Day 1, Viterbo to Otricoli 45km: Humble Beginnings.

Good morning Roma! It’s been a lovely few days with family. Today we will part ways. My brother to his first day of classes this semester, and my parents to Firenze to catch a big fat boat. I strolled up the hill about 1km to the San Pietro train station. There I caught a regionale train North.

I think this is a good time to discuss the tangled rail options available in Italy. The regionale looks like a commuter rail similar to Chicago’s Metra Rail. Except it covers the entire country. They accept bikes onboard. That’s why I’m here. City connector trains do what they say on the tin.

Then there’s the Frecce, high speed trains that go up to 360km/hour. Riding the FrecciaRosa helped me understand that despite its clear superiority here, high speed rail isn’t optimal for the United States with our lack of density. It would still take 4-5 hours to go from Chicago to New York and only after subsidies that our congress is totally not into these days would it approach the same price as airfare.

Sorry for the rant. My local train went North to Viterbo, a charming town that retains medieval architecture all over the place. I rode weirdly to the East out of town. Weirdly because I’m in a foreign place doing a familiar thing with strange equipment. I borrowed my brother’s city bike. I spent today getting accustomed to the feel of such a different ride. Anyone who’s familiar with a typical bikeshare like Bixi, Divvy, or Citibike would find my riding position familiar. That upright posture isn’t only good for 8-80 year old accessibility but also for low impact long distance riding. Maybe I looked like a doofus, but my wrists felt great doing it.

As I climbed the hills from train station and out of town, I gradually shed layers and resembled the other lycra-clad recreational cyclists I saw. Viterbo is a small town, within moments I was in postcard bucolic splendor. IMG_1925 Olive gardens seemed to grow wild roadside, so I picked up some breadsticks for carbs.

There’s a slight incline at the border from Lazio to Umbria. The secondary and tertiary roads were light on traffic and heavy on scenery. Plenty of twists and not very steep switchbacks. This was the first ride I used absolutely no paper maps. My GPS enabled mobile device asserted all my navigation. This proved to be fantastic 95% of the time. Roads almost always went where they were indicated to, and bridges were always bridges. Except when they weren’t.

My routing directed me to a crossing of the Tiber river that could save me a solid 10km. The route took me through a fallow field turning golden in the evening light. IMG_1930Then a peaceful canal where a father bounced his young daughter on the handlebars of his bike. We rang our bells in convivial joy. A serene canal was my first water crossing then I’d take a left and cross the actual Tevere. But in fact it wasn’t really a bridge. It was a hydroelectric dam. :/ I turned around and grumbled past that beautiful evening light. tevere

Another 10-15km down to the next bridge, darkness had already settled in. I lit my lamps and rode the last uphill section in the dark. When I at my host’s place I knocked the front door, unannounced. They were supremely friendly despite our lack of shared language. They sent me to the only restaurant open at this hour in town where I had some Gnocchi al agniello, and spinach swimming in hazelnut oil. Very rich. Lucky for me the ride back was downhill. I slept soundly that night even though it was a short day.

Ruota Volante: Tour of Umbria

Hey guys, you’ll never guess what I just did. I went on a tour beyond the North American biome of maples, squirrels, and cornfields.

A couple weeks ago I had a chance to go to Europe for my brother’s diaconate ordination. Awesome! I haven’t been to the continent since 2001. I spent some needed family time in Rome for the ceremony then took off with the same brother’s bike on a local train to start something I’ve never done before.

Here’s the logo for this ride, the flag of Umbria with some little guys riding down some abstract hillsides.
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It was a wine/hazelnut/sheep/fig/wheat country dream. More to follow.

Refrigerated Katy Trail. About 320 miles

Hey guys. It’s been a while, huh? I’m glad that I had time this last spring for one last ride before beginning a new job. What a milesy year it’s been!

I looked at the map and my wallet trying to decide where to spend the last five days and scant fun-funds. Florida? not enough travel time. Michigan? Too cold. California? Not enough dolla dolla bill, yo. I settled on Amtrak accessible and slightly warmer St. Louis. 

I boarded a train to fair Mound city on Monday morning. By the time I made it to the arrival station, a chilly downpour inspired weak confidence in me. After confirming lodging with a host closer to my route head near the Missouri River, I hopped on a city bus to meander my way Northwest out the city. 

Lemme splain my route a bit more. The Katy Trail is the country’s longest rails-to-trails conversion, snaking alongside the great Mizzurah, amidst bogs, woods, prairie, cities and farms, it’s 240 miles of crushed limestone, therefore very vulnerable to the weather, and for the next four days it would be my home. 

I met with my host near his suburban home and he gave great advice on routes and brekkie for tomorrow. This evening temperatures that had hovered around 45 dipped below freezing and that chilly rain from earlier turned to mushy snowflakes. Quite the inauspicious start to a wilderness tour! I set out anyway and found a magical diner where I consumed a formidable base of calories and coffee. Given the cold weather the server didn’t think twice about filling my insulated water bottle with even more hot coffee. Sweet!

Off I rode, and caught the trail soon enough on the other side of the river. Woohoo! I’m doing it! It’s cold. Most of the trees are still barren except for the tiny buds that you could expect this time of year. I’ll keep the description of this trip simple. Just cold enough for it to be uncomfortable, still beautiful geological features, tasty wild onions, nice people, good trail conditions, friendly dogs.

Well I think that last note deserves a more detailed note. A farm dog decided to play chase with me. Usually when this happens the pup is pretty hostile in a “Get off my turf” sort of way. This guy kept pace with me even when I stopped. And when he revved up he’d peek over his shoulder to check if I still had the pepper to keep up. We kept this game up for a few miles. Then as we approached a neighbor’s lot where a different dog stood watch, my companion stopped abruptly. A line separated us, even though I couldn’t see it. I waved farewell and kept rolling on. 

I spent a night in the woods. The next day I kept riding West. About midday I encountered a great reason for a river crossing. Jefferson City, the Capitol, where I could surely find great food and cultural attractions. I wasn’t wrong (mostly). In Jeff City I was immediately confronted by a procession of newly whitecoated doctors. It was lunchtime, surely anywhere near this throng will soon be infested. I found my oasis, that transcended both my ample caloric needs and service that wouldn’t mind an extra hundred customers at the local pizza buffet. Hell yes. 

After lunch I explored the state capitol building in a food-coma daze along with hundreds of school children and senators. I gotta hand it to those lawmakers, if someone looking like me stumbled into my workplace, I’d probably find out what their deal was. But non’em batted an eye. Such professionalism.

After Jeff City, home of Jeff Tran, either the local bus system, or a prominent local Vietnamese guy, I headed farther West to Columbia. There I met with some hosts that were running a very cool college town housing thing. Collective gardening, and cooking in a rambling victorian relic. I wish I could’ve hung out more but I got places to be! I decided that due to lame weather and nothing much more interesting to the West to turn around here. 

This morning starting Eastbound was a figurative turning point also. I now had better tailwind, ambient temperatures were higher, and I had stronger legs. It’s on like Tron. I made quick work of the return riding all the way back to the hoods of STL by early afternoon two days later. There I met some new friends and shared suds with old buds. We spent a lovely weekend together at the Botanic Gardens, park strollin’, and some outdoor dinnin’. 

Look at all these pictures!
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Day 6: Finish Line. Brodhead WI to Chicago IL. 53(120) miles

Good morning Brodhead! My hosts were charming as peaches. We chatted long after breakfast and as a result I had a late start. That’s fine, I reasoned. I had a relaxing schedule for today’s mileage. At this time I will address the weird notation for the mileage 53(120)?! What’s dat? Today I would cheat. I would only ride as far as the end of the Union Pacific Northwestern Metra line in Harvard IL. It’s only 53 miles to the station where I planned to catch the 1:35 inbound train. What a cheater.
I hit the road out the South side of Brodhead with aplomb. Because of my relaxing morning with the hosts and a little too much (is that possible?) quality time with their pet rabbit, it was already late morning when I rolled into Beloit. Here I serendipitously encountered the Beloit farmers market. The hour was late as farmer’s markets go, but there was still plenty of corn, melons and squash to be had. Folk renditions of Hall & Oates covers were the soundtrack supplied by a local band. I ducked into a bagel-centric cafe and cleaned ‘em out. I will have one all of them, please. In my spandex, I turned some heads among the couth locals. But I wasn’t the only anatomically suggestive weirdo. There was a mom trying to wrangle a toddler while carrying two cantaloupes in the easiest way to carry unbagged melons. Right up next to her own melons. What is this a Benny Hill skit?
After Beloit I quickly crossed the border into Illinois! Here the calm highways become a trail that magically leads to the Metra station’s doorstop. The trail wasn’t like the green shrouded tunnels I had seen in the past few days. Wild flowers exploded amidst the grassier prairie. I was conflicted. My thoughts went, Pro:These flowers are great, I love flowers, I will only pick like seven out of 50,000 along this mile of path. Con: I will probably destroy them on my way home, I’d rather not disturb natural beauty like that, they also kind of look like weeds, it’s already 12:32, no time! I didn’t pick flowers. Big regrets, guys.
I missed the 1:35 train anyway and chilled in Harvard for a minute over snacks while I waited for the next ride at 3:35. I boarded as the only cyclist and one of only a handful of people at all. Good, I thought. Less people to smell my backwoods perfume. However, as the law of Metraphysics dictates, commutes abhor a vacuum. By Crystal Lake, the three other passengers and I began exchanging “WHY GOD, WHY?” glances as a dozen  bachelorette partiers clamored onto our train car. Within another stop a flotilla of frat boys 10 years beyond their prime clogged the entryway. The contrast in auditory input from this moment to the previous hour could be only slightly more disparate. A well intentioned conductor tried to direct the goat/men to a less crowded car, but his efforts were in vain. Did he not speak satyr? Thankfully the rowdiest passengers either detrained or moved to other cars by the Arlington stop. Those horses aren’t going to spook themselves.
Calm resettled amidst the passengers as the sober among us lowered our hackles. The rest of the train passage was smooth and even uneventful. By the time Clybourn stop arrived, I was almost asleep. Trying to carry 90 pounds of bike woke me up quick. It felt good to navigate these familiar streets again. ‘Round suppertime I rolled into my own house and completed another successful tour. Thank you everyone who helped make this possible, amazing, and memorable.

Where to next?

Day 5: Bucky’s Bike. Baraboo to Brodhead WI. 85 miles.

Good morning Baraboo! Camping can be beautiful, but it’s never as restful for me as a warm bed is. I slogged onward to the Broadway Diner in town and had a heroic breakfast of Southwest Benedict Scramble. I’m directly quoting the Broadway Diner website for this; Tender pork carnitas, sliced avocado, scrambled eggs, pepper jack cheese, smothered with our zesty green chili hollandaise atop our homemade potato pancakes. Served with fresh fruit. It was a revelation. I also had like four cups of coffee, and a slice of pie.
My ride out of town started a bit late, but I made up for that with my end-of-tour mega strong legs. I was pushing 15mph much of the morning and reached the ferry crossing at Merrimac by mid-morning. P1140655I like ferry crossings. They do the work for me. They also ensure that traffic will be suspended for 15 minutes once I get to the other side. P1140656
I guessed at the best route on main highways all morning. It was hot, loud, and high traffic. Not until I reached the far outskirts of Madison around noon did I pick up some routes parallel to the highway. Now it was just hot. A roadie passed me with an abrupt “On your left!” She gave a contemptuous sneer over her shoulder. Thirty minutes later she passed me going the other direction. She must have forgotten her keys.
More cyclists appeared the closer I got to Madison with decreasing levels of intensity. After her, I saw some college kids kitted up in UW Madison jerseys, some dads coming from mountain biking, a greybeard or two, then like a light-switch traffic on the path exploded. Five sorority girls strolling abreast in matching red sweatpants. A tricycling granny. Joggers. Pigeon feeders. Gardeners. Orientation groups. Joggers! And then I figured it out, It’s the weekend after labor day. Kids moving into the dorms, tearful parents and baby siblings. It was also a beautiful day, the people couldn’t be blamed for taking advantage.
I navigated the throngs and at times was spat out from the path into beltline traffic. Oops! By early afternoon I found a lunch spot for mediterranean food. I found the one lunch option in Madison that had sensible portions. As a cyclist I wanted more than sensible portions, I wanted a Wisconsin sized meal. I might’ve still been feeling this morning’s carnitas. It’s hard to say. I sat and enjoyed my meal al fresco on State Street where motorist traffic ceded to pedestrians. It reminded me of my last trip to Montreal and the many walking streets there. A man interrupted my lunch to ask how I did in the triathlon. What? Oh right, I’m wearing spandex. Uh, I did great! Personal record!
By the time I finished lunch it was almost 3pm. And I still had 40ish miles to ride to my host’s place tonight. Without delay I remounted and found my way to the southbound path out of town. The traffic density reversed, and by the time I hit the overpass for the beltline it was just me and a couple other folks.
At this time I’d like to offer a toast to my well conditioned legs. Without realizing it I rode about 20 miles in an hour. That’s 20mph average while hauling 60+lbs of camping gear and cheese. My speedy streak continued as the paved path turned to gravel and the roadies turned tail and left. I maintained 18mph average. These numbers may seem trivial to folks not accustomed to all-day biking. Imagine instead of driving down the freeway at 65 you could cruise all day at 130. That’s what it felt like to me. I also derive a great deal of endorfuns (intentional misspelling for added effect) from riding on gravel or loose dirt. Maybe it’s that feeling of tonka truck freedom intersecting with unquestionable play. If I was doing anything useful I would be on pavement. Or as a guy in Kentucky once told me, “If you were in a hurry, you’d have flown.”
Well I was flying this evening. The gravel path eventually gave way to county highways. Golden corn stalks rose for miles, and I could tell it was getting late, because my shadow reached across the road and into the fields.Picture 1 Signs popped up saying Detour. No Thru Traffic. Bridge Out Ahead. I usually ignore detour signs because my feet can go places cars can’t. I’ve even had construction workers wave me through a dormant site. But the phrase Bridge out ahead gave me pause. I consulted the map. The bridge crossed a small river flowing southeast. I could cross it at the next bridge over and add like six miles or gamble and see how “out” this bridge really was. I gambled. After the last intersection to try a different route, the road descended into the river valley. It was steep enough for me to hope I didn’t have to climb this back up. No traffic and miles of downhill means real quik rides. Within a few minutes I covered almost two miles and faced the thoroughly forewarned. Barricades and road cones and flashing lights. Picture-1Heavy equipment, materials and tools made the path impassable as I could see. Even though it was a Friday night, there were workers present. I managed to catch the attention of one a hundred yards away. He guessed the question on my mind and resolutely shook his head; No.
Dismayed, I pulled over to reconsider my map. There I saw strangely mowed grass. Was there a residence here? With no idea of my intention, stepped into the thick grass and surmounted the highway fence. The maintained grass was a recreational path which wasn’t indicated on any of my maps. And what’s this? A bridge built for snowmobiles, horses, cross-country skiers and yes, even me. P1140657I waved to the workers and made a quick exit since I was only 15 or so miles from my hosts’ place.
By this time, 6ish in the evening my host was calling for status updates. I said probably 7 I would get in. I zoomed on the gravel path outside Brodhead more than 15mph and pulled up to his house at almost exactly 7pm. They generously offered a shower, and even a nice dinner out. It’s Friday, it’s Wisconsin, I have spent 5000ish calories today, I will have the endless Fish Fry! We chatted about previous rides, school system politics, and music. The next morning they introduced me to their pet rabbit, Floppy. P1140660Good folks. THANK YOU! I slept well that final night.

Day 4: When in Sparta… La Crosse WI to Baraboo WI. 100 miles.

Good morning La Crosse! My host greeted me this morning with breakfast and we left the house at the same time. I wound through the grid streets and whiffed thousands of gallons of beer. Way too early for a street festival, I thought. As I rounded a corner I discovered City Brewing. I had never seen such a large brewery so close to dense residential blocks. For hundreds of yards surrounding the plant it reeked of brewing yeast.
The previous night my host gave me very detailed directions to get out of town via the bike paths. But it was dark and we were in a car and I was about 15 minutes away from sleep at that hour. Now in the light of day, his instructions kind of make sense, and I kind of take a good route out of the city. Definitely better than my way in via county roads during rush hour, but still awkward.
As you can see in the embedded map, the route switches from surface roads almost immediately to rails to trails. This was nice. Trails all day. Riding former rail routes means it’s a surprise when I pop out of the green tunnel into a clearing sporting the old train stop with geraniums in barrel planters. It’s a surprise every time. Every time the station is the local chamber of commerce/tourism board. This day the station was some thirty miles from the start at Sparta. Here I ate lunch and met Deke Slayton. P1140630

Sparta is the endpoint of the (duh) Sparta-Elroy trail. Not only is it considered the first rails-to-trails conversion in the country, but it also has three gigantic tunnels. P1140643Lemme splain. No, it’s too detailed, lemme directly quote a nearby historical plaque.

Back Breaking Work
Boom! Dynamite blasts echoed throughout this valley as workers excavated the tunnels. They used hand tools, horses, mules and oxen to remove the freed rock. All tunnels were dug from both ends, but this tunnel was so long that workers also dug two long, deep shafts from above to help remove the rock. These shafts were later sealed with bricks.

This tunnel was slow and labor intensive to build. Workers struck an overhead spring which kept the tunnel wet and difficult to excavate. Today, the ceiling and walls still drip with water and provide cool relief on a hot day.

This tunnel was 3,810 feet long, and completely unlit. I’m not sure where you are while you read this, but you might need to take a moment to realign your perception in order to understand how weird this experience was. Close your eyes or whatever and consider a hallway that is more than half a mile of pitch black. Now imagine the walls of this hallway are trickling water falls. P1140637 I rode right into the tunnel despite warnings to please walk my bike.
It was immensely disorienting. Every one of my senses were suddenly inverted. I was riding on flat ground in sunshine of about 80 degrees, and whiffed pine and sandstone. I had to stop a few feet into the tunnel to figure out how to hold my head. I had no understanding of the horizon line. The temperature dropped to the 60s, I was periodically sprinkled with limestone runoff, and all I could smell is mildewy mud. The echo was fantastic, too. I attempted photography. P1140640
After another few dozen miles in and out of two more tunnels and bumpin along unpaved trails I ended up in Baraboo by dinner time. My memory regarding a warmshowers host this night failed me. If I reserved one, I didn’t confirm it. I had the surprise of not having a bed this night. A perfectly acceptable situation when it’s expected. But when I need to find a spot to sleep without warning and quickly approaching urban wasteland, the stress builds. Luckily I found a marginal field behind a used car lot where I could stargaze and pitch the hammock. P1140648Good night!

Day 3: Laura Ingalls Biker, Wabasha MN, to La Crosse, WI. 70 miles.

I awoke to a quiet house in Wabasha. Too quiet. Nah, not really, my host just hadn’t arisen, or left a long time ago. I’m not sure because this was the most aloof host I’ve ever stayed with. He was more than generous with everything I could need, but I only saw him for about five minutes during my 12 hours at his place.
Off I went across the bridge again into Westconsin. Yeah, people (or at least local realtors’ signs) kept calling it that. Get out of my head, realtors! The road continued with the bluffs looming on my left, and riparian railroads to my right. Any alliteration there was coincidental. I mostly stayed on route 35, which was a big road with plenty of shoulder, but also plenty of noisy traffic. Occasionally a freight train would zoom along with me in the same direction and only slightly faster than me. We could race for miles.
Speaking of 19th century midwestern hallmarks, I was traipsing in the lands that Laura Ingalls Wilder traipsed in some 150 years ago. Her birthplace was in Pepin, where I was yesterday. Tourist/historic traps slapped her name on all kinds of interesting stuff. There is a replica of a log cabin on the roadside near here. I went in during a hot day and it was pleasantly cooler inside, and plenty big enough for a little family.  This cabin was probably forty times smaller in square footage than my  last night’s host’s house.
A lunch at a riverside bar in Fountain City turned out to be an excellent spot for a glamour shoot with The Stud. Image
The food was all right and the view from the back porch of the river was definitely worth the price of admission.
Some time later, miles down route 35, I turned right slightly into the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. I briefly chatted with some 50 somethings on a bike double-date. They couldn’t understand how or why I came from route 35. But they reassured me that La Crosse was “just down the road”. While it was true I had passed my halfway point for the day, La Crosse was still 30 miles away. Maybe these guys were tougher than they looked. Later down the swampy path I thought I found a biker less tough than them. The only thing left is his helmet, floating on the water. Image
Ha ha. Joke’s on me, I actually caught two adult sandhill cranes in the reeds in my frame. What a happily accidental photo!
Maybe on Wall St. the roads are paved with gold, but here in Wisconsin the bike paths are almost all paved in crushed limestone. I love the rumbly feel, the crunchy sound, and the flavor of mineral in my sips from my water bottle. If you don’t agree, try fatter tires. Even though I feel like I’m crashing through the woods with all the crunching noise I make, I still manage to surprise plenty of critters. Image
Today the wildlife included a high-school gym class, in whom I was continually inducing shrieks of surprise. Funny, at first.
Then I found a quartet of cyclotourists stopped and chatting on the path ahead. Two each were going in either direction of almost my route exactly. The pair going in my direction were headed for Milwaukee. I suggested we ride together till Madison. I wished the NBers a good ride and hung out with the two guys going my way for a dozen or so miles till I turned off into La Crosse. I split from the two guys at a water refill spot. They didn’t want to stop yet.
There is a convenient exit from the off-road trail to the city streets of La Crosse. I did not use that exit. Unknowingly, I turned in the direction of the city to find a mass of ex-urban highway sprawl. No shoulder, rush hour traffic, set to 55mph. Great! I played around in that for a minute (probably exactly 60 seconds) until I decided that it was dumb. I pulled over and rerouted. Through sweat, smog, and consternation I found myself in the neighborhoods of La Crosse. I’d never been to this town before and was surprised by its thuggishness. People seemed way tougher than the Wisconsinites I’d met in other towns. Whatever, I guess the tough guys gotta live somewhere. I strolled on to my host’s place where he fired up the grill and we had chicken breast and great conversation. Thanks!