Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Montague Navigator: Folding Bicycle Review

I bought the Montague Navigator primarily because I travel regularly by the Amtrak Zephyr from Iowa to California, and I wanted to take my bike with me. The Navigator folds and fits into a cloth carrying bag. It is allowed by Amtrak as one carry-on bag.

The bicycle works well for traveling on Amtrak. I've taken the bike back and forth across the country four times (8 trips), and have not had any problems with the bike or with the Amtrak policy. Once there was no room for the bike, but I just stood in the downstairs coach area and let the attendants figure the situation out. They placed me one car back, where there was more storage room.

I bought the bike online through NYCeWheels, and the bike came folded, well protected, and ready to go since I paid a little extra for a pre-tune from the shop. I also bought my wife a Navigator so we can load the bikes in our SUV and go for a day ride somewhere. On hers, I also ordered folding pedals, which facilitates folding. Mine I bought as an after-thought once I had the bike. The bike also comes with detachable fenders, which work well. I bought a different seat, since the Montague seat is very basic (basically, is was hard on my sit-me-down). There are screw holds for one lower bar (near the crank) waterbottle holder. Not really adequate. I keep more water in my panniers.

The gearing for the bike is not so much for touring--more for commuting--so when I ride the hills and mountains, I find I have to stand on the pedals more than some folks might like. Myself, I enjoy getting out of the seat, so the gearing is okay. The hills of Iowa let me do a little pumping, and then I can sit down again. However, if I were tackling some longer pulls, I would probably want a gearing combination that let me spend more time sitting and spinning.

The bike comes with stock 26mm width tires. I was getting many flats in California due to goatshead puncture vines, so I bought Marathon Plus tires, 28mm width. They work well and do not obstruct tire removal when folding the bike. One bicycle world tourist mounted 32 width tires, and her review stated she has to let the air out of the front tire to remove it.

I also replaced the basically worthless seat post rear rack that comes stock with a Topeak rack that allows me to use panniers when touring. This interferes with the folding function, but that is fixed by popping off the handlebars when folding. This sounds cumbersome, but go figure that I pack the bike, take it 2,000 miles, and then put it back together. A couple of weeks later, I repeat the process. This is acceptable. If I were commuting by train every day, the handlebar removal would be a pain. Now when folding the bike for the Amtrak long haul, I not only remove the handlebars but also the fender attachment piece for the front fender. The angle with which the attachment piece sticks out is just an opportunity for the bike to get scratched, gouged, or for the attachment to bend. Both pieces are easily removed with an
Allen wrench.

The bike is light and lively. I enjoy riding it. The shifting is not sloppy or sluggish, the Octagon adjustable height handlebar post allows me to be more upright most of the time yet to drop the bars when the wind whips up. I use a Bell Velcro strap-on mirror for the bike, so I can take it off easily when folding. I've used the Burley Travoy trailer with the bike, and the bike pulls it easily.

This 2015 biking season I toured on about 8 overnighters to county and state campgrounds in my local area--gone one day and back the next. The Navigator was a fun ride. I used rear panniers for the overnight rides, and the weight carried well. Riding the gravel had its challenges with the 28mm tires, but riding the lime chip loop trail around Fairfield, Iowa, was easy with 28's and even with my wife's stock 26mm tires. I plan to use my Raleigh Detour 2.5 next year when I'll be on gravel longer than three miles. As a hybrid, it should do better with its wider tires.

The Navigator has held up well for me with a season on short tours. One woman is currently riding the bike on a world tour. It has held up well for her. She did add stronger wheels and changed the gearing a bit. All said, this bike is adequate for touring, but the folding capability is its main positive feature.

I'm glad I have the bike to travel with and tour. There are better bikes out there for touring, but if you want to be able to have a touring bike with both 700c tires and folding capacity, I'd say that something in the Montague folding line is the way to go.

Friday, November 6, 2015

What I've Learned from Overnight Camping (S24O)

"Grandkids, the wife's new business, aging parents, the garden--no long tours for me this year," I told myself over the winter of 2014. And then I had a good thought, that there were about 20 state and county campgrounds within 40 miles of my house. Inspiration!

How about a goal of one overnighter a week? Well, I didn't hit THAT goal (see sentence 1) but did hit about 10 during this 2015 riding season.

Those overnighters, in addition to some great dayrides, provided a great opportunity for learning and for pleasure.


It was my great joy to discover the charm of local campgrounds. I had been to several and even camped in one local state park a couple of times (once on bikes with my wife several years s ago), but the detail of experience was so much intensified by arriving on bicycle.

Local campgrounds highlight the beauty of where I live. Arriving by bike and tent camping intensifies the experience. Here is Lake Darling State Park, 17 miles from my home.

A sub-24 hour camping trip is really two dayrides with the added spice of a night in the woods. The S24O also has the advantage that anything left behind or any miscalculation can be solved by a morning's ride home. Therefore, I was more motivated to experiment and try different equipment or methodology on each trip. My shortest overnighter was a one-way jaunt of 4 miles to local Jefferson County Park; the longest was a one-way distance of 35 miles to the town of Cantril south of Fairfield, Iowa. Actually, the shortest trip was camping overnight in my yard when I was testing tent and sleeping equipment. Ironically, my backyard camping was one of the more quiet campgrounds . . . and had a great toilet and shower!

Just learning about what gear to bring, how to load and pace the trip, camp set-up and cooking, and packing for the return home were all stimulating and rewarding. One unexpected negative aspect of overnighters was that I found myself working in the garden of spending time with grandkids and then jumping on the bike and riding off--finding that overnighters aren't the best way to really get conditioned. As a special note for someone old enough to be a grandparent, there is a special joy to be on the bike, doing activity which is a demonstration of fitness. For me there is the pleasure of knowing that I have chosen the lifestyle of bicycle touring and have not lost the opportunity.

The Bicycle

My father was an automobile mechanic, a very good one who actually had clients who would follow him if he changed shops.

"I've brought my car in for Harold to tune up."

"We'll get 'er done."

"Harold will do it?"

"Well, Harold's not here anymore."

"Where's he working?"

My tinkering was not with mechanical devices but with the mechanics of writing; I became a writer and English teacher. However, I've always wanted to be "mechanical," even though it takes more planning than for some folks, such as my son and dad, who are truly mechanically inclined.

Becoming more serious about biking and taking longer rides to places miles away from help have provided a very real opportunity for me to 1)get the right setup for me bike, and 2)to learn some basic bicycle maintenance and repair. I've bought some Parker tools and bike repair stand and am enjoying the experience.

I've also become more informed about what bicycle to ride, what seat I'm using, and other bicycle specifics. For instance, I've be riding a Montague Navigator, a folding bicycle that allows me to carry-on the bike when traveling Amtrak. I've replaced the seat with a Serfa seat with springs and the tires with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, a necessity when in California with its goatshead puncture vines. In Iowa, most county campgrounds are out on the gravel, so I found the 28mm tires on the Navigator (it came with 26mm) are not great for gravel. They are OK for lime chip trails, though. What I'm in the process of doing now is taking my hybrid Raleigh, a Detour 2.5, and making it more gravel-friendly and more comfortable for longer distance. The basic frame and gearing are great; I'm just looking for better tires (maybe the new Kenda Flintridge tires coming out in 2016) and a thinner seat, which will probably be a swap to my Serfa to try that out. Working with my current bike instead of buying a new bike is a hands-on adventure for me.

I fiddle with my bike, knowing if I screw it up, I can always take it to my LBS. Actually, I still take it in for the more complex stuff.

Cleaning chains, packing wheel bearings, adjusting brakes, fixing vine-punctured tubes--this has be, if not "fun" then at least fulfilling, a sort of homage to my dad, who passed away a year ago at age 94. There is the possibility of hiring my local bike shop pro for a few focused lessons over the winter months.

Equipment, Camping, and Packing

Overnighters are great practice for camping because it's "pack and get on the road" for evening and morning, and then "what will I do different next time?" Weight distribution, what to take, how dry should the tent be (how early to leave in Midwest dewy mornings), take a stove and what kind?, which sleeping bag, which tent and how many clothes. I read all about these decisions on CGOAB journals, about boxes being shipped back home, and now I'm enjoying the process myself.

I usually bring a Thermos of fresh stew from a local natural foods store; sometimes I cook some noodles to add.

These one-day trial and error expeditions allow me to experiment, to makes mistakes, and to know that I'll be back home in my head nice bed the next night if I've erred. I have some equipment now that provides me with possibilities, good equipment. But is it really the best for me? I've found that I've got to temper my desire for the best, most appropriate equipment with a little frugality. (Note my earlier decision to change out a few aspects of my Raleigh rather than buy a new $1,000 bike!) Yes, I've bought some things over the last winter and this 2015 biking season that probably weren't the best choice, but sometimes finding the best is a process. If it's good enough, though, I'm content at this point to wear the item out or to at least use it for a couple or few years. Examples? I bought an Emberlit wood-burning "rocket" stove in December of 2014 and then bought a Trangia spirit-burning stove in September of 2015. Each works well, but really I get by mostly on my overnighters with a Thermos of stew, a sandwich, and cold cereal for breakfast. It's more enjoyable, though, to cook some noodles to add to the stew and to then fix some tea for the early morning. My justification was the Emberlit is great for most use, but then later I realized, what if it rains? The Trangia is a great and light solution.

My ride to Cantril to an in-town park allowed me to buy a cantaloupe for a snack. The one-person tent prompted the habit of just leaving the panniers on the bike and tossing a tarp over at night to keep off the dew.

I've also been looking at tents. Tarptent Ultralight Shelters, for instance, has some great tents. However, I bought a $50 tent in December of 2014, a Texsport Cliff Hanger Three Season Backpacking Tent. The tent works well, even though it has drawbacks, such as being too short. Are there better tents? Yes! It doesn't leak, though, (I sealed the seams), it's not too heavy, and I plan to give it more wear before spending more money.

That's my motto now, actually. I've gotten through a season of overnighters, enjoyed myself immensely, and next season plan to use the equipment I've bought to extend my range, to increase the number of times I take off, and to perfect the use of what I've got. Honestly, though, I'll probably break down and get something this winter. I'm working for small stuff, though, little treats.

Last Thoughts

In conclusion, the realization that I don't have to do a trans-America or world tour in order to enjoy bicycle touring was very liberating for me. I enjoy discovering my local southeast Iowa camping gems. I enjoy a couple of days' riding and then seeing my wife again. I enjoy learning and growing. I could have passed this all up if I had felt that only long tours to distant lands were legit.

Whether I'm on my bike on a local country road or traveling on Amtrak with it and enjoying some dayrides, bike riding has influenced my life. I'll someday do some overnighters near my mom's California town of Oroville, but the current fee of $35 for the night (no hiker/biker!) had dimmed my motivation.

Next year I'll continue my local southeast Iowa dayrides and overnighters. I'll probably string a few together for a 2-3 day ride next summer. I might try a portion of the Mississippi River Trail, since I'm close to Ol' Muddy. I have many choices, I'm healthy, and I'm happy. And it all started this last season with me trying out my $50 tent in the rain in my yard. It's great to know that it doesn't have to be complicated.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Amtrak Biking Encounters


Now that I've traveled the Amtrak California Zephyr line from Iowa to California about sixteen times (eight round trips), I've met other bicyclers on the train. Chatting with them are some of my most pleasant encounters.

Some "encounters" have been fleeting--more bicycle "sightings." One was of a man in his twenties with his biking helmet and panniers who snoozed on the train for a few hours, from Reno to Sacramento. Another encounter was descending to the lower level where restrooms and carry-on baggage are situated, and then seeing a soft-bagged bicycle leaning in the aisle. Later I met the owner who said he was traveling with a racing bike, which must have had S & S couplers so it could break down.

I had a great talk once with a conductor who said he had a folding bike and would take it on the train so that he could ride along the lake when his work run ended in Chicago. He was supportive of having more bicycles on Amtrak. He also mentioned that one place to tuck my folding Montague Navigator, if the carry-on baggage area was full, was in the lower level seating area behind the last seat.

My most fun talk was on my last trip home. I met a biker from Colorado who was taking his bike to the Erie Canal to ride that bike trail. Ivan had ridden the C & O Canal Trail last year and was now on his way for a fall ride on the Erie. I spotted him because his overhead bags were red Ortlieb panniers. I never saw his bike, so I assume he had it boxed and on the baggage car. He was interested in the folding bike option that my Montague provides.

He was on his way a week later than he had originally intended, so we talked temperatures and weather. We also talked about the canal pathways and his experience on the C & O. With many campgrounds and food and lodging options, the canal routes sound like an interesting option and a trip my wife and I might someday take. We also talked Midwest trails, and I gave him what info I could about the Katy Trail and the Mississippi River Trail. Ivan was interested in the quality of the Midwest trails, and we discussed lime chip surfaces. He said he had almost chosen the Katy Trail for this fall's ride.

I wish him tailwinds and fair skies on his trip. Meeting like-minded bicycle travelers on Amtrak is an experience that I hope increases with time.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Riding the Gravel

I've found that my overnighters to local county parks invariably end with at least two miles of gravel road. These little nooks of tree-filled parks among the corn and bean fields aren't on main highways as are most of the state parks.

Low profile and low budget = off the beaten track = Midwest gravel roads.

Here is a light article about gravel roads and bikes: "Trendy Gravel Grinding is Good for Biking."
So the latest hipster-trendy wave to wash over the bicycling world is this thing the bearded guys are calling "gravel grinding."
Basically, it's biking on a gravel road. I grew up on a gravel road, so I've always called this kind of bicycling "going for a ride."

I've also posted several overnight rides in SE Iowa that include a gravel road segment:
YouTube "Biking SE Iowa"

There are also great limestone trails that surround Fairfield, Iowa. I ride these a lot.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Cantril, Iowa, Overnighter (S24O)

Fox River, Highway V64
So far this summer, I've ridden on my bike overnighters no farther than 20 miles in one day. There are a half dozen state and county campgrounds within that distance from Fairfield, Iowa.

I wanted to explore more, so on my last trip to Mac Coon Campground I  made it a day trip, 14.5 miles each way for a total of 29. That ride let me know I could reach to the next ring of campgrounds, those in the 30-40 mile range from Fairfield. I knew I could ride this range because I had regularly hit 30 when riding day rides in California; however, an overnight camping trip meant riding a loaded but that distance two days in a row. There are probably another ten campgrounds within this distance from my home, so riding this extra distance really expanded possibilities and wanted to go for it.

I chose Woubonsie Trail Campground in Cantril, Iowa, for my next trip, a round-trip distance of 70 miles. The trip began taking Libertyville Road out of Fairfield. At the town of Libertyville, the route led south on Highway V64, which was probably 85-90% of the trip.

Libertyville Road is a mixture of farmland and residences near to Fairfield. It was an easy ride, one I've made before on day rides prior to the creation of the Jefferson County Loop Trail.

After Libertyville, the road passed through more intensively farmed land. Then the terrain became more hilly, more suitable as pasture, although much was converted to corn and beans or alfalfa if possible. This was beautiful riding country even with the hills, except that there were a lot of grain semis and dump trucks on the road. I pulled off about a half dozen times to give traffic space and myself a safety margin.

Arriving at Cantril, I found the campground suitable for a night's stay. The tent area was closest to the road, but the traffic died down after sunset. I'm sure the majority of the campground's business comes from RV's. At any rate, the restroom/shower area was clean and fresh, and a little extra food and sightseeing was just a short ride down the road to the Dutchman's Store, an old-style mercantile selling just about everything. There is a lot of flavor to the store because it caters to the Amish and Mennonite communities and also hires from those communities.

I left early the next morning because rain was expected. Because my legs were not 100%, I came home via highways 2 and 1, which was a flatter route, although the same distance. The volume of traffic on Highway 1 was high with quite a few trucks. I rode the verge more than I wanted, which was awkward because fresh gravel had been laid down, and it was still soft and loose. I'm riding Highway 1 on my next trip, but I'll take it on a Sunday, which should lessen the truck traffic.

The greater traffic lessened the joy of this trip, but there was a lot of beautiful country. I'm sure I'll be riding down V64 again. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Daytrip/Overnighter to Mac Coon Campground

Mac Coon Campground is on the Skunk River, about 15 miles east of my house in Fairfield, Iowa.

I wasn't sure of the campground facilities, so I made this a daytrip on my bicycle instead of an overnighter. I also wanted to put in some extra miles in one day to check my conditioning for overnighters farther afield in my area.

A little history from the county conservation site tells us this:
Mac Coon Access is located five and one-half miles north of Lockridge just east of Willow Blvd.
Skunk River
Photo and info from
This recreation area got its name from an old game Warden, Mac Coon, who worked in the area back in the 1930's and 40's. Purchased by the Department of Natural Resources in 1945, a renewable 25 year management-lease agreement allows the Jefferson County Conservation Board to develop and manage this area. Since 1973 numerous improvements have been made to Mac Coon Access which includes: construction of restrooms and a shelter house, installation of playground equipment, drilling a well for potable water, developing a campground equipped with electricity and providing a concrete boat ramp and fish cleaning station.

The trip was enjoyable. Naturally, I had a tailwind heading east and a headwind coming home! That made for high gears on the way out and me thinking, "What an easy ride," and low gears on the way back and me thinking, "Just hunker down and spin."

The campground is nicer than I expected. One person had billed it as a "fishing camp," and that is true, but there are some nice camping spots there. I wouldn't assume the camping is great if there has been a lot of rain: the campground floods sometimes. There is drinking water from a well, and the toilets are pit toilets, not flush. The site has no showers.

The ride was fun, though. The gravel was tricky, and I rode quite a bit on the verge, where the gravel was thin and the ground a little soft. I walked some hills just because it was easier than grinding and slipping on the rocks.

I did have one moment's scare near the Mac Coon campground road. Some resident must breed hunting dogs or something. As I rode by a house, I saw one dog, and then about 10 dogs started howling and barking. Luckily, they were all caged and chained. Otherwise, I would have been lunch.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Overnighter to Morris Memorial Park

It was 15 miles from Jefferson County's AJ's Bike Shop, Fairfield, Iowa, to Morris Memorial County Park in Van Buren County, Iowa, and a nice ride it was, comprising county roads and gravel. On both the out and back legs of the S24O (sub-24 hour overnighter), it wasn't too hot, there was little wind, and the traffic was acceptable to negligible. I made the jaunt (17 miles from the m my house) in about two hours, including photo and video stops.

The campground has fifteen sites, and with no other campers (a quiet Wednesday) I chose a site with afternoon shade and morning sun. The campground is also home to several historical collections of farming and frontier life, housed in a frontier cabin, a small circular barn, a one-room schoolhouse, and a large barn for the larger farm implements and wagons. The campground has showers and modern toilets. 

The country park is an oasis of trees and pond surrounded by farming operations. It was a safe and pleasant spot to spend the night. The 2+ miles of gravel put me deep in corn and beans with livestock thrown in. At one point coming home, I found myself scratching my head at an unmarked gravel "T" that I didn't remember. I tried GPS and was informed "no available route," but I expanded the map and identified the correct gravel to ride.

I saw a "century" farm, a hawk in flight, and a doe while on the gravel. The paved roads offered the rolling, rural roads of Iowa. 

About thirty state and county parks are within 50 miles of Fairfield, Iowa. So far this riding season, I've done S24O's to four of them. I believe I'll manage to visit a few more before the nights grow icy.