Day 08: Granby, QC to Island Brook, QC

September 13th, 2016

60.9 mi / 5:37:21 time / 10.8 mph avg. / 3649 ft. climbing
Staying at Auberge La Charmille

I’m always behind Rett when we ride, since she’s still not comfortable riding with someone blocking her view. So she sets the pace, and I follow along.

Up until today, I’ve been going at something like 80% effort to keep up with her. That told me that she was in excellent cycling shape, and though she was frightened by the planned quantity and type of climbing over the next two days that she’d never experienced before, I could extrapolate from my experience and knew that it would be difficult for her, but well within her current abilities. 

After a couple of days of her dreading today, I finally convinced her to put her fears aside, and I think she entered the day with some confidence.  Unfortunately, the ride told us that I’d made a grave error in my extrapolation. The ride was much harder for her than I expected it to be, while my own relative effort level to keep up with her was reduced, compared to her near-constant struggle. The 80% rule seems to fail in the mountains. 

The most frustrating part is that I’m still not sure how I miscalculated so badly, so that means that I don’t know what to try to make it easier. She now has low enough gears to spin up all but the craziest of hills, and the 5-6% grades that constituted most of today’s big climbs were still within her aerobic range. She’s climbed a lot of hills in that range before, but not at the length of these. There is just no way to practice 300 foot climbs around Chicago. So that’s my only clue to work with. 

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t good stuff tucked been the hills. Beautiful hilly farms, woods, and more of those mountains rising from the plain. 

Corn in one field, and a Christmas tree farm in the next. The contrast between this rural area of Quebec with the nearby rural areas of northern New York is remarkable. I don’t think we’ve seen a single abandoned house or decaying car, and most of the farmhouses are beautiful and well-kept. 

And for the first time Rett tried listening to music from her phone’s speaker strapped to her arm (no headphones), and I think that helped at least a bit. 

The most exciting moment was when we were pulled over by a cop! The motorcycle officer in the big city of Sherbrooke lit us up and turned around to stop us, ostensibly because we had shifted to the left lane to early in order to make a left turn. That was nonsense, since we would have had no opportunity to merge left had we waited any longer, but no matter, since Rett brilliantly played the “sorry officer, we’re kind of lost!” blonde-girl card. At which point he immediately changed tone and happily started giving bad directions (“just go down some stairs to get to the bike path”?!?) which we smiled and nodded and thanked him for, and then promptly ignored. Figures I’d have to go to Canada to have my first police encounter on a bike; too bad it wasn’t a Mountie on a flesh-and-blood horse! 

We ended the day as planned at Auberge La Charmille, a beautiful bed & breakfast a bit in the middle of nowhere, but a perfect location for our route. Despite my horrible miscalculation, I had at least figured from the initial planning stages that a roof and a jacuzzi and a bed would be appreciated by Rett after such a ride. There was also a kitchen for us to make fancy grilled-cheese sandwiches for dinner, a very good doggie, and nice bike accommodations. For our efforts on the road, we even scored a free room upgrade, to spacious and beautiful multi-room suite!  We enjoyed an Asti Spumante in the hot tub, and a La Fin du Monde beer with dinner (both lugged up the hills from the last town). Rett fell asleep at 9pm, and after a brief awakening, was then out like a rock for the rest of the night. 

And despite the struggle, I must note that our average speed for the day ended up being faster than all but one day on our last tour, a 14-day tour where the total amount of climbing (10261 ft.) would be exceeded by a mere 3 days like this. She’s really more incredible than she realizes. 

Day 07: Montreal, QC to Granby, QC

September 12th, 2016

59.5 mi / 4:42:46 time / 12.6 mph avg. / 1102 ft. climbing
Staying at Camping Riviere du Passant 

After a good rest in Montreal, it was time to head east across southern Quebec. We headed for the big bridge over the St. Lawrence (though not before stopping for a last Montreal meal at a creperie), and as usual, it had complete bicycle facilities in a separated lane with separate access points. As we rode up the giant span, the morning sun shone through the bars of the suicide fence curving above our heads, and created a crazy strobe-light effect to our eyes as the sun would be briefly shaded and unshaded at something like a 100Hz oscillation. It felt like it would have given me a horrible headache if I hadn’t been able to move over a bit into the oncoming lane and out of the shadow. Beyond that, I thought the bridge was awesome, and probably the easiest big-city, big-river bridge I’ve ever rode over. 

Rett, on the other hand, hated it, I think mostly for the frequent speed barriers (meant to slow cyclists bombing down the slopes) that she had to walk her bike through. I felt bad because as amazing as Rett’s progress has been at learning how to ride a bike, there are just some things that most “native” cyclists can do that just don’t feel natural to her, and I think that simply doing an hour long practice session would go a long way towards expanding her skills. But somehow we never find the time, and obviously the middle of a towering bridge was not a place to learn.

The region-wide bicycle facilities continued even on the much more suburban eastern side of the river, including many bike lanes, off-street bike paths, and an awesome “bicycle spiral staircase” for getting us up to a bridge crossing a major highway. 

Along one of the paths, a woman asked us if we needed help while we were stopped looking at my maps, but beyond that, I might have to revoke the “Friendly Canadian” stereotype, at least for cyclists. Not that anyone was unfriendly, but we seem to receive almost no “bonjour”s,”hello”s, waves, or even glances of recognition from cyclists passing the other way on the path. And it can’t be because couples on fully-loaded bikes are old-hat to them, since we haven’t seen a single other like us this whole trip. It’s very unusual. 

Tree-covered mountains began rising up from the plain, like piles of poop that God’s dog dropped as they walked the earth, when God forgot to bring enough plastic bags. Luckily the roads mostly skirt around them (and they don’t smell). 

Until we reached the campground tonight, no one we spoke to outside of Montreal spoke English, which definitely makes it feel like we’re touring a foreign country. It meant that instead of one cheeseburger with everything on it,  and one with everything but tomato, we instead got one with everything but tomato and one with *only* tomato. Oh well! But we got the poutine order right, that’s easy! 

We headed for a private campground a bit further than my original plan to camp at a national park, in order to shorten the difficulty of tomorrow’s big ride. When we got there, the girl in the office said they were closed (for the night), and had we tried the national park (now 5 miles behind us)? Luckily, unlike at the Cook County campground, she quickly turned around an figured out how to let us pay for a site without their computer on. 

We even got a riverside site, on a rocky, babbling stream, making us 5-for-5 in camping on the water! Of course I promptly fell in the river and cut up my hand trying to cross it over the rocks. Which was actually somewhat concerning (not the hand), because the night was already setting up to be cool and dewey, and wet clothes and shoes wouldn’t help! 

Even more exciting than falling in the river was that there was another touring cyclist staying a couple sites over!  France (a person, not a country) is a solo woman last from Vancouver, but who had been working her way from Amsterdam for some time. When she proudly offered her age (70), both Rett and I were shocked. We had an excellent dinner-delaying conversation where we talked about the goodness of people, learned that it is still possible to expand and change yourself late in life, and essentially agreed that bike touring is awesome.

Day 06: Montreal 

September 11th, 2016

Staying at The Tree Fort AirBNB

We both loved Montreal. I can’t say I’ve ever heard bad things about the city, but I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more people raving about it. 

It has great public art all over its walls. 

It has lively public spaces. 

It has more bicycle density and use than any city I’ve seen outside of the Netherlands. The next time I hear some fat guy whine “Chicago shouldn’t waste tax money here on all this infrastructure for bikers who will ride only a few months in the summer anyway!” my response will be “um… Montreal?” 

It has great live music. Well, theoretically, at least. There was a jazz club/art space in the basement of the old building we stayed in that’s so cool it’s only open on Friday nights (we were there Saturday, boo hoo). The local music we did incongrulously see was a country band, The Firemen (excellent) and a rockabilly band,  Emma Williams and the Ramblin Men (alright), playing at a bar we were planning on stopping in anyway. 

It has a giant hill and huge forested park right in the middle of the city, just steps south of the lively Plateau district where we stayed, and just east of downtown where we walked through next. 

It has a giant National Park-like building at the top of that hill, that prominently features squirrels. 

It has a waterfront on the other side of that downtown. 

It has construction projects everywhere.

But despite all the new, it has an old town that could have been plucked straight from a city in Europe. 

It has Bixi, a bike share system that brought us back to our rental after 8 miles of walking around the city (but it’s surprising that the bikes have the same gearing as Chicago’s Divvy, given all the crazy hills in Montreal.) 

It has a cool AirBNB rental they named The Tree Fort where we had the good sense to actually spend a couple hours relaxing on our “day off” after walking and riding all around the city and up and down mountains. 

And finally, it had us, in both non-sexual senses of the phrase. 

(Rett is absolutely thrilled to have sandal tanlines. Thrilled, I  say. Too bad the poor girl still has miles to go to match my stupendous contrast!) 

Day 05: Lancaster, ON to Montreal, QC

September 10th, 2016

62.5 mi / 5:04:55 time / 12.3 mph avg. / 434 ft. climbing
Staying at The Tree House AirBNB

We couldn’t see any incredible sunset last night since the miles-wide river had switched from our west side to our east side, boo!  Oh, but wait, that meant we could see an incredible sunrise instead over our morning coffee and cream cheese-iced cinnamon rolls. Fair trade! We were up early enough to see it because we had a longish day and wanted to beat the chances of afternoon rain in the forecast. 

Yesterday just after we came off the bridge into Canada, we stopped briefly to check for directions for a grocery store. A guy saw us, came over and offered actually-helpful directions. Then this morning, as we stopped on the side of the road to verify the location of the restaurant we were heading for, a woman walked up and asked in French what we were looking for (or at least I assumed!) Even though she didn’t speak English, she still tried to help,  and successfully communicated the location of a different restaurant for us to go to. These were our first two such encounters of the whole trip, so apparently the “Friendly Canadian” is more than just a stereotype! 

We might start needing to push the “Drunk Canadian” stereotype a bit more though, since the two other parties in the place were both drinking beer at 9:30 in the morning! We just had coffee ourselves, and a good breakfast while inferring some new French words on the menu.  

We got some lunch at the cute touristy riverside hamlet of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellvue, where we quickly took care of some Quebec requirements: Unibroue beer, and poutine.

Before breakfast we were on an empty highway frontage road with a wide shoulder/bike lane, and after we picked up a bike trail running along an old canal. After a couple of bridges we hit the outskirts of Montreal, where we were on a riverfront road with more bicycles than cars (it was almost the exact equivalent of Sheridan Road on Chicago’s North Shore). And then back onto a canal bike path through the heart of Montreal (the equivalent of Chicago’s Lakefront Path), where we saw increasing numbers of Bixi rental bikes (the equivalent of Chicago’s Divvy bikes) as we neared the center. 

But forget Chicago. I’ve been to Portland, Oregon many times, and I’m pretty confident in stating that Montreal beats it as the most bike-friendly and bike-focused city in North America. The only reason we even routed up north through Canada to get to Maine was because Google Maps suggested it, and I’m pretty sure that Google Maps suggested it because of all the excellent bicycle facilities that fill the entire region. 

Now if only they could get some of those facilities smoothed out. The river road south of Montreal was particularly brutal with the cracks and bumps, and the jarring took quite a bit of fun out of the ride. Also the strong crosswind was wearing on us, but since it was the first non-tailwind we’ve had since the first day, we couldn’t complain too much. A couple of young couples on the Montreal canal path said something in French to which I replied “sorry I don’t understand but I assume it was positive!”, and they confirmed in English that it was, and invited us to a nearby brewpub they were heading for. That interaction lifted our spirits quite a bit for the final stretch, though sadly we decided to skip the brewpub (of course mobbed with bicycles when we passed), since we wanted to make it to our accommodations before the rain got to us. 

We succeeded, arriving at our AirBNB rental, a huge quirky loft space in the Plateau district. We’re both excited to explore this city, sleep in a bed, and enjoy a day off!  

Day 04: Waddington, NY to Lancaster, Ontario

September 9th, 2016

45.7 mi / 3:18:59 time / 13.8 mph avg. / 658 ft. climbing
Staying at Glengarry Campground 

This morning was a fine improvement over the previous. We were able to sleep without the rainfly on the tent, slept in “late” til 7am, and woke to a beautiful, clear morning. 

Today was planned as one of the shortest days of the trip, mostly because I figured we might need something easy after three relatively tough days, but partly because we had an international border to cross. So it was nice to be able to slowly work our way out of camp and onto the road. 

Some jerks the other day had scared Rett with tales of people they knew getting denied entry into Canada, so suddenly that was an added concern. I figured living so close to the border, they’re simply aware of far more crossing experiences, and thus disproportionately remember the still-exceedingly-rare denials, and repeat horror stories about them to poor tourists. 

But those jerks also made me check the web to reconfirm that we could bike across our intended bridge, since they were skeptical about that too. A website about bike touring in the region confirmed it was rideable, and critically added “beware of the expansion joints!” 

The first couple of expansion joints we passed on the climb up the bridge were like tightly meshed steel teeth clenched together, so no big deal. But the third one was more like giant steel fingers, and very loosely meshed, with the giant gaps between them perfect for swallowing our tires. So we had to stop in the middle of the two-lane bridge, walk our bikes across the joint, and even then my rear tire still dropped anus-clenchingly into the gap before I could drag it out. And the next joint was the same deal, but also actively screaming as the bridge expanded under the midday sun. After that we rode safely down the other side, but it could have been a lot worse for us if I hadn’t seen that warning. So sorry, no pictures, but the view was nice up there! 

The actual border crossing was then the easy part. Unlike on the way to Niagara Falls where we went through at a regular booth, here cyclists walk into an air conditioned building where a friendly agent asked the basic questions, told us to sit for a minute while he ran whatever magic database scans they run, and sent us on our way. 

And we were through! Canada! 

So while the border crossing was quite efficient, it was the previous and next steps that burned a lot of time and made me thankful for the short day. Before crossing I had to call Capital One to figure out how to get my never-used debit card working (since it has no foreign transaction fees!). Then after the crossing we had to find an ATM to actually get cash, figure out the alcohol situation in Ontario (wine sold only in government shops), get groceries, and finally continue along our way. It was a bit frustrating for Rett that even on our “easy” day we didn’t make it to camp too much earlier than normal, but I find that somehow bike touring days just expand to fill the available time. 

We had been in Canada at Niagara Falls on our last tour, but I realized we had not really ridden anywhere in Canada until now. Is there right on red? What does that flashing green light mean? What’s the km to miles conversion? Still don’t really know, but I guess riding a bike is basic enough that there isn’t too much we really need to know. For half a day we would be in Anglophone Ontario before crossing into the distinctly more French province of Quebec, and I think it was nice to have that transition zone. 

We got our fourth waterfront campsite in four nights, this one on the opposite side of the St. Lawrence River, where we could see the Adirondack Mountains rising up in the distance back in the USA. Not only is sleeping four nights in a row outside of a house a likely record for Rett, but it’s also equal to the total number of nights we camped on our last tour. Some practical things like a better tent, a more-comfortable sleeping pad, and coffee in the morning have helped make that possible, but mostly it’s the result of Rett’s lack of pain and exhaustion compared to the last tour. 

And that’s great, because, man, I sure love camping (ok, and it’s great that Rett isn’t in pain and exhausted too!) Being able to get such prime campsites each night has made it even better, but I would have loved even the “bad” sites in these parks. Though I could tell I’d already gotten spoiled, as the Friday night “crowds” of weekend campers started to annoy me a bit, even though the park was still 80% empty and no one was set up within 75 yards of us. First-world camping-problems! 

Day 03: Alexandria Bay, NY to Waddington, NY

September 8th, 2016

56.6 mi / 4:07:18 time / 13.7 mph avg. / 945 ft. climbing
Staying at Coles Creek State Park

It wasn’t the most pleasant night, with multiple rounds of rain making sleeping difficult, and the concrete tent pad did no favors to side-sleeping Rett’s hips. In the morning it had stopped, but we were still packing up a wet tent. As we drank our coffee, a giant Great Lakes freighter slid by, disconcertingly silent as it created a wake that would only reach our shore once it had left our sight. 

The evil critter to watch out for here is not the raccoon, but the squirrel. In a short time absent from our picnic table, one managed to chew through a ziploc bag and both sides of a bag of Rett’s peanut butter M&Ms. At least he ignored the much less-protected coconut macaroon! 

The terrain continued to get even more rocky, to the point where the road builders kindly started carving out canyons for us to ride through. As much mapping and Google StreetViewing as I do, I had no idea we’d be seeing this type of landscape, and it’s one of the things that makes it feel like we’ve reached somewhere “different”. 

We passed one of many run-down rural properties where the weeds sheltered a variety of automobiles demonstrating the various stages of decomposition. I sagely hypothesized that with land in such low demand here, it was simply more economical to leave a car on your land than to dispose of it elsewhere. And then reality kicked my hypothesis to the curb when it presented one of the many self-storage businesses we’ve seen in the area. Who is using these places? And why? It’s not like anyone is squeezed into a high-rise studio apartment around here! As usual, when traveling with most everything you need strapped to your bike, such excess is baffling. 

We stopped for an early lunch at The Dirty Gringo in Ogdensburg, which has a Walmart, making it easily the biggest town we’ve been in since Skaneateles. Our counter order was taking a long time to be delivered to our table, but we didn’t care much since we were busy using their wifi and charging our devices anyway. I even thought they might have been prioritizing their “regulars”, border patrolman and local police over obvious tourists. When I finally enquired, it turns out our order had just been lost in the shuffle. No big deal. But after it came out, the manager/owner came over and apologized, and comped our entire meal!  I even protested a bit, since it really wasn’t a big deal for us, but he insisted, saying that’s the only way he knows how to run a business. So it was actually the opposite of my suspicion, we got a better deal than the cops! Then when we tasted our food, it became even more obvious why the place was so busy; it was the best meal either of us had had so far. 

We raced and luckily dodged rain much of the way, but a light rain finally caught us just before Waddington. Since the bar we intended to use to wait out the last of the rain system had closed down last year, we instead basically spent an hour hanging out and getting a cheese, cracker, soup, and broccoli dinner (and dessert!) at the IGA grocery. And thanks to phone-accessible radar, by that time I could confidently say we wouldn’t have to endure a second night of wet camping, so Rett was fully on-board. 

We got our 3rd lakefront (oops, it’s actually a river!) site in an almost empty campground. Some crazy winds dried out the wet tent while we got wet with a swim (aka shower) in the lake (er, river!) 

I figured our sunset over Lake Ontario the first night couldn’t be beat, but wow, the sun showing us the direction into Canada tomorrow sure proved that wrong. 

Day 02: Jefferson Park, NY to Alexandria Bay, NY

September 7th, 2016

57.4 mi / 4:22:40 time / 13.1 mph avg. / 1209 ft. climbing
Staying at Kring Point State Park

We got the morning started off right with Aeropress coffee and apple cider donuts from an apple orchard we stopped at the day before. And then, catastrophe! As I went to pay for our campsite on the way out of the park, my wallet was missing fromy handlebar bag! Dammit, I’d been too lax and trusting of other campers! I’d already lost a wallet once on a tour, so I knew it was survivable, but it’s really the last thing we needed. 

So I took a moment to breathe, and then remembered: had I actually outsmarted myself and been more proactive than I thought about security? I dug out my clothing bag and began emptying it right there on the campground road, and yes, there it was, where I had thrown it yesterday when we were going to be away from our tent for a few minutes. Turn off the alarms and let the heart rate go back down. Apparently someone decided the coffee hadn’t been sufficient to wake us up! 

We’d learned yesterday that we’re traveling through a surprisingly unpopulated area when it took us way longer than we wanted to find an open place for lunch (the switch to off-season hours doesn’t help either). So 20 miles in when we saw a gas station Subway, I made the call to stop. The decision was confirmed when a couple of guys who we’d talked with at yesterday’s lunch spot walked in. I guess the food spots really are that rare! 

A little further on, we dropped off the main highway onto a local road to meet our traveling companion for the next few days: the St. Lawrence River. We’re both going northeast, though us not quite as far. As the drainage path for all the Great Lakes to the North Atlantic Ocean, it was already as wide as many lakes are. Summer homes lined the shore, and on the other side: Canada! 

In Dexter we stopped at the grocery store to pick up provisions to make sandwiches for lunch and dinner. I’m more used to “roughing it” with food than Rett, so it was so nice to have her driving this, as we now share a goal to make bike touring affordable enough to do it long-term someday. 

Off on another beautiful local farm road in Amish country, our planned route turned to gravel. I started planning a detour on paved roads, but Rett seemed open to adventure, so we took the gravel, with Rett walking up and down the steep hills. Soon we came to a house with a slightly bewildered Amish woman and her dog, wondering why two English with bicycles were coming up her driveway. She confirmed that the road did not go through, seemed to indicate we weren’t the first who were misled by the maps, and kindly asked if there was anything else she could help us with. Oh well, it was a nice little experience and didn’t waste too much time and energy. I’ll try to remember to update Google Maps when the tour is over! 

We stopped at a gazebo in LaFargeville for lunch, and also to figure out my rear wheel. Upon inspection, several spokes on the non-drive side had come completely loose! Argh. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted the machine-built wheels that came with my new bike, but since they’ve seemed fine on Rett’s bike, I figured I could trust them at least as much as my own nascent wheel-building skills. Apparently not, since the front wheels I built for both of us seem perfectly fine (so far!) At least now I know a bit more about wheel-truing and brought along all the tools in case my own work went bad, so I tightened the spokes up as evenly as I could, and it seems alright for the moment. It’s definitely a big concern though and I have to keep an eye on it. 
Out of LaFargeville we took a local road that suddenly turned to gravel. As far as Rett has come, she’s fairly terrified of gravel still, so although she didn’t want to backtrack, she had to be coaxed into riding rather than walking the mile to the next road. After a couple of tries riding, she gave up and walked, in the meantime proving that she could safely come to a controlled stop, which I figure will help build her confidence and make her less-terrified in the future. I let her walk ahead as I checked the directions, and as I rode to catch up, discovered that it was actually a pretty terrifying road, much worse than it appeared. Sandy, loose gravel, washboarded, I could barely ride as fast as she walked. So then felt bad that I had tried to use such a dangerous road as a learning experience. 

And more, I felt mad that my poor routing had made the day longer and more difficult than it needed to be. Rett noticed my sulking and made it clear that I should suck it up, quit beating myself up, and accept that such mistakes will happen from time to time. If it didn’t bother her (and it didn’t, except when I was pushing her to ride rather than walk), then it shouldn’t bother me. That’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but I’m working hard at it. I’m just so committed to making this tour easier for her than the last one that I forget how much easier she’s already made it for herself. 

The geology began changing as we approached Kring Point State Park. Lots of flat, exposed bedrock in place of soil, and it brought with it the mixed pine forest that can survive in such terrain. 

The park itself is one of the most unique state park locations I’ve ever seen. The same rocky land formed a narrow peninsula along the flow of the St. Lawrence, with the river on one side and a bay less than 100 yards away (and often less) on the other. We got a walk-in, waterfront site, set up our tent on the concrete pad (too sloped and hard to pitch a tent anywhere else), and put our six pack of hard cider in our riverside cooler. 

There is a densely wooded private island a literal stone’s throw further into the river with a house only slightly smaller than the rock it sits on. What a unique place! 

With the help of some neighbors and their firestarter and paper (lots of paper might be the key!), we even got a nice fire going. Unfortunately the good day ended early as rain came in and we had to hole up in the hot tent earlier than planned. 

Day 01: Skaneateles, NY to Jefferson Park, NY

September 6th, 2016

67.1 mi / 5:02:39 time / 13.3 mph avg. / 1986 ft. climbing
Staying at Southwick Beach State Park

I’ve ended a lot of bike tours with a vacation/destination, but I’ve never started with one before. I’d say I highly recommend it! The five days spent at Rett’s dad’s in Skaneateles were filled with the usual wonderful food (sweet corn straight from the garden!), family and friends (Rett’s sister Sophie, her brother Luke, his partner Andrea, and even my friend Dan made for a full and fun house), backyard frisbee, backyard fireworks (pro-level quality provided once again by Dan), actual pro fireworks (at the Skaneateles Field Days Labor Day celebration), and most importantly, relaxation. 

Only Ken and Sophie were left to see us off this morning, but that was another nice symmetry, since they were the ones to greet us when we arrived at the end of our last tour. 

The first part of the ride, to Baldwinsville, was familiar since we had done it a couple years previously. Rett largely knew the way on her own, which meant she knew we would be hitting the 10% grade she and her mom could sometimes not make it up in the car in the winter on their way to Baldwinsville high school. This was her first big test of her most-loaded bike so far (35 lb. bike + 40 lb. load), and she kicked its ass. 

18 miles in we stopped at the B’Ville diner for her beloved rice pudding. 

From there we were onto pretty country roads with a lot of up and downs, but everything manageable. We passed through Phoenix, and obviously after that, Mexico, where we took advantage of a McDonalds’ bathroom and WiFi. 

By the time we arrived at our destination, Rett was wondering why she was as tired as she was. It’s probably because, when combining distance, load, hills, and wind, it was one of the two or three most energy-intensive rides she’s ever done. What was amazing was that on the whole she had felt good enough that she was barely even aware of that fact. 

To show how far she’s come in the last two years, the longest ride we did on our last tour was three miles shorter than this one. We had tailwinds that whole day, which also made it our fastest ride, at 11.0mph. And it was mostly flat.

Today, with a lot more hills, mostly light cross- or headwinds, and a longer distance, Rett banged out this ride at 13.3mph, 21% faster than her fastest ride of our last tour! I’m so proud of her for her massive improvement, and so is she! 

We got a sandy campsite just across a small dune from the Lake Ontario beach. It’s one of the nicest beaches we’ve ever been on: miles of sand that extends way out into the water. 100 yards out we were still only up to our waists. We spent a while screwing around out there together, which was my favorite part of the excellent day. 

Since the park is in its off season, a lot is shut down and we weren’t able to get any firewood. But a nice woman with sons who hike was trying to help us out in some way with our limited carrying capacity, and ended up giving us three Luna bars. Just don’t let her know that we had enough capacity to carry a bottle of wine the last 20 miles to camp!  Which we enjoyed with our gnocchi and pesto dinner after watching the sun set. Day one (our longest planned ride) complete! 

2016 Tour Preview: Bikes

September 5th, 2016

When we started planning this tour, Rett began asking about various upgrades to her bike, camping and travel gear. My instinctual reaction was to find things that would be cheap and economical since we didn’t know if she’d get sufficient value from higher-end gear. Then I realized that I was still using the same mindset from Rett’s first bike tour, when we had no idea if she would actually like bike touring (or even bike riding!) Now that we’ve firmly established that she loves both, I needed to remember that spending to get the good stuff was probably a safe bet. 

With that in mind, here are the changes we made to her bike since our first tour:

  • New gears: replaced the too-high stock crank with a 44/34/22, to make it easier to get up those hills when loaded (kept the existing 11-32 8-speed cassette). Now she can keep spinning at her normal 90+ cadence up some pretty steep hills. 
  • New tires: Schwalbe Marathon Supremes (700x37C). The first time a guy ever got his girlfriend tires for her birthday and she actually *liked* the gift! They succeeded at our goal of nearly eliminating the frequent flats she was getting on her stock Specialized Nimbus tires, but as an unplanned bonus, their lighter weight and lower rolling resistance have probably been a significant factor in her dramatic speed increase in 2016.
  • New front panniers: Arkel B26. Last tour she had 2 rear panniers and a handlebar bag, but for more carrying capacity and a better-balanced load, the desire for front panniers was one of her first requests after tour #1.
  • Custom-sewn hot-pink rain covers to match those from her other panniers (though they’ll need to catch up on UV rays to truly match!) 
  • Tubus Tara front rack to hold those panniers
  • ESGE/Pletscher dual-leg kickstand to keep the bike nicely propped up with all that new weight on it. 
  • Brooks B17 leather saddle: her stock saddle had worked surprisingly well for her, but after doing some longer back-to-back rides, she decided she wanted to upgrade to the bike tourer’s standard. For the first couple weeks we weren’t sure if it was actually an upgrade, but then it started doing it’s magical molding to the rider’s rear end and she decided it’s a keeper. 
  • Schmidt SON 28 generator hub: a hand-me-down from my old bike, since my new touring bike has disc brakes and isn’t compatible with the old hub. 
  • Hand-built front wheel with 36-spoke Mavic T519 rim, Schmidt hub, and double-butted spokes. My first attempt at wheel-building! It was easier than I expected (I just followed Jobst Brandt’s excellent bible, The Bicycle Wheel). This tour will reveal if that was just naivete on my part though! (but a couple hundred loaded miles in training have revealed no issues). 
  • Headlight/phone charger: Busch & Muller Luxos U. Generator-powered, so it’s always available, and can charge a phone with Rett’s human power! 

  • Ritchey adjustable stem to raise her handlebars higher. 
  • New hot pink Selle Smootape Controllo handlebar tape to replace the worn and dirty Specialized tape (took a couple tries to find the right color since Specialized stopped making theirs.) 
  • New photo of Pip on her Stem cap. 

  • New chain as a standard maintenance replacement after a load of miles. 
  • Black brake noodles to replace the rusty, non-matching silver ones. 

And while Rett’s bike got a large number of upgrades, mine got the ultimate upgrade: an entirely new bike! My Cannondale T800 had served admirably over thirteen years, tens of thousands of miles, and seven bike tours, but the squealing cantilever brakes had worn the rims thin, and I wasn’t going to get a new wheelset only to subject them to the same noisy, brutish, primitive destruction.

So I replaced it with a Specialized AWOL with mechanical disc brakes. Almost all touring bike manufacturers offer disc brakes these days, so I take that to mean the technology is sufficiently mature and reliable for cross-country travel. 

Of course I still had plenty of work to do to turn it into a true touring bike. I originally planned to buy just the frameset and build it up from scratch, but there were no framesets available until the 2017 model year, so I needed to order the base model complete bike and replace what didn’t work for me:

  • Replaced the way-too-big road-bike 50/39/30 crank with a super-compact Shimano Alivio 40/32/22 mountain crank (with a chain guard!) I can still propel the bike at more than 25mph with that 40-tooth big gear, so I have absolutely no need for anything bigger. 
  • Replaced the Shimano Sora STI shifters with Gevenalle CX shifters: One of the biggest challenges of touring bike construction is to merge the multiple hand positions offered by “road bike” drop handlebars with the low hill-climbing gearing offered by “mountain bike” gears, because “road” shifters tend to be stupidly incompatible with “mountain” gears. Many manufacturers (such as Specialized with this bike, and Cannondale with my last bike) simply give up, and use both “road” integrated shifters/brakes (STI)  and “road” gears, resulting in a bike that will be unable to carry your load up a steep hill. Others use bar-end shifters, which are inexpensive, bomb-proof, and “mountain” compatible, but put the shifters somewhat distant from your natural hand position on top of the brake hoods. I love to shift constantly, and climb big hills, so neither of those solutions work for me. Enter Gevenalle, a small company that grafts downtube shifters (close relatives of bar-end shifters) onto standard road brake levers. I had no idea how well they’d work for me and they’re nothing I could try out in a store, but man, they’re one of my favorite things I’ve ever gotten for my bike. They’re even easier to shift constantly than STI shifters, have reliably simple design and setup, and rock-solid manufacturing. I think it would be a really smart move for a touring bike manufacturer to spec them as a standard part on one of their models. 
  • Black V-brake noodles to bend the shifter cables out of the way of my handlebar bag. 

  • Shimano XT rear derailleur replaced the Sora model for compatibility with the 11-34 rear cassette that replaced the 11-32.
  • Replaced the balloon-y 700x45C tires with more middle-of-the-road 700x37C Schwalbe Marathon Supremes. 
  • New disc-brake-compatible Schmidt SON 28 generator hub built into the stock 32-spoke rim (Rett got my old rim-brake one). 
  • Tektro disc brake shims to move the rotor out 2mm from the hub. In a “bike building is never easy” reminder, the spokes of my newly-built wheel contacted the Tektro Spyre brake caliper. Argh! A Google search revealed it’s a rare problem, and likely only encountered with the combination of a generator hub with Tektro Spyre brakes, which are wider than other models. Perhaps in admission of this problem, Tektro sells shims that let you move the disc rotor further from the spokes, which in turn allows you to move the caliper further out. Phew, problem solved! (though I had to have the shims shipped to Rett’s dad’s in New York since of course this was a last-minute discovery!) 

  • Busch and Muller IQ-X headlight. Super bright with a great beam pattern; the LED-driven advancement in lighting technology has been truly incredible since I got my last then-top-of-the-line B+M incandescent-bulb(!)  headlight 13 years ago. 

    After hosting some bike tourers at our house this summer who had much less custom rigs than ours, I’m a bit embarrassed at the level of specialization and detail I’ve gone through with our bikes (since clearly cross-country travel is possible without all this work and cost),  but hopefully it will all pay off with a level of comfort and flexibility we wouldn’t have ever with more off-the-shelf machines. 

    2016 Tour Preview: Shakedown

    September 5th, 2016

    I always like to do a “shakedown” trip before every bike tour. It’s a two-day ride with a night of camping in between, where the main goal is to “shake” all of our equipment to determine that it’s all ready to withstand the rigors of the road. In the past, an important secondary goal (or maybe it was actually the primary?) was to help get my body up to shape with the back-to-back long rides. 

    But this year, we had been so proactive with our fitness training (doing 50+ mile rides every weekend for the whole summer, including a couple back-to-back 67 mile loaded(!) rides in July, and even hitting Rett’s first 100-mile “century” ride) that it truly was the shaking that was the primary goal of this trip. Especially given all the last-minute additions and changes I’d made to our bikes! 

    When I lived way out in the suburbs, it was fairly easy to ride from my front door and reach a campground within a day’s ride. That’s much more difficult from our new home in Chicago’s Norwood Park, but luckily the Cook County Forest Preserve had added campgrounds at several of its locations in the previous year. So I would finally have a chance to cash in Rett’s awesome birthday gift to me from the last year: a ride to 3 Floyd’s Brewpub in Munster, Indiana, and an overnight at Shabbona Woods campground. 

    The entirely-urban route from the far northwest side of Chicago out the far southeast side isn’t much like real bike touring, but like I said, the riding wasn’t the important part here. We went through a lot of south side neighborhoods that have seen a big spike in violence this year, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon nothing felt particularly sketchy. We rode past a whole lot of shiny, brand-new, and completely-unused Divvy bike-share stations though. 

    But then near the Indiana border we hit a trail network that brought us to some nature, including a race with a bounding deer, and a causeway crossing the middle of Wolf Lake. 

    Our first visit to 3 Floyd’s was a good one, where the food might have been even better than the beer. And Rett declared their Drunk Monk hefeweizen perhaps the best beer she’d ever had. There were several other groups of cyclists there who made the ride from the city, but all of them were taking the train home. 

    We, on the other hand, had about 7 miles to backtrack towards our campground. And as we walked out, one of the most beautiful sunsets we’d ever seen told us we would be doing most of our ride in the dark. Luckily I’d installed Rett’s fancy new  generator light (though not yet my own), and she led the way down the Burnham Greenway trail with light enough for both of us. It was actually a lot of fun, and another element shaken down. 

    We turned into the campground and as I expected, there was no longer anyone in the entrance booth, so we just rode over to a campsite with a plan to then see if we could find someone to talk to. But before we could even move, a bright flashlight came charging toward us, and the woman behind it said “What are you doing? You can’t stay here”. She claimed that we needed to have made a reservation, and that reservations needed to be made 48 hours in advance, and we would have to leave. In the black of night. On bicycles. From a nearly-empty campground! Since I had never heard of a reservation-required campground in all my years of camping, I figured we’d be able to turn her around, but she was quite adamant: we had to leave. 

    Luckily, her manager came over and straightened her out. It turns out that if *no one* has reserved a site for the night they don’t staff the campground, and then obviously no walk-ups are allowed. This worker had mistakenly extrapolated that to “reservations are required for everyone”. So we were able to pay our $35(!) to spend the night. Thanks to those other campers who had reserved! Otherwise it was a nice campground with brand new facilities, and amazingly quiet and uncrowded for a pre-Labor Day Saturday night. 

    The ride home the next morning was uneventful except for the extraordinary number of asshole idiot drivers. We’re ready for this thing!