An Old Hwy 61 Blog By Gail Gates
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best,
since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them”
Ernest Hemingway, US author
May 21, 2017. The day was gloomy at best and, at its worst, given to tantrums of rain and 40-degree temperatures. Yep. Typical Minnesota May Weather. Unfriendly skies aside, 45 bicyclists clad in eye-smacking yellow jackets and vests, glided into Pine City’s Voyageur Park. As the riders slid off their bikes for the scheduled rest stop, most were still smiling.
“Grab some fruit or trail mix,” invited Kerri Kolstad, the Wahoo Adventures tour director. “Are you staying warm and dry enough?”
One by one the bikers shook off helmets and rain-soaked gloves. Ranging in age from 21 to 84, they had every right to complain but instead looked around at the Voyager Park setting. “This is nice,” one man said to another. “Did you see the blue heron as we rode in?”
Bike rides such as the MS 150, or the Tour of Minnesota (formerly known as the Klobuchar Bike Ride Route), have their goals, intentions, and enthusiasts. And yet the 45 riders on this bike tour–dubbed the US Bicycle Route 41 Ribbon Cutting Ride—can claim something extra special. They are the first to ride the newly designated 315-mile U.S. Bike Route 41 that goes from St. Paul, MN, to Grand Portage State Park. Included in the route are stretches of road and bike trails that are on, or alongside, Old Hwy. 61.
After a rain soaked ceremony hosted by state and local officials in St. Paul, the bikers started their trek on May 20th. With a rest stop in Wyoming, MN, they arrived in North Branch in time for a steak dinner at the American Legion, and a night’s rest at the Americinn.
On May 21, the bikers geared up and headed north by 7:30 a.m. “I might grab a cup of Caribou Coffee on the way out of North Branch,” said a woman. “It’s cold out here!”
Heading off at varying speeds, the group ebbed and flowed in colorful clumps along the shoulders of Old Hwy. 61. There was a rest stop at Rush City, and then the stopover at Voyageur Park in Pine City.
Frequent breaks allow the riders a chance to grab a snack, rub a sore backside, or visit a bathroom. The planned stops are also a way for the tour guides to keep track of their guests. (The first day of the tour included a set of flat tires and a rider that wasn’t handling the cold temperature. The flats were repaired and the cold biker given a ride in the SAG vehicle. SAG stands for “support and gear.”)
After Pine City, the bikers made their way to lunch at the Firestorm Cafe in Hinckley. The tiny restaurant, just a block off of Old Hwy 61, had put up balloons and a hand-written sign saying Welcome Bikers! Family owned and run, having 45 bike riders pull in for lunch on a slow Sunday was both a conundrum–where to put them?–and a blessing. “I could have scheduled lunch at one of the bigger places off the freeway,” said Kerri. “But I feel small town cafes are special, and I want to support them.”
Following lunch, the bike tour visited the Hinckley Fire Museum and then headed north on the Willard Munger State Bike Trail.
With an afternoon break at Rutledge’s Community Center, the final stop for the day was Moose Lake’s Days Inn.
May 21, 2017, from North Branch to Moose Lake. 70 miles of surprises, vistas, and stories in the making.
The next day would include a stop at TJ’s in Mahtowa, and lunch at Jay Cook State Park. From there they would leave Old Hwy 61 to continue their journey north to Grand Portage, MN. 6 days and 5 nights of experiences one push of the pedals at a time.
And that’s the thing about bike rides. The pace, as fast or as slow as the rider’s legs can handle, allows a different perspective. Sights missed while motoring along the interstate become vivid and memorable while peddling. Small towns shine as places of interest…who knew about that wonderful little cafe or park or winery?
The realizations sink in with a mixture of surprise and delight. As one rider put it as he neared Moose Lake, “It’s cold, and we’ve been rained on all day.” Then he smiled one of those you-have-to-be-here-to-know smiles. “But what a gorgeous ride.”
Resources for planning your U.S. Bike Route 41 memories: