After riding about 1,400 miles this summer, I returned home to my wife and, a week later, we took a ride on our tandem. While riding in a peloton, we crashed and my wife broke her pelvis, just 3 miles from our house. Ironic. That was a month ago. She is healing and eager to get back on the saddle, literally, and start riding again. Me too! I miss the long tandem routes on Sunday mornings.
After the New Orleans to Minneapolis ride I was burned out on posting to the website. Being on sabbatical meant that I was supposed to be taking a break from work and it felt like work to write, so I stopped. I have a handful of emails about the promised “summary” article on the route and whatnot, so here it is! I actually wrote the following for “CrazyGuyOnABike.com” and am posting it here, in two parts, with a review of the trail and a review of our decision to use old mountain bikes for touring.
I am writing a newsletter to those who follow our ministry – look for it soon. If you signed up to get updates on the bike tour, now would probably be a good time to unsubscribe. If you don’t, you will get my blog posts, which are often about the global Christian movement.
Part 1 – A Review of the MRT: A Review of the MRT
First, a few caveats. I am not a long time bicycle touring expert. I toured many years ago and only recently did the MRT. My sons and I rode the MRT in part because we didn’t have the time to pedal the TransAmerica (that’s one advantage the MRT does have over other cross-America routes – it’s shorter). So, as you read this review, keep in mind that it is not the review of a pro. Also, we didn’t stick to the MRT the entire ride. We cut corners here and there and made the tour “our own” instead of just taking the route when it didn’t suit us (more on that later).
My view is that the MRT is an unevenly supported bike route. In the south it leaves a lot to be desired. In the north, it is awesome. In defense of the MRT, it is self-described as a developing route. That’s a pretty fair assessment. Also keep in mind that the MRT has different routes. For example, you have to choose between biking through Missouri or Illinois (or switch back and forth like we did a few times). Nobody really biked the whole of the MRT without really working at it.
We biked the MRT in the summer of 2012. This ended up being the hottest summer on record and we were in the middle of it. This can’t be held against the MRT as it was an unusual weather pattern but be forewarned that midsummer will be hot.
We also biked from south to north. We had gotten advice that the winds tend to blow out of the south and we would have easier “sailing.” This was, I believe in retrospect, an assumption born from our lack of touring experience. When you ride 1,400 miles you are going to get winds from all directions. As it turned out, most of the days that we rode gave us headwinds. So, I don’t think I would base my route choice or direction so much on the wind in the future.
We used the “Mississippi River Trail Guidebook,” by Bob Robinson. If you are used to the Adventure Cycling maps the guidebook will disappoint. It’s not really meant to be the same sort of guide. As we started out, we were sticking to the guidebook verbatim and it wasn’t until about 10 days in that we realized we needed to think broader. We took a “WarmShowers.org” host in Memphis and he turned out to be a former Adventure Cycling tour leader and contributor to some of their guides. As we discussed this with him, we decided to purchase a regular map and supplement the guidebook which turned out to be a much better approach. Robinson’s guide is the best (and only) guidebook out there so don’t skip it – you will need it. However, understand that it is a “guide” only and you might want other resources.
The beginning of the MRT (south to north) is interesting, flat, and fun. As you wind through New Orleans you are struck with how cool it is to be riding in a bike lane through this historic city. Once you leave the urban sector you will find yourself riding on top of the river levee and it’s pretty spectacular. As you move further north is where some of the consternation sets in. The services become few and far between. We rode a couple of days for more distance than we wanted to since the next camping site or hotel was just that far off. There were three of us and we were hesitant to stealth camp. Water was usually available (as well as food) but the lodging options were sparse and they got sparser.
The philosophy behind the MRT is to keep you as close to the river as possible. This makes for some route choices that are rather indirect since the river winds around quite a bit. By forging our own trail on some days we avoided a bit of the winding. Keep in mind that once you get off the top of the levee you will not be able to see much of the river. If I had to guess, I would estimate that you only see the river about 20 percent of the ride and most of that is in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
As we moved past Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi we began to have better luck with places to stay. The roads in these lower states that make up the MRT are actually very acceptable for cycling. There aren’t too many “rumble strips” and the terrain is generally flat. We began to hit some hills in Tennessee, but even there this is not a mountain climber’s route. The issue for us is that the camping options are few and far between until you get further north.
The Natchez Trail is a part of the MRT in Tennessee and it is an awesome ride – I highly recommend it. When heading from the south to the north, you will begin to encounter a few small climbs at this point. Nothing major, but this is a change from the previous, mostly flat, trail up to this point.
As we moved through Kentucky we decided to go with the Illinois side of the MRT, at least until St. Louis. We were warned by quite a few people to avoid Cairo, IL, because of crime. We decided to stop early on a Saturday so that we could go through Cairo early Sunday morning, when most criminals are nursing hangovers. The bridge into Cairo was pretty lousy, but we spread out and took the whole lane much to the chagrin of a large truck. Cairo was sleepy and quiet.
The Illinois MRT is a bit hillier. We wanted to stay overnight in Chester. We found that, leading up to this little city that is on both the MRT and the TransAmerica, the traffic conditions are terrible for bikers. There were more trucks per minutes than you can imagine. We happened to pass through when a coal barge was unloading south of town. The large trucks, heavy with coal and not wanting to slow down at all, barreled past us at high speed, just inches away on a road with a minimal shoulder. I heard that Chester is a favorite spot for cyclists. It’s not for me. I consider this stretch of road the worst we encountered.
North of Chester the MRT follows the river and we had one of the sweetest rides of the trip. As you bike you pass by large underground caverns and the cool air comes out to refresh you. We also were riding in the morning and the levee and bluffs provided nice shade. This was incredible biking.
We camped a night in East St. Louis. We were told to avoid it, but after seeing how tame Cairo was wanted to test the waters. No problems for us. We stayed at a little RV park that had a pool and the water was refreshing. The next day we pedaled across the river in St. Louis and met up with some friends. From there we headed north on the Missouri side until we could cross back into Illinois. The Missouri side has its share of rumble strips and about 6-10 inch shoulders. We also heard that the Illinois side was flatter and, since we had learned to avoid climbing, we scurried back into Illinois. I understand that we missed out on some beautiful trails around St. Louis. Oh well – you can’t do it all!
Iowa was also nice. At this point we made a decision to leave the MRT and shoot straight north toward the Wisconsin border to rejoin the trail there. The terrain was now rolling hills with long descents and long climbs. We achieved our highest point on the trip in Iowa of all places – 1,280 feet. On that day we probably gained and lost 400 – 600 feet in elevation about a half dozen times. It was a tough day but a good day. The campground that night (it was 105 degrees that day) had a river! It was very refreshing to lay in the river and let the water wash away the road weariness.
We took the Cassville Ferry into Wisconsin. The last descent into the river valley went on forever. It was exhilarating! We had planned on two other ferry crossings but had the misfortune of seeing both of them closed on the days we intended to cross so it was fun to finally experience the crossing from a seated position.
Wisconsin’s MRT route is gorgeous. You really see a lot of the river and the terrain is varied (some hills, but not bad at all). The camping sites are plentiful and we availed ourselves of a community pool once that we happened to see as we pedaled through town. The eating options abound and we had not difficulty in route planning from this point forward.
We crossed into Minnesota at La Crescent. Once again the road conditions were excellent. There was one little strip of dedicated “bicycle trail” which was closed due to flooding so we took the road. There was another strip of dedicated trail a bit later in the day that could have used some maintenance. Other than that, the Minnesota roads were the best we encountered.
One night we camped in a dedicated bicycle campground. You rode in, registered yourself (the fee was $12), and had water and an outhouse. The sites were nestled in the trees (although they were pretty close to the highway so a bit noisy at night). I hope this idea catches on elsewhere – it seems like a pretty inexpensive way for these sorts of services to be offered.
The most beautiful part of the ride for us was around Lake Pepin. The water is blue and the surrounding hills were covered in lush green trees. There are lots of services along the way and you have plenty of space to ride on the shoulder. We ended in Minneapolis. The trails here are known across the country so I won’t go into the details but suffice it to say that they are top notch. We had lunch around the University of Minnesota and were in the northern suburbs (where my parents live and where we were finishing up) an hour later. I have heard that going north is even better so I hope to come back and finish that off with my wife sometime on our tandem.
Employees from the Minnesota Department of Transportation had been following our trip blog and they emailed me with tips and requested feedback. The bar has been set pretty high by the state of Minnesota when it come to being bicycle-friendly. Good luck to you other states on matching it!
Before we went on this tour somebody said that they were glad that the MRT was “not their first tour.” I tend to agree with this. The maps and support that you can get from Adventure Cycling routes are better. There were days when we road further than we wanted to because there was no lodging. Other days we had to shorten things up a bit. As this route grows and develops I hope that it can became a premier route. I would challenge Adventure Cycling to consider taking it on as a challenge to map it well and encourage its use.
Part 2 – Old Mountain Bikes as Touring Bikes
Bikes. Incredible machines, capable of turning an ordinary person into an overland animal of awesome distance and speed. Most touring bicyclists spare no expense in purchasing and outfitting their trusty steed. On a recent tour from New Orleans to Minneapolis, roughly following the Mississippi River Trail, my two boys and I took a road less traveled: we used old Huffy bikes that were 25 years old. Good idea? Let me tell you about our experience.
First, we decided to go with cheap bikes because there were three of us and they are college boys. I wasn’t able to spring for all of us to get new bikes and decided that where one goes, all go. So I began scouring the Internet and found a site which talks about “cheap touring bikes.” Old Huffy bikes were made of steel. Heavy, yes, but also a good material for a touring bike.
I paid $40, $50, and $70 dollars for the three bikes. There was a local guy that bought and sold bikes and he listed his info on Craigslist. They were in pretty good shape but needed some work. I stripped them, painted them all black, and rebuilt them. I upgraded 1 of the front derailleurs, and 2 of the rear ones. All of the bikes got new (cheap) SRAM indexed shifters, and cables all around. We went with the original brakes and seats. I put on butterfly handlebars. For racks I purchased cheapos off ebay. One set didn’t arrive until a few days before the tour and it wasn’t as sturdy as the other two (more on that later). For panniers we used Nashbar’s waterproof bags and we all got inexpensive handlebar “boxes” as well. All bikes got Kenda K838 Slick Wire Bead Bicycle Tires and a set of “Stop Flats.”
The total spent on all three bikes was just under $1,200. I mean “TOTAL” – including some tents, a wet bag, sleeping bag insert, blow up mattress (I actually used my Thermarest which I already had), and other assorted items.
So, off we went, down the road on the first day. Twenty minutes in we had our first mechanical breakdown. My son, Josh, had attached the rear pannier in the wrong place and somehow the clip had grabbed a hold of the retaining washer that held the rear stack of gears in place. It unscrewed and all of the gears were loose! Ok, so that’s not so much a problem related to the bike, but keep in mind that these bikes were not intended to carry panniers and Josh had the aforementioned rack, which had no good spot for clipping on the bags. Well, that was an easy fix and off we went.
Despite having gone on a couple of shake down rides, Josh’s shifter was easily finding gears on the rear hub. Upon further examination I realized that the 7 speed indexed shifters were not working with the six gears in back too well! Whoa… how did I install a 7-speed shifter on this bike? I don’t know, but I did. I ordered the shifters together with the set on another bike, but they were different and I never checked them. We had this problem for about three days until we found a bike shop that gave us (as in “here, no charge”) a different hub.
A little more than a week into the ride that same bike, Josh’s, lost the “tang” on the one-piece crank set. An old, single-piece crank has a small arm (the “tang”) between the gear set and the arm of the crank on the right hand side. The tang is what pushes the gear around in circles. If you ever see one you will be amazed that it could break – it’s a large weld point of between two ½ inch pieces of steel. Never, in my wildest dream, did I think that this part would fail. I had a pipe clamp in my trusty bag of spare parts. That got us by for about ten miles until we got to a bike shop and another new “used” part.
As we biked on, the derailleur hanger on Joshua’s bike began to become problematic. It seems funny to describe it this way, but it was like it was getting “soft” as we biked on. I was very careful to monitor this as we rode.
Another problem with this particular bike was that it kept popping spokes. By the time we finished it had broken seven spokes in total. My bike broke one spoke. Fortunately, I had all the tools along necessary to change these out.
Remember that cheap rear rack I mentioned? About halfway through the month-long tour it started to “cavitate” with the pedal cadence. This made the bike feel mushy while riding. On long down hills I could see it vibrating a bit adding to my consternation about the already too-high speed we were enjoying. That same bike also had a number of flat tires. One might conclude that the wheel was somehow messing up the tires, but I inspected the wheels and would testify that they were not the cause. All the punctures were on the face of the tire! I can only rack it up to either the bicyclist or a mystical cloud of doom. Now, at this point, you should be asking yourself about the other two bikes. They performed very well. The only thing that broke on the other two bikes (actually, all three) was that the chains broke. That’s right: all three bikes experienced broken chains. I am not sure why, except that these bikes were heavy. In every case we were hill climbing when the breaks happened. Fortunately, I had a spare chain with me and we purchased a replacement ahead of the next breakdown.
The major lessons for me were:
- One must replace ALL of the old components (derailleurs, chains, shifters, everything) on an old bike. This makes the price of a Nova Safari start to look pretty good.
- Long tours require better bikes. We spent a fair amount of time and energy fixing things and keeping them up and running.
- One can look like a bike god by carrying lots of extra components. My kids couldn’t believe it when I pulled out the pipe clamp, for example. When I changed out the chains they were equally impressed.
- Contrary to Internet advice, components for these older bikes are not readily available anymore. We could not count on the average local bike store’s inventory as these are essentially antiques.
- Two of the bikes worked pretty well but the third bike didn’t. If I had to repeat this endeavor, I would check out each bike very carefully. I think the “mass production” of working on three bikes simultaneously worked against me.
- The route we took is a relatively flat one. I hate to think what would have happened to us had we gone up against a few serious mountain passes. It would be particularly dangerous on the descents where speeds climb and brakes get hot.
SO…. Would I do it again? Hmmm, that’s a tough question to answer. I think I would do it on a tour of 7-10 days. If an expensive bike is an obstacle to going (which it was in our case) then plan local tours until you can upgrade. We biked just over 1,400 miles and these bikes, while the did it, were not really up to the job.
There is a good reason that touring bikes have the components and features that they have. I would recommend getting something designed for the task as it will bring greater enjoyment to your tour “over the long haul.”
2.8 miles from our final destination at the end of the tour, Josh’s rear hub locked up. We stopped and I took it apart to find the bearings virtually smashed together. I stripped out the bearing on both sides and put the hub back together. Josh finished the ride on a scraping axle – a fitting end to the tour considering what we had experienced with this bike over the previous 27 days.