Biking the Rail Trails
Our hardy team took the train to Twin Cities, than bicycled back to Milwaukee, for great adventure.
At last, I can tell people what it is like to have ridden through the tunnels in the Elroy Sparta Trail! It has always been a bit of an embarrassment that I have managed to cross off more distant bucket list items like the bike planner pilgrimage to Amsterdam and Copenhagen, watching the Tour de France and testing myself on Alpe d’huez and even mountain biking from Durango to Telluride. But at 51 years old, I finally pedaled Wisconsin’s most famous and the nation’s oldest rail trail.
For the last handful of years, Tom has made an annual multi-modal trip by train to St. Paul, MN and then riding back. While that trip sounds enticing on its own, the kicker is he hops on a fleet of vintage passenger rail cars, including the last operating Milwaukee Road “Skytop” glass backed observation car, the “Cedar Rapids” (designed by Brooks Stevens) and a Milwaukee Road full-length Super Dome car. Included in the price of the $169 ticket is appetizers, a gourmet meal and open bar with top shelf liquor. Needless to say Tom did not have to twist my arm to get me to go with him.
The orange and maroon streamliner cars are owned and operated by Railroading Heritage of Midwest America (RHMA), a non-profit organization that preserves, restores, and operate historic locomotives and rail cars. RHMA got its start in 1991 as the “Friends of the 261 Inc.” a volunteer group that supported the operation of Milwaukee Road 261, a steam locomotive based in Minneapolis, Minn.
RHMA does a number of excursions with their vintage trains, including each year in May, when the RHMA takes some of their deco streamliner cars down to the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. After the convention, Amtrak pulls the cars back to their home in Minnesota, and lucky rail fans can jump on for the ride in Milwaukee or any of the other normal station stops made by Amtrak.
Our plan was to train up on Sunday, May 19, overnight in St. Paul and pedal back to Milwaukee along the Great River Road and on as many converted rail trails as possible over the next three days. The full cast of characters for this year included:
Flavor Cyclist, Publisher of COG magazine, analog aficionado
Experienced tourist, Wheel & Sprocket genetics, strongest rider in flip-flops in the lower 48
Bike Fed super volunteer, partner Midwest Bikeshare, 30 mile/day commuter
Self proclaimed Milwaukee Bike Czar, 365 day per year rider, cyclechic wanna be
Team Seven Eleven Pro, Dirty Kansa 200 tandem veteran, the face of the Bone Ride
Tom has done the trip solo a number of times in the past, and knows the route quite well. His only navigation are home-made “triptiks” he makes by cutting up sections of the state bike map and taping them together in a skinny strip. The 350-mile distance and his route had us pedaling between 110 and 130 miles per day. That kind of riding is no trouble for the old-school pro who opts to travel as light as possible, using a small seatpost rack and handlebar bag mounted to a full-on racing bike.
Barry is less of a Luddite, so he Garmined up, Googled down and created digital maps. You can download those gpx tracks in the online version of this story on the Bike Fed website if you want to see the route in detail or are just jonesing for a techie. Barry’s ride was his Trek 1200 AL commuter road bike with a rear rack and a couple Ortlieb front roller panniers he borrowed. (I do want them back B!)
I brought the sections of state bike map that covered our trip, and packed a full DSLR kit, complete with 70-200 f2.8, Quantum pack, speed light, and various Manfrotto rigging. The beast of burden that carried my clothes, all this gear and me was my trusty Waterford-built custom 1900, which has road bike geometry, but room for 26-inch mountain bike tires. I ran Panaracer Pasela 1.5s for an extra cushy ride on the limestone trails.
Peter brought his bare steel, S&S coupled Milwaukee Bicycle Company single speed with a front and rear rack to tote a DSLR kit, 4×5 Crown Graphic, tripod and clothing. He surely possesses the most cycling knowledge and design talent in one human being. I tried to talk him into borrowing my 1986 Trek 620 with a similar set-up PLUS GEARS, but he politely declined. As the man behind Flavor Cycle food delivery in Milwaukee, he rides a single speed 30 miles a day, 5 days a week.
Last, but most emphatically not least, we have Julian Kegel. Julian has toured around the country on his bike and worked as a professional guide in Alaska. We tried not to look askance when he rolled up to the Intermodal Station in Milwaukee in board shorts and flip-flops on a Trek 5200 carbon road bike, pulling loaded B.O.B. trailer. Who are we to judge?
In typical fashion, Pete and I almost missed the train because we were trying to document our trip. Luckily you can hop on a moving train while it is still in the process of leaving the station. The private vintage trail cars allow roll-on bicycle service, no need for a box like most Amtrak lines.
Once aboard the vintage rail cars, replete with swiveling recliners and bar service, I couldn’t help but hear Johnny Cash and Larry Penn train songs running through my head as I boarded the restored Milwaukee Road cars. Inside the opulently appointed Cedar Rapids, I felt a bit like an ugly duckling version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest. One trip in the Brooks Stevens-designed Cedar Rapids and you will wonder why we ever traded this genteel way to get from point A to B for the cattle call of modern air travel. If the luxurious Art Deco surroundings are not enough to make you long for the days when rail travel ruled, a trip to the dining car might be enough to make you swear off airline food forever.
Our train arrived on schedule in St. Paul at 10:30pm. We unloaded our bikes and headed off to the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the Mississippi River for a good night’s sleep. The weather forecast called for headwinds and thunderstorms, which must have prompted me to have black and white dreams of riding in hail.
For about $6 above the regular rate, Pete and I scored a room overlooking the Mississippi river. When we awoke Monday morning and pulled back the curtains we were treated to a sunny skies with rainbow flags blowing in a light breeze over the temporarily renamed “Freedom to Marry Bridge,” complete with wide bike lanes. At the end of the bridge was a Nice Ride Minnesota bikeshare station, and on the other side of the street were a bunch of bike lockers for rent. All good omens as far as Pete and I were concerned.
A quick breakfast and the crew pedaled off via the Wabasha bike lanes to the Concord Ave side path onto the bike trail along the river, a seamless network of bikeways! Minnesota is now ranked the most bike friendly state in the Midwest and 4th in the nation by the League of American Bicyclists. Wisconsin has fallen from 2nd to 8th in three years, while our neighboring states have continued to invest in new trails and other bikeways and adopt new bicycle friendly policies. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, Minnesota now has 2,311 miles of trails compared to Wisconsin’s 2,015. Only Michigan has more with 2,653. No other states have close to the big three, so although we remain well positioned as a great state to ride a bicycle, we are falling behind a bit. Let’s get back in the race to be the best!
We crossed the Mississippi near South St. Paul when our trail connected us with a bicycle and pedestrian path on the Interstate 494 bridge. Turns out those are not uncommon outside Milwaukee. That dropped us down onto a side path that lasted all the way to Cottage Grove, MN. From there we hit low volume rural roads and even managed a to give Tom a short taste of gravel road for his Dirty Kansa training. About 25 miles and two hours later we crossed the St. Croix River and rolled into Prescott and the Wisconsin Great River Road—Wisconsin’s only designated National Scenic Byway.
The Wisconsin Great River Road spans 250 miles and 33 towns built along the river and railroad. Many of these are old railroad towns, and were spaced about 7 miles apart from each other, which in the early days before coal and water tenders, was the distance steam trains could travel before the needed to stop for water or fuel.
Lunch was broasted chicken and root beer floats at the cute Hager Heights Drive-in. For those who don’t know, broasting was invented in Wisconsin. It is kind of like deep-frying in a pressure cooker. The technique was invented by L.A.M. Phelan in the early 1950s as one of the first “fast food” miracle cooking techniques and is still marketed and licensed by the Broaster Company of Beloit, Wisconsin, which Phelan founded.
We had sunshine and temperatures in the mid to upper 70s for our first day riding. The Great River Road certainly has beautiful scenery as it winds its way along the bluffs and through the evenly spaced quaint small towns. Travelers are tempted to stop by local creameries, a few brew pubs and other tourist treats.
The only stop I made was in Stockholm on the shores of Lake Pepin. I had heard that they have a first generation community bikeshare system. It did not take me long to find a Stockholm Blue Bike Station, with a handful of old blue Schwinn bikes, free for anyone to use. After a few photos, I could not help myself from running into a coffee shop to rehydrate. I was pleased to find a cooler full of Door County Cherry juice! A number of artists and craftspeople have settled in Stockholm, which is filled with more than its share of shops, galleries, restaurants, guest houses, inns and B&B’s. A great place for views of the river and bluffs is Village Park, on the shores of Lake Pepin.
Then it was back on the road, pushing to try to catch my faster cycling partners who were also less easily distracted by photo ops! With stopping to eat, take photographs, 125 miles, 4,000 feet of climbing and a strong headwind, we had a long first day in the saddle. The gang left St. Paul around 10:30 in the morning, but Pete and I didn’t get into Trempeleau until 9:30 at night. Thankfully our faster compatriots ordered us food before the kitchen in the Historic Trempeleau Hotel closed. Already fetted, they also hauled our bikes up to our rooms while we cooled off with New Glarus on tap at the bar.
The Historic Trempeleau Hotel is famous for their Walnut Burgers, but I dined on a root vegetable pot pie and Pete had grilled chicken breast over rissoto and roasted asparagus. The owner of the hotel is also something of a music buff, and he hosts dozens of small festivals and national acts. With cute rooms priced at about $50, the place is a great place to get away, eat great food and see live music.
There were no bands on the schedule for the Monday night we were there, and given how pleasantly exhausted we were, it was straight to the shower and into bed for me.
The original plan for our second day of riding was to make it to Baraboo, about 110 miles. Given the hilly terrain for the first part of the day and Pete’s reduced speed on a loaded single speed, we decided to cut the route short and stop in Reedsburg so we would have time to stop for lots of photographs after we hit the Elroy Sparta and 400 trails. This turned out to be a good plan, as by the end of the day Pete was actually ready to admit he forgot one thing that would have made the trip better – a derailleur!
Although I am a big fan of drive-ins and broasted chicken, I told Pete I was looking forward to a healthier lunch stop today when we hit Sparta. Then came the text from Barry, Tom and Julian (always ahead of us) which told Pete and I, Tom had already ordered snacks at Rudy’s Drive-In! When our server Alyssa rolled up on roller skates, wearing a poodle skirt, I had to admit the former A&W had charm. When I looked and saw the Trempeleau Walnut Burgers and homemade root beer on the menu I was won over. Another good call by Schuler.
After the obligitory photos by Ben Bikin’, we rolled onto the nation’s first rail trail and headed out of Sparta looking forward 32.5 miles of crushed limestone and three tunnels. The trail passes through wetlands, prairies and farm fields, in addition to the communities of Norwalk, Wilton and Kendall. Thanks to the previous owners, the grade never exceeded a gradual 1%-2% through the pretty sandstone bluffs.
A sign near the opening recommends lights and walking bikes through the tunnels. Another warns not to enter if you have been in another tunnel or cave with bats and are wearing the same clothes. You don’t want to spread bat diseases after all! Armed with a bright dynamo-powered headlight, fat tires and bat clean, I rolled slowly through the mist created by the cooler temperatures of tunnel and the hot humid air outside.. As I slipped through the eerie fog into the cold, wet darkness, of Tunnel #1, the talk of bats and the echos of dripping water all around sent a chill through me unrelated to the temperature.
Tunnel #1, between Norwalk and Sparta, is 0.75 miles long. That is not very long when you are outside, but when you are under a mountain of earth, it feels like forever. I hope the photographs give you a better feel for what it is like. Words just don’t do it justice.
The next two tunnels near Kendall and Wilton are shorter, each about 0.25 miles long, and they were a bit dryer, given they were brick lined rather than just carved from rock. All of the tunnels were relatively cold, pitch black and the riding surfaces highly crowned and pock-marked. All of them were awesome riding experiences everyone should try.
Outside the second tunnel, at a rest stop with water, we ran into some tourists from London, Ontario Canada. They told us they have been coming down to Wisconsin for a few years to ride our trails. They were staying in Sparta and had taken advantage of a local bike shop shuttle to ride the trails one-way back to their lodging. With smiles and waves, we headed in opposite directions. The Canadians back into darkness, while we pedaled through a gorgeous gauntlet of huge white and purple Trilliums.
Our day ended after 98 miles and without further incident in Reedsburg, but once again, later than planned. Thanks to the staff at the Cancun Mexican Restaurant on Main Street, we did not go hungry even though their kitchens were closing just as we walked in. They let us sit and drink Jarritas while we waited for our take out orders. We consumed our food with great gusto and great beer, back at the Super 8 Motel down the road, where we were camped out for the night. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, I have relied on the kindness of strangers more than once on this trip.
Given we had cut our second day of riding short, the last day from Reedsburg to Milwaukee, through the hilly terrain around Baraboo and Devil’s Lake, Mr. Single Speed and I decided to ride to the train station in the Wisconsin Dells and take Amtrak back to Milwaukee. We both have bikes with S&S couplers, so we can break them in half and bring them on as carry-on baggage stowed just inside the door. We booked our tickets online using the Amtrak App and counted on a kind conductor to let us bring our bikes aboard.
After breakfast, I wished a bon voyage to our faster, lighter and less distracted riding partners as they headed off for a nearly 130 mile push to New Berlin or a 140 mile ride to Wauwatosa for Tom; add a few miles for Julian who lives even further south. Meanwhile Pete and I made the 15 miles to the Waterpark Capital of the World in about an hour.
We broke down our bikes, left them at the Amtrak station, and headed across the street for more Mexican food. After lunch, after a minor delay with the train arriving, we boarded with our bikes and bags without any trouble. We were back in Milwaukee and sitting at the dinner tables in our comfy homes by 5pm. You have to love those intermodal connections when they work.
I will let Barry tell you about the final push for the three musketeers:
We rolled out of Reedsburg around 9am, day three of riding began under a cloud cover, cooler than the previous two days. Still following the purple line on my Garmin, we accidentally turned down the wrong road just a mile into the trip. Julian and Tom glanced at me as if they were worried this might be a bad omen.
With the route taking us past Devil’s Lake State Park, we knew were in for more climbing, but at about 10 miles into the ride we hit a wall. The hill was only about a 1/4 mile long but the grade was between 15-18%. Julian stayed behind and shot photos of Tom and I climbing, and then we got to see Mr. Flip-flop pull B.O.B. up the monster.
Our next surprise was a little more enjoyable, we rolled around a corner and found the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. Tom was overjoyed as we read the plaques, so we decided to make this a planned stop on the trip in future years. The winding low-traffic roads and glorious scenery tempted Julian into taking lots of photos. Tom was also in heaven yet again as we found a huge patch of lilacs and wild poppies. His collection of flowers doubled to the point that he thought it started to provide wind protection much like a fairing.
We stopped in Baraboo for nourishments and made a few adjustments to the route in an attempt to shave off a few extra hills. The three mile climb into Devils Lake park was everything we thought it would be, not steep but long and pleasantly grinding. Julian found a gash in his front tire at the top, so it was lucky that we stopped to change it since that would have been sketchy on the 40+ mph downhill out of the park!
The next highlight on our intermodal trip was the ferry ride at Merrimac. The Merrimac Ferry ride itself was really cool, and the ice cream stand at the landing offered an opportunity for Tom and Julian to really cool off and refuel on our private little Tour of America’s Dairyland.
A big storm had been chasing us all morning, but we managed to stay out of harms way with the help of our first tailwind of the trip. We were arriving to little towns with really wet roads, but as of yet we were relatively dry. We got to Sun Prairie in pretty good time and stopped for lunch. Tom decided to go to the local Target store to get “adult” clothes for a meeting he had later in Lake Mills, now only a few hours away. The skies to the East were looking really dark but we were still dry.
That all changed when we got to Marshall. The rain came on quick and hard. We were getting pelted to the point that it hurt. We road the last 10 miles of our trip in heavy rain, strong winds and colder temps.
To escape the painful pelting storm, we pulled into the Quick Trip in Lake Mills. Tom changed into his meeting clothes. Julian bought a few tall boys, and we sat drinking beers to wait out the rain. When it didn’t seem like it was going to let up, Tom called and got a ride to his meeting with his Team Sports crew. Julian opted to tag along with Tom to catch a ride the rest of the way back home.
We all hugged goodbye when Tom and Julian’s ride arrived to take them to the meeting. I stayed waiting for the downpour to let up so I could finish my ride on two wheels, but my resolve broke before the storm did. I made the call of shame and waited for my wife Julie to come and pick me up in the car.
Just over 300 miles and my trip ended at a Quick Trip. I can’t wait for next year!
Photography by Peter DiAntoni, Julian Kegel and Dave Schlabowske
Story by Dave Schlabowske and Barry Mainwood
This is an excerpt from the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin‘s quarterly members magazine.