This is a question I found myself muttering far too often during the difficult, gritty moments of the trip I embarked on. I’m not sure I have a simple answer, to this day.
I’m immediately reminded of an excerpt from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho:
“Why do we have to listen to our hearts?" the boy asked.
"Because, wherever your heart is, that is where you will find your treasure.”
Leaving the house was difficult. Admittedly, we got a very late start on Tuesday, August 18th – pushing our first pedal strokes at Noon. Although I was awake and ready to roll around 9am, I made the best of these moments to finish off a creamy double-shot of espresso (If you happen to work for Intelligentsia – please contact be about some sort of sponsorship deal, thank you), and mentally prepare myself for what I was to embark on. An adventure that had literally been years in the making had come to fruition, so much planning and preparation leading up to the moment that was set to happen in an hour. The easy option would have been to stay home, succumb to the weather, live the next few days without adventure. As we were doing our final packing and scratching off the mental checklist – I couldn’t help but think “It is not a matter of if we forgot anything; it’s a matter of what we forgot to pack. “
There was a mutual nervousness, as well as drive, to make this come together. Conversation was brief.
“Are you ready yet!?” I would repeat, without response.
“Did you grab that little bottle of sunscreen!?” Phil “I’m too tall to fit into a 1280x800 px 113 ppi picture” Holli-Arcus exclaimed.
Although I may have said there was an ‘easy option’ here, there may be little truth in that. Simply two riders, two bicycles, and bags are all that would contain our portable “homes.” The frame packs, the front low-mount racks, waterproof panniers, Stanley French press coffee maker, and camping shelter was already purchased and mounted to each of our respective bicycles. This experience had been Y-E-A-R-S in the making. There was no option here – as a team we were going to complete the goal, or fail terribly. Personally I see a sense of adventure as a visceral human experience and something that each of us desire to a degree. Our ancestors were all nomadic beings, and now we have luxuries such as 120tpi tires with Kevlar flat protection and folding beads, Polarized sunglasses and Gas Station convenience stores to assist a journey. There was no “Plan B” here, instead; new people, places, and experiences.
Our first destination: Pedal & Spoke ltd. Bicycle shop. Note that our riding time so far is the exact route Phil would take to commute to work! Once we were comfortable enough on our respective, heavy, bikes was a spirited 12 mile jaunt covering equal parts prairie path gravel and relatively busy roads, had us at the front door where we are both employed – this is also where the generous people work that allowed this trip to happen. There were some strings that had to be pulled and moves made so that the store could remain open and functional with two mechanics headed out West to push their limits– I personally will not let that go in vain – a lot of sacrifice was made by our coworkers in this respect. Also - there was also a lot of organic granola, and water, that we took upon ourselves to refill on before heading out for the real journey that lay before us.
The trail winding along the Fox River would allow us the ride north, where the pavement would transition into crushed limestone on the Great Western trail through DeKalb County, pointing our wheels directly – you guessed it – West. This change in trail surface would also give way to new challenges, dodging “suicidal” chipmunks on the gravel – as opposed to small dogs, geese, and their droppings – as I’m sure anyone who has ridden on the Fox River trail has experienced, unfortunately. A quick stop at the Jalapeno Grill in St. Charles was a guaranteed delicious way to fill our stomachs so we didn’t cut into the food we packed this soon into the trip. The was a restaurant that was discovered during the Rando de Taco, an amazingly fun ride hosted by Pedal & Spoke and A.Brackett Cycles that consists of multiple taco stops broken up between 100km of riding. Once the tacos were digested it was time to put in a very strong effort towards our destination. As my initial energy gave way to the reserves, and all too familiar lactic acid buildup in the quads merged their way into my mindset I brought up the question “did we do enough training for this?” Of course relatively recently after the blistering and hellish heat I experienced during the Rapha Prestige Midwest I put myself into perspective and pushed through the burn. Likewise in Phil’s training, the BEAR 100 in Wisconsin had him turning the pedals through a Century of loose, chunder gravel and not a single flat section to be mentioned on the course, on top of commuting back and forth to work time to time, and don’t forget hitting the skate park or occasional street features. I speak for both of us when I say that being on the bike was certainly not the most difficult aspect of touring – instead, dealing with the elements and keeping an almost uninterrupted stream of calories into our bodies.
This is the last photo I was able to take before our adventure was kicked-up a notch, or three. As our convoy of two moved north, we were greeted with a very, very cool breeze followed shortly by very, very ominous-looking clouds. This is a telltale sign of an imminent storm, something DeKalb county of all places is known for – with 93 tornado touchdowns in the last 65 years, one in 1990 with an F5 rating– we were conscious of just how quickly the weather could become dangerous. And thus: the skies opened up. The rain was thick and heavy, with an unexpected briskness that had myself reaching for my favorite amenity which is a simple rain jacket tailored to fit best while on the bike. Rain is one challenge, while thunder and lightning is its own battle – the visible streaks in the sky were less than 200 yards away before we had to make an executive decision and find a safe shelter. Just as quickly as the beautiful day transitioned into ground-shaking thunder, our respective Specialized Fatboy tires steered us into a neighborhood with an open garage door. The family inside saw us down on our luck and extended a potentially life-saving helping hand in the form of shelter, advice, and most importantly, camaraderie. Confederate flags aside: this was the most generous household I could have imagined to stumble upon as they offered us literally anything we needed to stay safe and comfortable. We shook hands with Dennis, his Wife, “Little Dennis”, and the other children of the family that were observing the lighting storm we had just ridden through.
Back into the downpour, only moments after thanking the generous family for directions to the nearest picnic shelter, which was a short, albeit wet ride. It was beautiful. I could only compare it to reaching Zion in that moment – true nirvana - all of our effort paid off in the form of a 20x30’ sheltered pavilion. A perfect space to hang up some dripping wet rain gear, and brew some coffee while regrouping, a spot we would not have found without help from the locals. It was here that we made the decision to stay where at our current location for the night – roughly 25 miles to Rock Cut – and let the storms deescalate. Looking at the radar on my cell phone confirmed our decision! We stayed, and then overstayed, our welcome here. The entire Police unit of Kirkland came to see what we were up to! I should elaborate, to say that this was BOTH officers that made up the squad here. A senior chief and younger officer made sure that we ‘weren’t up to no good’, and after quite a few questions, directed us towards a different shelter that we could stealth-camp at for the night. Again, honesty and humility reigned supreme towards getting Phil “I’m too tall to sit up in a two-person tent” Holli-Arcus and myself excellent advice and a free place to camp spontaneously. We dropped off some gear, and took a few deep breaths. Serendipity, right? A relatively quick ride to one of the only amenities in town, a single 7-11 convenience store, yielded us with; a box of Velveeta, a Tallboy of the nicest gas-station brew available, bananas, and plenty of sugary snacks. Far from ideal, but everything that was necessary in this moment. Pro Tip: Jalapeno Kettle Chips crushed into Velveeta mac’n’cheese. Gas station elegance.
Upon finishing our beautiful array of entrée it was time to clean up the pots & pans, and get rested for the next day’s forth-comings.
Neither of us slept well that first night out. Our crudely assembled shelters did not give the best return on an extremely breezy night, in the pavilion at ground-level. Nevertheless, we were sheltered and mostly dry.
We awoke to a beautiful morning and – get this – a skate park directly across the street from our temporary abode. How had myself and Phil, with an extraordinary BMX background, missed this gem during our multiple trips in and out of the ex-Trailer Park? Without a second thought we grabbed our bikes (also, the GoPro!) and B-Lined for the entrance. Immediately recognizable was the awesome (read: terrible, derogative, explicit) spray-can writing on each of the ramps. I hesitate to call this Graffiti. We were both astonished at the town of Kirkland, Illinois, 2,000 people strong, investing into a skate park of any kind. Very cool, thank you again Kirkland.
With that being said – our shelter for the night was far from inviting. My eyes were quickly drawn to the garbage bins overflowing with beer & fast food waste, as well as cigarette butts, and broken glass in an almost uniform coating on the concrete, juxtaposing the carpet in a home. This was upsetting, obviously, but seemed to strike a chord, even being this far into our experience. There was a polarizing, epiphany type of feeling once we discussed this, and how there was not a chance we could leave our ‘home’ in such a condition. ‘Home’, not only as our rent-free pavilion for the night, but on a much larger scale, as well. It was then that we made a conscious decision to travel a bit more lightly – less waste, less of a footprint– and reduce our impact as we rolled through the relatively untouched countryside. I thoroughly enjoy the fact that I was able to gain this perspective, something I don’t intend to let go of any time soon.
Once the coffee was poured, my day had started (this goes without saying,) and it was time to pack up our gear, pick up the previous patrons litter, and a quick “pre-flight” inspection of our bikes ensured everything would roll smoothly.
A short, but sobering and painful pedal up the street to Kirkland Family Diner had again, one of the friendliest environments I have experienced. Our delightful waitress brought out fresh coffee without hesitation; I can only assume she read our beaten and tired faces. A brief discussion of the day’s route over two massive Skillet style breakfast plates and aforementioned coffee - black -had us confident for what was in store. Upon inhaling the home style hash, scrambled eggs, loads of veggies, and for Phil – some breakfast sausage, we were off into the vast expanse between Kirkland, and our destination in Rockford.
We were rollin’. All of the gears (and my lack thereof) seemed to click into place perfectly; once these loaded bicycles are up to speed, the momentum achieved is amazingly inspiring. The All-City Space Horse piloted by Phil had literally not been shifted into the “big ring” the entire duration of the ride, he admitted, until this point. Rolling hills had our heavy, tired legs in a perfect synchrony of stress and relaxation – balancing out each excruciating incline with an appropriately sized decline. This is where Phil and I experienced some of our highest speeds – in excess of 30mph – which feels decidedly stable and safe with all of weight on bikes packed so low onto the fork blades.
Feeling very comfortable with the center of gravity and weight of our bikes, we were riding wheel-to-wheel, harnessing the “Roadie” within ourselves and maximizing efficiency to finish the home stretch towards the campground. Signage was prevalent once the State Park was near, a blessing considering how much traffic we encountered here. That was, until our tires crossed into the Park, an astonishing sea of green, intense aroma from the fallen pine needles, winding one-lane roads. Check-in was painless, as the State Park staff was very helpful and extending a familiarity for a lot of the questions we posed. This is not a Hotel review website so I’ll be brief, but I highly recommend Rock Cut State Park as a camping destination. Finally, we made it!
Meijer and a restaurant of our choosing held the goods required for my body to rebuild the muscles we had been applying stress to. We found a not-so-distant Pub that sounded like it could fill the void in my stomach. Pig Minds Brewing exceeded every expectation I could have had! The beer which was brewed just across the building we were seated in, as well as a 100% Vegan menu, made every single turn of the pedals worth the effort. The difficultly was choosing from the amazing list of plant-based Pub food available, and a burger is what we each landed on. 10/10 would recommend. This was a perfect prequel to the short ride to my hammock which was awaiting my arrival.
I slept exponentially better, having been able to set-up my hammock and rain fly in the daylight, without rain, as we experienced the first night out. The ability to increase the accuracy of rope placement, hammock tension, and getting the rain fly as tight and close to the earth as possible, contributed to a much warmer and quitter night’s sleep – I can attribute my success on the bike the next day to getting hours of solid, deep sleep. This is where the learning experience played into the efficiency of my procedure. Even disassembling the set-up in the morning and packing the panniers became a somewhat simpler task! It was an excellent treat to be able to finish all of the Intelligentsia House Blend coffee I had coarsely ground beforehand – as we would not need any of the sweet nectar past this morning. As an added perk of lightening the load in our panniers, we disposed of any trash and recyclables we had accumulated in their respective bins at the campground as well as trash left from previous tenants. After packing all of our belongings – except a few outer layers to wear for the perfectly brisk morning – it was time to push everything left in our legs into the SPD cleats connected to our 4130 series Chromoly frames.
Wild turkey we saw crossing the road wished us safe travels as were leaving the State Park, and luckily we were greeted with decreasing elevation for the next 10 miles, allowing our bicycles to maintain momentum. Metabolism through the roof, another stop at a local diner was necessary. Apple pie followed a very filling breakfast (earned it). On the road once again once I was properly digested.
Another skate park slowly sintered into view atop a hill– a mirage, surely. To our surprise the Skate-lite constructed park was entirely empty, and awesome! Phil “The steezin’ Norwegian” Holli-Arcus couldn’t have been happier as his 700c wheels weighted with camping gear stuck to the quarter-pipes, fun box, and perfectly sized “rollers” with gusto. Most of the credit should be given to Phil, again, but we both had some lines linking multiple features that could have put some BMX riders to shame. This pit stop had us forgetting just how heavy our legs were feeling and experiencing this oasis in the desert with seemingly endless stretches of pavement on each parameter.
Returning home, and knowing every turn from the previous days riding, focusing on the cadence and pace being held was paramount.
The Great Western trail, headed East, was a blur.
It was painful.
It was epic.
Fighting off cramps, occasionally fist-bumping after a jump or getting “Rad”, the midday sunlight rays breaking onto the Fox River trail headed home was a great way to end out the journey.
Thursday, August 20th (MY BIRTHDAY!) at 7pm our trek was complete. 185 miles total is our best guess at mileage to the trip. I feel it is important to emphasize the Neither the All-City Space Horse, nor my Surly CrossxCheck faced a single mechanical failure. Modern take on classic design is the epitome of these bikes. *cough* Steel is Real *cough*. Not one flat tire, broken spoke, or snapped chain. Flawless. These are failures that we had known were possible, and packed accordingly – always better to have and not need, than need and not have, was our rationale.
I could not help but feel overwhelmed by the respect of almost everyone that we encountered while out on the road. The people are what made this experience amazing. Whether it is a few extra feet while a driver is passing, to recommendations for restaurants, to directions, to literally offering a home to sleep in while a brutal storm passes each act of kindness was noted. I am working to extend this same kindness in my life, as a result. I speak for the both of us when I say that there are no regrets regarding this experience, as careful planning and trusting your instincts will help you succeed. Having time to recover from this experience both physically and mentally, I feel stronger than ever on the bike and in a good place mentally as well. Ready for Cyclocross season!
With that being said – Grab a friend, or four, that motivate you, and get out there! The more you put into it, the more you will get out of it.
I will leave you with some final words:
“And, when you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
“People are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Also, don’t forget to STRETCH!
Thank you for reading! STAY RAD Adventure Team is here today because we are a community.
I encourage you to ask away with any questions you may have regarding bike setup (If you ride a Single Speed bike I know what you are thinking: I had a 39x17 gear on my Surly!), packing and camping setup, or anything on the bike touring subject. Or even just to donate to the Velveeta & Clif bar fund.
(Big ups to baby girl Sarah for helping me write/edit this)