Not travelling due to the pandemic and feeling the cabin fever of winter I started getting antsy and needed a break. To alleviate this itch the best I could I watched a lot of Ryan Van Duzer's videos about his bike riding adventures. Specifically I binged his Love Cycles series where he and his girlfriend rode across the country from Oregon to New York City. I knew I couldn't take 3 months away from work and my family, but I did make up my mind to do a weekend bike trip this summer or fall. Ideally it would lead to longer trips in the future but you have to start somewhere.
Even though we have an Amtrak stop the next town over, as well as being close to Chicago, I didn't want to pack the bike up and take the train somewhere. Doing that I'd lose a day or two just traveling, so I decided to stay local to maximize my time on the bike. Over the course of three days I could rack up some good mileage, so I started looking at Galena, IL, Springfield, IL, and a few other spots, until I realized that Madison, WI would be perfect. The bike routes are great, and after a cursory look, a three or four day ride from Madison back home would put me on protected bike trails a large portion of the route.
Planning & Preparation
I had the route planned along with alternate campsites along the way, as well as local bike shops, and where I could stop for food & water. I made notes for the alternate stops and loaded my route into Komoot (more on that later).
Next up was getting my gear together. I already had a small one person tent that would work great but I had to invest in a sleep system. So I picked up a sleeping mat, bag, and pillow from REI and started laying everything out. I put together a checklist for everything I thought I should bring - shelter & clothes, bike maintenance & spare parts, my Kindle for reading at camp, and food & water for between stops. It was only going to be three days so I packed as light as I could, surprisingly everything fit into my two Ortlieb panniers, with the tent strapped to the top of my rack. I'll do a full gear write-up and review soon.
I loaded everything up into a rental car, and hit the road Friday morning. Arriving at the Dane County Regional Airport around lunchtime, I dropped the car off, unpacked the bike, and headed out.
Day 1 Madison to Broadhead - 46 miles
My only two mistakes of the trip became obvious almost immediately. First, I didn't do a fully loaded test ride with all the gear on the bike. A few days before I loaded up my panniers, but not with food, water, and the tent on top. Pulling out of the airport I realized that the bike handled much differently with that much weight on the back, thankfully I got used to it quickly. Another snag there was that my kickstand couldn't handle the weight change, and I had to extend it about 3/4 of the way to balance the bike upright where it was far from stable.
The other failure was planning my Friday too tightly. I expected to be able to do 60 miles, which isn't that difficult for me, however it took me two hours to get the car dropped off, the bike setup, head down a few miles to Madison and have a bite to eat. I planned on leaving downtown Madison around 12 or 12:30. I didn't officially get started until 2. On top of that its October and sunset was at 6:15, meaning I needed to be at the very latest pulling into camp around 6:45.
Madison is an amazing city for bikes. Protected bike lanes almost everywhere and the drivers were incredible, giving me tons of space. My favorite restaurant downtown, The Rigby Pub, was closed for lunch, so I grabbed some granola bars from my pack and hit the trail. From the Capitol Building I headed down to Lake Monona, and took the Capitol City Trail south towards the Arboretum. The views coming out of Madison were fantastic, I only wish I was riding the other way to enjoy the cityscape. I picked up some local paths and made my way down to the famous Badger State Trail. It was absolutely beautiful as the weather cleared up and the sun came out, southern Wisconsin in the fall is fantastic.
I kept on riding, stopping every so often for water or a snack. I hadn't seen anyone for a while, but all of a sudden I saw a runner in a crazy pink hairy costume and a tutu, and was suddenly questioning if my grasp on reality was slipping. However a few minutes later I started seeing more runners and realized that there was some kind of event going on. I pulled over where the Ice Age Trail intersected the Badger State Trail and cheered some of them on.
Continuing onward, one thing I didn't anticipate was the famed Badger State Trail Tunnel was closed. Not a huge deal, they had a detour clearly marked, however tunnels cut through terrain you don't necessarily want to go over. The detour took me along Tunnel Road, which had a massive hill that I gave up on and had to walk the bike up, it was just too much for me. However, what goes up must come down, and the ride back down was hair-raising. I'd never gone so fast on the bike that I was traveling faster than I could pedal, so turning the cranks did absolutely nothing.
The weather was perfect as I kept following the Badger State Trail, eventually jumping over to the Sugar River Trail which would take me south east towards Broadhead WI. I kept going while keeping an eye on my mileage & time, eventually coming to the realization that I would never get to the campground in IL by sunset. Thankfully I was prepared and had an alternate that was only twenty miles away. I pulled in just as the sun was setting and setup my tent. I was the only one in the place so it was very quiet. Only 48 miles down but I was hoping for a little over 60. I'd have to make up the time tomorrow. I laid down and promptly passed out.
Day 2 Broadhead, WI to Elgin, IL - 92 miles
I woke up early the next day and felt surprisingly good for having slept in a tent in 40 degree weather all night. My sleeping bag and pad provided a very comfortable and restful night. I broke camp around 7, and was back on the road by 7:30. I grabbed some breakfast at McDonald's and headed out of Broadhead, saying goodbye to the protected trails and hello to the back country roads. I needed to make up time from yesterday so I pushed myself a bit in the morning. My legs felt great and I was full of energy, so I didn't have any issues there.
I made my way over to Newark WI, then headed south to the Wisconsin/Illinois border. I rode down to Rockton, IL where I stopped for a delicious burger at the Rockton Inn, where the waitress thought I was crazy to attempt such a ride. After lunch I finally got back onto some protected paths and took the Stone Bridge Trail and Long Prairie Trail to Capron, IL then it was back to country roads. I wound my way down to Marengo, IL and stopped for one of the best Calzones I'd ever had at Malito's Pizza. Leaving Marengo I picked up the H.U.M. Trail over to Union, IL, and after that I really pushed myself to get down to Elgin, IL. I pulled into Paul Wolff Campground after dark which was not the best idea in the world. The campground was rocking and apparently is quite the RV hangout, but I grabbed a primitive spot away from the noise where I again promptly passed out.
Day 3 Elgin, IL to Yorkville, IL - 41 miles
I woke up at 6 and took some time just to relax before breaking down camp and getting back on the bike. Checking Strava, I realized that I did 92 miles on Saturday, which made me incredibly nervous to get back on the bike. My legs felt fine walking around, but I wasn't sure how much more I could push myself. I knew that the ride from Elgin to Yorkville was only about 40 miles so I had a light day ahead and I didn't have to rush anything. I broke camp and when I was back on the bike I felt really good, my legs weren't cramping or sore at all. I made my way over to The Big Skillet restaurant where I had a hearty breakfast, and then it was onward to the Fox River Trail. I stopped to take my jacket off as the weather warmed up I realized that the strap holding my tent and yoga mat had slipped almost completely off, so everything was essentially just resting on the back of the bike. I could have easily lost my shoes and not even noticed for a while. Keep an eye on your gear whenever you stop...
Growing up in St. Charles I rode the Fox River Trail almost every day in the summertime but I'd never taken it north. The section between Elgin and St. Charles was new to me and I had been warned that there was a soul-crushing hill coming into 'The Valley' which is just north of St. Charles. I was prepared, or so I thought. I followed the river along the path and immediately realized what people were talking about, and that is exactly when the 92 miles from the day before came back to haunt my legs. It looked like a vertical wall to me. I tried to go as far as I could using my granny gear but threw in the towel maybe 50 yards in. Once at the top I continued the trail, popping out downtown St. Charles. I grabbed a hot chocolate at the Arcedium, then kept going, making the final push through Geneva, Batavia, and Aurora.
The Fox River Trail ends in Oswego at Hudson Crossing Park, and from there it was just a few miles back home. I pulled in around 1pm, completing a three day ride of 182 miles. Here's the full route:
I think just accomplishing the ride was a huge win. I stuck to my route and all my planning paid off. The ride itself was absolutely beautiful, the leaves were just starting to change and the rain that wouldn't let up all week before the trip disappeared as soon as I got out of Madison. I was able to just ride, I didn't think about work at all, and surprisingly I didn't even listen to music all that much. I didn't even get my headphones out until Saturday afternoon. Just being on the bike for hours on end is almost like moving meditation for me. I also learned a lot too. After getting home I was so focused on the challenges that I didn't think I would do something like this again, however after a week or so of reflection I'm already toying with the idea of some longer rides.
The challenges were mostly terrain based. The unexpected closure of the Badger State Trail Tunnel threw me for a loop since I was already tired, and that was the first point I had to walk (well push) my bike at that point. There were a few other points where I was tired and had to walk - Southern Wisconsin is surprisingly hilly. Growing up in the corn fields of Illinois I was not ready for that. But I pushed myself and made it through. The reason this tour was so close to home was that if things went wrong I could get a lift back fairly easily, but I'm glad I stuck to it and finished.
I also had some mildly irritating GPS issues. I had gone over the route enough times that I had the major points memorized, but I wanted turn-by-turn in a few places, so I relied on the Komoot app. Coming out of Madison Komoot kept losing where I was by a significant amount. While riding the trails it kept thinking I was on roads or neighborhoods nearby and would sit there recalculating the route for a long time. I was curious if it was Komoot itself or GPS, so on Saturday I started using Google Maps and had fewer problems but even that was having the same issues. I don't know what was going on, but since I was prepared and plotted my route beforehand I could have done it all without GPS.
I overpacked a little bit, there are some things I didn't use at all but nothing major. The biggest problem was the misestimation of time on Friday afternoon - picking up the rental car at 9, packing everything up, driving 2 hours, then dropping the car off - I just didn't give myself enough wiggle room, which made Saturday a bit longer than it needed to be. However it was amplified because I was only doing three days. If it was a week or more I could have easily made up the time over a longer period, offsetting the difference more easily.
I would definitely do it again, I'm 100% sure about that, but I would give myself more time. Fatigue wasn't bad at all, even with not riding for at least two weeks beforehand due to weather and schedule issues. A pace of 60-80 miles a day is well within my abilities at this stage in my life. I think next year I would like to do a 4 or 5 day trip somewhere, and if that goes well, my ultimate goal right now is to do Chicago to Washington D.C.
I didn't take as many photos as I should have, however I did record a lot of video with my Insta360 One X2 Camera. I've imported the footage and will be creating a ride video over the next week or two, but I need to get up to speed with Adobe Premiere Pro first. Stay tuned and keep riding!