Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We bike the drive, in a fog

 The family went for the annual "Bike the Drive" event, in which Chicago's most famous roadway is closed to motor vehicle traffic for a morning, and opened to bicycles. Well, bicycles ridden by those who have paid the $55 fee, anyway.

Mary and Dave at about Oak Street, with the
beautiful Chicago skylline in the background. Somewhere.

As a sight-seeing event, the 2011 Bike the Drive was pretty much a bust due to a heavy fog and a misty drizzle. The skyline of Chicago was invisible.

Still, it was fun joining thousands of fellow cyclists for a low-speed toodle on LSD. We started at Grant Park and headed north, stopping occasionally to wipe the mist from our glasses. We enjoyed the people-watching and the many types of bikes, from tour-ready racers to home-made recumbents.

At the turnaround point, Bryn Mawr Avenue,
volunteers served protein bars, bananas and water.
There were several tents set up in Grant Park for vendors and information, and a Blues Brothers cover band, but the crowds were sparse. Most people seemed to want to get out of the cool, damp conditions. We took a look around, then made a beeline for Chinatown and a dim sum breakfast. (Tried a new place, Shui Wah, which was very good. We highly recommend it.)

Mary celebrates at the end of our 18-mile ride.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Elroy-Sparta trail, Wisconsin, May 24, 2011

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes at the Elroy Family Restaurant (server was the friendly and efficient Brittney, please tip generously), my son and I jumped on the famous Elroy-Sparta Bicycle Trail and headed north.

The beginning of the trail, in Elroy. The depot has bathrooms
and a gift shop.
This was the first long trip on the new bike, "Shadowfax," and it proved itself worthy. Other than the infamous stock Trek seat. Ouch.

The path is the usual rails-to-trails limestone screenings, in excellent condition -- packed down as hard as pavement for the most part. I cringed listening to the grit skitter off my brand new ride's frame and chainrings.
This centerpiece of this little park
is the stone foundation of Western
Wisconsin's largest train turntable.

I'd been a bit concerned about how the 25mm tires (at 120 PSI!) would perform on the limestone, but I needn't have. Other than a little bit of slithering on a rare soft patch, the ride was stiff but relatively effortless.

(Where has this bike been all my life? Featherweight frame and comfortable drop handlebars with at least four different hand positions. The bike wants to go just a few more miles, and take me along for the ride. I am insanely happy -- I think this going to be my all-time favorite bike. (Once I replace the stock Trek "prostate poker" seat.)
The town of Kendall has very
impressive monument to the area's
service men and women. Sobering to see
so many killed from the same families.

The trail is more or less ramrod-straight and level through verdant, rolling, bucolic (in the classic sense, meaning "a lot of cows") Wisconsin boondocks. Towns are pleasantly spaced about every 5-7 miles, and all have some sort of businesses catering to the bicyclist. However, on a Tuesday preceding Memorial Day, most of those businesses were closed.
The 1st tunnel north of Elroy, 1,694 feet long.
The doors kept out the cold in the winter,
so the constant water seepage wouldn't freeze
and cause rockfalls.

The Elroy-Sparta trail's claim to fame are its trio of tunnels. 10 miles or so north of Elroy, we hit tunnel number one -- 1,694 feet long. I was glad I'd remembered to bring a headlight; it was pretty darn dark in the middle. It's asphalt paved inside, but it drops away to either side into slimy-looking drainage ditches. They're only a foot or 18 inches deep, but I wouldn't want to slide down in there. What a cool -- and a little bit spooky -- highlight for the bike ride.

We walked through, as instructed by the warning sign, passing a couple of other trail riders as we did so. We rode another half-mile up the trail, and decided to turn around: we'd noticed that we were going to have a southeast headwind on the return trip, and didn't want to go too far north. Steven talked me into riding through the tunnel as we headed southbound. We survived.
My son had never been in
a phone booth. This one is
in Elroy.

Hadn't really noticed on the way north, but it had been two miles of slow but steady uphill grade before the tunnel. (What a marvelous machine is the Trek Madone 3.1! OK, I'll shut up now.) The return trip was a delight: downhill on a fast bike as the glycogen reserves started to kick in. I barely had to pedal at all. The miles flew by in a green blur.

All too soon, back at Elroy and the car. Today's total: 21.7 miles (plus another half-mile in the tunnel that the GPS didn't record). I am coming back with the wife at some point -- she'll be enchanted by the scenery and the tunnel. But I'm also going to return solo, pack a lunch and see all three tunnels on the trail.

Some of the delightful scenery along the way.
The last word: this is a trail every avid bicyclist should try at least once. You will need a daily pass, for $4, or an annual, for $20. Not that I've ever been checked, but the money seems to be well-spent on trail maintenance. It's a real gem.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Trek Madone: First impressions

After a thorough fitting and adjustment at Bicycles Etc., I rode the new Madone 3.1 home Tuesday night. My initial impression was confirmed quickly: what a sweet, sweet ride!

More than once in the early going, the bike accelerated faster than I could shift. Part of that was my unfamiliarity with the Shimano 105 system, and the other part was the gossamer weight of the all-carbon bike (24 lbs., according to the mechanic’s scale at the shop).

Rode east on Aurora Avenue into a 20-25 mph headwind, which would have been a real grind in the hybrid’s upright riding position. Between the rail-thin tires and the more compact riding position of the road bike (Yay! Drops!) I sliced through the cool wind easily.

South on Fort Hill Drive to the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve path, a typical crushed limestone trail. Headed east, again into the wind, a little apprehensive about how the skinny, high-pressure tires would perform on the trail.

No problemo. Just a little unsteady in a tight turn, which I’ll have to watch. But that’s not an issue on most of my rails-to-trails rides, which rarely have anything resembling a curve.

South on Modaff toward home, wind at my back. A couple gentle hills to test my gear-shifting. Figured out the “half-click” that keeps the high gears from rattling on the small chainring. The notorious stock Trek seat will probably have to be replaced with something designed for humans, but I was expecting that.

After a very pleasant six miles, arrived at home. Won’t be able to ride again until a work commute on Friday. Already have a change of clothes stashed away in my office. Can’t wait!

The bike’s tentative name is “Shadowfax.” Yeah, I’m what you call a geek.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bike Day!

Spring 2011 has been a complete disaster from a bicycling standpoint. It’s been cold, windy and raining for the last month and a half. (Almost literally. Seriously, it’s been the coldest, wettest spring on record — ask Tom Skilling.) I’ve managed to bike to work twice, snuck out a couple of times between rain showers for a quick 10 miles on the DuPage River Trail and made a few local errand trips to the grocery and hardware stores. But otherwise, April and half of May have been a washout.

But things are looking up: supposed to hit the mid-70s this weekend, and I’ll have a new bicycle: a Trek Madone 3.1. Yow. 

I’ve been looking at a road bike for more than a year now. The original idea was to get the new bike when I hit my goal weight. Although I’ve lost more than 60 lbs., I’ve been stuck at goal weight +10 lbs. for the last six months. With my 50th birthday fast approaching, I figured a new bike could be my birthday present and motivation to finally lose the last vestiges of my middle-age paunch.

After receiving indifferent treatment, or being downright ignored at several other shops looking for a Cannondale (cough Bike Shop Glen Ellyn cough), Mary and I stopped by Bicycles Etc. last Sunday to see what they had. Bicycles Etc. is a great local bike shop; I’ve been a steady customer for years and I highly recommend the place. It’s a family-owned business. Their salespeople and mechanics are knowledgeable, professional and have a great service attitude. All my dealings with them have been positive so far. Kudos to our salesperson Russ, who took the time to show me several options and patiently explain the advantages — then showed me the 3.1, stepped back and let the bike sell itself.

Actually, the test ride sold the bike (no other bike shop I’d visited had offered a test ride, BTW). I’d never ridden an all-carbon bicycle before: during the first turn around the parking lot I actually looked down at the drivetrain to check if there was a motor of some sort. It was that effortless. It took me a few seconds to figure out the Shimano 105 shifters, but once I did, well, it was insane quick. Turned like a snake. Comfortable cockpit. Felt like home. All carbon for pretty much the same price as the aluminum Cannondale.

Now, two grand is a hell of a lot of money to spend on a damned bicycle, and I tried desperately to talk myself out of it. I’d been looking at a perfectly acceptable Giant cyclocross bike at the Spokes bicycle shop — that one was “just” $1,000 and I thought that was crazy. I thanked Russ for his assistance and we walked back to the car. Mary stopped me from settling. 

“You’ve wanted this bike for years,” she said. “You’ve earned it. And happy birthday.” Seriously, who’s the luckiest man in the world? (Hint: it’s me.) 

Russ set me up with six-months-same-as-cash, cut-resistant tires, pedals with toe clips and a rack. Hated to add all that weight to the featherweight bike, but I’ll need that stuff for the upcoming, absolutely epic rides on the Elroy-Sparta Trail. 

Discovery 7, my faithful old Trek 7100 hybrid, will continue to serve for errands and winter-biking duty. I’m not lugging groceries with a Madone. That would just be wrong on several levels. 

I’m considering breaking with tradition and not naming the Madone “Discovery 8.” I’m open to suggestions.