Last year we joined the Chicagoland Dual-Sport Riders Meetup for a super fun weekend of gravel road riding in the Galena, IL area. This wasn’t our event, but we really enjoyed tagging along for the adventure. This year, we went back for more. We gathered a small group of riders, took over an entire motel, and spent the weekend riding the terrific mix of scenic pavement and off-pavement roads in the area. We called it the Motoworks Scramble.
Johnny Moto and I headed out to the Galena area late Thursday night so that we could get set up for our first planned ride on Friday. Our hosts were the Marcotte’s Family Motel on Hwy 20 between Woodbine and Elizabeth, IL and their facility was just perfect. The motel has the typical park-in-front rooms, plus a bungalow with a half dozen more rooms. Donna and Art were more like caretakers than owners or managers — making sure we were set with things like firewood and working grills, all while continuously offering to pick stuff up for us in town. Their hospitality, plus the simple charm of their motel, made it really easy to slow down and relax. Even without the fun riding to come, we could tell we were in a good place.
We’ve gotten really good at making the paddock party mobile. Friday morning Johnny and I had the EZ-UPs up, the tables out, chairs set up and coolers stocked and ready for the weekend’s festivities. The motel would act as home base — as the rest and relaxation destination at the end of our dirty gravel excursions each day.
We also brought a handful of Ducatis with us. We had both an 800cc and 400cc Scrambler, and the new Multistrada Enduro. All three were ready for gravel and all three were open for anyone who wanted to take them for a spin. I couldn’t help but putter around the motel grounds on the Scrambler Sixty2 from time to time. It’s just such a fun little unassuming bike.
It wasn’t long before our first scramble riders started showing up. They’d taken their Friday off just to come ride the gravel with us. What a great way to have a long weekend! The riding plan for Friday was pretty casual. We had an approximately 75 mile loop of about 50/50 road and gravel that would take us all over the Galena area. With this smaller group, this ride would be like a sighting lap for Saturday’s bigger ride. Because I am currently laid up with a back injury, I’d follow behind the riding group in the truck as the course sweeper. I had a cooler full of ice, water and Gatorade for any stops. Plus if somebody broke down or slipped, I’d be there to help. I was bummed not to be riding, but my vantage point in the truck let me experience the event from a whole other point of view.
The weather was absolutely perfect. We had bright blue skies, big puffy white clouds, and temperatures in the upper 70s. After last year’s deluge, we were double grateful for fantastic weather. Our group set out into the afternoon sun and even from the truck, it immediately felt like an expedition. While mild in the grand scheme of adventure or dual sport riding, it was no less enjoyable. The rolling hills, green farmlands, and constantly changing (but always picturesque) scenery were just delightful.
Our pace was causal. In designing this event it was important to us that it be as beginner friendly as possible. This was a scramble, not a motocross race. Most of all, we knew we had folks with us (and would have more to come on Saturday) who had never ridden their bikes significant distances off-pavement. The gravel farm roads and other hard-packed trails around Galena are a perfect introduction to just how capable these bikes really are, and how approachable this kind of riding really is. On even a passable set of 80/20 dual sport tires, pretty much anyone could tackle these roads at the pace we were riding them.
We wrapped our ride at JJ & Freddie’s restaurant for burgers and beverages before heading back to the motel to lounge for the evening.
More and more people kept arriving at the motel as afternoon turned to evening. Soon we were about twenty strong and since we had the entire motel to ourselves, there was no need to moderate the festivities. The fire pit was in full flame. The music was jammin’ in the background. Everybody had a beverage or a snack on hand while old friends and new friends mingled under the stars. The grill got fired up and everybody enjoyed a brat or three. There might have been a better way to spend a Friday night, but nothing came to mind.
Saturday morning had us all up and ready to ride around 9:00 AM. We had a quick rider’s meeting to make sure everybody understood what we were up to, the basic gist of our routes for the day, and to make sure the GPS units with the maps pre-programmed in were well-distributed throughout the group. Our route would take us all over the area, squiggling our way through a big loop a little less than 200 miles. With a mix of about 40/60 pavement to gravel, it’d take us most of the day to complete the circuit, especially with some fun stops along the way.
I took my seat in the truck again, making sure I had the right routes displayed on one of Johnny’s GPS units. I’d be the chase vehicle once more, but when the gravel sections started, I’d slow down to just 25 mph to keep from destroying Johnny’s truck with rock chips. That was fine, as it made catching up on the pavement sections that much more fun.
Like Friday’s ride, Saturday’s route was pretty approachable, but had one particularly challenging section. The group split up into a couple groups where the main pack went up this slightly more technical trail, and the other followed me in the truck on a bypass that would reconnect with the main group on the other side. During that section, everyone encountered the one adventure-type obstacle that route had to offer: a fallen tree. Now before you imagine a might oak laid slain across the road, the diameter was less than a foot. Yet for anyone not used to this type of riding or an obstacle like this, it was no less intimidating. I’m happy to report that everyone made it across without any major incidents. It’s also this kind of group problem-solving that can really make these rides so much fun. Sometimes the obstacle is the way.
Our route had three main stops in it. The first was a fuel stop about half way around. Our group of two dozen or so swarmed this little gas station. Yet as strong as we were in numbers, we weren’t exactly an intimidating group. Everyone was friendly, chill, and our bikes were such an eclectic group of scramblers, dual sport and adventure bikes.
Our second stop was a lunch stop at Poopy’s. Yes, you read that right. The place is called Poopy’s. Poopy’s, is your quintessential biker roadhouse. Put another way, we’d stopped for lunch deep in Harley territory. Our string of scramblers, dual sport and adventure bikes were definitely not the typical Poopy’s flair, but everyone was friendly and interested in our atypical machines. We took over part of the back patio as a weekend warrior cover band belted classic rock anthems to no one in particular. They weren’t bad, actually. The whole thing added up to a pretty authentic “biker” experience and you’ve gotta respect a place that’s not on the lakefront, yet you can still arrive by wave runner.
We rode on, exploring more of the western Illinois landscape and stringing together gravel farm road after gravel farm road. These Hugellandshaft ride routes are simply amazing. It’s all public roads, but because most folks don’t venture onto the gravel unless they have to, it felt a little like we had the whole area to ourselves. While our meandering didn’t ever take us further than half an hour from the motel on the highway, it felt (in a good way) like we’d crossed half the midwest that afternoon.
Our last stop was the Black Oak Dune Overlook, which is not itself much to write home about. It’s the area adjacent to there that’s fascinating. That state park land sits on the edge of an apocalyptic-looking military complex labeled “bunker town” that looked like a prepper’s playground. Everything about the place said “go away” and while we were fascinated from afar, none dared venture far into the restricted areas, and with good reason. This property is part of the Savanna Army Depot and besides being a known weapons range and disposal facility, it’s reported to have more than 1,000 underground bunkers on (well, under) the property. To each their own, but that’s not somewhere I want to have a “what are you doing here?” conversation with the authorities. Even still, its a really cool place to see from the other side of the fence.
Our stop was a true rest stop. We enjoyed the overlook, raided water and Gatorade out of the cooler in the chase truck, and mostly just enjoyed the quiet of the river’s edge. I kept brushing ticks off my jeans, which didn’t add to my relaxation, but everyone else seemed to really relish the chance to shed some riding gear, have a cold drink, and relax. With most of us in from the city, these quiet, solitary places can be really refreshing.
Soon enough, it was time to close the loop on our big ride. We mounted up and headed back into the gravel wilds. The main group continued our route, and I continued after them as chase truck. A smaller, second group headed a little deeper into the gravel. They were looking for a little quicker pace and a little tougher stretches of road. As we think about the future of this event, having some more advanced groups available definitely makes a lot of sense. Those guys got to pilot that program for us, so look for that when we do this again next year.
We arrived back at the motel just as the sun started to get low and golden. Rider roommates took turns showering up and we got ready for a repeat of the previous night’s festivities. The grill got fired up, the food table was refreshed, and we all started depleting the coolers of beer, cider and water. I’m not gonna lie. It was pretty great. It was like grown up summer camp. We were a mixed group of friends and new acquaintances, yet we’d bonded over our day’s riding. I think that it’s these gathering moments that make motorcycling so great. If all you’ve ever done is ride around on your own, you’re missing out. There’s something just so lovely about a campfire and a group of people who you mostly just met but you’ve already shared this great experience.
One by one we all shuffled off to bed, a good day’s mischief managed.
Sunday’s agenda was intended to mirror Friday. We’d ride the smaller loop, but this time we’d do it backwards. Yet our plans were cut short by the threat of some pretty massive thunderstorms looming on the horizon. We were starting to get bikes lined up to take off again when Kevin started showing us some very colorful radar images on his smartphone. Abort! Riding through weather can be an adventure under certain circumstances, but this wasn’t going to be one of them.
The group pivoted and everyone chipped in to break camp. The EZ-UPs came down. The chairs got folded up. Bikes went back into the trailer. A huge thanks to everyone for chipping in. Then one by one, we parted ways for the two-ish hour cruise back to Chicago. While we didn’t quite end with a bang, we all got to go home dry and satisfied with a really fun weekend doing the kind of riding most of us just don’t do on a regular basis. Yet that’s the beauty of an event like this. It serves to expand our riding horizons and open up this wonderful, dirty world beyond the pavement. For the rookies in our group, they’d found a lot of new enthusiasm, and a great area not far from Chicago to come scratch that gravel itch.
Don’t worry though. This was the first Motoworks Scramble, but it definitely won’t be the last. Like our annual track day, we’re confident we’ll be back at the Marcotte’s Family Motel again next year, if not sooner. When we do, we hope you’ll come along.