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Supérieur Royale Part One: The Background and The Bike

Having grown up in Northern Wisconsin, I have many childhood memories of Lake Superior's south shore. My grandparents lived in Superior, Wisconsin, and every October the family would travel to the Apple Festival in Bayfield, where I would gaze into the deep blue waters that surrounded the only true "pier" I had ever seen as an adolescent. Lake Superior has since become a sort of existential anchor for me, forever drawing me in to take comfort in its placid peacefulness, raging storminess, and unparalleled purity. 

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My grandfather rode his bicycle around the Fraser Shipyards, where he worked and spoke Polish with co-workers. When I was 14 years old I rode my bicycle 75 miles one way from my house to see its shores, and did not make the return ride home due to exhaustion. When I was 15 we got trapped on the North Shore because of a benzene spill in Superior, Wisconsin. I decided to attend university in Duluth, where I could see shifting ice on the lake every winter morning. In 2003, my friend Frank and I rode our bicycles 1200 miles around the entire lake in 11 days.

  Grandpa Johnnie

Grandpa Johnnie

While drinking a few beers on a cold winter evening in January 2018, Frank said, “Remember that time we rode around Lake Superior in 2003?” It immediately dawned on us that the 15 year anniversary of this epic trip was coming in August. Without hesitation we decided to block off the first two weeks of August 2018 to do a bikepacking trip on Lake Superior in celebration. It was less a decision than a pact that required no words, no discussion, no second guessing. It was just something that was going to happen, no matter what.

Bicycle touring and technology had advanced significantly since 2003. Bikepacking opened up myriad possibilities for route choices and gear format, and we wanted to craft a plan that kept us as close to the water as possible. Isle Royale National Park had always been a mysterious place that seemed so close, yet so far away because it required complicated boat rides to access. For this reason, Isle Royale is still the least visited national park in the country. After learning that we could bring bikes on the boats, but not ride them on the island, our basic plan became clear. The Supérieur Royale was born.

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We would start in Duluth, Minnesota and ride the North Shore to the Canadian border, take a boat to Isle Royale, then take another boat to Copper Harbor, Michigan before riding the length of the Keewenaw Peninsula back. The terrain would include a mix of pavement, gravel, two-track, and snowmobile trails. It was an extra bonus that we’d be able to ride mountain bikes in Copper Harbor as well. In total, the route would be just shy of 600 miles. 

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The Bike

Long hours of pavement mixed with gravel and off-road conditions meant that bike and gear choice would be key. The All-City Cosmic Stallion with 650 x 47 Teravail Cannonball tires would provide the comfort, efficiency and riding position needed for the various terrain we would cover on the Supérieur Royale.

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The 650c diameter wheels would lower the center of gravity, which would be more stable, especially at high speeds on pavement. The smaller wheels also allowed me to run a 47mm wide tire to provide more flotation on soft surfaces, and cushion on rough surfaces. I ran the tires tubeless and had zero flat tires along the 600 mile route.

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Drivetrain was SRAM Rival 11 speed, with a 10-42 cassette, 38 tooth Wolftooth Drop-Stop chainring, and PC-1170 chain. This gearing struck a great balance for long pavement miles, the steepest climbs (on the loaded bike), and slowest snowmobile trails. On fast road descents I spun out at around 35mph, and there was only one steep climb (on gravel) where I felt I could have used one more gear to get over the top.

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The cockpit is where gear planning got a bit tricky. I needed to carry my Fuji X-T2 camera in a safe, accessible place, and I needed to fit as much gear as possible between the drops of my Salsa Cowbell bars with SRAM Rival Hydraulic levers. With everything in my size medium Revelate Sweetroll it was too wide for my 44cm bars, so I switched to a size large and the increased diameter shortened the width to fit perfectly.

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Two-inch wide sections of hockey tape where the straps mount to the bars prevented the bag from twisting or migrating along the tops of the bars. The Revelate feedbag held several Salted Nut Rolls and Clif Shot Bloks. Meanwhile, the gas tank bag was a great place to store sunscreen, money, riding maps, etc.

I always pack my Big Agnes Lost Lake sleeping bag inside a 6-liter Sea to Summit eVent dry bag. It compresses super small, and fits perfectly inside size medium and large Revelate handlebar bags. Having two layers of moisture resistance against your sleeping bag never hurts. My handlebar bag also carried a wool hoodie, rain jacket, microfiber towel, spare bibs, shirt, and underwear.

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My Outershell Drawcord Handlebar Bag mounts like a gem to the daisy chain webbing on the harness of the Sweetroll. I lined the interior of the bag with open-cell foam to pad the camera body and lens. This set-up endured significant front wheel strikes in potholes, and super aggressive rocky sections of road. A pair of Teva flip flops secured behind the harness of the Revelate bag added even more padding.

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This super attractive thing on the underside of my downtube is a tool roll I sewed myself. It is not attractive, but it holds all tools and items needed to repair my bike. It just barely clears my front tire, chainring, and non-drive-side crank-arm.

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The inside of the tool roll has mesh pockets with length-wise vislon zippers for the closures. A few modifications were made after the below photo was taken, but here is a list of contents (including items added later):

Tubes x 2

Park Tire boots x 2

MSW Patch Kit

Upholstery needle and thread

Spare Brake Pads

SRAM 11-spd quick links x 2

Spare 2-bolt cleat, bolts, and mounting plate

Derailleur Hanger

Presta Valve Adapter

Leatherman

Crank Bros. Multi-tool

Zip Ties

Spoke Wrench

Spare Shift Cable

T-9 Boeshield Lube

Wolftooth Pack Pliers (added later)

Chainring Bolts (added later)

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Surprisingly, my Topeak Mountain Morph pump fit perfectly on the back side of my seattube, with 4-5mm of clearance. A generous amount of Gorilla tape and electrician’s tape goes around the shaft of the pump and comes in handy.

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On the back of the bike a Revelate Viscacha bag stored the following items:

Thermarest Neo-Air sleeping pad

Big Agnes Sleeping Giant pillow

Tarptent Double Rainbow Tent

Tyvek Groundsheet

Optimus Terra Weekend cookset

Snowpeak GigaPower Auto stove

MunieQ Tetra Drip Coffee Maker

Opinel Knife

GigaPower Stove Fuel

Dangled off the back was a Snowpeak Insulated Ti mug, because you know, it isn’t bikepacking unless you dangle a ti mug! I also had two Voile straps wrapped around the seat bag for when I needed to stow my rain jacket and trucker hat there. They also came in handy when I needed to secure a jar of peanut butter inside the Ti mug (more on that in a later post).

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Lastly, the frame bag stored two 1-liter Platypus Softbottles for water, tent poles, tent stakes, ti plate, emergency medical kit, spare camera batteries, spare lenses, and miscellaneous food. I carried two pairs of socks, two pairs of bibs, one pair of overshorts, two wool shirts, a rain jacket, a wind vest, a spare cycling cap, and a microfiber towel. Although we stunk at times, overall, these basic gear choices worked very well. The only piece of gear I ditched along the way were some folding Timberland camp shoes that I did not use and were taking up space. If it had been any colder (coldest night was 45 degrees fahrenheit) I would have needed a down puffy.

Stay tuned for the next post about the first few days of the trip!