Monday, July 19, 2010

Bike trip destinations: Franke's (Kolacky) Bakery, Montgomery

Distance from downtown Mankato: Anywhere from 37-40 miles, depending on the route you take.

Route I took: The route I took to get there wasn't necessarily direct, but it did encounter the least amount of traffic. Essentially, you take the Sakatah Trail out of Mankato until you get to Madison Lake. After passing the Trail Blazer Bar & Grill, take the first left off the trail (1st Street/County Road 26). Follow that road for about 10 miles (the road goes through the Lake Henry/Lake Jefferson area and becomes County Road 15) into Cleveland. Once in Cleveland, take a right onto Highway 99 and follow that through Le Center for about 12 miles. Then take a left onto Highway 13, follow that into Montgomery and take a right onto Ash Ave. The bakery will be three blocks down on your right. The route I took to get home (taken because it was extremely humid that day and, in hindsight, I probably should've eaten more than Czech pastries during such a trip) was shorter (Highway 13 to Highway 99 to Highway 169) but also had a lot more traffic to be wary of.

General ease/challenge of ride: Aside from the occasional tree patches on the Sakatah Trail, the back country roads on this trip don't offer a whole lot of shade or wind cover. The distance of the trip is also not what you'd call a short ride. Hill-wise, I really don't recall anything daunting. The Sakatah Trail hill out of the river valley is pretty gradual and the only real noticeable inclines after that are between Le Center and Montgomery, none of which are overwhelming. By virtue of Montgomery being at a higher elevation, the return route is easier. However, I'd imagine the return route I took would be considerably tougher than my initial route if you were to use that to get to Montgomery. The hill down Highway 99 into St. Peter was extreme enough to get my bike up near 40 mph with little effort, so I can only imagine what that'd be like biking up.

Safety of the ride: Undoubtedly, the initial route I took is the safer of the two. For one thing, 14 miles of it is strictly on bike trails and thus more closed off from traffic. For another, the county road between Madison Lake and Cleveland was easily the least busy road I traveled on for that trip. Highway 99 was nerve racking to bike on because it was busy, drivers weren't obeying the speed limit (nothing makes a biker more nervous than a truck whizzing past them at 70 mph) and it lacked a wide shoulder at any point. Highway 169 was no picnic to bike on, as it was the busiest road of the bunch. If I were to do it all over again, I would've come up with a route that avoided Highway 99 altogether. It's just not a good road for cyclists.

Appeal of the destination: While interviewing the owner of Flying Penguin Outdoor Sports about RAGBRAI, I remember him talking about how the different towns in Iowa would have starkly different cultures. Well, if you're looking to find cultural differences close to home, look no further than New Ulm and Montgomery. The towns are only a mere hour from one another, yet one is heavily German for herritage and influence while the other is decidedly Czechoslovakian (see photo of town banner). A Czechoslovakian culture nut could have a field day walking around Montgomery during Kolacky Days, with everything from St. Johns Luthern Church's architecture to Czechoslovakian-attired dancers to Big Honza House in the downtown area.

While I'm always a fan of soaking in culture, I biked to Montgomery for one reason and one reason only: To get my hands on some quality kolackys at Franke's Bakery.

For the uninitiated, according to Montgomery's website, a kolacky is a small dinner roll-like pastry which is folded, enclosing filling in the center. Kolackys originated in Czechoslovakia when working men became frustrated that fruit in the open-faced buns would get all over their lunch buckets. The men had their wives fold over the pastry. Problem solved.

Admittedly, this served as something of a makeup trip for me. Montgomery's Tour de Bun bike ride is this Saturday, and it features recreational courses of 12, 30 and 50 miles in the
Montgomery area. The bike ride is part of Montgomery's annual Kolacky Days Festival which has everything you could possibly want in a festival: Carnivals, beer gardens, Czech food, museum tours, craft sales, tractor pulls, baking contests, softball tournaments, and a pageant.

Needless to say, the Tour de Bun is pretty much right in my wheelhouse for an event to sign up for. However, I'm unable to participate in it because I leave for RAGBRAI that day. So I decided to experience Kolacky Days with a little bike tour of my own. I figured I was unfamiliar with the famed Czech pasty and needed to get a good training ride in for RAGBRAI.
After getting to Franke's Bakery, it took me awhile to locate the kolackys. As far as appearance goes, they're really nothing special; they pretty much look like plain old dinner rolls. There were certainly more eye-catching bakery items in the store (I was practically drooling over the rasperry turnovers), but I didn't bike that far for a run-of-the-mill pastry. On the advice of previous visitors, I opted for a 6-pack of kolackys split into half apricot, half raspberry flavored pastries. I threw in a carton of chocolate milk with my purchase, reason that I needed something more than water to wash the pastries down.
After taking one bite of an apricot kolacky, I can tell you this: They may look simple, but their taste is far from ordinary. The bread of the Kolackys were freshly baked that day, and the rolls weren't skimpy with the filling either (see photo). Unlike the blandness of a creame-filled eclair, these pasty fillings had some real flavor to them. I can also venture a guess that since the pastries are bread and the filling is actual fruit, kolackys are probably healthier for you than your average doughnut.

Yes sir, the pastries were indeed tasty. However, they weren't quite worth an 80 mile bike trip through humidity hell. I had to stop for water every 10 miles or so along the way and felt like Tim Robbins at the end of the septic pipe in 'Shawshank Redemption' by the time I reached Mankato. I actually stopped to jump in Hiniker Pond on my way home just to cool down.

If I were to do the trip over again, I would either pick a cooler day, or I would do it during the actual Kolacky Days just to get more bang for the buck out of the trip. Or perhaps couple the Franke's visit with a trip to Big Honza House (I like saying the full name of the restaurant, it just sounds cool). Might as well immerse yourself in Czech food if you're going to bike that far.

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