Monday, November 30, 2015

1975: My First Tandem

From my start with my first road bike in January of 1973, things happened very fast.  After just one full season, I had my eyes set on a bike upgrade, and in July of 1974 I went from steel wheels on an unknown tubing to alloy wheels and components on a cromoly, double-butted frame.  And then in June of 1975, I bought a tandem.

Ready to leave for Toledo, my brother Todd and I - 1976

I graduated high school in 1975, with no real plans except working and taking a few community college classes in the fall.  The only thing I was was looking forward too was another DALMAC, and that soon evolved into to riding with a some friends to Lansing for the start, and then riding back from Mackinaw City.  But that all came later.

As was local tradition, my high school graduation included an open house, and I accumulated a pretty large (for the `70’s) amount of cash, almost $200.  For an aspiring cook/dishwasher, that was a couple of weeks pay.  About that same time, at a meeting of my bike club at the time, the Jackson Freewheelers, I heard at about a used tandem.  It was already on its third owner, who had to let it go due to some health issues.  The bikes was being sold for $100, and the week after my open house, I made some calls, and it was mine. I borrowed Dad’s pickup truck to bring it home, and found a spot for it on the wall in my bedroom, resting on my rollers (another bicycle related acquisition).

It was a Gitane Interclub Men’s/Mixte tandem, with a frame built from no-name steel.  It was painted white with red lettering and some black pin-striping.  It had drop bars in front and flat bars for the rear, downtube shifters, and steel Suntour derailleurs.  The back of the tandem was only about 20 inches, and there was only about 21” between the seat tubes, making the fit very difficult for any adult with any height at all, for for anyone who wanted to lean over.  (I would only learn about the significance of the fit issues later).

The wheels had chrome steel rims and the rear wheel had a massive hub brake (I would learn it was actually intended for use on mopeds).  The steel cranks were cottered, meaning a pin through the crank arm wedged against a flat spot on the bottom bracket axle to hold them in place.  The tandem probably weighed at least 60 pounds.

I first had to learn how to keep a tandem running, from finding tandem length cables for the rear derailleurs and brakes, adjusting the timing chain tension with the eccentric on the front bottom bracket and learning how to keep it adjusted for riding.  It was a 10 speed (2x10, back in the dark ages).  And once I had it rolling, stopping it was a challenge to, since the dried out Mafac rubber brake pads (on Mafac cantilever brakes) had almost grab on the steel rims, and the drum brake, at best,  barely slowed the bike.

Next,  I had to figure out was who to ride it with.  I had been fascinated with tandems since encountering one on the 1974 DALMAC.  I was hoping it would be fun riding with other riders (specifically, girls!).  It turned out that finding other riders proved to be very challenging, due in part to the small nearby cycling community and my lack of transportation for the first few years I owned it.

Over the next 3 years, while it was ridden just a handful of times each year, I did have some memorable tandem outings.  One of my younger brothers joined me for a 50-mile ride to Toledo to visit our grandparent’s, with Mom driving us home.  I took a few non-riding friends out for random rides of 10 miles or so.  The longest ride came when a friend from my bike club and I rode it 60 miles on our club’s annual fall ride.

I moved to Lansing in 1978, and by the time I met Linda the following summer,  the tandem had not been ridden in 5 or 6 months, and had been partially disassembled for the move and for some cable replacements.  The end result was our first tandem ride was more memorable for all the things that went wrong, rather than the start of lifelong tandem love affair.

Walt of Walt's Bike Shop, adding a second set of cantilevers - 1981
A year later, Linda and I were both living in Missouri for her last year of college, and we began to ride the tandem in earnest that fall. I had spent the summer fixing up the tandem, and that fall, after I started working full-time at Walt’s Bike Shop, I was able to actually begin improving things.  I added better saddles for both us, and found new brake pads.  We were fortunate in that Linda even fit ok on the back for the short, 10-15 mile rides we were starting to enjoy.

But after what I thought would be some routine maintenance, we uncovered the tandems achilles heel. Overhauling the bottom brackets had required removing the factory cotter pins, and that became a running disaster.  Despite trying new cotter pins from multiple sources, I could not find a replacement cotter that would last for more than 20 miles of riding. Within the very first miles, we would start hearing squeaks, and finally one of the four crank arms, usually the front right,  would begin moving on its spindle. I would have to start soft-pedaling for the rest of the ride. On one longer ride, I had to set another pin to get us back to our apartments.  So after a handful of rides in the fall of 1980, the tandem was put up for the winter.

I did some research and found the only readily available crankset for a tandem and my budget was the French-made Specialites T.A. Tandem crankset. This was not sold as a set, I had to order it piecemeal, specifying all the parts; French threaded bottom bracket cups, 2 different length bottom bracket spindles, and the correct combinations of timing rings, drive rings, crank arms, and bolt sets to create a complete tandem crankset. Putting together that crankset order contributed to my reputation with my new co-workers as a tandem expert.

I put together and placed my order, and soon it all arrived, each set of parts sealed in plastic bags with the blue T.A. globe logo and french descriptions.  I carefully assembled the chainrings and crank arms, and we pulled the steel cranks for the last time.  I carefully packed the loose bearing bottom brackets with Phil Wood grease, and installed the cotterless crank arms. With pedals and chains in place, I adjusted the derailleurs for the triple crankset, which gave us our first “granny” gear, and this opened the door to new riding possibilities on the hills and valley’s around Columbia, Missouri.

So in the spring of 1981 we began our first set of longer rides, no longer limited by an impending crank failure. We packed a small picnic, and rode south from Columbia to Easley on the Missouri River, learning the patience for long granny climbs and the excitement of fast tandem descents.  With each ride, we began to realize that tandeming was our thing.

Yet at the same, we were learning that the Gitane was ill-suited for our tandem future.   The brakes squealed like a wounded animal when applied on any hill, and even with 3 brakes, there remained an uncertainty in my ability to stop the bike. To do away with the near useless hub brake, and to prepare for alloy wheels I was saving for, I worked with with Walt Garrard of Walt’s who brazed an additional set of cantilever brake bosses to the the mixte stays.

With our new confidence in the drivetrain, we could both began to pedal aggressively, and when we did the bike would sway and shimmy, to the point that Linda once asked “Can this bike break up?”.  And while the front sizing put me in a good position, we realized the the stoker compartment would never be comfortable for Linda on any longer rides.

By late spring our schedule was consumed with our impending wedding, along with Linda’s graduation and grad school plans. I already knew a custom builder, who had 14-month waiting list for his tandems, and I was researching brands like Jack Taylor and others.  I was going to a bike rally later in the summer and would look for more tandems then.   So I put the word out that the tandem was for sale, and a week later, I had an offer of $500!  Another rider was looking for a “kid-back” tandem to get his young kids riding, something the Gitane was perfect for.

So with a little bit of hesitation, in the spring of 1981,  we let the Gitane move on to owner number five.  We knew we had the tandem “bug”, but for now we had to focus on the next phase of our lives that was about to begin.  We knew another tandem would come along in a few years, after our lives had settled down.

Or so we thought.

Follow the Ride So Far on Facebook

Monday, November 16, 2015

2015: The un-ridden tour

So after wrapping up my ride from Missouri to Indiana, the next next step in my connect the dots campaign was a ride to Michigan.  Effectively, I only needed to ride from the Ft. Wayne area to my childhood home in Brooklyn to connect those miles, however, I wanted start the ride from our driveway in Carmel.   My 40th high school reunion was coming up in 2015, and that would be the perfect timing.  Throughout the fall and winter, that next tour was in the back of my mind.
1979 -with Mom at the farm near Brooklyn, MI.

I thought about gear changes, a different bike (something more gravel friendly, probably the Trek 920), a few changes in electronics, and a schedule that was not quite as aggressive (60 to 75 miles per day).  I would have the vacation time, a plan for the new bike and confidence it would all fall into place.

There would be a some variations on the route to consider.  One option was to go straight north (the Indiana USBR option), and along the way “touch” rides in Northern Indiana and southwest Michigan, plus enjoy an night’s camping near Lake Michigan.  Or there was the northeast route, following the Wabash to Ft. Wayne, then the across from Coldwater, riding near US 12, or maybe up the Indiana/Ohio border.

Whatever the route, I would end up home in Brooklyn.  From there my connected dots would go from my grandparents’ in Toledo (1975), to Lansing and DALMAC (`74, 75, 79, `08 & `09), and then from Detour Village (solo in `77 & `79) in the eastern UP, across the Soo into Canada (`79) and all the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin (Linda and I on the tandem, `83).  All told, I have over 20,000 “Michigan” miles, from the years before I left in 1980, and the biking trips since.
1983 - Leaving the farm, headed for the UP.

But one other important part of the trip, would be again ride up to the house and to see Mom. Before leaving home, my longest multi-day ride and many weekend had started from home.  I moved to Lansing in the fall 1978, and the following spring I had ridden home for a weekend, when this picture was taken, Mom and I, with my touring bike, in the front yard.

Mom had been the reliable enabler of all my early biking, starting with running me around to the few bike shops near home, where I purchased the limited gear I could afford.  She dropped me off at many of the first rides I attended before I could drive myself.  And most important of all, for signing off on me riding my first DALMAC adventure, even though I was little less responsible than I should have been in keeping touch while on the road.

This picture was just a few weeks before I met Linda, the summer that what would be the “peak” of my single bike touring.  That same summer I would ride a week-long trip in Michigan’s UP, a weekend trip with Linda, and another DALMAC. I was using my home-made front bags on a British made Karrimor rack, my Svea stove and cook kit, and my 1 & ½ man A-frame tent.  The only miracle fabric I wore was wool, and the chamois in cycling shorts was still leather.  My shoes for touring were canvas and rubber Beta Bikers, and I was still wearing tube socks. I had stopped packing jeans, but still rode with a rugby shirt.

I assume that Dad took the picture, and in looking back that is very special.  Dad had helped me get my first SLR camera in time for my `74 DALMAC. I used that same camera to shoot pictures for my high school yearbook (Dad had shot pictures for his high school yearbook with an Argus C3, which I used before my SLR). It was thanks to Dad, and others, that I usually shot slide film.  During the summer of 1979 I was shooting black and white for a number of projects, including photos for the early Michigan (Bicycle) League newsletter.   We lost Dad in 2012; he couldn’t take the picture, but I knew we could stage it, and I would make sure Mom had both the old and new pictures on her iPad.  She had thousands of picture of family and friends, and added new ones almost every day.

In any case, I went through winter thinking about the plan.  I contacted classmates about my high school reunion, learning the date was set in late August.  That was a tight schedule with with work, but with the late Labor Day, there was no conflict.  The last detail would be getting home by car, but that could wait until all the details were set.

But then some life got in the way.  In May, both Linda and my employment situation changed with little warning, and suddenly everything was up in the air.  We were on the emotional roller coaster of resumes, applications, interviews and rejection.  We both found peace in riding, but no firm plans could be made.  As days turned into weeks, and the the weeks into months, other plans and trips fell victim to the uncertainty.

And then in late July, the never expected call was the biggest blow of all.  A traffic accident took Mom from us too soon.  Thankfully my sister, her twin brother, and my sister’s daughter came away with minor physical injuries, but my entire family was shocked and saddened by news that came in such an unexpected way.  The one anchor for us all that just a few days before their 60th wedding anniversary, Mom and Dad were together again.

Another riding season now winds down, and the un-ridden tour falls into place as something delayed, but not lost.  A summer of tragedy, disappointments and change puts everything in perspective.  Across the years and miles, the memories will still connect, though not always along the path we had planned.

Monday, November 2, 2015

2014: Wrapping up - Day 6

(Day 6, the final day,  of my 2014 Connect the Dots Tour)
Tent packed, finishing loading up.

I woke up without an alarm in the pre-dawn twilight. I had heard a brief, light rain overnight, but it was hard to tell with the dampness of the heavily wooded campground. With the picnic table so wet, I finally had a reason to open up my sling chair to use while I ate breakfast.

I broke camp and packed, but didn’t change into riding clothes. I decided to get the shower I had missed night before, riding by the showers on the way out. Freshened up and dressed for the road, I started the day, the first mile under the cover of the trees, and finally out into the surrounding farmland. I expected to ride about 60 miles today, and figured I would connect with Linda around 5 pm.

Short lived company on my final day.
I was starting out under yet another day of overcast, with temps around 60. Riding along, I noticed something I hadn’t seen in almost a week, my shadow! The sun was making a rare appearance through scattered breaks in the clouds. It was a great start to the day, but it was very short lived, as the clouds closed in again after just a few miles.

I was headed straight north for a 5 mile stretch, and then turned east on US-36. At Hume I stopped for two bottles of Gatorade and ice for my Camelbak, along with a muffin for second breakfast. Next came Chrisman, followed by Scotland, my last town in Illinois. I was enjoying the good run on the smooth, wide road, with very light traffic in either direction. It was flat terrain, and for awhile I was counting the miles between trees and landmarks on the horizon.

Back home again!
It wasn’t long after Scotland that the Indiana state line rolled into view. This was the third state for the trip, and it meant that connecting the dots was almost complete. I stopped for a picture, of course. The first Indiana town was Dana, and here I turned heading toward the Wabash valley, and my rendezvous with Linda.

I have many riding connections with the Wabash River. While living in West Lafayette during the `80’s, we frequently rode in the valley, eventually riding all the way from Huntington to the Ohio River. I have also crossed the Wabash near Terra Haute while riding RAIN. Covington would be my physical intersection, and that was where I was due to mean Linda.

One surprise for my day was that while I had been on the road since a little after 8:00 am, Linda had been driving since before 7! This meant she was going to be getting to Covington before I would arrive, So rather than a relaxed ride with a wait at the end, I now had to pick up the pace up so Linda would not be waiting for me.


Crossing the Wabash south of Covington, IN.
After leaving Dana, headed north, I was riding the wide shoulder on 4-lane SR-63. While a little noisy, I had 6 feet of pavement to myself with the light traffic moving over most of the time. I continued on this route for about 15 miles, making good time, then headed east to cross the river. With that crossing, I finally connected the dots, hitting one of the Wabash River Run routes south of Covington. I had mapped and marked many parts of this ride almost 30 years before.

I had not stopped for food since 10 am, and was grazing through the last of my fresh fruit and Clif bars as I rode. I heard from Linda while about a half dozen miles south of town. She was parking the car on the town square and going for a walk. I was soon climbing the short bluff out of the valley to enter town, crossing over I-74 along the way. I came up the center of town and recognized a corner from the Wabash River Ride a couple of summers before. I found our Caravan on the town square, and then rode a couple blocks up the street to meet Linda on her walk. We snapped a picture, and I loaded my bike for the drive home.

I had finished my last day with a little over 65 miles. In 6 days on the road, I had ridden 460 miles, averaging almost 80 miles day. My longest day day had been 104, my shortest 45. I had camped 4 nights, with 1 motel night. I had only had 1 day of rain, but it had rained the entire day.

So now I could connect all my riding from Richmond, Indiana to Omaha, Nebraska and dozens, if not hundreds of cities and towns in between, all in a period of 30 years of cycling. My experience and choices had paid off in a number of ways, and I had learned some things to change for the next ride.
6 days and 460 miles - Covington, IN

What was next? While Linda napped on the drive home, I began the plan for next summer (2015). I only had to connect Ft. Wayne to my home in the family farm in Brooklyn, Michigan to connect the next set of dots, my early years of riding while growing up in Michigan.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2014: The miles roll by - Day 5

(Day 5 of my 2014 Connect the Dots Tour)

I slept well in the quiet campground, and woke to another sunless sunrise through grey overcast.

Breakfast in a bag ala Jet Boil
It was Saturday morning, and with only two days left, I had decided the night before I was not going to ride the two 100-mile plus days it would take to finish at home Sunday night.

With two good days, I could make it to the Indiana border, but not all the way home. In a couple of phone calls Linda and I worked out a tentative schedule, where I would meet her Sunday afternoon where I-74 crosses the Wabash River.

There was some sense of letdown, but I didn’t let it overwhelm me. I was still having a great time, despite the weather and other surprises. I wanted to stay focused on the fun, rather than being bound to a tough schedule. With the final plan in place, I looked to the day of riding ahead.

Some campground maintenance.
I was out of meals, so I would need to provision today, and find camping meals for the Jet Boil, if possible. I also needed some batteries for my taillight and headlight. Before I could hit the road, I had some maintenance tasks after 330 miles. My right / rear bar-end shifter was loose in the handlebars, which required some disassembly to resolve. I then checked every single rack, fender, chain ring, and bottle cage bolt, and that took care of a few more items.   I also went ahead and patched the two pinch flats from Day 2, so I now had three good spare tubes.


With my bike back together, I broke camp and was riding a little before 10. Once again my interstate impressions were betrayed, as I discovered that Effingham had a reservoir lake and active summer community of boating, cottages and vacationeers. I crossed a handful of feeder creeks before finally entering the outskirts of town. The quiet streets were soon overpowered by the rumble of interstate traffic, with a half dozen gas station and restaurant signs towering over the quiet ranch homes.

My 1 mile pickup ride over "brick & seal"
I always feel a quiet sense of satisfaction when biking into a location I have only driven too before. Over the years we have stopped in Effingham dozens of times for gas and meals, but never ventured more than a mile from the off ramp. But now it was another connected dot on my travels with a more intimate knowledge of the surrounding countryside.


I had hoped to hit a McD for 2nd breakfast (what can I say, I like the biscuits!), but I missed by 10 minutes. Then I spotted a Walmart sign, and decided to take care of provisions first. I wheeled my loaded bike into the front alcove, locked it, and smiled at the greeter as I headed in. The hunting and camping section had the 2 more meals (dinner and breakfast) I needed, and then I picked up some fresh fruit, a few more Clif bars, and batteries. I loaded everything up, installed the batteries and was ready to roll again.

On the way out of town, I found a bike shop, and that meant a floor pump! I stopped in and topped off the tires, and was set for the last two days. It was just after noon when I left the Effingham city limits.

It was more small farmlands and backroads as I rolled along. My destination was Walnut Point State Park, about 75 miles northeast. It was mostly grid roads paralleling I-57 for the early afternoon before turning east. The quiet back roads gradually moved me farther and farther east, and eventually out earshot of the interstate for the last time.

One of the biggest challenges continued to be fresh chip-n-seal, of in this case, small-rock, big rocks, pieces of bricks and seal. Yes, one road had a bunch of broken up bricks dropped in tar. It was about 20 miles out of Effingham when I hit a road that was impassible for a bike, or at least one with 700x28 wheels. I was between intersections and resigned to walking, and changed into my camp shoes to portage the bike, since the side of the road was also rock strewn.

After 10 minutes of walking, the road beyond the next corner was just as bad, and after another ¼ mile of walking, I was able to wave down a passing pickup to ask about the road ahead. The young driver thought it would go back to pavement in about a mile, and said he could give us (bike and me!) a lift. It was bumpy mile ride in the back the pick-up truck, sitting on an implement tire while holding my bike upright.  Thankfully that portage took me over the worst road for the rest of the day.

A unique trail between the towers.
I stopped for lunch in Mantoon, and from there I picked up the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, which took me east to Charleston. It was a very quiet rail trail, riding beneath and between a line of double power lines. It was crushed limestone, but I made very good time. I passed a few bike riders along the way, the first I had seen since leaving the Katy.

I was riding under overcast skies with temps in the low 70’s. I had not seen sun since the sunset in Hermann on the first day, but at least I had not had more rain since day 3. The winds were mild, but almost always headwinds. For all the expectations and concerns about heat and humidity, it felt more like early fall or late spring.

After I left the trail, I was riding mostly north. The overcast was again quickly darkening the early evening sky, and I made the campground entrance a little before 7:30. By the time I had checked in and set camp, the heavily wooded campground was gloomily dark under the overcast sky. 

Though my riding had been dry, there had been rain over the campground earlier that afternoon, and it had never dried out. By the light of my headlamp, I quickly set my tent, and then fired up the Jetboil for dinner. The campground was pitch black around me as I finished dinner, with a just a few campsites visible through the surrounding foliage. I actually turned on my bike taillight to find my way back to my tent, since there was no lighting anywhere near the tent sites.

It was after dinner that I realized the camp showers were on the other side of the lake, almost a mile away. I considered riding my bike, but the campground was so dark, I didn’t feel safe picking my way with a single cell headlamp. So I headed back to my tent and settled in for the night.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

2014: The Make Up Day - Tour Day 4

(Day 4 of my 2014 Connect the Dots Tour)

Drying out
Check-in at the Quality Inn went quickly. I was also able to get a ground floor room, a relief since I was not looking forward to taking my drenched gear and bike on an elevator. I rolled my bike into the tiled lobby, where I stripped all my panniers off the bike and loaded a baggage cart.

The hotel clerk had given me with a handful of used cleaning towels for my bike, and some plastic trash bags I could use underneath my gear. That let me wipe my bike down before I rolled it to my room. In the the room I spread out the trash bags a began unloading my bags.

This had been my third day of riding, and that meant it was laundry day for cycling clothes. When I had asked about a laundry room, the hotel did not offer one, however they did do laundry for $10. So I changed into my (thankfully) dry camp clothing, and took my 3 days of cycling clothing down to the front desk.

With the laundry was taken care, I finished unpacking rest of my things to let them dry out. Just about everything was wet and I ended up with gear draped everywhere in the room. One pleasant surprise was that that the day of rain had removed the white “corrosion” that had frozen up some of the zippers on my panniers.

With the housekeeping done, I ordered a pizza and sat down with my iPad and Google maps to evaluate where I was. I had ridden 45 miles, and combined with my wrong turn the night before, I was now over 40 miles behind my plan. I was spending the night near where I should have been eating lunch, or even second breakfast! While I would save some time by not having to pack a tent the next morning, I still had a lot of miles to make up over the next few days.

By the time I had finished my pizza, it was time to run down to the front desk for my laundry. I had requested no drying, so three days of cycling clothing were now added to the gear spread across my room to dry. It was finally time to settle in for the night.

I woke early and began packing. There were still some lingering showers, so I took my time in loading and enjoyed some fruit and bagels on the hotel. It was overcast and the roads were damp, but no rain was falling as I rolled out at 7:30 am.

Into the corn - Illinois Nickel Plate Trail
I had been able to fully recharge both my backup batteries, however I was still nervous about running out of “phone” too early. So I started the habit of checking the GPS maps, and then putting my phone into “Airplane” mode for few miles. (I had given up any hope of recording the day’s ride.) I soon became adept at flipping this mode on and off while rolling, thanks again to the Eclipse Handlebar bag.

My previous day and ended climbing the Mississippi river bluffs, so I was already riding on the Illinois prairie. Just a few miles east of the hotel, I connected with a local trail network and was soon riding the Illinois Nickel Plate Trail, heading north east. The trail was paved to the city limits, then I was back on crushed limestone. I was making great time riding through fields of tall corn, soybeans, and winter wheat. I soon crossed under I55, and after passing through Alhambra, I left the trail and began heading due east on county grid roads.

This is flat Illinois?
Using the Google and iPhone map apps, I was able to navigate a mix of county grid roads and state trunk roads, alternating east and north roads, crabbing my way along, roughly 5 to 10 miles north of I70.   After a three decades of driving I-70 across Illinois, it is easy to think the state is flat. When you bicycle the back roads, it becomes apparent that I70 just happens to be where Illinois happens to be flat! The riding had a lot of up and down, crossing streams, creeks and small rivers. Thankfully, the none the climbs were as steep as those in Missouri, and many were easy roller coasters, shifting back and forth across the freewheel and chainrings. The load adjustments of the the prior couple of days made my bike more easier to control while climbing.

More corn (& beans) ahead
I decided to continue a grazing meal schedule for first part of the day, picking up a muffin, cookies and a couple of GatorAdes from a quick shop, and then eating while rolling. I was still under overcast skies, and was again riding into a headwind. While it was not raining, the humidity was so high there was a damp chill to the air, even though I was sweating through my jersey, the occasional cool patch of of air had me slipping on my rain jacket to avoid chilling throughout the day. It was one weird week of August weather.

As the day went on, I cycled on through the small towns of Sorento and Panama. A little after 1 in the afternoon, I was finally at my original day 3 destination at Coffen Lake, with almost 50 miles in. I then set my sights on making it to Effingham, which looked like another 50 miles. Overnighting there would leave me 25 miles behind schedule, though still having a good chance of making it home on Sunday.

The Conductor with his orchestra.
Passing though another mile wide river bottom, filled with miles of soy beans, coming up to the edge of the road.  As I approached the small climb out of the bottom, a single tree in the center of opening seems to be poised as a conductor of an orchestra, another picture I had to pause for.

I kept moving east. As I70 angled north, I had to ride a busier state route for at least the next 15 miles. For this stretch, I took my small headlight and set it up as a strobe tail-light on my left pannier. For the most part, all of the overtaking traffic gave me plenty of room. Anecdotal, but a datapoint on the trend toward riding with running lights.

Small Town Memories
By late afternoon I was running parallel to I70 on old US40, and could here the the muted rumble of big diesel trucks across the corn fields.  at about 70 miles I stopped aat small quick shop for a reload of Gatorade and snacks. An hour later, a little before 6pm I stopped at a McDonalds for a sandwich, a coke and some recharge time for phone and batteries. I was again stimied by only having a single charger, but I got my phone back to over 80% before hitting the road, passing through the rest of Altamont on may way out of town.

It was sill light overcast, and for a while it was almost a misting rain; I didn’t mind since I was wearing my rain jacket for visibility anyways. My eastward travel was again reducing my daylight, and after a 5 mile run north, I turned east to head straight into Effingham. I was at almost a hundred miles at 7:30 with less than a half hour of daylight. Based on my my phone maps, I was at least 10 miles out, and would be on the road until dark at best. Finally, after another half dozen miles, I found a campground sign. Not wanting to ride after dark, I settled for 107 miles, and called it day, Only the next morning would I learn it was over 10 more miles through Effingham to my planned campground on the east side of town.
A square mile or more of Soy Beans

I quickly set up my tent, and used the JetBoil to prep my dinner by twilight. Eating with my headlight, and despite the the overcast, it was easy to tell I was far away from any big city lights. There were only a few RV’s on the other side of the campground, and no tent campers close to mine. It was very quiet as I settled in for night four on the road. I was less than a ½ day behind schedule, with a good forecast ahead. It was time to get some sleep.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

2014: A night In Brussels (Illinois), a day in the rain

Freestyle Camping - Brussels, Illinois
(Day 3 of my 2014 Connect the Dots Tour)

Finding out that I had made a wrong turn and was out of daylight was kind of a shock. I wasn’t going to risk any twilight riding on winding roads, and with Pere Marquette State Park now a good 15 miles away, I would have been setting up camp in the dark.


I asked about nearby campgrounds, and then the tavern owner suggested a spot behind his building, next to a phone substation blockhouse and a small park. The site was level and grassy, with a line of trees for privacy, and he said it would be good protection from the storms they were expecting around 11 pm. (Storms!?)


It is ironic that just the day before, I passed the first place I had ever “jungle-camped”, over 35 years before. I know there are some that espouse nothing but jungle camping or freestyling, but I am just not wired that way, but I was very pleased to have that problem solved.


Now that I had a place to stay, I looked for outlets to start charging things, since I had been “dark” for about an hour and half, and I knew that Linda was a little concerned. First priority was my iPhone, which I let charge while I ate a basket of wings (when in Rome, or Brussels . . .). I got a partial charge on my phone, only to learn I had no coverage. So asked the bartender about a payphone, and she just handed me the phone from behind the bar. There is a lot to be said for midwest kindness.


I caught things up quickly with Linda, explaining my wrong turn and where I would be spending the night, and she asked if I had been watching the weather; that “storms” thing again. Apparently the St. Louis area was expecting overnight thunderstorms, and rain in the morning and early afternoon, but maybe I would miss it.


So I finished my second order of wings while my iPhone finished charging (tip, it charges a lot faster in Airplane mode, and I didn’t have coverage anyway) and then started charging a backup battery. (Yes, a dual output charger on the next trip.) I headed out to set up my tent in the long twilight, finishing up a little before 9 pm. I returned to the bar to collect my battery and take a simple “shower” in the restroom. My big backup battery was charged to about 50% by the time I finally called it a night and went back to the tent a little bit after 10.


The town was quiet, with only an occasional barking dog. I wasn’t visible from the road, but I could hear an occasional car going past. By 10:30, the first flashes of lightning were visible, and some light rain followed, nothing major. The overnight storms were tracking south, and I was only on the edge of the front. The tavern closed around 11:30, with the parking lot around the corner from tent emptying out.

I slept well, only waking once during a light rain. I was up about 6:30, opening the tent to a windy grey morning, with very dark grey skies to the east. Just as I had finished breaking camp I could feel a front getting close, and the eastern sky was almost black. I walked my bike to the road, and crossed the street just as a wall of rain came through. I got under the awning of the town’s other tavern, which was open for breakfast.


I took a seat at the bar and ordered a breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast. A flat screen TV on the wall was playing the local weather, which showed an almost solid circle of green all the way from St. Louis and across Illinois to Springfield. It was becoming more apparent by the minute I was not going to ride around the rain today. I sat there almost an hour, watching the TV news, and making some notes. It was a driving rain outside, the temps right about 60. This was not the August weather I was expecting.


The local regulars were coming and going, farmers and delivery drivers for coffee and breakfast, some grandparent’s with grandkids. There was the typical discussion of what the rain would do for the fall yields, who had just cut hay, or who would need bulldozer work. In 40 years of biking to meals in small town cafes and diners, only town names and faces change, the conversations and small talk remain the same.


The TV weather radar shows a break of sorts, and I paid my bill and headed outside. All my rain gear is on; jacket, pants, long sleeve base layer and helmet cover, even switching to the amber night lens in my riding glasses. It is a light, steady rain as I leave town the way I came, carefully watching my speed with wet brakes and puddled roads. At the T-intersection from the night before, I realize that from where I stood to consider my options, the sign for the Brussels Ferry had been directly behind me. That experience now gives a whole new meaning to “not looking back” and “hindsight”.

The Brussels Ferry across the Illinois

I continue on, 8 more easy miles down to the ferry landing for crossing the Illinois River. While I am waiting for the ferry to return from the other side, I realize a chilly 10 to 15 mph wind is blowing up the river, the direction I will be riding the next 15 miles to Alton. It is a choppy, cold crossing in the rain on the open deck ferry, just another barge with a permanently attached diesel tug. The ferry lands, and I gingerly walk up the slick iron deck to pavement, clear the landing area and remount my bike.
Great River Trail, Near Alton, Il.


I am now on the Great River Trail, which alternates between a wide highway shoulder and a multi-use path beneath the bluffs and foothills along the river. This is all familiar territory, where Linda, the boys and I rode in 2003 on a 45 mile adventure from Pere Marquette State Park to Alton back, at the time the longest two tandem ride for the four of us.  It is just a short stretch along the Illinois, and then I am on the Mississippi, after passing the Pere Marquette memorial just above Grafton.  For stretches the road is just 20 feet above the river, the wind driven waves angrily slapping the bank, audible over the hiss of wet tires and the stiff wind.

As I come into Grafton, I leave the road side to follow the paved trail along the river, but after only a few yards the trail is coated in 2” of silty mud. Heavy rains the week before had put the river over the trail, and my wheel encased in a two inch thick layer of fine, sticky mud. I am able to dismount my bike without falling and then push my bike ahead a few yards to clear pavement, but I will need a hose or a car wash to clean off the mud. As I push my now un-rideable bike forward, the mud is so thick on the wheels that I have to disconnect my cantilever brakes, and my fenders peel of layers clay-like mud like a pottery knife.
River mud.


I end up walking a quarter mile and two more stretches of river mud before I am back to the main road. I spot a house with huge garden and a coiled hose, and after a knock and polite request, I use the hose to clean the mud off everything, including my shoes; the running water from the hose actually feeling warmer than than rain. I remount my panniers, and walk back to road, another half hour of mis-adventure behind me.


The stretch from Graton to Alton should have been easy riding but now I am head-on into the wind, which is blowing unobstructed up the river valley. I am back to my steady 1,000 feet a minute, 11 mph, with with white caps on the river waves beside me. The rain is leaving long puddles on the highway, but most of the light traffic gives me leeway and avoids splashing me as I ride the wide shoulder bike path. I had hoped to take some picture of the sheer bluffs along the way, but they are lost in the rain and fog. The next 10 mile takes almost an hour.

Lewis & Clark Bridge, Alton, Il.

I roll into Alton as the rain breaks and find a McDonalds for WiFi, electrical outlets and a hot meal. Only after sitting down with my food do I realize they have their air conditioning running full-blast, and it is colder INSIDE than out. After 2 hours of biking in the rain, I didn’t expect to risk hypothermia while eating.


While I am sitting there in all my rain gear on, eating and trying to keep warm, another one of those odd coincidences occur, when a family from Carmel, Indiana stops in for a meal. They are only acquaintances from school functions, but we exchange hellos and a “what brings you here” conversation.


It is time to move, since I need to ride to warm up. Just as I prepare remount, the sky darkens and the rain resumes in earnest. I weave my way along the trail, as it crosses a casino parking lot, and then up and over the approaches to the Lewis & Clark Bridge, a spectacular straight stay suspension bridge over the Mississippi. I snap one picture, the rain and wind making it difficult to linger.



The paved trail is now along the top of the massive levees, dropping down occasionally to cross access roads. I come up on a set of locks, something I have always found fascinating. As I roll past, a tug with it’s tow of barges are entering the locks headed down river, and an upbound houseboat is waiting to enter the other end.


The levee top trail slowly moves farther east from the River. Off to the south, I should be able to see the St. Louis skyline, but it it is lost also lost in the rain and overcast. I stop for a warm-up at another Lewis and Clark monument, this one a an observation tower and museum. I have about 35 miles in at this point, and it is already 3:30 in the afternoon. Between the wind, rain, mud and last nights wrong turn, I am a good half day behind where I expected to be. A check of the weather does show any relief in the rain for the rest of the day. My planned over night is still 60 miles away, and this was to be one of my shorter days.


I turn east and inland toward Edwardsville, Illinois, leaving the river behind, now on another road side bike trail. It is an easy 5-6 miles of river bottom, the continuing rain and overcast now makes it feel almost like evening, and all the traffic is driving with headlights. At the eastern edge of the bottomland, on the outskirts of Edwardsville, I turn onto 4-lane trunk road, and start riding the steady grade up out of the valley. If flattens out after a quarter mile, and I turn off into a hotel parking lot. I roll up to the the entrance, lean my bike against a wall and take one more look at the forecast with my phone.


It’s time to call it day, and I walk in to get a room for the night.

Time to dry out.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2014: Day Two continues, be ready for Plan B

St. Charles trail head, 130 miles of Katy Trail behind me
My Connect the Dots Tour continues, with the second half of day 2.

Within 15 miles, a loose rear rack had dumped my load, and I had fixed two flat tires. This was not a good start to the day, and a third flat could make it worse, as I realized my patch kit was back home in my rack trunk. I was now riding gingerly, watching for every possible rut or bump in the trail (both flats had been pinch flats, the tires were holding up fine).

As I continued east, I approached another section of limestone bluffs, towering over the trail and river. Twenty foot tall river navigation towers now came with each bend in the river, though I had yet to anything on the water larger than an occasional fishing skiff and a crew doing levee work. With my day already over an hour behind “schedule”, I forced myself to relax, enjoy the scenery and take pictures.
Work on the river banks

At Marthasville, a restored KATY caboose was home to a trail side hot dog and ice cream stand, and it was the first I found that was open since leaving Columbia. I enjoyed a Diet Coke and a hot dog, and asked about a hardware store, but no luck, the caboose was the only thing open in town. I continued east, still nursing my bike over over bump or rut that might be my catastrophic third flat. 
A massive limestone over hang along the trail

At the SR47 Trail Head I found a sign for a bike shop, and gave them a call, but they were almost 6 miles off the trail. The owner offered to meet me with a tube, but could not leave for another hour and a half. I weighed my options and moved on.

The small towns of Dutzow, Augusta, Matson all rolled by, and finally at Defiance, I found a town that was open, and it had a bike shop. I picked up another tube, a patch kit and used their floor pump. I also topped off my Gatorade bottles and CamelBak, and enjoyed an ice cream bar. But the one thing I did not do was “top-off” my my iPhone or back-up batteries, something I did not think about until I was leaving town.

By now it was already 3 in the afternoon, and I still had 20 miles of Katy left, just to make St. Charles. The haze had burned off by now, and when not in a tunnel of trees, I was riding under sunny skies, into a light easterly wind. Just as I was trying to make time, it was against a headwind.

After Defiance, the next town up was Weldon Springs, and I was now transitioning out of rural Missouri and bumping against the outer edges of greater St. Louis. The first sign was a gated community running along the trail, and the next was overhead. Just after watching a deer cross the trail ahead of me, I started to hear a low rumble. I came around a slight bend, and suddenly I was in midst of a huge construction park for a new bridge across the Missouri for I-40. The old and new bridges were over a 100 feet above the trail, the highways running across the top of the riverside bluffs.
The Katy crossing under the new & old I40 brides over the Missouri

After crossing under I-40, there were more signs of suburbia along the trail. I began to see more riders and walkers, and parks and subdivision abutted the trail. Yet the Katy continued to surprise me, as I would again be enclosed by vine covered trees clinging to rough rock cuttings on my left, with marshy tree filled sloughs on my right.
Lewis & Clark statues in St. Charles

Finally the transition was complete, as the trail began to weave along the edges of parking lots, old freight yards and a sports arena. I crossed under I-70, and within a few miles I was in St. Charles, the starting point for Lewis and Clark. Near their bicentennial monument, I asked a passerby to take my picture, and after 130 miles, I left the Katy to begin the pavement portion of my trip. For a short stretch I rolled along the brick main street, passing a restaurant where I had dined at with Linda’s family.

It was 5 pm, with 65 of my planned 85 miles to my overnight and just about 2 ½ hours of daylight. I was working my way through St. Charles during rush hour, navigating by iPhone, but another issue started coming up. The battery was running low, and I had used up both back-up batteries. I had dinner on the bike for in camp, so I hit a quick shop to top off my water bottles, grabbed a snack, and continued on.

A rode a few miles on combination of neighborhood street and trunk roads, and crested a hill just before I crossed I360. This brought me to another family landmark, a fast food intersection from our frequent road trips between home and family in Missouri. I was now looking north and out over the floodplains of the Mississippi, and somewhere ahead was the Golden Eagle ferry crossing.

The retail and industrial parks north of St. Charles rapidly gave way to floodplain farmland. A hazy overcast contributed to the late afternoon sky, another reminder the remaining daylight would soon be limiting my options. Once I had road signs guiding me, I put my phone in “Airplane” mode, hoping to save enough battery for more navigation help later. With pavement and little traffic, I relished the chance to open up the pace a little bit, now riding a steady 16/17 mph.

I made the final turn toward the ferry landing, and the farm land gave way to sloughs and marshy woods. I came to a final bend, and a line of cars was was waiting. The rivers was almost 1/2 mile wide, and the running ferry was on the opposite shore. It took about 10 minutes for it to cross the river and land, and while I was waiting, my iPhone finally shut down.
Crossing the Mississippi on the Golden Eagle (Illinois) ferry

After boarding the ferry, the 10 minute crossing of the Mississippi included all the familiar sounds of throbbing marine diesels, water slapping against the side of the ferry, and chains rattling on steel as they were pulled by the deck hand. (Between the Great Lakes, the Northwest and the great rivers, I seem to have knack for working ferry crossings into bike tours.)

Leaning over the side, I snapped a few picture evening sky on the river, and the approaching Illinois shoreline. A busy tavern was just above the landing, and I considered stopping here, but my male optimism held out for the making the Brussels ferry, after the deckhand told me it was just 5-6 miles and combination of turns I almost followed.

Back on the road, I started with a steep climb out of Golden Eagle, cresting the first hill after about a half mile. It was just the first, as the road now followed a gently climbing ridge with rolling green pastures falling off on either side. After another half mile of climbing I could now see across the Mississippi behind me, and to the east, the Illinois River valley. The quiet pastoral view was breathtaking. Or maybe it was all that climbing after almost 80 miles.

I passed a couple intersections, all gravel roads. My Illinois State map (navigation Plan B) did not have enough detail, but I should have been riding around the southern edge of this finger of land between two rivers. But the scale of the map did not provide enough detail to really show where I was, and the hazy evening sky did not give a true indication of true west or east.
The land between the rivers.

After 5 miles, I came to a T-intersection, with a sign indicating Brussels to the left, but nothing to the right, and nothing to indicate the ferry landing. I was headed to the “Brussels” ferry, so why not head to Brussels? It was already after 7, with sunset looming. So I choose left, and didn’t look back (a fateful decision, it turns out). After a couple of miles of rolling hills, I was still climbing, and just assumed the ferry would be a steep drop from the ridge, just like the Golden Eagle ferry I had started from.

Another 3 miles, and I saw a church steeple rising from a cluster of buildings, and was passed by a couple cars. I finally rolled into town and up the “main” street, with two open taverns, but no sign indicating the ferry landing. So I doubled back to the first first tavern I had passed, and leaned my bike against the side. I was at 85 miles, and it was early twilight, so I was running out of options.

I walked inside, and up to bar, which had a half dozen locals. The twenty something bartender came up to me asked if I wanted anything. I politely asked “How far is the Brussels ferry from here?”

“The Ferry? Oh, it’s about 9-10 miles down the road from here.” She answered, indicating the direction I had entered town from.

I was spending the night in Brussels.