From late afternoon April 30 to mid-day May 7, 2015, I bike-camped the Katy Trail from Clinton to Machens, then back to Dutzow, across the river to Washington to catch the train, Amtrak from Washington to Sedalia, then the trail back to Clinton, a total of c. 320 bike miles on the trail and perhaps another 20 or so on connecting highways, into towns, etc. This is a report on that ride, perhaps useful to regular riders as well as to those contemplating a railtrail adventure, on the Katy or elsewhere.
I’m going to do this in relatively short installments in an attempt to make it comprehensive as well as digestible. For data folks, too much is never enough. For all others, as with pornography, if you don’t like the information, you can surely ignore it.
Section I identifies the source, me. Unless you’re one of those guys or gals who believes everything (or nothing) you read on the interwebs, you want to know the relevant CV of the one reporting and opining. I.e., why should I pay attention to this guy?
Section II concerns my equipment – bike, camping gear, payload, etc. This may be helpful as suggestions about what to emulate or avoid. Can’t hurt to see what worked and didn’t work for someone else, eh.
Section III includes my observations, comments, opinions, comparisons, etc., perhaps the meat of the report. You may find this the most interesting/helpful section or the least, given its inherently idiosyncratic aspect.
SECTION I, THE REPORTER
I’m now firmly into my 72nd year on Earth (or, come to think of it, on any other planet), probably close to skinny by today’s standards, fitter than average, but constrained somewhat by a left hip joint constructed of titanium, chrome steel and polypropylene, the consequence of a road bike crash in September of 2001, and by the sequalae of my most serious, multiple-fracture road bike crash in July of last year. Personality-wise, I’m an analytic, and a bold introvert. I dislike, and tend to suck at, repetitive activities – maintenance, filing, that sort of thing.
Road Bike History –
I’ve been riding, on and off, for c. 66 years, pretty regularly for the past few decades, sometimes with commitment.
I’ve completed 13 iterations of El Tour de Tucson, our annual 110-mile, fully-timed circuit of The Baked Apple, my last (and, some say, my best) in 2011. (A serious but fun ride with c. 9000 other cyclistes from all over the US and a few other countries, the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Usually perfect riding weather. Try it. You’ll like it.)
My most epic road-bike ride was Labor Day weekend, 2012, the occasion of my 50th high school reunion. I decided to commemorate that event, and a ride 55 years earlier when my parents let me bike from my home to the home of my grandparents on the then-main connecting highway, US 77, on my fixed-gear, heavier-than-Chris-Christie Schwinn, by doubling that ride – Brookings, SD, to Milbank, SD, and back. Olympic-level training for this one – 3 months, 6 days a week, 3-ish hours a day. (And it was just barely enough.)
This was a north-south ride over rolling hills, pretty steady ENE-ESE winds, 142.26 miles, 14 hours on the road, alone. Saw the sun come up on my right and go down on my right. My most challenging day in the saddle, emotionally if not physically. Came in on Cola Buzz gel and water, lean, mean and looking for old girlfriends.
Mountain Bike History –
I taught my son how to ride a bike and he taught me how to ride a mountain bike, somewhat less than six years ago. After that, my road bike was primarily for conditioning and my mountain bike was for fun.
Since then I’ve ridden MTB trails in AZ, UT, CO, SD, FL, PA, VA, MD and MA, including slickrock and singletrack at Moab and Little Creek Mesa.
My son and I did the San Juan Huts Durango-to-Moab hut-to-hut ride (highly recommended) in June 2010, which ride included, for me, some heart-in-the-throat descents and a number of lung-busting climbs. Seven days, c. 215 miles, elevations up to 12,500 ft. And the reward at the end of each day was a hut with beer, all manner of fresh and canned food, including local, in-season fruits, and bunks.
Railtrail Experience –
Before the Katy this year, I bike-camped, with my son, the George S. Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Big Mick, September 13-18, 2013, (that sudden blizzard that killed all those cattle in this area was a week later), up and back, a total of c. 228 miles from Edgemont to Deadwood to Edgemont. The typical claim on railtrails, including this one, is that the max grade is 4%, but my Garmin showed nearly twice that in places, including during the 19-mile climb south out of Deadwood.
May 1- 9 of last year, 2014, I solo bike-camped (with one night in a hostel and one, unavoidably, in a motel) the Great Allegheny Passage, the GAP, from Pittsburgh, PA, to Cumberland, MD, c. 150 miles, and then the C&O Canal Towpath from Cumberland to Georgetown, DC, c. 185 miles, for a total of c. 335 miles.
In mid-May, 2014, without gear, I leisurely toddled along the Cape Cod Rail Trail in MA, perhaps the perfect venue for introducing your recalcitrant spouse or significant other to the joys of railtrails.
That’s it, so take my Section III comments about railtrails for what they’re worth.
SECTION II, BIKE AND GEAR
After doing The Big Mick, the GAP, the C&O and the CCRT (Cape Cod Rail Trail) on my 9er MTB, I decided to modify it for comfort and efficiency for the Katy. This after doing some shopping for a “railtrail” bike and noting that a lot of them are not lighter than my MTB and, perhaps, less robust for a camping load.
My 9er is aluminum with a 100mm compression-adjustable fork (but no full lockout) and hydraulic disk brakes. I left the fork full-stiff for the Katy, except for a few bad patches. You’re probably right that these heavy brakes are more than the Katy calls for, but once you get used to good braking, you kinda always want it.
First modification: tires. We run big ones here in the desert, for the loose sand and gravel, in my case 2.35 inches in front (that’s 59.7 mm in Eurospeak) and 2.2 (55.9 mm) in the rear. I shopped extensively for robust, bullet-proof, light-tread replacements, something with good rolling resistance, and settled on the Continental Country Plus, nominally 47 mm front, 42 mm rear, but actually measuring 1 ¾ in. (44.5 mm) and 1 7/16 in. (36.5 mm) respectively, as installed.
While these are the heaviest (Kevlar tread armor) and most difficult-to-mount (wire bead) tires I’ve ever used, they do seem highly puncture-resistant (even over some unavoidable broken glass in Sedalia) and they almost don’t need air, feeling the same with 40 psi as with 55. This may be my MTB bias, but the bike never felt over-tired and, indeed, the nose got loose a few times in excessively-graveled repaired sections of the trail, given all the weight on the tail. I know the conventional wisdom is for skinnier tires, and skinnier is faster, but I wouldn’t have wanted any less tire for my ride.
Second mod: pedals. I swapped out my flat ones for my old Crank Bros. Candy C eggbeater-style cleated ones. Cleated pedals are a good idea for nontechnical, flat riding, like the Katy, where you want the efficiency of leg lift.
Third mod: saddle. I swapped in my road bike triathlon saddle – long nose, big crotch-slit, not too soft. Then I moved the saddle up and forward, for more of a road-bike, vertical leg drive. This worked pretty well, and it reduced my butt pain, but it’s still no substitute for pedaling out of the saddle, a lot of which I did.
Fourth mod: handlebar. I rotated the MTB flat bar to its most forward and up position, to accommodate the new saddle position, and added Origin8 drops and buckhorns, to give me three distinct hand postions. The idea was to minimize positional pain in my back and butt and to give me a tuck for headwinds and an upright position for tailwinds. There was a lot of headwind and the drops really helped. The weight of the whole handlebar add-on package – drops, buckhorns and foam rubber grips for both – was only 355 grams. Totally worth it.
I’m sure some of you could improve upon this, but all of these mods to convert my MTB to a more efficient, comfortable railtrail bike were effective.
Gear: My all-up payload was c. 54 lbs, give or take, depending on on-board food and water, distributed in two smallish rear panniers of c. 8+ lbs each, a tailpack of c. 24 lbs, a backpack with water bladder of c. 12 lbs and two frame-mounted water bottles, for another 2+ lbs. I took what, for me, is the bare minimum – e.g., my little stove weighs only 3.4 oz. – although my deep air mattress and two Kindles and, ahem, an item of serious personal protection may seem like luxuries to some. Used pretty much everything I took, other than some tools and spare parts – so I’m not sure I could get it below 50 lbs as a solo.
Bike handled like Chris Christie on a bad day with that weight, but “It’s not about the bike” as St. Lance of Armstrong was wont to remind us.
SECTION III, OBSERVATIONS & COMMENTS
The Katy is a lovely railtrail and I loudly applaud the State of Missouri for creating and maintaining it. The facilities are admirable and the wildlife is interesting; I got some good pix of turkeys and turtles. The trail surface is generally smooth and consistent and the trail seems welcoming to all levels of riders. That’s a good thing and we need more of it in this country.
But the Katy is not my favorite railtrail. I think this is a horses-for-courses thing. The Katy seems most attractive to the quite-casual rider. Its level of adventure is below what I seem to need. In a phrase, it’s too flat and straight for my tastes.
It occurred to me, during some long, flat, straight sections of the Katy, that my mood varies pretty much directly with bike speed. Below about 13 mph, my good feeling decreases as speed decreases. Between about 13 mph and about 39 mph, my mood lifts as speed increases. Above about 39 mph, focus takes over and I have no discernible mood, although fear is never far away.
I’m not psychologically equipped to enjoy sitting and grinding. I don’t mind climbing if there is a pay-off, a descent where I can sit back, tuck in and feel the landscape rushing by. There is really none of this on the Katy and there’s not enough variety in the terrain, unlike, say, on the C&O, to distract me.
That said, here are some thoughts:
1. The Katy’s biggest deficit: water. At times I got the sense that the Katy was designed by people who don’t ride bikes very far. At trailhead after trailhead, I encountered elaborate restrooms . . . and no water. I vented my frustration with this to various other trail users, and most agreed that this is a serious deficiency. I never talked to anyone who said, Oh, there’s plenty of water on the Katy.
Almost all of us who ride or hike can pee wherever we ride or hike, but few of us can conjure potable water out of thin air. Water in is more important than water out. Water is heavy to lug around. I understand the expense of water lines, but every trailhead on the Katy should have potable water.
2. Campgrounds. These are adequate or more.
I camped at Farrington Park, Windsor (I think $7 but the hostess charged me only $5 because she couldn’t make change; shower; no bugs);
Pilot Grove, city park (no charge, no shower, but a covered pavilion to pitch my tent and plenty of covered picnic tables; three guys I’d passed earlier came in about 2 hrs. behind me and strung their hammocks in the second pavilion; no bugs);
Hartsburg, city park (again no charge, no shower, no bugs, but probably my favorite campground for its tiny-town vibe, – hey, I’m a small town guy – its immediate proximity to the Katy and Dotty’s Café, its free mini-library and a bar where I was able to score 2 bottles of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale -- $7! Ouch! – and, not least important, its water);
Bluffton, Steamboat Junction Campground ($10, I think; the self-check-in said they’d send me a bill since I didn’t have exact change, a beautiful little campground in a tree-shaded clearing, up a steep, hike-a-bike rutted road, with an absolutely lovely little shower house and round tables with – luxury of luxuries – chairs with backs; I was the only one there; a few mosquitoes and a bunch of noisy toads to wake me up in the early AM; perhaps tied for my favorite campground);
Klondike Park campground, east of Augusta (the most expensive and, by far, the least pleasant of all my campgrounds; steep, difficult access from the Katy, poorly signed, and minimally accommodating of bicyclists; I had reserved campsite B-6 for its proximity to the shower house, but when I got there, not only no showers but no water anywhere in the park; I didn’t fault them for the “broken water main” but for their response to it; they seemed unconcerned that one of their customers had ridden hard all day in the heat and needed water and I had to be quite firm with a couple of park rangers to get water delivered to my campsite; I was here the nights of the 4th and 5th of May, riding Klondike to Machens to Klondike with minimal packs on the 5th, and when I left to catch the train on the 6th, there was still no water, this while another Third World country with infrastructure problems, Nepal, was getting regular and adequate fresh water deliveries);
Missouri State Fairgrounds campground, Sedalia (I had intended to go back to Windsor, but an Amtrak screw-up kept me in Sedalia for an extra 5 hours; nominally $10 but the security guy comped me because he didn’t take credit cards and I didn’t have enough cash; a big shower room that I had all to myself; a few mosquitos; lush-grass campsite).
3. The much-maligned Mokane Market (that alliteration for you poetry fans).
I dropped in on Sunday, May 3, 2015, for a couple of ice cream bars. The woman behind the counter was indeed dour, but I sat quietly at one of their tables, eating my ice cream and observing the small but steady stream of customers. These are small-town folks, people, leery of strangers/travelers and their apparent money, spandex shorts, earrings, tapping on their smart phones. So if you saunter in their all urban-dick, or -dickette, the locals aren’t going to bow and scrape, but if you don’t seem so foreign . . .
I noticed a handwritten “thank you” note tacked up on the bulletin, signed “Carl Edwards #99” and knowing Carl was from Missouri, I asked the counter lady, “Was Cousin Carl actually here?”
She brightened up immediately. “Oh, yes, he used to stop in here all the time.”
Taking another chance, I said, “I really liked him when he drove Fords. Now, not so much.”
She laughed. “Me, too. I’m a Ford girl through and through.” And we chatted on in that vein for a bit.
Don’t deprive yourself of the ambiance of the Mokane Market because of earlier posts on this site. It’s like a little trip back to 1943.
4. My ranking of my limited railtrail experiences. Cape Cod won’t be included because it’s way too civilized, a non-cyclist’s dream of cycling, paved, always gentle, a good coffee house or real ice cream shop every couple of miles, perfect if you want to say you ride but really you just want to drink good joe and eat good ice cream.
First, tie, The Big Mick (in part because I did it with my son; physically challenging, rugged, interesting history) and the C&O (always interesting, varied terrain, historic, free campgrounds and water right on the trail, every 8 miles or so).
Third, the GAP (long stretches, but enough elevation change to challenge you, including the long downhil run into Cumberland).
Fourth, the Katy (for the reasons above).