Black Friday Biking in New York City

I'd much rather be on a bike than in a taxi.
I’d much rather be on a bike than in a taxi.

I am proud to say that I have some unique and interesting friends that present me with exciting opportunities for adventure and new experiences. When fellow biking buddy Brian was laid off from his job, he decided to take advantage of not having daily obligations and ride his bicycle from Iowa to D.C.

Brian’s cycling journey started in early October. His dad and I rode the first 40 miles with him as a send-off ride for his great adventure.

Brian's send off ride starting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Brian’s Trek 520 fully-loaded for his send-off ride starting in Cedar Rapids, Ia.

Weeks later, Brian made it safely to D.C. and from there he headed to Brooklyn to stay with his brother, Lee, while looking for jobs around New York. As Thanksgiving approached, I was in communication with Brian and we started planning for me to visit. I booked a flight and made it to Brooklyn on Thanksgiving Day just in time for dinner.

The following day we planned to explore New York. Since we both enjoyed biking and the weather was unusually warm for November, we decided the best way to see the city would be by bicycle. I borrowed a bike from Lee and Brian rode his new used commuter folding bike. Brian was  excited to try out his Craigslist find. I was intrigued by this unique contraption and its compactness. When folded, it is about the size of a small suitcase. Brian showed me how it worked by unfolding it and securing various pins and screws that transformed it into something rideable.

Brian and his folding bike.
Brian and his folding bike.
NYC bike lane
We had the lane all to ourselves.

I’ll admit that I was somewhat nervous about riding a bicycle in downtown New York with it being Black Friday, but I was willing to give it a try knowing that bike commuting had been growing in popularity in the city.

Starting out in Brooklyn near Prospect Park we made our way to Manhattan Bridge to cross the East River and ride into Manhattan. The bridge has a two-way bike lane that made crossing easy and safe for cyclists. Once in Manhattan, there were plenty of bike lanes that took us where we wanted to go. Surprisingly, Brian and I had most of the bike lanes to ourselves allowing us to get to places like Times Square and Central Park with ease. It seemed that biking was a great way to tour the city as opposed to navigating the subway system or taking an expensive taxi.

The biggest obstacle for us while riding was the wall of shoppers crossing the street near Macy’s. I felt relieved to be in our seemingly protective bike lane as opposed to being on a sidewalk among mobs of people rushing around eager for a good deal.

On our way to Central Park we stopped for a quick lunch before checking out the famed Manhattan Apple Store. While stopped for a brief break, a man took notice of Brian’s folding bike and remarked about it being a great find and he knew some models could be very valuable. At this point I was so intrigued by the odd-looking bike with tiny wheels that I asked Brian if I could take it for a spin. I hopped on and took a brief ride. The steering was odd because of the small wheels and overall it felt a little rickety. I figured you sacrifice the solidity of a normal bike to gain the portability and utility of the folding bike. Or perhaps this was not one of those high-value folding bikes.

Heading back to Brooklyn we took the Brooklyn Bridge to Lee’s apartment. A well-marked bike lane took us across the bridge. This was the most congested part of our ride as we had to dodge a fair amount of bikers and meandering sightseers not paying attention to the painted lines dividing walkers from cyclists.

By the end of our cycling adventure I was getting the hang of navigating through the busy city. I am now convinced that biking is indeed a great transportation option in NYC.

Our bike lane was mostly empty while the shoppers filled the sidewalks and street.
Our bike lane was mostly empty while the shoppers filled the sidewalks and street.
Times Square by bike
We were the only bikers around Times Square.
brooklynbridge
Crossing the East River via Brooklyn Bridge.

Bike Camping in Wisconsin

Weekend bike camping trip from New Glarus to Madison, Wisconsin

Badger State Trail tunnel.
The end of the tunnel on the Badger State Trail.

It’s been two years since Michon and I visited Madison, Wisconsin for a self-guided bicycling tour. READ: Fell in love with a city – Madison. That was my first time visiting and I left knowing I’d be back.

This time around Brian and I (unfortunately Michon couldn’t make this trip) took a whole weekend to ride the trails in and around Madison. I did some online research using this useful ride planning website: Bike Madison.

The following is our itinerary for the weekend:

  • Drive to New Glarus, WI on Friday after work (2.5 hours), set up camp at New Glarus Woods State Park.
  • Saturday morning, hit the trail towards Madison taking the Sugar River State Trail to Badger State Trail. The trail is flat, packed limestone then paved outside and around Madison. This is about 30 miles.
  • Once in Madison, head to Lake Farm County Park to set up camp and then explore the many bike trails around Madison, find a yummy dinner and enjoy the nightlife.
  • Sunday morning, have breakfast at Bradbury’s Coffee in downtown Madison then head back to New Glarus.
  • Go to New Glarus Brewery for a tasting and tour. Buy Wisconsin beer.

Leaving Friday after work, we got to New Glarus easily taking scenic highways through small towns and dairy land countryside. After setting up camp we unloaded the bikes and took the trail from the park into town for some nightlife. We stopped at an old bar called Puemple’s Olde Tavern for some Wisconsin brews. I had a New Glarus beer called Two Women and Brian tried the Totally Naked. Both were very tasty. We tried another drinking establishment down the street for one more cold beverage (not sure I even saw the name of the bar)  and then decided it was time to get some rest for our ride the next day.

Our campground at New Glarus Woods State Park. You can see the trail at the bottom of the photo that connects to downtown New Glarus and the trail system into Madison.
Badger Trail
The Badger State Trail.

Around 9 a.m. we were packed up and ready to ride the 30 miles to Madison. We hopped on the Sugar River Trail which lead us to the Badger State Trail and into Madison.

The trail is well groomed and the miles added up easily. We rode through a neat old train tunnel that was dark, damp and misty inside. It would have been hard to navigate without our bike lights because you couldn’t see the end from the start. The cool air inside the tunnel was a refreshing break from the warm, muggy air outside.

Before we knew it we were ready for lunch and near the town of Paoli. The town isn’t right off the trail so to get there we ended up having to backtrack a couple of miles. We were both hungry so we decided to try a little cafe called the Bread and Brat Haus that was having its grand opening.

The food was delicious! We both had a brisket sandwich on a homemade bun that came with a mixed green salad for $6. Next stop was to the cheese house for some Wisconsin curds and to a food stand for freshly-picked strawberries.

We hopped back on the trail and soon it turned to pavement taking us into Madison via the South West Commuter Path. The bike trail system in and around Madison is top notch. The paths have their own “road” signs and there are even on and off ramps where other paths intersect. Another noticeable aspect of riding by bike around Madison is that car drivers are very respectful of cyclists. More than once a car slowed down to let bicyclists cross in front of them when there wasn’t a sign telling them to do so by law. Thank you very much Madison drivers.

We continued on our route which took us into downtown near Machinery Row Bicycles. Interesting how a bike path leads directly to a bike shop, just saying. We had to stop of course and take a look at the huge selection of bikes and gear. Then we decided to cross the street and quench our thirst at the Stop Back In bar before heading to our campground.

Old train tunnel on the Badger State Trail in Wisconsin.
New Glarus Depot
New Glarus Depot
Bread and Brat Haus in Paoli, Wisconsin.
The Bread and Brat Haus in Paoli. It was their grand openeing weekend so we stopped here for lunch. The food was delicious, the people were very friendly and the outdoor seating area was beautiful. We ended up eating here again on Sunday, I highly recommend it if you’re in the area.
Paoli
This patio area sits behind the Bread and Brat Haus in Paoli. It used to be a saw mill but made a great place to eat lunch, twice.

The Lake Farm County Park campground is about six miles from downtown Madison and the trail system conveniently connects to the park.

After setting up camp and some relaxation and nourishment by Lake Waubesa, we showered, put on clean clothes and headed back into Madison for food and some nightlife.

We found an Indian restaurant near the capital for dinner. Next, we headed to the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Union for some live music on the terrace overlooking the lake. We listened to a band called Sexy Esther, enjoyed some beer, and then it was time to head back to the campground.

Sunday morning brought thunderstorms and rains showers. Fortunately, Mother Nature cooperated with us and by the time we were packed up and ready to ride back to New Glarus the rain stopped. We were left with a hot, muggy day, but still a good day for riding.

Our first stop was at Bradbury’s in downtown Madison for some coffee and crepes. We ordered a strawberry crepe and a smoked trout crepe. They were excellent. Inside Bradbury’s we got asked by another customer if we were riding across the country. Unfortunately, we had to explain we had only come from New Glarus, but it’s kind of cool to know that’s the impression we give people.

I wasn’t ready to leave Madison, but back on the trail heading south it was nice to be riding through the countryside void of path traffic and noisy intersections. Before we knew it, it was lunch time again and we were back near Paoli. We stopped at the Bread and Brat Haus for another delicious lunch and this time we had some ice cream, too.

The rest of the way to New Glarus was enjoyable. We met some other riders on the trail who had overnight gear. They said they had started in Madison the day before, stayed in New Glarus and were now heading back. So we weren’t the only ones with this idea.

The Come Back In bar in Madison. Brian J. photo.

Back in New Glarus we loaded up the car and cleaned up as best we could. Before heading home we had one stop left, to stop by the New Glarus Brewery. We would have ridden our bikes, but as Brian mentioned, it would be a good idea to drive since we’d probably want to make a purchase or two. After a tour and tasting we left with two cases of beer in the car. Those would have been a little difficult to load on our bikes and way too dangerous for that precious Wisconsin beer.

– MICHELLE

Loaded bikes
Our loaded bikes in the tunnel on the Badger State Trail.
Crepes at Bradbury's in Madison.
Sweet and savory crepes at Bradbury’s in Madison. Brian J. photo.
New Glarus Brewery beer
I had to try more than one variety of beer. You can only get this beer in Wisconsin so I had to stock up.

Bike Camping at Pleasant Creek

Bike camping at Pleasant Creek Recreation Area near Palo, Iowa.

With spring in the air and the end to a long winter of being cooped up indoors, it was time to go on the first bike camping adventure of the year. Brian and I packed up our panniers and headed out on a Friday after work to the Pleasant Creek Recreation Area near Palo, Iowa.

Our first stop on our way out of town was to the local grocery store for some campfire food. They had a sale on brats, five for $5, so we chose one of each flavor including a pineapple brat. We also grabbed a bottle of wine and were on our way.

Riding by Pleasant Creek Lake.

It was a great feeling to be on the bike again. The air had a slight chill to it and the forecast threatened rain but we set out on our trip with much enthusiasm.

Two hours of pedaling got us to our destination at Pleasant Creek. As we rode through the campground we couldn’t help feeling a sense of pride as we pedaled self-sustained using only the power of our legs to propel us. On our way to the tent camping sites we passed the only other campers in the park, all of which had brought giant RVs with their water hook ups, cable TVs and all the amenities of home. Can you even call that camping? They gave us a curious look; we waved a friendly hello and were on our way to find our campsite.

We were the only tent campers in the park, the other campers had gigantic RVs.

After finding a good spot away from the RV campers, we quickly set up our tents as the daylight faded. Our next order of business was to start the campfire and reap our reward of wine, brats and an enjoyable evening by the fire. (FYI: Pineapple brats are like a sweet dessert with sausage, we weren’t a big fan of them.)

In the morning I awoke to chirping birds and a heavy fog. My sleeping bag was keeping me toasty warm, so instead of getting out of my tent I unzipped the door and stayed snuggled in my sleeping bag while I brewed a cup of coffee and enjoyed the view.

It was a foggy morning at Pleasant Creek campground.
The view from my tent in the morning. I stayed warm in my sleeping bag, made a cup of coffee and enjoyed the scenery.

After a breakfast of oatmeal and an orange we packed up and headed home. This was a great little getaway and I can’t wait for the next bike camping trip.

– MICHELLE

Baggin’ the Katy Trail – Day 3 – 4

bagger – In cycling terms; one who is self-contained, using panniers and other gear carrying bags on their bike to tour for multiple days. See also, bike touring.

Katy Trail, Missouri River

Tebbetts to Augusta (65+ miles) Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday morning brought us another beautiful day. We made some oatmeal and coffee for breakfast using the hostel’s microwave, packed up our gear and were on our way. NOTE: Nescafe’s single packets of coffee work great for bike camping. They’re lightweight and taste good.

Today’s destination was the Klondike Park campground near Augusta, Mo. Like I’ve said before, finding a place to camp on the Katy Trail is a challenge, there are more bed and breakfasts than campgrounds along the way. When I found Klondike Park in my research, it was an easy answer to our dilemma and looked like an interesting park to explore. I could only hope the weather would hold out for my last night in my failing tent.

Back on the saddle, my underside was not happy to be once again perched on that small piece of plastic I call a seat. But my bottom and I had no choice this far into the trip, and soon the excitement of exploring more undiscovered terrain would take my mind off any discomfort. Today was another high-mileage day so it was imperative to keep moving and get in those miles.

This stretch of the trail was fairly rural even though the map showed a number of towns marked on our route. Some of the “towns” were nothing more than those trusty green trail signs displaying the town name, a kiosk and a building or two. As I’ve said before, one shouldn’t rely on all the marked towns along the trail to have available restrooms, running water and food. (The Katy Trail website is a great resource to find out what the trail towns have to offer, as well as mileage and other trail information.)

We pedaled on until we used all our energy from breakfast and had to stop for some lunch in Rhineland.

What the? A stray trash can sits next to the trail. It probably landed here by flood waters. Brian J. photo.
Some towns along the Katy Trail are almost gone, but a few have historic buildings that still stand.

We found a bar and grill not far off the trail just north of highway 94 (the name escapes me.) The place was big with a bar running the length of the room on the left wall and a row of fridges holding beer, pop and a few grocery items lined the right wall. We found an empty table in the middle of the room and ordered some burgers, fries and large waters. The food was very cheap and very good. I left satisfied and refueled.

Riding out of Rhineland, the trail took us through landscapes of cornfields, pastureland, wooded sections and the Missouri River coming in and out of view.

The day was filled with lots of riding, rest stops and an increasingly cloudy sky. The gray nature of the cloud bank coming in from the west was worrying me, but we were able to stay ahead of it.

27 miles down the trail from our stop in Rhineland (and 53 miles in for the day – 11 to go) I was really starting to feel the fatigue. Luckily, we were approaching a town of some size, Marthasville,  where we found a well-stocked gas station for some needed energy. By this time the sky was getting even darker with cloud cover, so I asked a local if rain was in the forecast. I was answered with a definite, “yes.”

At the Marthasville gas station I was so run down and suffering from major muscle fatigue after over 50 miles of constant riding that I resorted to buying one of those gawd-awful energy drinks that have become so popular. This is my opinion of course. I’ve only tried a couple energy drinks that my friends have had and found that the amount of sweetness and even their smell is revolting to my tastes. But at this point I was desperate for a pick me up. I found the smallest can of Red Bull I could find, purchased it and immediately downed its contents. The flavor was what I’d remembered but it was tolerable since it was chilled and I needed its effects. And it worked, for a while at least. Brian also downed an energy drink – many more ounces than I had bought – and I could tell he had more spring in his pedal.

With the news of rain in the forecast and my level of tiredness, Brian and I discussed finding a cheap place to stay under a roof, be it a bed and breakfast or a motel. So we rode on towards the next town, Dutzow, to see what they had to offer. We also were entering Missouri’s wine country and as we rode closer to St. Charles the towns seemed more touristy and had more to offer.

In Dutzow, a cute little town with boutique-lined streets and cottage style homes, we rode around looking for a place to stay. We didn’t have any luck finding a motel but the blacktop roads were sure fun to ride on after days of crushed gravel. I felt like I was flying with ease on the curvy, rolling main street that ran through town.

It was seven miles more to get to our original destination of Augusta. We didn’t know how big the town would be so I suggested we find a place to get some provisions for the night. And by provisions I mean some locally-made wine.

Ironically, the restaurant we were standing in front of while making our plans sold what we were looking for. I went inside while Brian watched the bikes and asked the clerk what they suggested for a good Missouri wine. I purchased a bottle and we were on our way.

With a bottle of wine strapped to the bike we rolled into Augusta. We stopped at the town’s trail kiosk for a rest and further planning of our evening.

Augusta was hopping tonight. The town was within sight of the trail across a car-filled parking lot and up a hill, which was home to a fancy restaurant and bed and breakfasts. We figured this would be a fun little town to stay in and there were lots of options. We found a handy brochure at the kiosk listing Augusta’s B&Bs. We made a few phone calls and found it very expensive to stay here and that every place we contacted was already full for the night.

The area was buzzing with trail riders and visitors of the town. We ran into a couple that were locals and frequent Katy Trail riders. We got to talking about how much harder the trail was than we’d expected. He confirmed our observation saying he’d known of many visitors to the Katy who are surprised by its difficulty for a nearly flat trail.

We told them we planned to stay at Klondike Park for the night after failing to find an open room in Augusta. He was excited that we’d be staying at the park; apparently he was a big fan and said it was a scenic area to stay. He asked if we had reservations. We didn’t. I didn’t think it necessary being the end of September and I wanted to keep our itinerary flexible. He gave us directions to the park’s entrance, a mile or so out of town, and said to look for the steep drive leading up to the park. Brian was excited to hear of an upcoming hill to ride up, while I just wanted to get to our final destination and be done riding for the day.

We easily found the steep drive leading to Klondike Park. Brian excitedly muscled his way up the hill while I struggled with my lack of low gearing – and muscle – and ended up having to walk my bike up the last half of the drive.

The park was very pretty with lots of trees and interesting rock formations. It also was overrun with campers. After riding around the large park and not seeing a single open campsite, we called the local park ranger and asked if there was a place left for us to put up our tents. He informed us that the park was full and we’d have to find another place to camp outside the park. His only suggestion for us was to ride on to St. Charles. St. Charles! That was another 27 miles away and we were losing daylight, fast.

The Haunted Farm

As the park ranger was about to hang up I could hear another voice in the background, the ranger’s friend suggested we try a place called “My Grandpa’s Farm” a few miles down the trail. It wasn’t an official campground but the owners were known to let campers set up tents on their property. Whew! I could stand riding a couple more miles, definitely not 27. We rolled back down the steep drive squeezing hard on our brake levers to avoid flying off the winding road and were soon on the trail again. By this time we had to use our bike lights to light our way and we were starting to feel a few drops of rain fall from the sky.

We were told by the ranger to look for some large white barns on our left.

“My Grandpas Farm” – our impromptu campsite.
Whats the deal with this farm?

Needless to say, we found the place called “My Grandpa’s Farm.” We rolled down the drive and saw a light on in the hayloft of the nearest barn. We could hear ragtime music playing and voices chatting. We tried to get someone’s attention by shouting hello from outside but they couldn’t hear us over their music. While I waited with the bikes, Brian found his way into the barn and asked the folks inside if we could camp there for the night.

A man and a woman came down the stairs and said the owners of the farm were out for the night but that they allowed people to camp on the farm for $10 per person. That worked for us as our daylight was gone and it was starting to rain. The nice people showed us where to get some water and the way to the restroom. I have to mention here that the bathroom they showed us, in the barn, was the most disgusting I have ever seen. I don’t think it had been cleaned in years! I pretty much avoided using it, and when necessary, made sure to not touch anything. Other than the nasty bathroom there was plenty of room for us to put up our tents. There were even outdoor tables with attached umbrellas that we could get out of the rain under and cook our dinner using our camp stove.

While finishing up our dinner of mac and cheese, instant potatoes and thoroughly sampling the Missouri wine we’d purchased in Dutzow, a truck came down the driveway and stopped next to us. Two guys in their mid-20s stepped out of the truck, walked over to us and asked for someone named Jim. They both had been drinking and one of the guys was still working on a bottle of Corona. They said they had been to the farm a couple hours before and a guy named Jim had promised to give them a tour of the haunted farm after dark.

Haunted farm? What?

“My Grandpas Farm” near Augusta, Mo. is haunted?

We assumed the man we’d met on the farm was Jim. We took the guys over to his door and they gave it a knock. Jim answered, recognized the two guys and started in on telling us all about the place.

The barns on the property were supposedly haunted. Jim claimed he had heard and seen evidence of the ghosts while setting up sale items for an auction on the upper level of the main barn. He said he’d heard strange, unexplained noises. He also said some objects had mysteriously moved themselves across the room behind his back.

The two guys were eager to get inside the dark barn and check it out so Jim offered to take us all on a tour. I agreed since I’d never been on a haunted tour before and I don’t really believe in that stuff anyway. Brian agreed to come along, too.

Jim took us up into the unlit barn with a flashlight in-hand. We climbed the stairs to the loft where many random objects were laid out on tables ready for auction. Books, toys, mirrors, picture frames, furniture, etc. cluttered up the room. Jim further explained to us the strange noises he’d heard, objects that had moved themselves and a large cabinet that he claimed inexplicably had its door open one moment and shut the next. Someone suggested Jim turn off his flashlight so we could see how dark it got in the loft. It was pitch black with no lights. We hung out in the dark keeping silent for a few moments to see if we’d hear anything strange. Nothing happened.

The next part of the tour took us outside to the edge of the farm in a grassy field next to the second barn. Jim told us that the Boone family owned slaves on their property and when the slaves died, they buried them in shallow graves near the area where we were standing. Supposedly, there have been sightings of ghosts in that field. We saw none. One of the guys mentioned a news story he’d heard when the Missouri River flooded its banks in ’08, he said bodies were found floating in the water because the floods had washed out their graves. I’ll believe that story, but the ghosts stories I’ll stay skeptical.

Our tour ended with no sightings or indications of ghosts. Brian and I were plenty tired and crawled in our tents for a good night’s sleep.

Camping at My Grandpas Farm near Augusta, Mo.

It rained some during the night but not enough to cause me problems with my tent. We woke to the woman feeding chickens on the farm and to a gloomy, overcast sky.

We packed up our belongings and set out for the last leg of our trip on the Katy Trail.

DAY 4 – Back to the car.

On the last day of our trip we had overcast skies and bouts of spitting rain for most of the day. It was mostly uneventful. We rode to just outside of St. Charles to end our ride on the Katy Trail and routed ourselves back to Kirkwood. Near St. Charles the trail becomes paved, this was a nice change from the soggy, crushed limestone.

Finding our way back to the Kirkwood Amtrak station was no easy task. Navigatong through the city to get back to the car required frequent stops to check our map. Along the way we found unwanted hills we had to climb. Some of the streets had heavy traffic making riding less than enjoyable, but that only lasted for a few miles until we found a good route of side streets. By the time we got to Kirkwood the sky had cleared off and we had another beautiful day for the car ride home.

Even though the Katy Trail ended up being more challenging than expected, I was glad we did it. It’s a really nice trail going through some scenic countryside, cute little towns and is full of friendly people. The only thing I’d change is to ride fewer miles per day and spend a little more time in the wine country. Perhaps even splurge for a B&B or two.

– MICHELLE

Baggin’ the Katy Trail – Day 2

bagger – In cycling terms; one who is self-contained, using panniers and other gear carrying bags on their bike to tour for multiple days. See also, bike touring.

A beautiful morning in the wilds of Missouri on the Katy Trail.

Day 2: Franklin to Tebbetts (56 miles) Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy birthday to me! I challenge you to think of a better way to begin your birthday. Nothing beats waking up to chirping birds on a warm sunny morning in the middle of a bike camping adventure.

28 started out great! It was 10:30 a.m. by the time we’d eaten breakfast and let our gear dry out before packing up and hitting the crushed gravel.

Today was going to be a long, challenging day in terms of miles. But from what I’d read, this stretch was one of the most scenic on the Katy Trail, so I was looking forward to it.

From Franklin we rode through more lightly-wooded areas leading us to those rumored limestone bluffs that slowly rose up on our left. To our right, winding its way towards us with its overflowing banks was the Missouri River sparkling in the morning sun.

The bluffs were spectacular in size and contrast to the surroundings. It was difficult to see them in their entirety since they were so close to us as we rode. A few times I almost lost control of my bike as I tried to crane my neck and look up to see them.

Our first stop of the day was at the town of Rocheport for a photo by the historic train tunnel built in 1893. My guidebook said the workers who were building the tunnel protested their measly wages by filling the tunnel with dynamite and then threatened to blow it up if they weren’t given higher pay. Thankfully they were able to make a compromise so we can still see and use the tunnel today.

Train tunnel at Rocheport, Mo., built in 1893.

In Rocheport, a lovely little town with bed and breakfasts, little shops and restaurants lining its main street, we stopped to grab an early lunch at Abigail’s. There were other cyclists dining at the little restaurant and it looked like an inviting place to eat. Our lunch was delicious and the atmosphere was relaxing.

After lunch we needed to get serious about putting in some miles since we’d gotten a late start from camp and taken our time at Abigail’s. There was still 47 miles of continuous pedaling before reaching our hostel in Tebbetts.

This would be a good time to mention one not so pleasant feature of the Katy Trail. I had been warned of this disturbing fact in my guidebook but hadn’t seen proof of it until day two.

The trail runs through some prime snake habitat. The snakes make their homes in the rocky hillside next to the trail and use the gravel path as a place to bask in the warm sun.

Abigail’s in Rocheport, Mo., a great place to eat.
New scenery as bluffs rise on the left and the Missouri River appears on our right. Brian J. photos.

The first snake we came upon I didn’t see until it was only a few inches from my bike. I darn near ran over the thing! It was black, six feet long and as big around as a grown man’s fist. (This may be a slight exaggeration, but to me the thing was scary! It was not small, I’m sure of that.) I gasped and my body seized up in fright. I knew it couldn’t hurt me but I have this fear that if I run over a snake it might lash up and bite me in the leg or even touch me, yuck!

Brian had to stop and take a photo of the snake.

Did I mention I’m not a huge fan of snakes? I don’t mind seeing them in cages or from afar, but I’m aware of their quick movements and ability to bite. I have no desire to be in close proximity to one. I asked Brian if he had seen the snake, too. He had not. The next three I saw he didn’t see either. I think he thought I was seeing things. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t spotted one yet, it seemed like they were everywhere.

After seeing the first snake my mind went into ultra-alert mode to anything snake-like on the trail. I’ll admit I rode past lots of sticks that gave me a start.

Finally, Brian saw his first snake. A large, black one stretched almost entirely across the trail. As any curious boy would do, he stopped his bike, turned around and got as close to it as possible. He took some photos then made enough commotion to make it slither off into the grass. This is all while I stood waiting about 40 feet away.

The rest of the day was filled with lots of pedaling, small towns and more scenic views of the Missouri River.

Eventually, the river wound out of view and the last few miles of the day were somewhat monotonous as we followed a roadway instead of a river. My bottom was becoming increasingly sore and my legs fatigued. It was tempting to hop on the smooth, hard blacktop of the road we were paralleling and coast in some easy miles, but I just couldn’t do it. I came here to ride the trail.

The town of Tebbetts greeted us with tall grain silos and a handful of age-worn buildings. We easily found our hostel and were eager to shower and rest our legs.

Turner Katy Trail Shelter in Tebbetts, Mo.

Our hostel, the Turner Katy Trail Shelter, was a great place to stay and only cost us $5 each for the night. The building had been a church, school and recreation center before becoming a hostel. Now the main room was lined with bunk beds waiting for bikers to make use of its accommodations.

On a table at the end of the main room was a guestbook with entries from previous guests. It was fun to read and learn of the variety of people passing through on the trail. There were large groups down to solo riders from all over the U.S. and foreign countries. It appeared that the hostel had at least one rider a night using its facilities. We had the whole place to ourselves this night. I was hoping there would be other riders so we could swap trail stories.

Turner Katy Trail Shelter
Arriving at the hostel couldn’t have come sooner.

Reading through the guestbook we also discovered that almost everyone ended up at the only bar in Tebbetts, Jim’s Bar, which sits across the street from the hostel. It’s the only place in town to grab some food and enjoy a beer.

Jim’s Bar

Some words to describe Jim’s Bar: Unique, smoky, friendly, kooky. With fresh clothes and full stomachs, we walked the ten steps to Jim’s Bar for some drinks and a little nightlife with the locals. We found the bar to be crowded on this Friday night.

There were a couple open stools at the bar so we bellied up and asked what they had on tap. There was no tap. We also asked if they had some whiskey – since we’re Whiskey Riders and it was my birthday and all – they had no whiskey, or any hard liquor for that matter. I asked for the darkest beer they had and the woman behind the bar showed us a gold can of Stag beer, which I’d never had before. She said it was dark. We each ordered one and found it to be fairly decent. I don’t think it was a dark beer at all, but it was cold and it was beer.

Jim’s Bar is a very friendly place. Within the first half hour we met the lady who lives next to the hostel, Jim, and a local man who used to be an Elvis impersonator. Our neighbor for the night was an extremely nice old lady who was dressed to the T in her leopard-print blouse and bright, red lipstick. She welcomed us having known the instant we walked through the front doors that we were Katy Trail bikers. The locals were obviously accustomed to having trail riders enter their bar.

Jim, the owner, sat behind the bar manning the Karaoke machine and tending bar. He’s a fun-loving prankster with a wealth of props waiting behind the bar to use on unsuspecting visitors. He tried to get a start out of me with the “rubber band and paperclip in an envelope gag” that’s supposed to sound like a rattlesnake. Luckily for me I’d seen this prank before. I’d had enough excitement with snakes for the day anyway.

Left: Jim’s Bar in Tebbetts, Mo. Right: Bar owner, Jim, plays some sort of tie instrument behind the bar. The sign on the bar reads, “The position of Jim’s Bar Greeter has been filled. Thank you.” Brian J. photos.

Sitting next to me at the bar was the Elvis impersonator. He said he’d gotten third place in a national contest. He also was a wealth of information on the history of the town. Apparently we were sitting in what used to be the town’s bank. The old vault was still standing and now used for storage.

It was an enjoyable evening with the locals of Tebbetts as everyone yucked it up, drank down some cold ones and sang old country songs on the Karaoke machine. (I didn’t recognize one song until the Elvis impersonator sang an Elvis song for us – he was quite good.)

We ordered a couple more beers and refused the requests to sing. I wasn’t going to subject those nice people to my awful singing voice.

Towards the end of the night people had drank their courage and were more frequently stepping up to the karaoke machine. On one of the songs Jim started bringing out some instruments he had stowed behind the bar. I played the tambourine while another lady played the spoons on her knee and we rocked the house late into the night.

When we’d had our fill of excitement we said goodnight to our new friends, walked the four yards to our hostel and got some shuteye.

VIDEO OF JIM’S BAR (by Brian J.):

“Baggin’ the Katy Trail – Day 3-4”

– MICHELLE

Baggin’ the Katy Trail – Day 1

bagger – In cycling terms; one who is self-contained, using panniers and other gear carrying bags on their bike to tour for multiple days. See also, bike touring.

Katy Trail, Bike Camping, Missouri
Brian and I go on a 4-day bike camping trip on the Katy Trail in Missouri.

The Katy Trail, the longest Rails-To-Trails project in America (225 miles), is a trail I’ve wanted to ride since hearing about it a couple years ago. It’s one of those things that when you first hear of it, it strikes you in a certain way that piques your interest and is then banked in the back of your mind as “one of those things I have to do in my life.”

September is my birthday month, and who in their right mind would work on their birthday? So of course I had to capitalize on some time off work and make an extended weekend for some adventure. I thought riding the Katy Trail would be the perfect present to myself. I ran the idea by my friend Brian and he was also up for the challenge.

I got planning right away. We would ride most of the trail in four days, bike camping along the way. About a year ago I was at Half Price Books taking a look in the travel section and I ran across “The Complete Katy Trail Guidebook” by Brett Dufur. Although it was published in 1999, I figured it’d still be a good guidebook for future use, and hey, it was cheap!

The first task to planning the trip was figuring out the logistics of getting to where we needed to be. I found the best option was for us to make use of Amtrak. We would park the car at the Kirkwood, Mo Amtrak depot (parking is free for train riders) and take our bikes and gear on the train, head three hours west out to the town of Sedalia, then bike back to the car over four days.

The next task was figuring out how many miles to ride each day and where we would set up camp. Finding a place to stay was a big factor in dictating how many miles we’d be riding. On the Katy Trail you can’t camp anywhere you please, and campgrounds are few and far between. After much research on the web I found a campground at Franklin, a hostel in Tebbetts and another campground in Augusta. Here’s how our adventure went:

Day 1: Sedalia to Franklin (41 miles) Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Amtrak train station in Kirkwood, Mo.

Our bikes taking a train ride to Sedalia, Mo.

To start our journey we drove from Cedar Rapids, IA to the Amtrak station in Kirkwood, Mo to catch the 8:59 a.m. train. The morning was beautiful, sunny and warm, but not too hot. As the 3-car train arrived, we rolled our bikes and gear to the first train car. We hoisted the bikes up the steps and leaned them against the wall of our train car, found our seats and were off.

My ticket to ride – the train with my bike. Train ticket = $23 + bicycle = $33.

After three hours of train riding, we unloaded the bikes, geared up and headed out to find the Katy Trail in Sedalia. We rode through the scenic downtown and with a little directional help from some locals, found our way to the old train depot.

The Katy Trail is well marked. We followed the signs and painted arrows marking the road through some residential streets before getting to the crushed gravel trail that we’d be riding on for about 200 miles.

We were both excited to be starting our journey on the Katy. Today would be a shorter riding day since we spent the morning traveling.

From Sedalia the trail followed some cornfields before leading us into a tree-lined section. After a few miles I noticed how tired I was feeling. I thought it was probably the getting up early that morning and the relaxing train ride that contributed to my fatigue, but soon we figured out it was the slight upward grade of the trail that was making the going tough.

As we continued on heading for Franklin we saw very few riders. There was another couple that were baggin’, too, some solo riders and an older man with a flat tire who we stopped to help.

One thing I love about cycling is that fellow cyclists are so friendly. As Brian pumped air into the man’s tire he told us all about his journey on the Katy, that he was riding for charity and what we should expect up ahead on our journey.

At this point in our first day of riding I was beginning to run low on my water supply. We hadn’t passed through many towns that had amenities and the going was tough, so I was very thankful to have passed by the guy with the flat. We were able to help him out and he had water to spare and filled our bottles up for us. Thank you fellow cyclist!

After the low-water incident the truth was setting in, the Katy Trail would be harder to ride than I’d thought. And for good reason if you take into account the factors we were working with. (No, I’m not going to admit that I was at all out of shape. I truthfully was in decent shape.) For one, the trail is a mix of crushed gravel and dirt, which causes lots of friction. Second, the past few days had brought the area enough rain to saturate the ground – as was evident by the standing water next to the trail – so the ground is a bit mushy and sucks in your bike tire. And third, when the trail is either a 0% or 2% grade there’s no chance to coast on your bike. You literally have to pedal the entire time to keep moving. Not only does this wear on your muscles and energy level, but it also wears on your saddle area.

The first day was full of excitement to get riding on the trail, but also a wake-up call to what lied ahead. This journey would be difficult, but I was still excited and up for the challenge. And from what I’d read, I knew that Missouri wine country was awaiting.

That’s me riding over one of many bridges on the Katy Trail. Brian J. photo.
Brian rides towards the old depot in Boonville, Mo.

Toward the end of our first day we reached the biggest town yet, Boonville. Along the trail at each town there is a green sign showing the name of the town plus a covered kiosk with benches for taking a rest and some maps and information about the area. At Boonville a local rider was taking a break under the kiosk. He was very friendly and directed us to the nearest watering hole. We told him that we were riding most of the trail and that we’d started in Sedalia, 30 miles from the beginning of the trail. He reassured us that we’d made a good choice starting where we did since the stretch between Clinton and Sedalia is the least scenic and rather monotonous. In retrospect, I’m so glad I hadn’t planned to conquer the entire trail in our four days, we were already pushing our bodies’ capabilities as is.

We continued on into Boonville, which took us up a steep hill. It was refreshing to use some different muscles to ride up that hill. We found the downtown at the top where lots of people were wandering around – a lady told us they were having an art festival. We looked around and checked out an Irish bar that only had a few beers on tap, and Guinness only in a can! Really, at an Irish bar? So we crossed the street and found another place that had a few more selections – no Guinness on tap but a Boulevard would have to do. There’s nothing like a cold one after hours in the saddle.

We finished our beers and then asked for directions to the local grocery store to get food for our dinner before heading on to Franklin where we’d be setting up camp. I bought some brats and deviled eggs. I knew the protein would be good for tomorrow’s ride.

View of the Missouri River from a bridge at Boonville.

Heading out of Boonville was a scenic exit as we crossed a long bridge over the Missouri River. One mile more found us in Franklin at the Roundhouse Campground where we’d be setting up camp.

We were the only tent campers at the campground; a few RVs were parked nearby. The campground had bathrooms but they were locked up and one needed a code for the keypad to get in. We had been looking forward to a shower after the day of riding and washing off all the grit and grime that was stuck to our sweat coated skin. Unfortunately, the campground attendants were out for the night and we were unable to get into the showers. It wasn’t until the next morning that we got a call from the owners to give us the code to the bathrooms. This was after a somewhat sleepless night for me.

Packing up camp in Franklin. Brian’s much more modern tent kept him dry all night, my poor excuse for a tent let me down.

I’ll have to explain about my tent. The age of my tent is unknown. It’s a single walled, one-man bathtub bottom tent held up by two poles and four guylines. It was a tent my dad used on his camping trips with his buddies. From the color of it I’d say it’s probably 30 years old or so. It has a few patches in the screen of the door and some duct tape to reinforce the bottom. I tested out the waterproofness of the material at home and it worked fine. It’s also a great size and fit in my panniers nicely.

I’d only used the tent a couple times before this trip. Unfortunately, our first night of camping on the Katy showed my tent’s weakness.

At some point in the night it began to rain, or, I should say downpour. The wind blew and the rain fell most of the night. I woke up around midnight to the feeling of some wetness where the walls met the floor of my tent. I put on my glasses, turned on my headlamp and found I had puddles of water on all sides of me. It appeared that the seams of my tent were failing at being waterproof (I didn’t think to check them during my test). I quickly packed up all my gear into my waterproof panniers, even my sleeping bag, and stayed on my sleeping pad using it as a dry island from the water pooling around me. If I had known the code to the bathhouse I probably would have slept in there. I even got out of my tent and ran over to the bathrooms to see if the overhang from the roof left enough dry ground for me to take shelter under. Unfortunately the wind blew the rain around enough that everything was damp.

So there I was, standing in the rain pondering my options. I remembered seeing a covered kiosk by the main office of the campground, I could try to sleep there. It was a ways away and I probably wouldn’t have gotten much shut-eye from being exposed to the elements. I finally decided to crawl back into my tent and found that my sleeping pad could keep me dry from the pools of water around me. I propped my feet up on one of my panniers to keep them dry and managed to get some sleep.

In the morning I woke up to clearing skies and no rain. Whew! I had managed to stay mostly dry during the night. I asked Brian if he had gotten wet at all during the downpour. If I remember right I think he said, “What downpour? I’m totally dry.” (He was using a REI Chrysalis solo tent.) When I packed up my tent I literally had to lift it up as high as I could to let the water pour out the door before packing it up. I was beginning to think that this might be my tent’s last trip, but I needed it to last me one more night. I hoped for clear skies to come on Sunday night.

“Baggin’ the Katy Trail – Day 2

— MICHELLE

A(nother) new experience on RAGBRAI

Brian (left) and Michelle and all the others on RAGBRAI.

For those of you who have done multiple RAGBRAIs, I wonder if the memories all blend together after a while? Or you do remember a significant aspect of each year?  

I’ve just finished my third, and while sometimes the days roll together, I certainly have major thoughts of each year. The first year was my “virgin” year. The second year was when I accomplished a century ride.  

And the third year was the one where I rode it as a dad.  

Having Keira meant a lot of life adjustments for me and my wife Megan, of course. And I was prepared to alter my cycling and RAGBRAI goals as well. Keira would be too young to take along on RAGBRAI this year, and if the route was too far from Monticello, where we live, I was ready to take it off this year.  

My little Keira

But the cycling gods smiled down on me and brought the expected northern route down toward Waterloo, Manchester and Dubuque–all within manageable driving distance when you’ve got a baby in the car!  

So even though I had to go from four days last year to two this year, I was appreciative of the opportunity and ready to enjoy the experience as much as I could. (VeloDuo partner Michelle also wrote about this year’s RAGBRAI from her point of view; read about it here.) 

WATERLOO TO MANCHESTER  

I joined up with my Whiskey Riders teammates and our friends in Waterloo, and the first big challenge was trying to find their RV. We were told to look for a yellow school bus by Dillard’s department store near the mall. I figured that would be easy enough, but it turned out that there were yellow school buses scattered throughout the parking lot there. (Apparently such buses have become a hot accessory for many RAGBRAI teams.) Still circling the parking area, I phoned Michelle, and asked if she could see the “Gold’s Gym” sign we were underneath, which she did. But she couldn’t explain which we way should go from there, so she rode out to come greet us.  

I pulled my bike Gunnar off the trunk rack of our car, kissed Megan and Keira goodbye and put on my backpack. It was a short ride over to where the RV and our tents were, and I settled in. Our friends Darrell and Vicki had rented an RV, and they were kind enough to bring our gear in their vehicle; we would just camp out in tents near the RV.  

The tent campers were me, Michelle, Michon and Brian (Team Whiskey Riders–we have jerseys this year, thanks to Michelle!); RV inhabitants were Sheralyn, Dana, Vicki, Darrell and Darrell’s parents. (They don’t have a team name, although Darrell told us we should have gotten in touch with him about the jerseys we were getting. Since Michelle was the ringleader on this project, she can take the blame.)  

After hanging out for a bit we tried taking the shuttle toward the main campground, but the buses heading there were all full and going right by us, so we instead got on an outbound bus that was still empty. For several stops, we finally were the ones already on the full bus that had to bypass others waiting for a ride!  

As we got into the main campground area, I looked for HuHot, where my friend Dave was working. But no one on the HuHot staff knew where Dave went — though they presumed it was the beer garden. Oh well. The food was still good and the Beatles’  music by the Fab Four was fun too. We window-shopped the merchandise  tents and called it a night, taking the shuttle back to the RV campground. Our alarms were set for 5 a.m.  

I don’t know how the others slept, but with not having any RAGBRAI miles in my legs yet, I was too full of excitement and energy to sleep easily. It took at least a couple of hours before I could fall asleep, as flashing lights from a police car directing traffic off in the distance bounced off the tent wall. My tent also happened to be splashed by the parking lot lights because it was between RVs, not behind them. (Brian, Michelle and Michon were luckier, sleeping in the shadows of a neighboring RV.)  

Lack of sleep led to a conversation with my backpack.

Thankfully, I had earplugs, which did help me fall asleep. A few hours later, though, I was awake. It was 2:40 a.m. and I was wide awake; at least I got about 3 hours of sleep in. After lying around and unsuccessfully trying to fall back asleep, I took a walk around the parking lot and used a portajohn, since there wasn’t a line. I saw one other person wandering around; it was 3:30. I got back in the tent and tried to fall asleep again, and this time it worked.  

Next thing I knew, my phone’s alarm was going off. Finally, time to get ready to ride, especially with my new jersey, which I deliberately hadn’t worn for a ride yet until now!  The team wore theirs a couple days ago (before I joined them) but now it was my turn !  

After changing and packing up my gear, I was able to successfully pack Michelle’s tent and got ready to roll out, as everyone else was doing this morning.  

On our way out of Waterloo, we went beneath two huge American flags that were stretched over cranes. What a wonderful sendoff! As we continued on, we could see gray clouds in the distance, and soon saw flashes of lightning. I counted each time I saw one, just to see how far away the stormy stuff might be, but those first few times there wasn’t any thunder to be heard, thankfully.  

Waterloo gave us a patriotic sendoff Friday morning.

That started changing, though, as soon we heard low rumbles of thunder that became more powerful as the storm neared. And we also started feeling the rain — a first for me on RAGBRAI. (I’ve ridden in the rain plenty before, though; getting drenched was a regular part of my life as a bike commuter in Seattle for five years.)  

Initially it just seemed to spit at us, but then it turned into steady showers that went away quickly or maybe we pedaled away from them. But the RAGBRAI route was filled with left and right turns that brought us back into the storm. It certainly had us criss-crossing Highway 218 and Interstate 380 several times! Thankfully they were all via overpass and we never had to wait at any intersections. In fact, on those exits for the highways, there were police helping direct traffic. They definitely were a welcome and useful presence.  

Unfortunately, the rain started really making its presence known. We heard plenty of thunder as we waited for pork chops from Mr. Pork Chop (it was so worth the allergic reaction I got because of my pork allergy) and then I took the moment to call Megan and say good morning. It was only about 8:30 a.m. and we’d been on the road nearly 2 hours already!  

One of my last photos, of the scene at Mr. Pork Chop, before the rains came and the camera went away.

I’m glad I called her then, because after that the skies opened up. No phone, no camera for quite a while as I had them packed away in my zip-lock plastic bags. As they stayed dry, I got soaked.  

Soon it was ridiculous how sopping wet we were. The rain was so steady and heavy, you just let it pour down on you and keep on pedaling (as Michelle captured). My biggest problem was that the rainwater was getting into my eyes and irritating them, and I blinked hard and often to squeeze the water out.  

For the most part I stayed warm, but it was when we stopped at towns and waited to regroup that the chills set in. We saw others standing in barns, garages and anything with an overhang so they could dry up, but it was useless for the most part. After getting going again, we soon arrived in Winthrop, where a bonfire along the side of the road had been started. It offered brief warmth as we rode by, and we finally decided to go into Winthrop’s downtown area and to a bar to wait out the rain, which we heard would be ending by noon.  

Michelle and Michon as we waited out the rain in Winthrop.

Turns out the bar was one that Michelle had visited a few RAGBRAIs back, so it was a homecoming of sorts for her. And we warmed up with whiskey shots, of course. After that, time to settle in with some beer and wait out the storm. Soon more riders came in and the bar was nearly packed. On TV was the Weather Channel, so we all could watch the radar, which was showing the rain moving away. And we started seeing glimpses of sunlight outside!  

Finally it was time to head back out. I still felt cold because my jersey hadn’t fully dried out yet, so I tried to use the kitchen garbage bag that I packed in my seat bag. I saw other people riding with garbage bags, so why not me? The answer was, they were wearing full-size garbage bags. I could barely fit into mine, and after trying to rip holes for my arms and head, that bag pretty much became a piece of trash itself. Michelle enjoyed documenting my struggle. So I instead crumpled it and stuck it in the front of my jersey to block the wind, similar to what racers do with newspapers when they descend down mountains.  (I own a wind-proof cycling vest that can pack down small enough into my seatbag; it would have been perfect for this day. Sadly, I forgot to even pack it for my trip.)  

But neither the vest nor the trash bag in my jersey were on my mind at the start of that last leg of the day, from Winthrop to Manchester. Instead, it was my pounding head, from drinking while in Winthrop. (This tends to happen to me, yet I guess I still want my beer.) But I rode on, and I and the rest of the riders faced a tough road ahead.  

The wind was blowing in our faces and the ride seemed like a steady uphill. One positive was that I quickly warmed up enough to get rid of the trash bag layer. A while later I downed an energy gel and energy bar, which I think helped soak up any booze left in my system while also fueling me for the finish.  

When we got into Manchester and the RV, we set up our tents and hung our clothes to dry on a nearby chain-link fence. After some well-deserved relaxing, we set out on our bikes to go into town and look for some dinner. And when you’re a hungry cyclist, the word “buffet” is always promising, especially when it’s connected to “Pizza Ranch”! They were offering an all-day buffet that day for RAGBRAI, so we went for it. The placed was crammed and we were fortunate enough to get seats, but it was hot in there! The staff did a very admirable job of replenishing food, though they had to resort to paper plates, cups and utensils. But hey, they were prepared!  

Relaxing and preparing to set up camp after arriving in Manchester

After passing through downtown Manchester and all its RAGBRAI-related activities, we returned to the RV site and were relaxing when a couple guys stopped by and said they were from Trek. Then one of them pointed to Darrell’s bike and said “I designed that one!” Turns out more than a dozen Trek staffers were doing RAGBRAI and doing a mix of marketing and mingling with whoever they met. It was fun talking bikes with them, and of course we got some shwag!  

After that, Michelle tried to teach me, Brian and Michon how to play euchre. I didn’t catch on, but it was fun to try and I could see enjoying the game more if I played it more.  

Then it was time for bed. I crawled into my tent and despite feeling somewhat awake, must have fallen asleep quickly. I woke up briefly around 1 a.m., and the next thing I knew my phone alarm was going off again at 5. 

MANCHESTER TO DUBUQUE 

After changing and packing up my gear a bit, I headed out to the portajohn, thinking there wouldn’t be too many people there that early. Boy, was I wrong. About a dozen people were ahead of me, but the line moved quickly.  

Once our stuff was packed up and on the RV (all of Brian’s stuff stayed on his 520, of course), it was time to head out of Manchester and east toward Dyersville. As tough as the arrival to Manchester was the day before, departing seemed so easy. Maybe it was because we all just had a good night’s sleep, or maybe it actually was downhill out of town. Regardless, we quickly arrived at Earlville, where we enjoyed biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Then it was on to Dyersville, where we’d be meeting up with our friend Peter, who had spent the last few months in Kentucky as an army drill sergeant but had four days off and came back home so he could ride RAGBRAI.  

It was great seeing him. We enjoyed Bloody Marys together at a local bar before continuing on, and it was in Dyersville that I took one of my favorite pictures of RAGBRAI, of the downtown area with the gorgeous St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.  

Only a week earlier, floods of water had hit Dyersville.

Heading east from Dyersville was a blast, as the true beauty (and hilliness) of Eastern Iowa began to make itself known to all us riders. The roads we were on started to curve to fit the contours of the land, and with no rain in sight, I took out my camera to capture some pics and video of this part of the ride:  

The scenery the beautiful as we headed toward Graf, but it was hard to admire the views because we were rapidly descending.

But I had to put the camera away once the road really started to get steep. The first (literal) sign of this was a posted sign that said “DO NOT DRAFT.” There was a second message there, something about maintaining a safe distance between riders while descending, but I was going so fast that I couldn’t quite remember the words verbatim. (A picture of that sign would have been great to have, but then it would have meant coming to a stop from 30-plus mph when you’re sharing the road with other riders going similar speeds. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, I also would have had to go back up the hill, likely surprising riders screaming down the other direction!)  

But the sign drove the point home, when a few seconds later, the road got even steeper. It’s not often that you’re already flying downhill when you see a hump in the road that blocks your view of what lies beyond. That hump also meant the road got even steeper. So it was time to grip the brake levers a bit tighter while not locking them, which would have caused a disastrous crash. (Brian, of the fully loaded tourer, said his rear brake did lock up momentarily, sending him into a panic.)  

Soon the descent came to an end and we were in Graf, a small town at the bottom of the hills — and the last stop before Potter Hill Road. We all took the opportunity to fuel up for the climb, and I downed another energy gel packet to go with the ones I’d been taking in earlier in the day. We weren’t sure what to expect; Michon said she overheard that there was a bottleneck and that everyone had to get off their bikes and walk up because of it!  

The ride to the start of Potter Hill seemed almost like a death march; everyone knew what was coming and was trying to psyche themselves up for some hurting. To our right, we could see the long, slow parade of riders near the top of the hill.  

Then we turned right.  

Potter Hill Road.

Potter Hill started out steadily uphill and straight, and this was where most people were still able to pedal. But then the road curved to the right and got steeper. I switched down to my lowest gear and tried to settle into a steady pedaling rhythm. A woman riding a bike with a crate in back of it with a large speaker was blaring pulsing music, which served as good inspiration. But then she got off her bike and started walking! And so I slowly rode away from her, the fading music being replaced by clomp-clomp of bicycle-shoe cleats worn by the walkers on my right, and the heavy breathing of riders who could still power their bicycles up the hill faster than me on my left. 

Soon all I could hear was my own heavy breathing as I focused on keeping my pedals turning and my bike upright; at times I had to weave a little bit to make the climb easier. Soon I was panting; I don’t know how loud it was, but it seemed to be the only way I could take in enough oxygen to keep the effort going. Hopefully I wasn’t the only one making all the noise!  

I remember glancing to the right and seeing the valley floor that was now far below. To the left were a couple people who set up chairs in the ditch next to the road so they had a front-row seat to watch the sufferfest.  

Then I started hearing people cheering on those of us who were still trying to ride to the top. The people who were walking to the top, others who were standing on the side of the road…their collective cheers became a din of encouragement that made the effort just a little easier. And as I got toward the top, the steepness eased a bit and my pedaling went from repeated stomping back to more of a circling motion. It was the home stretch!  

Brian and Michelle at the top of Potter Hill Road.

A man at the top of the hill said to keep going a little further instead of stopping there so that there would still be enough room for riders to get by. At this point, pedaling a level surface or even a little bit uphill seemed so easy. I saw Brian at the side of the road but had to keep going, as I was stuck in a moving wave of riders, and eventually found a place to stop, rest and wait for the others.  

Soon Michelle and Brian came by and I joined up with them until we found some much-needed shade where we could wait for Michon, who had to stop when the rider in front of her stopped and she had nowhere else to go. After some well-earned rest, it was time to keep moving. Megan was going to pick us up and so we had a schedule to follow. (We had been doing fine until the lengthy Bloody Mary stop in Dyersville, but it was worth it!)  

Potter Hill was the one everybody was talking about, but there were plenty other hills.

Whoever said Potter Hill Road was the only major climb of the day was lying. There were still plenty of hills as we continued toward Dubuque, and even more once we got into Dubuque.  

Soon the farmland gave way to outlying development, which gave way to industrial parks and neighborhoods. It was somewhere around here that we ran into the Livestrong team, and I got cut off from Brian, Michelle and Michon.  

The Livestrong team, which is connected to Lance Armstrong’s charity,  rides for a very noble cause. But there seemed to be a couple hundred of them riding in one swarm, and they took up a lot of the road. I got separated from the rest of my team, and assumed they were continuing on. I stopped to text Megan of our ETA to downtown Dubuque, and then tried to catch up to apparently no one.  

After several miles of riding on my own and wondering if I went just a bit faster I’d catch up to them, I gave up and pulled over. I was getting ready to text Michelle and ask where she was, when my phone rang — it was her, asking me of my whereabouts. And I already had a text from her, “Where r u?”  

Turns out I was way ahead of them, and they had stopped to let the Livestrong team go by and ended up taking a break. So I stopped where I was and waited about 10 minutes until they showed up. I didn’t think I’d be so relieved! Probably it was because we were pretty close to the end, and that’s when you want to arrive at the finish together as a team. So from this point on, we stuck together.  

After a few more rolling hills, we finally reached the big drop toward downtown and the waterfront. And this was another steep descent that had Brian worried, but he made it, as did the rest of us. (How heavy was his bike? I tried to lift it but couldn’t.)  

Now it was a glorious ride through downtown and around the clock tower toward the waterfront. I got my camera out again to capture the final videos and images of our adventure.  

Breaking the law in Dubuque.

The line to dip our tires was super-long, of course, so we rode to a nearby deck where we could pose with the water and bridge behind us. Then it was off to meet up with Megan for the drive back home.  

Michelle, Brian, me and Michon at the Mississippi!

It was bittersweet for me; my third RAGBRAI was a great time and it was sad to have it come to an end, but yet I was so was happy to see Megan and Keira again!  

Planning for next year’s RAGBRAI has already begun. By then Keira will be plenty old enough to ride in the bike trailer we’ve bought, and I plan on taking her along for the ride. And I know Megan misses me plenty when I’m gone; knowing Keira won’t be around either because she’s with me, well, that might be just enough incentive for Megan to join our team!  

Hey, Michelle, you gonna order some more jerseys? I think we’ll need a few more too….

-DAVE