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Trek a bike tour of heartland

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Over the mountains and past the fields, to New Franklin, Mo., they’ll go.

Across the rivers, along the hills and through some cities, too.

The riders who join this September’s Santa Fe Trail Bicycle Trek will travel within four states and pedal nearly 1,100 miles as they follow the historic route from Santa Fe to New Franklin, Mo. – or at least as closely as possible while remaining on paved roads.

If you go
What: Santa Fe Trail Bicycle Trek, a ride from Santa Fe to New Franklin, Mo.
When: Sept. 9-28
HOW MUCH: $44 per day, which includes breakfast and dinner, camp sites and showers, daily ride sheets and maps, and all gear carried by truck
Space is limited and registration is available now. For more information, visit santafetrailbicycletrek.com or email Willard Chilcott at willard@cybermesa.com

They’ll stop in communities like Dodge City, Kan., and Independence, Mo., visit sites like Fort Larned and even get a chance to talk about the famed 19th-century commercial “highway” with members of the Santa Fe Trail Association.

Along the way, they’ll camp, catching their shuteye at sites as disparate as the Philmont Scout Ranch and the Sterling College football field, and they’ll eat everything from restaurant food to meals prepared for and delivered by the local Kiwanis Club.

That camaraderie-building, low-budget traveling – more than anything else about the ride – makes the experience, said the trek’s founder and organizer, Willard Chilcott.

“We have a lot of fun, I can tell you that,” said the 84-year-old Chilcott, a Santa Fean who quit riding eight years ago but continues to plan the trek, utilizing a large network of contacts at stops all along the route. “Camping trips are usually a lot more fun than motels and chateaus and stuff like that. You get into camp, you crack a beer, something like that, and everybody is engaged in telling the same stories about their adventures.”

The ride may be months away, but this is registration crunch time. At least 30 people must sign up for the entire 1,096-mile trip by the end of March to ensure that organizers have the guaranteed funds to properly run the nonprofit event. Without that many, the ride will be postponed until 2013. But that’s rarely a problem, Chilcott said. The ride – now in its 18th year – is so popular that more than 20 of its available 50 spots are already taken.

Albuquerque’s John Dyer – who took part in the 2009 trek at age 74 – said he signed up because the ride is more than just a cycling trip. The camping element was a lure, as was the chance to travel along a historic route.

“We went across Kansas and we were kind of treated like rock stars, almost – they were so glad to see people keeping the trail alive,” said Dyer, a retired veterinary pathologist who said the trip was an educational experience. “We saw some places where the ruts were still in the ground from the trail.”

Unlike many commercial bike touring operations, the Santa Fe Trail Bicycle Trek really isn’t for cyclists who expect the warm embrace of queen-size bed at the end of each day’s journey. Chilcott said that’s what distinguishes it from so many other for-profit, amenity-driven tours throughout the United States. Camping isn’t required – some participants travel with a driving companion and spend each night in hotels – but Chilcott said they miss most of the experience.

“If you don’t want to put up your tent,” Chilcott said, “I wouldn’t do it.”

Those who do decide to camp will have all their gear hauled via truck from site to site. The ride begins in Santa Fe on Sept. 9 and continues through Sept. 28. The stops in New Mexico include Las Vegas, Wagon Mound and Cimarron. The trek follows the mountain branch and then heads into Colorado, with nights spent in Trinidad, La Junta and Lamar. Riders then head across Kansas, stopping in Larkin, Dodge City, Larned, Sterling, Hillsboro, Council Grove and Baldwin City. Once in Missouri, riders will stay nights in Independence, Lexington and Arrow Rock before pedalling into New Franklin.

Riders can expect breakfast and dinner each day, along with a camping spot. But they are on their own during the biking portion – for both lunch and any on-the-road fixes such as flat tires.

For those who have done bike tours before, Chilcott said the physical demands are not overwhelming. Mileage between stops varies (anywhere from 21 to 85) but it averages out to roughly 65 miles per day. He’s careful to note that it is not a race.

“You ride at your own rate but almost immediately the group will settle out into subgroups – people you like being around that ride at the same rate you do,” he said.

The tour has attracted riders from all across the United States but is also popular with Canadians and especially Europeans, who’ve shown intense fascination with the American West, Chilcott said.

Every rider is not required to go the full distance but must be willing to stay with the group for at least the first four days until reaching Trinidad.

Dyer, who did the whole ride, said he often recommends the experience.

“I’ve been on several multiday trips, but this is definitely the longest one,” he said. “I enjoyed it very much.”

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