Wisconsin’s Far North By Bike and Camera
Testing a new Sony camera on the CAMBA and COGGS Mountain Bike Trails.
I’ve been searching for a way to replace my Nikon DSLR gear with a smaller, lighter mirrorless camera system for some time now. My Nikon D800 is still an amazing camera, but I often need to carry a camera in a small handlebar bag or in a backpack and the Nikon is a little big for that. If I am going on a longer tour, like the train trip we take every year, a full DSLR kit adds a lot of weight and bulk when I need to keep up with the other riders who are only carrying some clothing.
I have been very tempted by the new mirrorless camera systems because their image quality is now on par with a full frame DSLR and they are so much smaller and lighter. I shoot a lot for the Bike Fed, and while I don’t rely on my cameras to make a living as I did when I was a professional photographer, I still put my gear in some pretty demanding situations. That means I need a professional camera system that can do everything my Nikons have been able to do so well for years, but I’d like to lose some weight and bulk (don’t we all).
I dipped my toe in the mirrorless water with a Fuji X-T1 camera body and a handful of lenses to fill out that system and I love most everything about the Fuji X. It is small, light, has a great sensor, and has a robust and ever-expanding system of great lenses. The autofocus is good enough to use to shoot bike racing. Not as good as my Nikons, but good enough. And because I cut my teeth on Nikon F2s and Leica M3s, I really like the lenses with an actual aperture ring and shutter speed dial on the body.
I have taken lots of images with my Fuji, including the wrap around cover of our July magazine. But as much as I like the Fuji X system, it has one flaw that forces me to keep my Nikons. I can’t use rear curtain sync and an off-camera flash. That is a deal breaker for me because I use that feature all the time. I use it at criteriums to shoot racers coming out of a dark corner and I use it in the woods to pop a key light on mountain bikers in order to separate them from the background.
So I still need to bring all my Nikon gear and my Fuji gear to almost every photo shoot I do, which means packing twice as much gear as I should have to. It also means I have to purchase and maintain two camera systems, which is costly for someone who is not a professional photographer. So I am still in the search for the holy grail of cycling photography: a small camera that can do everything my big professional DSLR can do.
Enter Sony’s new A7rII full frame, the flagship of the Sony Alpha mirrorless system. Is it the ultimate cycling travel camera? Is it the DSLR killer it is rumored to be? It certainly has all the specs I would look for to replace my venerable Nikon D800:
- 5 frames per second burst mode
- Phase detection autofocus
- A growing system of good lenses
- The ability to use rear/second curtain sync with off camera strobes
- Professional build quality with weather sealing
- Significantly smaller than my DSLR, but packing a 42 mp full frame sensor with incredible dynamic range
On paper it looks great, but is it really good enough to let me sell my DSLR system or will I find a hidden flaw like I did with the Fuji X-T1 and have to keep my Nikons? I got a chance to find out thanks to my long-time shooter friend Patrick Murphy Racey. Pat has been a professional photographer since I worked with him at the old Milwaukee Journal in the early 1980s. Since then he has shot for virtually every magazine and wire service out there covering news, sports and features from the Super Bowls to big annual reports. Pat was recently named one of the Sony Artisans of Imagery, so he was able to have Sony ship me an A7rII and some glass in time for me to take it on a work trip up to Duluth/Superior and Bayfield with a stop in Butternut to do a little bow hunting, fishing and get my deer stand ready for rifle season.
Based on Pat’s recommendations, the night before we were schedule to leave, I packed my Fyxation Blackhawk carbon fat bike, only took the Sony loaner camera gear and my hunting stuff for the trip Up North. I was nervous as I loaded my gear into Nick Ginster’s truck and my Nikons were back in the house, but I tried to trust in Pat and Sony and think about the fun trip ahead and the great images waiting to be made.
Nick, Julian and I have been exploring and riding Wisconsin’s North Coast for the last few years. Our adventures have allowed us to pedal across a frozen Lake Superior, find legal sea caves to ride in, cruise the worlds longest inland sand bar and shred some amazing flowing trails built by the dedicated volunteers from the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) and the Cyclists of the Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS). Fleck was stoked to come with us and check out what we billed as some of the best riding in the Midwest. The rest of us were itching to ride the North Coast again too, but we also planned to refill our growlers at Thirsty Pagan Brewing, probably our favorite brew pub anywhere.
We were scheduled to drive all night so we could get up the Duluth Saturday morning, September 26th, just in time to join our pals from COGGS for their Gitchee Gumee Galivant, an annual 50-mile fun ride on the best trails in the area. We arrived in time, albeit a little sleep deprived, but mother nature had other plans. It had rained heavily the three previous days, so all the trails were closed and the COGGS crew were gonna ride the local gravel roads instead.
That sounded fun, but as foggy as it was and as tired as we were, we opted to skip their ride and catch some Zs back at the Barkers Island Inn and then do some beach riding after. By the time we got that all organized it was time for lunch, so we stopped at Thirsty Pagan Brewing to grab some delicious pizza and fill our growlers with some of their beer. “Yes, we want both sours you have on tap! Oh, sure, we would like to try the Rueben Rolls too, why not?” Yumm is all I can say. Please stop there if you are in Superior, and when you do say hey to the owner Steve Knauss, a funny guy, strong mountain biker, and big supporter of COGGs.
After a quick nap, we saddled up and headed down to Moccasin Mike Road to ride the world’s longest freshwater sand bar along Wisconsin Point, the barrier peninsula on the Wisconsin side of the Twin Ports.
The last time we rode the beach along Wisconsin Point it was sunny and hot. The weather was more introspective this time, with cool temperatures and enough fog to make us not miss the sun. As you can see by the photos, the riding along the beach is pretty cool, with lots of driftwood to make it challenging and plenty of waterfowl, turtles and fish to give you a taste of nature. With the lake levels up several feet from last year, there wasn’t as much sand to ride, but we never had any problems with vanishing beach like we do on the southeast shores of Lake Michigan.
For this situation, the Sony A7rII paired with the Sony Vario-Tessar T* FE 24-70 mm F4 ZA OSS lens was the perfect camera package. Small enough to fit in my handlebar bag, so I can grab it out quickly, but sporting Sony’s monster of a 42 mp full frame sensor. I never minded not having an F 2.8 lens because the in-body image stabilization let me shoot hand-held at slower shutter speeds, and the build quality of the Sony lens was superb, with classically sharp Zeiss optics. The autofocus was able to keep up with riders heading toward me with no problem. Every frame was sharp in burst mode. Using the Expand Flexible Spot Lock On option, the camera was even able to track people as they rode across the frame, just like in this Sony Autofocus Video.
I was loving the camera, until I noticed that if I shot few frames in burst mode of the leading rider coming towards me, then paused to wait for the next rider to come into position, the camera stopped buffering and began to write to the card. While it was writing I could not take photos. Even though the buffer had plenty of room, the camera didn’t wait to write to the card.
The delay was annoying and caused me to miss some shots, which was not a big deal on this shoot. I could just ask the guys to ride past again if I wanted to, but if I was covering the final laps of a crit with limited opportunities to catch a couple important riders in position within a fast moving peloton, I would be seriously bummed.
I’m not sure why Sony designed the camera this way. My Nikons don’t act this way, and neither does my Fuji X-T1. This might be something Sony can fix it with a firmware update, but it definitely raised a red flag. I also wonder if the new Sony A7sII will have this problem. That camera specializes in low light performance, so it only has a 12 mp sensor. Perhaps the processor can keep up with those smaller file sizes without a delay to capture.
The weather cleared up the next day around mid morning, but the COGGS trails were still too wet to ride. We asked around and the locals said there was one trail that was mostly rock and gravel that we could try, so we headed up to the Hawk Ridge Trail which overlooks Duluth at the top of the hill just off Skyline. The trail was awesome, and the views over town made me wish I could have stuck around to ride it at sunset and take photos. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to come back.
I definitely plan to get back up to Duluth to ride their incredible network of mountain bike trails that are part of the Duluth Traverse, a planned system of 100 miles of purpose-built mountain bike trails all within a short ride of town. If my wife were a bigger fan of winter, I could see retiring to Duluth. With Spirit Mountain right near by, it reminded me of Durango, CO, where I have ridden many times. We considered retiring in the four corners area of the west, but we can’t afford to buy a home anywhere close to Durango. Duluth is kind of like a more affordable Durango of the midwest, with the added bonus of being on Lake Superior!
After we rode the Hawk Ridge and promised each other we would come back to ride the rest of the COGGS trails when Duluth dried out a little we packed up and headed to Bayfield. It was nice to see the sun, but by the time we checked in to our condo at the Bayflield Inn, there really wasn’t time to kit up and ride, so we decided to try some fishing. Nick “all things carbon” Ginster brought the rods and tackle, and Julian and him set out to slay some Lake Trout offshore where the mouth of the Sioux River enters Lake Superior, just south of Bayfield. The lake is super shallow here so you can wade in and go a hundred of yards off shore if you want.
As the sun set with no shore lunch at hand, we packed up the rods and headed back to town for a traditional dinner at Gruenke’s Inn, one of Bayfield’s oldest restaurants and hotels. Thankfully Lake Superior still has commercial fishermen who are better at bringing in the dinner than we were, so we feasted on deep-fried Whitefish livers (natch) and baked Lake Trout, delish! In addition to making good food, Gruenke’s is a cool place, filled with lots of memorabilia.
The next morning, after a great breakfast at the Egg Toss, we geared up for a mountain bike ride and headed over to the Mt Ashwabay trails. Mt Ashwabay is a ski hill in the winter and also home to the Big Top Chautauqua, a really cool big top tent that features great music during the summer months. The volunteers from the North Coast Cycling Association are also building some killer mountain bike trails as part of the CAMBA system.
They have about 10 miles of purpose-built mountain bike trails that are flowy, fun, and challenging. The trails are super buffed out, with bermed corners, some rhythm sections with small doubles and triples, and even some sizable drops. All the bigger features have options, but I would say the trails start at intermediate because of the climbing involved. The trails are pretty well marked and they have maps at the trailhead, but we still got turned around a couple times.
You can’t get lost there, so we were never in trouble, but wayfinding is always a difficult thing for locals to dial. They know the trails so well, it is hard for them to see where clueless out-of-towners like us can get lost. Perhaps I should volunteer myself to ride everyone’s trails and get lost a few times to show the trail builders where the problem areas are.
No matter, we had a blast riding the trails and John Fleckenstein said he thought they were the best trails he has ever ridden! I can’t wait to come back again and try the new stuff that CAMBA and the North Coast Cycling Association are building. They expect to have another three miles constructed by next season, and from the looks of the progress they are making this fall, I plan to put another North Coast Trip on the calendar for late spring 2016.
With Mt Ashwabay crossed off our list, we packed up the Fyxation pick-up truck and headed back south, but I had one more detour before I got back on the grid and rejoined the real world. Since I deer hunt in Peeksville just north of Butternut off Highway 13, I had the guys drop me in the woods with my bow. My hunting partner Casey has a shack on 40 acres of land next to another 400 acres of forest that is owned by his father and his uncle.
I met Casey racing bikes and when he found out my mom was from nearby Park Falls we began hunting together. I love spending time up at our little trailer in the big woods, both to get away from it all (we don’t have running water, electricity or cell service), and to hopefully add some meat to our family freezer. It is also fun to run into people in town and find out if they know my relatives up there. You never know when you will meet another cousin in a tiny Northwoods tavern.
It was before the rut and the deer had so much forage in the woods they were not moving around much, so we only hunted a little and spent more time preparing for the coming winter. We heat our trailer with a wood stove and Casey’s dad heats his entire home with a larger wood furnace in his basement, so cutting wood is not a small job.
One of Casey’s high school pals dropped a load of 11-12 cords of logs off at his dad’s house and we fired up the Swede saws and got to work. With this much wood to cut, split and stack, we also use a hydraulic splitter. We didn’t cut it all up though, as we had to stop when the stacks of wood filled his Dad’s basement to the rafters.
After the wood was finally stacked, we headed out to the Flambeau Flowage to fish a little on Casey’s boat. Once again, it was absolutely gorgeous out on that huge body of water, but we were skunked. Casey said he has never been skunked before and blamed it on the East Wind. I wasn’t complaining, as a day on the water, in the woods, or on a bike is always a better view than from my cubicle back at the office.
As I sit here at my desk writing this, I am still torn about switching from Nikon to Sony. I loved the image quality of the A7rII. It was great to have a full frame camera that fit in my little handlebar bag. The lenses were sharp, and Sony keeps coming out with more of them. The autofocus is not quite as good as my D800 or the D4s I borrow for the Tour of America’s Dairyland, but the difference wouldn’t be enough to keep me from switching. Basically the Sony AzrII has all the features I have been dreaming of. It is much better camera than my Fuji X-T1 for what I need it to do.
So will I jump on the Sony Alpha train and sell all my Nikon and Fuji gear? I wish I could, but I just can’t live with the delay when the camera writes to the card after shooting in burst mode. If this is just a firmware issue and Sony can fix it, I would have no trouble putting all my other gear up on eBay tonight. Perhaps if I get my hands on a Sony A7sII when it comes out later this month I can make the leap, but for now, I’m sticking with Nikon, which I have been happy with since 1980.
I really want to say thanks to Nick and Ben from Fyxation for donating the sweet Blackhawk and to John Fleckenstein for winning it at the Saris Gala live auction. Everyone at the Wisconsin Bike Fed appreciates your support! Thanks also to my old pal Pat and Sony for hooking me up with the sweet A7rII, I was sooooo close to switching! I know Sony is on the right track and making fast progress with new models and firmware updates. Don’t say this when my D800 is in the room, but I am pretty sure I see a Sony Alpha system in my future.
This article was originally published by the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.