I knew right where to find them. There in the hall closet my panniers lay carefully folded on a shelf, surrounded by camping and biking gear. As I pulled them out, memories came flooding back with them, swarming my senses with the sights, sounds, and emotions of bicycle touring. It all felt so long ago. Three years. A lifetime.
What started as a lark in the early days of our retirement, taking a week long trip around the western end of Lake Superior by bicycle, quickly turned into a passion. One that consumed our travel itineraries for the next eight years and over 10,000 miles. One week turned into two months, then became a month-long gig every year, sometimes twice a year. We pedaled coastlines, remote countryside, forests and prairies, followed rivers and snaked through mountain passes. We even ventured abroad, hauling our bikes over to Scotland and trying a self-guided tour in Norway. On a rare occasion we were joined by our son or a friend, but mostly it was just me and Rich. Over time, it defined us. It’s what we did, what we loved to do.
And then it wasn’t.
Enter Covid. Suddenly restaurants shut down, little motels struggled, using host homes was out of the question. While biking itself was a safe activity, the infrastructure for our travels collapsed, and we weren’t game for a 100% camping tour. We were grounded, limited to day rides and the isolation of the pandemic.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
In October of 2020 Rich collapsed while out trail running near home. A genetically misshaped heart valve had deteriorated severely over time, leaving him with a leaky, enlarged and damaged heart. Two weeks later, he emerged from the hospital with a new valve, a zipper seam down the middle of his chest, and a pacemaker/defibrillator. His active lifestyle was the biggest factor in his ability to recover, but was also severely challenged by this new condition with the unfortunate name “heart failure.”
As Covid raged on, so did Rich. With patience and determination over two years, he fought his way back to cycling, trail running and cross-country skiing. All at a new pragmatic pace. Perhaps to quell my nagging, he bought an e-bike this summer and quickly learned that it wasn’t a cop-out, it was an enabler. It has reduce the anxiety and restored his joy in cycling.
But bike touring is still an unknown.
Enter Minnesota Trails Magazine. For years, each summer editor Jan Lasar and I have collaborated on a story about a ride on one of our state’s scenic byways or trails. He takes the photos and I write the story. Usually it’s a one-day affair, but this year we had targeted the contiguous combination of the Central Lakes, Lake Wobegon and Soo Line Trails, a combined mileage of 144 miles. We decided to break this into a 3-day ride, and I smelled a bike tour in the making.
Oh heavenly day!
Three days or two months, packing for a bike tour requires the same amount of clothing and paraphernalia. The only difference is how much hand washing in a motel room sink is required. My handy dandy cycle touring spreadsheet guided me through the process of gathering my gear and stashing it neatly in place.
It wasn’t easy, striking out on a tour without my partner. It wasn’t the same as setting off with Rich with vast expanses ahead of us, tackling it together. While he is grappling with his limitations and celebrating his advances, I still long to challenge my own limits and push myself. We’re both learning to manage through this new normal, which sometimes means letting each other loose.
Our tour started in Fergus Falls and stretched to Waite Park outside St. Cloud, plus another leg from Albany to the Mississippi River dam near Highway 10. We broke the ride with motel stays in Alexandria and Albany, and had shuttle help from Jan’s friend.
Normally when Rich and I bike tour, we avoid bike trails. Too often they are monotonous and skirt the towns which we enjoy exploring. But this combination of trails was an exception to that rule. Following old railroad beds, we rode through towns where old train depots once dispatched passengers. Now instead, we were greeted by tall grain elevators and could stop to investigate the local sights.
Throughout the ride, Jan photographed while I snapped iPhone shots and took mental notes. Nothing stopped Jan from getting a creative vantage point, and re-do’s were common, sometimes raising the eyebrows of curious onlookers.
In the evenings, I felt that familiar fatigue that comes of spending all day on a bike. The satisfying sense of accomplishment, the justification for a hearty dinner, the welcome of a soft bed. And the anticipation of doing it all again the next day.
All too soon, we pulled up to our destination and dismounted our bikes for the last time. We had endured 93-degree heat, a flat tire, a chilling headwind, a 66-mile day and saddle-sores. We enjoyed good pavement, the lack of cars, the rolling farmland, nice parks and caffeinating at a cozy coffee shop. All part of the package when bike touring.
It was a great tour, although it wasn’t the same. I missed Rich and couldn’t help but wish for future tours with him once more. But only time will tell that story. For now, it felt good to be back in the saddle.
Look for the Summer 2023 issue of Minnesota Trails Magazine to read the full story and see Jan’s amazing photographs of this tour. The magazine is published quarterly online as well as free print copies available in Minnestoa parks and outdoor shops.