Saturday, August 11, 2012

Days 56 and 57: Wisconsin for Real This Time

OK, no pump fake about which state we're in this time -- we're now in Wisconsin to stay until we get to the city of Manitowoc, on Wisconsin's Eastern border formed by Lake Michigan. We expect to get there in three more days, at which point we'll board the S.S. Badger for a 4-hour ferry ride across Lake Michigan that docks at Ludington, Michigan.

But that's yet to come. Today and yesterday were days we were looking forward to because they were going to be entirely on Wisconsin bike trails -- The Great River State Trail on Friday (Day 56) and the Sparta-Elroy Trail on Saturday (Day 57). There was only one catch. No, not the $4 per day user fee. Yes, it is that they are unpaved. Almost 100 miles of crushed limestone surface.

What were we thinking, you might ask?

Well, you can't underestimate the appeal of a car-free day of riding. And I did call a bike shop in La Crosse, WI (Day 56's destination) to ask about the quality of the trail for road bikes. The bike guy on the phone rides it on thin 28mm tires, he assured me (mine are wider, at 37mm), and recommended it over the route to La Crosse on the Minnesota side (we were leaving from Winona, MN, and could immediately cross a bridge into Wisconsin or stay put in Minnesota). And how bad can something called the Great River State Trail, following along, largely, the Mississippi, be? So our expectations were actually kind of high. Plus, it was only about a 32 mile day. So I even slept in late and didn't get on the road until about 9:45.

And was disappointed (which is often how it works with the high expectations game). The surface was actually, for the most part, OK. Even if it did have a grass median down the middle. The problem was that I didn't really get a lot of glimpses of the River, or, for that matter, anything else. Mostly, there were trees on both sides of the trail blocking the view (and contributing a tiny touch of claustrophobia), although some plains and marshlands snuck in there every now and then. And, on two separate occasions, I did see Blue Herons take flight, which is a sight to see -- their slow, graceful, wingspans are breathtaking. But I was kind of underwhelmed, if truth be told.

I didn't get to see a lot of La Crosse either. Our hotel (Settle Inn - nice name) was on the outskirts of town. Bob had ridden ahead of me because he was meeting his cousin, who lives just outside La Crosse, for the first time in about 20 years. So he left Winona early, saw downtown La Crosse and had a nice lunch -- and a nice reunion -- with his cousin. But we managed to get together for dinner at a waterfront restaurant near the Settle Inn, and enjoyed the sun setting over the West bank of the Mississippi. So that definitely improved the day.

Today, from La Crosse to Elroy, Wisconsin, was a longer day -- about 61 miles -- but still entirely on unpaved trails. So, based on Friday's experience, my expectations were pretty low. And, this time (which is often how it works with the low expectations game), they were very much exceeded.

The surface continued to be good, but we lost the grass median, which made the riding easier. But, more importantly, the trail was much more open, affording lovely vistas across farms (complete with livestock) and prairies. And, then, over the last half of the ride, we went through three separate tunnels -- one almost a mile long and dripping water from the seams and with bats in the belfry (if tunnels can be said to have a belfry). The trail is on an old railroad bed, and the tunnels had been dug to keep the grade manageable through the Wisconsin hills for the old locomotives. Which also played into the day exceeding my expectations -- my GPS program had shown the elevation without giving effect to the tunnels -- so I thought three rather severe climbs awaited us in the last half of the day -- and was only too glad to see them not materialize (as my Achilles was aching again -- Brian, sorry, I'm out of Kinesio tape!).

My only regret of the day is that we rode through Norwalk, Wisconsin, about 20 miles shy of our final destination, at about 1 p.m. and felt we couldn't stay for the 6 p.m. annual tractor pull (and steak dinner). But I had a very interesting conversation with one of the marshalls about the various events and rules, while his 3 sons and nephew chirped in.

Elroy, which we got to around 3:30 p.m., is a pretty small town -- with only one motel -- but it has a nice attached restaurant where Bob and I have been amiably chatting with the locals all evening, and the conversation, in addition to touching on tractor pulls, has even included politics given Wisconsin's most famous representative having made the news today. I have also been attempting to compose this post at the same time -- so if it's particularly disjointed, you'll know why.

Tomorrow we have our last approximately 25 miles of unpaved trail, as the front end of a 50 mile day to Portage, Wisconsin. I'm not yet quite sure where that fits in the expectations game.

Here are yesterday's route and metrics, along with photos. Today's route, metrics and pix will be the next post:


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