Skip to main content

Tour de Pepin report

From our front door to Lake City is a bit over 5 hours if you're one of those non-stop road trip types. But with two preschoolers along, it's always a big question about how long a drive will really take. Especially when our family policy is that 'tis better to stop for the restroom when not needed than wait until it is too late. Road trips are also one of the few times my children are allowed access to McDonalds--or fast food in general--so french fries are a top priority for at least half the car. By comparison, yesterday's drive home began at around 9am and, thanks to traffic and a Target stop, we didn't arrive back until nearly 6pm. So Friday's relatively quick drive that put us there prior to 5pm was surprising.

We didn't leave until 10am because we had to grab cash for tolls, make a trip back to get a forgotten item (a theme on this vacation), and gas up the Subaru. My daughter had "Big Kid Day" at my son's school from 8:30-9:30. But this mostly required the parents to do paperwork while the siblings of last year's students who will be enrolled next fall got classroom time to themselves with the teachers and toys/activities.

We'd been debating whether or not to head straight to packet pickup before going to grandma's house, but the kids both threw their parents under the bus when asked. Forget the adventure of going to a bicycle check-in with mom and dad, they wanted time with grandma. And since we'd made such good time, we unloaded our bags and the bikes off the rack before heading back out.

(For readers unfamiliar with the Upper Mississippi River Blufflands, I've written about the bald eagles, landscape, barges, history, etc. in earlier posts.)

This was the scene at check-in Friday evening. It's a fairly low-key event all around...they basically throw a tent up, a portable toilet, and have some tables with volunteers to give you your shirt, water bottle, map, wristband, and coupons for regional dining/attractions.

Saturday dawned with weather just as gorgeous. We'd planned to be riding maybe even a bit before the posted start time of 7am just to give ourselves plenty of room to rest, take photos, slowly noodle the hills, and eat some pie before Mama had to take a ferry back across the lake. But we ended up being right on time at 7:00 instead. Totally my fault. We'd taken the bikes off the back of the car, started to gear up, water bottles in the holders, and I realized I'd forgotten...socks. Which isn't something I really wanted to go without though I suppose I could. I knew right away what had happened...I'd packed cycling "gear" like helmets, gloves, water bottles, shoes, and nutrition in the back of the SUV early then put "clothing" like bike shorts and jersey in my bag for inside to change into in the house before leaving in the morning. You already see the problem. Socks occupy a neutral ground where I had tossed them in my inside bag yet thought they were in my outside bag on ride morning. Lesson learned about trying to be too clever about packing. In any case, grandma's house is only a short drive from the start line so we were back and pedaling in less than 10 min. Not a big deal. It's "start when you want." 

If anything it was almost chilly for the first few minutes and most of the other participants had long sleeves and cycling pants on. Still much better than last year's rain--that was a frequent topic of small talk during the day. "Hey, this is so great compared to last year!" The first part of the course is mildly hilly so our plan was to take it easy, skip the first rest stop (just water anyway--where last year we escaped the blinding downpour) and head straight to Wabasha for Rest Stop 2 where we'd eat a bagel. I actually ended up skipping coffee all day...was going to get some at the start but we never went over to the tent with the sock incident. And we had plenty of chances--including this one. The water stop is at a coffeehouse even. 

After you cross the Mississippi River in Wabasha, you ride through a mix of wetland fishing spots, farmland, and a small town or two. Lots of bridge seams over the water that are annoying, but there are spots where you have water on both sides of the road that are quite pretty. Last year it was a bit on the buggy we were surprised when it wasn't really a problem this time around. 

Pepin (Wisconsin) is a place I think I've mentioned previously--the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. So there's a museum to her and several historical markers about her life in the area. We've always been riding through so early that we want to go back and see the sights. Pepin has a few little restaurants, but the next rest stop was really where we were aiming. 

Stockholm is a cute little town and they moved the rest stop this year. Last year it was in the park near the river, across the railroad tracks, where the paddle boat pulls in. Which is nice. But the action--though still sleepy--is across at the stores. We'd been told we really missed out last year by not getting the famous pie at the Stockholm Pie Company and General Store. And it truly was amazing. We split a coconut cream slice and it was plenty...especially considering I still had miles to go. The rest stop this year was in a gravel parking lot with bike racks, a food truck, the usual water and granola bars, plus tables and chairs under a tent and some nice relaxing places to sit. I beat Mama here by a few minutes and made myself comfortable. She had plenty of time to wait until the 2nd shuttle across the lake. But I needed to get going. The heat of the day was coming and at least one monster hill. 

The next water stops before crossing the river again were at Maiden Rock and Bay City. You can see a photo of Maiden Rock below--it's where legend has it that a Native American girl threw herself from it for having to marry the wrong man. Bay City the stop was at an ice cream stand handing out a free cone if you wanted one! I decided to pass since I'd just had pie. 

This section of the Tour is a rural scenic byway so there were several hilly sections where I came through a small town at close to the posted speed limit. There's at least one climb where I decided to simply get off the bike and walk up. Spent a few minutes with a nice younger woman who was riding the 100 on a single speed. Ouch. I ended up overheating at this point and never really recovered. Though I did cool off a bit on the way back down. The hill curves down pretty much the same way it went up and I was on the brakes nearly the whole way afraid to do much over 30 mph since I didn't know the territory well. Riding the wide shoulder, you never know when you'll hit some gravel or a bump. As you get away from the river, I actually thought the section near the airport was lovely. Not shady, but flat-ish and I was able to cruise along at a decent 20 mph on smooth road with no traffic.(Basically just cyclists, motorcycles, and boat trailers.) It was bliss compared to after the turn onto State Route 63 to head back into Red Wing in MN across the Mississippi. This is Mile 50-ish. 

Pretty much from the moment I got back to Red Wing until I finished at Mile 72 I was miserable. In fact, if we do the Tour de Pepin again, I wouldn't go all the way around. I'd do either 32 or 50 and enjoy a nice boat ride back across the lake. From the turn before Red Wing, it's all dump trucks, bad shoulder, heavy traffic, and an uphill roadway. Ever so slight, but you'll pedal the whole way back to Lake City. Be prepared for no coasting. I also was disappointed that the rest stop in Red Wing had no shade. It was just one toilet and a table with some orange slices. The rest stop at Stockholm really raises expectations! 

The course is marked heavily throughout the route and you'll never worry about missing a turn. I wasn't sure where I was going when I had to turn at Frontenac, but it was perfect. You bike past the state park and the rest stop here was inside a quaint cottage with a real bathroom, cookies on the front porch, and plenty of trees to park your bike under. A nice touch! Unfortunately, there aren't many good places to put the water stops on the "back half" of the circle course. So it was a long, hot slog from Red Wing to just 6 miles from Lake City again. Most of the riders still out went straight down the busy state highway, I noticed. But I followed the official map/signs and used a side road--something I highly recommend. It's an area of newer houses, a quiet road, and some great views since it's up above the treeline. 

Coming back through Lake City, I didn't really want to stop to have my picture taken in front of the sign for my longest ride ever. I was happy I'd finished and had a great time. But I was sore...nothing crazy, but now I know that on, say, an Ironman bike or century I need to carry extra Body Glide. Or maybe an extra pair of gloves because the worst was my hands. A couple of "hot spots" from the pressure all day. But I wasn't tired. Good news. Not like after a marathon or my first triathlon. 

Overall, I highly recommend especially the first part of this event. I can't speak to the added section that turns the 72 mile into a 100 miler, but would say the most enjoyable part of this course is the first 40 miles or so. Enjoy the landscape and wildlife, meet some new friends, have some pie, and then take the boat back across the widest natural lake on the Mississippi River. The breeze will cool you off. 

The next day we got up and took the kids to the "beach" in Lake City. I'm assuming they rake or bring in sand later in the summer? Right now it's just rocks, but you can wade in or swim. No lifeguard on duty. The lake is nice enough I may bring my wetsuit for a swim when we go back in August. The boat wake leaves a chop and the weather had stormed the night before so it was wavy from that, too. After we got back, I mowed a bit of the lawn...which sounds weird to be excited about but I've lived in apartments and condos for so long I actually miss having a yard to mow. Then we had an early dinner at Reads Landing Brewing Company, which is down close to Wabasha. One of several restaurants in the region right near the river. So you get great views of trains passing and some birds. They even put some binoculars at the front tables for you. I highly recommend the beer flight which lets you sample several of their brews. My favorite was not the one I was immediately drawn to, so try them all. Oh, and the food is good, too!