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Archive for July, 2010

Greener Grass

London, Ontario, Canada:   On this 40th day of our eastward journey we crossed into Canada and crossed the 3,000 mile mark on the odometer.   They say the grass is greener on the other side.   We put theory to the test this morning.  In a well-orchestrated movement of 51 people on bikes, at 7:25 am we cycled over the Blue Water bridge connecting the United States with Canada.   The authorities closed the three lane east-bound bridge to all other vehicles to facilitate our safe passage.   It was a surreal cycling experience crossing a large but empty bridge, and this was the only sanctioned occasion on the ride when we could ride in a peloton.   The bridge has two separate connector joints with gaps wide enough to engulf a bicycle tire, so we had to dismount and carry our bikes over these joints. 

What was even more interesting is the speed which we cleared Canadian immigration and customs en masse.  Without checking any passports, an immigration supervisor told us we had been pre-cleared.  He then asked whether we had any weapons or personal protection devices, then welcomed us all to Canada and waved us through.  Mike, the ride leader, says this was the easiest immigration clearance ever for this ride.  The whole bridge crossing and immigration process took 20 minutes.

Once in Ontario, I joked about how different everything looked:  greener grass, bluer skies.  Anne, one of the three Canadians on the trip, summed it up with a good Canadian accent: “more farmlands, eh?”  I also teased the other two Canadians (who also have US passports) with annoyingly stupid questions such as “is the water safe to drink?”  Jeff, one of the Canadian/Americans who grew up about a mile from the bridge, took us off-route for a six-mile tour of a park, a Lake Huron beach, and under the bridge.   Jeff’s mother also provided us some yummy Canadian treats such as butter cups. 

I’ll venture to describe Canada in three words:  “same, but different.”  Enough said.

When we arrived in London, a bunch of us went to Reynolds Cycles and purchased Canada jerseys.   Tomorrow I will sport the Maple Leaf as I cycle, but the US flag and Buddha amulet also remain on my bike.

Here’s a picture of a Canadian barn.   My quest to find America’s prettiest barn and tastiest ice cream goes on hiatus while I am in Canada.  Thank goodness.

 Finally, in case you’re wondering…yes, the grass does seem greener.

Day 40 Summary:

Day 40 route:  Port Huron, MI to London, Ontario     
Day 40 mileage:  89.27 miles
Cumulative mileage:  3,011.75 miles
Day 40 climbing: 1,500 feet 
Cumulative Climbing:  83,735 feet of climbing
Terrain:  pancake flat, except the bridge

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That’s Bologna

Port Huron, Michigan:   In today’s 88-mile ride we completed our trek across peninsular Michigan, arriving at the beautiful turquoise waters of Lake Huron, one of the Great Lakes, in the early afternoon. 

The scenery during today’s ride was deja vu:  more corn and soybean crops and family owned farms (and naturally, barns), and a string of small towns.  What makes this day stand out are conversations I had with two locals. 

 About midway in today’s ride we cycled through the pretty little town of Yale, the self-proclaimed bologna capital of America.  (Bologna, in case you’re wondering, is a particular luncheon meat made of pork and other stuff).   I quickly discovered bologna is serious business in Yale.  Each summer the town holds an annual bologna festival; we missed it by a week.  We were told there’s even a bologna museum in Yale, but that turned out to be alot of bologna. 

But not to despair:  at the CJ Restaurant in town, we became acquainted with local royalty.   We chatted with Diane, the gregarious 1993 Bologna Queen of Yale.  There’s also a King, a Princess and a Prince.  Diane told us being Queen was a really great experience and it was difficult to step down from the throne.  She explained that the Bologna Festival is an important fundraising occasion for Yale, with the funds used for scholarships, a parade, and town beautification.  Diane raised $6,000 during her candidacy for Bologna Queen.  She also painted CJ’s Restaurant and a house and even held a children’s day which featured a guest appearance of a “big purple friend.”  She did receive a death threat on kids days, as someone complained about having to hear the Barney song one time too many.  It was great meeting Diane today.  To me, she personifies the Bologna Festival and small town Michigan.  

This northerly route we’re taking really capitalizes on some interesting towns.  On this trip I’ve now been to the bologna capital of America; the corn capital (Mitchell, SD); the cycling capital (Sparta, WI); and the jackalope capital (Dubois, WY).   Plus I’ve been to two state capitols:  Boise (ID) and Pierre (SD).

The other memorable conversation was with a local cyclist, Dave from Attica, who was out riding and we struck up a conversation while pedaling in the same direction.   He is very close to his goal of cycling 3,000 miles this year, and explained that he now has alot of time on his hands after his retirement from General Motors.   GM closed the Pontiac plant where he had worked for many years.   Across Michigan stories such as Dave’s are unfortunately too common as the structural dislocations in the automobile industry play out here.    

Tomorrow we cross into Canada.

Day 39 Summary:

Day 39 route:  Birch Run to Port Huron, MI     
Day 39 mileage:  87.88  miles 
Cumulative mileage:  2,922.48 miles
Day 39 climbing: 800 feet 
Cumulative Climbing:  82,235 feet of climbing
Terrain:  flat

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Eat. Pedal. Sleep.

 

Birch Run, Michigan:   In the US buzz builds for the upcoming Sony theatrical film East Pray Love, about a middle-aged woman who travels through Italy, India and Bali to discover life’s essence, distilling the experience into three primary functions.  Well, this is a different story.   This is a story about a middle-aged guy who returns to America to re-acquaint with his country and discovers that life on the road can be distilled into three primary actions:  eating, pedaling and sleeping.   That pretty much sums up my life right now.  Occasionally I blog and do bike maintenance, and when there’s a pretty barn or an ice cream shop nearby I get excited.  But much of my day — every day — has been reduced to:  Eat.  Pedal.  Sleep.

Psychologists say repetition of an action becomes habitual after thirty days.   Five weeks into this bike ride, Eat Pedal Sleep  is habit.  It’s what I do.  Everything else is extraneous.   

Today’s 76 mile ride through the Michigan heartland is a good illustration.  The terrain was almost flat as a pancake, with a mixture of farmland, light suburbia and some forest.  Due to the possibility of precipitation, I cut out the dillly-dallying to get to Birch Run before the rain, which never came.

I woke up hungry and was eating by 6am, which continued throughout the day as I worked to satisfy my body’s hypermetabolic fuel needs.  Food is fuel, and the priority is quantity, not quality.  That hit home during lunch, when I had just barely finished my sandwich as I asked some fellow riders: when’s dinner?  I’m always looking out for the next meal or grazing opportunity. 

After dinner tonight, for our daily ice cream fix, NJ Mark, Margot, Katie and I ventured to Tony’s, a restaurant in Birch Run that has become an institution for supersized portions, like the BLT sandwich which uses a pound of cooked bacon.  The supersized diners at one nearby table told us they drove five hours to eat here.   (And you may wonder why Americans are overweight?). 

For dessert we shared a Banana Split, which uses a half-gallon of ice cream.   It was so big our server warned us to be careful so it doesn’t topple over.   The four of us, even with our healthy appetites, only finished about half of the banana split.  After this gluttony I felt dirty and wanted to take a shower. It was that gross.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  When not eating or sleeping I do pedal.  Today I pedaled just over four hours (not counting a few brief stops); yesterday’s leisurely century plus ride involved about seven hours of pedalling.  By the end of tomorrow I will have pedaled 2,900 miles since June 21.  Just thinking about it makes me tired.

Which leads to Sleeping.   On this trip we do a lot of it to help the body recover from all that eating and pedalling.  On this trip the norm is early to bed and early to rise, so the cycle can repeat.  Eat.  Pedal.  Sleep.

Day 38 Summary:

Day 38 route:  Mt Pleasant to Birch Run, MI     
Day 38 mileage:  75.6 miles 
Cumulative mileage:  2,834.6 miles
Day 38 Climbing: 625 feet 
Cumulative Climbing:  81,435 feet of climbing
Terrain:  flat farmlands; some forest

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Mount Pleasant, Michigan:   Yesterday was a nominal rest day but in a departure from routine in the afternoon we boarded a coal-fired ferry for a 60-mile crossing of Lake Michigan.  Halfway across the lake we advanced our watches to the Eastern time zone.  But it wasn’t until disembarking from the ferry and approaching a “Welcome to Pure Michigan” sign that it hit us:  we’ve  not just entered the seventh state on this journey, but we’ve crossed into the Eastern United States and are getting close to our final destination.   With less than 1,000 miles to go, in two weeks we will arrive at the Atlantic Ocean, unless we make a wrong turn in Canada.

With the end in sight, I have been working overtime to seek the best ice cream in America and the prettiest barn while continuing to pedal fast and furiously.  Yesterday in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, I may have discovered America’s best ice cream:  the Turtle Sundae at Beerntsen’s (see below picture).  The Turtle Sundae is vanilla ice cream covered with pecans, caramels and hot fudge.  A family tradition, Beernsten’s have been making ice creams straight from Wisconsin cows, and chocolates and candies on site since 1932.  Beernsten’s is the new standard for which I will judge all other ice creams, including the triple scoop rainbow sherbert I devoured this afternoon at Happy Ending, an ice cream parlour in Isabella, on today’s 115 mile ride.

Also today I enjoyed the idyllic Michigan countryside from the vantage point of a bike saddle.  From the moment I started pedalling around 6:45am while the full moon was still visible, I thoroughly enjoyed today’s long distance ride.   It was slightly hilly, and as century rides go a fairly easy one.  Yes, I saw plenty of corn fields, but asparagus, squash, apple and cherry orchards were also evident.  Plus plenty of photogenic barns, some more than a century old, and most still functioning well.  The town of Mount Pleasant, where we’re spending the night, is perfectly pleasant and tidy; it feels like the entire downtown just received a new paint job and there’s almost a “Pleasantville” aura to the downtown center.

Days 36 and 37:  

Day 36 and 37 Route:  Manitowoc, WI to Ludington, MI by ferry; Ludington to Mt Pleasant, MI     
Days 36 and 37 mileage:  7.3 miles to/from ferry pier (Day 36); 114.7 miles (Day 37)
Cumulative mileage:  2,759 miles
Day 37 Climbing: 2,410 feet 
Cumulative Climbing:  80,810 feet of climbing
Terrain:  gently rolling

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Wisconsin

 

Manitowoc, Wisconsin:   Five weeks into this transcontinental bike ride, in this town on the shores of Lake Michigan, we’re down to our last 1,000 miles.   Tomorrow we cross Lake Michigan by ferry, then enter Michigan and the Eastern United States.   It feels like we blew through the Mid West while it took four weeks to cycle across four Western states.  Over the past week we crossed Minne-soggy and Wisconsin.  This  past week has been the most challenging, most rapid, and most moist of the entire journey, partly because of an unfriendly combination of inclement weather and an unwelcome illness. 

It all started four days ago, as we departed Rochester, Minnesota in fierce rain showers.    On that morning we had rain, strong headwinds, some decent hills, and bumpy road seams plus 90 miles to deal with.  Had we been chased by hungry dogs that would have really have made this a dandy day.  But rain or shine we pedal, and pedal we did.    

The first 20 miles were utterly miserable in the cold rain.  Eventually I acclimated to the wetness, but in the process a migraine headache materialized.  My head felt like it could explode, and at times I wished it would.  By noon the rain stopped but the headache didn’t.   I bonked.   In the town of Houston I took a two-hour nap at the “Its a Little Looney” cafe.    The nap helped fortify me to complete the rest of that day’s soggy nine-hour ride, which involved a decent climb before crossing the Mississippi River into Wisconsin.   It was very hard for me to concentrate during the day, and for the first time I considered the possibility I may not be able to complete the day’s ride.  Somehow I was able to dig deep, real deep, for some inner strength to make it to La Crosse.  When I got to the hotel I immediately crashed in bed to sleep off my woes.  I felt more accomplishment in getting to La Crosse than I felt on any other day.  As much as I would like to forget that washed out day, I think the vivid memories of the weather and migraine will linger for a long time.

Wisconsin is blessed with green, rolling farmland, and I have spent the past three days on quiet country roads getting to know this beautiful state — the multitude of dairy farms, the corn and soybean crops, the small family owned farms (each with a barn at usually two silos) every couple of miles.   Every ten or fifteen miles there’s usually a small town and many homes with well-landscaped and maintained lawns to give some personality to the place.  And the people have been most friendly, from the couple outside Wisconsin Dells that stood in their driveway and cheered us on, to the farmer who wished me a “helluva trip” when he learned we’re headed to New Hampshire.

In Wisconsin Dells I also had a visit from Joe and Susan O’Neil, who very kindly drove up from Chicago.  Joe is the co-founder of A New Day Cambodia and both he and Susan spend a great deal of time supporting this charity.  I have so much respect for their generosity and their efforts to help break the poverty cycle halfway around the world in Cambodia.  Joe and Susan’s visit gave me a much-needed morale boost and it is much appreciated. 

Heading into the Dells we cycled 34 miles on the Elroy Sparta Bike Trail, a converted former train path that is the nation’s first rail to trail.  This car-free bike path, which was rather muddy after the preceeding day’s rain deluge, cuts through three lengthy tunnels and Amish country.  It made for an interesting change of cycling terrain. 

I also had to deal with a faulty odometer, which is significant because our navigational cues are mileage-based.  On a typical day’s ride on back roads there may be 25 or 30 navigational turns.  Eventually I wheeled into a bike shop in Fond du Lac to buy a new odometer.  While mine was out of commission I cycled closely with Ohio John on one day, and Sandy and Mark on another.

I’ve also continued to eat my way across America…..including the home-made rhubarb pie a la mode at Sweet Thyme Cafe in the quaint town of Wilton, halfway between Elroy and Sparta….the bratwurst at the American Legion’s Brat Fry in Princeton….and the brownie dough Concrete Mixer custard at Culver’s in Manitowoc, which may make the shortlist in my quest to find the best ice cream (well, frozen yogurt also counts) in America:

Last night, after dinner and the renown America by Bike t-shirt swap, Mike, Don, Katie, Rod, Teresa, John, Matt & I headed to Walgreen’s (a drug store chain) to get our nightly ice cream fix.  Nowadays, we buy it by the pint.  In the t-shirt swap I ended up with a red shirt which says “Iowa Nerd” and sports a picture of a pig with glasses.  I’m pretty confident I will be the only guy in Hong Kong with such a shirt.  In the swap I contributed an Asian-sized AXN Beyond t-shirt, and after changing hands a few times it finally ended up with Alison.  I am pretty confident she’ll be the only gal in Arkansas with such a shirt. 

  

Yesterday in Ribon, Wisconsin, we passed the birthplace of the Republican Party. Mark stopped to show his respect.

I’ve spotted more pretty barns while cycling country roads but am still searching for the prettiest in America:

Today, between Fond du Lac and Manitwoc, we passed a wind farm — the largest I have seen yet in the US.   I enjoyed the juxtaposition of old and new farming:

Also today, a Sunday, Rod and I stopped at a Catholic Church and cemetary in Marytown:

Wisconsin summary:  

Day 32 route:  Rochester, MN to La Crosse, WI   
Days 32 mileage:  89.74 miles
Day 32 climbing:  2,850 feet   
Terrain:  rolling with heavy rain and migraine

Day 33 route:  La Crosse to Wisconsin Dells, WI    
Days 33 mileage:  90.5 miles
Day 33 climbing:  1,200 feet   

Day 34 route:  Wisconsin Dells to Fond du Lac, WI    
Days 34 mileage:  83.2 miles
Day 34 climbing:  1,800 feet   

Day 35 route:  Fond du Lac to Manitowoc, WI     
Days 35 mileage:  57.9 miles
Day 35 climbing:  1,350 feet   

Cumulative mileage:  2,637.29 miles  
Cumulative climbing:  78,400 feet

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Rochester, Minnesota:   I began today’s century ride just as I begin almost every ride on TransAmerica 2010.  About two miles into the ride I start asking my fellow cyclists, “Are We There Yet?”  This ritual began five minutes into the ride on Day 1 and it’s since become my signature expression.  Some of my other co-riders (collectively, the “bad pennies” because they keep showing up) have their own idiosyncratic sounds.  Leo has a whale squeaky toy as horn; Rod and Andrew have ding-a-ling bells; Sandy bellows “ARUGA.”  

So as we cycled past more oceans of corn and soybeans with many miles ahead of us, there were ample opportunities for me to chime with “Are We There Yet?”  And if I happen to be in the proximity of another bad penny, the horns/bells go off.  Not everything we do in the saddle is frivolous; today I had good conversations that ranged from the shortfalls of the American educational system to the rigors of training for this journey, in addition to more mundane topics like, “did we just miss a turn?”  

Today’s ride was an enjoyable one through more farmland.  As we cross the Mississippi River and enter Wisconsin tomorrow, the prairies of the Mid West begin to taper and the hills begin to roll.  There’s also a greater density of interesting barns for me to photograph.  By the end of today’s ride I had fulfilled my daily quota of barn photos.  My fellow riders also know of my quest to find the prettiest barn in America, and are frequently pointing out candidates, sometimes with helpful comments like “did you see that pretty barn about 10 miles back? Hope you got a photo.”   I suspect I will have enough barn photos by the end of this trip to fill a book.

The other observation about today’s ride was a renewed consciousness about safety.  Over the past couple days there has been flurry of minor bicycle falls — thankfully, nothing serious — so during last night’s rap there was a healthy general discussion among all the cyclists about safety issues, protocol and cycling etiquette.  America by Bike, the organizer of this ride, has an impeccable safety record which is “no accident” in the words of Tour Leader Mike.   The result from last night’s discussion is much improved communication.  We say “on your left” when passing;’ “on your wheel” when we get behind other riders; “car back” when a car approaches from the rear.  There was also an extensive discussion about pacelines, which  generally I eschew.   Usually we ride single file, but often on quiter roads we ride side by side to facilitate conversation.

Day 31 summary:  

Day 31 Route:  Mankato, Rochester, MN    
Days 31 mileage:  102.5 miles
Cumulative mileage:  2,315.95 miles 
Day 31 Climbing:  2,400 feet   
Cumulative Climbing:  71,200 feet of climbing
Terrain:  rolling

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Mankato, Minnesota:  Following a very satisfying weekend with my family, yesterday I had to reckon with soggy Monday morning blues.  After some tearful goodbyes with my son I set off for Minnesota during rain showers.   We’ve dealt with all the other elements on this trip — hail, snow, wind, sun, hot and cold — so the rain completes the weather experience.  Luckily I have Dan, a high school classmate who is a meteorologist in North Dakota, keeping an eye on the weather patterns in the region and giving me some heads up on Facebook.   So the rain wasn’t a surprise.  But it was yucky going for a few hours, and there were a few spills by some fellow riders.  Eventually the precipitation stopped as we crossed into Minnesota, the fifth of ten states on this transcontinental journey.

In my two days in Minnesota we have cycled cross farmland — flat, expansive, industrialized farmland for as far as the eye can see.  There are just two crops:  corn and soybeans.  That pretty much summarizes the views of  my century ride today, with a few pretty barns and a small town or pig or cattle farm (and the odors that emanate) here and there rounding out the experience.  As I told a fellow rider at a SAG stop, ‘I get it.  They grow corn here.  Next.”

It’s hard for me to make a corn field interesting, or even sound interesting.  Immersed in so much food, I thought it might be interesting to elaborate on all the stuff I’m ingesting to propel me from one coast to another.  Our days on the road are simple.   We sleep.  We cycle.  We eat.  And time permitting, we blog.  In long-distance cycling  food is fuel and you need alot of it.  Over the past 30 days, I’ve had an enormous appetite and have been eating my way across America to feed that appetite.   It’s not quality, nor is it even all tasty, but it’s fuel… and when I burn somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 calories a day I have to eat in terms of quantity.  In other words, shovel it down.     This is how I’ve eaten my way from Worthington to Mankato today.  This is a fairly typical day.

Breakfast: Western omelette; hash browns; three pancakes; coffee.

Snacks:  Banana; two fig newtons; two Gu (performance energy gel) packets; turkey and cheese sandwich on wheat bread; chocolate milk (excellent recovery drink).    Increasingly I eschew the crap provided at the organized SAG stops — eg corn chips, pretzels; cookies; trail mix; honey roasted nuts; granola bars — for more healthy or nutritious offerings on my own.

Lunch:  Half of a Subway turkey sandwich; iced tea.

Liquids:  Lots of water; water with Nuum (electrolyte supplement); Gatorade; 1 glass of lemonade.

Dinner:  Rather than another organized buffet dinner, NJ Mark, Helen, Alex and I opted for a private dinner at a real restaurant; a place with menus.  For dinner I had some sushi, which is amazing considering I’m noweher near the ocean; some olives; a Caesar salad; and a huge plate of rigatoni pasta with a sausage Marinara sauce, which is good carbo loading for tomorrow’s century.
 

Now you know.  To burn all this off I cycled 102.81 miles at a very comfortable average speed of 16.2 mph.

Days 29 and 30 summary:

Days 29  and 30 Route:  Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Worthington, MN (Day 29) and on to Mankato, MN (Day 30)   
Days 29 and 30 mileage:  71.41 miles (Day 29) and 102.81 miles (Day 30)
Cumulative mileage:  2,213.45 miles per my odometer
Climbing:  1,300 feet (Day 29) and 1,000 feet (Day 30)  
Cumulative Climbing:  68,800 feet of climbing
Terrain:  mostly flat

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