Bike the Barns (and also Day 9 of the Sunset Challenge).

So, again, it is cloudy outside and that equates no sunset over the beautiful Lake Mendota…  No wonder people hate these rainy days.

However, despite the lack of sunset, there appears to be one determined group of people who will not be brought down by the drab weather conditions: this year’s Bike the Barns participants.  Between 8 and 10 am, approximately 530 cyclists headed out to Cambridge, Wisconsin to embark on a 63-mile, 3 meal ride, or a 26-mile, 2 meal ride.

Thought up by Jonny Hunter and Kevin Walsh of UFC, Bike the Barns is a large fundraiser for the Madison Area CSA Coalition’s Partner Share Program (which makes CSA farm shares, and therefore fresh produce, much more affordable to limited-income households).  UFC and MACSAC have co-sponsored the event since its commencement in 2007.  In the ride’s first year, Hunter expected 60 participants; they had 350 sign up.  The event had to be capped in its second year!  Every year since, the ride has sold out.  Registration was full in early August this year!

Bright and early (er, well, cloudy and early), this year’s participants registered and picked up goodie bags (complete with pink t-shirts, designed by Art and Sons, more intimately known as Drew Garza and Scott Pauli) before heading to the park shelter for morning snacks.

Immediately, my friend pulled on her new pink shirt, complete with a bicycle pulling a plow.  Although Garza and Pauli’s design business has been up and running for a little over a year now, they have been doing the t-shirts and promotional material for Bike the Barns for the past three years.  Garza and Pauli got connected with Bike the Barns through Hunter (they have done a lot of work for Hunter and UFC while establishing their artistic identity).  After MACSAC’s executive director and community program manager educated them on MACSAC as well as the whole CSA process, Garza and Pauli began doing work for the event.  It was important to understand the significance of Bike the Barns and the meaning behind it in order to create images that would represent the event well.  This opportunity as well as working with UFC has given the artists an opportunity to be free with their work.  Hunter and MACSAC employees were very receptive to Garza and Pauli’s creativity and design work, allowing them to grow as artists.

The weather at Lake Ripley Park was chilly but everyone cheerfully drank their coffee and munched on delicious yogurt cups prepared by UFC while waiting for their registered start times and hoping for clearer skies.

My registration time was 8:20, so I “had to” leave within the 20 minutes after 8:20.  This was the general request, but with no race bib or official starting line, my race departure relied on me and me alone.  Because riders left as they pleased between 8 and 9am, the ride had an extremely casual feel to it.  There was no need to worry about how fast or slow you biked because you didn’t know when anyone else began and truly, there was no one paying attention to or concerned with your speed.  Riders of the 63-mile ride followed lime green arrows stuck to the road, indicating when to turn, although ride maps were also distributed.  Riders of the 26-mile ride followed yellow arrows that would take them to farm stops 2 and 3.

The first farm stop, High Meadow Farm, was 25 miles from Lake Ripley Park and somehow the rain held off for this largest portion of the ride.  Here cyclists enjoyed croissants from GRAZE, Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk as well as watermelon and apples.  Bikers were free to wander the grounds, looking at the farm’s chickens and vegetable crops.  20-minute farm tours were also available.

Back behind the tent where hungry riders grabbed meal number 1, the farm’s moveable chicken pen sat ready for viewing.  During the green seasons, chickens sleep and lay eggs within these portable structures called Chicken Tractors.  The structures are moved weekly for fresh, clean pasture.

Our time at High Meadow Farm was a bit chilly, but the rain still held off… until I pulled out my camera.  From about the moment we got back on our bikes until we arrived at farm stop #2, the rain and wind did not let up.  I, a glasses wearer, cannot tell you  much about the scenery of this 20 mile ride as my glasses were tucked away in my raincoat pocket as I rode blindly down country roads.  One thing I can tell you is that this stretch was extremely hilly and that hills are a lot less daunting when you cannot see them.  I think this was the fastest bike ride of my life.  There is something about cycling through the elements that just makes it a lot more fun.  In the middle of a cycling event, rain is a kind of instant community-builder: we were all out there, we were all struggling, we were all drenched and therefore, we were all immediately friends.  When I put my glasses back on at farm stop #2, everyone was still smiling and to me that is a testament to how well-run and well-loved this event is.  We were dripping and disgusting but absolutely pumped to eat a lunch prepared by the Underground Food Collective, inside of a hoop house full of tomato plants.

This picture was taken during our first few minutes at Stop #2: Wholesome Harvest.  Cyclists were allowed to park our bikes on the front yard (which I feel like we turned into a mud pit, along with the whole driveway, thanks so much Wholesome Harvest!).  Here we enjoyed open face sandwiches of roast beef with tomato, onion, sarvecchio, jus and toast alongside a bean salad with a lemon vinagrette and a wheat berry salad with carrots and beets.  Maybe I was just starving and cold, but given that I’d eaten croissants, chocolate milk and fruit less than two hours previous, I don’t think hunger had nothing to do with how absolutely incredible this meal tasted.  My friends and I chowed down the entire thing in less than ten minutes.

After a twenty minute warm up in the hoop house, we left Wholesome Harvest with much fuller stomachs and hoped this would warm us up.  But I regret to inform you that this is where the pictures stop because my friends and I took the 10 mile ride back to Lake Ripley Park rather than the 18 mile ride that included ice cream sandwiches at Sprouting Acres Farm.  We, unlike the vast majority of riders, were not sufficiently prepared for the weather.  With feet that felt like bricks and legs that were chilled to the bone, we biked back.  My friends were happy with this decision, but after speaking with Hunter, I was pretty disappointed that I missed their ice cream sandwiches made with apricot jam and homemade ice cream using Sassy Cow Creamery milk.

When I told Hunter that I would certainly still eat that ice cream treat on a cold day, he matter-of-factly replied, “Lots of people did.”  A little disappointed that I hadn’t been tough enough to join my fellow crazy Madison bikers in making it to the ice cream sandwiches, in the end, I was thrilled that Bike the Barns had such enthusiastic support.  It seems my friends and I were in the minority when it came to sticking it out through the weather.  According to Andy Watson, a farmer at Sprouting Acres Farm, an amazing number of people kept rolling in throughout the day. Almost 100 people asked for a farm tour at this final stop despite the conditions, and many many more enjoyed the delicious desserts.

By the post-ride party, some riders had put in more than 10 hours on the road, but it was all worth it for pork and beef tacos, fresh tomato and tomattillo salsa with cabbage and carrot slaw.

In the end, out of the 660 participants who signed up ahead of time for the event, only 39 people did not show up for registration, leaving the total at 535 registered riders, 20 bike support folks, 50 volunteers and 12 SAG wagon participants!  And here’s one final impressive number for you: by the end of the day, UFC had prepared over 2000 meals for Bike the Barns.

So where does all this food come from? As Kiera Mulvey, executive director of MACSAC told me, UFC does a great job of  “serving up amazing meals using mostly donated produce (a feat of its own!) and is willing to work in whatever conditions we’re able to come up with.  Incredibly flexible and creative, its always been a joy to see what the menu consists of and how they’ve transformed all the food donated by our amazing farmers into a full day of fresh food for over 550 riders.”  The vast majority of this food comes from MACSAC farms.

Along with the flawless and delicious meals, it was quite apparent that this event has evolved over the years into an amazingly well-supported, well-executed and enormously popular event.  Planning for next year will begin immediately.  Participating groups will get together to assess this year’s successes and figure out what can be done better next year.  “This is our 5th year and I feel that we finally are getting a pretty good idea about what it takes to make it more work,” Hunter tells me.  As a bike participant, this was pretty apparent.

Kiera offered me a little insight into the support staff MACSAC has working on this event.  Willy Street bikes, REI Madison, We Are All Mechanics, Just Coffee and Uphill Grind have all offered tremendous amounts of support over the years.  MACSAC also relies on a volunteer committee of 6 folks (3 staff and 3 volunteers) to do most of the pre event planning, organizing, development and logistics.  There are also 5-two person crews of route markers the day prior to the event, 5 in office volunteers the week prior to the event helping with logistics and prep, and approximately 50 day-of-volunteer slots (although, often folks do multiple shifts, so only about 30 individuals helping the day of).  This year and last, Scott Kremer and Mike Miller, served as dedicated ride support volunteers.  Their goal: reaching out to long term supporters and coordinating their presence, hoping to make involvement larger and more comprehensive.  As Kiera explains, “Willy St. Bikes has always been a huge event supporter, but we’ve arranged with them in the past few years to have more of a day of presence to lend more assistance to riders.  It comes a lot from personal connections between committee members and also from a great track record of a successful event, bike shops are excited to help out because they know this is an awesome community of riders out there not to win races and beat records, but to enjoy our amazing cycling atmosphere, our community of farms, and the great food.”

With great respect for one another’s talents and abilities, this collaboration seems to bring the best out of everybody.  I, for one, am thrilled MACSAC, UFC and partner organizations all came together.