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A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
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As the Dirty Kanza 200 looms ominously in the not too distant future I’ve been determined to knock out some significant training miles in an effort to reduce the “hurt factor” of that race. I know it will hurt, but I’d really like to avoid throwing up in the bushes near the finish area like last year. So, with that in mind I put together a plan that included some pretty hard efforts. One of those efforts would include a solo overnight bike packing trip to the quaint, eccentric Madeline Island. Madeline is located just off the south shore of Lake Superior and belongs to Wisconsin. It’s pretty much the closest thing to Jamaica that can be found in the northern regions of the Midwest. It’s one of, if not the biggest of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. Beautiful sandy beaches touching crystal clear, ice cold Superior water, complete with a vibe that Bob Marley would be proud of… that’s Madeline Island. That’s where I was heading!
The plan initially was to travel as light as possible with the focus being on two back to back fast paced 100 mile efforts on the bike. But, of course Mother Nature had to get involved and decided to throw some unseasonably cool weather at Northern Wisconsin which meteorologists were scratching their heads over. Over night and early morning temps were predicted to be in the low 20’s, so much for traveling light. I needed to switch my kit to almost a full blown winter set up. Instead of a 40 degree summer bag, I now needed a bulkier 20 degree bag. Instead of shorts and sandals, I now needed a down vest, mittens, and pants. Despite the winter gear I felt I was running about as light as dared. I made the decision to forego cooking equipment and just grab my meals from a bar and grill or diner. As light as I tried to go, it still felt heavy, but I figured it would help with the work out.
Saturday, 7:20 a.m. I put the empty coffee cup in the dishwasher, gave lil Lucy a scratch on the head as she groaned out a sad meow. Charley got a kiss on her orange face and I let them know I loved them both as I shut the garage door. My little four leggers were on their own for a bit as their Mom was off conquering her own demons. Amy was crushing through her first 50K trail run, also in Wisconsin. The steering on my Cutthroat felt sluggish at best with the load on the front and the pedaling was deliberate, as it took concerted effort to get the wheels rolling. It wasn’t long before I was holding on tight while being buffeted by high winds on the big bridge between Duluth, MN and Wisconsin. Safely off the bridge and cruising through the industrial little town of Superior I considered my trip officially under way.
After a couple miles of gravel “rail trail” I was out of town and alone on the road. The rig still felt a little awkward under me as tried to make friends with its handling. I squirmed around on the saddle, changed my hand position every 20 seconds, made tiny adjustments to just about everything I could reach until it all felt just right. The sun was trying to break through an overall cloudy day and I was now doing what I do, pedaling. I was by myself, but I felt good.
Eager for my route to take me close to the shore I wondered what every hill and curve of road would reveal. My heart soared when I saw what I’d seen so many times before from the window of my car, Lake Superior’s south shore. I’m a born and bred north shore guy, so visiting the south shore of the big lake is always exciting, but to see it from the saddle of a bike was so much better. The air was brisk and I had switched to my mittens long ago. I wasn’t cold, but I did notice the salty dried tears on my face. Mother Nature may have dialed up some cool temperatures, but she also had placed her hand on the small of my back and made the pedaling easy. I moved through the rollers as a 15 mph tail wind pushed me into some of my hardest gears allowing me to travel upwards of 20 mph for extended periods of time with little to no effort. The livin’ was easy! Soon I saw the sign for the little fishing village of Cornucopia, Wisconsin and I knew I would reach my destination soon. What I didn’t realize was how drastically the small rollers would change into some pretty serious climbs. I’d never noticed the size of these hills during previous drives. It’s amazing what you can miss from a car, as the world zooms by outside the window. Despite the size of the Wisconsin “mountains” I managed them with only a moderate amount of pain. I did take note however of the descent down the other side that took over 3 minutes to clear. I shrugged off the thought of the climb that awaited me the next morning.
The little shore town of Bayfield unfolded before me as I coasted toward the ferry entrance. I glanced at my watch and gave myself an imaginary pat on the back, 6 hours and 8 minutes, “not too bad on a loaded bike” I thought.
A quick text to find out how Amy was doing in her race and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the ferry – freezing! I felt the fun factor rising though as I started talking with some fellow passengers on the trip over. They were interested in what I was doing even if they thought it was a bit odd. The views were spectacular and it felt good to be on the lake I’d been riding next to for so long. Despite the scenery and good company it was getting hard to ignore the fact that my cycling clothes were no longer keeping me warm. I needed to get into some street clothes fast as snowflakes drifted past. Yes! Snow in mid-May. I locked up next to some other bikes; even though it probably wasn’t necessary, not in this place. I donned warmer clothes over the top of my bike clothes right there on the sidewalk while some passersby questioned me about my trip. I answered all of their questions and in return they pointed me in the direction of a couple AA batteries that I needed.
The next thing on my agenda was simple; grab a beer and a hot cup of chili. It wasn’t long before I felt like I belonged at the “Beach Club”. The locals took me in and fueled me with stories from the island. I shared a few of my adventures in return. They even tried to hide my food when I went to the bathroom. I was one of their own after only an hour. I could get used to this kind of life.
Six more miles of easy pedaling and I was ready to set up camp. The campground was basically deserted, save 3 other tents. I scavenged up some wood for a fire and quickly made the little spot in the woods my home. With no more chores to do I decided to take a walk down to the beach and check out the view. I was presented with complete solitude. There wasn’t a living soul in sight; I strained to hear a sound, nothing…just the gentle swooshing of water kissing the sand. Forty minutes I sat staring out toward the Apostles allowing my mind to clear of my busy life back home. I could feel the weight lifting from my shoulders. All of the things that concern me daily seemed to float out with the retreating waves. I didn’t want to leave that log.
Taking down camp went smoothly and now that I was fully adjusted to island life I had taken a considerable chunk of time to accomplish the task. Glancing at my watch I noticed I had 23 minutes to make the ferry. A quick walk around the campsite produced no forgotten items, so I grabbed up what little garbage I’d created and headed for the dumpster with my bike in tow. “Man, I’m going to have to pin it!” I thought. Six miles in 23 minutes on a really heavy bike into a headwind, I had to try. Straight outta the sleeping bag and straight into a sprint was not really the way I wanted to start my 94 mile ride. I think I checked my watch 30 times on that ride, but I made it with 4 minutes to spare. The ticket taker tried to engage in some casual conversation as I fumbled for my pass. Finally, I managed to mumble out that I had gone full gas in an attempt to make it in time. He assured me that I could relax, I’d made it.
Now all I had in front of me was a big breakfast and a long ride home with the incentive of my buddy Charlie Farrow meeting me somewhere along the line. Charlie planned to ride toward me until we met, then escort me home. Satisfied with my meal I tipped my server and headed out to my rig. I began the long climb out of Bayfield and straight into the hard west wind. My speed was considerably slower and I was digging pretty deep. I needed to get my head right that this was going to be a big one. The miles were agonizingly slow as the wind showed no signs of letting up. I kept an eye up the road as far as I could see looking for Charlie, but nothing. I wanted to talk to him, just to get my mind off of the wind. My morale began to sink as I accepted that he wasn’t going to show. Maybe it was fitting that I finish this thing alone. Stupidly, I started counting down the miles at about the 30 to go mark. What a mistake! The countdown seemed to make time stand still. I shifted my thinking to one singular thought, “If I keep pedaling, I’ll eventually make it home”.
I did make it home in just less than 8 hours! I was completely wasted. I flopped onto my front lawn while my neighbor yelled across the street, “How was it?” I mumbled something to him and then pondered his response, “Better you than me”. Classic!
The Cutthroat got put right into her parking spot fully loaded. The only thing I took from it was aphoto and into the house I went. Amy wasn’t home from her trip yet, but I wasn’t alone anymore. On quivering legs and dehydrated muscles I limped up the stairs toward a hot shower with the sound of welcoming “meows”. I let them know, “Daddy’s home girls … Daddy’s home.”
I left Duluth looking for two back to back solid training rides. I got that and so much more. Loading up a bike and taking off for a trip of one’s choosing clears the mind and enriches the soul. I may not have traveled across the country or ridden over mountains, but I had my own little adventure and I found a little piece of the world just for me.