Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Exercise for the mind: A trip to the library

Admittedly, I'm kind of a bookworm.

I bring a book with on most biking day trips, enjoy a good read while on one of the exercise machines at the Y, and even have a favorite reading spot in Mankato that I like to bike to (Weagel Park off the Red Jacket Trail).

So with time to kill on my day off earlier this week, I swung by the Blue Earth County Library and searched for books about biking in Minnesota. Considering my interest in the topic, I figured it would at least be material I'd enjoy reading and possibly give me ideas for bike rides to try in the future. Who knows? Maybe there's a cool ride in the Mankato area that I haven't experienced yet.

After a healthy amount of searching, I settled on two books to take home with me: Road Biking in Minnesota; and Bicycle Trails of Minnesota. The two books have similar titles, but each takes a different approach at describing cycling goodness in Minnesota.

The road biking book is probably my favorite of the two. It maps out 40 bike rides that the writer (M. Russ Lowthian, an avid midwestern cyclist) feels best encapsulates Minnesota as a state, ranging from 25-mile jaunts to 110-mile mega-challenges. Granted, there's an obvious skepticism that comes with any book that tries to label things as being the "best" (really, a matter of opinion), but Lowthian's approach in choosing and formulating the rides is both logical and fun to read.

He specifically avoids using bike trails whenever possible, instead opting for low-traffic back roads or roads with a deep shoulder for cyclists. This gives the rides room for creativity rather than relying on trails to guide them. Another appeal of the book is that the routes aren't just described by maps and elevation guides; Lowthian also lists points of interest, camping, food stops and bike shopes you can find along the way. Instead of focusing on distance and exercise, he focuses on the appeal of the journey (definitely a view point that's right up my alley).

There are three rides in the book that are relatively close to Mankato. There's the Blue Earth Challenge (an 82-mile loop that starts in Mankato and travels to Lake Crystal, Good Thunder and St. Clair); the Sakatah Cruise (60-mile loop between Elysian and Faribault in which half of it takes place on the Sakatah Singing Hills trail); and the Quad Park Cruise (a 52-mile loop that begins and ends in New Ulm). Those three rides, in addition to few other ones in the book, can be found here.

By comparison, the bicycle trails book is a lot more basic. It's part of the American Bike Trails series and thus focuses entirely on trails. Each of the 120+ trails in Minnesota is described with maps, parking lot listings, facility locations, and the occasional area attractions.

The biggest flaws in the book are its age (published in 2007, numerous trails have been completed or revised since then and merit updating) and its failure to list practical points of interest for riders. Maps and parking lots are essential information to find a trail, but that isn't the information needed to explore a trail.

For example, the listing for the Sakatah Trail has the campsite in Madison Lake and the bathroom facility in Elysian listed, but it doesn't include the Trail Blazer Bar & Grill or Tucker's Tavern, both of which are great places to eat along the trail. It also doesn't have nearby bike shops listed for any of the trails; information that could definitely come in handy for any down-on-their-luck cyclist (Lord knows it would have for me a time or two).

Perhaps I'm alone in this thought process, but I envision to ideal cycling book to be a mix of a park map and a tour guide. It should give a detailed map and description of a bike ride, then discuss the nooks and crannies that make said bike ride appealing.

It pretty much boils down to what you're looking for in the book. If you want logistical information on trails, the bike trails book is the way to go. If you're looking for ideas for adventurous rides you can go on, than Lowithian's book is what you want.

Both books are useful in their own way, but I found Lowithian's to be the more useful (and interesting) read of the two.

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