Hello, folks! After a four-year hiatus, Emee and myself are returning to the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour next week. I’ve been on the Tour four times (2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018) whereas Emee has only been once before. We’ve had so much fun in the past and can’t wait to do it again!
The organizers, Jon Sharratt and Noel Robinson, have put a lot of work into this almost two decade old ride. I am thankful to them for that. And the official website covers a lot of bases.
But if you’ve never been before, it’s really hard to know what it’s like. The website can only go so far, and while the Instagram tags #lakepepinthreespeedtour and #lakepepin3speedtour will give you some results, the ride doesn’t have an official Instagram account or YouTube channel. I hoped that as someone who had gone before I had appropriately informed Emee about it before the 2018 tour. But I did not, as Emee wished she had known a bit more to prepare. So I’m sharing this handy guide.
This is all based on my experiences of riding the Pepin Tour four times in the past. As I haven’t been since 2018, some things might be a bit different this time around, especially after two years of pandemic. Take what I say with a grain of salt. I’ll also note that I’m going to use analogies that some (especially Jon) may feel are a bit “clumsy”. But there’s not a lot that can be compared to this ride, and I have to use the tools I have, not the tools I wish I have. Hopefully you’ll find some or all of this helpful, whether this is your first time or you’ve been before.
There’s no easy way to get to Red Wing, MN if you don’t have a car. If you live within a few hours’ drive from Red Wing and already own a car, this may not register. But perhaps you are coming from further afield, where driving isn’t feasible. Or maybe you don’t own a car at all.
While Red Wing is just about an hour from the Twin Cities, it feels a lot further, mentally and physically. While the metro area is large, it’s not that large. Public transit does not run anywhere near Red Wing. In the past I’ve used the free bus that goes from St. Paul Union Depot to the casino about ten miles from Red Wing and bike the rest of the way, but it doesn’t appear to run anymore. And as far as I can tell Greyhound or MegaBus does not stop in Red Wing.
And while Amtrak’s Empire Builder stops in Red Wing, barely two miles from the start/end of the ride, the station is unstaffed, meaning there is no way to get a regular sized bike on-and-off here. However, if you have a true modern folding bike like a Brompton (not a folding Raleigh Twenty or similar) you can use this station. (See Amtrak for their full bike rules.) That’s what Emee and I will be doing this year.
So if you are flying, taking the bus, or taking Amtrak to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and don’t have a true folding bike, the two best options are:
- Rideshare. You can try Craigslist’s board, and you can also post to the Gentleman Cyclist Google Group and see if you can hitch a ride to and from the event. It’s free to join the group. If you don’t want to, you can ask Jon and he can pass along the request to the group.
- Bike! You already have your bike with you. It’s about a day ride from the Twin Cities to Red Wing. I did it once, many years ago on an ill-fated bike tour, and I didn’t exactly go the best route. I’ve heard that staying on the north/east side of the Mississippi and going through Wisconsin is the best way.
It’s organized, but only up to a point. I’m not saying this event is chaos (though at times it can be a good kind of chaos), but don’t expect an event at the level of RAGBRAI or your local city’s annual big family bike thing. There will be no tables along the route lined with free bananas and tents with bike mechanics.
Here are the planned activities of the weekend:
- Friday night social hang at The Staghead in Red Wing (you’ll need to make your own reservations and pay for food and libations)
- The Saturday opening ceremonies at Colvil Park (usually some beverages and snacks for sale)
- A Three Speed Tour Special at the Smiling Pelican Bake Shop in Maiden Rock (you’ll need to pay, and it’s often sold out by the time I get there)
- Saturday group dinner and Sunday group breakfast in Wabasha (again, you reserve and you pay)
- Sunday “brew-up” at Ohuta Park in Lake City (byo tea, kettle, stove, etc)
- Sunday “light-up” at the Stone Wall in Old Frontenac (byo pipe and tobacco)
- Sunday social hang at The Staghead again (you pay for food/drink, but you don’t need to worry about reservations)
As you can see, the tour provides a framework for your fun, but doesn’t do everything for you. And that includes things like sag support: There is the “three speed lorry” that will transport luggage from Red Wing to Wabasha and then back to the start (for a tip), but that’s it. There are no “field mechanics”, per se, but if you are in need, you can most likely find help in the form of your fellow riders. You’ll need to have a degree of self-sufficiency, like a bottle of water or two, a patch kit and spare tube, pump, etc. Basically anything you’d take on a long-distance solo ride away from services you should also bring with you on the Tour.
What is the ride actually like? On the website, The Lake Pepin 3-Speed Tour is described as being “based on cycle touring in pre-war England”. Since this was an era thousands of miles away from where most of us live and from a time before most of us was born, this might be a hard concept to grasp. And if your concept of “bicycle ride” is a RAGBRAI style event, fast road ride, or “shredding the gnar” on a MTB, this concept may be especially hard to grasp. Is there any sort of modern equivalent? The closest we could come up is a pub crawl. That does not mean this is a pub crawl by any means. This was the biggest takeaway for Emee from the 2018 tour, the thing she wished she knew in advance.
Now this doesn’t mean you should get plastered on the ride, as that can be dangerous to yourself and your fellow riders. (Remember that you’ll still be riding alongside traffic on fairly busy roads.) Nor do you need to drink at every stop. Nor do you need to drink at all. But think of the ride in the spirit of a pub crawl: lots of stops at bars, cafes, or restaurants. There are also opportunities to picnic as well, like the riverside park in Stockholm. Or you’ll have an impromptu refresher stop, like at the top of the Bay City Hill. Savor these opportunities to hang out with new and old friends. The pace is social, not hurried. As overheard on the tour, “We’ve got all day to get to Wabasha, why ruin it by getting there early?”
Maybe this idea doesn’t appeal to you. Maybe you do want to get to Wabasha by 1, totally possible if you ride fast and stop less. That’s fine, ride your own ride. But you might miss the spirit of this event. After all, there’s lots of opportunities to ride hard and fast on every other day of the year. But the Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour is something special you can’t find on those other days and in other places.
Getting back to the “based on cycle touring in pre-war England” bit, this Cyclists Special film from 1955 is technically a decade-plus later than that, but it still captures the spirit. If you have a spare fifteen minutes I urge you to check it out.
A word about food and drink. There are numerous spots to stop for refreshments on the route. On Day One (the Wisconsin side) you’ll find cafes, restaurants, bars, and small markets in Bay City, Maiden Rock, Stockholm, Pepin, Nelson, and at the end in Wabasha, MN. The second day the selection gets sparser: Lake City is the major stop and there’s a little bit of stuff in Frontenac. But you should be able to get by just fine.
What I’m trying to convey is you won’t go hungry or thirsty on the ride, but it’s never a bad idea to pack some snacks. The Brew-Up in Lake City is a picnicking opportunity, you can supply up in Wabasha or Lake City itself.
I would definitely advise bringing a bit of food with you if you have health reasons, or have a restrictive diet. As a vegetarian I fared pretty well overall, though I found the selection in Stockholm very lacking. So I’ve been picnicking at the village park there instead.
Make sure your travel companion(s) (if any) are on the same page. Have a check-in before (and maybe even during) the ride. It won’t be fun if you want to hang out with all your new friends at each stop while your companion really does want to get to Wabasha by 1 PM (unless your idea of “fun” is “interpersonal conflict”.) If a compromise can’t be agreed, it’s probably best that you each “ride your own ride” and reunite at the end.
This also applies if you are getting a ride home. You may be more on the “pub crawl” wavelength, but the person offering you a ride is instead “get to the end early” type. Avoid those angry texts/emails from them when you’re still hours from Red Wing by making sure that they know what style of ride you’re doing and that they are OK with that.
Don’t worry about not knowing anyone if you’re solo. I didn’t know anyone when I went on my first ride. Rather than feel like an outsider, I was quickly welcomed “into the fold” and made new friends. As long as you are open to meeting new people, you should be fine. And if you want to be “on your own”, that’s fine too.
What’s the dress code? Is there a dress code? The Lake Pepin Three Speed Tour is definitely not a Tweed Ride and should not be treated as such. But unfortunately in this day and age there’s not a lot like it, so the Tour’s closest analogue is the various Tweed Runs of the world. But most Tweed Runs are around a city, usually at a very slow pace, topping out at about 10 miles. The Tour is two days and 85 miles long. So you don’t necessarily need the full Tweed get-up of jacket and the like. But perhaps think about being a little more stylish than your daily commute, like nice shoes and a tie. (Yes, you can ride long distances while wearing nice shoes and a tie.) A nice sweater for cool mornings is never a bad idea. You can check out the Cyclists Special vid from above to get a better idea of the “sport casual” dress code I’m talking about.
Perhaps none of the above appeals to you. That’s fine. There are many folks who wear normal street clothes on the ride, so you won’t be so out of place if you’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans. But I’d avoid spandex or other modern cycling togs, you will look out of place. (The website specifically points out that this is a lycra free event.) If you can’t not dress like a “cyclist” for the ride, go the “Eroica” route: think vintage like wool jerseys. I’ve seen a few people sporting that look, especially if they are on racier machines. And no one will know if you are wearing bike shorts if they are underneath trousers (though “liner shorts” would work best.)
Whatever aesthetic you choose (or unchoose), one thing not to forget is rain gear. The ride happens rain or shine, and it’s rarer to have a completely dry weekend than not. Bring a rain cape or jacket, you won’t regret it.
Get off WI 35 and US 61 when you can. Staying on Wisconsin Route 35 and US 61 is not a bad experience–capacious shoulders for the most part, nice scenery. Most riders do simply that. But there’s a bit more adventure in “getting off the beaten path”. And there are
eight ten big opportunities to do so:
- 170th Ave and County Rd EE, from the junction of WI 35 and US 63 to Bay City
- The “Maiden Rock Pass Storm”, County Road AA to County Road E to Spring St, from Maiden Rock to Stockholm
- Dunn St out of Pepin to Trail Road and then Peters Road
- County Road 10 outside of Wabasha to County Road 4 near Lake City
- County Road 5 out of Lake City to Territorial Road then County Road 2 at Frontenac (this is my favorite alternate)
- Start with the same as 5, but right after you get on Territorial turn onto Lakeview. This road parallels 61 but is quieter. Turn right on Staheli Park Rd, then left to get back on 61. There’s also a rest area with bathrooms near the junction. (Hat tip to The Vicar for this alternate.)
- County Road 2 from Frontenac to Old Frontenac out-and-back (this is part of the “official” route because of the Light Up at the Old Stone Wall)
- Hill Ave from Old Frontenac to US 61
- Ski Road just west of Frontenac Junction
- Flower Valley Road to MN 58 into Red Wing (Note: This alternate made more sense when the start/end of the ride was on the west side of Red Wing. You’ll need to backtrack to get to Colvil Park if you use this one.)
One note about all these alternatives: They generally feature hills and/or gravel. As for gravel, no, you don’t need a mountain bike or “gravel bike” to ride it. Your old three speed, with tires in the 35-40mm wide range, can perfectly handle it. (Not to mention that most of this “gravel” is nicely graded fine limestone.) The people who started the Rough-Stuff Fellowship back in the 1950s regularly rode rougher stuff with their three speeds, so remember that.
As for hills, consider it part of the fine Rough Stuff tradition of “pass storming”, though instead of climbing thousands of feet, you’ll be climbing anywhere from a couple hundred to up to five hundred feet from the valley floor. The “Maiden Rock Pass Storm” is the steepest of the bunch. The other four “pass storms” possible are numbers 4, 8, and 10 listed above, which are all mellower than Maiden Rock. Add the Bay City Hill, on the main route of WI 35 (unavoidable), to make up the total of five “pass storms” if you are into it.
All the above alternates offer opportunities for more quiet roads, more scenery, and in the case of the “Maiden Rock Pass Storm”, an epic view.
Bring cash, especially on the Wisconsin side. In this day and age of “paying with your smartphone”, the small towns along the route are a throwback. When we rode the Wisconsin side in 2018, there were several businesses that were “cash only”. There’s no banks on the route here, only those small ATMs that charge exorbitant fees (and don’t really feel secure, either.) Get some cash from one of the banks in Red Wing before you cross the river.
New Glarus. For those of you outside of the Upper Midwest, you may have never heard of, let alone tasted beer from this Wisconsin brewery. There’s a good reason why: You cannot (legally) purchase their beer outside of Wisconsin. It’s sort of like how Coors was not available east of the Mississippi until the 1980s–the whole “plot point” of the 1977 movie “Smokey and the Bandit” was “The Bandit” (Burt Reynolds) outwitting cops so his friend could illegally drive a truck full of Coors from Texas to Atlanta. Unlike Coors, New Glarus actually makes some good beers, though their flagship Spotted Cow is just OK in my book. Wisconsinites do take pride in New Glarus beer, so much so that even in the state’s least hip bars, you should be able to find Spotted Cow on tap or in bottles. So before you cross back into Minnesota, make sure you pick up a bottle or six. Don’t worry, it’s not illegal (yet) to take the beer out of state if you don’t have intent to sell.
It’s about the bike. But it isn’t about the bike. Obviously, this ride is about three speed bicycles. That’s what we ride. And you’ll see some beautiful vintage machines on the ride–the meet-up at the start will be a great spot to peep everyone’s bike, along with the “line up” at Smiling Pelican Bake Shop. People will also have some nice accoutrements, too.
But if you don’t have a rare Humber from 1947, don’t worry. There will be many humble 1970’s Raleigh Sports amongst the ranks. No one is going to give you grief if your bike isn’t the nicest. Alternately, while your rare Humber from 1947 will definitely get some ogles, don’t expect Jon or Noel to pin a blue ribbon to your jacket.
And that wraps it up. Hopefully you found this useful. Comments and suggestions welcome. See you on the tour!
Last Edit 2 June 2022