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Four Days of Fantastic Bike Camping: A Newbie’s Perspective

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Werst. Used with permission. Click the image for Jeremy’s Flickr and more shots of the trip!

It’s been more than a year since I started replacing car trips with bicycle trips – to work, shopping, nights out, and meetings. Biking has been something that transports me around Minneapolis and St. Paul efficiently, but a year ago I didn’t think about leaving the metro area. Bike touring seemed to be for the hard-core, something that would never appeal to me.

As friends new and old planned bike camping trips and showed photos afterwards, and as my legs and lungs got stronger from the increasing distance and frequency of my rides, I started to re-consider. I love camping and I love biking. I routinely haul absurd quantities of stuff on my rack, most frequently groceries, cameras, my laptop and thrift-store finds. What’s a few more pounds and miles?

While talking with other cyclists at Grease Rag about our goals for the summer, I shyly admitted that I’d been thinking about this bike camping thing. Verbalization is a strong motivator, and since no one discouraged me or suggested that my 10 speed and I weren’t capable, I started keeping an ear to the ground for opportunities to accompany more experienced bike campers on group trips.

A friend put out a call for companions for a four-day trip along the St. Croix River Valley. It was more than the overnight I had envisioned for my first time out, but a SUV support vehicle took some of the risk out of the equation. With some encouragement, I signed up.

I bought shorts (a process in itself, and a story for another post), replaced my dysfunctional panniers, tuned up my bike, and started going out of my way to bike up hills in fantastically flat Minneapolis. I also asked hundreds of questions of more experienced bike tourists and got multiple different answers to almost every one.

I tend to worry about things, including my bike, which I was adjusting 12 hours before we took off. The work I put into the Schwinn was worth it, but that stress seems silly in hindsight. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but this was a no-drop ride, and given the weather conditions, I think parts of it were challenging for almost everyone.

If I could’ve known that the temperature would climb to over 1oo degrees Fahrenheit last weekend, I probably would’ve chickened out. I’m glad I didn’t, because it was fine. Large quantities of Gatorade and regular snacks kept me feeling OK if not quite comfortable as my black shorts turned blotchy shades of gray, coated in a crunchy layer of salts from evaporated sweat. Even though many of us had just met, everyone pitched in – sharing food and water, taking turns leading and drafting, and just providing good conversation that took my mind off hills and heat. From now on, no day seems too hot to ride.

There’s a nice summary of the route that Lowrah posted on the Grease Rag blog. Jeremy also wrote a detailed account here, with descriptions of routes and riding conditions. Together they did an awesome job of trip leading and route planning!

We biked through the Driftless region of Minnesota and Wisconsin – the part not flattened by glaciers that is full of gently rolling hills. Some of the hills did not seem gentle by bicycle, but I made it up all but the most steep. With an old, steel frame bike, only ten gears, and a body that doesn’t do hills very often, I realized quickly that climbing was not my strong suit.

I made up for that by tucking into my drop bars and flying down, which my heavy bike does very well. Slightly larger, knobby tires meant that the small pebbles on the shoulder were no threat, so I practiced picking up speed and catching up on every downhill. The roads were often empty in a way I never see in the Cities – free of stoplights and pedestrians, and car free for minutes at a time. After a lot of urban riding, that freedom made me feel like a kid. A kid now capable of going very fast.

The Gateway Trail lived up to it’s name, cutting out the suburban sprawl and seemingly taking us straight from St. Paul to rural riding. We cruised through cute small towns where people were super friendly and unfailingly willing to fill up water bottles. Every adorable town and gorgeous farm made me think I should leave the metro more often.

While we saw other riders out training or doing recreational day rides, most of the small town denizens seemed astounded, saying things like, “did you bike here?” to our spandex and helmet clad group. I can laugh because until recently, I would’ve been right there with them. I felt a certain kinship with every rider we passed. We gave each other waves and knowing looks that in my mind said, “Forget the weatherman, we’re still out here.”

There were a lot of different high points on this trip, but the first things that come to mind are the deliciousness of a cold lake, local beer and good food that have all been earned. I think this is why I keep choosing to do active things with my limited vacation time. Meeting new people who like bikes was pretty great. The impressed look on my non-bikey friends’ faces doesn’t hurt, either.

So that thing I’ve been nervous about for a month now? It was hard, but I was more than up for the challenge, and now I can’t believe I stressed it. Next biking goal: ride A LOT this winter so I can stay strong and be ready for more challenging trips next year!

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3 comments on “Four Days of Fantastic Bike Camping: A Newbie’s Perspective

  1. It really was fantastic, wasn’t it??

    I added your write up to my recap of the event: http://greaserag.org/index.php/user_blogs/lowrah/pizza-by-the-pond-bike-tour-2012-recap/

  2. […] realizing that it also helps that I’m a stronger rider. Those hills, long rides, and one bike camping trip from last summer? The muscles built there are making this whole winter biking thing a lot more […]

  3. […] one night bike trip from Minneapolis to Winona, Minnesota. The story of this trip really started on the bike camping trip I did last year. That trip planted the seed both for the touring bike I built this winter and for the idea of […]

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