Most every state has its “Bike Across (Insert State Name Here)” annual tour, where reformed couch potatoes mingle with aging triathletes. The cyclists bond over small-town charm, grinding climbs and snacks of “gorp,” a tasteless trail mix of peanuts, raisins, cranberries, and other foods that Wal-Mart rejected. Even Kansas hosts a 500-mile, eight-day recreational tour where more people presumably quit out of boredom than exhaustion.
Missouri has a ready-made cross-state route: the Katy Trail. A crushed limestone path following the footsteps of the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad, the Katy Trail ambles through karst bluffs, entrenched river meanders, prairie uplands, and the Midwest’s finest wineries.
At 15 years old, I didn’t drink wine, and I couldn’t spell “karst.” What I did know is that three friends and I – “Tom,” “Dickens” and “Harry” – intended to ride the full 240 miles from Charleston to Clinton in three days. Friends and families would host us at night.
We left in the beginning of August when the average high temperature in mid-Missouri is 88 degrees. At 85 percent relative humidity – a not uncommon condition in the eastern Midwest – 88 degrees feels like 110. At 94 degrees and 75 percent humidity, it feels like 124 degrees.
Remember this rule of thumb: At temperatures greater than 53 degrees, humidity increases temperature perception. At temperatures less than 53 degrees, humidity decreases temperature perception.
Despite my fervent prayers, the sun would not remit. I would return in three days, my skin the color of red wine, swaddled in two feet of gauze, my tongue still searching for the guts of a wayward June bug.
I blame the bikes.
* * *
“What bike should I buy?” is the question that haunts every cyclist-to-be. Bicycles are split into three basic categories: road, mountain, and hybrid. Commuters can eke by on anything with two wheels and working brakes.
But what about bicycles – and routes – that don’t fit the mold?
Most off-the-shelf bikes have 21 gears. Racing bikes might have 27. Kids’ bikes might have 10, 15 or 18. All suffer from mechanical complexity and unnecessary weight.
At the other extreme is a 1-gear, single-speed bicycle. A “fixie” is a special type of single-speed bicycle with no freewheel. You can’t coast on a fixie. Remember the Grecian myth of a fallen god, Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountainside over and over again? Try pedaling uphill with a single-speed or a fixie. You’ll get the idea.
There is a Goldilocks compromise: the seven-speed hybrid or trail cruiser. It is lightweight, mechanically simple, and rides on flat dirt trails as easily as rolling asphalt hills. The wide handlebars do not fatigue the wrists or stretch the lower back, and the long chainstay tube allows room for a rear luggage rack. No other bike offers so much versatility for so small a cost.
But consider the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, an epic 2,768-mile off-road mountain biking route following the Rocky Mountain spine of North America. Off-road and singletrack route like the GDMBR require bicycles with a unique combination of dexterity, comfort, and durability. A beach cruiser or trail cruiser simply won’t do. How about a mountain bike?
Don’t fall for the Walmart shell game! Department-store mountain bikes usually offer less than three inches of front and rear travel in the suspensions. Their fork welds will split after a two-foot drop, and their derailleurs won’t handle skipped gears.
An infinitely better option is a high-quality front-suspension “hardtail” mountain bike. Key features to shop for include lock-out shocks, minimum 3.5 inches of travel, hydraulic disc brakes or extra-large V-brakes, and a maximum weight of 30 pounds.
If you want to outfit your hardtail mountain bike for on-road tours, perform a little vivisection.
• Exchange the soft, knobby tires for extra-tough hybrid tires. They’ll last three times as long.
• Mount a rear luggage rack. If the bike doesn’t have rack eyelets, use a heavy-duty seat-post rack.
• Attach handlebar ends to mitigate wrist soreness.
• Swap out the thin mountain bike seat for a touring seat.
• Ride happily.
* * *
At 15 years old, I lacked the $500 for a new bike. So I embarked on the Katy Trail tour riding a three-speed roadster that I stole from the 1970’s. Harry showed me up with a sparkling silver trail cruiser with the price tags still on it. Tom mounted a blue road bike he borrowed from a family friend, and Dickens rode a red mountain bike I suspect he borrowed from his mother. Little did we suspect that my bike would outlast the rest.
We suffered six flat tires in three days. No one had the foresight – or the allowance – to bring spare tubes. At one point, Tom squeezed into my handlebar basket while Harry wore all three our backpacks. Dickens hung onto his cruiser with his left hand and dragged along Tom’s broken bike with his right hand. Eventually, my bike conked out, too. My tire and tube blew, and since Walmart didn’t carry 1970’s era bicycle tires, I persevered on a 24-inch purple bike we bribed away from Tom’s younger sister.
The three-day excursion was summer camp on wheels for four teenage boys. We watched silver Asian carp leaping in the Missouri “Big Muddy” river and chomped down on 25-cent Snickers bars from a forgotten community refrigerator. Most of it was too stereotypical to mention here: purple sunsets, Hardee’s burgers, venomous snakes, that sort of thing.
The adventure ended 20 miles short of the full Katy Trail. I washed out on fresh gravel, skidded bare-chested on gravel for eight feet, and after picking rocks out of my skin, spent the next 20 minutes pedaling peg-legged towards a waiting, anxious mother.
One final note: June bugs are edible. I hear they taste somewhat nutty after being grilled over a fire. When raw, I think they taste something like rotten barbecue sauce. If you don’t want to find out, keep your mouth closed when riding during a Midwestern summer night.