The water looked cold, dark and menacing as it undulated slowly in an eddy below the highway overpass. Cars and trucks whizzed by, oblivious to the trail stretching for miles on either side of the interstate or our small group surveying the flooded path. I straddled my bike and peered into the murk.
“So just remember, you should be in a very low gear right now,” one of our guides announced. “If you start to fall, put your foot down.” I nodded and took a deep breath. He appraised each of us in turn. “Let’s go one at a time,” he said. “Ready?”
As the others rode through the standing water, I tried to gauge its height. Two feet? Three? Then it was time to go. I rolled right in, pedaling steadily but carefully. The icy water sloshed around my bike frame and dunked my water bottle. I churned through the resistance, keeping my gaze straight ahead. Before I knew it, my legs were pumping up the small hill on the far side, water streaming down into my soaked socks and shoes. I couldn’t help but grin.
What’s a little puddle halfway through a 24-mile bike ride?
This moment of panic, determination and exhilaration was just one of many joys on my recent daytrip with REI, the superstore of outdoor exploration. In addition to selling clothing, gear and supplies for camping, hiking, cycling, paddling, fitness and more, REI also offers a wide range of classes on- and off-site. When I saw the calendar listing for “Exploring Chicagoland’s Best Bike Trails,” I took a quick look at the weather forecast (warm, sunny) and emailed my husband: “This actually sounds pretty fun!”
Four days later, we met up with the rest of the group at a trailhead in Wheeling, Ill. REI provided the (very nice) mountain bikes and helmets; if you prefer, you can bring your own equipment. (Side note: I learned that helmets should be replaced every five years because the foam cushioning hardens over time. Goodbye, 10-year-old helmet. Hello, REI helmet.)
We had two guides for the ride, and they helped us adjust our bikes and figure out the gears. One guide rode in the front and one rode in the back; there were nine of us total on the trip. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep up – especially when I saw that several participants were wearing cycling jerseys and had clip-in shoes for their personal mountain bikes, but the lead guide set a brisk, doable pace and checked in often to make sure everyone felt comfortable. Once I warmed up, I realized I could stick with the pack and was eager to rack up the miles.
Our route took us north on the Des Plaines River Trail, a dirt track of 50+ miles that snakes through Chicago’s western suburbs and up into Wisconsin. We left around 9:30 a.m. and returned at 1 p.m., and the trail never got too crowded, though I imagine it might be worse in the summer. Hikers, horseback riders and fellow cyclists shared the path with us. Since this was mid-April and winter had been hanging on with a vengeance, the trees were all woefully bare and we didn’t see much in the way of flowers, but I’d love to go back for the fall foliage.
We stopped occasionally for water (and in my case, snacks – my husband couldn’t believe how many different kinds of granola bars I brought!), and one of the guides offered a few impromptu mini-lectures on flood plains, the making of the trail, cyclist etiquette and so on. The other guide unloaded her backpack so we could see what she brings for long rides: sunscreen, a first-aid kit, bug spray, bike tools, sunglasses, Clif Bars. She asked if she was missing anything, but we hadn’t gone through the lake – sorry, puddle – yet, so no one mentioned an extra pair of socks.
The truth is, by the time we encountered the water obstacle, I was already sweaty and sticky. Who was I to let some brackish water faze me? After all, getting a little more dirty was a small price to pay for the glorious feeling of being outside on a beautiful spring day, soaking up the sunshine while the miles disappeared beneath my pedals.
- Search for REI classes near you by city or zip code here.
- Sample classes: Camping Basics, Planning Your Overnight Bicycle Tour, Thru-Hike Training Hikes, Two Brothers Prairie Path Bike and Brew, Day of Service at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Hands-on Bike Maintenance Basics, How to Ride a Bike, Getting to Know Your GoPro, Map and Compass Navigation Basics, Introduction to Mountain Biking Class, etc.
- Cost: Varies. It definitely pays to be a member though. Our ride cost $55 for members and $75 for non-members.