The dude a-rides

To move a distance
one need know their feet. Or wheels
if riding a bike.

Riding around the neighborhood, even if you find yourself 20 some miles away from home, always falls a little short of preparing you for a bike tour. It can be good exercise training, but if your destination is ultimately your own house, you’re obviously missing something.

In short, you gotta go somewhere. Load the packs up with some weight (even if you’re not camping), pick a destination, and head out. So as a maiden voyage for my new touring bike, with all its racks and panniers ready for loading up gear, I thought I’d go visit my parents over the Fourth of July who live some 70 miles away from me just outside Duluth, MN. Besides, it was also my mother’s birthday! This was a stop that I had made on my ride to Duluth last year on my Raleigh Merit road bike, which happened to be the first time I ever made an overnight trip somewhere on a bicycle. And coincidentally (I’m surprised I didn’t realize this until after I left), that trip happened to be over the Fourth of July too!

So bright and early on the morning of Monday, July 3, I packed up some clothing, a few various other accoutrements, some Cliff bars, and my new camping gear, and left home only to stop about 500 yards from the house at Caribou Coffee. Naturally, as I pulled up looking ready to cross the continent, a man stood outside the door to the coffee shop eyeing me up. “Where you coming from?” he asked. As tempting as it was to lie, to say that he was catching me on day 20 of my journey from Alaska to Florida, I ended up just saying that I had only traveled the length of a few football fields. But it wasn’t the distance so far, but those yet to come! Anyway, thoroughly annoyed by this guy, I quickly ducked into Caribou to get my morning coffee and lemon poppy seed bread and went back to the patio to sit and enjoy the peace of an early small town morning before hitting the road.

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The bike – fully loaded.

When reading about and watching videos on bike tour preparation, the only consistent message amongst all who have taken these journeys is to be mindful of your weight. Most bikepackers seem to ride steel bikes, so that is just viewed as a necessary evil when trying to whittle away every superfluous ounce. They are, after all, not that much heavier, and the strength and comfort of a steel frame is just hard to beat. Such is the compromise. But from there, all gear that is loaded on the bike has to be considered for its usefulness on the road, and whether or not something of lesser weight could do the same job (see my tent hunt for an example). For this ride, I wasn’t looking to trim weight though. It was just an overnight trip, a training exercise to see what the added weight felt like and to give an idea of how much fat I really needed to trim from my planned gear.

The road between Grand Rapids and Duluth is a pretty straight shot; just follow Highway 2. Despite the state of Minnesota’s best efforts to keep it in good condition, the cracks in the road could put a metronome to shame when you make the drive between the two cities. This can be ignored in a car much better than on a bicycle, and I knew this going into this ride (when I wrote before about how the ride to Duluth last summer killed my ass, this was the main reason). But with a new bike and new saddle, I crossed my fingers that they would both live up to their hype.

I was looking forward to crossing Floodwood, a town a little over half way to my parent’s house. After telling him I was riding that direction, my brother Carl said he’d meet me along the way on his bicycle. He’d been thinking about doing more riding anyway, so why not put 40 to 50 miles round trip to meet his brother? And as it turned out, he had found a backroad on a map that would allow us to skip the entirety of Highway 2 after Floodwood, which was great news to me! Cracks in the road aside, rides are all the more enjoyable when you don’t have to listen to semi-trucks rush by every couple of minutes.

So I took a left in Floodwood and found the new road. There was no shoulder, but it was obviously a sleepy old road; not much to worry about. But a few miles down, I could see in the distance what appeared to be a distinct lack of pavement… it was a dirt road. As it turns out, hype surrounding the comfort of the bike and saddle were going to get a bigger test than I thought.

“What the hell? You picked a dirt road?” I yelled to Carl when I saw him in the distance. Turns out he didn’t know until he got there either. But we stopped, I pulled out a flask to celebrate our middle-of-nowhere meeting, and we got the hell out of there before the horse flies destroyed us all.

All things considered, the road wasn’t awful. The worst of it was that we had to pay attention to the terrain a bit more, and we couldn’t stop due to the horse flies. But we emerged on the other side of the 15 mile stretch of dirt little the worse for wear, so we stopped for some water and another nip of whiskey before hitting the last few miles to our folk’s house.

That night, we ate steaks, I enjoyed the new sauna my dad built into the side of a hill just outside of their house. He was actually still in the process of making cedar shakes for the roof, but the building was fully operational. My dad apparently became Amish in his retirement; he had a homemade set-up for making these old-school shingles, complete with a tool that he made himself too. It’s just a matter of time before he grows a chin-strap beard and hosts a barn raising.

The next morning, I took my time getting out of the house. I enjoyed a good breakfast and a few cups of coffee, but the road beckoned. I wished my mother a happy birthday, and I set out on my way. Carl once again joined me on the first leg of the journey, but not all the way back to Floodwood. We took a different route again; he said he knew of this other road off of the one we took the day before that goes through a little town called Brookston. We figured we’d stop for a pint in a bar there before going our separate ways.

As we came to a bend in the road a couple miles out of town, we saw a few fire trucks and other emergency vehicles pulling out of a parking lot, heading the same way we were. Though we both forgot what day it was, it didn’t take a second to realize what was going on. “Parade!” I yelled, excited that we might roll into this little country hamlet right in time to sneak our way into their Fourth of July parade. As it turned out, we were still a little early, but the entire town was out in the streets for their annual festival. We stopped into the pub and talked with a couple locals, and found out that different groups in town spend the entire year fundraising for fireworks and other things just for this one festival; allegedly, the fireworks display from this town of a couple hundred people even rivals that of Duluth, a town of 86,000. But we were far too early for that, so we finished our beer, said our goodbyes, and went on our respective ways.

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My brother and I in Brookston… and a “bro” in the background

I arrived back in Grand Rapids by early evening. The day was damn hot, the quintessential Fourth of July, but I felt like a million bucks when I rolled back into town! I was mostly just relieved that I didn’t feel anything like I did last year after the same ride, so when I met my friends Ren and Marit for a quick beer before going home, I was properly ecstatic. I had done about 140 miles in two days.

And I learned a couple important things. First off, there can be no compromising on food. If hungry, I must simply eat. Same goes for water, but one hardly needs to be told that. And two, I needed some Chamois Butt’r for my ass. Sure, the saddle was plenty comfortable for the ride, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t some chaffing from all the leg movement.

But the preparation was paying off. A few little things had yet to be procured, and bits of planning had yet to be finalized, but I at least felt physically ready to take on the journey.

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