Sunday, October 9, 2016

Mississippi Gold: Riding The Great River Trail

Some pieces of gold are hidden in plain sight.  I am blessed as a cyclist to live in Des Moines, Iowa.  I am a half a mile from a major trail system that leads in all four directions to destinations far away.  I am also within driving distance to many trails some in other states.  Here we hear of the Katy Trail in Missouri, the Root River Trail just north of Iowa and many others in Iowa itself.  But until this year I never heard of the Great River Trail which spans the 60 miles between the Quad Cities to Savanna, Illinois, along the Mississippi River.

The carlisle Group.  Front row left to right Dennis, Steve, Steve, John. Back row left to right Donnie, Nick, joe, Chris, Mary Mary, Lori

The idea to have an autumn ride emerged from Team Kum & Go.  Do something special, create a memory that will last forever.  Have everyone meet at Victor and Jody's home in Milan. IL.  It was a 15 minute drive to Sunset Park, the trailhead.  Most of us met at Steve and Lori's home in Carlisle, Iowa, where the bus was loaded.  Others drove in from the Chicago area to meet the bus in Milan.

The trail is essentially 60 miles long.  Detours and exploring towns adds a few more miles.  It is paved and flat 99% of the time.  Most of it is trail, sometimes in woodlands and praries and other times along a highway and a wee bit of streets.  The southern end starts out in Sunset Park and quickly turns into an urban riverfront trail.  On a nice Saturday or Sunday it could be very crowded in some sections that are along the river.  Then it turns into an industrial/post industrial trail as factories and water treatment and transportation warehouses ect.  Eventually it leaves the city and winds through several small and old river towns.  This is where the charm and magic of the trail lies.  Interactive map showing everything one needs

Towns are spaced out nicely.  Sometimes it is only 3 to 5 miles in between communities.  Other times it is closer to 8.  There are two 10 mile stretches including the final.  Between the towns are scenic vistas, parks, wildlife refuges, beautiful houses along the Mississippi, fishing shacks, campgrounds and woods.

Donnie and his and my bike on the bank of the Mississippi in the Quad City.


It was a glorified drizzle when we woke up Saturday morning in Milan (pronounced My Lawn). Most of our bicycles were attached to the roof of the bus,  I was glad that I took the time to lube the chains of my bike and the bicycle belonging to my wife.  Victor gladly gave me some shop towels to give to people for the purpose of drying our saddles.  Swamp Butt is now way to start two 60 mile days of bicycling.  By the time we unloaded and mounted up in Sunset Park it appeared that the precipitation was over.  Schwiebert Riverfront Park in Rock Island was our first stop.  Photo op.

The Ladies!

Milltown Coffee Shop was our second stop and I enjoyed a nice Americano.  The rain resumed once we started rolling again but I was warm and caffeinated!  Our next stop would be in Rapids City, not to be confused with Rapid City, SD, where we had breakfast at 1245 pm. Brothers family Restaurant was the place.  They held the private room for us, our number 17 including bus driver.  Most people opted for breakfast food.  Nick and I had the Rapids City Burger (a big cheeseburger with mushrooms and mayo).  It was here that I decided that I should always order the item named after the town.  They put their name on it, has to be good, right?  It was.  the bus was here so those that need to could swap stuff out or get what they needed ect.  This meal would last us until dinner in Savanna almost 8 hours later.  We did have snacks on the bus that we had an opportunity to enjoy in Albany and there were opportunities to stop at gas stations and other dining establishments if needed.  I did not need to refuel.  For that matter, I did not even finish my water bottle as it was a cool day of riding in the overcast.

Albany was the last place where we would see the bus before we reached our destination.  This town has a resturant with pie and also is located near Native American burial/ceremonial mounds.  Unfortunately, we left that unexplored as we rode past.  We met at the park for a rest.  Being too lazy to go inside the bus for anything other than a refreshment I decided to leave the group early to escape the mosquitoes.  I should have grabbed my DEET and waited for the others.  There's a special hybrid of those blood suckers here and they were vicious.  My second mistake.  The first was not to bring rain gear but Dennis loaned me his spare which I decided to leave behind in the bus at Sunset Park.  I'm in serious need for new rain gear anyway.  It's on my list.

The third mistake was not sticking with the people who call this trail their training ground.  Victor and Jody use this trail for their long distance training.  Living in Milan, it is their only trail of length.  But we soon discovered that their knowledge of the path was essential.  The biggest issue we had was how poorly marked it is.  True, we were given a map.  True, if one kept the river on their left they would make it to Savanna.  but the map was rather general and lacked the precision required to truly feel comfortable in unfamiliar territory.  There were signs and arrows but there were also detours and long stretches of trail or road between those signs.  Sometimes the signs were only available for people riding the other direction.  Because we relied on the expertise of those that ridden the trail before we were not accustomed to looking for the signs in the first place.

Mosquito Gazebo Albany, IL

Four of us broke away from the group.  No make that 7.  Steve, John and Dennis took off first then Mary, Donnie, Nick and myself left Albany.  Something about a hill then a short stretch of gravel sounding more menacing than it really was.  Then the Mississippi swallowed the trail but the detour pointed to the right.  We found the trail again but soon a decision had to be made.  Continue forward or turn right and cross the highway and ride the trail as marked.  But the sign said DO NOT ENTER.  it was going east and we wanted to go north.  Maybe it was oxygen deficit but we obeyed the DNE sign and continued north into Fulton.  Fulton was on the map.  The river was still on our left and we were heading north.  It felt right.

Fulton, IL

Once in town we stopped at the windmill.  Built out of African wood for its resistance to insects and rain it originally stood in the Netherlands until it was dismantled, every board numbered and reassembled in America.  We could have taken the guided tour.  Back on the bikes we discovered the mistake.  the north route was a tourist trap.  Had we been intelligent enough to realize that the DNE sign was for cars and trucks we would have cut off our two mile tour of the the city and saved a lot of time.  Everyone passed us.  We were the sweepers.  Later on we were told that the other trio of splitters made the same mistake.  But we got to see this huge wind mill.

The sky ahead of us was getting dark and we knew rain would fall on us soon.  One of us had a warning on their Fitbit that their heart rate was too high so we rested near the Thomson Sand Prairie for a bit.  I looked at the map and then fired up Google Maps on my mobile to get a better grasp on our ride.  Thomson would leave us with the final 10 miles.  The trail would give way to county roads.  we would roll by a federal prison and a potato farm and then a road lined with homes and views of the ever encroaching Mississippi.  It was ironic to see irrigation equipment while the river was flooding and that it was raining.  Eventually at forest park emerges and shortly we found ourselves in Savanna.  We called Joe to guide us in since we had no clue where the Savanna Inn was located.  true to almost every multi-day ride I've ridden, my shower and bed was at the other side of town on top of a hill!

At Poopy's Sunday morning.  Steve Murga photo credit.  Steve D, Joe, Dennis, Lori, Mary, Nick, Chris, Killian, Jody, Victor, Donnie, Joe, Mary Laura and Bob

After a shower and a change of clothes we took the shuttle to a biker (Harley Davidson and chopper bikers) establishment called Poopy's.  many of the guests at the Inn were on motorcycles.  Savanna is covered with "START SEEING MOTORCYCLES" signs.  Poopy's has a sign declaring itself "Illinois #1 biker destination."  When the shuttle pulled up and a woman fell out of the front and got up exclaiming that she was alright I thought we were in for a very memorable night.  The strong odor of booze lingering in the vehicle after the previous patrons exited it only reinforced my anticipation.  But it was a mellow off season Saturday night with a prime rib special.  Others had pizza, brgers and even chicken fingers.  Joe and I had the special.  It was good.  The place was decorated with custom choppers too uncomfortable for any serious riding and the usual orange and black uniform of the subculture.  Classic rock played overhead and beer was only available in cans.  Mary and I had PBR's.  For those so inclined, camping is available with showers and beers then would only be $1.  After dinner everyone headed straight to their rooms and collasped.  Mary and I rode 66 miles that day.  We were all tuckered out.

Earlier that evening I missed a step on the stairs and my left foot landed full force on the wrong step sending the blunt of the impact to my heel.  I forgotten about this until 430 am when it screamed at me and cancelled further sleep.  Mary went with me out the Inn and down the hill, there's always a hill isn't there, to the convenience store for Vitamin I--ibuprofen and something to swallow them with.  We grabbed some awful breakfast sandwiches at the Mc Donalds and ate them while watching Seinfeld while my heel rested on a bag of ice.  I had three hours to heal my heel or ride the bus in shame.


At the Savanna Inn before leaving Sunday morning. On bench left John, bench right Dennis, Bac row left to right Donnie, Nick, Chris, Mary, Joe, Mary, Killian, Lori, Steve, Jody, Victor, Laura, Bob and Ben (bus driver).  One of the Steve's is missing.

She even showed me her odometer.  6400 miles on that bike!!  What's that, 40 miles a day?

It was painful to clip in and each pedal stroke was a reminder that I failed to walk down stairs properly but eventually the pain subsided and pedaling was not an event and my limping stopped. Still hated clipping in and out but I had little choice.  I think we first stopped in a forest park and met a woman on a city bike with a basket in front.  No dog in the basket but she seemed glad to talk to someone and tell a few jokes.  Eventually she said she had over 6400 miles for the year, had a huge number of miles the year before and put up big numbers the year before that.  While everyone could barely comprehend what 6K+ of miles by October truly meant I handed my phone to Mary for a photo.  I regret that I did not give it to someone else for if I had then there would exist of photo of three people who have ridden over 6400 miles in the 9 months of 2016.  Tomorrow, good Lord willing, I will pass the 7000th mile mark.  Instead I thought only of myself and and Mary was excluded.  Enough regret.

Das Cake

In Albany we stopped at the park again.  This would be our last opportunity to see the bus.  We finally got to enjoy the cake decorated for this occasion since we were too tired Friday night and Saturday evening.  The last I checked there was only one piece left.

Fulton was our next stop.  We took the route proper and cooled off at a gas station.  I drank a Smirnoff Ice, Electric Blue, that in its plastic bottle looked not unlike a sports drink.  Resuming our southern journey we were serenaded by a small orchestra on the trail, probably taking a photo but they played while the 16 of us rolled right through them!

Donnie fixin' a flat!
All of us watching Donnie fixin' a flat!

The rest of us watching Donnie fixin' a flat!  I should have done one panoramic shot here.

The only mechanical issue of the weekend occurred next.  Donnie had a flat tire.  Piece of glass in his tire.  He had a new tube and pump and we all had an opportunity to rest while he fixed the flat.  This was on the Riverview Rd, a residential area with ZERO traffic.

Riley's in Cordova, IL

Unlike the previous day we stopped at an establishment in Cordova, IL, for rest and relaxation and a chance to look at NFL on tv.  Once rested we rolled to Port Byron for lunch at Harrington's.  We were given a private room with a view of the street and river.  Only craft beer was available on tap and the food was delicious and in huge portions.

Port Byron
The final 15 miles back to the bus were uneventful.  The trail was pretty empty on this sleepy overcast Sunday.  The closer we got to Sunset Park the more water we saw in the streets and trail.  Some cars were driving where they should not have been given the flooding from the rain not the Mississippi.  But we made it to the bus, loaded up and drove to an ice cream shop for a much deserved reward.


I cannot wait to return to this trail.  We barely scratched the surface.  There is so much to do on it.  there are boats that will take you and your bike across the river to Iowa.  Breweries are nearby as well  I'd really like to take a touring bike and spend 4 days on the river.

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