By Kevin Kernen
Between July 15 and July 17 I rode my bicycle from Louisville to Chicago to see Louisville City FC take on Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup on July 18. This is what happened.
The idea for me began back in February, I can’t remember exactly what made me want to take a tour like this, but spring break was nearing in March, I have never been the sort to take the usual path, I love commuting on my bike and riding around town, so I thought about taking my bike on a trip somewhere.
I did some research into what it took for a ride like this, and I developed a training program, spending hours on a stationary bike a few times a week and procuring the gear I would need, nary a stone went unturned.
I decided early on that I would undertake the tour on my daily commuter bicycle, a 6ku brand Urban Track Bike, a single-speed bicycle that, while lightweight, was in no way suited to this sort of riding. The fact that it had a single gear meant that the bike wouldn’t quite have the right ratio for any situation, and I was using more energy than a more suited bike would necessitate. I considered it just adding to the challenge.
I planned to leave for Chicago on March 14, splitting the trip into four legs, camping along the way, with a bus ride back. I was set to leave when 24 hours before my departure, I got a pair of offers I couldn’t believe. One was to commentate on Louisville City’s opening match of the season for radio, and the other was to join Lance McGarvey on his Soccer City Radio show, so the trip was postponed indefinitely.
Fast forward to June 21. LouCity was fresh off an incredible win against Nashville Soccer Club in the U.S. Open Cup and drew the Chicago Fire in the quarterfinals to be played on July 17. I’d been handed the role as color commentator for Louisville City for the whole season, so this was the perfect time to make up the trip, and I went back and found the route I had planned previously.
I went on a handful of training rides but probably not enough. I tweaked my route to shorten the distance because I wanted to make sure I could make it to Chicago, riding about 75 miles a day, not to ask too much of myself. I set July 15 as my departure date.
To keep myself accountable, I announced my errand on Soccer City a week before, but as the day grew nearer, my feet got colder. The forecast was ominous and I was nervous. I wasn’t in the shape I was in the first time around. Even back in March, while I did prepare myself for the distance, I didn’t really seek out any advice on doing this sort of thing.
I was prepared to call it off again up until the day before. Then, I decided I would undertake the task. I had all the snacks and drink mixes that I needed, so I was prepared on that front, and I told myself that I would probably look back on this as a worthwhile adventure.
July 15 was departure day. My goal for the day was to make it to Edinburgh and find a place to camp west of town. Seymour was the goal for lunch. I made my way over the Big Four Bridge and found a route north, US-31. Normally I wanted to avoid highways, but it was a quiet Sunday morning and the surface was pristine.
I remember from my training rides that my personal threshold for pain was around 40 miles. If I could make it past that then I felt like I could ride forever.
The first 20 or so miles were some of the quickest I’d ever clocked on a ride. I felt great until I neared that magical 40th mile. I edged past it and made it to Seymour by 1 p.m. I was feeling great. I was only a couple hours away from where I wanted to keep the night, so I took my time getting back on the bike. Only about an hour back on the road, I got a call from a friend in Indianapolis, and everything changed.
My bike riding friend Logan asked me when I expected to be in the city and if I wanted company on my ride through Indy. I was planning to cut across the state before I would get there, but he offered me a place to stay if I made it to his house. At that point, it was 2:30 p.m. and 60 miles separated me from my destination. If I made it, I would cover 120 miles in all, eclipsing a “Century,” the ultimate goal for many amateur cyclists.
The second half of that first day was quite taxing. My legs were getting heavy, my right Achilles was bothering me, the roads I found myself on were unrefined and coarse, but I was determined to get to Indy and have a roof over my head. I made it in by 7:30 p.m., blowing my own mind and shattering my expectations.
The next day, I woke up with sore legs. Logan rode with me to the coffee shop he works at and gave me coffee and breakfast before directing me onto the Monon Trail, a rails-to-trail project that led me out of the city and into plains of central Indiana.
On my way out of the city, I contemplated whether I would press the advantage I had made the previous day and try and make it to Chicago a day early or keep a conservative pace and stay at a campground that was recommended on the north side of Lafayette about 75 miles away. The wide open vistas that greeted me between the end of the Monon Trail and Lafayette were exactly what you would expect: mind-numbing expanses of corn fields with the odd soybean lot thrown in. The roads got a little bit better, most of it was asphalt with an odd bitumen road thrown in. I didn’t know what was awaiting me on the second half of this leg, though.
The second half of Monday was the worst time I have ever had on a bike.
At my lunch stop in Frankfort, Indiana, a truck driver spotted me in my cycling jersey and noted he passed me on the way into town. He suggested a route into Lafayette that I had already considered, and I headed that way after I recharged my batteries. The route into Lafayette, IN-38, was a four-lane concrete highway on which the speed limit was 55. I was stuck on the shoulder for 20 odd miles, and it was both tedious and unnerving, magnified by the fact that I forgot my earbuds in Indianapolis. I got off as quickly as I could and made hasty my advance to the north. It was 4 p.m. when I came up on the campground I was advised on. If I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to make it to Chicago by Tuesday, so I pressed on, unsure of where I would spend the night.
Indiana is generally flat, but the majority of roads still had small grades. The gently rolling hills wore on me, physically and mentally. I would come up on a slight hill, only to crest it and be faced with another batch of inclines. After I got off the nightmare in Lafayette and pressed on further north, I googled a hotel in Remington that was within my grasp, and was exactly 100 miles from Bridgeview, Illinois. I figured if I could make it to Remington, I deserved it.
The last 10 miles of that day were fueled solely by the promise of an ice bath and a bed once I reached the hotel. Having completed another century, it was every bit as rewarding as I envisioned.
July 16 was basically a victory lap. I had 40 miles to cover on the road before I made it to another rail-to-trail affair that would lead me into the city. These trails were a shelter from the incessant passage of traffic that would blow by me at varying distances and speeds, but each car that blew by me would chip away a small piece of sanity and sense of security. The majority of the day was mostly a blur, to be honest. I remember a challenging headwind between 10-14 miles an hour impeding my progress, but after I had decided that I wanted to make three centuries in three days, I told myself, repeatedly, that nothing was going to keep me from making it to my destination.
I made it into Bridgeview just before 7 with a celebratory bottle of prosecco in hand, a la Tour de France. A third century made it a hat trick, and that was very gratifying.
The journey was demanding. It was tough, but I never regretted the choice. Even when I watched LouCity lose the match to Chicago.
In the end, I’m glad that I didn’t seek out any advice beforehand because I probably would have been dissuaded. I was ultimately underprepared, but as I told myself, verbally, nothing was going to stop me. It wasn’t easy, be anything worthwhile rarely is.
Kevin Kernen, who hitched a ride home from Chicago with the Louisville Coopers, the amazing LouCity supporters, has been covering the local soccer scene for Extol since January 2017. He is the current radio color commentator for Louisville City FC and co-hosts the Soccer City Radio show on Saturday from 9-10 a.m. on 790 KRD.