Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bike trip destinations: Eagles Nest

Distance from downtown Mankato: 12 miles if you use the Sakatah Trail, 7 miles if you just ride on Madison Ave instead.

Route I took: My friend Nick and I tried to use trails whenever possible for our route to the restaurant. We hopped on the Sakatah Trail near Highway 14, and after riding west on the trail for about 6 miles, we took a right onto County Road 27 and followed that into Eagle Lake. We were also going to use the Minnesota River Trail, but it was closed at the time due to flooding. If you're using this route, the Eagles Nest will be on your right off the town's main road (just past S 2nd Street).

By the time we were ready to head home, it began to rain outside and we reasoned that a shorter route was probably a good idea. We basically just rode Madison Ave back into Mankato, took a left onto the bike trail running alongside Victory Drive and took a right onto the Glenwood Ave bike trail. It's definitely a quicker route, but if you're going to the Eagle's Nest to chow down on the Duke Burger, a longer ride might not be a bad idea to help burn off the calories.

General ease/challenge of ride: Regardless of which route you take, the ride isn't overly difficult. The mileage is relatively short and the hills on Glenwood Ave and the Sakatah Trail are both pretty gradual slope-wise. Fair warning: There isn't much wind cover once you get out of the river valley, a fact we learned thanks to a pretty vicious head-wind on our ride out to the restaurant.

Safety of the ride: It all depends on which route you take. If the Minnesota River Trail is open and you want to stick to bike trails, the Sakatah route avoids heavy traffic and only has a few troublesome intersections (you have to cross Highway 14 on County Road 27 to get into Eagle Lake). Obviously, if you're riding on Madison Ave for the majority of the trip, you'll have to be more cautious of cars and be prepared to stop at more intersections. However, Madison does have sidewalks running alongside of it in Mankato, and once you're out of the city, the traffic drops off significantly.

Appeal of the destination: One of my favorite guilty pleasure shows in college and young adulthood is the gluttonous "Man vs. Food."

For those that have never seen the show, it's pretty much exactly what the title indicates. The show's host (a former chef who happens to have a massive appetite) travels to various restaurants across the U.S. that have some sort of eating "challenge" to attempt. The challenges could be anything from a small mountain of pancakes to a steak the size of a couch cushion (something John Candy did with hilarity in "The Great Outdoors"), and whoever successfully completes the challenge typically gets awarded with some sort of trinket to commemorate the occasion, like a t-shirt, a free meal or their name engraved on a plaque.

It's hard to explain why I like the show so much. Maybe it's because it helps me reminisce on the glory days of childhood, when I could eat whatever I wanted and get away with it thanks to a jackrabbit-like metabolism. Or perhaps I'm just envious of a guy who gets to eat for a living.

However, it's more than likely because I'm part of a culture that embraces extreme eating like it was some sort of sporting accomplishment. It's the reason why so many people tune in to the national hot dog eating contest and marvel at competitors who seem to have bottomless stomachs. Most of us can't eat (or wouldn't want to eat) what they are capable of consuming, which in turn leads to us admiring them.

It's also the reason why my friend and I decided to make the trek over to the Eagles Nest.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about the Eagle Lake staple. It has a good sports bar atmosphere, plentiful beer selection and a lot of decent eating options.

But we didn't go there for the atmosphere; we went there for the Duke Burger.

The signature Eagle's Nest menu item contains two pounds of beef, eight slices of bacon and five slices of cheese, all on a one-pound bun. It also comes with an unlimited supply of lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, onions and pickles.

The Duke Burger was created more than 20 years ago, when then-owner Lester Dittrich wanted to spice things up at the restaurant. The burger took off almost immediately and has since become an attraction that draws patrons from all over the country.

My friend and I had both seen pictures of the Duke prior to biking to the Eagles Nest, so we both kind of knew what to expect. However, that didn't stop us from gasping when the $20+ burger was brought to our table. It's roughly a foot in diameter and has to be rolled out on a pizza pan using a rolling pin. It also has to be flipped with a spatula the size of a cookie sheet.

The restaurant's menu says the Duke serves 4-6 people, but according to the waitress, many of the people who order it attempt to attack it solo. Reasoning that a burger apiece would likely send us both into a food coma, my friend and I decided to split one in half. Our preferred drink for washing the mass amounts of burger down was Summit with a side of ice water.

Despite our appetite being built up from the biking, we were not able to finish the Duke. There was a hockey puck-sized portion of it left when we both reached the point of maximum capacity.

(note: I would later learn that an 11-year-old girl managed to eat the Duke on her own, thus wounding my pride a smidgen)

I won't say it was the best burger I've ever eaten. It's a classic quantity-over-quality scenario and I'll take a burger and fries at Guenther's Cafe over the Duke Burger any day of the week.

However, it does make for a pretty cool photo opportunity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Reflecting on the Root: Lanesboro and the trail

In a lot of ways, Lanesboro is kind of in it's own little world.

Tucked deep in the valley of the Root River, the self-proclaimed "bed and breakfast capital of the world" has a natural feel of seclusion to it. It's a hefty driving distance from most metropolitan areas and high river valley bluffs rise up on each side of the town to separate it from the outside world (and create terrible cell phone reception).

Major highways are nowhere to be found in the downtown area of Lanesboro. As a matter of fact, the busiest roadway through town is probably that of the Root River Trail, the premier bike trail in the area and a big part of the reason I decided to do a three-day, 290-mile bike ride out to southeastern Minnesota last week.

Admittedly, my expectations for Lanesboro were pretty high going into the trip. The community has long been described to me as being something of a Utopian community, where all the citizens are friendly, the pastries are tasty and the industry remains untouched by the Wal-Marts and McDonalds of the world. It's as if the town was straight out of "Prairie Home Companion" or something.

Add in a 60-mile bike trail, a vibrant arts culture and an Amish presence in the area, and my intrigue for Lanesboro was through the roof. My affinity for bike trails is pretty obvious, but my appreciation for Amish culture is a little more subtle. I think their sense of community and ability to get by without modern conveniences are both traits to admire (albeit admire from afar, as I am currently writing this on a laptop while listening to music on my mp3 player).

So did Lanesboro meet my expectations? Was it worth biking 140 miles through wind and rain?

Well, yes and no.

From what I saw of the Root River Trail (I only biked on about 15 miles of it due to a bridge being closed outside of Lanesboro), the lofty descriptions I head about it were absolutely true. It is a wonderfully-maintained trail with picturesque river valley bluffs seemingly around every corner. Some bike trails were built for speed; this one was built to enjoy the scenery.

I also can't complain much about Lanesboro. The local shops and boutiques are fun to browse through even if you're not planning on buying anything and there is also a wealth of great eating options (I ate at Riverside on the Root and Rhino's Pizza & Sub Shoppe, both delicious choices) to enjoy. For the outdoors enthusiast, there's kayaking, golf, fishing, hiking and, of course, biking all readily available near downtown. The town also has a thriving arts culture, with a local theater company, a history museum and an art gallery to indulge in.

Bear in mind, all of these attractions are located in a town that's smaller than Nicollet population-wise.

So how did Lanesboro not live up to hype? What blemishes could I possibly have for this Utopian town of cycling goodness?

Call it a variety of small factors and an unforeseen aspect of biking there instead of driving there.

Timing was definitely a factor. The local theater company didn't have a show playing the night I was in Lanesboro and the art gallery or history museum were both closed while I was in town (their hours are more afternoon-oriented). Due to the relatively tight schedule, I also didn't have time for an Amish tour or any kayaking.

Some of Lanesboro's "attractions" didn't really appeal to me either. The town's well-known bed & breakfast culture means little to a lone tent camper and it's lack of a grocery store proved frustrating when it came time to buy provisions for the long ride home.

Beyond all that, my initial predictions of the trip proved incorrect. I thought biking out to Lanesboro instead of driving there would make me appreciate the destination that much more, kind of like how food tastes better after a hard day of work.

However, to some extent, biking out to Lanesboro actually made me appreciate the journey more than the destination.

Had I simply driven to Lanesboro, I undoubtedly would've spent more time there and less time in the towns along the way. There wouldn't have been the memories of eating at Marv's Bar & Grill in Hayfield, tent camping at a park in Grand Meadow or sleeping on some random person's porch in Ellendale (still can't believe that happened). Instead, I would've concentrated the three days on taking in all the sights, sounds and activities of Lanesboro.

Does that mean I would have rather driven to Lanesboro instead of biking there? Heck no! It was great exercise and I had a blast experiencing all those small towns along the way.

All it means is that Lanesboro wasn't the only lasting memory of my trip. And that next time, maybe I'll take a full week off.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reflecting on the Root: Planning to not have a plan

A few scattered thoughts on my Lanesboro bike trip that will eventually resemble a point:

  • When I stopped to fill my water bottles at a gas station in Brownsdale (northeast of Austin about 10 miles), I came across an elderly man that asked about my trip. Since this was during my ride out to Lanesboro (when I had brutal head wind and got rained on several times), the unforgiving weather was the main topic of conversation. While the man agreed that it wasn't ideal conditions for a long ride, he said something that stuck with me for the rest of the trip: "If you sit around waiting for the perfect weather to do something, it's never going to happen." I think that's an interesting point. Most days carry a risk of rain, wind, hail or other unpleasant weather occurring, but that doesn't have to stop you from doing what you want to do. (unless you ignore weather reports and narrowly miss biking through a hailstorm, which happened to me last summer, not my brightest moment)
  • The routes I took to get to and from Lanesboro weren't remotely close to the ones I initially planned. I had to adjust the ride out on a fly due to dirt roads and I got directions for the ride back from a store owner in Lanesboro (quick tangent: Google maps should seriously consider adding a feature that shows which roads are paved and which road's aren't, it would've saved me a lot of grief)
  • As it turns out, some of the best roads to bike on between Mankato and Lanesboro in terms of scenery, traffic and safety (Highway 218, the back roads from Fillmore to Stewartville and the back roads out of Ellendale, to name a few) were roads I had no intention of riding on when the trip started.
  • One of the better meals I had on the trip (the $5 burger-fries-Mich Golden Light combo with free popcorn at Marv's in Hayfield) was in a town I never would have passed through had I followed my initial directions.
  • With all due respect to Lanesboro, the most memorable moment of my trip didn't occur in the quaint river valley town with all the quirky shops and bike trails. It occurred in the nondescript town of Ellendale, where a local was kind enough to let me crash on his porch. That was something I never could have planned for or anticipated. The only reason I was even in Ellendale at the time was because I biked past sundown in an attempt to get closer to home and lessen the miles I had to bike on Friday.

Taking all those thoughts into account, here's my point: The biggest reason my trip went so well wasn't because I was well-prepared for it (I should've brought more warm clothes), had good luck for it (too much crappy weather and my camp stove broke), or even because I was in excellent shape for it (my legs are still a little sore). It's because I was flexible with my plans and made adjustments as the situation dictated.

It's almost impossible to keep a tight schedule if you're traveling by bike. There's just too many variables (weather, fatigue and bike malfunctions, to name three) that can swing your travel time by several hours.

Heck, the 50-mile stretch between Mankato and Ellendale took me nearly two hours less on the ride back thanks mostly to the wind conditions being more favorable. I can't see wind having the same effect on a car's travel time, unless the wind were at hurricane speeds.

It's not that I didn't plan anything going into the trip. I meticulously mapped out my routes ahead of time and had the phone number of every bike shop from Mankato to Lanesboro written down just in case my bike broke down to a point where I couldn't fix it.

I also had a basic idea of the things I wanted to do on the trip. I wanted to see the Mystery Cave (check), I wanted to hear some live music in Lanesboro (check) and I wanted to tour an Amish community (didn't get to do that one).

But when it came to finding places to eat or sleep, I pretty much just played it by ear. If I was hungry (which was basically all the time), I stopped in the next town and looked for a restaurant. If I was tired or if it was getting late, I stopped in the next town to look for a place to camp (I wanted to camp either in towns or near towns so I'd be close to water if I needed it).

In a lot of ways, I found myself trying to have the mindset Eric and Christie Nelson had on their bike trip to South America. I wanted to let the world impact me and I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. This helped me be more receptive to the people I met along the way, and in a way, I think it made me more approachable from their end.

Granted, this isn't a mindset that works for everyone. I know plenty of Type A personalities that pride themselves on having a plan and always like to be prepared for what they're doing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's a lot less nerve-wracking to know where you're sleeping ahead of time, and you also don't run the risk of running out of food or water in the middle of nowhere.

But if there's one thing I learned from this trip, it's this: Sometimes, the best plan is to not have a plan.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Riding to the Root: Home, sweet home

It feels good to be home.

Thanks to some favorable wind this morning (it's about time!), I managed to get back into Mankato a few minutes shy of noon.

The Ellendale to Mankato stretch today was easily the fastest I've biked for the entire trip: Roughly 50 miles in less than 3 1/2 hours. Not terribly fast compared to competitive bike races, but competitive cyclists aren't typically hauling 25 pounds of gear with them. I'm actually pretty proud of that ride; I didn't expect to get back to Mankato until at least 1, if not later.

Aside from the weather, I think home sickness might have had something to do with my accelerated cycling pace. I miss my apartment, I miss being able to cook my own food, and most of all, I miss my bed.

I'll write more later. For the time being though, I need to do three things ASAP: Unpack my bike, take a shower and grab a bite to eat. The breakfast I had at Ellendale Cafe was delicious, but after a long morning of cycling, it's not holding me over any longer.

Riding to the Root: Sleeping in luxury

Let's wind the clock back to last night.

I got into Ellendale just before 10:30 and told myself I was either going to: a.) Find a park or open field to set my tent up; or b.) Press on to St. Olaf Lake Park between Ellendale and New Richland, meaning I would have to bike on a brutally-bumpy stretch of Highway 30 at night.

Not wanting to choose the second option, I reasoned that I would ask whoever I saw in town if there was a place nearby to camp. Only problem with that reasoning was that I was in a small town late at night on a Thursday. The town was pretty much dead ... except for a lone bar in Ellendale's downtown area. There weren't many people inside, but I figured somebody might be able to point me in the right direction.

No luck with the bartender. He said the only place he knew of was a rest stop up the road a couple miles on Interstate 35; not going to bike that. So I left the bar wondering if I would be able to find a good spot to camp out in the country where I wouldn't bother anyone. It would be tough enough to find such a spot in daylight, let alone late at night.

But just as I was about to hop on bike and continue on my way, I came across a few bar patrons that were outside having a smoke. One of them asked me where I was headed, and I told him Mankato eventually, but finding a place to sleep was a top priority. After all, I had already biked about 90 miles.

And the bar patron responded with the following: "Hell dude, you can just come crash at my place."

I told him I only needed enough space in his backyard to set up my tent, but he insisted on being more accommodating. He set a futon mattress out on his screened-in porch, allowed me to take a hot shower and even gave me a few beers as he and his friends conversed with me about my travels around a camp fire in his back yard.

So as I'm writing this, I am no longer suffering from the back pains that come with sleeping on the ground, nor am I grimy from a full day of biking. Instead, I slept on a comfy futon mattress and feel refreshed from a hot shower.

I almost don't want to go back to real life. This is just too awesome.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Riding to the Root: Moving right along

Quick post this time, as I am hoping to get back on the road to put in another 15-20 miles before sundown (it's about 8 p.m. presently).

I am currently indulging in the daily special at Marv's Bar & Grill in Hayfield (burger, fries AND a Mich Golden Light for $5?! Yes, please!), which is located about 20 miles east of Interstate 35. The ride has been going well today. The weather has been great, the bike has cooperated and I've put in about 65 miles despite not getting started til after 1 p.m.

Nothing too exciting to report from the road. I stopped to stretch my legs and get some water in Stewartville. But aside from that, I've been pedaling pretty nonstop. The directions I got from a shop owner in Lanesboro were fantastic, as they avoided major highways until Stewartville and, best of all, avoided all dirt roads!

I'm currently looking into revising my route home to avoid the Ellendale/New Richland stretch of Highway 30. It involves cutting up around St. Olaf Lake. I've heard the roads are paved, so I might give that a shot.

Time to hit the road. See you all later.

Riding to the Root: Time to head home

Sometimes, a morning of unexpected leisure can be a good thing.

My ambitions to explore the Root River Trail were stunted today, as a trail bridge between Lanesboro and Rushford is currently closed for repairs. One of the guys on the construction crew pointed me in the direction of back roads detour, but it would have added about 6 miles to my ride and involved going up some BRUTAL river valley hills (think Main Street in Mankato).

Consequently, I instead spent the morning walking around Lanesboro, checking out all the shops, conversing with some of the locals and buying a giant caramel roll at the local pastry shop (delicious!). I also rented out a fishing pole to get a few casts in at a popular pond in town (no luck).

I was going to partake in their famed "Amish tour," but the tour would've taken more than three hours to complete and likely would've kept me in Lanesboro longer than I planned for. The kayak rental service in town was also tempting, but according to locals, the river is still very chilly from the late start to summer, and after spending the last couple days feeling soaked from the rain, I'll gladly stay dry.

Can't say that I mind taking a more leisurely morning than planned. I did my fair share of biking to get here and still have a heck of ride to get home. A little relaxation was definitely welcome, and in a town like Lanesboro, leisure is at a premium.

I'll touch more on the Lanesboro experience in a later post, but for the time being, I need to hit the road. On the advice of some of the locals, I'm adjusting my return route to Mankato in lieu of dirt roads that I was unaware of. I'd map the route out for my readers, but the internet here is frustratingly slow.

My goal is to make it to the Stewartville/Blooming Prairie area in time for dinner. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my bike can hold together for the rest of the trip. It's been good so far...

Riding to the Root: Here comes the sun

After two days of biking through rain and wind, an old friend finally decided to show itself from beyond the Lanesboro horizon.

The old friend I'm talking about is the sun.

Oh, it's made a slight appearance here and there since my trip began, but those appearances were fleeting. It would emerge from the clouds long enough to say hello, only to tuck itself back behind the cover before I had a chance to return the greeting.

Well, that won't be the case today. It is absolutely BEAUTIFUL outside. There's no wind to speak of and there is hardly a cloud in the sky. Making my morning even better, the person tent-camping next to me happened to be on a group bicycling tour and told me all the cool spots to see on the Root River Trail over a cup of hot chocolate.

The sun makes my entire day seem more optimistic. Instead of dealing with wet clothes, wet camping gear and the ongoing notion that I should have packed warmer clothes (seriously, it's JUNE), I can now dry off all my gear and let myself warm back up. I don't need to rush through things in an attempt to avoid another onslaught of rain; I can take my time and enjoy the scenery.

My plan is to take in a few sights and start heading back to Mankato by the early afternoon. I won't get all the way home today, but I'm hoping to get near the I35 area so my ride home tomorrow won't be too arduous.

Since it's a nice day outside, I won't waste time with other details. Instead, I'll leave you with this clip. It's a Richie Havens cover of my favorite Beatles song.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Riding to the Root: Appreciating the little things

I think it's a pretty universal notion that you appreciate things in life a lot more if you have to exert effort to attain them.

It's the reason a person will cherish a possession to no end if they had to pay for it instead of having it given to them. It's also the reason a craftsman will take a lot more pride in something they built rather than something they bought.

Or, in my case, I appreciate Lanesboro and the Root River Trail a whole heck of a lot more knowing that I took the time and effort to bike here rather than drive here.

Don't get me wrong, you don't need a 140-mile bike ride to appreciate Lanesboro. The town rocks. There's cool little shops everywhere, TONS of great eating options, awesome river valley scenery and, of course, the Root River Trail passing through it. There's a total outdoors vibe here, with everything from kayak rentals to golf to Amish tours for visitors to enjoy.

However, there's plenty of subtle aspects of it that I definitely would not have appreciated had I simply driven here.

For starters, there's the Root River Trail. Sure, it's scenic and well-maintained. Anyone can appreciate that. But after biking on crappy back roads and highways and dealing with passing cars for a day and a half, the site of that bike trail was like an oasis in the desert to me.

Or take the place I'm currently eating at in Lanesboro (Riverside on the Root). There's a decent live music set going on (pictured in this post, they just played a cover to "Blister in the Sun," awesome), good beer selection and the food definitely won't leave you feeling disappointed. But after living off mostly energy bars and water for two days, the taste of Cajun Alfredo pasta with a side of Summit Ale is bordering on divine. Plus the live music is a lot easier to appreciate when one of the headphones on your mp3 player stops working mid-trip.

Heck, even the icy cold shower I took tonight at the campground I'm staying at was something to cherish. It might have been a painful 5 minutes, complete with chattering teeth and a shivering body. But after the buildup of sweat and grime that comes with two days of biking, I didn't care. I needed to feel clean, water temperature be damned.

That's the real reason I took this trip: To appreciate the little things. Like most people, I take too much in life for granted. But after bracing the wind, rain and fatigue for two days to get to Lanesboro, I'm definitely not taking it for granted.

On the flip side of that, after I tough out those same elements to return to Mankato, you can bet that I won't be taking as much for granted there either. A full fridge and a bed to sleep on will most definitely be a welcome site.

Riding to the Root: Mystery Cave is no longer a mystery

Blanche DuBois had a classic line in "Streetcar Named Desire":

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

That saying rang true today, when my planned detour to the Mystery Cave (added on about 15 miles to my trip) almost went to waste. I was biking east on Highway 16 between Spring Valley and Preston when I came across the road I needed to head south on to get to the park. As it turns out, it was gravel. And if that wasn't enough, according to a passing motorist, it was freshly-laid gravel (meaning it was even looser than normal). At that point, it also started to rain.

(this pretty much sums up my reaction to the situation)

Discouraged, I resigned myself to the notion that I might just have to bike to Preston without seeing Minnesota's largest cave. As much as I wanted to see the park, I wasn't going to bike on a gravel road for eight miles to get there. The chances of my bike getting through that without a flat tire were zilch.

So I pressed on toward Preston on Highway 16, reasoning that I would be able to spend more time on the Root River Trail instead. After all, that's the main reason I decided to take this trip in the first place.

However, about a mile down the road, the same motorist I had asked previously about the gravel road honked his horn at me and asked me if I wanted a ride to the cave entrance. He wasn't headed that way, but he said he thought my trip was "pretty badass" and he didn't want to see me not get to where I wanted to go on account of some unforeseen bad roads.

So after thanking him about a million times, I loaded my bike into his trunk and headed to the cave. As you can see from the photo, it was definitely worth the detour (fun fact: the cave is more than a mile long).

However, it wouldn't have possible without the kindness of a stranger.

Thanks man, you made my day.

As for my current location, I'm in Preston and am hoping to make it to Lanesboro in time to beat the rain and possibly grab some dinner.

On that note, see y'all later.

Riding to the Root: Maiden camp stove use unsuccessful

Well, I guess I couldn't count on ALL my equipment working according to plan. I just figured it'd be my bike to malfunction first.

After setting up camp in Grand Meadow last night and NARROWLY beating the heavy rain that hit the area, I figured it was as good a time as any to test out my new camp stove. I got it for Christmas from my dad and at first glance, the thing was pretty much designed to be a backpacker's best friend. It's lightweight and packs into an area no bigger than a cell phone.

I brought along a package of Tuna Helper to test it's mettle, and as the water slowly approached boiling point, the stove seemed to work quite well. It started up easily and the flame was pretty easy to adjust.

However, a combination of winds and a faulty spot welding job on the stove conspired to do this:
As you can probably guess, a camp stove doesn't work so well when it's in two pieces. The water spilled everywhere and the Tuna Helper has been discarded as dead weight. Hopefully I can send the stove in to get it fixed when I get home.

In the meantime, I guess I'll have to live off restaurant/gas station food for the rest of the trip.

Time to head out to the Mystery Caves. I'll check back in later.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Riding to the Root: The war against wind

When I was in junior high, one of my favorite Vikings players was running back Leroy Hoard.

It wasn't because he blew anyone away statistically. Robert Smith was the Vikings featured back at the time and Randy Moss and Cris Carter were putting up far more illustrious offensive numbers. There also wasn't anything flashy about him. He wasn't a likely candidate to break for a 60-yard run a la Adrian Peterson, nor was he likely to blow through a defensive line like an in-his-prime Jerome Bettis.

No, Hoard endured himself to me for being what NFL analysts termed as a "grind-it-out" running back. He hardly ever broke for a long run, but he could always be counted on for 3-5 yards a pop and was one of the best at "moving the chains." Matter of fact, I distinctly remember a commentator saying this about Hoard: "If you need two yards, he'll give you three. But if you need 6 yards, he'll also give you three."

You're probably wondering what this little flashback has to do with my biking exploits to the Root River Trail. Well, as I sit in a gas station in Dexter, waiting for the rain to blow over, only one thing comes to mind when I look back on a full day of cycling: Wind.

Simply put, the wind has been relentless today, coming from the southeast all day and ranging in speeds from 15-25 mph (a woman in Lansing told me that Austin had a wind advisory today, I believe it). Given the direction of my travels (south and east), the wind was kind of like having an anchor attached to my bike.

I dealt with the wind fairly well at first. But as the day wore on, it drained my energy and sapped me of much of my enthusiasm.

However, rather than lamenting about how Mother Nature dealt me a crappy hand and calling it a day, I settled into a grind-it-out mode, much like Hoard back in the day. I didn't care if I had to downshift to lower gears of hop off my bike and walk for a stretch. All that I cared about was making forward progress.

This isn't a race, and I'm not trying to get to Lanesboro in record time. If I were going for speed, I wouldn't have packed most of the things that are currently bungeed/strapped to my bike. I also wouldn't have brought a laptop with to keep my readership entertained.

No, this trip is closer to the principles I lived by at RAGBRAI last summer. Nobody cares how you get there, just so long as you get there. If that means having to hop off the bike and walk, so be it.

Just keep moving the chains...

*On a positive note, my bike had zero malfunctions today and, up until now, I've had good luck with avoiding the rain that has apparently blanketed the state. The people I've met along the way have also been exceptionally nice. If the rain lets up, I might try to grind out a few more miles before setting up camp for the night.

Riding to the Root: So far, so good

Greetings from the wind-blown roads of Waseca County.

It is 9 a.m. and I am currently in the town of Waldorf. I've been on the road for about 2 1/2 hours and I am between 25-30 miles into my trip (I would look up the route map for exact mileage, but the Internet connection is pretty slow here).

According to the cashier at Dave's Groceries in Waldorf, there's a 50% chance of rain today. So I'll try to make this post brief in an attempt to put in as many miles as possible before bad weather hits.

The ride has been going fairly well so far. The initial back roads on my route weren't what I was hoping for (I don't like to ride on dirt roads, particularly while hauling 25 pounds of gear), but Highway 83 from St. Clair to Waldorf had surprisingly little traffic. This actually worked out well mileage-wise, as Highway 83 is easily the shortest route for this leg of the trip.

I've also had good luck with the bike so far, as there are no mechanical issues to report (fingers crossed on that). Big thanks to Jon Andersen at Flying Penguin for fixing my broken spoke yesterday on short notice. He's been a big help in making me feel ready for this trip.

Really, the only issue so far has been the wind. According to the Weather Channel, it is blowing at 15 mph coming from the southeast, so it has pretty much been blowing in my face for the entire ride.

The next leg of the route has me heading straight east toward Geneva. Hoping to get there in time for lunch.

Riding to the Root: Backpacking without a backpack

When you spend seven years in Boy Scouts like I did, you learn a thing or two about backpacking.

There's the little nuances to it, like air-compressing your gear to maximize space. And there's the major points of it, like packing light, remembering a toothbrush and knowing what you'll need for the trip.

Over the years, I've been on a lot of cool backpacking trips (Grand Canyon, Isle Royale and the Boundary Waters, to name a few), all of which required their own degree of preparation. The preparation stage of backpacking is something I always took a major interest in. I like feeling prepared for all scenarios and I've often compared the process of loading gear into your pack to solving a puzzle: It's not just about having the right piece, but also about knowing where that piece is supposed to fit in the puzzle.

The three-day bike trip to Lanesboro that I'm about to leave for requires a lot of same backpacking principles, only with one key difference: There's no "backpack" involved. I don't know if it's the same for other cyclists, but I try to avoid loading gear on my back for long-distance bike rides. My reasons for this include:

  • It eases the strain on your back and shoulders, which are already being used to support your upper body while riding. Ultimately, your gear's weight (and yourself, for that matter) is being carried by the wheels of your bike. It makes no sense for your back to have to carry that weight as well.
  • The added items on your back make it more likely that you'll overheat. Wearing a heavy backpack on your back would be like throwing a thick wool blanket over a furnace: Bad times all around.
  • The weight isn't evenly distributed on your bike. If you're packing gear for a bike trip, you generally want to have it spread out on your bike so the front and rear wheels can share the workload.
  • Not as important as the other points, but if you're biking shirtless with a backpack, odd tan lines happen.

Lightweight packing also takes on premium importance when it comes to bike trips. The more weight you're carrying, the harder the pedaling. You're also more likely to have bike malfunctions, as the extra weight can put strain on the tires and spokes.

I'm actually having a little trouble with the lightweight concept for this trip. For starters, I'm packing a laptop. I'm also trying to keep costs along the way to a minimum. So instead of staying in hotels and eating at restaurants constantly, I'm packing a tent, a camp stove and four meals worth of food.

However, I'm shaving valuable ounces off in other ways. Instead of bringing my entire wallet, I'm only packing my ID, my insurance cards (worst-case scenario), a check card and some money. Instead of bring full bottles of items (camp soap, toothpaste, ect.) and a full roll of duct tape (a camping essential), I compressed them down into smaller containers. Other luxuries like an air mattress and a pillow are also being left behind.

After taking all of that into account, here is what the items packed onto my bike look like (sans the food, which is in a fanny pack that will be around my waist):
For the sake of keeping the blog entry relatively short, I won't list EVERY item I'm packing. But I will say that I feel decently prepared for the ride.

Electronics, toiletries, maps and my first aid kit are in the handlebar bag. The bike repair kit is on the center bar between the seat and the handlebars. My tent, sleeping bag and a change of clothes are attached to my bike seat via clips and bungee cords.

You'll notice the absence of bike racks in my packing methods. This is for two reasons: I didn't want the extra weight, I didn't want to spend the money on a decent rack unless I needed to. Besides, I used a rack last fall for my trip to Red Wing (a $25 one from Wal Mart, bad choice) and it wound up being more of a headache than it was helpful. I'm not opposed to using racks, but if you can get by without them, more power to you.

Well, that's all I've got for now. Time to hit the road. Hope to check back in later today.

***In case anybody is curious, here is what my gear looked liked before being packed:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Riding to the Root: Figuring out the route

As my previous post indicated, my 3-day bike trip to the Root River Trail is rapidly approaching. I leave Tuesday morning bright and early and will hopefully be getting to the trail by Wednesday afternoon.

I'm usually a pretty laid-back guy when it comes to planning (I'd rather just take life as it comes), but for something like this, it's a good idea to think things through. After all, the motto of Boy Scouts is to "Be Prepared."

A big part of preparing for a bike trip is figuring out what route you're going to take. Here are five things I try to factor in when I'm planning a route:

  1. Does it avoid most major roadways? At times, it's unavoidable that you're going to have to bike on a main highway. There's only so many back roads and "short cuts" out there. However, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to avoid them whenever possible. You might have to bike a few extra miles, but it's worth it to not a constant stream of cars zipping past you at 60+ mph.
  2. Are the roads at least major enough where they will likely be paved? I used to ride on dirt paths all the time as a kid, but that was with a rugged mountain bike that had thick tires, shock absorbers and a cushy seat. With a road bike, ravel roads are uncomfortable to ride on and they're more likely to cause a flat tire.
  3. Is it relatively easy to remember? Twists and turns are going to happen with any bike ride, particularly one that travels halfway across the state. However, it shouldn't be confusing to the point where you have to stop at every other intersection to look at your map. Nobody likes being lost, but there's also very few people that enjoy toting a mass of road maps with them on a bike trip.
  4. Is there anything cool to see along the way? If you're got the time to do so, some attractions are worth a quick detour to go check out. Why go on a long bike ride if you're not going to stop and smell the roses once in awhile?
  5. Are there potential stops for food and water? Basically, this is just making sure that your route passes through a town every once in awhile. Most towns will at least have a gas station for you to fill up your water bottle and grab a snack. There's nothing worse than being out in the middle of nowhere with no water (well, except for having a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, that might be worse).

With all of that in mind, here are the routes I came up with for my trip to the Root River Trail. The return route is different from the initial route because I planned a 15-mile detour to go see the Mystery Caves near Preston.

Feel free to chime in with suggestions on different roads I could take or other cool attractions I could check out along the way.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Riding to the Root River Trail

While getting bike repairs done at Flying Penguin Outdoor Sports a few weeks back, owner Jon Andersen asked me the following question:

"So, what's the next big cycling adventure?"

Considering my history of two-wheeled travels, it's a legitimate question. However, I didn't really have an answer for him at the time.

It wasn't because I didn't plan on biking at all this summer. I had every intention of continuing my blog series on bike trips to make in the Mankato area and my two-wheeled companion had become my main mode of in-town transportation. Aside from that, I was -- and still am -- hoping to participate in a duathlon this summer.

But as far as hard-core "adventures" go, my ideas were somewhat lacking.

For a variety of reasons -- vacation time, money and scheduling conflicts, to name three -- I will not be participating in RAGBRAI this year. The annual Bicycling Around Minnesota ride also isn't an option, as I will be on vacation in Seattle during that time.

As much as I would love to go on an ambitious bike trip like Eric and Christie Nelson's trek to South America, I likely wouldn't be able to get the time off work. Indeed, like most other people, my imagination can get bogged down by the obligations of everyday life from time to time.

However, a few days after Andersen posed his question to me, my imagination got a shot in the arm in the form of a favorable June schedule. I found out that I had three straight days off from work in the middle of the month, a relative rarity.

My mind immediately went into overdrive. How far can I bike in three days? Are there any sites I'm anxious to see? Is there a bike trail I want to explore?

After pondering these questions and more, I arrived at an answer: The Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota.

From Tuesday to Friday next week, I will be biking on back roads, sleeping out of a tent and praying for favorable wind as I make my way across the state to this hidden gem of cycling wonderment. Collectively, the trip will be about 300 miles.

Since my RAGBRAI blog entries last year were well-received by readers, I plan on documenting this adventure in a similar fashion. I plan on bringing my laptop with and, wi-fi service permitting, will be writing multiple blog entries along the way.

I've always been curious about the Root River Trail. By all accounts, it's a gorgeous area of the state and the towns located along the trail all make a concentrated effort to be accommodating to cyclists. The trail's central hub of Lanesboro is also considered to be one of the great cycling towns in the state, complete with rich culture and a quaint downtown area.

Truthfully, my initial plans were to drive out to Lanesboro at some point this summer and spend a day biking the Root River Trail. I figured that way I could spend more time enjoying all the perks of the trail and less time worrying about finding a place to sleep.

Most people would probably choose to go the car route as well. It's less time-consuming, requires less effort and has a lot less margin for error (weather, fatigue, bike malfunctions, ect.).

However, when the spirit is starved for adventure, conventional wisdom often gets tossed out the window.

Or in this case, thrown onto a bike seat.

*Here is a link to the Root River Trail website. You know it's a good bike trail when the website alone is fun to look at.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"Learning the Loops" bike series

As mentioned in a previous post, one of the biggest perks of the new Greater Mankato trails and bike map is the suggested bike loops it has listed for riders to sink their teeth into. The loops vary from 15-35 miles in distance and each will take riders past some of Mankato's more scenic attractions.

Aside from being good exercise, it's also a great way to get to know the community and all the cool sites it has to offer.

As readers of my blog can attest, I'm a big believer in the notion that bike rides should be more about the journey and the appeal of the destination instead of sheer mileage. I've done my share of 80+ mile biking days and in all honesty, I didn't enjoy them as much as the days where I'd bike out to a secluded beach with a good book or head out to the Eagles Nest to sink my teeth into the Duke Burger (blog entry coming soon).

So as you can probably imagine, the suggested bike loops would have a definite to a rider like me. Which is why I'm introducing a 4-part series on my blog called "Learning the Loops." Throughout the summer, I'll be riding on the four suggested loops and giving my readers the 411 things like how difficult the ride was, the cool stuff there was to see and suggestions on how to possibly expand the loops to include other attractions.

Unlike my ongoing bike trip series, it won't focus as much on one destination. Rather, it will be looking at the ride as a whole.

Hope you all are as excited to read about the loops as I am to bike on them!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Stumbling across the Bluff Riders Charge

While out biking yesterday afternoon, I came across an odd scene on the Red Jacket Trail.

Now, I've ridden on that trail enough times where I kind of know what to expect. I can usually count on seeing crowd of dog walkers, a few runners, the occasional rollerblader and a steady stream of recreational cyclists. The nicer the day (and yesterday was beautiful), the higher the trail traffic.

But the traffic yesterday was even higher than normal. There was an inordinate number of mountain bikers decked out in racing gear, sporting bib numbers and riding on the trail with a "warming up for a race" look on their faces.

As it turns out, there was a good reason for this. Yesterday was the annual Bluff Riders Charge mountain bike race at Mount Kato, and close to 300 riders were on hand to test their mettle on the considerable trail system the ski resort has to offer.

I'm going to be brutally honest: I had no idea the race was going on and barely even knew that it even existed.

While I am a HUGE advocate of cycling and spend more time out on the trails than I'd care to admit, I haven't really gotten into mountain biking. This is mostly due to the fact that I don't own a mountain bike. If I tried to ride my road bike through the trails of Seven Mile Creek, it would probably fall apart faster than Vanilla Ice's music career.

But that shouldn't suggest that I don't have an appreciation for mountain biking. Far from it.
I think it's a wonderful activity that takes the exploration aspects of cycling to a whole new level. As a matter of fact, the first non-training wheels bike I ever owned was a 15-speed Schwinn mountain bike, and it lasted all the way through high school for me.

So with some time to kill before work, I decided to cut my ride short and watch some of the race. As luck would have it, I got there right as the elite racers were lining up at the starting line. After asking around, I found out that the elite riders would be doing five loops of the trails (trail map here) for a grand total of 23 miles. Most other races were four loops.

Once the race began, I followed a few spectators on some trails to find a good viewing spot for the race and came across a BRUTAL drop-off point in the race course. I remember asking the people around me "Wait, do they actually BIKE down that?!" as I contemplated whether or not I would be able to hike up it without mountain climbing gear.

Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera on me to help illustrate to capture the moment (photos on this post are actually from previous years racing), but I will say this about the particular spot I was viewing: It was a doozy. Even the elite riders were struggling with the drop-off, as a couple of them took a tumble down it and more than a few opted to simply walk their bike down the hill rather than risk it.

I wish I could've stayed long enough to see the finish of the race (the athleticism required to navigate those trails is truly a sight to see), but I had to get back to my apartment and get ready for work. Since I'm a big believer in giving my readers as much content to chew on as possible, here's a Bluff Riders Charge-related links to browse at your leisure:

I might have to start scouring the Internet for a mountain bike I can call my own. It looked like a lot of fun.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bike trip destinations: Schmidt's Meat Market

Distance from downtown Mankato: 16 miles using back roads and bike routes. It is probably a mile or two shorter distance-wise if you want to navigate Upper North Mankato or hop on Highway 14, but I'd rather not deal with high-traffic roads.

Route I took: The route I used is exactly the same as the first portion of the route I took to get to New Ulm last summer. It is also part of the 34-mile Red Jacket Loop that's listed on the new Mankato bike trails map. Take the downtown bridge into North Mankato, go straight on Belgrade, take a left onto Lee Blvd and then cross Lookout Drive onto Judson Bottom Road. Take Judson all the way to County Road 41, where you then hang a left and ride on that until you hit the T on County Highway 23. Take a right onto 23 and follow that all the way across Highway 14 into Nicollet. Once in Nicollet, take a right on 4th Street and a left on Pine Street. Schmidt's will be on your right.

General ease/challenge of ride: At 32 miles round trip, it's a fairly challenging distance for recreational cyclists. But for regular century riders, it's cake. There's pretty decent wind cover for the majority of the ride and there's two notable hills: The incline up Judson Bottom leading to County Road 41 (about 4 miles in) and the long climb on Highway 23 near the Nicollet South Bike Shop (miles 11 and 12). Both hills are tough, but neither is unbearable.

Safety of the ride: I've always enjoyed this ride just because of how ideal it is for safe cycling. Aside from having to cross Highway 14, there aren't too many troublesome intersections to worry about. Rumble strip haters can also breathe a sigh of relief because they're nowhere to be
found, meaning bikers have an easier time keeping a safe distance from vehicles. Since a portion of the route is part of a designated bike loop, cyclists have the added comfort of an extra-wide shoulder on County Road 41 that functions as a bike lane. The only road on this route that's a little iffy to bike on is Judson Bottom because it has no shoulder and road itself is in pretty rough shape. However, the traffic there is usually pretty light.

Appeal of the destination: As its namesake would indicate, Schmidt's main appeal is in the sale of meat products. In that regard, few have a better product to offer than the family-owned meat market that's been serving Southern Minnesota since 1947. The mere aroma of meats and seasonings as you walk into the store is enough to make your mouth water.

As far as specialty items go, it's tough to tell what Schmidt's does best. I've always been partial to their beef sticks, but according to an article in the New Ulm Journal, they recently won awards from the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors for their beef jerky and ring bologna. According to a 2010 article in the Free Press, they have 65 different varieties of sausage and 15 kinds of brats. Pretty much whatever taste you might have for meat -- whether it's bacon, jerky, beef sticks, sausages, bratwursts, steaks, ground beef -- is sure to be satisfied with a trip to Schmidt's.

Beyond meat products, Schmidt's also has a wide variety of cheeses (they have cheese curds!), crackers and seasonings stocking their shelves. They also have their fair share of salad and dressing products to accommodate their less carnivorous patrons. For gift-stumped customers, they have pre-packaged gift boxes in a variety of prices that feature summer sausages, beef sticks, cheese blocks, crackers and other goodies.

Looking past the retail aspects of the store (tough to do, seeing as how it's a meat market and all), Schmidt's also has an appeal for it's continuity. Long-time family-owned businesses have a certain aura about them, almost as through they're a portal through time that have found a way to endure through the ages. A few nods to the past are even still on display in the store, from the old meat processing equipment hanging on the walls to ever-visible Schmidty the Butcher statue they've got in the store (pictured right).

Schmidt's certainly has changed over the years. Their store has gotten much larger, their product lines have expanded and their business focus has shifted away from custom meat processing and into retail items. But the fact their on their third generation as a family-owned business tells customers that they have maintained a certain level of quality with their products. And one taste of their summer sausage backs up that claim.

As a whole, the ride also has an appeal for some of the spots you can stop at along the way. Minnemishinona Falls near the turning point of Judson Bottom and County Road 41, and Nicollet South Bike Shop is located off of Highway 23 if you want to look at bike products or need to get a flat tire repaired (yes, that happened to me once on this ride). Those two locations are
marked on the route map with ice cream cones, mostly because the markings available on are quite limited.

The Minnemishinona park area isn't nearly as developed as its Minneopa counterpart, but it's still a pretty cool site to check out and it's currently in the middle of a major overhaul. A steel truss bridge was recently constructed over the falls (Free Press story here) and a trail is being built around the bridge that will eventually link up with the bike path that travels up Rockford Road.

**Note: The photo I have of the falls is from last summer, I was going to get picture of the bridge when I did this ride recently, but it started to rain as I was coming back from Nicollet. Combine that with the flat tire, and I was in no mood to stop anywhere, unless it was a bar.