Most climbing routes have an approach, usually in the form of a hike, to get to the rock. It’s become an accepted part of the sport, so much so that climbing companies have created approach-specific shoes and gear.
When the Illinois Climbers Association opened 28 new routes in three different areas of Pere Marquette State Park last year, Spoked Bikes & Stuff recognized the prospect for a creative new approach, one that would include more than just a hike to the rock.
For the past year, the progressive outdoor store located in the revitalized Cherokee Street District of South St. Louis City has provided fully supported overnight cycling excursions under the name Spoked Adventures. Several of trips have added canoeing and climbing to the mix, creating multi-sport opportunities that “you may have never known existed just miles from your home.”
I was stoked to have the chance to take part in its latest adventure, which would involve a ride from Spoked along the Mississippi River Trail (MRT), across the Clark Bridge in Alton, Illinois, and then north to Pere Marquette for an evening of camping and barbecue. On the following day we would sample some of the new climbing routes and then a ride back to the shop. In short: cycle, camp, climb and cycle again — a guaranteed recipe for an epic adventure.
Over the River, Through the Woods
Pere Marquette State Park, an 8,050-acre protected area in Grafton, Illinois, lies nearby the confluence of three great American rivers: the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois. The soaring limestone bluffs along the Mississippi provide a scenic backdrop to the Great River Road, which extends from Alton and provides a picturesque cycle route to the park’s entrance. This makes the new climbing routes perfectly “approachable” by bike.
As I live in St. Charles, Missouri, I opted to meet the group in Alton for a 30-mile ride option to Pere Marquette. This involved my own 30-mile ride on the southern side of the Mississippi River and over the Clark Bridge. The day started off relatively warm, warm enough that I grabbed a short-sleeved jersey. As I clipped in, I noticed the usual headwind blowing in from the Mississippi. Great. Within 5 minutes of my first pedal stroke, though, the clouds in the distance started to accumulate and roll overhead, and to my luck, this provided one of the best tailwinds I’ve ever had.
Riding east, I soon reached Highway 67 and Alton. It grew colder and rain started to fall, so I stepped inside a local coffee shop for a quick sip and to check in on the progress of the group coming in from downtown St. Louis.
This is where a tale of two adventures begins. The “amazing” tailwind that had whisked me to Alton in just over an hour was the “headwind from hell” for the group coming from Cherokee Street. Matt Hartman, owner of Spoked and the trip leader, said they even had a bit of sleet coming at them.
Unless you fall, cycling is a relatively low-impact sport that allows you to cruise along at a pace that is more efficient calorie-to-effort-wise than walking. Headwinds are a different kind of impact, though, and the ones the Spoked group were experiencing were all but demoralizing.
Needless to say, I was in no rush to get back out there and enjoyed every last sip of my brew. I knew that my tailwind would become a headwind on the way to Pere Marquette.
The group arrived in Alton, and we decided to head to Pere Marquette quickly to avoid the bulk of the radar coming our way. We left too late, though, and after five minutes I was in a downpour and headwind — two things that you try to avoid the most when cycling.
Head down, I crept along. The most striking view of the bluffs on this day was the occasional sight of road kill as I pedaled on, eyes on the pavement. On tough stretches like this, I like to set incremental goals. The first was to get to Raging Rivers Water Park, midway to Pere Marquette. The next was to get to downtown Grafton. The third was to get to the campground.
I slowly lost feeling in each finger and toe, yet once I saw the sign that said 3 miles to the Pere Marquette Lodge, I knew the struggle was worth it. This is a relatively small section of the bike path but provides one of the best rides in the St. Louis area. As you enter the hills of Pere Marquette, the route heads to the woods, cruising along the ridge line, with a view of the Illinois River through the trees. In a region without mountains, it truly provides a crest-and-valley feel.
Rolling into camp, satisfied but completely numb, I tried to clip out and fell straight to the ground. Normally, I would be frustrated at my rookie mistake, but after a ride like the one I’d just completed, all I could feel was accomplishment.
By the Firelight
After a quick change of clothes, we were all ready for some much-needed nourishment. The camp was set, and dinner a la Spoked was on the grill. I believe that a simple bonfire is one of the best ways to get to know people, and with stomachs full and everyone contentedly gazing into the flames, guards were lowered and we all connected over a shared passion for the outdoors.
As the embers burned, the conversation shifted from cycling to climbing, and we all talked about how we looked forward to the rock the next day. Not many people had climbed before, so Jon Richard from Vertical Voyages, who had been booked by Spoked to guide the climbing portion of the trip, quickly filled us in on the unique culture of climbing.
Similar to cycling, climbing is a solo effort with a group mindset. In order to reach the finish line, a cyclist must utilize the draft of those around them; in order to reach the top of a route, a climber needs the support of those below them.
After a frosty sleep, the sun greeted us with a warm, clear, blue sky — a near perfect day to climb. With six top ropes set up, everyone got ample time to hit the rock. Although the routes we tried are not terribly high, or of very high-grade, they do provide an excellent place to learn to climb outdoors. Plus, they were tucked right off the bike path, overlooking the Illinois River and the esoteric Brussels Ferry Line.
While more taxing on the upper body, the slower pace of climbing was a nice change from riding a bike. In a way, the two disciplines complemented each other, and being able to approach this camping and climbing trip by bike created an extremely satisfying and well-rounded adventure.
As I clipped back in for the ride home, I crossed over the ferry into Calhoun County and had a chance to scrutinize the ridge line of Pere Marquette like I hadn’t the day before. It was gorgeous. I pedaled back home in the sunshine, with a tailwind, head up, and imagined what other adventures lay beyond the bike.
I guess that’s a gap for Spoked Adventures to fill.
Author: Zac Metcalf is the senior account representative for Terrain Magazine and an avid cyclist and rock climber.