Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Milwaukee calling


Well, I did the ride to Milwaukee. There was a group ride going on Saturday via the Chainlink, but it wasn't good timing as we went to the PItchfork Festival followed by a housewarming party on Friday night, so I decided to go it solo on Sunday. My lovely wife's grandmother resides in Milwaukee (St. Francis actually), so we had a plan for her to drive up to visit and for me to meet them and catch a ride back.

I poked around on the internet and found a route on which was someone's route all the way to Door County, but it was free of any sorts of cues or landmarks, etc. Searching around I found chunks of information on the trail system that gets you there, but I kept coming across this pesky book that seemed to be just about how to ride your bike on the trails from Chicago to Milwaukee. Really?! A whole book? Seems like the kind of info that any bike loving human would just want to share with anyone. I know I do. I'll do my best here, but there was some ad hoc poking around here and there and some kindness of strangers involved, so you have to be a little self-motivated and remember which way north is.

One good move I made Saturday was to go on a recon ride with my wife and my friend JBI to check out the Chicago trail that starts the whole odyssey. It's the North Shore Trail (not to be confused with the North Branch Trail which is in the Cook County Forest Preserve District). This trail basically runs along the north branch of the Chicago River. Consequently, it's quite stinky for a lot of it's length. We rode back and forth past it a few times before finally picking it up quite a ways north of it's actual origin and I saved myself a lot of time by later riding back down it to discover that it begins on Francisco just north of Lawrence Ave. This is a little one way street south between Kedzie and California and you just ride up it the wrong way past a beautiful old sanitary district pumping station (they really don't make them like they used to!).

Francisco basically ends and the street veers right and it is at this corner that the trail begins. There is a point a few miles north where you get dumped off onto Kedzie again, but just go up to Devon and hang a left and you'll hit it again at the NE corner of the next intersection. Here you'll find a nice windy asphalt path with a miles long sculpture garden built right in!

This is the part that leads all the way up to the Ladd Arboretum in Evanston. The path turns to the first section of many, many miles of crushed gravel pathway here. I found myself debating the merits of staying on these paths a number of times during the day. They are a bit slower to ride on, though not like something you need a mountain bike for, any reasonable road bike tires work just fine.

This path ends at Green Bay Road. If you go left along Green Bay Road and get to the north side of it at Lincoln, you begin seeing signs that run you through a very posh neighborhood. This route leads through Wilmette, where it turns into a proper bike path through downtown, then through Kenilworth and eventually you will get to the Green Bay Trail. This is a pretty decent asphalt path along the Metra tracks along Green Bay Road. This path goes for several miles and (if memory serves) it eventually turns to crushed gravel up around Ravinia (you go right through the back of Ravinia actually). After some time you end up being put a wide sidewalk that takes you past Fort Sheridan and is the beginning of the McCrory bike path. This sidewalk is pretty irritating as the squares of concrete have all begun to settle and have a fairly significant bump between each of the hundreds of them you have to go over. (City planner types, FYI, it's MUCH better to make an asphalt path, concrete sucks and I'd think it's got to be more expensive to put down.) This cement world gives way back to gravel then ends up on another sidewalk along a highway-ish road that approaches the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. Here, look for a sign across the road that says "McCrory bike path north" which will indicate that you need to go across the road (at 24th street) and take a loop under the highway to another little industrial road to the west. Here's a pic of the intersection:

Which reminds me... NOTICE THE LITTLE CIRCLE WITH A SLASH THROUGH IT PAINTED ON THE SIDEWALK!!! This seems to be the universal sign for the bike path, at least on this route. It kept me on track many, many times throughout the day. This little sign is the breadcrumb trail to follow when signs are not appearing before you.

This dead ends into a messy torn up T intersection that looks into a factory and a little service drive. Go across here and you'll see the path on your left. This heads a back into crushed gravel world and this is the path that goes straight to Wisconsin, and I mean straight!

North of this area, you finally get back into something like small towns that aren't super posh suburbs. Here is an old closed high school I came across in Zion (I reckon from the name of the school anyway).

You'll just go and go crossing a big road every so often until you finally see a trail sign after Russell Road that says Kenosha County trail-something. You're in Wisconsin!

This trail goes on again for some time and eventually dumps you out on 30th street in Kenosha. Follow this road for about 5 miles (stop in at the nice little Southport Rigging bike shop you'll pass if you need anything!) until you see Gateway Technical College. On your right you'll see the Gateway Cafe. After this landmark, take the next right (at the light) and about a half mile down, the path starts again. This path goes straight to S. Racine. At this point of the day, I'd been doling out some Clif bars and some tasty little energy gummies, but I was bogging down pretty hard in between Kenosha and Racine. After averaging something like 16 mph for the first half of the trip, I was slogging down to 12 or 13 here for some miles. I thought maybe I was in trouble, but I think I was in a food lag. It is SUPER important to eat before you are hungry on such long rides. I was also drinking every 10 to 15 minutes.

In Racine you are dumped onto West Blvd. Follow this north and go right on Kinzie (you'll be in a large cemetery area here). Take Kinzie around (it bends north-ish), go right on W. 6th St., left on Memorial Dr. and then a right onto State St./38. At this railroad tracks right after this turn, you should pick up a path again that goes on out of Racine. I got a bit lost during this Racine part, but came by a fire station and figuring those guys know about some town geography, stopped for advice and got put right by a local fireman (sorry for interrupting the Brewers game!).

This trail takes you up into the hinterlands south of S. Milwaukee. At the end of the trail, go west (left) on 6 Mile and take a right onto Douglas Ave/32. This is your road for quite some time. After hours of being on the gravel, it felt VERY good to be back on a roadway! I suddenly found my third (?) wind and was bombing along around 20-ish mph for miles and miles.

32 turns into S. Chicago Road as you come up into S. Milwaukee. Most of the time the shoulder is nice and wide and is a pretty nice ride. Drivers were uniformly courteous and scooching over even when it wasn't really necessary. Thanks Wisconsinites! One up into S. Milwaukee (the city of), you jog over on Marquette to stay on 10th Ave./S. Chicago. This eventually turns into Packard and I took this up to S. Kinnickinnic Ave. and headed up that to my final destination. I was SO VERY hungry by this last 4 or 5 miles, that I was basically sprinting to get to food, running for miles around 23-24 mph. I felt like I was on a solo breakaway on a Grand Tour stage!

I made it to the St. Francis Brewery having ridden for a total of 5:45 (including stops) for a total of 81.6 miles. I probably ate about 2500 calories in an hour. (St. Francis Brewery has delicious food and a great Kolsch Beer BTW!) My average was something like 14.5 mph, but that includes about a total of 20 minutes of stopping for "natural breaks" (in the parlance of race announcers) and a few directions checks and photo ops. Not bad for this almost-40-year-old on my longest ride to date.

For those heading all the way up into Milwaukee, there are a few other ways/paths up into town. More info can be reverse-engineered from this route
, which is from Milwaukee to Chicago. This is an enjoyable ride. You can do it on a road bike, but just make sure you have some fairly sturdy tires. I rode my steel Surly Pacer with Continental Gatorskins and I think I'd have gotten at least one flat if I was on my Look with the Michelin Pro 2s. The gravel is quite well packed and smooth, but it's just a long ride with a lot of odd rocks and things you can hit. Also, take at least a couple bottles of water and 500 to 600 calories of grub. It's a very mellow ride and I hope to do it again soon.

For a little packet of images of the route that I put together from Illinois trail maps and Google maps, click here

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