cycling · fitness · Guest Post

Spring Solo Rides: Northward on the Katy Trail (Guest Post)

I scheduled a break for my students this week in the Syllabus, knowing how long the semester will be for everyone without a traditional Spring Break. While they’re watching short documentaries related to their class, I’m in an AirBnB in St. Charles, Missouri, along the storied Katy Trail, working on my book.

If you’ve read my previous entries for this blog, you know I usually cycle with my youngest, who loves distance riding, often when I am on a trip with him and my cycling spouse is not. But I’ve come to enjoy solo cycling every once in awhile so this week, I brought my bike.

And yes, this is the week that the trees are greening and the invasive bush honeysuckle is a bit welcome as one of the first plants on the forest floor to leaf out. The magnolias have bloomed, the occasional wildflower is out while more are hovering right on the edge, and the dogwoods and redbuds will bust out any day now.

And I, being unable to work every waking hour, have made space on nice days for some rides. If you’re ever looking for a trail-related getaway to the midwest, biking the length of the Katy Trail across Missouri and camping/catching hotels, or picking a town and radiating out in either direction, might be fun.

For me, I want just an hour or two on the trail, in the 10 to 20 mile range. Someone else might fancy a bigger bite of it, and be delighted by the way the scenery changes over the course of each day. The bits I rode were only slightly inclined and, by and large, pretty flat and fast, even on my comfort hybrid bike.

The entire 240 mile length of the Katy is one of the longest stretches of converted Rail To Trail in the US, built on part of the former Missouri-Kansas-Texas/MKT, or Katy, Railroad. There are 26 trailheads along the way where one could park a vehicle and explore either direction. The trail surface is soft pea gravel, possibly even finer than that. I wouldn’t want to wipe out on it, but it’s pretty solidly packed in most spots and one only occasionally hits a bit that shifts out from under you. There are sturdy benches approximately every mile, some with lovely views of the Missouri River or surrounding woods and fields. This blog entry will be about my Northward venture from St. Charles on a stretch of the Katy.

If you’re setting out on the Katy from St. Charles, you’ll start somewhere along the Missouri Riverfront, probably at Frontier Park. There’s car parking nearby at the Lewis and Clark historical sites, or the strip of parking between the historic Main Street–brick surface, timber, colonial architecture, and all–and Frontier Park. The percentage of parked vehicles with bike racks is a good bit higher than most places, for good reason.

Going north from town (the direction behind me in this picture), you pass by some neat old warehouses and steel foundry buildings that have been converted into an arts centre, an indoor soccer facility, and the excellent climbing gym Climb So ILL; it started in southern Illinois just across the Mississippi from St. Louis. If you like climbing as well as cycling, it might be a good stop to add. Then you might notice numerous little trails off into the woods between the Katy and the Missouri River. These are lovely for a walk or even biking. But you might want to make sure you have a bike, and trail riding skills, ready for some light hills and rough trails. They’d be a cool oasis in mid-summer, I’m sure.

Not too far out of the city, you will pass a junkyard that is just waiting for you to engage in the world’s most exciting game of jenga. But in no time at all, the woods remain on the east between you and the Big Muddy AKA Missouri River, while bucolic stretches of flat Missouri farmland stretch into the distance.

After a short bit of sunny trail, straight as an arrow, you come to a winding bit that enters woods on both sides. Here, the trail surface is a bit softer, but still in pretty good shape. As you enter the wooded area, you may hear a woodpecker pecking, or frogs calling out for mates–as I was riding, the spring peepers and click toads were picking up steam.

Even in the woods, you’ll find benches with a view of the river, or looking back into the trees.

I snagged one up for a bit to watch the river pass. And such a lot of river there was!

I carried on about 5 1/2 miles out past the wooded section, on into the areas between fields on either side. This was when I really noticed the wind behind me and thought about pushing back against it on my return trip for even longer if I carried on out into the countryside. I got my scenic agriculture on, appreciated a cluster of silver silos and a red barn in the distance, and decided to turn around.

On my way back through the woods, the wind was fierce (you can hear it on the audio, along with a slight rub of my front brake calipers on an irregularity of the wheel), but this video gives you a sense of the wooded areas of the trail, running alongside Big Muddy, south back towards St. Charles.

All told, I went almost 11 miles–though you won’t be able to tell from my Runkeeper screenshot, below, since I only started it at the point at which I decided to turn around and head back, into the fierce headwind.

It was hard work and there’s just nothing quite like the feeling of moving through the world, putting the power down, on a bike. That’s true of any ride. But solo rides offer particular pleasures, especially for people like me–I am a short fat woman who sweats really well–who wonder how their exercise is being perceived by others but who love to move and feel our own strength.

On a solo ride, only you set the pace. You decide when to stop and explore a little hiking trail. Or whether to snag a bench. Or that you’ve gone far enough and would like to see that last batch of things now, from the other direction.

It doesn’t matter if you worry about keeping up with other people; there are no other people.

It doesn’t matter if a sight or sound strikes your fancy that you don’t want to make other people stop for; there are no other people.

It doesn’t matter if your outfit isn’t as fly or sparkly or spandexy or even as functional as other people’s in your group; there are no other people.

It doesn’t matter to other people how you breathe or how you jiggle or how you puff and lean going up a hill; there are no other people.

Every ride is a no-drop ride when you ride alone.

When I got back to St. Charles, I propped my bike up against a mighty tree outside the Bike Stop Cafe–food, beer, wine, bike equipment, and bike rentals including e-bikes–to sit at one of the well spaced-out tables, with an option to sit by a gas firepit. I took off my helmet to let the wind dry my sweat-damp hair, and had a cold soda. Not a bad way to end a good, short bike trip.

Stay tuned for the second installment of my short solo rides on the Katy Trail, headed Southward from Frontier Park, a few days later. Some more of the same, but also some different scenery and more miles and a tip on where to stop for snacks.