28 August 2008

Day one, on the road

So I rolled out of the driveway at 7:40am. Sun was shining, the bike was tight, the trail promised about 4 hours of fairly hassle-free riding until I hit the quiet country roads west of Richmond, IL. Oh, nuts! Still in my good glasses, not the ones I clip my mirror to.

And that was the only glitch in the day. No kidding!

The Illinois Prairie Path provides 3 options west to the Fox River Trail, which runs the length of, oh I guess it must be Kane County along the river. From my intersection we can go due west on the Geneva Spur, through West Chicago to ... well, Geneva. Or the Elgin Branch, northwest through West Chicago, Wayne and probably Bartlett to South Elgin. (Why isn't it called the South Elgin Branch of the IPP? I never thought of that before. Elgin is actually along the Fox River Trail.)

One thing I noticed real soon. And I thought of it, monitored it, throughout the day. I love my Trek 520. It's built for "loaded touring" and its motto (back when I bought it) was "go for a ride, come back in a month." As if. But I can dream! Anyway, it had been a while since I actually did load it up for a long self-contained ride. And what struck me Thursday - I really wasn't looking for this - is that the bike is actually even more comfortable loaded than not. It is a great bike for a long ride that does not require speed. I guess it's the combination of the geometry and the steel frame. But man, what a sweet roll set up for touring. I am really eager to get front panniers and the whole experience. That really surprised me, and I am convinced it is more than just the euphoria of starting a new trip.

As I set out, I said a simple prayer. I talk to God, and I trust him for lots of things big and little. I also do not believe God is obligated to make my life comfortable and in fact is not all that likely to do so, for purposes I don't need explained. But on this day, I set out with the prayer, "Lord, I would sure like to have a trouble-free ride." (It is a real pain to fix a flat on these wheels, even without having to take off all the bags and gear first!) "But, if I do have trouble, help be to keep my head about me, think things through, and not get frustrated or discouraged." Call it hedging my spiritual bets if you will; the reality is the second part of that prayer is more what I need than the first. "And if I can help others, that would be cool, too."

I met my timing goals along the way through the day. 12-mile mark at the junction of IPP and FRT, one hour - check! Do the math; yes, average speed accomplishments are very different when touring. I feel a good day is being on the road 10-12 hours, averaging 12-13 mph during the pedaling bits. First pit stop, north of Elgin at 17 miles - check! As I approached this stop I noticed again the refurbishing of a trail-side wonder. Sure, Illinois does not have mountains, but we do have a castle ... or at least a castle turret! Just beyond the castle, just before the pit stop, I called out for the first time on this trip, "Are you OK? Do you need anything?" A young mom and her 2 boys were alongside the path, and mom was trying to fix something. In an amazing rarity, I actually could help - the chain had come off on the little single gear bike with coaster brakes. I realized that we could get off the chain-guard, and then it went on pretty easily. As we worked it was fun to talk with the young boy, to promote ABD to his mom who had just ridden her first race, and to roll of thinking "All in a day's work for ... Bicycle Repair Man!"

I thought, 2 hours to Crystal Lake and that lovely roadside/trailside park aong the highway (S. Main St.?) - check! A good second pit-stop and a water fountain. Getting through Crystal Lake can be a little awkward. The route is clearly enough signed but crossing the highway, and the perpetual construction at a key intersection, make it just a bit inconvenient. Once through there is the thrill and the agony of cycling through Stearns Woods. The firecest descents and the toughest climbs along any of the trails in this system, not easy on a pleasure ride ... and an interesting challenge loaded for touring. North of Stearns Woods the path runs through McHenry County, McHenry, Ringwood, and Richmond. If you stay on this trail, it will dump you out in Genoa City, WI. So, you can ride from my house to Wisconsin all on trail (marked bike route). Friend Jeremy points out that it is 50 miles from Winfield to Genoa City by this route, making a tidy trail century ... which curiously I have never done myself.

Richmond, 4 hours - check!

Thus far, the cue sheets from the Grand Illinois Trail were unnecessary. As I approached the Broadway St. trail crossing in Richmond, 4 cyclists were straddling their bikes there, chatting. Ya gotta love running into chatty cyclists at rest. Talk is obvious: where are you headed, where and when did you start, look over the gear, alternate route options, weather and traffic. A couple of these guys had in fact cycled out to Galena (but not "toured out" to there, I think), and all had headed west of town to Hebron. They encouraged me to stick to the highway with a good shoulder instead of follow the Hebron Trail as noted in GIT. Sounded good to me, after nearly 50 miles of trail and not knowing what the HT was going to offer for a surface. The shade I would have welcomed; I guess it's a nicely canopied stretch. But IL-173 is in fact broad-shouldered, and I was on a distance mission, so that's how I rolled into Hebron.

Now, arriving in Hebron intact without a hint of fatique or dehydration, not to mention without bonking, was the first real accomplishment of the day. I had kicked the Hebron Bonk curse. I can now tour again. Yea! Not to mention that Hebron is a great place to stop for lunch or even just a dairy treat. At Dari. We drive by it every time we go to Lake Geneva, but I'm not sure we've ever stopped there. It was my lunch destination, and I enjoyed their $5 pork BBQ, fries and soda (choosing of course the classic, locally rescued soda Green River). A bit of conversation about the bike and the trip ... I would think folks in Hebron were more used to seeing touring cyclists going through on some GIT trek. I guess not. It was kind of funny, though ... everyone assumes - or maybe just hopes - that you are riding cross country. "Still," they basically say, "Wheaton to Galena, that's really something."

Lunch stop: 56.1 miles, 13.4mph average speed, 4 hours 5 minutes.

As I got ready to roll again, I asked the girl at the counter where I would find "HEB-ron" Road. She gave me this look like I was speaking another language. I thought, you know, the name of the town you live and work in?? Then, "oh, HEEB-ron" Road. Silly me, with my biblical pronunciation. I got the direction I needed, but it's a good thing I asked, because right there in town it isn't actually called Hebron Road, no matter how it is pronounced. It's actually Bigelow Ave. As with so many roads like this, the town name applies to the section that actually leads to, you know, the town. In town they often take another name.

Now, here I made a mistake. I would make it again on Friday. It is so basic, and I've done it enough to know better. Never leave town without completely filling all your water and sport drink bottles. I still had "plenty" - surely enough to get to the next town - so I took off with only one full Gatorade and a less-than-full Camelback.

Heading west on quiet country roads, the next segment divided into three 8-mile sections and a 7-mile jaunt. 8 Miles west, 1 mile north, 8 miles west on State Line Road (I guess it has one lane in Wisconsin and one in Illinois, so I think I did actually get some miles in WI). I somehow missed the sign for Burr Oak Road, though the cue sheet gave me ample information to look for it. So a mile farther on (as it turns out) when I saw Capron Rd., I took it south into Capron, where I hopped on the Long Prairie Trail and took that into Caledonia. By arriving in Capron, I think I missed a trail head, and I later thought that would have been another opportunity to re-hydrate. (I would come to see that we really can't count on anything of the sort on these trails.) Long Prairie Trail made me think, for some reason, of the Great Western Trail between St. Charles and Sycamore; if the GWT were paved.

By now the skies were glowering. Wind wasn't bad, and the temperatures were holding steady, but it was looking stormy, and I had plenty far to go, still. There were a few stray sprinkles but no organized opposition to a dry ride. At my arrival in Caledonia I had logged another 31+ miles. And here at a key juncture of this Trail, again, there was no water. Another thing I re-learned on this trip ... a lot of these small towns really don't have vending resources, either. So here I was with weather building, liquid refreshment dwindling, and a decision ahead of me.

Rock Cut State Park was not too many miles hence. I would get there with my daily miles at just under 100. Under ideal circumstances, I could continue through Rockford, cover maybe up to 30 more miles, and camp within striking distance of a day's ride into Galena. But these weren't ideal circumstances, and I had injudiciously left HEEBron without full liquid supplies.

So, I took the Rock Cut option, arriving there at about 4pm. The campground registration office seemed surprised to find a solo rider on a self-supported ride. Doesn't anyone follow the GIT?? But they had plenty of sites, and I settled into one across the road from the lakefront. No showers ... I have always been under the notion - now at last disproved - that all state parks had running water and showers. Here I was at 97+ miles and little chance of a good wash up. Oh well, I had my cook kit and soap. And the park has a little cafe open until 7. So I set up camp, cleaned up as best I could, then rode back around the park to the concessions area. But not before we had some precipitation. It was kind of strange. I don't know if these people were already preparing to leave, but I'd say 3 or 4 campsites dismantled and left when it began to rain lightly. That was really curious. Fair weather campers? Day-trippers? I don't know, but it did make for a nice quiet night in the campground!

Thursday's ride to camp: 97.1 miles, 13.8 mph, 7 hours 5 minutes.
After cycling to supper and back: 104.7 miles, 13.4, 7:44

And so, to bed after reviewing Hebrew vocab and listening to a "Wait, Wait" podcast. In the night, a loud CRACK, and there was a bit of a prolonged thunder storm. Never quite directly over the park, so it was more delightful than worrisome. Later in the night, I could hear the rain coming from behind me (whatever direction that was); you could hear the rain falling as it moved through the trees, then it would fall on the tent and move on. A lovely sound, and we so seldom actually see the rain-line. It is very comforting, somehow, to hear it. There was very little wind, barely discernable, and these showers moving through.

Later in the night, before dawn, a great horned owl sounding nearby. Oh, I love camping!

27 August 2008

On the road again (finally!)

It has been far too many years since I loaded up the Trek 520 for a multi-day trip. Each summer it is a dream, even if not an actual goal, and for years I breathe a disappointed sigh about now and count my regrets. Generally the summers begin with my Karen encouraging me to take the time for it. One thing and another, perhaps a little caution with age, and of course the memory of my last attempt a few years ago ... when I bonked just outside of Hebron, IL, not quite near the end of my first day. Rescued by my Karen, without recrimination or questions, it has taken me a while to get back on this horse.

But this was the year for it. Again, the late spring agreement that I just need to plug this in some where. Again, one thing and another taking a day here, a day there, complicating this or that weekend. Two weekends ago, August 14-16, was perfect for a trip: temps in the 70s, low humidity, no rain. What a sweet getaway weekend.

But I went this past weekend, August 21-23. Meh, it was when I could, really. And you know, getting away is the main thing, not getting away under perfect conditions. Daily temps were mid-80s, each day had a little light spritzy sprinkle in it, parts of each day were overcast, one night had a thunderstorm (which in my view makes it an ideal trip, but that's for later), the wind was a significant factor, and while it wasn't what we can have for late August temperatures in norhtern Illinois, we did have seasonal humidity. Oh yeah, it was as good a trip as I could hope for.

I didn't go the earlier week because I just couldn't get myself prepared early enough. At work, nor in terms of the gear and trip planning. And that was the problem the last time I set out fully laden for a 3-day trip. I got at it with too short a prep period, left too late in the morning, pressed too hard to make my first day destination, and bonked. Really, bonked. Weaving down the road, buckled knees off the bike, dizzy vision, and inability to get enough hydration for a normal recovery. It was just short of a total KO. So, I was not about to jump at a surprise clearing for a perfect weekend. Better to wait and plan with what I can control, and take my chances with what I can't.

I completed my purchases on Monday. I packed my bags on Tuesday. On Wednesday I loaded the bike and rode to work on the Prairie Path for my shakedown cruise. Surprisingly, nary a rattle or a slip. It was the tightest and cleanest pack ever. Was this a good sign or the precursor of trouble on the road? Only time would tell. The main thing was that with everything else done, I could actually get to bed at a decent hour the night before leaving. Note that I am not saying I got a good night's sleep ... but I did get to bed at a decent hour. There was still the night-time appraisal of what I had packed, the questions about what I may have forgotten, and of course the exciting pre-trip jitters.

The route itself was not decided until Wednesday night. I had 3 days, I wanted to cover at least 250 miles, and ideally I wanted to complete the trip by riding into my own driveway on my own power. My Karen was willing to pick me up anywhere ... even if I didn't bonk! But it is much more fun to arrive at home on the wheels that I rode out on.

I consulted with two long-distance riding friends. Jonny B. is a Saturday ride pal, a true Randonneur stud. He had an amazing adventure with the Great Lakes 400k ride in early June: tornado warnings, Lake Delavan washouts, and all. He sent me a great loop option (essentially that 400k route), but I couldn't have done the whole trip from and back to my place. Oh well, maybe another time. Jeremy is a cycle tourist cum Randonneur, and he had a 250-mile loop from his house in Winfield, which he wrote up back in 2006. His cue sheets were excellent and detailed. Ultimately, though, I decided to take a stab at completing the Grand Illinois Trail segments which were still taunting me from an excellent ride taken when my Trek and I were both much younger. That would mean working from some pretty reliable cue sheets available online, spending at least part of my first day in familiar territory, a day-one goal of getting past Hebron without bonking, and heading out to Galena, in northwestern Illinois.

7am was my departure goal, but my 7:40 start was satisfactory. It was a nice morning, and I had 90-some miles to cover, with 12 hours of daylight still ahead of me. So, with a well prepared bike, a light breakfast in me, about 30 pounds of gear on the bike, 3 bottles of sport drink and my Camelback filled with water, I was back on the road again (finally!).

My gear:
  • back-packing tent with ground cloth; sleeping pad (the kind that sort of inflates a little bit when it unrolls), a sheet
  • cycling clothes for successive days, along with chamois butter (my first time using this derriere protecting creme) and chafing cream (no, that is not for cooking fancy dishes)
  • when I get to a campground, I like to shower (or swim if I can) and get into a loose, shorts-like swim suit and a tee-shirt; then into boxers for sleeping. This way I can travel light and not have the same sweaty clothes on all the time or every day.
  • a camp cook kit, pared down for one for 2 nights. As it turns out, this was unnecessary because I didn't bring anything to cook and never really saw the kind of place I could pick up the kind of thing I would cook - for example those pasta packaged meals. So I could have left these few items home, along with the plate, fork, spoon, cup, dish towel and cloth. I love cooking at night while camping, but I guess on a 3-day trip that is a bit much.
  • Fuel, so I wouldn't have to stop to buy sport drink or bars. I made trail mix (again, a lot more than I ended up eating), packed granola bars (also brought some of these home), and packets of powdered Gatorade (twice as many as I used). "Be prepared" and "better safe than sorry" are lifelong family mottos, I guess.
  • Cue sheets and maps of the northern leg of the GIT, and one region of the Illinois DOT cycling maps. A moleskin notebook and pen, by smallest Bible, mynano iPod so I could catch up on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!"
  • Cycling emergency material - basically the stuff I ride with all the time, plus an extra tube. And more bike lock than I needed for this particular trip. The only problem with that is the weight of a Kryptonite U-lock with a separate cable. For this trip, I could have used the cute, short, light cable I bought and used in England 4 years ago, for a bike no one would have ever considered stealing. For this trip, I was always on or near the bike, except in the state park campgrounds. Really it would have been quite safe even without a lock. (But then, those would have been famous last words.)
  • Oh, and my Hebrew vocab cards ...
  • Not to mention enthusiasm and chutzpah!

09 August 2008

Is this heaven? No, it's Portland

Twice this summer I have found cycling clubs to ride with in other cities. Back in June I joined an exhilarating rural club ride, managed to hang with the riders up front (well, they may have managed to keep in mind that if they dropped me I was lost, alone, in rural Michigan!), and finished a 36-mile ride with an average speed of 20mph. OK, so that's not Tour speed, but it was the longest ride for me at that average speed. The Grand Rapids Rapid Wheelmen proved to be a friendly club, and their rides have 2 interesting aspects that were new to me: 1) they purposely have a faster and a slower pace group for the same ride, so the fast riders don't have to hold back and the slower riders don't worry about being dropped; 2) ride leaders have printed cue sheets because even though the start location is the same, the ride isn't the same each time.

I don't get around all that much, but my experience this summer has definitely made me committed to scouting out cycling clubs and organized rides when I travel to other cites. A group ride with locals will introduce me to routes that I would not naturally discover in a short visit; a club ride will always seem safer riding in an area where I do not know what to expect from auto drivers, dogs, etc.; and cyclists are generally just such friendly people. I've seen that in ABD, the club I ride with.

A week ago I returned from a week in Portland. Why I was there for a week is another story, and it, too, is an awesome adventure. This was my 4th summer to travel to Portland with my wife, who goes there for a work-related conference. My first trip out, 3 years ago, I found an excellent shop that rented high quality mountain and road bikes. Waterfront Bicycles is truly a great find in a bike friendly city. (They've just changed locations; they are still along the water front - Willamette River - but they no longer rent Felt bikes. Oh well ...) This year I arranged for a 3-day rental, took my own pedals and shoes, arranged to keep the bike at the hotel at nights, and prepared to enjoy this beautiful city, and cycling where when you look up you can see snow-capped mountains. Ummm ... we don't get that in Illinois!

I found online a local club with an amazing weekly ride schedule. Portland Wheelmen Touring Club has several big rides a year, but 2 - 3 rides every day of the week all summer long, including morning rides. So on Tuesday I rode from the hotel, about 11 miles to the start point. There I met a group of about 8 men who were trying to decide who were going to ride which distance/loop. It was pretty easy for me to agree that as a newbie, as a flat-lander, and as the unknown quantity on a rented bike, I would go with the short group. It would be a ride of some 32 miles, crossing the Columbia river into Washington, circling Lacamas Lake in Camas, WA, and stopping somewhere (in Vancouver?) for an excellent cup of coffee and a pastry at a local Italian coffee shop. One could get used to riding with a group like this! These guys were all easily 10-15 years older than my early 50's - their experience riding this terrain (which, granted on this ride was hardly mountainous) was ameliorated by their age, so I could pretty well keep up with them. And it was a beautiful ride, even the light rainy bits, with good camaraderie. And that great cup of coffee.

In 3 days of riding - trail (paved), bike lane, bike route - I covered 175 miles. I crossed countless intersections, rode on all kinds of surfaces - residential, arterial, bike/pedestrian lanes on an expressway bridge, downtown streets, etc. All but 32 of those miles were ridden solo. I was completely impressed with the "shared road" attitude of drivers and cyclists alike. I never saw a cyclist jump a red light. Not once did a car fail to stop at a striped cross-walk when I was there on a bike or on foot. Not once in 3 days, 175 miles of riding. That can hardly be coincidental.

Yesterday, back here at home, I took a ride on my touring bike. I didn't feel up to riding solo on the roads, so I decided to get on the Prairie Path from my neighborhood, and ride as far towards Wisconsin as my available time would allow. From where I get on the path, it just starts to get "rural." The path may go 2.5 miles or more between street crossings. Along the Fox River, the Trail gets more urban/suburban again, then after about Carpentersville there are again some longer stretches of path. It was a lovely day for a long ride, and parts of the path are newly paved and the river and other natural features make this route as good as it gets.

But I found myself longing for the Portland experience. I am a native Midwesterner, so I can get over not seeing mountains on my rides. Sure, it would be nice, but it just isn't here. No, what I missed was the sense that drivers give a rip about courtesy to pedestrians or cyclists. By contrast to my 175 miles without a single cross-walk failure, in yesterday's 86 miles only once (1 time, out of uncountable crossings) did a car stop at a striped crossing. I am convinced that this driver stopped only because the group in front of me consisted of Mom/Dad/Child. And of course, the driver of the large expensive vehicle from the other direction did not even slow down, so it was good that the father ahead of me seemed kind of confused about what to do with someone properly yielding to his family!

What created the Portland cycling ethic? Is that even possible in suburban, metro Chicago? If I entered a striped cross-walk to timidly exercise my Rules of the Road right, would I lose my life, or just suffer the glares, honks, and gestures of motorists wondering where I get off?

Several years ago I pretty much gave up on riding the Prairie Path, for any number of reasons, none of them the Path itself. Yesterday I was sad to realize that here is yet another reason to stay on the road and off the path: a cyclist can't even get a break sticking to the relative safety of that route. So, give me the streeet and road, and a group of any size, and I'll happily roll anywhere.