Saturday, July 1, 2000  -  McHenry to Rockford

The morning hours of low traffic and cooler temperatures are the best for cycling, so I got up at 5:30 and hit the road around 6:15. I had hoped to leave even earlier, but I unwisely hadn't packed the night before. Then I had to wait to check out because the desk clerk was away from the desk getting the continental breakfast ready. Too bad there wasn’t any food set out yet, just coffee (no thanks).

I rode back to Bull Valley Road and went west to the Prairie Trail north into McHenry. It was pretty in the early morning light. I saw a few friendly runners putting in their miles before the heat of day struck. The trail was closed for construction north of McCullom Lake Road, unfortunately for me (fortunately for the locals who are by now enjoying the newly paved path). I carried a thick stack of 80 maps printed from Microsoft Streets 98 with me for this very reason, so I was able to successfully find my way back to the trail further north in Ringwood. While it had been paved in McHenry, here the Prairie Trail was described by guidebooks as " natural" or " ballast." It was kind of a cross between dirt and gravel. In some places it was especially rough from horse traffic. In general, the trail was okay for my hybrid, but I wouldn't take a skinny-tired road bike on it. At least it was easy to follow, and the isolation was a nice change from the heavily traveled route I had ridden on Friday.

This was one of the more primitive doubletrack sections of the Prairie Trail near Ringwood. I surely wouldn't break that speed limit on a bicycle!

Closer to Richmond, the Prairie Trail was easier to ride.

The trail quality improved as I reached Richmond and passed the high school. After a few street crossings in town, I finally came up a short, steep hill to Broadway. Since Richmond was another GIT checkpoint, I headed into the downtown. I bought breakfast at Main Street Daylight Donuts (like John Belushi's commercial on Saturday Night Live: " Donuts! The Breakfast of Champions!" ), ate outside by my bike, took some pictures and was back on the road around 7:30.

Donuts! The Breakfast of Champions! Or at least of one hungry cyclotourist.

I followed the recommended route to Hebron, famous for its basketball water tower. This tiny town’s high school boys won the state championship in 1952. I saw a group of cyclists taking a break at a gas station at the intersection of Illinois 173 and Illinois 47.

Hebron's water tower dominated the skyline.

I got tripped up a bit looking for Hebron Road. In town, it was called Bigelow, and then it changed to Hebron Road at the edge of town. Ah, the perils of following the cue sheets backward! This road was long, hilly and demoralizing. My spirits sank as my dead legs dragged the bike and me up each hill at less than 10 mph. I even walked up one of them, the only hill I walked all year in over 2,100 miles of cycling. I couldn't understand why this was killing me since the previous weekend I had ridden 45 miles on Friday night and 45 miles on Saturday and felt fine. Miles later it dawned on me that I was carrying a significant load (duh!), plus I was facing a moderate headwind. Or maybe I was just coming down off my sugar high from the donuts. I went up Gasch Road to State Line Road, which I followed for nine miles. I cruised down a monster hill, tucked into as aerodynamic a position as possible and exceeded 30 mph--what a rush! When I crossed US 14 at the little town of Bigfoot, I took pictures of the Wisconsin and Illinois welcome signs.

The Grand Illinois Trail took me right to the border.

The Bigfoot General Store was just inside Illinois.

I assumed that Chuck, Duane and Bill were township workers leaving their mark on the world.

I skirted the southern edge of Sharon, Wisconsin. By this time I got some of my drive back. When I reached Capron Road, I didn't want to turn!

When I did turn, I knew why I had been reluctant--I was facing a south-southwest headwind. I went slowly in parts, but it was never as bad as it had been earlier on Hebron Road. Capron Road seemed to be a dangerous place for animals I saw more road kills on the 6.7 miles of that road than I saw the rest of the day.  When I finally reached Capron, I was surprised to see a bike shop and happy to see the Village Cafe. I locked up the bike and had a very good ham and cheese omelet with hash browns and toast. It wasn't the ideal “energy meal,” but it really hit the spot. I caught up on my journal and left the restaurant around noon with over 45 miles behind me and seven hours of daylight to do the rest.

I enjoyed an omelet at the Village Cafe in Capron. Notice the sign for the bike shop on the wall.

The bike shop was called Side By Side Cycle. I learned later that the older couple that ran the place used to have a bike shop in Loves Park for many years and had moved to Capron intending to retire. I guess they just missed the business too much to stay away. I could tell they genuinely enjoyed their work. The woman was talking to a customer about an old railroad in McHenry County where the county already owned the right-of-way but hadn't developed it yet. She suggested that it should be a part of the GIT instead of the Prairie Trail up to Richmond because Richmond is " so far out of the way." I nodded in agreement because having just been there, I knew exactly what she was talking about. I assume that as organizers of the Illinois Trails Conservancy, this couple played a part in creating the Long Prairie Trail just a block from the shop. I couldn't find anything to buy, but they let me refill my three water bottles.

I headed for the Long Prairie Trail. The path seemed unusually crowded for its semi-rural location. I soon learned why--the LPT was a great trail! I especially enjoyed the interpretive signs that explained different parts of the ecosystem and the trail's history. I was having such a good time that I continued all the way to Roscoe, far beyond the GIT turnoff toward Rock Cut State Park at Caledonia Road. The trail changed from asphalt to a hard packed orange stone, which was a very good riding surface, better than limestone screenings. I paid dearly for this serendipity since I had to go back south to Rock Cut S.P. to make all my GIT checkpoints, but I think it was worth it. It was the highlight of the afternoon.

The Long Prairie Trail started out as an asphalt path in the sun.


This trail was the highlight of my afternoon.

This forested part of the trail was a welcome relief from the mid-day sun.

The Long Prairie Trail ended near the village of Roscoe.

Things went figuratively downhill from there. First I had to figure out a route to Rock Cut. Ominously, a closed bridge obstructed my path down Main Street. I found my way around that, made a few turns and ended up on Illinois 173. I wasn't thrilled to be on a busy road, but most of it had an adequate shoulder. At 2:30 PM I reached Rock Cut and mimicked Friday night's photo at Moraine Hills, hoisting the bike over a high curb and leaning it against the entrance sign.

At Rock Cut State Park, I marked another GIT checkpoint off my list.

I was supposed to pick up another trail inside the park, but I missed it (actually, I saw several trails, but I didn't know which one to follow). Several hills later, I found my way to the Harlem Road entrance on the other end of the park. That's where things fell apart.

The debate had started in Roscoe. I was over 40 miles from Freeport, where I had a motel room reserved. It was nearly 2:00 then, so I had five good hours of daylight and one marginal hour. I could make it if I went eight miles per hour (keep in mind, that's including stops), but it would be tough. The hills and the constant headwind were wearing me down. My thoughts started to go beyond Freeport. Sunday, I was supposed to ride to Galena in the hilliest region of Illinois. If today had kicked my butt, what would tomorrow bring?

After another challenging hill on Harlem Road, I knew. Tomorrow would not take me to Galena because tonight I was staying in Rockford. In effect, I was throwing in the towel. I had lost all desire to continue. And since desire was the only thing that had carried me this far (i.e., my training was weak), it was over. Sure, I kidded myself about getting a good night's sleep, pulling myself back together and continuing Sunday morning. I reasoned that I could still reach Princeton by the morning of July 5 and catch the Amtrak home with two thirds of the route completed. But it simply wasn't going to happen.

When I reached Perryville Road, I headed south on the parallel bike path to look for a motel. I stopped at a gas station for a Gatorade. A fellow cyclist eyed my panniers and asked, " How far are you going?" I sheepishly replied that I wasn't going too far today, only to the first motel I could find. Then he talked about how strong the wind was. That made me feel a little better--at least someone else had noticed and I wasn't a total wimp (he was also the one who told me the history of the couple at the bike shop in Capron). I followed Business 20 east to a Super 8. When I checked in, the clerk asked me where I was headed. Feeling for all the world like a failure, I said, " This is it. I was going to go further this weekend, but it's not going to happen."

I walked across the street to Steak N Shake for dinner with a Blizzard chaser at Dairy Queen. At least I was fully refueled. I stayed up late and called my wife when she got home from work. I asked her if she'd mind driving out to Rockford Sunday morning to pick me up. Luckily for me, she was happy to do so. I joked that ten years from now she would just tell me to get lost: " You got yourself into this, so you can get yourself out!"

I tried to analyze just how I had fallen into this " failure."

On the bright side, I biked about 130 miles in two days (actually, within 25 hours) on a loaded bike. Despite my suffering during the ride, I wasn't particularly sore afterward. I just exceeded my training and fell apart on the hills. In the future I decided to set my mileage goals lower. That would make my trip more fun and less taxing. I wouldn't be fretting about whether I could pump out X miles in X more hours of daylight as I had that day.

My bicycle performed admirably and carried the load well. Even on that 30 mph downhill, it felt very stable and I wasn't the least bit nervous or uncertain. It also had enough low gears for pulling a load uphill (I used the granny gear a few times). The 700x38 tires handled a variety of surfaces, including the Prairie Trail that some guides labeled " for mountain bikes only." The bike's only shortcoming was its handlebar. Bar ends or aero-bars would give me a greater variety of hand positions to prevent numbness.

On Sunday morning I went across the street to the Machine Shed for a huge but mediocre breakfast, then returned to my room to wait for my wife to rescue me. When she arrived around 10:00, I loaded up the car and we went home. I decided that to make up for failing to complete this trip, I would complete the entire GIT as if I were touring, i.e. with panniers and other gear, even if I was only taking a one-day trip. It would be my albatross.

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