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September Brown's comments about bike, tire, and trailer selection

One of the most common questions about the Katy Trail is which type of tire to use, and whether road bikes are appropriate.  September Brown addressed this question on the "phred" list, a mailing list covering long-distance bike touring topics.  September graciously allowed me to reprint this posting, as well as another extremely useful posting about using trailers on the Katy Trail.

Katy Trail Bike and Tire Selection

I rode the Katy Trail from west to east in June, over five days, with no rain. My tires are 30/32 WTB Allterrainasaurus, which has a lightly knobby tread. Days 1, 2, and 5 the surface was firm enough for road tires. Days 3 and 4, the surface was mixed, with about half the trail firm enough, and the other half was almost like riding through an inch or two of sand. In places, it would be firm with patches of soft crushed limestone. In other places, you'd have two miles of firm, alternating with two miles of soft stuff. On all five days, there'd be small areas that were more suited for a touring or mountain bike tire, such as road crossings with large gravel (more like 1-2 inch rocks). We did see a few road bikes there, but most people had 28+ tires.

There isn't much coasting on the Katy Trail. The first day or so isn't hilly per se, but more like a long almost imperceptable incline, that just keeps going uphill. After a 2 or 3 mile downhill on day 2, the rest of the trail is practically flat, but even on the flat parts, you just have to keep pedaling all the time, or your speed drags down.

The dust is another reason you might want to avoid your road bike in favor of a less expensive touring or mountain bike. Within the first five miles, our bikes had a fine coating of white dust on them. We quickly learned to wipe off the mouthpieces of our water bottles before taking a slug. At the water stops, you'd see everyone rinsing their bottles before filling them up. The dust would be pretty thick by the end of the day, and every night, we'd have to clean off our bikes and chains. It became embedded in the fabric of our bags, and coated our legs. Now maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me that if you had a carbon fiber bike, you'd more likely to get scratches with all that dust, which could lead to frame failure. Maybe not from just riding, but when you clean it, you could rub it in, and cause scratches. Also, you can't help but throw a few rocks as you ride through 225 miles of gravel. I don't know, but I think I'd just as soon use a cheaper bike for the trail, and since you don't have any hills worth mentioning, you could even get a 5 or 10-speed bike from a garage sale, and use it. That's what one guy did. He got a 10-speed Raleigh for 50 bucks and turned it into a touring bike. He said it was perfect for the Katy Trail. I doubt I used more than 10 gears on my touring bike.

The trail has two shallow ruts that we all tended to ride in, spaced about as far apart as your car tires, one rut for bikes going in each direction. Outside the ruts, the gravel is looser. One of the rangers told me that the softer parts of the trail get more firm after it rains, but I can't confirm this, because it was dry when we were on it. My recommendation would be a 30-32c tire with light to medium tread, such as the Pasela Panaracer. My tread was just a little too knobby, and I would have liked to have less rolling resistance. I'd also carry a spare folding tire, because you may have a long walk to a bike store if you need one. We saw several people on mountain bikes with tire problems. One guy's tire had split in two places, and he was several miles from the nearest bike shop. Don't know if it had anything to do with the trail or if it was dry-rot, but it was enough to make me go out and order a spare folding tire when I got home. We also saw several people with flat tubes, mostly those on road bikes, on our particular trip. I didn't recall any goatheads, just gravel, a few twigs, a couple of dead possums, and one live snapping turtle. I heard that they have some golf-ball sized seed pods that fall on the trail when the leaves start to drop.

The trail maintenance was excellent, and they drove each section of the trail twice a day to pick up large debris and trash, and they told me that they always go out after it rains, to remove fallen limbs and trees.

Hope this helps,


Trailers on the Katy Trail

If you go self-contained, and if you have a choice of trailers, I would recommend a trailer with one tire instead of two. The first 95-100 miles is hard-packed gravel, and you could get by with road tires, but the next 100 miles is softer, and there are places with loose gravel, sand, or a combination, and they're definitely NOT suited for road tires. The last 25-30 miles are hard-packed again. A mid-sized width touring tire would be fine, and a lot of people use MTB tires, but I don't really think you need to go wide and knobby if you don't have to. They say the trail's harder packed after it rains, but it was dry when we rode in June. There are two main ruts along the trail, about as far apart as the wheels on a car, where people tend to ride, because the trail is firmer in the ruts. There were a couple of self-contained riders who followed along with our supported group, and one of them had a two-wheeled trailer. He complained about really getting bogged down, because the trailer wheels didn't fall into the rut, but instead were in the softer gravel at the sides of the rut. He ended up getting off the trail and riding the main highway that roughly paralleled the trail. The two-laned highway had lots of curves and didn't have a shoulder, so it wasn't exactly a safe place for anyone to ride. He was making 6-8 mph on the trail, versus 10-15mph on the road. After awhile, the trail and the highway split, and we didn't see him anymore. Another guy had a one-wheeled trailer, and he was making pretty good time on the trail. He actually got ahead of our group, and then we didn't see him anymore, either.

Recently, I called www.koolstop.com to ask about buying one of their Kool Mule trailers. It's similar to the Bob Yak, with one wheel. I don't think their bag is waterproof, though. The trailer about the same size as the Bob Yak, but the Kool Mule also carries two panniers in front of the trailer. They said that they have a couple with chipped paint that they'd sell for $150. They said the paint just didn't stick where the weld points are, and it wouldn't be worth their time to strip them and repaint them, so they would let them go cheap, if anyone was interested. They're not advertising the chipped ones on their site, and two weeks ago they said they still had two left.