I’ve always wanted to ride my bike to San Antonio from Austin. The cities are separated by about eighty miles—a nice distance for an adventurous cyclist—and the trip can make for a very pretty ride, if you take quiet back roads that wend through the Hill Country. That was not the case for the route I took last Saturday.
I chose to travel a much stupider way, one I’m calling the Hell Route. It’s one of many such rides I plan to do, a collection called Hell Routes. As the name implies, these are rides made miserable by traffic, weather, or lack of amenities. Some might consider my three-thousand-mile-ride around the perimeter of Texas or my ride from Brownsville to Austin Hell Routes, but those were fairly nice, actually. This particular route was Austin to SA via the Interstate 35 frontage road, plagued by heavy traffic, endless chain restaurants, and tacky billboards. This stretch of suburban sprawl is one of the fastest-developing spots in the country, with a pace of construction that the mayor of Kyle once described as “mind-blowing.” How nasty does that sound for a cyclist? Pretty gross, right?
And that’s the point of the Hell Routes. They are rides that really don’t sound that great to a vast majority of cyclists. Describing them to friends will get you a lot of blank stares and comments like “But why?” Everyone wants to ride the best routes. The beautiful routes. The fewer cars the better. Sure, I do too. But what about these poor routes? Who will ride them? I almost feel a responsibility to ride them. Plus, they are good bait for more likes on Instagram.
And that’s how I found myself heading south out of Austin on the I-35 frontage road on a cloudy Saturday morning. I spent the first hour or so merely exiting Austin. Usually once you ride out of a city, you are greeted with nice country roads or low-traffic highways. But this was the Hell Route. It never let up.
Cars exiting and entering the interstate, cars traveling along the frontage road: I had to deal with all of them. Then there were the road conditions. I don’t usually ride on sidewalks, but on this day, when I came across a sidewalk (which was not often), I rode on the sidewalk. I had to be careful with them, though, because frequently a sidewalk would appear but not last long, requiring me to trod through the grass to get back on the busy road. I had to be strategic. Most of the time I was in the road, where there sometimes was a shoulder, usually minuscule. And other times, it was just me and the cars sharing lanes.
I took my first break at a McDonald’s in San Marcos, where I spent about thirty minutes sipping coffee and eating French fries. While I dreaded the thought of getting back out there, I had a job to do. The sun was out now, and with a smirk I was back on the frontage road, wondering how many drivers were cursing me from their metal cages. After miles of sun and exhaust I was crossing the Guadalupe River and entering New Braunfels. I finally applied sunscreen there, fearing it was too late. I took a long break, at least 45 minutes, hydrating, updating the family on my whereabouts, and tweeting about the ride up to that point. I knew the last stretch into San Antonio was going to be the worst part of the trip, due to heavy weekend traffic and the tangle of intersecting highways.
I was right. From there it just got busier, which makes sense, as it was later in the day and San Antonio is a bigger city than Austin. Road construction on the SA outskirts only made things hairier. By the time I got to Selma, just outside San Antonio, I was spent, not physically but mentally. The low-grade stress of having a thousand cars pass by, sometimes close, sometimes not too close, at 60 miles per hour had worn my brain out. I took a break in the shade to check my options for getting off the frontage road and winding my way to my first SA destination, Breakaway Brewing. There were not many elegant ways of getting there. In 1.5 miles I would be in SA, but still in the sprawl, nowhere near the brewery in the central core of the city.
Fifteen minutes later, I was finally off the frontage road, but I still had about eight miles of mostly highway riding to get to the brewery. Loop 368/Austin Highway seemed to be the most direct route there. Not a fun road, but much better than the frontage road. Closer in town I did get about a mile on the Lions Field Trail. That was by far the highlight of the day.
I first stopped in Breakaway Brewing because it has a cycling theme. Sadly, the theme was better than the beer. The beer was not bad, just not for me. This brewery is fairly new. I’ll go back in a year or so to see if it has things more dialed in.
Before heading to my camping spot I made one more beer stop, at Roadmap Brewing. Roadmap: Kind of going with a whole theme here, huh? Roadmap’s beers were really good. I had a dry-hopped pils that was perfect. This was the after-ride beer I needed! I got a four-pack to go and swung by the Alamo. A guard or cop yelled at me for riding too close. Or maybe he just saw me swinging a four-pack of beer and riding my bike with wobbly legs and got nervous. I took a photo and was on my way, never to be forgotten.
A beer friend had offered up his backyard for me to crash in for the night. I arrived at his house shortly before dusk. We chatted for a bit, then I shoddily set up my new tent. No rain was in the forecast for the night, so I left it raw, no rain fly. I drank one of my beers, then spun down the street to Taqueria El Ranchero de Jalisco and had a perfectly decent torta and Coke. Back at the tent, I drank some more beer and prepared as best I could for the next morning.
I slept as well as you can in a tent and got up before dawn the next morning. It took longer than expected getting everything packed up and back on the bike. I was also kind of dreading the ride home. There was going to be a pretty hearty headwind for the entire ninety miles. But this time I’d be riding the nice route—no frontage roads.
I sucked it up, climbed on my bike, and turned north. The first fifteen miles were grueling, with the headwind, up and down lumpy San Antonio, and escaping the sprawl. But once I got north of 1604, things got a lot quieter roadwise. Fewer cars, more trees. I rode through towns I had never been to, including New Braunfels (parts of it), Gruene, and Buda. I saw tons of wildflowers. It truly was a pretty ride, especially with all the spring blooms. But that damn wind. I came close to just having my wife pick me up in Buda or South Austin, but when I was in Kyle I downed coffee, Gatorade, and a corn dog, then sat down for a spell. This seemed to do the trick. I just kept going. Not fast, but not too slow. Soon enough (not really) I’d passed the “Austin City Limit” sign. At Slaughter Lane I got the wheel of a group of mountain bikers. I let them pull me for a mile or two. And then it was all downhill to the river. I pulled into my neighborhood later than I wanted, but the sun was still up.
The day before had been hell. But the road back from hell is adorned with flowers. So make sure to visit sometime.