into the trunk of my compact rental car. Like John Steinbeck's truck in Travels With Charlie, my Bike Friday was dubbed Rocinante for the day, named for Don Quixote's horse (as one may recall, Quixote charged at windmills, thinking that they were giants).

This was the artwork on the poster advertising the ride.

The Depot Steakhouse hosted the ride.

This old railroad car was mated to the Alta depot to expand the restaurant.

Riders signed up and prepared to ride outside the Depot Steakhouse.

It was a very small group, only 26 riders, and very casual. In fact, this bike ride was a real eye-opener for someone accustomed to rides in Illinois. Of course, RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) is the bicycling event of Iowa--one of my fellow riders had done RAGBRAI 24 times. RAGBRAI is as much about having a huge, mobile, week-long party as it is about the riding itself. This festive atmosphere radiates through the other rides in the state. If one looks at the calendar at Bike Iowa (where I found this ride), one will notice that a very common description for the events listed is " party ride."

We started out at 2:00 in nearly perfect weather conditions: mid-70's, clear skies and a steady but not stifling wind from the northeast. The first thing I noticed was a guy pulling a B.O.B. trailer like a cross-country tourist. However, this trailer wasn't full of camping gear--it held a cooler full of beer and a boombox blasting out Kid Rock! I can't say I've ever seen that on an Illinois century ride! And although plenty of riders wore Lycra, rode nice bikes and were in pretty good shape, there was no serious hardcore " fast group" in a paceline trying to average 20+ mph. As I said, it was very casual.

After riding 1.5 miles south of Alta, I stopped to take a few pictures of windmills. After three shots, I heard the beep-beep that said my memory card was full. I hadn't downloaded photos from a previous trip, but I thought I had more shots left than that. I had a spare card, but naturally it was in the car. Aaargh! Not wanting to go back, I began going through my pictures on the LCD screen, deleting the ones that weren't as good. Actually, I deleted a lot of horse butts--on a recent trip to the Kentucky Horse Park, I took pictures of horses galloping by but my camera was a bit slow, catching their tail-ends instead. While I did this, everyone passed me. Literally everyone. Oh man, I thought, I wanted to take it easy and take pictures, but now I'll be the last one back to the Depot and all the food will be gone! Fortunately, my fears turned out to be completely unwarranted.

A mile later, I turned west. The route was as simple as could be--one big rectangle--plus there were plenty of reassuring signs pointing the way. As I crested a hill, I saw the guys with the cooler ahead in the distance. At the second turn (north into the wind), there were several riders stopped by a pick-up truck with coolers in the back. " Beer stop!" one of the riders called out to me. I just smiled and waved since I don't drink beer and six miles was a little early for a rest stop. I caught the guys with the trailer slowly, easing off the road to take a picture or two along the way. I passed them when they stopped to open their cooler. A few miles up the road was another pick-up with a cooler. One guy even tried to hand me a can of beer as I rode by! I finally stopped at the next pick-up. Fortunately they had water and pop in addition to beer. I drank one bottle of water and poured another into a half-empty water bottle on my bike, tossing the empties onto the bed of the truck. Everyone was really friendly, but I didn't want to stand around for too long so I got moving again.

Around the halfway point I came upon a photographer (Dave of PixelThis!)who was taking pictures of us for Bob and Karen to put up in their restaurant. He took a couple of good ones of me riding Rocinante with windmills in the background (if only I had a lance, maybe he would have photographed me attacking one of them!).

Dave said that I was the first rider to come by. Huh? Incredibly, I had caught and passed everyone who had passed me earlier! We talked for awhile, then I continued on.

Now riding in the densest concentration of windmills, I stopped to take a few more pictures. Still, no one caught up to me. I turned east, then south. This was perfect--I would have a tailwind for twelve miles, all the way back to Alta. There were some interesting photo opportunities showing the contrast of bucolic farm scenes with modern windmills rising in the background. I got several shots of cattle grazing in front of windmills and another of an old barn. I finally saw riders coming up behind me in the distance, but they never quite reached me.

This photo was taken in honor of the Fools On'a Mission, a bicycle touring couple who take lots of barn pictures.


At this point, I was feeling really good, practically euphoric. I attacked every hill. If my speed fell under 15 mph on the climbs, I jumped out of the saddle and accelerated. Although this certainly was not a race, I think I drew a little inspiration from being out in front. I saw a windmill with one blade bent in half. This made the blade look flimsy like a pinwheel, but I later learned that each blade weighs five tons. I couldn't imagine what sort of force would bend a blade like that, but since the neighboring windmills were working fine, I guessed that the bent blade had been manufactured improperly.

Around 30 miles, there was yet another beer stop (I think there were four of them in only 36 miles). I hope they didn't think I was rude for not stopping, but I felt fantastic and really wanted to keep pedaling. I charged into Alta alone. The relatively short distance of the ride allowed me to finish strong, always a big morale boost. In fact, I was so far out in front that by the time I put away my bike and changed my clothes in the car, no one else had finished. Three hours of riding (it was 2:28 cyclometer time, but three hours clock time) is sort of the sweet spot for me--less doesn't seem like enough and more makes me a little tired. Three hours leaves me invigorated and happy. Totals: 36.3 miles in 2:28 for a  14.6 mph average.

Inside the Depot, a couple of riders who had shortened their route (the highway grid made potential shortcuts plentiful) were sitting at a table with Karen. When one of them said I was " cookin'," I thought maybe he was joking that since I was the first one back I would have to cook the post-ride brats for the other riders! But no, he meant that I was really going fast. Since my average speed was only 14.6 mph, I didn't think I was going all that well. Later, another rider said, " You were flyin' out there!" This was the first and probably the last time I would  ever be the first finisher, so I enjoyed it.

When it was time to eat, they asked if I wanted a brat or a tavern. Since the ride poster said brats and burgers, I assumed that a tavern was a burger (like they call them " tavern burgers" at Bennigan's). I asked if I could have both, and they said, " Sure." One of the waitresses promptly served me a brat (actually a cheese brat), hot off the grill. This made up for my disappointment in not getting brats at the Horribly Hilly Hundred in Wisconsin (I thought there was a law requiring brats up there) earlier this year. When Karen brought out my tavern, it turned out that a " tavern" is the local expression for what we in Chicago call a " sloppy joe" --ground beef in a tomato-based sauce on a bun (with a little research, I learned that the sandwich is also variously known as a " charlie boy," " tastee," " maid-rite" or " loosemeat" ). Whatever one called it, it tasted pretty good. I sat around and talked to a few riders. One of them I had seen earlier on a Trek 520, and sure enough he was planning a cross-country trip with an Adventure Cycling Association group next summer. Naturally, we had plenty to talk about. When I found out that Dave the photographer had his mobile " digital photo lab" (basically a big van with a computer and a printer) set up down the block, I went to buy a souvenir picture of myself. We talked for a long time about his photo business, then I headed out of town.

The T-shirt for this ride was excellent, depicting a group of cyclists riding in the foreground with windmills in the background, separated by a lush green field. Everyone was so friendly, and I had a great time as well as a strong ride. A filling post-ride meal topped it off. Unfortunately, despite the optimitistic " annual" on the T-shirt, I don't think the ride was ever held again.

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