Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Circumnavigation of Lake Erie

The idea to ride entirely around Lake Erie has been kicking around in me and Will's heads for a while now. The key to these kind of rides is to stay flexible, so when the weather looked good, we decided to go for it fairly last minute. I worked up a quick route, figure out some logistics, and checked the weather one last time. Everything seemed good. Of course, on a 660+ mile route, you gotta expect a couple curve balls,  but that's what makes it fun.

Last Wednesday came around, and I frantically put a new cassette and chain on my gravel bike. Then, I drove out to Will's house, put a new chainring and chain on his gravel bike (Hamburgers' Mobile Bike Shop, that's trademarked by the way), and we drove up to the Cleveland area to get a cheap hotel. Thankfully, the hotel let us park our car there for four days, which was very helpful.

Lake Erie just after sunset


Our alarms went off at 4:30am on Thursday morning and we looked outside (to no surprise) to see that it was pouring down rain. Oh well. We put our non-biking gear in my car and set off riding around just after 5am in the rain. Even though it was a steady rain, the temperature was around 50 degrees so it wasn't too bad.

The first miles of the route were suburban riding, which meant when a car frequently came by, one of us would get blasted by road spray when we rode single file. Before the sun even came up, both of us were completely soaked. If I made a fist with my hand, water would pour out of my gloves like wringing out a wash cloth. Eventually, we reached a gas station around 55 miles in, got a bite to eat, and optimistically thought the rain might be done.

Gas station hoagie, yum.

Not so. Will took off his rain pants, only to put them immediately back on when it started raining again. Spoiler alert: it didn't stop raining for another 5 or 6 hours.

Some gravel in Pennsylvania, it was definitely a little soft

Eventually, we reached some gravel roads after we crossed into Pennsylvania. By this point in the rain storm, they were basically mud roads. Instantly our chains sounded like grinding metal and our clothes got a good coating of road mud. Thankfully, we were staying at my relatives' lake house tonight, which had a hose along with a washer and dryer.

After the gravel roads, we blasted down to the lake and biked through the town of Erie, PA. We got a late lunch at Subway, and that was around the time the rain stopped. The weather improved drastically, and the rest of the day was sunny. We also had a pretty sweet tailwind, and probably averaged 25-26mph for the last 35 miles or so. We got pretty much every Strava KOM on Route 5 from the PA border until the lake house, haha. Sure, the wind did help, but we were also ripping pretty good and drafting each other in the aero bars. It was an awesome ride, about 190 miles with a lot of variety.

The Barcelona lighthouse; hosing off bikes at the lake house

We got to the lake house, hosed off the bikes and our clothes, then ordered some pizza. By the time we washed our clothes and got everything ready for the next day, it was time for bed.

Our alarms went off again at 4:30am, we ate some pizza for breakfast, then headed off toward Buffalo. It was pretty cold morning, and I noticed some water freezing on my bike when I spilled a little while taking. drink. Buffalo is a pretty terrible city (for biking, and probably in general also, sorry Buffalo'ans), so we were extremely happy to make it to the Peace Bridge to Canada.

In all seriousness, when it comes to bike friendly cities, Buffalo is not one of them. Even though people hate on Pittsburgh sometimes, it really isn't so bad compared to Buffalo. The bike paths seemed to randomly start and stop, and the only connectors seemed like suicide traps on 4 lane highways.

A weird bridge in Buffalo; bike signs to Canada; a massive ship in a Canadian Harbor

But on to better things. It was my first time ever leaving America, and I was surprised how quickly and smoothly the process went. We just showed the border agent our passports, he asked us what we were doing, and we were on our way. We stopped at a convenience store on the Canadian side, and then set off toward the day's destination of St. Thomas. The store had some interesting differences from an Americans store. For one, they had odd candy bars, like an "Oh Henry!" bar. Also, there was evidence that Canada is a legal country, if you know what I mean.

Along the way, we had some good gravel roads, got to see some massive industrial plants, and stopped at a pretty amazing general store. The industrial plant was US Steel, and when I say massive, I really mean massive. It reminded me of being in North Dakota looking at the empty plains with nothing but gas equipment and huge refineries. It's weird, but just in general that specific part of Canada seemed similar to North Dakota and that area in America.

Some nice Ontario gravel; an amazing general store in some small town in Ontario

Oh, and we also stopped at a KFC. The KFC was extremely slow, almost like they had to go out and catch the chicken first, but the employees were so friendly it was all good. It wasn't really the employees fault for being slow, they just were overwhelmed I think, they were working as fast as they could.

That brings me to another point: Canadians are unbelievably friendly. I hate to say it, but they seemed a lot friendlier than most Americans I see while out riding. Plus, Canada just seemed extremely safe. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with where we were in Canada, but still, I've been a LOT of places all over America, and Canada seemed pretty great.

Getting some fuel at the general store; more awesome gravel on the last stretch to St. Thomas

The hotel in St. Thomas, Ontario was pretty nice, especially after another 190 miles of riding. We got some Dominos delivered, then checked the riding for the next day. We were planning on catching the Tunnel Bus, which has bike racks, to take us from the Canadian side of Windsor to Detroit, Michigan. Unfortunately, the Tunnel Bus was suspended, which was something I did not know until that night in the hotel.

After a brief moment of panic (read: total panic), Will called his uncle who lives in Detroit, and his uncle happily agreed to shuttle us across the border to Detroit. 

The next day, we woke up at 4:30am again and started the ride to the border. It was a pretty uneventful day, which is good, except for a little rain in the morning. The roads started off as nice country gravel roads around the lake near St. Thomas, and gradually turned into a mix of pavement and gravel. As we neared the border, it was mostly pavement, but the roads - save a couple - were quiet roads with little traffic.

By the time we made it to the border, it was warm (almost hot) and sunny. Will's uncle picked us up, drove us across the border (not smuggled haha, we went through the border crossing totally on the up-and-up), and dropped us off at a park in Detroit. His uncle really came in clutch, we're both super thankful for him helping us out. There's no chance he ever reads this blog, but either way, you're the man!

An early morning stop east McDonalds; more gravel on the way to the American border

We had about 25 miles of riding then until our hotel in Monroe, Michigan. It started off pretty bad. The roads were in disrepair, we were riding through a not-so-great part of town, and I just had a bad feeling in general. To be honest, that part of Detroit seemed like a third-world country. Well, maybe it wasn't that bad, but compared to what we rode in Canada, and even compared to Pittsburgh, it wasn't too good. Eventually, we made it to farmland and the roads got a lot better; there was even some surprise gravel. The hotel wasn't great, but there was a Red Lobster within walking distance. Which actually isn't that great either, but the biscuits are pretty good.

Detroit, not so great my guy; Will's terrible terrible tan lines from knee warmers and socks

The next morning we woke up again at 4:30am and tried to get some breakfast at a McDonalds about 20 miles in near Toledo, Ohio. Like most McDonald's at 6am recently, they were drive through only... not good for bikes. Luckily, an employee kindly came outside and took our order for us. Perfect. She was puffing on a cigarette (at 6am mind you), which she tossed on the ground after taking our order, but oh well, I guess that's Ohio for you. Sorry-not-sorry Ohio friends. Actually, to be fair, I think Ohio was the best by far of the four American states on this trip.

After breakfast, we cruised on some grid-pattern roads (meaning either north-south or east-west) until we got to a rail trail. Normally, I don't love rail trail, but in this case, it's pretty much the same as any other road in Ohio (ouch, another jab at those corn-eaters), just without any traffic. The miles seemed to tick away especially fast that day. We got Wendy's around 90 miles in, then headed for the finish.
A rail trail in Ohio (or just a road, pretty much the same?); back at the cars; trying to cool off with some water, it was hot that day

We got back to my car sometime around 3pm, and we sat around on the pavement for a few minutes just to unwind. I examined my somewhat-severe sunburn, and then we headed home. Note to self: definitely use sunblock next time, and also bring sunglasses, even if they don't fit so great on your helmet.

On the way home we kept talking about how cool it was to look on a map, see a giant lake, and know that we rode all the way around it. Now, to be clear, I never do rides purely because they "seem cool", but this journey did seem pretty special to me.

I can't wait for some more big adventures with Will coming up, the highlight of which is riding the Great Divide route from Canada to Mexico, all along the Continental Divide and Rocky Mountains. Let's go!

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