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On the very first mile of what was to be 100 miles of pedaling, our cadre of cyclists came upon an obstacle.

A big one.

A derecho had swept across Iowa six days earlier and left a swath of destruction.

Hurricane-force winds flattened cornfields, knocked out power, tore apart homes and businesses, uprooted trees, crushed grain bins and caused this impassable mess of downed trees on the Raccoon River Valley Trail in front of our bike tires.

It was 6:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday and we hadn’t yet left the city limits of Perry, one of more than a dozen central Iowa towns along a popular 89-mile loop of abandoned railroad lines transformed into paved recreational trails.

We had planned to ride the entire loop, tacking on 11 miles to make what cyclists call a century ride, the culmination of a summer of riding.

We were prepared.

We’d checked The New York Times coronavirus map to monitor cases in the four counties along the trail and booked rooms at the historic Hotel Pattee. We’d tuned up our bikes, adjusted our attitudes, pumped up our tires. We’d packed our masks, our snacks, our butt butter.

Our group of eight women from Lincoln — 189 miles and a roller coaster ride through the Loess Hills away — were as ready as we’d ever be.

And the day promised to be perfect. Light winds, temperatures a smidge beyond 80 by afternoon.

Now we looked at those toppled trees, a head-high forest that blocked any easy way around the margins of the wide concrete trail.

We looked right.

We looked left.

We looked (temporarily) stumped.

Maybe the owner of the bicycle shop next to our hotel on Willis Avenue had been right. Maybe parts of the trail really were “in pretty rough shape.”

*****

It’s been the Year of the Great Outdoors.

The pandemic of 2020 has sent America streaming into the fresh air. Walking and running, fishing and camping, sitting on our driveways in our camp chairs staring at the stars and at neighbors we didn’t know we had.

It put many of us on the saddles of bicycles, too.

Suddenly, more people were pedaling, lubing the chains of forgotten Treks in the garage and buying new bikes, the muscle memory of childhood riding returning.

Even people who were regular cyclists were taking to the trails more often. Instead of hitting the gym this spring, we donned our helmets and rode.

“They’re buying bikes like toilet paper,” read a June headline in the Chicago Tribune. Across the country, there were shortages of bicycles and bicycle parts.

In Lincoln, Cycle Works’ business skyrocketed. At Monkey Wrench they sold out of a normal six-month inventory in 60 days.

The owner of Michael’s Cyclery in Perry reported a similar spike when we browsed the shop on the Friday night before our Aug. 15 ride. A 400% increase in business and back orders of new bikes that stretched into 2022.

Michael’s new bike inventory was sparse that afternoon, but the shop did have Raccoon River Valley Trail maps and free trail stickers and it was happy to share.

Perry likes its cyclists, welcoming them with a giant metal bike sculpture, the town’s name engraved on its chain guard.

The Raccoon River Valley Trail attracts more than 250,000 riders a year and, Perry, population 7,456, is among the largest towns along its route.

For out-of-towner riders like us, it made the perfect headquarters.

And the Hotel Pattee — named for the brothers who built it in 1913 — was the obvious choice for both cyclists and COVID-19-conscious travelers, with a large indoor bike rack and outdoor dining and socializing options in an adjacent courtyard that stretched the length of the block, with metal archways created by artist Albert Paley and, as a surprise bonus the poem “Reconfiguration” by Iowa native (and Nebraska favorite) Ted Kooser on a bronze plaque nearby.

The hotel itself has been reconfigured more than once and temporarily closed during the 1918 flu pandemic. A $20 million renovation, including restoring a two-lane bowling alley in the basement, murals and mahogany paneling, a full-service restaurant and bar and 40 charmingly themed rooms: the School Room (complete with an American flag over the bed); the Japanese Room, with a platform king bed and spare, peace-provoking furnishings; the Bohemian Room with intricately carved Old World furnishing and Czech proverbs stenciled along the top of the bedroom walls. My favorite:Only in water can you learn to swim.

Translation:Only on the seat of a bicycle can you learn to ride 100 miles.

*****

Just after sunrise, it looked like it might be a long day on the beautiful — and mostly flat — trail through eastern Iowa.

Those storm-ravaged trees were still immovable.

But my fellow travelers were not easily deterred and soon we found ourselves off the trail and detouring through the edge of town, quickly making our way back onto our planned route — the mountain of hardwood disappearing behind us.

That, we wrongly thought, was that.

We were giddy riding the morning away through long stretches of quiet trail, in and out of sun and shade.

We stayed together even when we got lost —I didn’t see a sign? Did you see a sign?— and took a 10-mile detour in the first hours of the ride.

Rhonda Revelle, longtime head softball coach for the Huskers and my YMCA spinning instructor, was the trip’s instigator. COVID-19 meant a summer without recruiting trips and a century ride was on her bucket list.

She’d enlisted Susan Larson Rodenburg, organizer of 30 years of Tour de Nebraska summer bike rides, to pick a route.

The rest of the century-ride cyclists — willing to give it a try, whether they felt ready or not — rode regularly with Rodenburg and Revelle on those annual TDN cycling adventures and leisurely weekend rides in between.

And they let me tag along on this one.

We were all over 50. Some of us had crossed over to 60. We had bad knees, bad hips, bad shoulders, bad necks. We had bunions and busy careers.

Some of us got tired traveling 100 miles behind the wheel of a car.

So we had a few fears about the feat ahead of us — and a SUV with a bike rack stashed at the 75-mile mark, just in case — but we also had a strategy.

Coach Revelle sketched out a game plan. We’d break up the 100 miles into sections with each of the eight women leading her 12.5-mile stretch.

Amy Clare set the pace — and the tone — with a pre-dawn pep talk that included gratitude for the ride ahead and a reminder of the gumption of the pioneers.

And off we went.

Small towns greeted us with rest stops, and gravel roads welcomed us across with pavement over each intersection — a trail upgrade I’d never before encountered.

We found a coffee shop in Adel, along with the Brick Street Bakery serving frosted cake doughnuts and gooey pecan rolls and offering up a much-appreciated bathroom.

We made it to PJ’s Diner in Panora by lunchtime, a busy local favorite with plenty of picnic tables for alfresco dining.

In tiny Linden, pop. 199, we stumbled upon a library fundraiser and filled up on water, Gatorade, pickles on a stick, homemade cookies and pickle juice shots to ward off cramps. (Or because, why not?)

And somewhere along the way, we stumbled upon a tour guide named Steve. The Iowa native — now living in Indiana — was home for a visit and knew the best county roads to take us past a section of trail closed for repairs.

We followed him happily through the hills.

We made it halfway. 60 miles. 70.

We were 85 miles into the ride when we had our first flat tire. (Assistant Husker softball coach Diane Miller pulled a tool kit out of her bag and got Mary Beth Rice back on her road bike in Division I tube-changing time.)

We were tired, but no one looked twice at the SUV with a bike rack.

The day wore into early evening as we pedaled, pleased and pleasantly surprised by our stamina.

And then we were in Jamaica, a whistle-stop town 11 miles west of Perry and our hotel.

We sat around picnic tables off the trail and hydrated, marveling at how far we’d come.

We listened to a final pep talk, this one from the coach who came up with the idea one fellow rider had called harebrained.

Off we went, the home stretch.

And then we saw the trees.

So many trees.

For the last 10 miles of a long 100-mile day, we schlepped our bikes over and under and around those downed tree limbs, skirting poison oak and sharp branches, calling instructions and clearing the path for the rider carrying her bike behind us.

We were off our bikes more than we were on them, pedaling short distances — a 100 yards, a quarter-mile — before arriving at yet another roadblock left behind by the derecho.

It was her favorite part of the ride, Julie Lattimer said.

“All of us working together.”

*****

More than 13 hours after we’d left the Hotel Pattee, unlocking bikes, gulping coffee, gauging the day ahead, pondering our abilities, we were back.

We’d averaged 12.2 mph. Burned 5,000 calories. Pedaled for nearly 8½ of those sunrise-to-sunset hours.

And then came the best part of a long day on a bicycle.

A hot shower and clean clothes. A meal with friends to relive the miles.

We ate takeout from Mex-To-U, a small taqueria just a few steps from the hotel. The fish burrito filled with flaky tilapia and cilantro-seasoned rice was quite possibly the best thing I’d ever tasted, eaten in the afterglow of accomplishment.

Sitting in the courtyard, we replayed the day.

The high points. (The library lovers and pickle juice in Linden, the conversations that unspooled between us, the from-the-heart motivational speeches.)

Our lows, surprisingly few. (The hills on the open road. The hills on the open road. The hills.)

The things we’d been afraid of — not finishing. The power of the group and those 12.5-mile segments (each with a message — Adjust! This isn’t a forever moment! Act differently than you feel! — that carried the riders along. The satisfaction of accomplishing a goal.

There was still a pandemic, but we’d detoured around danger as best we could. Wearing masks when we had to be inside, eating our meals in the open air and spending time together 6 feet apart on the seats of our bicycles.

There is a melancholy in all that is lost and trepidation about what might be coming.

But there is also the joy of a bicycle ride with friends.

When the only thing that matters is which way the wind is blowing and what might lie ahead for lunch.


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