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Seven Gears of Separation: My Glorious Bicycle Misadventure

by Jay Walljasper - April 30, 2008

Published by The National Geographic Green Guide

I'm a devoted bicyclist who's used two wheels as my primary means of transportation since first grade. But I had never taken a long bike trip, so last Sunday my friend Steve Clark and I set out to change that.

Steve, who runs a federally funded $25 million pilot program to encourage biking and walking in Minneapolis, is a well-conditioned long distance biker, who once covered 240 miles in a single day. Now that's impressive. And it's intimidating because I had never done more than 50, and that was many years ago. But together we planned a 70-mile bike journey from Cushing, Wisconsin to St. Paul, Minnesota.

I wanted to test my mettle on a long ride as a trial run for some ambitious bike journeys I've always dreamed of doing. Steve wanted to store his pick-up truck at a farm he owns in Wisconsin. But instead of expanding his carbon footprint by driving two vehicles 70 miles and then driving one home, we hatched the idea of throwing bikes in the the truck and then pedaling back to St. Paul. And, just as important, we both wanted to enjoy a nice spring day in the country and sample local beers along the way.

It seemed like a good idea.

But I could see Steve was growing skeptical when he examined my bike as we hoisted it up into the bed of the pick-up. I'm a person more interested in bicycling than in bicycles, and my heavy seven-speed with wide tires confirmed that fact for him. He asked me if I had my cell phone along in case the bike (or, just as likely, me) broke down beside the road. Then we climbed in the truck and headed east in the chill of the morning.

The warmth and sunshine promised by the weatherman had yet to materialize by the time we reached the farm and I, dressed in short pants with no warm jacket, was beginning to grow skeptical myself about this whole enterprise. I had not trained at all for the ride and now I was wearing the wrong clothes. Would I really be able to make it 70 miles?

But we shoved off on our bikes, and it was thrilling to be out in the rolling hills of the St. Croix River Valley. But the hills were more rolling than I had expected--steep, in fact. I felt for that cell phone in my pocket, just to make sure I could call my wife Julie to come pick me up. It's what she was anticipating.

The sun broke finally broke through clouds as we coasted down a particularly steep hill, and Steve welcomed it with a thundering whoop that summarized my own feeling about how great it is to be on a bike heading down a beautiful road with the whole day in front of you.

After about two hours we descended into St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, a charming little town that hosts a National Park Service headquarters for the St. Croix National Scenic River. We went out to inspect at the river at a spot right above the waterfall and studied an historical marker noting that Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin senator who co-founded Earth Day, grew up nearby.

Now it was time for lunch. Since we'd burned voluminous calories chugging our way up numerous hills, we wheeled up to a classic Wisconsin supper club that was serving a Sunday brunch of waffles, eggs, biscuits, sausage, bacon, grits, hashbrowns, fried chicken, a relish tray and a desert bar. For the first beer of the day, I settled on Spotted Cow, a farmhouse-style ale brewed in the small heavily Swiss town of New Glarus, Wisconsin.

Spring was in full-blown glory as we remounted our bikes, and headed south. I began regretting the second helping of fried chicken and biscuits as we approached another obstacle course of river bluffs. Steve glanced over at me pedaling hard and earnestly promised this was the very last hill of the ride. Then he flashed a grin. That became the running joke of our journey (every road trip needs one), as one or the other of us would enthusiastically reassure the other that this was certainly, definitely, absolutely the last hill we'd see.

We glided through the town of Osceola and across the St. Croix River Bridge into Minnesota with more whooping from Steve. There is something magic about rolling through a lovely landscape under your own power, feeling a keen connection with the wind, the water, the trees, even the hills. It was truly a perfect spring day.

But turning on to Highway 95 toward the Twin Cities, we began to wonder if the weather wasn't almost too nice and sunny. It seemed that nearly every family in the entire metropolitan region had chosen this very road for a scenic Sunday drive. We were exiled to the potholed shoulder of the road as car after car zoomed past us. "I've ridden this road dozens of times," Steve hollered over the roar of the traffic, "and never seen it this busy."

At Steve's suggestion, we opted for a handy long-cut, which added a few miles to the trip but got us away from speeding minivans. We could hear birds singing and a rhythmic buzz rising from ponds and wetlands as frogs and insects got ready for the spring mating season. That was also about the time I was reminded of a quip from Iowa humorist Donald Kaul, when asked about his training regimen for the famous RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). Kaul declared that all he does to get ready for the 400-plus mile ride is sit on a picket fence two hours a day. Boy, my butt was getting a tougher workout than my legs.

I had always taken deep pride on never wearing those goofy Lycra biking shorts, but for the first time was rethinking that pledge. I was now pedaling most of the time standing up. Luckily, we soon hit Marine-on-St. Croix, a truly charming village with a truly charming tavern where I could trade my bike seat for a barstool. The place was overrun with bikers (motorcycles, not bicycles), which these days are a pretty calm crowd--middle-aged accountants, lawyers, shop stewards and schoolteachers outfitted with leather and Harleys for the weekend. My choice of beer was a Summit Maibock, a tasty seasonal spring beer brewed in St. Paul, our destination, now about 35 miles away.

Back on the road again it seemed the Minnesota countryside, dotted with lakes, was aiming to show us it was every bit as lovely as Wisconsin. The discomfort in my derriere was gradually fading as a new pain revealed itself in my knee. This was serious and unexpected. A sore butt would go away in a day or two, but a knee injury could cancel a summer of biking.

I was now feeling almost certain that I would have to bail out of the ride before hitting St. Paul. Almost on cue, the phone in my pocket rang and Julie asked how I was doing. She was just sitting down with friends for a backyard barbecue. I told her I was struggling, but not ready to give up just yet.

Soon Steve and I reached the start of the Gateway Trail, a paved bike path leading 18 miles back to St. Paul along an old rail corridor. I felt a surge of hope in noting that we had, indeed, climbed our very last hill--rail lines were always laid out with a very gradual grade. Steve suggested we swap bikes. In his experience, he said, a new bike sometimes sends a new boost of energy to the rider. I gladly accepted his generosity, handing over my heavy bike with an increasingly wobbly drivewheel in return for his sleek folding bicycle in a pleasing mint green color.

And we were off. I think rails-to-trails is the greatest idea in American recreation since the invention of the National Park. America's first bike trail was converted out of an abandoned Chicago-Northwestern railroad line between the Wisconsin towns of Elroy and Sparta in 1965, and the idea has now exploded with hundreds of trails all over the country. (There are more than 50 in Wisconsin, and more than 40 in Minnesota.)

The Gateway Trail took us past pastures, ponds and woods you wouldn't expect to find in the suburbs of a metropolitan region of 3 million. Since the railroad right-of-way is narrower than even a backcountry road, you feel a part of the environment all around you.

Couple miles down the line, it suddenly occurred to me: My knee feels fine and even my butt's doing okay. Hallelujah, I thought, feeling a surge of energy that propelled me well ahead of Steve for the first time all day. "With this bike, it's more like riding 140 miles instead of 70," he announced from behind. I set the pace all the way to North St. Paul, where Steve and I had planned dinner at Minnesota's oldest bar--Neumann's, which opened on the main street in 1887.

The kitchen had closed just minutes before we arrived, so we ordered a round of St. Paul's own Summit Extra Pale Ale and wandered out into the beer garden. A man dressed in leather from top to bottom looked over at us from the next table with an intent stare and yelled, "Hey, aren't you the guys on bikes we saw back at the bar in Marine?"

We nodded and he came over to shake our hands. "Hey, that's great. You guys biked all that way? How was it?"
"Great!" we said.
"Not too many hills?"
"Not at all," I said with wide grin.
It was just a short hop back to St. Paul into the setting sun. And I felt on top of the world the whole way.