The car trip to St. Louis went without a hitch. All told it took about 15 hours including a stop to visit an ailing family member.
The last two hours were through torrential rains and blustery winds. We stopped near Frankfort, Kentucky for the night. Despite the weather, The Mule arrived in one piece.
Before we left yesterday morning I took The Mule for a quick spin so that I can legitimately say that I’ve ridden a bike in Kentucky. US 60 where the motel was located is a godawful road to ride on so I dipped into a neighborhood and declared victory. 15 states to go.
The last five hours of driving yesterday involved super strong crosswinds. Weather in the Midwest is surprisingly violent. After we arrived thunderstorms raged through the area for the next 24 hours.
Today we attended my niece’s wedding. It was a lovely affair. My only concern is that all the human interaction doesn’t come with a side of Covid which could hit when I’m nowhere near medical facilities.
The tour starts tomorrow. There is some discussion of a post-wedding get together in a park near here to have donuts for breakfast. The hotel we are in is very close to the Katy Trail so finding it will be a breeze.
The weather for the next two days will be cool, 50s and 60s, before giving way to two or three days of rain. This is a concern because indoor accommodations are spaced about 20 miles apart. Also the trail is unpaved which can cause problems with cables and such. And to add to potential problems, the trail runs along the Missouri River which is prone to spring flooding.
It looks like I’ll be rendezvousing with Mark and Corey in Canon City, Colorado instead of Colorado Springs. This works out great because Canon City, unlike Colorado Springs, is on the TransAm and is easy to get to. my hope is that I can get there a day early to acclimate to the altitude.
I may have to modify my route, because of the weather and Memorial Day weekend crowds. I’ll try to stay flexible.
The tour is in two parts. The solo part goes from Saint Louis, Missouri to Colorado Springs, Colorado. The team route goes from Colorado Springs to the Oregon Coast following the Adventure Cycling TransAmerica Route.
For the solo part of the tour, I decided to ditch Nebraska, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The plan is to do the Katy Trail from O’Fallon, MO to Clinton, MO. Then take a couple of days to get to the TransAmerica Route at Ash Grove, MO. I’ll take the TransAm west to Hutchison, KS. Next I leave the TransAm to check out the Gyp Hills Scenic route between Medicine Lodge and Clearwater. I will angle back to the TransAm at Scott City then head west to Pueblo CO. From Pueblo it’s one day north and about 3,000 feet up to Colorado Springs. The dates below assume I don’t take any days off but I will almost certainly take at least two. Ash Grove is a free, indoor place to stay. There are any number of small towns on the TransAm west of Scott City that have free camping or indoor accommodations.
It’s pretty common for small towns in the plains, especially those on the TransAm, to have free camping for bike tourists in city parks. Hutchinson, KS and Sheridan Lake (not show, but it’s near Eads) in eastern CO have free indoor camping at churches. I am not anticipating using Warmshowers (a community of people who host bike tourists for free) because of Covid concerns.
I have been building the pile o’stuff for my tour. It’s getting pretty big. In a couple of days I’ll stuff it all into the panniers, load it on the bike, and try not to crash from the sheer enormity of it. At this stage, I keep thinking of things to bring like butt wipes and little bottles for castille soap and chain cleaner. (I hope I don’t mix them up. Could make for an interesting laundry or bathing experience.) There’s also a small jar of peanut butter. And a bigger camp towel. And clothing. I am debating whether to bring allen keys and a chain brake. If I do I may leave my multitool at home. It’s a pain to use. Another item that may get left behind is my water bladder. I used two in the deserts of Utah and Nevada but they were hard to use. In any case, I should have no trouble finding bottled water along the way. The U-lock is for use before the trip. I’ll use a lighter Ottolock for the road. You may also notice a Covid quick test kit in the pile. I’ll organize the small items into Ziplock bags, one for tools, one for medicines, one for maps, one for toiletries, etc.
Of course, every tour begins with too much stuff. Then, after a week of slogging all this up hills, I’ll go to a post office and mail thing home.
My original plan, Plan A, has been to follow the Adventure Cycling Association’s Lewis and Clark Trail to southeastern Nebraska. This would involve about 200 miles on the Katy Trail, an off road route, then country roads along the Missouri River. The route continues across Nebraska before angling down to Colorado Springs where I meet up with Mark and Corey. This first part of the trip is about 1,000 miles. The three of us will follow the Transamerica Route up to Yellowstone then eventually to the Oregon Coast, another 2,000 miles.
The other night I mapped out a more southerly route. Using Plan B, I’d stay on the Katy Trail to the end in Clinton, Missouri. Then head south to Bentonville, Arkansas. Next I’d head west into far northeastern Oklahoma before angling up to Medicine Lodge, Kansas. There is a road through the Gyp Hills from Medicine Lodge to Coldwater that is supposed to be one of the best cycling roads in the country. After Coldwater I could ride to Dodge City because cowboys, Wyatt Earp, and buffalo hunters. From Dodge I’d angle up to Pueblo, Colorado then up to Colorado Springs.
There are several drawbacks to this route. It looks pretty hilly getting to and from Bentonville, for a start. Also, I can’t find much in the way of cheap or free accommodations on this route. I’d be hopping from one hotel or motel to another. It’s also over 300 miles and five days longer than Plan A.
Plan C is pretty simple. Ride the Katy Trail to Clinton. Then ride two days south to Ash Grove, Missouri which is on the Transamerica Trail. There’s a guest house there with a pool that welcomes bike tourists. (This is where I met Corey and Mark in 2019.) I would just take the Transamerica Route west to Pueblo as I did in 2019. There are three very big advantages to this. Nearly every town on the route has free camping or cheap hotels. The TransAm is the oldest long distance route in the US, so people who live along it expect to see bicycle tourists. And, probably most important, I’d be certain to encounter other bike tourists who can offer help, information, and companionship across the rather boring plains.
A final idea is to use the Katy and TransAm to Hutchison, Kansas, northwest of Wichita. Then I could angle southwest to Pratt. From Pratt I’d go due south to Medicine Lodge. Then the scenic road Gyp Hills road goes straight west to Coldwater. After which it’s a couple of days northwest to Dodge City. From Dodge it looks pretty straightforward to ride back to the TransAm at Scott City.
The Body and the Brake
In 2019, I did my ride from north central Indiana to San Francisco on one good leg. My left knee and hip were aching most of the way. It didn’t help that my front brake pads rubbed most of the way.
In 2022, the knee, hip, and brake problems are fixed. Alas, I am now 66 years old with an 86 year old back. I kind of like to think along the lines of Augustus McCrae: the older the violin, the sweeter the music.
There are few things that suck on a bike tour more than having a flat tire on a highway in a cold rain. Okay, having a flat tire on a muddy trail when it’s sleeting is one, but you get the point.
My first truly long distance bike tour was from Indiana to DC. Prior to the trip, I realized that the back tire on my Tour Easy, the tire that would carry 75 percent of the weight, was old. So I bought a new tire. It fit my wheel and was inexpensive. Great.
I never made it to DC. In the middle of nowhere my new tire had not just a flat but a sidewall blowout. No bueno.
I was on the unpaved GAP Trail between nowhere and no place. It was after 5 on a Sunday. I had no cell signal. It was raining. I was stuck. Oh, and I was sick.
Not having brought a spare tire, I used duct tape and all my spare tubes to limp into Rockwood, PA where some kindly B&B operators took pity on me. I quit the tour the next day.
I decided from then on to get some serious rubber for my wheels. I put Schwalbe Marathon tires on my Tour Easy recumbent. They worked great. Despite the fact that they had a special belt under the tread to prevent punctures, I did get the occasional flat. Then I discovered something better: Schwable Marathon Plus tires.
These bad boys weight about 50 percent more than regular Marathons because, in addition to a belt under the tread, they have an extra hunk of rubber on top of that. The extra weight means you experience more rolling resistance. When touring this is pretty much no big deal because your plodding along at a slow speed anyway. (For non-touring purposes I use lighter Schwalbe Mondials. Not as puncture proof but they roll a lot easier.)
I have used Marathon Pluses on five tours. On road and off. For a total of about 9,500 miles. Not one flat. I still can’t believe it. They also last forever. I have put over 6,000 miles on one pair and they still have plenty of tread on them. I buy a new pair for each tour; the old ones go on my Cross Check and my Tour Easy. As it is, I have four or five old ones, lying around the house. They have plenty of life left in them.
Last year while riding around town I managed to get a few flats on old Marathon Pluses. One occurred when I rolled over a strangely shaped chunk of metal. Another happened when I ran over a long, exceptionally sharp screw. The tire went into the trash bin after that.
If you read touring journals, you’ll find that Marathon Pluses, despite being somewhat pricey, are very popular with the bike touring crowd. This year I bought Marathon Plus Tours, because the regular Pluses were sold out. Plus Tours have a slightly different tread for unpaved trails. What a coincidence. The first 300 miles of my tour will be on the unpaved Katy Trail in Missouri.
If you are going on a long tour, don’t screw around with inexpensive or old tires. You won’t regret spending the money on Marathon Pluses.
Yesterday I did a shakedown cruise on The Mule. I recently had it fixed up for my tour by the good folks at Bikes at Vienna. The bike rides fine, although it feels a little different now that it has Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tires on it. These tires weight 50 percent more than the Schwable Mondial tires I have been using since the pandemic hit. But the weight is worth it, because they have a beefy tread that is nearly puncture proof (knock wood).
I road The Mule to DC and back, about a 30-mile round trip. The gears and brakes work fine. I did notice that my front rack was a tad wobbly. This is not surprising as I haven’t tightened the bolts in a few years. I need to dig out my wee bottle of Loctite to make sure the bolts stay tight.
The beefier tread means that my bike computer needs to be recalibrated. I think I have it figured out but I want to do one more check before moving on to other things such as,
Tent – I need to set up my tent and see if I want to use it on this trip. It’s a Big Agnes lightweight backpacking tent that is not freestanding. This is a pain. Also, the inside mesh sags. I miss my big old tent but had to abandon it when, despite, seam sealing, it leaked on me one too many times. I might buy a 2-person, freestanding tent and use that instead.
Panniers – My Ortlieb roll top panniers are pretty beat up. They lost their waterproofing a long time ago. I need to go over them and cover any weak spots with duct tape. I’ll bring some plastic bags to use as liners just to be safe.
Maps and Routing – I have to buy several maps from Adventure Cycling. I need maps for one segment of the Lewis and Clark Route (this will get me from the start to Nebraska). I need to do some research on how to ride across Nebraska to Colorado Springs where I will meet up with my 2019-tour friends Mark and Corey. The three of us will ride the remainder of the Trans America Route from Colorado to the Oregon coast. Mark has an extra set of six maps for this section that he’s offered me, but I’ll need to buy one map segment (from West Yellowstone to Missoula) because this was recently updated.
Bike Transport – My wife and I are driving to Missouri for a wedding in May. I hope to use my Saris Bones rack on her Subaru Outback but she is resisting because she can see the marks on the paint of my Accord. An alternative would be to fold down the back seats and put the bike inside but I fear this will damage my fenders. We’ll figure something out. In any case I just bought new straps for the rack. The old ones are pretty worn out.
Engine performance – Bless me father for I have slacked. It’s been three years since my last bike tour. During that time I have endured a disturbing number of cortisone shots. As of today, I can ride my bike pain free for hours. Walking, however, presents some problems. I’m scheduled for a few more shots to deal with this aspect. I have also experimented with edibles but they haven’t done a thing, except put me to sleep. Some recent experiments with yoga seem to be helping, although I have my doubts based on past experience.
Engine weight – Do you know who Charles Taylor was? He built the light-weight aluminum engine used in the Wright Brothers’ planes. Without him, the Wright Brothers would be just another couple of geeky bike shop owners in Dayton OH. Let’s just say that my engine could use Taylor’s help. Every pound I don’t have to haul up into the Rockies, the better.
There are plenty of other things to worry about. Bison, elk, wolves, bears, wildfires, soul-sucking headwinds, brutal climbs, land whales (RVs), floods, withering heat, and overbooked campsites. Who’s idea was this anyway? Look on the bright side: at least I won’t have to contend with parachuting spiders.
It’s cold outside. Snow is coming. I am hoping and dreaming of riding a bike tour this summer. To get myself psyched up, I have been watching videos of tours. I thought my readers might find them useful.
The French Sisters
On my 2019 tour I met two sisters from France in a cafe in Boulder, Utah. They were traveling from San Francisco to New York City. Despite having ridden up a 14 percent grade the day before, they were upbeat and smiling. They blogged about their trip. When they finished they made a video. Even if you don’t understand French, you’ll see what an epic trip it was.
The TransAm in 2019
This couple from Maryland rode the TransAm (or most of it, at least) from Oregon City, Oregon to Maryland. It’s a short video but it’s honest. Rain happens. So does exhaustion. But they had a blast.
Ryan van Duzer in Love
Ryan does adventure travel videos as a career. Good work if you can get it. He has dozens of videos of adventures over the last 20 years. A few years ago. he met Ali, another filmmaker, and fell madly in love. They rode across the US, using a route of Ryan’s devising. Along they way they asked people what “love” meant to them. I found this kind of odd but regardless the video is very well made. Ryan uses a ton of drone footage. (How he does this I’ll never know.) Try to keep in mind that bike tourists rarely see the spectacular vistas his drones do.
Cycling the Western Express
This guy rode the Western Express. It’s the route I took from Pueblo, Colorado to San Francisco in 2019. It wrecked me. Seems like it got to him too.
Two Years on a Bike
This is a series of videos of a man who rode from Vancouver, BC to Tierra del Fuego. There’s beaucoup drone footage. In the second video, he hooks up with a stunning fashion model in coastal Mexico. Funny how this happens to me, too.
Southern Tier, East to West
This guy rode the Southern Tier from Saint Augustine, Florida to San Diego, California. It’s pretty honest. He endured rain, scary lightning, and brutal headwinds.
Slideshow: Boston to Oregon
This guy made up a route from Boston to the Oregon coast. He linked up a bunch of rail trails and has tons of good advice. Frankly, riding and camping in Yellowstone kind of freaks me out. Call me crazy but wild buffalo scare the bejesus out of me.
There’s a nor’easter coming this weekend. Bundle up and take a virtual ride across the US while the storm’s a ragin’.
I am often asked about how I go about planning my bike tours. I do my best on this blog or in person over brews of various kinds with friends but it’s hard to convey what planning and riding a bike tour is like.
I came across this video today by Ryan van Duzer. The video goes well beyond planning a tour. Ryan, who has no shortage of enthusiasm for bike tours, can’t help but share his joy of touring.
As you will see, Ryan makes liberal use of drone shots. They make for amazing panoramic vistas but, sad to say, most of the time bike tourists don’t get such amazing perspectives. And exception is when you are in the mountains and can look out over the landscape. Northern Cascades and the GAP Trail east of the Eastern Continental Divide are notable exceptions.
This is a quibble. Good on Ryan to lug all that electronic stuff with him so you don’t have to. Here’s the video.
My only disagreements with Ryan have to do with riding direction and riding yourself into shape. I agree with Ryan that you’ll encounter headwinds regardless of which direction you go. As the famous bike tourist Milton Friedman once said, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” I disagree with the concept of riding yourself into shape. You’ll have a much better time if you get your body ready before you leave, especially if you are riding west to east. The reason is that the first few days heading east involve beaucoup climbing. I heard from a Warmshowers host in eastern Washington that it was not uncommon for eastbound riders to quit after only a few days. The Northern Tier route that they use goes from sea level to over 4,000 feet in a matter of 100 or so miles. Then there are four climbs over 5,000 feet in the days that follow. I had over 3,000 miles under my belt before I hit this climbfest. So eastbounders, bring your A game. folks. (Not to belabor the point but the climb from Sacramento to Carson Pass on the Western Express route goes from near sea level to over 8,000 feet in 90 miles. Good thing it’s pretty, because I didn’t see any cardiac care units on my ride west out of the Sierras.)
Fair warning: Ryan’s videos are addictive.
While I am on the subject, another source of great bike touring info are the videos of Bike Touring Mike. He’s a bit droll but he knows his stuff.
When I did my 2019 bike tour, I decided to ride from Indiana to Pueblo Colorado where I would pick up the Adventure Cycling Route’s Western Express Route across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. I knew this route would be challenging.
Up to Pueblo, there had been minimal climbing on my route. Missouri was a series of rollers that I handled without much difficulty. Kansas was a false flat, a gradual climb of 1 or 2 percent. After Pueblo things got interesting.
The first 20 miles to the town of Wetmore involved about 1,500 feet of climbing that I handled without difficulty. The next ten miles involved a climb of over 3,000 feet. I had never ridden above 7,000 feet and it showed. I couldn’t catch my breath. I stopped and leaned over my bike wheezing. Albuterol (which I take for asthma attacks) did nothing. I pushed my bike for miles unable to maintain power while pedaling to go more than 3 miles per hour. At the top of the climb was Hardscrabble Pass. There was no sign denoting this landmark. I had only my fatigue and broken spirit as a reward.
Somehow I didn’t notice this climb during my tour planning or even during my stop over in Pueblo the day before. It was the beginning of a relentless series of climbs that, while mostly beautiful, broke my body.
Hardscrabble Pass was just the beginning. This and each ensuing summit was followed by a descent of a thousand or more feet. My trek across southern Colorado included six more climbs including a 4,000-foot climb over Monarch Pass and the Continental Divide at 11,312 feet of elevation.
Utah involved more of the same, six climbs culminating in a another 4,000 foot ascent to Cedar Breaks National Monument at over 10,000 feet. After an amazing 25-mile, 4,500-foot descent to Cedar City I faced a brutal roller coaster that would last more than a week. Four more climbs in Utah to a maximum elevation of 6,723 feet at Wah Wah Summit.
Then came Nevada. 13 climbs including back to back 7,000+ footers. And wind. And heat. And I had to carry extra food and water because there is no there there in Nevada. Once out of the basin and range country, I had four more climbs to get across the Sierras maxing out at Carson’s Pass at 8,573.
So depending on how your keeping score I did about 35 climbs during my tour. In an odd way, the pandemic has been a godsend. It allowed me to fully recover from the toll this took on my body.
What did I get for my troubles. Rocks, as Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland says. So many rocks. The scenery is truly amazing. And there is so much more to see. I bypassed Natural Bridges in Utah. Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Moab, and Zion National Park were off my route. By the time I got to western Nevada I was so sick of rocks! The blue water of Lake Tahoe blew me away. And the trees in the Sierras seemed to be pumping me full of oxygen.
All of this is to say, that I have enormous respect for anyone who rides from San Francisco to the East Coast. I met several people going West to East including Sandra and Elise, two sisters from France who were going from San Francisco to New York City.
They rented a car to see some of the stuff I missed in Utah but their self-designed route also took then through Yosemite, Zion, and Great Sand Dunes National Park. They put together a video of their trip and posted it to You Tube today. I highly recommend it.
One of the worst, most depressing experiences I have ever had on a bike, or for that matter off a bike, was hitting the wall on my first day climbing in the Colorado Rockies. The day started with 30 miles from Pueblo to Wetmore. In the process I climbed about 1,400 feet. It was a bit challenging but not too bad.
Between Wetmore and Westcliffe, however, was a 3,000 foot climb over what I learned today is something called Hardscrabble Pass. The Google says the distance is 15 miles but other accounts have it at 12 miles. Either way it is a relentless grade of between 6 and 8 percent for most of the way up.
Today I read an account of a bike tourist who did this ride in 2009. He describes having to stop every 1/10 of a mile to avoid going anaerobic. His legs kept tying up as he rode. With no experience at this sort of thing, I didn’t stop until I was completely unable to get a breath. At around 7,500 feet, I leaned over my bike gasping. (My asthma didn’t help a whole lot.)
Another rider broke the Pueblo to Westcliffe ride into two days. He referred to the pass as “the wall.” He took five hours to ride 15 miles over the top. And he walked three times.
After starting and stopping several times, I ended up walking the steepest part about half way between Wetmore and the pass. I felt humiliated, but these two journals assure me that my failure to ride nonstop over the pass had nothing to do with my fitness or age.
Even before I finished my ride this summer, people were asking me, “What was the best part?” It may seem strange to say this but until I reviewed my blog posts last week, I had forgotten much of the ride! I suppose this was because I was so focused on the present that the past was of little importance.
And now that I have reviewed the posts, I still don’t have an answer. There were plenty of highlights.
Lincoln’s tomb (and the comic graves nearby) in Springfield, Illinois.
The Burma Shave signs on the Route 66 bike path in Illinois.
The many trail angels that showed me kindness, especially Jesse, the retired chef in a white pickup truck in Saint Louis. I am not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life. (I’ll never forget how he vacillated between saying “I love you” and cussing like Samuel L. Jackson.)
The Buddhist monk in the cowboy hat walking on the side of the road in Missouri. I am still kicking myself that I didn’t take his picture but he seemed completely at peace, gliding down the shoulder of the road with a serene smile across his face.
Taking a dive in the pool at the city park in Ash Grove, Missouri at the end of a hot and frustrating day. Fifteen minutes of bliss.
Meeting and riding with Mark and Corey from Ash Grove to Pueblo, Colorado.
The Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, Kansas. I could have spent hours and hours in that place.