Ottawa-Iola-Ottawa via Prairie Spirit Trail (part I)

May 1, 2012

This weekend I accomplished several cycling goals and personal firsts.

I finished my first-ever half-century and then, the next day, my second half-century.

I did this via my beloved Prairie Spirit Trail.  On January 9th I posted on this site my intention to bike this full (51 mile) trail, stay the night in Iola (trail’s end) and bike back the next day.  I’d already had this plan in mind for weeks prior to that.

This was the first of two major cycling-related goals I had/have for 2012.  The second is to bike the full Katy Trail by 11/30/2012.

Finally, this weekend, I accomplished the PST ride.

I won’t lie and say it was easy for me, or even that I enjoyed the majority of it.  It was certainly hard work.  But I’m elated to have done it, and despite struggling bigtime through it, can’t wait to do it again, hopefully in the next couple months.

Prep Work – Friday April 27th
First, I bought some small panniers for the bike.  Picked these up at BikeSource Kansas City, where I’ve become a regular of late buying this or that knickknack for the bike.  Also bought a nicer pair of cycling gloves than I’ve had up to this point.  The image below, from the start of the ride, shows the panniers, as well as the new handlebar extenders I’ve added to the bike.

I started to get a stirring in my brain around Wednesday or Thursday of this week that I might do this ride this weekend.  I’d not yet made the firm decision by Friday evening, but I needed panniers for the future anyway, and this size is what I had in mind, so I picked them up.

Reviewed the weather situation. hour-by-hour forecast is your friend, and (sad as it may be) one of my most-frequented sites on the net.  We got some decent rain on Friday evening, so I had some trepidation about the softness of the trail.

The plan would be to bike to Iola Saturday, stay there, bike back Sunday.  It looked like Saturday’s weather would be  decent – a moderate tailwind (which you don’t really feel much on the trail anyway due to the windblock served by trees during most of its length) and almost no chance of rain.  Sunday seemed much more dicey.  Rain was in the 50-70% range.  But, to quote the movie Back to the Future, “I figured…what the hell.”

I enumerated, more subconsciously than consciously, several challenges/hurdles that needed to be overcome/open questions to be resolved if the ride would be successful:

  1. Weather.  Would the trail already be TOO soft from the rain from Friday?  More fit, experienced riders wouldn’t concern themselves with this based on Friday’s rain, but having previously ridden the trail when it was softened by rain, I knew it was hard work for me.  Further, what would Sunday bring weatherwise?  For those not familiar with the surface:  a good hard rain turns large sections of the trail into more or less the texture of wet beach sand.
  2. The weight of the bike!  Conventional cycling wisdom is that prior to utilizing a “touring” setup (panniers, at a minimum) you should perform a couple test rides with fully-loaded panniers prior to doing the real deal.  With my visionary planning, that was out the window.  I got the panniers Friday and hadn’t ridden a foot with them.  I knew the bike would be several pounds heavier with the panniers and their contents, which in turn would equate to higher exertion for myself, particularly if the trail was wet/soft.
  3. My hands.  I’d been having issues lately with hand pain and numbness – see this post.  I’d taken steps to address it, including the handlebar extensions and new gel-padded gloves, plus a different riding posture, but still hadn’t taken a particularly long ride yet with this new “stuff”.  There was the concern that I might get 20, 30 miles into this PST ride and experience hand issues, particularly numbness.  This could be a show-stopper.
  4. The distance itself.  My previous best daily distance was just over 40 miles.  I’d never gone more than 13-14 miles at a stretch on the trail!  I’ve been primarily a “roadie” who frequently goes 22-28 miles in a day; now I was executing a plan which would see me do two consecutive 50-mile days, on terrain which is, even in good conditions, more challenging than asphalt.
  5. Mechanical difficulties.  I have only a very rudimentary knowledge of bicycle maintenance.  Developing an issue within 15-20 miles, by highway, of home, when you have a good friend who lives in your hometown, is one thing; developing the same issue 30-40-50 miles away, possibly out in the middle of nowhere on a trail, is another.

Having tossed these considerations around my head, I realized that by and large, I was about as prepared for them as I was likely to be for some time.  In other words, if not now, why not now, and when?  I had a sense of adventure about pulling off this long ride with very little specific planning in terms of date.  I went to bed Friday night still not 100% sure, and decided to see if I awoke with the fire to go ahead.

Summit Day – Saturday April 28th
Woke up around 5 AM, feeling ready to do this.  After my usual smallish breakfast (cup of cereal, coffee, water), I packed up the panniers from a checklist I wrote up.  Following established wisdom I was careful to distribute weight pretty equally across the two panniers.  In addition to my usual gear, I brought a second extended-life battery for my phone; a change of clothes to sleep in Saturday night and which would be my under-clothes for Sunday’s ride; drivers license, credit card and $20 cash; toothbrush & toothpaste; ibuprofen; phone charger; a total of 6 whole-wheat bagels (which is my primary in-ride nutrition), and a couple Post shredded wheat “biscuits”.

I hit the road around 7 AM.  I rode the short mile from my house to the “unofficial” start of the trail, the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa, took a few pictures, and started off.

First I’ll give major props to the wonderful reference site, run and maintained by “Timon of Athens”.  This is a wonderful resource for those interested in the trail, planning a trail ride, etc.  I’ve explored pretty much all the content on the site and memorized much of it, but it was nice to refer to during the ride.

A couple of my concerns, enumerated above, were answered fairly early.  The weight of the bike was surprisingly not a big factor.  I imagine that because I’ve lost a few pounds over the past few weeks, that the total weight of the bike with panniers wasn’t all that different from the total weight I’d been hauling just some weeks ago. And the panniers weren’t so full that they truly affected the handling of the bike in any noticeable way.

The trail, while a little bit soft for my preference from the previous night’s rain, was pretty easily passable.

Prior to this trip the furthest I’d gone on the trail was roughly 13, 14 miles – to just north of Richmond, as you can see on’s excellent elevation map. So today, as I briefly rested at the (first) trailhead – Princeton trailhead – and continued on, I was soon in all-new territory to me. I’d never reached the Richmond trailhead and certainly nothing further south.

Richmond quickly became and remains my favorite trailhead.  I was interested in the range of facilities and amenities available to the rider in the various stops.  Ottawa’s trailhead is fairly basic, with some tables and (I think!) water fountains.  I’ve only stopped there once or twice, since I live here in town.  Princeton’s trailhead is quite nice, I’m guessing possibly the largest in terms of area, with several nice tables, benches etc, restrooms, water fountain, etc. But Richmond had them all beat with flush toilets, motion-sensor toilets and sinks, hot-air hand dryers, a large stone “bench” inside the restroom, water fountain, etc.

Richmond was going to play a starring role in my return ride, which I couldn’t have suspected at this early point on Saturday…

Heading south from Richmond the rider encounters a very pleasant downward grade prior to the run-up to Garnett. This was the “freest” time I felt on the ride, either day.  Flying along at a good speed, little pedaling resistance, just enjoying the day.  All-too-quickly, however, this downhill dash terminates in a respectable ascending grade into Garnett.  I was working hard during this portion, but enjoying the effort and the sweat on the brow.

Garnett – My Go/No-Go Point
Garnett is roughly the halfway point on the trail.  The plan was to stop here for lunch, rest up, and continue on to Iola.  I average only around 10 MPH on the bike, so with breaks and “smell the flowers” moments, I guesstimated I’d arrive in Garnett around 10:30 AM.

I did arrive in Garnett somewhere around 10:20ish.  I rode around town for a short while, trying to decide where to eat.  I was familiar with some of the choices as a result, again, of TofA’s excellent PS Trail website. After a while I landed on Tradewinds Bar & Grill on 5th Ave.  I was still early for lunch – they open at 11 – so I stopped for a rest near the town square.

I spent my meal eating quickly to placate my building appetite, and just generally high on life and feeling great about this adventure.  When I set out this morning, I identified Garnett as the go/no-go decision point. At the halfway point, it meant that I would get in a 50-mile day no matter what.  If I decided to go ahead to Iola, I would get the full trail and two consecutive half-centuries; if I decided it wasn’t time and headed back to Ottawa, I’d gotten a good solid ride anyway. But before arriving in town I was sure I would continue.  I was having too much fun not to. Food at Tradewinds was solid and service was good.   I got a burger and fries – nothing but the healthiest choices for me dontcha know – and after the waitress kindly topped off my Camelbak with ice & water, and after a couple patrons asked after my origin and destination and wished me luck, I headed out.

The Second Half
From Garnett there’s another downward grade before the climb to “the high country” of Welda and Colony.  I was getting a little weary by this point in the ride, and the descent from Garnett didn’t feel nearly as exhilaratingly free as the one from Richmond.  I passed through Welda and headed on to Colony.  Around the 35-mile mark – halfway between Welda and Colony – I was getting a little fatigued and looking forward to the long descent that I knew followed Colony.  Welda and Colony trailheads were fairly basic and minimal.

The last 10 miles or so of the trip seemed to take the longest to me – this, despite the fact that elevationwise, I knew that I was supposed to be descending!  I was getting fairly fatigued out of Colony and ready to reach Iola and get a room.  I passed through the tiny but charming dot on the map that was Carlyle, with its correspondingly minimal trailhead, and pushed the last few miles into Iola.  I arrived in Iola around 3:15.

{photo taken in the evening because I forgot to get the trailhead photo when I arrived}

Iola – Beautiful Iola
At Iola I stayed at the Best Western.  To say it’s conveniently placed is an understatement – you can almost literally step off the trail into their parking lot.  As I broke through the final trees and into Iola, I was delighted to see some re-emergence of civilization.  A Wal-Mart.  A Pizza Hut.  A Taco Bell.  My hotel.  It was a beautiful thing for this weary rider.

The room at the hotel was nice and pleasant. Clean, well managed, comfortable. They were fine with me wheeling my bike into the room with me. I will most definitely make this my destination on future trips.

After relaxing with a nice hot bath, exchanging texts with friends who were very supportive and enthusiastic for my accomplishment (I should mention that I’d only mentioned, fairly passingly, to two friends that I might do this this weekend, and nobody else had any idea), I took a short nap before dinner.  The moment I saw Pizza Hut at ride’s end, I knew that was the destination for tonight’s meal.

At Pizza Hut, I got one of the first unexpected surprises of the trip.  A gentleman who had noticed my bike chained up outside and my cycling shorts and gloves asked if I’d been riding the trail.  I said yes and, inferring he was a cyclist, invited him to join me.  Imagine my surprise to realize it was Jay Kretzmeier, a regular poster on!  It was wonderful meeting him and talking with him for a time, exchanging our mutual admiration for the trail and talking cycling in general.  Jay is my mirror image in some ways – while I live in Ottawa and did Ottawa-Iola-Ottawa over two days, and will again, Jay lives in Iola and has done several roundtrips to Ottawa, always staying in hotels at the edge of town as I did, and returning the next day. It was terrific to meet Jay and have a chance to talk, and I look forward to our paths meeting again.

Part II posted shortly…


One Response to “Ottawa-Iola-Ottawa via Prairie Spirit Trail (part I)”

  1. Randy said

    Congratulations on your accomplishment. We need to get out there and ride it again now from Iola.

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