Episode 2: Chainwheel Diaries

My guest in Episode 2 is Larry Loewy, a Long Island Native and regular bike traveler. I met Larry on an Adventure Cycling bike tour in Death Valley in 2021. Larry graciously agreed to appear on today’s podcast episode. Listeners will be entertained by Larry’s stories and inspired by his adventures. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

RAGBRAI L, Day One, July 23, 2023

Sioux City to Storm Lake, and a mechanical breakdown. 80 total miles, 3,500 feet of climb

Got off to an inauspicious start Sunday in Sioux City. First, the charter ran out of coffee. I can’t remember any time I didn’t have a cup of coffee before a ride. Not having morning coffee tears a hole in the fabric of my universe. First opportunity for a cup of Joe will be Kingsley Iowa, 29 miles away.

After topping off my tires with air, I turn on my Garmin and loaded the Day One route and followed the crowd out of the campsite. I glanced at the navigation on my Garmin and kept getting notifications that I was off route. Then I was prompted to make U-turn after U-turn. After awhile I simply disregarded the navigation. It’s hard to get lost when you’re riding with thousands of other cyclists.

I had listened to the Just Go Bike podcast the week before heading to Iowa and knew that the Day One route to Storm Lake would be hilly. Having set that as the expectation, I wasn’t surprised by the climbs. I had trained in my local area specifically for hills, but mine are steeper and shorter. In Iowa, less steep but much longer. However, I couldn’t train for the heat or the wind, which was gusting out of the southeast on this mostly eastbound route.

Anticipating my first coffee of the day in Kingsley, I was greeted by long lines at every vendor popup, setting another precedent – a day without coffee. Can’t remember the last time that happened. I replenished my water and headed on to the next pass-through town, Washta.

I had pledged for my second RAGBRAI that I would spend more time in the pass-through towns, and for the most part, I did. Washta had good live music going, a quartet of old guys playing favorites, including one of mine, “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. I got a bite to eat and headed on to Quimby.

Just outside of Quimby I noticed my right pedal was wobbling. I glanced down and could see that it was starting to unthread. I pulled to the side of the road, got out my multi-tool and retightened. A few more miles and I had to repeat the process. Then again. On the fourth attempt to fix this problem, a group of Air Force riders pulled over to assist.

The United States Air Force has a bike club that rides every RAGBRAI and acts as trail angels, assisting cyclists with flat tires and other assorted mechanical issues. I even observed one Air Force rider administering an IV to a heat-exhausted rider. My thoughts every time I passed riders on the roadside getting assistance from the Air Force team how cool that was. Now I’m on the side of the road, wondering if they can help me.

No. They discovered, and I had deduced by now, that I had cross-threaded the pedals when I installed them the night before in Sioux City. Here were my options: ride by stroking on my left pedal only. Or Quimby was a mile and a half away and I could walk there. I tried unsuccessfully to pedal with my left foot only, and abandoned that idea after a few miles. I walked my bike the rest of the way, praying I could get a replacement crankset.

One of the first vendors in Quimby was a bike repair popup. I waited while the mechanic resolved another cyclist’s problem, and then I explained to him my situation. He popped into the trailer behind the popup and came back with a new crankset and bottom bracket. Fortunately there was no damage to the pedal threads, and in 30 minutes and $110 later, I’m back on my bike.

Certainly this could have been a major setback for me, especially considering it was only the first day of RAGBRAI L! Had Quimby been five miles away, I might have had to get a SAG ride. And I had no idea how to summon SAG. As I humbly walked my bike to Quimby, cursing myself for making the huge mistake of cross-threading my pedals, I couldn’t help but wonder how the rest of the week would go.

But I drew confidence from the mechanic who seemed non-plussed by my mechanical quandary. While he replaced my crankset, I bought a beer and walked around the town. My confidence began to return. I now had a 44-tooth large chainring versus the 48-tooth on my old crankset, and a much smaller middle chainring that would come in handy on Days 5 and 6.

Storm Lake was another 25 miles from Quimby, plus another two miles to my campsite on the north side of the lake. I had paid for tent and luggage service, and discovered that my tent was already set up right on the edge of the lake, with a gorgeous view. Before arriving at the campsite, I spotted a Casey’s on the left, and pulled in to buy something stronger than beer. Casey’s was selling mini’s of Iowa Hawkeye vodka, so I bought a handful and stuck them in my top bar bag. I sipped vodka and Sprite as I watched the sun go down over Storm Lake, recounting the day’s events.

  • Route map that I downloaded to my Garmin didn’t work, but it didn’t matter
  • When my bike broke down, I was within walking distance of the next town
  • The bike mechanic swapped out the damaged crankshaft like it was no big deal
  • The rest of the ride was uneventful

I was relieved but I really felt good. It was like I had dodged all the bullets on the first day, and nothing could stop me now.

RAGBRAI L, Saturday July 22, 2023

Sioux City Saturday, and the trouble begins…

After multiple phone calls Saturday morning, I finally was able to make arrangements for the second charter to fetch me from my hotel to get me to Sioux City. Finally around 3:30 pm a bus pulled up out front and I loaded my gear underneath. I should have just gotten an Uber to the other hotel – it would have been much easier (as I learned next Saturday on my return to Omaha). Regardless, I made it to the other location and after a couple of hours, boarded the bus for Sioux City. My bike was loaded on a U-Haul truck separate from the bus, causing me mild separation anxiety. My premonition was correct.

When the bus reached Sioux City, it dawned on me that we were headed to a completely different location than the one where my weeklong charter was located. After the charter clients disembarked, I was able to convince the driver to take me to my campground, and she happily did, which was a relief. We reached my charter campground soon after, and I grabbed my duffle and headed over to check in. Still one problem – I didn’t have my bike. It was on the U-Haul truck, which was headed to the OTHER campground. Multiple calls to my contact at the second charter, and finally a van arrived with my bike, but now it’s starting to get dark, and I still have to assemble my bike.

The whole second charter arrangement had pretty much wrecked my Saturday plans. I was going to assemble my bike and do a shakedown ride to the Expo, where I was to pick up my Team Duzer t-shirt. Ryan Van Duzer is one of my cycling heroes, and I was hoping to meet him in person. But the Expo would be closed before I could get there. So no expo, no t-shirt and no Duzer.

The van driver took off before I could get my bike out of its case, because I wanted him to return the case to the second charter where it would be delivered to the end city, Davenport Iowa. But I needed to get the bike assembled before it was too dark to see. I’m drenched with sweat and stressed to the max. In my haste, without realizing it, I cross-threaded the pedals reinstalling them. I would discover this on the ride to the first overnight town, Storm Lake.

After an uneventful Friday, Saturday was a mini-disaster and the ride hadn’t even started yet.

RAGBRAI L – Friday July 21, 2023

Los Angeles to Omaha

I purchased a semi-hard shell bike case with wheels and handles earlier in the year. I was traveling on Friday, so on Thursday I started practicing disassembling my Surly Long Haul Trucker and fitting it in the case. I followed the video provided by the vendor, which was accurate for the most part.

Buy it on Amazon

I removed handlebars at the stem, pedals, wheels and rear derailleur. I discovered that I needed to turn the front fork backwards so the bike would fit. Despite manufacturer’s claim that the case was suitable for “large” road bikes, my 58 cm Surly Trucker just fit with some finagling. The handlebars were positioned over the top tube, but either the bar end shifters or the handbrakes were going to be sticking up. I went with the handbrakes sticking up, and the case closed just fine.

I thought I would pack some of the bulkier items in the bike case, like my tent, sleeping pad, etc. but in the middle of the night before I was to leave for the airport, I awoke thinking that was a bad idea. I was certain that TSA would open my bike case, and if they moved stuff around, it might not reclose as before. First thing Friday morning I removed everything from the bike case except for the bike, the stuff that would go on the bike, and my insulated sleeping pad which I used for additional padding. I used pipe insulation to cushion the frame.

I later removed all camping gear but left my insulated sleeping pad for extra cushioning

Speaking of TSA, the manufacturer claims the included padlock was “TSA approved”. When I picked up my bike at the airport in Omaha, the lock had been removed. So much for “approved”.

There were about 12-13 passengers on my flight also heading to RAGBRAI L, checking their bikes as well.

I chose Omaha as my destination because I could get a non-stop flight on American out of LAX. Getting myself, my bike and my duffle turned out to be surprisingly easy. I checked my bike as my complimentary bag and paid $40 for my duffle. I paid $300 to ship my bike in 2021 ($150 for the BikeFlights box, $150 for shipping) plus another $125 for assembly in KC.

The Marriott Residence Inn in downtown Omaha sent a shuttle to pick me up. Once I settled in at the hotel, I started reaching out to my contact at the shuttle that would get me from Omaha to Sioux City. Here I discovered that the second charter idea wasn’t so great, and that was mostly on me. I had reached out to my weeklong charter contact asking how I could get from Omaha to Sioux City, and the second charter was recommended. However, the second charter was catering to its clients, all of whom were staying at a different hotel and at a different campsite during the week. Hence, the beginning of several headaches.

Next: Sioux City Saturday and the trouble begins…

RAGBRAI L – I Survived

It’s been a few weeks since I completed RAGBRAI L, the 50th anniversary of the largest bike event of its kind, cycling from Sioux City to Davenport Iowa. I say “survived” because that’s how I felt at the end after experiencing mechanical failure, oppressive heat and humidity, headwinds and hills on the 500-mile route. I’m still glad I did it, and I’m proud of the accomplishment. And I urge any cyclist that hasn’t ridden RAGBRAI to do so. It’s a one-of-a-kind event.

Here are my quick observations on this year’s event.

  • The 50th anniversary of RAGBRAI was designed to hew closely to the original route in 1973. This meant the route would move in a generally southwestern direction, bring southeasterly winds into play. Combined with heat nearing 100 degrees and tons of hills, I found this route to be significantly more difficult than the one I rode in 2021.
  • There was no cap on registrations, which wreaked havoc with the organizers trying to fulfill registration packets. Many did not receive their packets in the mail ahead of the event and had to fetch them at the Expo on Saturday.
  • I don’t know the number of weeklong cyclists, but I’m confident there were thousands more than 2021. And I’m pretty sure the sheer number of cyclists overwhelmed the pass-through and overnight towns, and the charters.
  • The organizers predicted as many as 60,000 riders on the route from Ames to Des Moines, but I didn’t feel like it was any more crowded than the previous days.
  • It felt less crowded on the Des Moines to Tama-Toledo section. Rumors flew that thousands of cyclists had dropped after Des Moines, having struggled with heat, hills and headwinds on Days 1 and 2, and facing the prospect of more miles and more of the same on Days 5 and 6.
  • SAG and medical support personnel were busy as many riders dropped mid-ride and others needed to be treated for heat exhaustion. I learned later that one rider died. Unsure of cause but I don’t think that’s happened before.
  • Don’t know how the organizers calculated mileage because I exceeded the mileage each day just by the distance I needed to get to and from my campsite. For instance, official mileage from Des Moines to Tama-Toledo was listed at 82 miles. When I finally arrived at my campsite, my Garmin showed 90 miles. In Ames, after circling the inside of Jack Trice Stadium (Iowa State), I followed the crowd, which turned out to be the wrong direction. Once I figured that out, I had to backtrack, adding more miles on top of the official 83.
  • Campsites, at least mine, were miles from the entertainment centers of the overnight towns, and shuttle service was hit or miss. So I skipped the entertainment. However, in Tama-Toledo the band Foghat was playing only a few hundred yards away and serenaded me to sleep.
  • One of the most popular vendors in each pass-through town was the bike repair shop. I utilized bike repair several times – more to come later.
  • Cell service was spotty (ATT is my carrier). I completely lost my signal in Carroll and then again in Tama-Toledo. This concerned my wife who appreciated my nightly calls to recount the day and assure her I was fine and doing well. Fortunately, my Garmin stayed connected and so she and other family members could follow me with LiveTracking.
  • The charging stations at my charter campsite were overwhelmed. I was okay the first three nights because I had brough along two power banks. I used these to charge my phone, Apple Watch and Garmin. But eventually I drained both of them and couldn’t find an outlet to recharge. As my phone drained down, Garmin LiveTracking failed but the Garmin kept working right until the end, which was impressive to me.

This was my second RAGBRAI, having done the ride year before last. I decided I would make a few logistic changes in getting bike and baggage to the start town. Prior, I had shipped my bike to Kansas City where it was assembled at a local bike shop. Two college buddies drove me to the Le Mars, the start town. At the end I had to find Pork Belly Ventures, a charter that would handle shipping my bike and baggage back to Los Angeles.

This time I chose to check my bike as baggage along with my duffle that had my camping equipment and clothing for the week. My backpack had my tech and my GoPro. I had found a non-stop flight from LAX to OMA (Omaha Nebraska, across the river from Sioux City). I made arrangement with a second charter, my primary charter being Out of Staters (OOS). I needed the second charter to get me from Omaha to Sioux City. This turned out to be major mistake on my part and set a few things in motion that would impact the ride.

In the next posts, I’ll recount the journey day-by-day.

More Signs the Bike Industry is Facing Headwinds

Bicycle Retailer reports that both QBP (Quality Bike Products) and TPC (The Pro’s Closet) instituted staffing cuts brought on by the glut in retail inventory.

“As the largest distributor of bicycle products in North America, we are impacted by an industry that is still searching for balance between supply and demand. Currently, there’s just too much surplus inventory,” said Rich Tauer, QBP President. Painful as the cuts were to make, Tauer says it’s necessary as the industry tries to strike a balance between supply and demand.

QBP brands include Salsa Cycles, Surly Bikes, All-City Cycles, 45NRTH, Teravail, Whisky Parts Co., and MSW. I’m a Surly rider, which is why this article caught my eye.

Paul Calandrella, GM of The Pro’s Closet, echoed similar sentiments. “The unprecedented amount of discounted, new bike inventory in the market poses a particular challenge for our business model..”

Bicycle Retailer hints there may be more industry layoffs on the way.

Typically news like this would spur demand since it’s technically a buyer’s market. But if retailers are able to manage expenses in line with demand, we may not see deep discounting. I’m keeping an eye on these developments and will share them as they unfold.

Keep pedalin’.

Meeting Russ & Laura

I’m a fan of The Path Less Pedaled featuring Russ Roca and Laura Crawford. So when I received an alert on Patreon that they would be in LA and to come on by, I couldn’t resist.

The author with Laura Crawford and Russ Roca of the Path Less Pedaled

Russ and Laura are an inspirational dynamic duo that shed their worldly possessions in 2009 to travel the world by bike. They logged over 15,000 miles traveling the US and New Zealand and shared their stories online.

I discovered PLP perusing YouTube for bike traveling videos. I learned that there’s more to the couple than bike travel. They offer a philosophy on cycling that emphasizes fun and de-emphasizes competition. I found this to be highly relatable. In fact, as I posted earlier this year, I can relate to each of the “5 Things I LOVE that SERIOUS Cyclists Hate“.

You can follow PathLessPedaled on Instagram and YouTube.

Things I Learned from My First Overnight Bikepacking Trip

Recently I joined the Southern California Bicycle Camping Meetup group for an overnight bikepacking trip. We followed a route that started in inland Oceanside and headed west towards the ocean, navigating south on old Highway 101 to Encinitas and the San Eligio State Beach campground.

To prepare for the trip I re-installed my pannier racks for my Axiom pannier bags. (Note: when I bought my Surly LHT used in 2021, it came with the racks and packs). I installed both front and rear pannier racks, thinking I would use both sets of bags, even though the trip was only an overnight. Here’s my bag configuration:

  • Rear pannier bag right side contained my sleeping bag and sleeping pad. These two items took up all the space in the bag. My sleeping bag is not so ultralight and doesn’t compress that small – same for my sleeping pad.
  • Rear left. Clothing and toiletries.
  • Right front. Jet boil, coffee press, coffee.
  • Left front. GoPro kit in its case, and tech organizer with all my cables and a power block battery for charging everything (most of the weight).
  • Rear rack. I strapped my tent (about six pounds) on the top of the rear rack use Voile straps.

Total weight, bike plus equipment, about 50 lbs. Heavy, yeah. But my Surly LHT handled the weight well, and I feel like I did a decent job of balancing the weight.

Ready to ride. I wore a Camelback for hydration and a backup water bottle for camp.

As the members gathered for the ride I made a point to observe what kind of bikes and equipment they had. There were a couple of Surly LHT riders plus me, one Brompton, one Co-Motion and one recumbent. Most were carrying about the same amount of gear as I, so I felt a little better about that. Once we made camp I made quite a few other observations.

I have purchased most of my gear from Amazon. Since I have a Prime membership, it’s just easy to do. But the majority of the other riders were REI customers – tents and gear. Made a note to extend my shopping to REI. Tent sizes ranged from one person to four-person. Mine is spec’d for two people, but I’m 6-2, 200 and there’s room for me and my gear that I want to keep dry. Two people would be cozy to say the least.

Bisinna 2-person tent I bought on Amazon for $70

Dining consisted of eating out at different restaurants. Saturday we stopped for lunch in Oceanside at a Mexican restaurant. Saturday night we walked from the campsite across the street and ate at a fish cafe. Sunday morning we had breakfast in Encinitas. Which was fine with me – meant not having to think about menus and carrying food.

Sunday morning everyone awoke and laid out their coffee artillery. Everyone had their own coffee makers, Jet Boils and either fresh ground or instant coffees. Quite a sight. My setup is a Stanley coffee press where you heat the water and combine the coffee in the same container.

Stanley Adventure All-in-One Boil & Brew French Press

Observations from the trip:

  • First thing I learned is about the California State Park campsite reservation system, which is notoriously challenging. For most State parks, one has to phone the reservation line at 8 am on the day six month in advance you want to camp. But some of the State park campsites also offer “hike/bike” sites that don’t need to be reserved. First come, first served. Roll up, pay your $15 and pitch your tent. San Eligio has hike/bike, and we had a nice campsite with plenty of room, a picnic table, fire pit, and potable water.
    I also learned that some of the California State Park campsites have eliminated hike/bike sites. Leo Carillo, for instance has closed hike/bike with no indication whether it will ever open the site for hikers and bikers. The experienced bikepackers I was with understood the system and how to make sure the campsite you want still has hike/bike option.
  • Could I have carried less? Maybe. Thing is, I’m always afraid of leaving something behind and then cursing myself as I discover I needed it. So I brought everything – like my full GoPro case with camera and all accessories. I’ve done rides where I minimized my GoPro kit and would up leaving stuff that I needed to mount the GoPro on my bike. Also makes me wonder what my configuration would resemble if I was riding across the U.S. Funny thing, a rider on a road bike pulled up alongside me on Sunday as we headed back to Oceanside, asking how far we’d come. When I told him we were wrapping up an overnight in Encinitas, he said the way we were all loaded made him think we were pedaling to Alaska.
  • I could have balanced my load a little better. The rear carried most of the weight. I might have moved my tent to the front rack and strapped it on sideways. Or put the sleeping bag on the front and rearranged the other bags. Overall, though, I thought the load was manageable.
  • I wore a Camelback and would not do that again. I was freeing up handlebar space by eliminating my water bottle holders. Should have stuck with what I knew.
  • I would consider a full frame bag that adds storage in the middle of the frame. I might be able to eliminate the front racks and packs. Will investigate further.
  • Notice that many overnight configurations I’ve seen on Bikepacking.com have no pannier racks and bags. A rear under seat pack that’s large enough can carry an ultralight tent and maybe an ultralight sleeping bag. A front handlebar bag could manage one or both. I do have a seat post rear bag, and I tried to fit my tent in it, but it was a tad too small.
  • Despite the nifty display of REI camping gear, I’m pretty pleased with the shopping I did putting my equipment together. My little $70 tent has been across Iowa and Death Valley and is holding up well. My sleeping bag that doesn’t roll up easily nor compress too well, is super comfortable in 40 degree weather. I’ll stick with what I have.
  • Joining a group of experienced bikepackers is a great way to ease into self-contained bike travel. There were little things I noticed that will aid me in future trips, like tent pegs that can be pounded into hard ground. It’s also enlightening and inspirational to hear experienced bike travelers talk about some of their trips. I stumbled upon this group by googling “bikepacking Southern California”. Worked like a charm. Give it a try.

Happy Fathers Day! Episode 1 Chainwheel Diaries Podcast is Live!

It’s taken a few months and many hours but the first episode of Chainwheel Diaries Podcast is now live. My first guest is Colleen Ponzini, a bike traveler I met on a Death Valley tour in 2022. Colleen is a seasoned bike traveler, and recently rode with a small group from San Diego CA to Phoenix AZ along the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route. She followed that with a fully-supported bike tour in Vietnam.

We explore how Colleen first got interested in bike travel and her first bike adventures. I think you’ll learn a lot from her experience and knowledge. Enjoy!

RAGBRAI LI Registration is Now Open. I’ll Pass.
RAGBRAI L is probably my last. I had a few good moments …
Bikepacking May Not Be for Everyone
The author of this article , Patrick Bulger, paints a much different …

Most Popular Adventure Cycling Association 2023 Tours According to Waitlist

If the number of sold-out cycling tours is a decent indicator, then bike touring is enjoying a tremendous resurgence. Of the 66 guided tours on the ACA website, 37 are sold out with waitlisting available. First, here’s the list of available tours. Please visit the ACA website for details on type (van supported, self-contained, inn-to-inn), location and pricing.

May 2023
TransAm Express Westward | May 12-Jul 25
Great Allegheny Passage | May 25-28
Black Hills | May 28-Jun 03
June 2023
Utah Parks | Jun 03-10
Ohio to Erie Trail | Jun 10-17
Intro to Road Touring – Wisconsin
Lake Tahoe | Jun 17-20
Cycle Montana – Big Sky Country | Jun 24-30
July 2023
Cycle the Divide – Montana
Glacier-Waterton | Jul 08-17
Great Divide Canada | Jul 08-18
Great Divide Canada | Jul 11-21
Glacier-Waterton | Jul 13-22
Great Divide Montana | Jul 15-25
Intro to Road Touring – Oregon | Jul 16-21
Idaho Trails Relaxed | Jul 16-21
Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania | Jul 22-25
Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania | Jul 27-30
Crater Lake | Jul 29-Aug 06
August 2023
Vermont’s Green Mountains | Aug 03-06
Vermont’s Lake Champlain & Green Mountains | Aug 12-18
Maine Coast | Aug 14-18
Black Hills – South Dakota | Aug 19-26
September 2023
Grand Canyon | Sep 03-09
Cape Cod & The Islands | Sep 09-16
C&O Canal/GAP | Sep 16-23
Acadia and Mt. Desert Island | Sep 16-19
Vermont | Sep 18-24
October 2023
Florida Keys | Oct 28-Nov 06

Here are the waitlisted tours. Might be worth it to get on the waitlist for one of these. Think of it as crowd-sourcing the most popular rides.

May 2023
Intro to Road Touring – Virginia | May 13-18
C&O Canal/GAP Spring | May 20-28
June 2023
Blue Ridge Bliss – Virginia | Jun 03-10
Great Lakes | Jun 03-13
Acadia and Mt. Desert Island | Jun 03-06
Acadia and Mt. Desert Island | Jun 08-11
New England Mountains and Coast | Jun 14-23
Northern Tier | Jun 15-Sep 11
Denali Adventure | Jun 17-Jul 01
Katy Trail | Jun 18-25  
Maine Coast and Lighthouses | Jun 25-Jul 01
July 2023
Great Parks North | Jul 05-26
Selkirk Splendor | Jul 08-18
Epic Great Divide | Jul 16-Sep 18
Vermont’s Green Mountains | Jul 29-Aug 01
Great Divide Wind River | Jul 29-Aug 08
Intro to Gravel Touring & Bikepacking – Montana | Jul 30-Aug 04
August 2023
Great Divide Colorado Alpine | Aug 11-19
Olympic Discovery Trail | Aug 12-15
Olympic Discovery Trail | Aug 17-20
Great Divide Colorado Alpine | Aug 20-28
Idaho Trails | Aug 27-Sep 02
Allegheny Mountains Gravel Loop | Aug 27-Sep 02
September 2023
Washington’s San Juan Islands | Sep 02-09
Pacific Coast North | Sep 07-21
Great Lakes Relaxed | Sep 09-16
Pacific Coast | Sep 09-Oct 19  
Washington’s San Juan Islands | Sep 10-17
Katy Trail | Sep 10-17
Grand Canyon | Sep 10-16
Acadia and Mt. Desert Island
Ohio to Erie Trail | Sep 17-24
New Mexico Enchanted Lands – South | Sep 19-Oct 01
Acadia and Mt. Desert Island | Sep 21-24
Pacific Coast Central | Sep 23-Oct 07
Southern Tier | Sep 23-Nov 20
October 2023
Death Valley | Oct 28-Nov 04