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  • Wed October 15 2008
  • Posted Oct 15, 2008
STORY AND PHOTOS BY BOB MODERSOHN These bicyclists love to travel abroad, but that isn't possible every weekend so they're cultivating Iowa trips that are big fun, too. One close-to-home overnighter is perfect on a crisp fall weekend. The destination is Baxter, by way of Mingo, and the excursion begins at the Bondurant parking lot of the Chichaqua Trail head, a mile or less off Iowa Highway 330. It isn't the Loire River Valley of France, where they've biked and stayed in bed-and-breakfast inns, it's the Skunk River valley of central Iowa, and it's a worthy substitute. "You can't take a bike trip without meeting wonderful people," says Dennis Newell, one of the cylists. What fun is tripping like this only 30 miles from home? "It's the journey, not the destination," says Diane Ballard of Des Moines. Her husband agrees. "For me, cycling has been an exercise of fun and adventures that added to our quality of life, so I'm loving this," Mike Ballard says. The Chichaqua is one of the prettiest trails that central Iowa has to offer, and one that was spared the flooding that many an Iowa trail sustained in the summer. All from Des Moines suburbs, the group includes: Mike Ballard, 62, wife Diane, 57, Jeff and Lorel Jeffries, 63 and 53, and Dennis and Joan Newell, 63 and 62. They enjoy some of the same experiences in Iowa they've loved in Europe: meeting people and eating specialty foods, specifically sausage, cheese, bread and chocolate. Oh, and drinking wine. On Iowa excursions, Ballard packs a well-worn saddlebag of sorts that is draped over a rack above the rear bike wheel. The bag often carries tents, sleeping bags and assorted camping gear on trips such as RAGBRAI. On this trip, though, it holds bottles of red and white. Each rider makes his or her own contribution to the refreshment pack. Joan Newell packs the non-liquid portion, such as cheese, meats and fruit. The guys usually pack the wine. Sexist, maybe, but "it is what it is," she says. "Obviously, we all have different tastes, but do share the joy of trying new wines ... this has contributed to the expansion of everyone's tastes." Her all-time favorite: Vouvray, a Chenen Blanc, but she enjoys a good Riesling, too. Mike Ballard was raving about a Gnarly Hen red that he bought for a good price at Sam's Club. Alternating swigs, a Marietta of California Old Vine Red gets a nod. By Mingo these folks are ready for a cold one, which they find inside Ozzy's bar, a popular oasis where cyclists can drench their parched throats. "You always want a beer after that first 10 miles," Ballard says. "And then a little picnic with a dessert wine rounds off part one of the Baxter ride." Mingo's town park, with its shelter and tables, makes a perfect picnic spot to enjoy the stash of food in their packs. Then it's mount up for another 10 miles of pedaling to Baxter, where they have reservations at the Baxter Inn, a cute hotel converted from an old bank. They draw straws for the penthouse, the main floor corner room, right inside the entrance. It serves as the party room. Daily rates run $59.95 to $69.95. The old vault holds a shower - and all their bikes. An old Farmall tractor is parked right outside the window, as if by design. Before getting too comfy, the gang heads over to O'Kelly's for a beer, some chat and maybe a steak. Cook it yourself or pay a buck extra to cook it for you. It's hard to know how many of the folks in O'Kelly's they knew before. They quickly seem like old friends to all just like when they've traveled in France. "Isn't it amazing the way people somehow view the French people as arrogant," asks Mike Ballard. "In 22 years of biking France we have never found that to be the case ... we have always found the French people to be extremely friendly and helpful."

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