Riding my bicycle from my current home in Minneapolis to my childhood home in Wisconsin had been a goal of mine for a few years. The route seemed easy enough, the distance was a manageable 300 miles, and I was familiar with the area. It was the perfect “beginner” bike tour. After saying “next year” too many times, I decided it was an important goal and could be the stepping stone to longer tours in less familiar places. I needed to cross this off my list, learn some things on the way, and open myself up for new adventures.
The route is pretty straight forward. The Great River Road connects riders to a network of rail-trails that cut through central Wisconsin, including the La Crosse River trail, the Elroy-Sparta trail, and the 400 trail. Before we left, I was obsessed with logging each turn, every mile on the map. I used the “Planning Your Bicycle Vacation in Minnesota and Wisconsin” book by Doug Schinell that maps out the trails and give highlights of things to see along the way. Once we were on the road, it was so easy to navigate. Minnesota and Wisconsin have done a great job of way-finding for traveling cyclists. Clear signage and mile markers line the trail and even the county roads we had to ride on had decent sized shoulders.
As we rolled out of Minneapolis, we stopped for portraits on the Sabo Bridge, continuing a tradition of capturing the beginning of our bike trips. A curious passing cyclists saw our bikes loaded with panniers and sleeping bags, and inquired about our travels. We had to confess we were only 10 blocks into the trip.
We wound our way out of the city and through the suburbs, crossing the Mississippi River at Prescott, WI. Our soon-to-be repeated lunch of cheese and sausage on the bluff in the warm afternoon sun was a perfect time to take in the excitement of being on the road. Instead of turning around, like we would do on a day-trip, we continued another 40 miles south on the Great River Road.
The only mechanical of the whole trip got itself out of the way early. A bolt holding on Ben’s rear rack came unthreaded from the frame and the rack swung down behind Ben’s rear wheel, dragging on the ground. I was certain the trip was over. How could we go on without a rack? But as we inspected it closer, there was no damage to the rack, the bike, or the bag. An extra bolt in our tool kit was used and we were on the road in no time. No big deal. And hey, what a scenic place to get a mechanical, between the bluffs and the river.
Three long, slow climbs and tons of mini-rollers still lay between us and our first home-away-from-home in Stockholm, Wisconsin. Mere miles from our landing point, we saw a sign: “Winery & Cidery, 3 miles”. “Cidery!,” I yelled out of joy, and confusion. Is “cidery” a word? And does it mean hard cider? We had to find out and we had still had a bit of daylight left. The 3 mile detour turned out to be a 2 mile climb, up up up to the top of the bluff at Maiden Rock orchard. Fresh cider and fresh cheese curds, a proper Wisconsin snack, were our reward, the downhill to the park only a bonus at the end of our first day on the road. Spirits were high as we appreciated the chance to be on the road, with each other and powering ourselves and our gear the whole way. We enjoyed a sunset on the shores of Lake Pepin, and awoke to the foggy river valley.
It took hours for the fog to break the next morning. We rode with chilled fingers and toes, stopping for a pie and coffee warm up. More miles along the River Road revealed massive bluffs and spectacular vistas. The leaves were getting more colorful by the day. Early October is a great time to tour in the Midwest because of this, especially along the river.
Toward the end of the day, we hopped on the first segment of 101 miles of connecting bike trails taking us east into Wisconsin. We camped along the La Crosse River, heavy with fog. This was the coldest night of the trip. Headlamps guided our dinner prep, and we awoke with a layer of frost on the tent. As we rolled out of the park, we took in the entire prairie crusted in frost and sparkling in the early morning light. On this Sunday morning, we were happy to be attending the Church of Two Wheels. Doing what we wanted and being grateful for the opportunity to travel, explore, and ride. Even if we were freezing!
The next 80 miles took us through small towns and large tunnels. Three hillsides were excavated for ease of train travel in the early 1900s. Today, they provide a passage by foot or wheel. It was nice to break up the farm landscape with a chance to ride through a dark, damp, cave-like tunnel. About a mile before each tunnel, we would unknowingly begin to climb slowly and steadily. “False-flats” they call them. Why is it so hard to pedal? Why am I going so slow? Why am I shifting down? After the thrill of riding through the tunnel, you can enjoy the next mile of slight downhill before the next tunnel.
Toward the end of another long day in the saddle, we realized that we were too tired to make it to our planned campsite before dark. We looked for places to camp that were closer to us, but only found RV parks. With rain on the horizon and an already soaked tent from the night previous, I suggested getting a hotel room. Ben would have been fine stealth camping somwhere along the way, but that didn’t sound fun to me. So we cooked our dinner in a city park in Reedsburg and pedaled another mile in the rain to a warm hotel with a pool. What a treat.
Before we left on the trip, scouting Google Maps Street View, Ben found a road within Devil’s Lake State Park that was a roadie’s dream. Single-lane switchbacks in a tree-covered tunnel. We dipped out of our way a bit just to ride through the park, one of my favorite in the state. I was familiar with this road from childhood, but never noticed the massive climb leading up to it in the family car. The climb was slow, and at times, excruciating. But, you’ve got to “earn your descents”. And it was worth it. What felt like a 20 minute climb was wiped away by 20 seconds of downhill bliss.
The last 50 miles to home were uneventful, other than a quick turn on to Lovers Lane (PHOTO OP!). The only rain of the entire trip decided to dump on us the last hour of riding. We arrived at our destination soaking and smiling. I had achieved a long-time goal, spent quality time with my partner, and took in the beautiful autumn landscape of my home state. My parents fed us a hearty dinner and hosted us for a day. I got to show Ben the highlights of my hometown, including Blue Mounds State Park, Cave of the Mounds, and a trip to the New Glarus Brewery. My dad drove us back to Minneapolis, showing us his favorite roads to ride on along the way. It was fun to watch a 4 day bike trip pass by in 4 hours.
I learned that you don’t have to plan every minute, every mile, every turn of a trip. Let things happen naturally and make decisions based on how you feel at the time. Communication between riders is crucial for a sustainable pace and appropriate diet. Don’t get worked up about problems that arise on the road. Do what you can at the time, and allow yourself to be a bit uncomfortable. Most of all, be present and fully enjoy each moment. What a pleasure it is to travel by bicycle. Take it all in.
Favorite piece of gear: Bartender bag (RandiJo Fab) for snacks and camera at hand
Unneeded/extra gear: Fourth pair of tights. Lights for at camp. ½ bag of trail mix.
Favorite road snack: cashew carrot dip on crackers
Favorite meal: couscous and spicy chickpeas.
Least favorite food: packaged granola bars
Something, in hindsight, you wished you’d brought: More variety of food
All photos by Kat McCarthy and Ben Hovland