Six days of cycling in Wisconsin
PORT WASHINGTON, Wis. — fter dinner on the first day of our Wisconsin road trip last August, my son Brendan told me I had a warped idea of fun.
The second day, he took off without me, and I was glad to see him go.
The final day, he said he would never make that kind of trip again.
It was a wonderful experience.
No, I’m not being sarcastic. The drawback — for Brendan — was that we biked the whole way: six days and about 200 miles, from Marinette, just south of the border with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to Port Washington, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee.
The first day, we pedaled 70 miles — on very flat terrain, but still 70 miles.
The second day, I quit after six miles, fearful that the 58-mile route, including hills, would damage my right knee, which hurt from being stressed the day before. Brendan pressed on with the ride once a support vehicle had picked up me and my bike, and I was surprised and pleased to see him forge ahead on his own.
Brendan, 27, is not, and never has been, a recreational biker, though he is naturally athletic. His participation in this ride, organized by the nonprofit Bike Wisconsin, was an act of filial chivalry so I wouldn’t ride alone.
To this day, he says it was a good trip, but he still prefers four-wheeled sightseeing. No more biking vacations for him. Ever the optimist and still an enthusiast, I’m not convinced.
Looking back, we agree that we met many interesting and enjoyable people, poked around towns and cities that we probably would not have visited any other way, enjoyed beautiful scenery along Green Bay and Lake Michigan and had many great mother-son moments — sore seats and tight muscles notwithstanding.
This was SAGBRAW 2004, a well-organized ride that attracted 1,200 cyclists from 36 states (Maine to Florida, Washington to California), plus the District, Manitoba and Ontario. Some rode as many as 400 miles, choosing the longer daily routes when more than one was offered — so you could say Brendan and I were slackers, but the point was to have fun, not earn bragging rights.
(SAGBRAW stands for Sprocket’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Wisconsin; Sprocket is short for Wheel & Sprocket, a group of Wisconsin bicycle shops that once ran the 28-year-old ride and still sponsors it.)
Many states, including Virginia and Maryland, have similar multiday rides that offer a choice of camping or motel stays, luggage transportation and support services, and they are popular events.
So why did we pick SAGBRAW?
Well, Wisconsin, my father’s home state, is beautiful, and we have relatives there whom we could visit before and after the ride. The route was enticing, too. It hugged the bay and lake shorelines and included a day exploring the beautiful Door Peninsula, one of Wisconsin’s prime, but not visibly commercialized, vacation regions.
From the start in Marinette on Day 1, it headed 70 miles south along Green Bay’s western shore to the city of Green Bay; 58 miles from Green Bay to the small city of Sturgeon Bay on the Door Peninsula; 47 or 100 miles in a loop around the peninsula; 27, 42 or 67 miles south along Lake Michigan from Sturgeon Bay to the small town of Algoma; 48 miles from Algoma to Manitowoc; and, finally, on Day 6, 62 miles from Manitowoc to Port Washington, where most riders had parked their cars at the Flying S Ranch the previous Sunday.
(Chartered buses had taken them to Marinette, and moving vans had transported their bikes.)
Each day had its own character, with scenic and personal highlights, a changing cast of characters, sightseeing and, for some, beach swimming, kayaking, wine tasting and golfing interspersed with the biking.
On the way to Green Bay, Wisconsin’s third-largest city, with a population of about 102,000 , we roll past marshes, tranquil bay shorelines, lots of open fields dotted with cylinders of rolled-up hay, and clusters of wildflowers. The weather is perfect — warm but without blazing sun by day, cool enough for sweat shirts at night.
Waiting in line ahead of us for lunch at Grandma’s confectionery in Oconto, population about 4,800 is a three-generation family of eight: grandparents, parents, two teenage girls and their 11-year-old brother, all from Colorado, and a great-uncle from Reston. I don’t get their names, but I do learn that they try to do a multiday ride together once a year.
The 11-year-old has the most unusual bike I have ever seen: a battery-powered model that lets him keep up on long rides.
Another youngster has a cushier ride: a mesh-covered trailer attached to her dad’s bike, outfitted with an orange safety flag and cheerful windsock. The toddler is surrounded by stuffed animals and picture books and sometimes sings or talks along to favorite songs and stories on her cassette player.
I’m impressed by the number of families on this ride, but it’s also popular with couples and groups of friends from their 20s into their 70s. They ride mostly on hybrids and road bikes, but we also see recumbents, tandems, tandem recumbents, a three-seater that enables a child with a patch on one eye to ride between two adults, and one 60-pound-plus reproduction cruiser with no gears to shift. Owner Matthew Keranen of Calumet, Mich., who says he had the cruiser custom-made, gets a real workout as he chooses the long route each day.
Green Bay has a special surprise for me: a downtown park on the Fox River honoring one of my father’s relatives, Vice Adm. James H. Flatley Jr., a Green Bay native and highly decorated World War II Navy fighter pilot whose exploits are part of family lore. Brendan and I chance upon the park’s memorial obelisk and fountain while strolling after dinner, and I get out early the next morning to take photos.
All I know of the route from Green Bay to Sturgeon Bay is what I see from support-vehicle windows, but I learn firsthand how conscientious the volunteers who take SAG — support and gear — duty are as they stay in constant radio contact, delivering water to rest stops along the route; watching for tired, injured or wayward riders; and picking watching for tired, injured or wayward riders; and picking up any who can’t continue the day’s ride.
Our motel in Sturgeon Bay, the Leathem Smith Lodge, is across the street from an east-west shipping canal that bisects the Door Peninsula and connects Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Before walking along the waterfront into the business area for dinner, we inquire about return taxi service, just in case — and the receptionist gives us the taxi driver’s home phone number. We’re not in the big city anymore. (Sturgeon Bay’s population is about 9,400.)
Because Day 3 is a loop of the peninsula, Brendan decides to take the day off, and it’s my turn to ride alone. As a cyclist who rides mostly flat terrain, I’m pleased that I can maintain a good pace on a gradual but steady incline that continues for about eight miles hugging the bay shore, and I think maybe I can finish the loop in time to take the afternoon cruise offered by the Door County Maritime Museum back in Sturgeon Bay.
That ambition starts to fade as I stop for a tasting at the Door Peninsula Winery, where wines from Door County cherries and other local fruits are a specialty. It gets even more remote when, halfway up a hill that has gotten the better of me, another biker comes out of Schopf’s Hilltop Dairy and says the homemade ice cream is “really good.”
Decision time: If I push myself to finish in time for the cruise, I might make it, but I’ll miss too many pleasures along the way. Better to savor the present. One scoop of cashew caramel, and I’m rolling again.
Strong headwinds and some low hills, not a good combination, challenge me as I continue east across the peninsula, but when I reach the Lake Michigan shore and turn south, the wind becomes a breeze and the road slopes imperceptibly downhill most of the way. I glimpse the lake through the trees and am serenaded by birds as I roll through cool, shady forests; pass barns, cornfields and open meadows; and slow down to appreciate the passage along a narrow, shaded lane whose waterfront houses are almost hidden among the trees.
It’s not often that you see golfers wearing spandex shorts and stiff biking shoes that make them walk funny as they approach the tee, but at 27 Pines Golf Course just outside Sturgeon Bay on Day 4, Wisconsonites Rob Cunningham of Madison and his friend Dave — who wrote his last name and hometown in my notebook, but not legibly — have stopped to hit a bucket of golf balls at the driving range. They tell us that not only did they ride the 100-mile route on the peninsula the day before, but they went kayaking at the turnaround point near the tip. These are two bikers who know how to enjoy the ride.
Another is E.R. “Mike”Jones, who later in the day hands us silver Mardi Gras-style necklaces he has brought with him from his home in Metairie, La. He hangs about 400 of them on his handlebars each morning and ends the day with no beads but a lot more friends.
The biking to Algoma is easy, with a few inclines and small hills but nothing to distract us from the gorgeous views of Lake Michigan. Brendan, who has worked on a cruise line, says the lake reminds him of the Caribbean because it’s “so blue and has so many shades of blue from the different depths.”
Another winery, the von Stiehl, awaits us in Algoma, population about 3,300, on the Ahnapee River and Lake Michigan. The winery was established in 1967, but the building, originally a brewery, dates to the end of the Civil War and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The underground tunnels where the wine is aged are thought to have been used to transport coal to Algoma businesses in the 1800s.
A post-ride survey says Algoma, with its scenic walking trails, lake beach, boardwalk, 1893 lighthouse and cluster of shops and restaurants, is the riders’ favorite overnight location, but Brendan and I have to keep going. Algoma has been booked months in advance, and our motel is 10 miles along the next day’s route, in Kewaunee.
That 10 miles is probably the worst stretch of biking I have ever done. We cling to the far edge of the shoulder as constant traffic whizzes past. One farm truck loaded with grass creates such a strong wind that I almost lose control of my bike, and then I’m nearly blinded by grass that escapes the tarpaulin covering it and blows into my face. We dismount and walk our bikes off the road for the final few miles, wondering angrily why ride planners didn’t avoid this stretch of highway.
The reason becomes evident once we get our bearings: There is no other option because of the need to cross the Kewaunee River, and traffic in the morning, when the ride is scheduled to cross the bridge into the little town of Kewaunee, population about 2,800, is very light.
The stress is forgotten as we unwind at the Port O’Call restaurant and watch dusk descend on Kewaunee’s tiny inner harbor, a sheltered part of Lake Michigan where fishing charters take off in search of king and coho salmon and three kinds of trout.
The first biker I see on my photo walk the next morning crosses the traffic-free bridge at 6:45. An hour later, he’s still just a block away, having stopped for a leisurely restaurant breakfast.
At the convenience store near our motel, I finally meet someone whose reputation has preceded him: John Jay of Wisconsin Rapids, who is doing the ride with his part-poodle, part-Pomeranian pal Boodiful — “Boo for short”— strapped to his chest.
Boo seems content as she surveys the scene through her doll-size sunglasses. Mr. Jay says he and Boo have biked about 4,500 miles together over the past five years, including rides in Maine, California and Florida.
The final day is planned to take us 62 miles, back to Port Washington and our car, but a cousin calls with an alternate idea: dropping out after 25 miles to join several relatives for the annual Brat Days festival in Sheboygan. Sounds good; we notify everyone who will be watching for us on the road, make arrangements to have our luggage left by our car at the secluded Flying S and pedal off for the perfect ending to a Wisconsin bike trip: beer, bratwurst and good company.
Set your own pace on extended cycle tour
Want to see more of Maryland, Virginia or Georgia by bike? How about Maine, Iowa or Oregon?
Multiday rides are an enjoyable, inexpensive way to tour an area while letting someone else sweat the details, including mapping the route and getting luggage from place to place.
Most rides vary their itineraries year to year, and many offer weekend and daily options in addition to the full ride.
Arrangements for out-of-area bikers differ. My son and I drove to Wisconsin for last August’s ride. Those who flew packed and shipped their bikes several weeks in advance, then paid $40 for round-trip shuttle service between the Milwaukee airport and the staging area, where their bikes, still in packing boxes, were waiting.
Riders start each day when they want within a broad time frame and set their own pace, so even with several thousand participants, it’s not unusual for cyclists to have long stretches of road to themselves.
Organizers provide maps and detailed cue sheets with turn-by-turn directions, and they often mark the roadway or post signs along the route as well.
SAG — support and gear — drivers ride the route looking for bikers who might need help, and bike shops usually provide mechanics and sales tents at starting and ending points as well as designated rest stops.
What the registration fee covers varies, but brochures and Web sites explain the details and give contact information for follow-up questions.
Camping at each night’s stopping point, frequently a school, usually is included, with showers in the locker rooms.
Luggage transport from stop to stop is always included, but getting the luggage to motels for those who choose not to camp is done differently on different rides.
Meals, particularly lunch on the route, may be included. Community and school groups also frequently provide hearty, inexpensive meals as fund-raisers.
The registration fee this year for Bike Wisconsin’s SAGBRAW adventure, Aug. 7 through 13 on a different route from last year, is $160. The Web site is www.bikewisconsin.org.
In addition to fees and logistics, it’s important to know daily distances and terrain (hilly, rolling, flat, or some combination). Many organizers offer several routes each day to accommodate a greater range of riders.
Bike Virginia and Cycle Across Maryland (CAM) both took place last month, but other rides can be found late into the fall — the best time to ride, in my view.
Sources for ride information include:
Spokes, a biking tabloid published monthly from March to November and available free in area bike shops and fitness centers. It carries a calendar of one-day and multiday rides that may be purely for fun or may be fund-raisers for groups such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Ads from those groups plus bike touring companies present more options.
Out of Bounds in Pedal Patter, the monthly newspaper of the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club Inc.
The club offers daily local rides and weekend getaways for its members, but Out of Bounds lists non-club rides far and near and provides contact information. Club information and Pedal Patter can be found online at www.bikepptc.org, and the newspaper is available free in some bike shops.
National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, whose members include both nonprofits and commercial concerns, lists rides of three days or longer on its Web site, www.nbtda.com. Searches can be conducted by geographical location, calendar or a master list.
SAG crew comes through in accident on Shore
It can happen to even the most experienced cyclist. One moment, he’s rolling along happily, and the next he’s on the pavement, injured and needing help.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner broke two bones in his right hand when his bike flipped last month after he tried to brake while holding a water bottle in one hand on the 18th annual Bike Virginia ride.
It happened to me, too. I broke my right collarbone and four ribs, one of which punctured my right lung, in October when another cyclist, evidently riding too close, ran into me from behind during the 16th annual Seagull Century on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Anyone who has been involved in an accident or witnessed one on an organized ride knows the importance of the SAG (support and gear) drivers who patrol the route looking for cyclists who need help.
I don’t know what happened in the first moments after Mr. Warner’s fall, but in my case, I heard rather than saw other bikers rushing to my aid. I think I passed out briefly as I went flying off my bike and landed in the middle of the road. My well-fitted helmet probably saved me from longer-lasting trauma.
I came out of blackness, in excruciating pain, to hear other bikers calling a “Biker down” warning to those riding behind. Someone moved my bike off the road to prevent another accident. Another used her cell phone to call an ambulance and then the SAG patrol — whose number was printed on the route map. Another, an orthopedic surgeon, stayed with me until the ambulance and SAG arrived, seemingly within minutes.
The SAG driver took my bike and asked how to contact my husband, who doesn’t bike and was expecting to meet me at Assateague Island. Thanks to her, a state trooper found him and told him where to find me (the emergency room at Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Md., where I was taken before being transferred to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury).
The SAG driver met us at the hospital and gave my husband my bike.
The organizers of the ride, sponsored by Salisbury University, could not have done anything to prevent my accident, but their follow-through was exemplary. I even was visited the next day by a vice president of the university, who brought flowers and left her card in case I needed anything.
I am grateful to the SAG volunteers and to everyone — emergency medical technicians, doctors, nurses and aides — who gave me excellent, compassionate care.
I spent my first six weeks at home in a recliner, even sleeping there because it was the only place I could be comfortable, and going out only for doctor appointments. After that, I worked from home, glad that my job as deputy copy desk chief for The Washington Times is computer-dependent. After returning to the newsroom in January, I found I did not have energy for anything else.
I am much better now, but my ribs still remind me occasionally that they were hurt. I haven’t returned to biking yet because I want to be sure those ribs are strong — but I have no doubt that I will. Riding is too much fun for me to quit now.