Archive for February, 2009

Biking to Northwestern

February 4, 2009

In August and September of 2008, Nate and his dad Sam bicycled 1100 miles from Leyden Massachusetts to Evanston Illinois so that Nate could start his freshman year at Northwestern University.

Since this is a blog, it is in reverse chronological order below.

Or you can to read the blog post by post in normal chronological order by clicking here.

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Final thoughts – Some musings from Sam, aka “Dad”

February 4, 2009

Musings from Sam:

When Nate invited me to ride to school with him, I knew this was an adventure we had to at least attempt to do. To be able to be together for what was essentially the last two weeks of my son’s boyhood was a gift. If you are ever offered such an opportunity, take it!

I began this journey with some trepidation. Would my knees hold out? Would our bikes hold up? Would our camaraderie survive 15 days of constant togetherness? With luck (and some serious training during the summer), the answer to all of these questions was yes. I ended each day not feeling completely whipped; I sometimes took ibuprofin and arnica to protect my knees, but they never gave me any trouble.  The relative flatness of the route may have helped in this regard. Nate and I managed the entire trip with no squabbling, usually in agreement about when to stop and where and what to eat (always an easy discussion) and route selection. I did snap at him when he ran into me twice in one day, but no damage was done to our equipment or our egos.  On the last long day, even with the potholes, and traffic, and construction, and hard-to-find rail trail, neither of us were ready for the trip to be over.

Equipment:

Some people questioned whether my Seven Cycles Axiom (a titanium sport road bike) would be comfortable enough for 15 days in the saddle. Although I did have to stand from time to time to ease the soreness of being in the saddle all day, I was quite happy with my choice. I had a rear rack (frame has lugs for mounting), and panniers (saddlebags), which carried our clothing and other lightweight gear. We each had a handlebar bag, which we used for carrying cameras, maps, wallets and other things that we wished to remove from the bikes when we went into restaurants.   We were also a little wary about the carbon fiber seats days on Nate’s Trek 2500.  There are no rear rack lugs on this bike, so he couldn’t use panniers. We contacted the factory and they said hauling a trailer with this bike would not be a problem, and it turned out they were correct. We bought an extra of the special Bob axle skewers for my bike so that I could tow the trailer if Nate’s bike developed problems, but we didn’t need it. The only thing I wish we had done differently would have been to get a new stronger rear wheel for Nate’s bike instead of the used wheel which caused so many problems in the middle of the trip. Our 25, and sometimes 23 cm tires were fine for this trip, even on the stone dust bike trails along the Erie Canal Trail. We didn’t carry any cooking gear, because we knew we could find food along the way.

Bob Trailer and Tote (handy for carrying an extra tire)

Bob Trailer and Tote (handy for carrying an extra tire)

Bringing the Bob Trailer was a great idea (thanks Mike and Kristy!).  Especially having Nate tow the Bob was a great idea.  I referred to him as my Sherpa.  I had to be very sneaky to be able to beat him in a sprint to a town line, usually by waiting until the last second and trying to get past, because even pulling the Bob and all that gear, he could outsprint me.

Instead of using the waterproof gear bag that you can buy with the Bob we used a big Rubbermaid Tote.  This was just as waterproof as the bag and much easier to open.  For instance, when we had just finished fixing our fifth flat tire of the day and had loaded everything back into the Bob, and we’re ready to go and the tire blew out again, we could quickly open up the box get all the tools back out again.  We did have people look at us and say things like “Have cooler will travel, huh?”, but we weren’t doing this trip for the sake of appearances.

The Route:
Most of this route was fairly flat.  We were concerned this might get boring (it did at times), and we did miss the hills (at least the downhills), but the scenery was interesting and the roads (mostly, see Day 9) were not dead straight.  Bike Route 5 in NY is pretty nice, the parts we rode at least.  It is on State highways, mostly quieter ones with wide shoulders.  Signs along the way direct you, but they are small and easy to miss.  Mostly Bike Rt 5 is close to the Erie Canal Trail, so you can move over to that if the headwinds get too bad on the roads, or move back to Bike Rt 5 if the stone dust or weeds on the trail get too bad.   As mentioned several times, there seems to be little effort made to make the Erie Canal Trail (technically the 100-mile Erie Canal Heritage Trail in Western New York; the 36-mile Old Erie Canal State Park Trail in Central New York; the 60-mile Mohawk-Hudson Bikeway in the eastern Capital Region) easy find from nearby roads, and the state Canal Trail maps aren’t very good at telling you how to find trailheads.  Ironically, the directions are usually from an Interstate Highway.

I’ve never ridden south of Lake Eire, but I think our choice to cross through Ontario was a good one.  The roads are pretty quiet and well paved if you stay off the main routes.  There is usually only a 6 inch ‘shoulder’.  Bring your passports.

Michigan was another story.  You’d think that the roads around the Motor City would be pretty good, but they were either narrow, broken and busy, or dirt.  Michigan is working on some bike paths, and once we found it, the bikepath from Grand Rapids to Muskegon was wonderful, but most of the bike paths were short, and not going where we were going.

Using the Lake Express ferry to cross Lake Michigan seems like a good but expensive way to avoid biking through the industrial Midwest.

We had hoped that Nate’s mini laptop (Asus eee PC) would be useful for mapping our route ahead of us.  We didn’t try to map out the whole route ahead of time, because we wanted flexibility in our route selection, depending on what we found as we travelled.  Sometimes we were able to load some Google Earth maps for the road ahead, but most of the time we were unable to find free Internet service.  Probably a GPS system would have been more useful to us, and I don’t know if even that would have made it easier to find bikepaths.  We were able to find good regional maps for most of New York and Ontario.

If this blog isn’t all you ever needed to know about our bike trip and more, you can check out Nate’s Facebook page about the trip, and his Flickr page of pictures.

Two school newspaper articles were also written about our trip, one in NorthByNorthwestern and one in The Daily Northwestern.

Day 15 – the last hop

February 3, 2009

When we left home two weeks ago our deadline was to arrive at Northwestern University by Monday afternoon in time for Nate to start his pre-semester backpacking trip in the upper Peninsula of Michigan. With 20 miles of mostly bike path left, it looked like we were going to make it.  Early on in New York State, and later in Michigan with all the flat tires, we had our doubts. But now we were within easy reach of our goal. I left my panniers behind and Nate had his backpacking gear in the trailer instead of our biking equipment, and Marie joined us on a borrowed bicycle. We headed south, drafting each other down the bike path. Marie had a chance to experience our drafting etiquette, calling out obstacles to each other along the way; “Cyclist up!”, “Dog up!”,  “Stopping!”, “Pedistranian” (sic), “Holes!”.

For a mile or so, we cranked it up to our top speed to give Marie that experieince as well. But we didn’t maintain that pace for too long. Later, a much older gent was able to overtake us, the only time in the whole 1100 mile trip that a cyclist passed us while we were moving. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that he had probably not ridden from Massachusetts in the last two weeks.

Shortly it began to rain. We stopped, put on rain gear and covered Nate’s pack, but the cold rain and the detours dampened our spirits for our final leg. We had some difficulty finding campus and more difficulty finding Nate’s meeting place. Feeling like cold drowned rats, it was a rather anti-climatic ending to our trip. We waited while Nate checked in with his group.

With a tearful farewell we acknowledged the end of an adventure that we would always remember. Marie and I got some hot soup, hitched the empty Bob up to my bicycle (the first time I had pulled it all trip) and headed to the train station to ride Metro back to grandmother’s house.

Stats:
Miles: 20
Hours riding: 2
Hours of Rain: 1
Miles of bikepath: 10
Serious cyclists:5
Pictures taken: 0
Detours:1
Tearful goodbyes:1 (or 3, depends on how you count)
Total Miles: About 1100
Total days of riding:14, including two very short ones.
Longest day: 121 miles

Day 14 – Crossing Lake Michigan-last long day

February 3, 2009

Our ferry across Lake Michigan  wouldn’t leave until noon so we had the luxury of sleeping in. The three of us had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, because there didn’t seem to be any other eateries nearby. It was not a very impressive breakfast. We then wandered around downtown Muskegon, which seemed to be in the midst of some much-needed urban renewal . Much to Marie’s delight we found a little deli with local clean food and got lunch for our ferry ride. We then went back to the hotel to collect our gear.  Marie drove the car to the ferry terminal, we biked over and waited to board.

Lake Express ferry arrives

Lake Express ferry arrives

Cruising through the channel to Lake michigan

Cruising through the channel to Lake Michigan

The Lake Express Ferry is a hi-speed catamaran-style ferry, quite a contrast to the six car Sombra fairy we had used to enter Michigan. Nate was able to update the blog while we waited for the ferry to leave the terminal. We lashed our bikes to the wall on the auto deck and went up on deck to watch the departure from Muskegon Harbor. The boat moved leisurely across the harbor, and through the canal, past some marine museum displays. Once we reached open water the speed increased dramatically, such that the wind on deck was difficult to stand around in.

Glad we weren't riding into this headwind

Glad we weren't riding into this headwind

Even drafting Nate it would have been slow going

Even drafting Nate it would have been slow going

After several hours, the Milwaukee skyline came up over the horizon. After disembarking, we said goodbye to Marie, who was driving to her mother’s house where we would meet up again later in the day. As ‘purists’, we continued to carry our own gear even though the car was going where we were going.  It was now almost 3 o’clock, and we had something like 75 miles to ride. Fortunately, we were on the south side of Milwaukee, so leaving the city was fairly straightforward.

Recreational trail along Lake Michigan

Recreational trail along Lake Michigan

We followed recreational-type bike paths south along the lake shore as far as we could.  We stopped for hot dogs at a soapbox derby competition and watched the kids coasting in their high-tech cars down a long bikepath ramp.

We did not have good maps of Wisconsin and Illinois and spent some time meandering south on roads looking for the bike path which we knew came up from Evanston. We found the bike route only to find in one spot that it had been interrupted by the removal of a railroad grade crossing. After struggling over five sets of tracks we found the bike path quickly turned to gravel. So we abandoned that option and headed back to the highways.

We crossed into Illinois and had a quick pre-dinner at a convenience store.  We had to be sure not to ruin our appetites (what are the chances of that?) because grandmother was preparing a celebratory dinner for us.

The road through Winthrop Harbor and Zion was hideous. We thought we had left the worst roads of the trip behind in Michigan, but Illinois proved it was up to the challenge. To their credit, most of the problems were the result of ongoing construction. On one section, we had one narrow rough lane bounded by Jersey barriers on both sides. Much to the annoyance of the drivers stuck behind us, we rode right down the middle of the lane to prevent them from squeezing us up against the Jersey barriers. We rode through Kenosha, where we were able to follow a trolley car through the streets on their new trolley system.

From there we were able to find the Robert McClory bikepath. This path followed the old North Shore Line electric interurban railroad, and we knew it would bring us within a mile of grandmother’s house. Initially this was a dirt surface path, but soon turned to well-maintained pavement. We rode on into the gathering darkness with our blinkies on.

We turned off the bike path and down residential streets in the darkness to grandmother’s house, where we were greeted by grandmother, Marie, aunt, uncle and cousins, complete with welcoming banners and a finish line ribbon.

Greeting banner at grandmother's

Greeting banner at grandmother's

Taken in daylight before we arrived

Taken in daylight before we arrived

A fine dinner followed.  We still had 20 miles to go, but that would wait until Monday.  Sunday we would relax and get Nate re-packed for his last 20 miles.

Stats:

A celebration with all the fixings

A celebration with all the fixings

Miles: 73
Avg Spd: 14.9
Mechanicals: 1 (Nate broke a spoke in the last few miles)
Bunnies: 0
Trains: 2
Trolleys: 1
Serious cyclist: 0
Minutes Dad spent thinking about work: 0
States we biked in today: 3

Day 13 – Onward to Lake Michigan

February 3, 2009

(Sam takes over the narrative at this point.) September 5, 2008

First caboose of the day

First caboose of the day

Today we are headed to Muskegon for a rendezvous with Marie and the ferry across the lake the next day. We packed up our stuff from the cabin, ate the cheese roll-ups, donuts, cookie, turnovers and muffins for breakfast we had bought the night before. Yesterday’s rain had stopped, the roads were dry, our gear was mostly dry, although our feet were still wet. We rode to Saranac, where we were stuck at a convenience store for breakfast number two. We stopped to study Saranac station and a Grand Trunk caboose.

'Hills' in western michigan

'Hills' in western michigan

We got on Route 21 and headed west for Grand Rapids. Route 21 was pretty dull, traffic was heavy, but the road conditions weren’t too bad. Riding through the city of Lowell, we encountered what we referred to as JAASM, “Just Another American Strip Mall”. It seemed like we could have been just about anywhere in the country riding through this undistinctive part of Michigan. Shortly after Lowell we encountered some of the longer hills we had climbed since leaving Eastern New York state twelve days before.

All you can eat, look out!

All you can eat, look out!

Our plan was to ride straight into Grand Rapids. Our usual practice is to avoid cities if at all possible, but we decided to see what Grand Rapids was like. We were pleasantly surprised to ride in on mostly residential streets without the JAASM that we expected. We found an all you can eat Chinese buffet in the center of town, and proceeded to replace the lost calories of the morning.

Quiet farm counrty

Quiet farm counrty

We had some information about a rail trail that went from just west of Grand Rapids up to Muskegon, our destination for the day. Unfortunately, our information did not include how to find the trail heads for this trail. So we wandered around a bit through beautiful farm country northwest of Muskegon. We stopped at a farm stand, where we had some of the best peaches we had ever had. They (the farmers, not the peaches) were able to give us directions to the rail trail. As seemed common with many of these trails, there was little signage directing you from the main roads to the trail heads.

Rest stop on a the rail trail

Rest stop on a the rail trail

What we found was a beautiful, quiet, fairly straight, smoothly paved rail trail. There were very few people out on the trail until we got closer to Muskegon. The trail went through the center of several small towns, where one enterprising ice cream store put up signs directing trail users to their goodies. Here we found that the soft-serve was self-serve, something we weren’t used to. We encountered one eastbound cyclist pulling a trailer; it looked like he was out for a long tour, but we didn’t stop to talk. Near the end of the trail we slowly overtook a cyclist riding a department store bike in jeans and sneakers. He commented that he was quite surprised to be overtaken by us, apparently he rarely met anyone faster than he on the rail trail. He managed to stick with us until the end of the trail. I was about to give him some pointers, like spinning faster in a lower gear, but he turned around and headed back.

The entrance to Muskegon was unimpressive, industrial, commercial landscapes with rush hour traffic. The city was much more sprawled out than it appeared on the map and we had some difficulty finding a hotel. We wanted something near the ferry terminal, and explored the bikepath south of the ferry terminal for some distance before getting some information about hotels north of the ferry terminal. We proceeded back up the bikepath, which was clearly more of a recreational trail than a path meant for serious travel. It had beautiful curving boardwalks through the marshes along the shore of Muskegon Bay, but was not meant for traveling quickly.

We found the Muskegon Harbor Hotel, which allowed us to bring our bicycles and trailer in the lobby, up the elevator and into our room. We called Marie who was right on schedule and told her how to find us. We had dinner that night in the hotel restaurant with Marie, a happy reunion. Nate took advantage of power and wireless to catch up on some of his communications. The hot showers were appreciated.

Muskegon Harbor Hotel, not a mini cabin

Muskegon Harbor Hotel, not a mini cabin

Stats:
Miles: about 80
Avg Spd: not recorded
Hours of rolling time: not recorded
Mechanicals: 0
Bunnies: 0
Trains: 0, but two cabooses on display
Roadkill: many
West-East Cross Country Cyclists: 1?
Serious cyclist: 1
Hours of Rain: 0
Minutes Dad spent thinking about work: 0
Deer: 3
Plates of Chinese all you can eat buffet Nate ate: 4