Thursday, August 3, 2017

Converge ride, 3rd edition: Chicago/Harvard to Madison

Converge is one my favorite bands, and there is now a bit of a history of me biking to their shows and experiencing adventures. Back in 2011, I bike from Ithaca to Syracuse and back, running over a dead skunk on the way back. And while spending the summer in Germany in 2014, I got completely drenched in a thunderstorm on the ride from my home town Welzheim to Stuttgart. So when I saw the announcement that Converge and Neurosis (another one of my favorites) would be playing in Chicago, I immediately started scheming up some plan that would involve a bike ride.

My friend Kevin, who used to live in Chicago, was game to join me. I met with Kevin at his workplace at 1:30pm on Friday. We biked to the Madison airport to pick up our rental car. Fortunately, they gave us some kind of SUV, which made loading the bikes quite easy. Driving into downtown Chicago on a Friday afternoon was painful, but we arrived at the National Car rental location in the loop shortly after six. Friends of Kevin's had offered us to crash at their place for the night, and we rode our bikes over there. Biking in a big city like Chicago is always a bit of a culture shock, compared to the relative serenity of Madison.

One stumbling block was that Kevin didn't have a ticket to the sold-out show yet. We tried contacting some people online and posted on the event's Facebook page, with no immediate success. Eventually we decided to just go to the venue and hope for the best. In order to not having to worry about our own bikes, we checked out Divvys to ride to Thalia Hall. Since my last visit to Chicago in September 2016, it seemed like they had kept expanding and improving their bike infrastructure. While still crappy in places, it was nice to see so much effort being put into making the city a better place for people getting around by bike. Somewhere along the ride Kevin received a message from someone looking to sell a ticket—great news.


I got into Thalia Hall in the midst of Amenra's set. They had an awesome video projection behind the stage, complementing their sludgy post-metal sound perfectly. Converge was up next, reliably delivering their usual energy-laden performance and also playing the songs from their recently released EP I Can Tell You about Pain.

 The highlight of the night, however, were Neurosis. They played songs from at least five different albums, with an emphasis of their latest release, Fires Within Fires. Once again, I was blown away. Neurosis are able to reach emotional layers in me like no other band can.

After a late-night dinner stop at Furious Ramen, we divvied back and fell asleep on our camping pads around 2 am.

The plan for the next morning was to take the Metra train to Harvard, the station closest to Madison. With the train scheduled to depart at 8:20, we didn't get a whole lot of sleep. On the way to the station we picked up a cup of coffee at Big Shoulders. Our train was slightly delayed, but a little after 10 we arrived in the little town of Harvard.

Catching the train at Clybourn

Our route took us west, on a mix of country roads through corn and soy fields, a rail trail with dubious surface conditions, and finally through Rock Cut State Park. The stiff wind from the east made for a great helper and pushed us to our lunch destination in just over two hours. Pig Minds Brewing in Machesney Park was awesome. I had been there before, but both times I had been the designated driver and it had been winter. This time we could sit on the patio and enjoy their beers, burgers, and stellar desserts—all 100% vegan.

Weekend special at Pig Minds...
After our opulent lunch, I felt very much like taking a nap in the sun. Reasons prevailed and we continued on, at a reduced pace. Pig Minds is located in an industrial, exurban area, and during route planning I was slightly concerned about some of the roads. But on a Saturday afternoon it was pretty quiet and soon we would be on a bike path again anyway.

Said bike path led us to was probably the biggest adventure of the ride, involving a flooded underpass and a climb up a steep concrete banking. But compared with dead skunks or torrential downpours, this was pretty tame, leaving me only with wet feet and a squeaky derailer pulley.

To counter the post-lunch slump I suggested stopping for a quick coffee. Right on our route in Rockton, a nice little town, Local Dough offered itself for a coffee stop. I had an okay espresso and Kevin enjoyed cold brew coffee and vanilla ice cream, which apparently were just what he needed.

Crossing the Rock River, the landscape turned rural. We crossed the border into Wisconsin and continued west until we reached "The Little Store." This general store and gas station is a bit in the middle of nowhere, but nonetheless it was quite busy when we got there. It hadn't been that far since our previous stop. But with the next refueling option almost 40 miles from here, we made a quick stop for water, V8, and Dr. Pepper.

Trail kitteh at the Little Store

We turned left onto Brandherm Road, expecting the first gravel section of the ride. But despite what the WisDOT bike map had promised, the road was all paved. It took two more turns, onto Timm Road, until we finally reached gravel. The section was short, but very nice, with a narrow, smooth gravel road lined by trees.
Intersection of Timm and Beloit Newark Roads

Timm Road
We caught another gravel section, in much worse shape, on Bernstein Road. Shortly after being back on pavement, Kevin continued his unlucky streak of one-flat-per-ride. But otherwise the rest of the day remained serene. A quick stop at a gas station in Brooklyn, and soon after we would be back on familiar roads. We made it back to Madison just after sunset, finishing a terrific trip with a beer on our patio. I highly recommend the route for getting to and from Harvard in one day. There is relatively little climbing, and with the exception of some of the roads around Rockford, it is all either on quiet back roads or bike paths. 5/5 would do again.

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