Tuesday, July 13, 2004

My Bicycle Ride to Babbitt

Wow, what a trip. In planning for this ride I figured I’d have only two weekends this summer where all of our schedules could come together to give it a go. The first of those two times came and went two weeks ago when a steady north wind kept me grounded. There’s no way I could have gone the distance into the wind and what I was really hoping for was a stiff southwesterly breeze but that wasn’t in the cards either. After looking at the wind forecast on Wednesday I told Tammy that it looked as though we were looking at another no-go. I’d been watching the forecast the previous 5 days and they were consistently saying to expect a light wind from the southeast. It wouldn’t be a headwind but it wouldn’t be of much help either.

I came home from work on Thursday morning and looked at the forecast once more but it hadn’t changed. I got a couple hours of sleep then woke up to go work in the yard. It was then that I decided I wasn’t going to let the lack of a tailwind keep me from going…just so long as it wasn’t a headwind. I told Tammy I’d trained too hard to not at least try and that I thought I could make it. I’d done several rides between 135 and 150 miles and one of 202 miles a month earlier.

I spent the rest of the day working in the yard and getting my bike ready. Rachel and I stopped out at Keith’s in the evening to get some photos of his race cars. Anyone who can drive a truck pulling his 50+ foot trailer has some talent I probably don’t have. We didn’t stick around long because he was busy trying to get his cars ready and I needed to get home to finish readying my bike. He was getting them ready for another trip to Brainerd International Raceway. I’m sure Keith is doing what he’s meant to do but I could also see him as an over-the-road trucker.

It had been a busy day and I was getting tired. The main concern I was having was that I’d spent most of the day on my feet and I was worried about having dead legs for the ride. Around 9:30pm I took out my map to go over the route with Tammy to make sure I knew which way I needed to go. I’d jump on 160th street and take Lac Lavon Drive north to McAndrews. East on McAndrews to Hwy 3 and take that north into St. Paul. The trickiest part of the whole trip would be getting out of St. Paul. I’d take 7th street east to Arcade and go north on Arcade to where it turns into Hwy 61.

I got to sleep sometime around 11:30 and woke up a few minutes before my alarm at 4:15am. Tammy got up and took some photos of me before I left.

She was rightly worried about me and afraid for my safety but we both believe in prayer so we prayed before I left. I rolled out a few minutes before sunrise at 5:24 and could tell that my legs felt good. Some days you know right away that your legs aren’t up to the challenge. I just wasn’t sure if they had what it would take for later in the day. I was on familiar roads for the first 25 miles but once I got to 7th street I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was rush-hour now but I didn’t find the traffic to be all that bad. I found Arcade Street and headed north.

The shoulder of Arcade Street was scattered with potholes and debris and I was anxious to get off it. I eventually did but not before picking up my one and only flat of the trip about 30 miles into the ride. I had that fixed in record time and was now on Hwy 61.

I followed Hwy 61 through the suburbs of St. Paul until I got to Hugo where I picked up a bike path that would carry me to North Branch. Normally I avoid bike paths as they don’t generally lend themselves to long-distance riding but out in the country where I now was, it was some of the best riding I’d ever experienced. I could see the busy highway off to my right with its cracked and debris-strewn shoulder and I was so thankful to be on such a smooth and clean path with no traffic. It was nice to put my mind on autopilot as I knew I’d need all my efforts to focus on getting through the later parts of my ride. I gave Mom a call but she wasn’t home so I left her a message because I knew she’d be wondering how I was doing.

It was nice to be out of the hustle of the cities and into the country. Heading north, I had a light east-southeast wind of 5 to 7 mph which I was appreciative of. The sky was overcast which I was also enjoying. Having the hot sun on me all day would’ve been tiring so I looked at this as a positive too.

The first larger city north of Hugo was Forest Lake. I brought my itty-bitty camera to snap photos along the way so I could bore you with them as I put this story together. I was hoping the pictures would add another dimension to the story…if they do, great. If they don’t, just ignore them.

Just south of Stacy, I gave Tammy a call to let her know how I was doing. I was really enjoying my ride and I think more than anything I wanted to share that with her. I could see 35w off in the distance to my left but all around me was tall prairie grass, wooded areas, and the most inviting bike path you could imagine. I was curious how far the path went so I slowed and asked a couple women. They said it went all the way to Duluth. If that was true then I would have several hours of nothing but pure beauty. I only wish it were true.

When I got to North Branch the path abruptly ended. I went up the road a little further expecting to find the trail again but there wasn’t one. I started up Hwy 30 which went in the direction I’d been going but I couldn’t be sure if I was really on the right road so I headed back and went east hoping to find the trail. After a few miles, I’d made it back into town where I stopped at a gas station and was told there was no trail going north out of the city. Highway 30 was the same as Hwy 61 so I got on it once again and began heading north having wasted 10 minutes being lost—sort of.

Highway 61 wasn’t the nice path I’d been on but it wasn’t bad at all. There was a nice 8-foot shoulder and little traffic. I pedaled steadily and found a nice rhythm. The few cities such as Harris, Rush City, and Rock Creek were a nice diversion. I took my first break about 90 miles into my ride in Pine City. I sat on a pallet of Morton Salt and ate a sandwich watching people watch me. The little kids are cute as they’re not shy about looking at me in my strange outfit. They almost always smile.

Coming out of Pine City I encountered the worst roads of the trip. The sign said, ‘Road construction next 4 miles.’ The pavement had been ground down in preparation for a new layer and it made for a lousy surface to pedal on. The shoulder was a hard-packed sand and gravel mix which I used instead. A few times the sand got very soft and I nearly lost control as my front tire dug into it. I spent my time alternating between the two surfaces. Just when I figured that 4 miles were about through I came upon another sign which said, “Road construction next 5 miles.’ I thought maybe it was better they broke the news to me in short increments rather than the whole 9-mile warning at one time. I could do another 5 miles but I was hoping I wouldn’t find another similar sign 5 more miles up the road. I didn’t.

I left the torn-up road behind somewhere just north of Beroun and made my way to Hinckley. I knew for sure that the bike path resumed out of Hinckley and would take me roughly 50 miles to Carlton. I thought for a moment that I may never make it out of Hinckley as I had two people run stop signs and pull out in front of me at intersections. I didn’t see any signs for the bike path so I continued up Hwy 61 and figured I’d see it sooner or later.

I came across the only jerk driver of the whole trip about this time when a woman in the oncoming lane yelled at me to get off the road. I politely waved back at her and proceeded to happen upon the bike path I’d been looking for. Ah, yes, back to the seclusion of the path. I liked it except that it oftentimes wound its way through the woods and added miles to my trip when I really wanted a more direct route. For the most part, it followed Hwy 61 with the exception of maybe 10 miles where it wandered.

Tammy called to say they’d just gotten to Jackie’s and that they’d be leaving soon. She and Rachel stopped there to drop off Toby and Allie. I did some computations in my head to try and figure where on the road they might catch up with me. I thought somewhere north of Cloquet if they came straight through. As it turned out they would wind their way along Hwy 61 following the same route I took so they could photograph the city signs. Tammy hasn’t outright told me but I have a hunch they’re putting together a scrapbook of my trip and they’ll use those photos.

My next stop was Finlayson. I figured I’d be in and out of the local gas station inside of 90 seconds but I figured wrong. The line was at least 5 people deep and it wasn’t moving. There was an older guy at the front of the line who was disputing the price of something and the younger gal behind the counter was seeking direction from the only other worker there. I put my bottle of Gatorade back in the cooler and went across the street where there was no line and a much better selection. I was tempted to tell those back at the other store still waiting in the line of my good fortune at the Spur station but I was in too much of a hurry. Clipped in and rolling once again I’m back on the trail and closing in on Willow River.

It’s kind of a blur but I think Willow River is where I next stopped. I had to get out of my shoes and give my toes a chance to relax. I sat outside a Holiday station drinking my Gatorade and munching on a Chuckwagon sandwich. Yes, you can get away with eating such awful food when you ride.

The towns are passing by at the rate of one every 20 minutes or so. I breeze through Sturgeon Lake then find my way into Moose Lake where I lose the path and proceed to get lost, again. The signage telling you how to find where the path resumes were lousy at best as there was more than one bike path in town and I couldn’t tell which path the sign was referring to. Anyway, I go a few miles out of my way before I’m back on track and so glad to be headed in the right direction. The thought crosses my mind that I should just stay on the highway but I’m enjoying the solitude the path offers even if it does cost me a bit at times.

I’m cruising along with not much left of a tailwind but it’s still not a headwind. I’m steadily averaging 18.9 mph which over this distance is good. The sun broke out some time ago and the temp is in the upper 70s. It’s really a great day to be out here.

Tammy calls just as I’m getting into Carlton and helps me navigate my way off the bike path and back onto the highway as I head in the direction of Cloquet. I stopped in Carlton and refueled. If my memory is correct I’ve put in about 165 miles to this point but I’m still feeling good. I have to be careful not to become dehydrated or my performance will suffer.

I notice quite a few other riders with panniers coming from the direction of Cloquet. It appears to be some sort of organized ride but I never get the chance to talk with any of them. I approach Cloquet from the east and try to take a photo of the gas station in town which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The station is obscured by a tree that jumped in front of my camera. Oh well. I get through town only to find that Hwy 33 is still under construction. There’s no shoulder, it’s late afternoon and it’s a bit busy out there. I dial the speed up to 30 and hold that while keeping a semi behind me at bay until the road opens up after a half-mile.

Getting through Cloquet was a milestone for me. I’d imagined many times what it would feel like to be in that position while doing the ride to Babbitt. At about 180 miles I notice that the winds are beginning to pick up out of the northwest and I have to work a lot harder to maintain my speed. Tammy and Rachel are coming up on Finlayson and having a nice drive. I’m looking forward to seeing them.

About 30 miles out of Cloquet I pass through the town of Canyon and it’s then that I begin to feel that I may be bonking. If you’re not familiar with the term ‘bonk’, it’s when your muscles run out of their glycogen stores and your body switches over to burning fat for fuel. It’s a helpless feeling. You begin to get weak and your ability to make good decisions suffers. I put in a call to Tammy and ask her if she could stop and get me something from a fast food place in Cloquet. She’s just passing through Carlton so I begin to try and calculate how long I can hold on before I have to pull over and get something to eat and drink. Both my water bottles are empty. I figure we’ll rendezvous within the hour so I decide not to pull over. That was a mistake. I would have been better off stopping and getting some sugar in me so I could maintain my speed but I didn’t want to stop because I was worried I was running out of time to complete the ride…see what I mean about affecting your decision-making ability?

When I was just north of Cotton, Tammy called and said she was at mile marker 42. I was just coming up to a side road at mile marker 47 so I pulled over and waited for them. I was so happy to see them and the double cheeseburger they got for me. I sat on the tailgate of the truck while I ate and we talked about how the ride was going. I think they were a bit surprised at how dirty I’d become. My legs were filthy but that was mostly from the roads which were under construction. I’d come 208 miles to this point and I said I wasn’t sure if we had enough daylight for me to make it all the way to Babbitt. It’s amazing the spark they gave me…or was it the cheeseburger? I think it was a combination. Anyway, I started out again with renewed vigor and I could feel my strength coming back with each mile. Tammy would drive ahead a few miles and park while Rachel would get out and videotape me while I rode past. We did this a few times and I was relieved to see that they were both enjoying themselves. I had to smile when I saw them take off ahead of me and pull over so Rachel could jump out, take a picture of the city sign and hop back in. Rachel did a good job of photographing the journey.

Tammy would call me to see if I needed anything from the next town and if I did she would be waiting there for me. That helped a lot to minimize my time off the bike. Sometimes we’d go for a half-hour or more without seeing each other but it was nice to know they were nearby should I need them.

Our usual route takes us along Hwy 53 through Eveleth and into Virginia where we pick up Hwy 169 but we would have to go another way due to construction on 169. Tammy decided it would be best for us to take the Gilbert exit which would take us through Gilbert, Biwabik, and Aurora. It would likely add a few miles to the trip but she said it would be a beautiful drive and we would avoid the construction on 169. I agreed and said that I’d like to try and ride 250 miles and at that point, we could load the bike into the truck and call it a day. I was losing hope of making it to Babbitt by sundown.

I’d looked forward to riding into Eveleth and Virginia but this would be as close as I would get. It was nice to turn off on the Gilbert exit as it took us out of the wind and I was able to bring the speed back up again. Tammy was gassing up the truck when I went through Gilbert. They passed me and waited for me about 9 miles up the road in Biwabik. I stopped and refueled again while we talked about how far I might make it. I mentioned that the town of Biwabik looks a bit like one of those Dept. 56 villages. Rachel said she knew I was going to say that…an inside joke. It’s a cute town. I told them I’d really like to see if we could make it to Embarrass. We’d pick up Hwy 135 at Aurora and head north. I thought we could make it there by about 8:30 and that would put us at about 250 miles. I’d be happy with that and I wouldn’t feel so bad about not making it all the way to Babbitt because I initially thought it was going to be a 250-mile ride.

Highway 135 out of Aurora is a beautiful tree-lined road with a nice shoulder for the most part. Tammy said it’s gorgeous in the fall with all the colors. There was a steady climb out of Aurora and when I got to the top of the hill I stopped to eat a package of cakes Tammy bought me. I figured I was good for another 10 miles until I’d need to eat again.

I hadn’t seen Tammy and Rachel since leaving Biwabik 30 minutes earlier and I expected to see them each time I crested a hill or rounded a bend. I finally came upon them pulled over on the shoulder. Tammy said a police officer had just stopped to ask them if they were okay. She explained how they were shadowing me to Babbitt and that we’d come over 240 miles so far. I’d seen him pass me by a few miles earlier and I remember having this dazed feeling as it was just before I pulled over to snack.

I mentioned again how I’d be happy to make it to Embarrass and that we could pack it in then. I would sit in the bed of the truck as I was pretty dirty…remember my legs? We’d roll into Babbitt not quite the way I’d intended but it would still have been a very good day. Embarrass was about 6 miles up the road and I’d meet them there.

Tammy and Rachel were parked at the local gas station in Embarrass waiting for me but as I got into town I saw the sign for Babbitt, "Babbitt 14 miles". I looked at my watch and it was around 8:30. I said, "Hey, we can make it!" Tammy had this big grin as she’d just told Rachel that she knew I was going to say that. For some reason, I thought Babbitt was 25 miles or so from Embarrass but I was wrong. I was very happy to be wrong. Tammy ran into the station to get me a candy bar and some Gatorade. She mentioned to the lady behind the counter what we were doing and then they both wanted me to come into the store so she could see my dirty legs. I didn’t mind as it was all becoming part of a day of memories I’ll never forget.

I wasn’t hungry but I ate the Snickers bar knowing I’d need it soon. There wasn’t much daylight left as the sun would be setting at 9:00. I didn’t really have to focus as hard as I figured I would at this late stage of the ride as I was actually feeling pretty good. It helped so much to have the interaction with Tammy and Rachel. I was surprised when about 6 miles from Tammy’s parent’s home I saw Tammy parked on a side road off the main highway with her dad parked next to her. They cheered me on as I went by and it felt good that I was going to make it. I said a few prayers about not flatting as the sun was down now and I was on borrowed time with just the ambient daylight.

I pulled over one last time a couple of miles from home to give Tammy my sunglasses. We had a laugh as I nearly fell off my bike trying to get turned around in some sand. She cautioned me to take the bike path when I got to the golf course as we were quickly losing our light.

When I rounded the street for home I could see Tammy’s father standing on the street corner in front of their house with a couple young girls sitting next to him on the curb. I later asked him who they were and he said he didn’t know. He saw them walking by and told them there would be a guy pedaling his bike all the way from Minneapolis coming by in just a couple minutes—so they decided to wait and see as it was a slow night in Babbitt.

It was a great trip and I was glad to have arrived safely. I started out about 10 minutes before sunrise and finished around 15 minutes after sunset. I had a feeling the entire trip that I was going to need every bit of daylight to make it in time. Looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t have the strong breeze I’d hoped for to push me. Having been pushed there by the wind would take away from my effort and that would’ve been a somewhat hollow victory.

The total distance ridden was 266.27 miles at an average speed of 18.8 mph. Oh, and I did 4732 feet of climbing along the way. Thanks for following along.

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