Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Trans Iowa: Ten Years Of Tales- Special Edition

In mid-November, the idea of Trans Iowa was hatched. The year was 2004. In the ten years since then there have been many stories and memories. These posts will tell of the most prominent ones to my mind. Maybe I'll even spill the beans on some things you never knew....

From T.I.v7
 Routes: From time to time, I get asked, "How do you find all these crazy roads for the different Trans Iowa courses?" I thought I would use this special edition of "Trans Iowa Tales" to try and answer that one question.

The heart of any new edition of Trans Iowa is the course. For whatever reasons, it was decided upon very early on to continue to find a new route every year. Obviously, this isn't easy, and I've learned several things over the years, which I couldn't possibly recount in a single blog post. However; there are a few things I can pass along that may give the reader some insights as to how I have done what I have done for courses.

Maps: Obviously, looking at maps is a big part of route finding, and fortunately, it is one thing I happen to enjoy pouring over again and again. Give me a good map, a cup of joe, and a quiet room and I am good for a few hours! So what constitutes a "good map"? That's a different answer than it is for 99% of the population these days.

Most folks want a map of the fastest point to point routes to get them where they are interested in going in the least amount of time with the fewest navigational obstacles. That runs a 180° in opposition of what I am looking for! So, most mapping tools and commercial road maps are worthless to the back road touring cyclists or gravelers. I found two maps that I use most often and an online resource to get fine details to do all of my route finding at home before I go out to recon a new Trans Iowa route.

I use a DeLorme Atlas of Iowa for an overall view of larger areas and for a hint at terrain. DeLorme uses a "plate" style approach to its atlas which disregards county lines and townships, which is great for me to "see the bigger picture" when it comes to connecting towns, cities, or features I am interested in looping into a course. DeLorme also puts in a small amount of gradations for elevation, so the bigger changes show up and can be used to determine where the big hills are going to be found. It is not good for finer details like which roads are B Maintenance, C Maintenance, gravel/pavement, nor can it be trusted to show you roads that are actually there. So, it is a good overview resource, but I don't rely on it for accuracy.

Even the best maps won't show you this. There is no substitute for reconning your routes!
For finer details, and for finding out where the dirt roads are, I use an Iowa Sportsman's Atlas. This is a spiral bound, paper paged map of all of Iowa's 99 counties, one page for each county. It is based off of the State of Iowa's Department of Transportation maps and shows all the paved, gravel, and B Level roads in the state. With this mapping tool I can draw out routes in colored pencil right on the pages, make notes, and come up with a rough idea of mileages. What it is not good for is getting a bigger view of the route, (since you are limited to seeing it county by county), and not all the maps are the same scale, which can lead to confusion and mistakes if you are not really watching for that. Also- these maps are generally a generation or two behind what the State has out, so they sometimes show roads that are not there, or roads that are not on the map that are there, or other anomalies.

The "real deal" for (almost) accurate maps is to go straight to the source, and in this state, that is the Iowa Department of Transportation. On their site there is a way to view PDF's of the latest Iowa maps for all roads in the State. I use this much the same as I do the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas, only the DOT maps are online, where I can magnify them to see things better with my old eyes and get the latest published information. However; it must be noted that although the State did a complete update, (dated January 2013), I found two roads taken out of circulation only 11 months later during T.I.v10 recon, so you still cannot count on those to be 100% accurate. On the plus side, I can print off the PDF's to matching scale sizes and assemble my own, large format map to see the route in total on paper in front of me if I want, or use the printed sheets of the magnified route for recon in the field.

Finding the big hills can sometimes just be the luck of the draw.
Finding Features: 

So, you may still be wondering, "How do you find so many freaking hills!?" Well, you can blame two things on that: One is to realize that it is just the nature of Iowa. You might be surprised to find out that Iowa has more hills than flats, and you can pretty much count on roads having at least some amount of gentle rollers all the way up to punchy, short, steep hills to climb, over and over again.  Really.....I don't have to look too hard to find hills folks! 

Secondly, I was taught to look for certain features on maps by former Trans Iowa co-director, David Pals, who is a college trained and professional geologist. The way rivers run are a big clue to finding more rollers and steeper ones at that. You can show me a map of a county and I can pretty much tell you where you will find the steeper hills and the most hills on any given road just by looking at the water and where it flows instead of at a grid of roads. (Thanks David!)

I also look for "non-grid" roads. These are roads that do not follow the rigid rule of "mile square" patterns that most roads do follow in Iowa. After awhile, you can tell whether or not these are "ridge roads", "valley roads", or just interesting, twisted roads based off old Native American trails, old trading routes, old stage coach routes, or the like. These almost always are worth looking into.

Twisty-turny roads are my favorite finds.
Putting It All Together: 

Once I have decided on a tentative route plan, it is time to go look at it with my own two eyes. While many former Trans Iowa riders may find this hard to believe, I am not laughing maniacally while I am driving a proposed route, nor am I looking for even more terrible things to throw at you.  I actually throw more things out than I keep, to be honest. Finding a balance between "toughness" and a course someone could actually complete is not an easy thing to figure out, especially when weather can really throw a wrench in the works, or take what you thought would be hard and make it a cakewalk. (Think the B Roads in T.I.v9)

Roads will be found that are not there, truncated, or road construction/repair may be an issue. Then re-routes have to be figured out, which is why I pack all my maps with me during recon and make notations. I take a lot of images, not just to show off to all of you, but as a visual reminder for later of what the course is like. I look for possible re-routes around B Roads in case of wetter weather, and earmark possible problem areas in case of a bad Winter or wet Spring.  Resupply options are checked out, and routing through cities and towns is considered out in the field as well. Things you can not possibly see on maps, like bad intersections, dangerous railroad crossings, or jig-a-jogs are notated and remembered for the cue sheet drafts.

Finally, all the data is plugged into an online route finder and that is where I draw up the final turn-by-turn cues and get a gps based mileage for the course which proves to be quite accurate. Once a final cue sheet form has been made by my plugging in the turn-by-turn instructions into a formatted document on the computer, I send the draft over to a friend who double checks my work for clarity and accuracy against the proposed route. If faults are found, I correct them. Then I print off a master set and in the Spring we do another recon with folks that drive the route by my cues and see if the directions make sense, and see if there are any mistakes. Road anomalies that may have arisen since the previous recon are taken into account, and may cause a rerouting and that obviously affects the cues. Finally, the route drivers give me their honest feedback on the route and if it passes muster, I set the cues in stone, and await the time to print off cue sheet sets.

This road, which was open during recon, was found closed during the Spring rechecking.
Finally, the day before a Trans Iowa, I try to drive at least to Checkpoint #1 on the route, and preferably about 100 miles in, to do a last minute check on whether any roads were closed or issues with flooding, road conditions, or other oddities are out there waiting to waylay us the next morning. I then can circumvent any immediate issues at the pre-race meeting so everyone has a heads up. This actually happened at T.I.v8 where I ended up taking a B Road out due to a swollen low water crossing due to overnight rains which were forecast for the evening of the pre-race meeting.

Even after all of that, the weather can shut down the event, so I have to be ready to swallow my pride and forgo all my preparations to cede the day to the situation I, (and the riders), are dealt to handle. Fortunately that has not happened since T.I.v6, which in itself is a minor miracle. (Which is to say we're due to get bombed out at T.I.v10, but if so, there is nothing I can do about that.)

That doesn't cover everything, but again, I tried to answer this question as thoroughly as I could in one blog post! I hope that gives you all a little insight as to how these courses happen every year.


J Fry said...

I believe you were laughing manically for MOST of the TIv10 recon this fall! Happy New Year, Mark!

Ari said...

Happy New Year G.T. and thanks for all the hard work you put in!

MG said...

When I hear GT talk about it possibly being the toughest TI yet, I get excited.

Guitar Ted said...

@J Fry, Ari, MG: Happy New Year!

I look forward to riding and spending time with each of you in 2014.

Jay said...

Happy new year GT! Awesome write up

Steve Fuller said...

Thanks for the insight Mark. A lot of thankless work behind the scenes so that we can go play bikes in the spring. :) I remember driving the first half of the V7 route looking for some good photo spots and thinking about how cool the route was going to be. I can imagine you feel the same way. :)

MG - I'm as excited as you are about seeing what Mark's put together for us this year.

Guitar Ted said...

@Jay: Happy New Year my Friend!

@Steve Fuller: Yes- I do get excited about the routes. (Just ask J Fry sometime!)

Happy New Year to you, my Friend!

Shane said...

What if you could combine all 3 separate maps you use for planning into a single digital map that can be viewed at any scale you wished, controlling what's visible and not? In addition, you could add aerial imagery, hillshade relief, elevation contours and many other 'map layers' that could be used to find your killer routes. Lots of other possibilities that this opens up as well. Ping me if interested in setting something up.