Monday, May 31, 2010

Bike trip destinations: Rapidan Dam Park

Distance from downtown Mankato: Roughly 9 miles.

Route I took: Here is a link to the route map (courtesy of, awesome website). This is probably the easiest route of any trip I'll take this summer. Essentially, you get on the Red Jacket Trail at the YMCA, follow it all the way to the end, take a right onto 552nd Street/Center Street into the town of Rapidan, then take a right onto County Road 9 and follow it all the way to the dam.

General ease/challenge of ride:
As far as bike trips go, it doesn't get much easier than this. The majority of the trip is on a nicely-paved bike trail with little traffic to worry about (aside from other trail users, of course) and no serious hills to contend with. The country roads near Rapidan are well-paved and generally low in traffic volume as well. It's also a very achieveable day trip for even the most recreational of cyclists, with the roundtrip total checking in at less than 20 miles.

That's not to say the route is a complete cake walk. From the Le Seuer River to the end of the Red Jacket Trail (roughly a two mile stretch), the ride is predominantly uphill. But the uphill grade is gradual enough to be barely noticeable. The return trip from the park also offers a challenge, as the first 1/4 mile or so is a steep uphill climb out of the Blue Earth River valley. Nothing a quick downshift can't neutralize.

Safety of the ride: As stated earlier, the route is almost entirely on bike trails and low-traffic country roads. Unless you're on an exercise bike at the YMCA, the ride doesn't get much safer than this.

Appeal of the destination: To put it bluntly, it's a dam good spot to venture to.

For starters, it has all the bells and whistles of a county park (rest area, playground, hiking trails) and has the added bonus of being on a river next to a regionally historical dam. The Rapidan Dam is actually celebrating it's 100th birthday this year as a major hydroelectric source in the region.

The park also has ample area for camping, kayaking classes in the summer, and a pleasant river walk area complete with sandy beaches and rocky shoreline. It's also regarded as a quality fishing hole. The locals I spoke to said it was good for catching everything from catfish to Northern Pike. Granted, they were telling me this between cans of Keystone Light, but that's beside the point.

If that wasn't enough, the park also has it's own local food staple in the Dam Store. Located at the entryway of the park, the Dam Store has a diverse spread of menu items ranging from the 1/2 pound "Damburger" to chicken and fish sandwiches and shrimp. For side dishes, they have hash browns, fries and salad to choose from. They also have old-fashioned milkshakes and a whole slew of "Dam Pie" flavor varieties for desert.

Their prices are very reasonable (you'd have to be pretty hungry to burn through $10 in one sitting) and their food is generally held in high regard by visitors. Since I was planning on running 10 miles later that day, I skipped out on heavier fare and opted for a slice of banana cream pie (pictured right).

Other notes: If you're looking for a specific day to bike out to the park, August 14 might be a good one to circle on your calendar. The dam is celebrating its 100th birthday that day with live music, canoe rides, a crafts sale, a hog roast dinner, and horseshoe and fishing tournaments. As expected, they will also have ample amounts of Dam Pie on hand.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Summer bike trip series

Anybody who's ever broken out a bike in the Mankato area will tell you that it's a great community for two-wheeled travelers.

Bike trails are located all over the city, traffic is relatively mild in most areas and the city's natural geography (river valley with copious hills) make it a challenging ride for anyone hoping to get some good exercise. I grew up in St. Cloud, a very similar community to Mankato in a lot of ways, but I can never remember biking being as popular there as it is here. Whether on a trail or heading to work, I always see cyclists out and about.

With the onset of summer, it's a perfect time to put the car keys away and go on an adventure with the ol' bike. Fortunately for cycling enthusiasts, there are numerous destinations in this region that are both fun to travel to and easily reachable on two wheels.

These are destinations that are probably easily reachable by car. However, reaching those destinations on a bike carries infinitely more weight for your sense of adventure. You're not relying on the power of a motor to get you there; you're counting on the strength of your legs and the power of your will. On a bike, you're exposed to the elements, vulnerable to fatigue and limited to your own desire on where you can go. Even a simple trip to the grocery store (or, as was the case with a previous post of mine, a trip to Pizza Hut) can become an adventure on a bike.

Which brings me to the point of this entry: I'm looking for input from other cyclists in the Mankato area on interesting and fun locations to travel to on a bike.

I'm signed up to write a Go/Do piece on the topic for the Free Press' Currents section that's due to publish a couple of months from now. But rather than limiting the writing to my own knowledge of two-wheeled destinations, I figured I would leave it open to input from others.

Throughout the summer, I'll be blogging about different destinations I've biked to by posting maps of the routes I took, posting picutres, talking about the difficulty of the ride and assessing the appeal of the destination. As a fellow cycling enthusiast, you are encouraged to comment, elaborate and correct upon my postings as they appear.

I will also post any rides submitted to me by other bike riders. Send your suggestions, pictures and maps to:

When submitting ride ideas, please keep the following in mind:
  • What is the appeal of the destination you're biking to? Is it a restaurant with good food? A park with good scenery? A lake with a good beach? Some other type of landmark with the adjective "good" stuck in front of it? Unlike training routes one would take for a road race, I'm not looking for challenging rides with a quick turnaround points. I'm looking for a turnaround point that you'd like to spend some time at. We're not all training for a race, but we're all looking to have fun on a bicycle.
  • Relative difficulty of the ride. It shouldn't be a trip that can be achieved in a leisurely five minutes of riding, but it also shouldn't be something that requires a Lance Armstrong-like effort to reach in a day. Remember, part of the appeal of biking to places is the challenge that comes with doing so; biking a few blocks to your favorite restaurant is not a challenge.
  • Is the route relatively safe to bike on? Roads are pretty much unavoidable if you're going to bike to another town. However, there's a big difference between biking on a low-traffic country road and having to brace for the constant flow of cars on Highway 169.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Minneapolis: A metropolis of cycling wonderment

As mentioned in a previous post, Minneapolis was recently ranked as the most bike-friendly city in America by Bicycling magazine. The city has more than 120 off-and on-road trails, a bike share program and repair facilities scattered throughout the metro.

I also mentioned that I was going to have to see this "thriving biking community" for myself at one point. A cycling magazine might say those types of things about a city, but how do we know for sure? After all, most of my memories of the Twin Cities involved bad traffic, worse street organization (at least in St. Paul) and God-awful parking around the Metrodome. Could Minneapolis really be THAT accommodating to cyclists?

Well, with a day off on Sunday and printed bike trail maps in tow, I finally decided to make my long-awaited pilgrimage to this cycling-crazed metropolis. I packed a lunch, circled interest points on the maps and got an old college friend to come along for the trip.

At the risk of offending my Mankato-based readership, I'm going to refrain from slobbering over Minneapolis' bike trails. But I will say this: The city's national ranking is well deserved.

My friend and I parked on the west side of Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. From there, we planned on taking the Cedar Lake Trail to Target Field (another Minneapolis landmark I had not experienced yet, double bonus!), where we would then take the bike lanes of streets to West River Parkway, head south, cross the historic stone arch bridge and swing by the East bank of the U of M to pick up my step brother, a student at the U and our unofficial tour guide of the bike trails. We were also hoping to see Minnehaha Falls, bike on the Midtown Greenway Trail and possibly grab a drink in the uptown area of town.

The trip stated off wonderfully. The weather was perfect and the Cedar Lake Trail took us right up to the entrance of Target Field, where my friend and I were absolutely shocked by the number of bikes parked along the stadium's walls for the Twins game that day (side note: the Twins won 6-0). There were bike racks at every corner of the stadium, all of which were packed to the limit with two-wheeled commuters. Considering how accessible the stadium is via biking (every trail in the city links up at some point), I'd imagine this to be a regular occurrence on good-weather days.

We'd both been to countless Twins games at the Metrodome in our time, but we could never remember it being THAT accommodating to cyclists. The sea of bike racks alone was enough to make me fall in love with Target Field, never mind the stadium's overall awesomeness (not a journalistic term, but that's the best way I can describe it). We literally could have spent an entire day walking around Target Field. However, we lacked Twins tickets and had other sights to see. Though we did have time for the giant glove, as the second photo would indicate.

We navigated the city bike lanes with ease to West River Parkway and crossed the stone arch bridge with no issues. However, once we got to the U of M, an all-too-familiar bike problem reared its ugly head: I had a flat tire. Even worse, It was a flat caused by a valve issue rather than a standard leak. So instead of being able to patch it and repair it, I was forced to pump up the tire every 5-10 minutes. We managed to get to Minnehaha Falls before the valve broke off (or rather, exploded off like a gun shot) completely and rendered my bike useless.

Thankfully, my step brother was aware enough of the area to know that a Minneapolis Light Rail station was nearby, where we then took it back to his place near campus and attempted to find a bike shop for quick repairs. We managed to find one, but since my bike was an older model, the shop didn't have the right sized tube in stock and our biking trip was prematurely over. Dejected, we hitched a ride back to our cars from my step brother and called it quits for the day.

For the most part, we got to travel on pretty much every trail we set out to see, with the exception of the Midtown Greenway. However, we did get to take an unexpected trip on the Light Rail instead. So our attempt at non-vehicle commuter routes in the Twin Cities kind of evened out in that regard.

Overall, the bike trails in Minneapolis were everything I hoped they would be in more. They were easy to navigate, well maintained and offered plenty of appealing destinations. Any cycling enthusiast could have a field day (or weekend) exploring the various landmarks, checking out historical sites and hitting a few bars and restaurants along the way. At the same time, the trails are direct enough where any cost-conscious commuter looking to save money could easily get around on two wheels and a set of pedals.

The city has really done a commendable job building a distinct cycling culture. Hopefully next time my bike will cooperate better.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Multisport club brings athletes together with multi-faceted expo

When you become immersed in an activity, it's good to know that there's other people out there who are just as crazy about it as you are.

For all the exercise enthusiasts and cardio junkies out there, the Inaugural Greater Mankato Multisport Club Expo served as a proclamation that they were most definitely not alone in their interests. The expo was held Monday night at X-Force Fitness and guest speakers on bike maintenance, injury prevention, triathlon transitions and general nutrition for long-distance runners.

After starting off with a group run (go figure, the phrase 'Exercise is my medicine' is on the back of the club's racing jerseys), those in attendance were broken off into groups and rotated between speakers. The guest speakers were mostly coordinated through Dawn Naples, a personal trainer at X-Force Fitness. Aside from the speakers, there was also a raffle for assorted prizes, massage tables and body fat composition tests available for those in attendance.

"We wanted to make (the expo) as inclusive as possible to all athletes," said club organizer Chris Crocker, who kept himself busy by giving the presentation on triathlon transitions, "The topics we're going over are things that all athletes are interested in. I remember when I first got into triathlons and how useful this information would've been to me at the time."

Despite being a new club, Greater Mankato Multisport has already gained some considerable local popularity. The club's Facebook group has 195 followers and Crocker said the estimated total membership is close to 300 people. The club also has a wide range of sponsors like ISJ Heart Center, Nicollet South Bike Shop and Health Improvement Partners.

"The local support for this has has been awesome," Crocker said, "There's a definite interest for it in the area. Whether it's experienced athletes or first-timers, we just want to get people out and exercising."

Crocker said the biggest appeal of the club is in the social connection it gives people. Through the club's Facebook group, members are able to set up group exercises, look for relay teams, set up carpools to races or ask for advice on training. The club also provides what Crocker describes as a "safe environment" for first-time triathletes to try their hand in the sport.

"One of the biggest things that keeps people from doing triathlons is the open water swimming," Crocker said. "But with the group swims we do, experienced swimmers are there to help get people through it."

"Besides," Crocker added. "If I can learn how to swim, anyone can."

As far as future events go, Crocker said the club will try to make the expo an annual event and that they are currently trying to set up open water swims at Hiniker Pond once summer rolls around. The group has weekly runs every Sunday morning at the Mankato YMCA and they usually have a few members sign up for most of the local racing events.

Coming from an self-proclaimed exercise junkie, I like how the multisport club is being so inclusive to all levels of exercise discipline. It's not a club for the elite athletes of the area; it's a club for like-minded individuals who are just looking for some companionship with their hobbies.

Anyone who's ever done a long run by themselves knows how bad it sucks. It's good to know that there's clubs like this out there that help make those training runs a little less lonely.

The multisport club's website can be found here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

MSU holds indoor/outdoor triathlon

The outdoor triathlon season in Mankato kicked off with the 4th Annual MSU Triathlon on Sunday.

Well, at least it sort of kicked off.

With most of the lakes and ponds in the area still frigid for water temperature, the 60 participants instead got their swimming done in the Highland Center Pool up on campus. In order to accommodate, swimmers were divided up into flights according to their relative swim speed. According to race coordinator Jennifer Myers, volunteers kept track of laps and times for each participant.

After completing the swim, participants only had to go across Stadium Road to get to the transition area of the triathlon, making it relatively similar to a full outdoor race, minus the crowded beach at the start.

"It's a pretty decent setup," one participant said. "Lap swimming isn't the same as lake swimming, but it definitely works for this time of year."

Collectively, the race was 800 yards of swimming, 14 miles of biking (mostly done on Monks Ave) and 3.75 miles of running. Myers said that the race was filled to capacity with participants ranging from curious first-timers to seasoned veterans, several of whom are training for half and full Ironman races. The majority of participants were MSU students, according to Myers.

Neil Schalk came in with the top overall time of 1:19:03. Rachel Busch, who was participating in the race with her father, had the top female time at 1:30:20. Overall, Myers said the triathlon went very smoothly, though one competitor suffered a flat tire during the biking portion of it.

The race also served as a local showcase of sorts for the newly-formed MSU Triathlon Club, of which Schalk and Busch are both members of. In it's first year of existence, the club already sports more than 30 members, eight of which competed in the Collegiate National Championship triathlon two weeks ago in Lubbock, Texas.

The men's team (Schalk, Michael Cullen, Jose Rosales, Daniel Felt and Ethan Roberts) finished 52nd out of 99 schools at nationals and the women's team, sporting only two competitors (Busch and Kathryn Kemp), finished with an incomplete score.

Rosales, who volunteered at the MSU triathlon instead of competing due to a broken foot he suffered while running, believes the trip down to Texas was a huge step for the club.

"It was our first year going down, so we really didn't have any expectations going into it," Rosales said. "But now we know it's doable and we know that we can compete with other schools. We drew a lot of local interest from doing it, so we're looking for it to be a yearly thing for us."