Posts Categorized: People

Bike-Minded: Driftless Region Biking

By Sam Wiles

When people commonly think “Iowa,” they think corn, farms and uninterrupted flat land. Maybe even the well-known statewide road ride, Ragbrai. But mountain biking? Come on.

We’ll tell you a secret though. There’s a unique spot in the Midwest called the Driftless Region, and for mountain biking, it’s ideal. Fast rising bluffs and thick wooded areas provide a place for trails that challenge even the most expert of mountain bikers, and the flowing rivers and streams provide the perfect backdrop for a great ride.

Mountain biking began in a more conventional location: California. During the 1970s mountain biking founding fathers such as Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Charlie Cunningham, Keith Bontrager, and Tom Ritchey converted cruisers and balloon-tire bicycles into human-powered machines that could traverse all sorts of terrain. Mount Tamalpais, better known as Mt. Tam, is where they conducted their experimental downhill riding. They would have the bike delivered to top of the mountain, then would race to the bottom.

Things have evolved a fair amount since then, and the trend has spread. It took awhile for it to trickle in from the coasts though, let alone to the Midwest. Yet somehow, tiny Decorah in Northeast Iowa was at the head of the pack, even though not everyone around “got it.”

“I had literally one of the first mountain bikes in the state of Iowa,” says Richard ‘Deke’ Gosen, owner of Oneota River Cycles bike shop in Decorah. “There was a misconception among not only city officials but people who owned them at first. Remember those mountain dew commercials where those guys were ‘doing the dew’ and tearing everything up? People in the community thought that’s what we were doing.”

So mountain biking was banned from the Decorah parks system. Many people thought it meant motorized dirt bikes producing air and noise pollution. When the ban was lifted in 1990, it was for the first Decorah Time Trials, and riders could only ride within a three-day span, one day on either side of the Time Trials race day. Gradually local mountain biking enthusiasts began to earn the trust of the community, and in 1993 the ban was lifted and preliminary construction on the singletrack trails began.

“[That year] it became okay to bike on the Decorah trails. It taught us something: that we had to become valuable enough to the community. We have done that through a lot of activities, starting with building the trails and promoting mountain biking,” says Gosen.

The pioneering race was the first and is now the longest-running in the state of Iowa. This year marks the 20th anniversary, and fittingly, 2010’s time trials will be featured in the Iowa Mountain Bike Racing Series for the first time, helping to put Decorah on the map for more mountain bikers and leading to wider publicity in general for the race.

The annual race is grueling one, winding through Decorah’s challenging singletrack. Racers do the route in laps, and how many laps depends on the biker’s skill level. It’s different from other mountain biking races because rather than starting in a pack (which would be impossible on the narrow trails) racers are released in intervals, the timer being the only gauge on the competition. Finally, the route is kept a secret until the day of the race.

“There’s a lot of speculation, and that’s part of the fun,” says Gosen, who picks the course each year.

And to make things even more unpredictable, Time Trials happen rain or shine. Historically, it’s been the former.

“The weather has always been bad. I’d be hard pressed to remember when the weather wasn’t terrible,” says Gosen. “But we ride no matter what.”

The trails are muddy this time of year, making the ride more difficult yet. Tires can get stuck in thick, black mud bogs or slide off of what’s already often tricky terrain.

Decorah mountain biking has truly come a long way in the past two decades. In the spring of 2003 – with the help of Gosen and fellow mountain bikers Jesse Reyerson, Jeff O’Gara, Ben Shockey, and a handful of others, Decorah Human Powered Trails (DHPT) was formed. Now a division of the Decorah Parks’ system, DHPT has built and continues to maintain over 17 miles of trails in the Van Peenen, Palisades, Ice Cave and Dunning’s Spring park systems.

“It came out of the need to consolidate a variety of user groups that were all involved with (off-road) trail development, and that included runners, walkers, and hikers. We were all kind of working together but not organized, and by all moving together and working on the same projects, it also gave us a little credibility with the community and the city,” says Gosen.

And no one in Decorah confuses dirt bikes with mountain bikes any more.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about how special Decorah is, but I think there are a lot of special people who live in Decorah,” says Jesse Reyerson, DHPT president. “It is probably pretty rare to have a town of 8,000 people support two bike shops anywhere else in the state.”

But even so, Decorah isn’t plastered all over MountainBike.com or Cycling Magazine. In spite of 500 acres of park and more than 17 miles of off-road trails, it isn’t rated as one of the 100 best cities for mountain biking by cycling site Singletrack.com.

That might be the best part.

“You can do any kind of cycling you want. It’s not just a road cycling community; it’s not just a mountain biking community. And it’s fantastic mountain biking that no one seems to know about so there’s virtually no traffic,” says Travis Greentree, owner of Decorah Bicycles – the second of the two bike shops in Decorah. “Five minutes away from town you can completely get away. Plus there’s enough mileage out there to keep finding new things to do, new places to ride, new obstacles.”

But don’t think any obstacle on the trail was a lack in maintenance. It is most likely there for a reason.

“If a log falls in the path, we just leave it. It makes for a new challenge,” said Decorah biker Ben Shockey. The challenge is all part of the enjoyment for mountain bikers. They revel in constant tests of unexplored terrain and natural surprises.

“There’s also not a one way direction on any trail so you can ride them any way you want. They’re so intertwined out there; you could never ride the same one twice and never run into the same person,” says Greentree.

This labyrinth of twists requires a means of navigation for the newcomer (and sometimes even the frequent rider). Gosen is at the helm of the DHPT team that helps map Decorah’s mountain bike trails. He had used aerial photography in the past and gradually segued to more sophisticated GPS systems to make particularly detailed sets of maps. He has also been behind a move to give up paper maps, as new trails are created often. The e-maps are available online at www.ExploreDecorah.com.

“Our maps are useful for trail users but we’ve also helped the city define their borders, with planning bike routes and community centers. Plus our races and non-competitive events bring in thousands of people every year. We’ve given away 5500 trail maps. Someone is clearly using them,” Gosen says.

And some of those people are also clearly not from around here. The fact that biking draws tourists is no secret. Decorah plays host to not only Time Trials annually, but also The Summer Sizzler, The Night Shift Night Race, and summer mountain bike festivals such as Big Wheel Ballyhoo and The Dirt Burger.

Locally it has garnered some great traditions too. Several area mountain bikers partake in Tuesday’s ‘Night Rides.’ Each ride lasts for an hour and a half, and allows for mountain bikers to get some time on the trails in the midst of busy schedules.

“Night riding is a lot of fun and a different kind of ride than hitting the trails during the day time,” Ryerson says. “It is easier to focus on exactly where you are placing your front wheel, because it is about the only thing you can see.”

The members of DHPT always emphasize that the mountain biking community is a social one. Each Tuesday night ride ends in a celebratory beer. The Spring Time Trials end in an award ceremony at T-Bock’s Bar and Grill on Water St.

“The social aspect of each race is awesome,” says Decorah biker Ben Shockey. “We’re pretty tightly knit. You get to know a lot of the same people.”

Shockey has organized the most physically demanding of cycling experiences, ‘Spring Training in Decorah.’ The event consists of a two-day ride throughout gravel and off-road trails of Northeast Iowa. This year from March 11 to March 13, Shockey and four others rode 203 miles in 48 hours, with 18 hours of actual ride time – a grueling stretch by any measure, especially over rough terrain. The group suffered through cramping, back spasms, and dehydration, all common with this type of endurance riding.

Shockey documents the event on his blog, SpringTraininginDecorah.blogspot.com with photos and daily updates during the ride. He is one of many in the biking community to utilize the online medium to talk about biking. Reyerson operates BikeDecorah.com, a sight with links to other biking sites, biking blogs, and maps of area trails. The BikeDecorah blog, operated by a number of local mountain bike enthusiasts, including Reyerson and Shockey, documents the activities of DHPT. The viral aspect of DHPT also helps connect the group to other parts of the Driftless Region – Northeast Iowa, Southwest Wisconsin and Southeast Minnesota – that is primed for biking.

Marty Larson operates The Prairie Peddler blog that highlights trails in Southwest Wisconsin.

“From a purely physical perspective, the terrain in the Driftless Region is fantastic for riding. Frequent scenic vistas, tough rock sections, smooth flowy tracks. We’ve got it all here,” says long-time biker Larson. “I’ve long maintained that the riding – both road and mountain – we have here in [our region] is some of the best in the country.”

Whether they consider it a sport, an activity or a pastime, for many, biking is more than pedals and handlebars and helmets. It’s about personal challenges, physical wellbeing and communal existence. It’s much more to people like Marty Larson.

“For me, cycling makes LIFE enjoyable. It gives me purpose; it drives me to be better at everything I do, from fatherhood, to being a better husband,” he says. “I want to improve cycling opportunities for everyone around so they can maybe get that feeling that I do. That euphoric joy of being in the moment on the bike.”

Sam Wiles had a great time talking to the bikers of Decorah and the region, and even did some firsthand research on his own bike. He’s thinking his next article will be titled, ‘The Joys of Gold-Bond Medicated Powder.’

Get on the Trail!

In Decorah:  Over 17 miles of single track trails! Beginner/Intermediate: River Trail & Twin Springs. Intermediate/Advanced: Van Peenan,  Ice Cave, Palisades. There are also endless miles of gravel roads to ride in the region, and some nice mid-distance rides to scenic destinations & watering holes including Bluffton, Ridgeway, Sattre, etc. Organized rides most Tuesday evenings for those with some experience, call Oneota River Cycles for more information. Beginners & beyond ride meets every Sunday afternoon at Decorah Bicycles (next to the Whippy Dip!).
www.bikedecorah.com, http://decorahbicycles.com/, http://www.exploredecorah.com/

In Prairie du Chien: La Riviere Park has roughly 8 miles of trail. Difficulty varies from wide, grassy trails that flow around the south edge of the park to horse and hiking singletrack. Some good climbs, sandy sections, and rocky areas. http://theprairiepeddler.blogspot.com/
Pikes Peak State Park above Mc Gregor has a single trail there from the lower upper parking lot down to Point Anne and down to the lower parking lot. Not terribly lengthy, but a scenic ride, especially in the spring.

Harpers Ferry: 8000 acres of the Yellow River State Forest. 20+ miles of trails with lots of ‘double track’. Lots of climbs and beautiful views.

Wyalusing State Park just to the south of Prairie du Chien has beginner trails. New intermediate trails being built this summer on Maple Ridge.

La Crosse: Lots of great single track and well built trails. Check out www.humanpoweredtrails.com!

Iowa City: Sugar Bottom, more info at www.icorrmtb.org

Interview with Anoushka Shankar

By Aryn Henning Nichols

Halfway across the world, in a land full of colors, ancient traditions, and life oh-so-different from the Midwest – America, for that matter – a 9-year-old Anoushka Shankar began to play an instrument that would shape her life. The sitar – a plucked string Indian instrument with a long hollow neck – was miniature and specially made for young Shankar. And although it was her first time really playing, the music, it seemed, had always simply BEEN there.

“I was going to concerts from when I was a baby so it’s just kind of an intrinsic part of all my memories,” she writes via email from Australia.

Now 28 years old, Shankar travels extensively around the world with her work.“Right now I’m sitting in a gorgeous outdoor atrium looking at the Sydney Opera House,” she writes via email. “Currently, life is sweet.”
The beautiful musician grew up surrounded by creativity: daughter of the legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar, she couldn’t ask for a better sitar teacher; she also has a musician mother; and many relatives involved in the arts in some way or another. And perhaps most recognizable in the Western world, Shankar’s half sister is that popular jazz singer Norah Jones.

“It’s great being in a really artistic family,” she says. “It creates an atmosphere to learn and soak up art and culture in. It’s not hard to be an individual because we all support each other in our individual feelings and pursuits.”

Those pursuits have led to five albums, a book, acting roles, and experience composing, arranging, and producing music. Shankar debuted in concert and on one of her father’s albums at just 13, and the rate in which her career has advanced since then is amazing, and to Shankar, occasionally a lot to take in. But through high times and low, she still believes her chosen path was the right one. She wasn’t defined by her artistic family, and she always knew had a choice, no matter how genetically predisposed to music she may have seemed.

“Sometimes it was overwhelming, and yes, sometimes I did have thoughts about alternate careers, but I also loved what I was doing and the instrument I was playing,” she says. “So it was more a question of continuing to further my career. I knew I was never entering a lifetime contract, so I knew I could do what I wanted to do, but it was an amazing experience to be able to learn, perform, and travel in the environment that I did.”
Wearing the many hats she does also helps make thing interesting.

“I love keeping my life diverse,” she says. “I honestly have no idea how to live any other way. I grew up between three continents and have always toured and have different inspirations. It’s beneficial to me to have fresh inspiration and new experiences.”

This helps Shankar branch out musically as well. The phrase “World Music” is used to define her genre, but it’s a pretty broad term. Shankar likes to fuse different types of music together to produce something sometimes unexpected.

“As someone that listens to all kinds of music from around the world, I’ve always loved hearing music that can interpret cultures in a fresh and interesting way,” she says. “So that’s something that I have loved to experiment with since I started composing. It’s not just about the sitar for me, though of course that’s the instrument that I’m most comfortable expressing myself with. But I do think it’s a very versatile instrument while still being distinct, which can be extraordinarily effective and fresh when heard out of context.”
And Shankar isn’t willing to put boundaries on the direction or genre her music may tackle in the future. “I’ve learned never to say never,” she says. “I think it’s important to be open.”

Her show, “Sudakshini, a musical journey from North to South India by the Anoushka Shankar Project,” features Shankar on sitar in addition to a touring group of four musicians joining her: Tanmoy Bose – tabla, Ravichandra Kulur – flute and kanjira, Pirashanna Thevarajah – mridangam and Nick Able – tanpura. Shankar elaborates a bit more on what the show will actually be like:
“There are two forms of Indian Classical music, the Hindustani style of the north, to which the sitar and tablas belong, and the Carnatic system of the south. Normally I would explain that we will be playing North Indian music but this tour is unusual because we’re using this opportunity to explore the connections between the two and performing pieces from the South Indian tradition, that one wouldn’t normally hear on the sitar or the tablas. I’m touring with two South Indian musicians who play flute and percussion and we all have such great chemistry on stage together, so the show itself will be a new and different experience for the audience and myself.”

Anoushka Shankar performed as part of the Center Stage Series at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Let ‘Er Wail: An Interview with the Wailin’ Jennys

By Sam Wiles 

The Wailin’ Jennys might just have the coolest name in modern music. The obvious but clever pun on country music legend Waylon Jennings’s name is memorable, rhetorically satisfying, and translates broadly across cultural divides. It symbolizes folk music’s ability to span generations. And it was also an accident.

The band’s first gig – a guitar shop in Winnipeg, Canada – was supposed to be a one-time concert for three Canadian solo artists. But when the show was a big success, the owner of the shop suggested the three women form a band and tour as…the Folk Vixens.

“He thought we should have a name, but he kept trying to give us terrible names like ‘the Folk Vixens,’” Nicky Mehta says with a friendly voice and a self-deprecating sense of humor. “He eventually thought of The Wailin’ Jennys and we thought it was okay. So we made these posters before a concert as a joke, with terrible pictures of us that said ‘The Wailin’ Jennys,’ but they actually ended up getting us a lot of attention.”

Since their beginning in 2002, the all-female folk trio has recorded four albums, topped the US Bluegrass charts, appeared on ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ and rotated personnel a few times.

Mehta, along with fellow Canadians Ruth Moody and Cara Luft, made up the original Wailin’ Jennys until 2004 when Luft went on to pursue a solo career. Enter Annabelle Chvostek, a solo artist from Indie music hotbed Montreal. While the band’s 2004 album 40 Days, recorded with Luft, sounds different than 2006’s Firecracker – recorded with Chvostek – the difference isn’t a deterrent. Chvostek’s distinctly smoky voice is simply an enjoyable change of pace. But in 2007 she left the group to pursue what has been a successful solo career and was replaced by current member Heather Masse, a Maine-born singer who was living in New York. Again, Masse has a distinctively different voice than her predecessors, bringing a slightly smoother element to the group vocally, although the off stage banter is now full of over-the-border jokes.

“There’s some good natured ribbing between us Canadians and Heather,” Mehta says. “We’ll tease her sometimes and she teases us for saying things that Americans don’t usually say, like ‘is it ever cold in here,’ or ‘is it ever hot outside,’ or ‘soory.’”

In spite of the phony rivalry, the group has a great sense of continuity, and that shows through their music. At least some portion of every Wailin’ Jennys song on 40 Days and Firecracker features intricate and beautiful harmonies created by Moody’s soprano, Mehta’s mezzo, and the revolving door of talented altos. The genuine blend of the three voices happens just the way a listener would imagine: organically.

“A lot of times if someone is singing the melody, and when everyone’s familiar with the song, everybody just kind of sings and sees where it goes,” Mehta says.

In addition to of course being talented vocally, The Jennys, as Mehta refers to them, are a cerebral bunch. In an era far removed from the origins of folk, The Jennys understand the difficulty of writing lyrics that sound new but at the same time have a genuine folksiness. For example, the song “Apocalypse Lullaby,” a title that certainly seems post-modern, is inherently soothing. The lyrics sound new, and probably couldn’t have come from a far away time period, but they seem authentic somehow. When Chvostek sings “Spin the speed of light/Tetrahedron blue/One last paradise/You can make for you,” it sounds like bluegrass self help for the modern era. Then some songs sound like old school heartbreak. Others empowering. There’s a non-specific spirituality to The Jennys music that calls on the gospel roots of folk, but is left wholly up to the listeners interpretation (intentionally). Folk music, like The Jennys’ name, is a constant in the American music scene because of its ability to unite old and new followers under a tent of commonality.

“It’s almost a self-revitalizing genre because it spans so many generations. You have people who’ve grown up with the originals,” Mehta says. “And you have the younger bands that are making folk music fresh and new. It can be in world music, or people paying homage to a particular artist. There’s been a lot of evolution in folk music. We’re all trying to make something fresh while trying to honor what’s come before.”

Folk music isn’t the only thing evolving. With the advent of home recording, coupled with the accessibility of the Internet, getting your name and sound out takes a whole new strategy.

“It was harder to get an album made before, but if you got an album made it was easier to get it heard. Now it’s inverted,” Mehta says. “You have to market so much smarter now.”

What’s great about The Jennys is that, no matter how things change, they seem to understand their music and what the genre means in this era of arrogance, cultural indulgence and corporatism.

“It’s more than being quaint. It’s about remembering times when community was more important,” Mehta says. “It’s about embracing the concept of evolution and change, but reminding everyone that we’re part of a global community.”

The Wailin’ Jennys  performed at the Center for Faith and Life at Luther College in Decorah as part of the Center Stage Series.  www.centerstage.luther.edu For more information on Wailin’ Jennys, visit www.thewailinjennys.com.

Sam Wiles enjoyed writing this article, doing the interviews and listening to the music. Additionally, Sam now has plans to star in his own all-female folk trio, the Confusin’ Susans. They will begin touring this summer.