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Riding Iowa Dirt


Of Dirt and Devotion - Mountain Biking in the Tall Corn State

Shattering the stereotype of row-crop topography,
dedicated Iowa mountain bike riders are blazing new trails.

Story by Joe VanderZanden, photography by Paul Gates

It smells like Cheerios. Whatever's cooking at the General Mills plant in Cedar Rapids hangs in the canopy of the woods and hits my olfactory glands with a strong dose of 1973 and memories of my first bike, a Huffy Red Hot 3-speed, and that first dalliance with freedom.

The childhood exhilaration of cutting loose by bike is palpable today as I blast headlong into an Iowa summer day. Nostalgia quickly collides with reality, however, and all sentiments of savory toasted-oat cereal are cut short by an onslaught of roots, rocks, trees, and sharp turns. No time for a dreamy stroll down memory lane -- the trail I'm riding at Beverly Park requires my complete attention.

The plan was simple: Get away from the flat, vast grid of crops that currently defines my day-to-day landscape and ride into the woods to explore some mountain bike trails in Iowa. The details were sketchy: Not being a cyclist and having no reason to believe I could still even ride a bike, I sought no counsel, packed some sandwiches, and set an eastward tack. I was in search of those nooks and crannies that are uncharacteristic of Iowa -- those with steep, forested hills, dense foliage, and dirt trails.

Doing it Right

About 100 yards from trailhead, shortly after I prematurely proclaim myself World's Greatest Mountain Biker Ever, I execute a perfect involuntary dismount (read: crash) while negotiating the first tight corner. Although it is interesting to embark on a new thing in which you have no skills, it can hurt a little, too. Particularly in middle age.

Along the web of trails at Beverly Park, signage directs riders and marks level of difficulty. Within 30 minutes of riding, I feel very comfortable on the bike and much less inclined to hammer the brakes when going downhill. The experience is truly exciting. And at times wonderfully frightening.

Formerly a neglected city property deemed off-limits to mountain bike riders, Beverly Park was once littered with trash from years of illegal dumping and mistreatment. In 2006 a group of local riders organized and set about the task of transformation. "There was garbage everywhere," remembers Ken Barker, a member of the Linn Area Mountain Bike Association (LAMBA). "There would be an entire truckload of shingles just dumped in the woods."

The group of riders formed a nonprofit organization, sought grants to assist in the cleanup, and built relationships with local government. LAMBA members spent time clearing garbage and junk from the site before building any trails. "For over a year we just cleaned the park," explains Barker. "We were going to do this right."

Today cyclists can pedal through a natural urban forest on five miles of narrow, bare-dirt trail that follows the contour of the natural landscape. This is the epitome of singletrack -- a winding path used by walkers and trail runners but designed primarily for and by mountain bike riders.

The 18-inch-wide trail -- composed of dirt, not gravel or pavement -- forces users to ride in single file. Trails like these require fewer resources to build and maintain and are designed to shed water naturally, enhancing sustainability.

When I bomb down a hill, the shrill siren sound of cicadas screaming in my ears and trees whizzing past, the sensory overload is somehow strangely relaxing. Occasionally I misinterpret the various hieroglyphics on the trail markers, which lead me up and down even steeper hills, with tighter corners.

Although I surprise myself by mostly staying on the bike, there are numerous moments this morning when I have only one thought: "This is going to hurt. Again."

"There is not much margin for error and the perceived risk is very high," Ryan Hanser tells me later about the thrill of riding narrow, side-slope singletrack. Hanser, from Des Moines and president of the Central Iowa Trails Alliance (CITA), says that most falls are generally benign, and if you do bail you will likely land in leaves or something natural and cushiony. He claims it is the illusion of speed while riding trails that makes it seem like you are going to fall off the edge of the Earth.

"You learn quickly that the trail is uneven; there are roots and rocks and all that kind of stuff," says Hanser. "If you are looking down at your front wheel the whole time, you're gonna go slow and freak out. The job is to be looking 10 feet or more ahead of you, depending upon speed. The rule is: You go where you look. If you look at the trouble, you're going right for the trouble."

Legitimizing the Sport

A few hours later I arrive at Sugar Bottom Recreation Area, located near North Liberty on Coralville Lake. The singletrack here was designed and is maintained by the Iowa City Off Road Riders (ICORR) through an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the site. Many serious riders and racers consider the nine or ten miles of singletrack here to be the finest in the state.

After 15 minutes of grinding up the hills, I realize that negotiating sections of these trails is like moving heavy furniture. At times it's hard, ugly work; everything hurts, stopping is not an option, and you tend to swear a lot. While hyperventilating at the top of an otherwise scenic hill, I meet two riders navigating the terrain. These women compare riding the Sugar Bottom singletrack to sprinting -- and childbirth. Our talk is short. With blood thumping through my skull and my legs burning, I am barely able to reply. I nod in agreement and occasionally emit a wheezy moan.

The challenging singletrack twists through towering stands of pine trees and up rocky ascents, breaking out into magnificent views of Coralville Lake. The experience is breathtaking and offers a topography unexpected in Iowa. Riders can easily spend the day here, riding and exploring on well-marked trails.

Despite the fact that Sugar Bottom had tested my skills and mettle to their meager limits, I somewhat miraculously make it back to the parking lot, where a local rider is concluding his four hours on the trails with friends. "A rider of any ability can find a decent challenge here," he tells me.

A true Iowan, he says this without irony or contempt as I lie prone in the grass, unable to move.

Many of the best singletrack trails in Iowa would not exist without the devotion of mountain biking organizations such as ICORR, CITA, LAMBA, and others who work to develop and maintain sustainable, natural trails in the communities they serve.

These advocacy groups are critical to the sport because the perception of mountain bikers, particularly among landowners and land managers, hasn't always been a positive one. Most conflicts have erupted over careless use and poor communication, and historically many riders thought it easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission to ride in certain areas.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) formed in California more than 20 years ago in response to trails being closed to mountain bike riders. By educating and supporting local mountain biking clubs and legitimizing their trail-building efforts, IMBA has been a powerful force in creating more places for people to enjoy the sport. The association is active today in all 50 states and in more than 40 countries.

"IMBA has worked hard to turn around the image of mountain bikers as 'destroyers of the land' and instead be just the opposite," explains Whitney Davis, Trails Associate with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "As land managers, we feel really excited when a group is able to say to us, "We want to see some mountain bike trails in the park," because those tend to be the most sustainably built trails."

As part of their agreement with land managers, all of these mountain biking groups organize regular, periodic work days throughout the year to maintain existing trails and build new ones. Volunteers get busy with shovels, tree pullers (for stubborn saplings), heavy pickaxes, and strong backs, some logging more than 200 hours of trail work in a single year. They repair sections of trail damaged by storms and floods, remove debris, and scout locations for future trails.

Most new trails are created following guidelines promoted by the IMBA Trail Care Crew, a traveling, hands-on trail building workshop that has visited Iowa at least six times in recent years. The resulting singletrack is well built and holds up against weather and traffic. "[Last October] we had more than three inches of rain in a two-day period," remembers CITA's Hanser.

"The trails were wet, no doubt, but the stuff we build is classic, bench-cut, contour singletrack. They really work pulling a lot of the tread away. [The riders] weren't leaving a mark. It is a testament to textbook design; it can take a lot of punishment and really not erode."

Having fantastic soil also helps trail builders create sustainable singletrack trails. "We have great dirt in Iowa," says Hanser. "Our soils, especially when they have a little moisture in them, it's just butter. It just carves so well. Iowa dirt. It's good for corn and beans and all that, but it also makes for great trails."

Fellowship and Passion

The next stop on my quasi-epic adventure is the Wednesday evening Taco Ride on the Center Trails in Des Moines. Organized by CITA, this weekly ride welcomes all comers. From the meet-up point, I follow legendary West Des Moines rider Lou Waugaman to the trail.

Waugaman must be eight feet tall. He is as hard as nails and speaks with a deep, baritone voice. (Think Sam Elliott with no hair and on a bike.) We race across the belly of the Valley Junction neighborhood, through alleys, across parking lots, and over grassy dams until we arrive at the outer edge of Center Trails' 10-mile system of singletrack.

Waugaman pumps along effortlessly on his single-speed bike, kindly looking back every few minutes to make sure I am still in the same ZIP code. "I'm just a road rat," he tells me in a self-deprecating manner. Meaning that he primarily rides and races road bikes and isn't really much of a trail rider.

"Mainly I like to ride around on the trails in the fall before I put the bike away for the season." I don't imagine that he ever puts the bike away. When we get to the Center Trails and the first nice hill, he glides up the slope and drops me as if I were standing still. As he pulls away I feel like I'm anchored to the trail. I never see Waugaman again, but it's good to know he's out there.

The group of riders thins out along the trail, and rider Brian Sheesley compassionately shepherds me through the winding and flowy trail along the river. As on other urban trails, it's easy to forget that you are in the middle of a city while pedaling through Center Trails.

"Hit this fast,"yells Sheesley as we approach a short, steep jump. "Tree! Watch the bars!" My hands narrowly pass between the trunks of two trees crowding the trail. Although it might seem obvious to look out for stuff like this, it's not -- and I appreciate the tips.

Serving as my tour guide, Sheesley is also thoughtful to point out the special nicknames that area riders have given various obstacles deliberately placed on the trail, such as a 20-foot log beam elevated a few feet off the ground with ramps at either end. This is "The Shawn Johnson." Although the name is endearing, this "skinny" is terrifying. I easily imagine myself quite ungracefully careening off the beam and taking a soil sample with my face.

I opt for a side trail that skirts the obstacle. I am thankful most obstacles, including this one, have escape routes for those of us who don't have the intestinal fortitude to go for the gold.

As much as mountain biking is about fitness and endurance, it's just as much about fellowship and camaraderie. This becomes evident after the Taco Ride, when the riders gather at a nearby watering hole for great greasy tacos and beers. The shared interest of the group keeps the conversation lively and focused. Discussion is not centered on sports, jobs, kids, or politics.

We talk about mountain bikes and mountain bike trails; crank sets and frames; last weekend's ride and what's up next. Sheesley gives details on a "gravel grinder" he's building. (Even though I don't know what this is, it sounds real cool and I think I need one.) The conversation continues for two hours, and the riders will meet next Wednesday to do it all again.

Groups of riders like this, whether formal or informal, exist throughout Iowa. The strong fellowship of singletrack enthusiasts, says Michelle Mais of Cedar Rapids, who has considered herself a bike rider for just a few years, keeps her pedaling the trails. "We are all very different people, but mountain biking links us together," explains Mais. "We all have that shared passion for getting on the trail and into the dirt. It's definitely motivation to keep riding."

Opportunity in Wild Spaces

The final leg of my singletrack adventure concludes with a visit to Geode State Park near Danville. Although the gentle trail here is friendly to a newbie mountain biker like me, it can be enjoyed by a rider of any ability. The trail follows the perimeter of the lake with rolling ups and downs and encourages fast riding. Because it is in a relatively remote state park, the mountain bike trail at Geode gives a rider that sought-after sense of being "out there" among the wild spaces and the wildlife that Iowa has to offer, including timber rattlesnakes. (This latter morsel of data I will discover later, after camping out on the bare ground tonight.)

At places, the singletrack trail widens and makes use of abandoned fire roads. Known as doubletrack among mountain bikers, these sections of trail are sometimes steeper and located in wetter, low-lying areas. This is typical, according to Mark Edwards, Iowa DNR Trails Coordinator, because many trails in the state parks were originally designed using nonsustainable methods. "[Years ago] the bulldozer went up the hill, and that's where the trail is," says Edwards. As a result, he estimates that 95 percent of the work done in the DNR Trails Program is restoration: fixing and maintaining older, poorly designed trails. This work, though indispensable, is not as sexy as the development of new trails and, according to Edwards, is therefore a challenge for a program run almost entirely on grants.

The doubletrack and impossibly steep sections of the mountain biking trail at Geode will soon be changing for the better, however. In order to prevent sediment from washing into the lake, the Iowa DNR Trails Program has recently received grant funding from the Iowa DNR Lake Restoration Program to create sustainably built mountain biking trails at Geode State Park. The new trail will more efficiently move water from the trailbed and be located in areas less susceptible to erosion.

Most of the trails suitable for mountain biking within Iowa's state parks are not singletrack.

They are designed for multiple users, including hikers, skiers, horseback riders, and even snowmobiles. The DNR Trails Program does receive what Edwards calls "bike money" in the forms of grants and other funding, but most dollars are spent to create and maintain hard-surface, linear trails. A 12-foot-wide stretch of asphalt offers a far different experience than a narrow strip of bare dirt.

While the prospect of expanding outdoor opportunity in Iowa's state parks, particularly among responsible mountain bikers, is an exciting prospect for Edwards, he is also charged with preserving for generations to come the few remaining wild spaces in Iowa. "The scariest trend I see coming is that we are going to use the last piece for recreation. Use and multiple use will eventually lead to impact."


My journey concludes with an evening ride around the lake at Geode. The trails I have pedaled in the last few days have led me into landscapes and environments far different than the prairie tableau of my usual surroundings. Exploring on two wheels not only establishes a connection with the natural beauty of where I live, it also establishes a connection with the people who develop and maintain these resources. It's impossible to experience these trails and not appreciate the work they do.

I get in the car and leave the forested woodlands, hills, rocks, and dirt behind. Once back on the expanse, with hog and corn reports on the far end of the AM dial, I remember: Oh, yeah. I'm in Iowa. Having discovered the nooks and crannies I was in search of, I set a course for home, feeling equal parts exhausted and inspired.

My Adventure

Beverly Park    
Cedar Rapids    

Sugar Bottom    
North Liberty

Center Trails    
Des Moines

Geode State Park    

Talk the Ride

Red Hot

This slick Huffy model was the coolest ride in town for a 10-year-old boy in the 1970s. Ape-hanger handle bars, 3-speed hub, and a glittery banana seat. It was the total package.


Much easier to ride than to define, but essentially a trail that gently undulates and allows the rider to gain more speed. "That was a flowy trail, dude."


An elevated log or man-made beam designed to be ridden across by bike; sometimes spanning a persistently wet or muddy area. "I almost had another spectacular wipeout as I wobbled across that skinny."


In this article "taco" refers to delicious ground beef stuffed into a deep-fried corn tortilla shell and smothered with sour cream, lettuce, and tomato. But to use the jargon of mountain bike riders, "taco" is a verb referring to the act of bending a wheel over on itself in the shape of a taco. "I taco'd my wheel on that downhill when I nailed that gnarly stump. Bummer."


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