This trip started out with the best of intentions, as any multi-state tandem bicycle vacation would when attempted by inexperienced tandem bicyclists with absolutely no bicycle traveling experience. And, aside from the hail storms, falling trees, extreme sunburn, gravel wipeouts, and occasional need to bushwhack, it was pretty uneventful.
Day 1 – Pontiac to Marshall, MI
110 Miles, 8:20:36 Moving Time, 11:56:03 Elapsed
In planning the trip, we relied heavily on Google’s bicycle routes to give us an idea of where to travel and stop for the night. Google does a decent job of finding trails wherever possible with suitable connectors between them. We decided – er, actually I decided (and if I use the phrase “we decided” again, you can safely assume I’m using the Royal “we”) that the best way to start a week-plus bicycle trip was by cramming as much mileage into the first day as physically possible. The route started out easy enough. The Clinton River Trail begins just a few hundred yards from our apartment, and we were able to ride on paved and hard-pack trails for the most part all the way to South Lyon. From there, Google directed us towards our first unfamiliar trail, the Lakelands Trail State Park trail. And so began our first adventure. For anyone interested in riding this trail, please note that it begins in someone’s private driveway. We ended up on a front lawn going in circles until two gentleman with hedge clippers beckoned us towards the small hole in the hedge that was the trailhead, and said it was only “bad” for a few hundred yards, and shortly after turned to pavement. Leon must’ve been feeling brave/caffeinated because we actually attempted to ride this – until the downed trees forced us to dismount:
But we got through, and bam – pavement! Weirdest thing ever.
This trail continues through Pinckney and Gregory, ending in Stockbridge. It’s paved – and beautiful – until Pinckney. Thereafter, it’s a mixture of these weird, black sand “moguls” (kinda fun, actually), followed by heavily-traveled horse trails. Between the hoof craters and ever-present turds, we bailed on the trail just east of Gregory, which was fine because the country roads had decent shoulders and the prick-to-sane driver ratio had dropped considerably since leaving Oakland County.
The day continued pretty smoothly – beautiful weather, a bit of a tail wind – but it started to get long. By 4pm, we were about 75 miles into the 110 mile day. And, of course, that’s when we started hitting a little elevation.
As most of you know, elevation can suck. Elevation especially sucks with a tandem loaded down with 100 pounds of gear after riding for 5+ hours. As we sidled down towards Marshall, every hill seemed to go directly into a nasty headwind. To distract us, we stopped often, like for these adorable baby sheeps.
It was a good thing too, apparently, as not soon after this little break, we hear what appears to be firewood being thrown in the road. It was in fact a giant branch of dead tree. Had we been a few seconds earlier, we might’ve been writing this from a Jackson hospital. For the rest of the day, we were looking up.
The day wrapped in Marshall with a little Applebees. (Morning me had plans to hit Dark Horse. Evening me said “F**k it, Applebees is 500 yards away from the motel”.)
Day 2 – Through Battle Creek + K-Zoo to South Haven
(starting out the day with the pimp-marked hotel door>
The second day started with a nice tailwind up to Battle Creek’s city bike paths. I didn’t realize the town really *does* smell like cereal – must’ve been working on Cocoa Puffs that day because we were both in a good mood. The Battle Creek path is very scenic and runs along Jackson Street, a nice street for roadies, on the west side. We actually had to detour onto Jackson due to flooding on the path. Google Maps did a good job of running us into Dickman, which is a highway but has a nice, wide shoulder, and runs along a river, so it has rollers but no major hills. Bike shop on the way too (in Augusta). Runs into US-12/Michigan Ave., which is a decent way to get into Kalamazoo.
After a lunch at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, we were off to the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. Now, I was excited about this leg of the journey. The trail, as seen on the map, is a fairly straight shot right into downtown South Haven. It also has the word “River” in it, which may give one the impression that it is also somewhat flat. It’s not. It also goes from nice, fresh asphalt into a peculiar mix of gravel (where it turns into the Kal-Haven Trail) that looks a lot like the CRT between Rochester Road and Dequindre but feels more like marbles on molasses.
(Don’t let this cute train engine at the head of the Kal-Haven trail fool you – it’s a long, hilly, and slow slog.)
We also had a near-miss with Grandma hotrodding in her golfcart. (I wish I had that picture…) Morale was taking a serious hit about 20 miles into riding the damn thing so we bailed the trail again, just in time to come upon this awesome vintage car race.
For the record, South Haven was a fantastic destination. Wonderful views, great B&B, excellent Italian restaurant. We ended up sitting next to one of the teams from the vintage car race. Turns out there *is* a hobby more expensive than bike racing.
Day 3 – Crossing State Lines to Chesterton, IN
All the slow trail riding from the previous day and trying to maintain a certain pace had been kind of a bummer, so we vowed to “take it easy” out of South Haven – leave early, take our time, stop for lunch, etc. The destination was around the southern edge of Lake Michigan and the route that Google had planned for us went well inland, which we thought was silly – I mean, if we just stick to the coast, it’s gotta be flat, right? Oh man, the dunes, the dunes!! One after the other into St. Joseph. We got these awesome beach pics, but at a price my poor husband’s calfs were not prepared to pay. We followed the Blue Star/Red Arrow Highway out of South Haven all the way through St. Jo/Benton Harbor down to New Buffalo. Despite the hills, it was a great bicycle route until it ducks inside I-94 south of St. Joseph. (Unfortunately, there aren’t any real coastal options right there due to the power plant.) After that uncomfortable 10-mile stretch, the wide shoulder returns and the traffic subsides. About 10 miles outside of New Buffalo, there are some back roads well marked as the Lake Michigan Trails that will lead you right into town. Excellent views of the shoreline and swanky rental properties.
Our destination that day was originally Michigan City, IN, but in order to make our “into Chicago” day as short as possible, we decided to fuel up in New Buffalo and soldier on a few extra miles into Chesterton, IN, which was suggested by pretty much everyone we spoke to after telling them our Michigan City plans. From New Buffalo, we followed the scenic and surprisingly safe US-12 pretty much all the way in. The shoulder does shrink when you enter Indiana, but the Sunday evening traffic was virtually non-existant, especially around the Dunes.
The day, which happened to be Cinco de Mayo, ended in spectacular fashion as we pulled into the motel parking lot and saw a Mexican restaurant with a Margarita special ($12 for a 60-ounce!) immediately next door. There is a god, and he loves sour mix.
Day 4 – Arriving in Chicago
We probably spent the most amount of time planning this particular day of the trip. We wanted it to be short for a few reasons. First and foremost, we wanted a full afternoon of stuffing our faces once we arrived in Chicago. Additionally, everyone and their mother had told us “don’t drive through South Side”, so we figured the earlier we do it, the better. But how bad could it be, right?
The beginning of the day was ideal. After slogging over hills the previous days, the Prairie Duneland Trail (which starts in Chesterton), Oak Savannah Trail (picking up in Hobart), and Erie Lackawanna Trail (Griffith to Calumet City) were all paved and flat – on a virtually windless morning. We were in good shape going into South Chicago – so good, in fact, that we skipped breakfast.
So after an unexpected detour and a few wrong turns, we stopped somewhere just off Exchange Ave. and 83rd St., hungry and pissy. (Ok, Leon wasn’t pissy.) We were so bonked, in fact, that we went RIGHT BY the Chicago Velo Campus and didn’t even see it – how embarrassing is that?? After cramming a few bars into our faces, an older gentleman in a very nice car pulls up and asks us if we are out of our damn minds, seeing as we are two dorks on an even dorkier-looking tandem bicycle in a questionable neighborhood. I told him it’s cool – we’re from Detroit (I figured Pontiac didn’t have much street cred there) – but that didn’t deter him from scaring the living shit out of us by describing in detail the lurking rapists and murderous gang bangers waiting for us around the corner. Maybe it was good that we were bonked. Anyways, we made it. I didn’t see any gang bangers. Leon must’ve scared them with his bike bell.
(Chicago over the shoulder pic.)
Shortly after our South Chicago adventure, we were dumped out onto the Lakefront Trail and into a cold, relentless headwind into South Side. Here’s where I have to admit that, uh, I may not have been a completely nice person for a short period of time. So here’s the funny part. We’ve got the Garmin 500 with heart rate monitor. Because Leon doesn’t generally bike hundreds of miles over the course of a week very often, we both had concerns as to whether his heart would quit/explode. So, as a questionably effective but economical solution (potential doctor bill money was shifted into our restaurant budget), Leon wore the heart rate monitor for the trip. However, because he’s busy steering and shifting and stuff, I would be the one watching the Garmin readout. Great idea, right? Still somewhat bonked, I suddenly became very aware of all these things that I’d never noticed so clearly before – how slow to downshift Leon was at the start of an uphill, how he would incessantly brake to avoid accidents, and, most irritatingly, how his heart rate dropped below 120 bpm. It’s hard to admit this, but yes, the words “Are you even f**king pedalling???” did come out of my mouth. That Snickers commercial is right – I was channeling the Goodfellas Pesci for a good hour. Sorry, Leon. I love you.
Anyways, we made it through the Lakefront Headwind Battery Trail just in time for 4pm loop traffic, followed by a happy jaunt up Milwaukee Ave (along the Blue Line) to our hotel in Logan Square. The loop wasn’t bad – if you’re headed north, cutting over the water on La Salle is your best bet because the bridge roadway is fully covered, although most of the bike lanes over the bridges downtown have mats. Bikes are expected in Chicago, so as we traveled up to Logan Square, it wasn’t the cars that annoyed the shit out of me – it was the slow-ass hipsters on their fixies. Ok, I admit I was in a bad mood. Every stoplight was the beginning of a sprint finish. At the end was a giant beer, and these bearded art-school bastards* were in the way.
*Full disclosure: I went to an art school.