Purposeful driftless pedaling
I swooped into lush green valleys and labored to climb out of each, but I largely followed the ridgeline on curving roads looping south from Viroqua, then north to Westby. The expansive views of hay fields, dairy farms and hundreds of acres of deciduous forest here in Wisconsin’s driftless area – the vast southwest corner of the state not flattened or scoured by the glaciers – is a road biker’s dream.
On the advice of Pete Taylor, the magnanimous owner of Bluedog Cycles in downtown Viroqua, I followed County Highway SS east and then north for many miles.
Aptly named, the serpentine road was a joy to ride. Yet I managed to stray, as is my tendency, off the route Taylor had highlighted on the chamber of commerce-issued map. At one point I dropped, not unhappily, into unincorporated Avalanche, where fly fishermen ply the West Fork of the Kickapoo River for brown trout.
“Stay on the lettered roads and off the numbered roads and you really can’t go wrong around here,” Taylor had advised. He then quickly conceding that most of the county highways also bear so little traffic that bikers need not avoid them either.
Paved trail linking Westby & Viroqua
Back on track, I reached Westby, an even smaller Scandinavian-themed Wisconsin town than the one in which I grew up. I found the tourist office in a replica stabbur, a traditional Norwegian food storage shed, from which many local group rides leave and return.
From there I headed south on the Coon Prairie Trail, a paved, nonmotorized path parallel to U.S. Highway 14/61, linking Westby to Viroqua. The flat five-mile trail, with a wayside park accessible only to trail users, is a well-used alternative to the surrounding hilly terrain. The trail also serves, as I can attest, tiring and hungry road riders eager to reach the car they left in the Viroqua bike shop parking lot.
On this route I encountered one Amish buggy but precious little motor vehicle traffic. My serenity over the 42-mile ride was broken only by a couple tenacious dachshunds who chased me on a slow ascent and one impatient pickup truck driver who gunned it as he passed me from behind, too close for comfort.
So that was one rude driver out of the handful I saw over my three-hour tour; too small of a sample on which to base a conclusion about how bike friendly the local drivers may be. I was just happy to have the roads largely to myself on that fine Friday afternoon in June.
Upon my return to the Bluedog Cycles all sweaty and starving, Taylor pointed up the block to the Driftless Café. (Viroqua is also home to the Driftless Trader art gallery, Driftless Books and Music, the Driftless Angler fly shop and WDRT 91.9 FM, Driftless Community Radio. Taylor concedes “driftless” as a moniker may be overplayed and lost its descriptive power. He’d prefer more frequent use of “unglaciated.”)
The restaurant is upscale but nevertheless popular with a few ever-changing menu items; all delicious sounding farm-to-table options. I went straight for the 16-inch thin crust vegetarian pizza and scarfed down half of it immediately upon its arrival to my table.
From the roads to the trails
Returning to the bike shop shortly before closing, I chatted some more with Taylor and employee Shane Kouba about the 24 miles of mountain singletrack they and others affiliated with Vernon Trails have built on public and private land over the past decade. The Pertnear 20, which Bluedog Cycles organizes, is a mountain bike race held in October, stringing together and showcasing much of that mileage.
Soon enough, I was dispatched to the Viroqua Food Co-op to procure a six-pack of craft brews before following Taylor and Kouba, with mountain bikes racked on our two vehicles, to Sidie Hollow. This 521-acre county park with 40-acre lake three miles from town includes some 10 miles of singletrack built by the Vernon Trails crew.
With an hour or more of daylight left, Taylor and Kouba bombed on ahead on what was for them familiar turf. The wooded trails twisted, turned and flowed beautifully, even for an uncoordinated fat biker who had put a few hours of road riding on his legs earlier in the day.
A rockier trail took us out to a stunning overlook just before sundown. We cracked open our beers and yakked awhile before Kouba pointed out how dark the woods would be on our ride back without lights.
“Shane, you may have just saved our lives,” Taylor said, quickly rallying us for the short but technical ride back to his truck and my car.
Siddie Hollow offers some of the best purpose-built mountain biking opportunities in Vernon County. There’s also the stunningly beautiful 8,600-acre Kickapoo Valley Reserve which includes another 20-plus miles of trail open to biking, hiking and horseback riding. The reserve, state owned but uniquely managed by a local board, maintains its own trails.
Ten years of Bluedog Cycles
The 10-year period of trail building elsewhere in Vernon County began when Taylor and his wife, Alycann (then pregnant with the first of their two daughters), relocated to Viroqua from Boise, Idaho. The Taylors, who have Wisconsin roots, had done their research and ID’ed Viroqua as a small town likely to support a local bike shop, especially with the closest one still 35 miles away in La Crosse.
The area also offered up “a beautiful open canvas” for trail building, Pete Taylor said. He reasoned then that trails would serve his personal passion for mountain biking, further foster a community around his business and attract local bike tourism. It took a decade, but local government and tourism promoters are now on board.
Vernon Trails, the nonprofit Taylor leads, continues to build singletrack (mostly with novice riders in mind), played a crucial role in getting the aforementioned Viroqua-Westby path paved and is now looking to establish a disc golf course.
More singletrack will no doubt be built to wind through the nearly 900 acres known Jersey Valley Park. In June, Vernon County bought that property and Sidie Hollow from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, although the county has maintained them for decades. Taylor lauded Vernon County Forest Administrator “and trail lover” Andy LaChance for spearheading the deal and getting himself and his employees trained to build trail, too.
With all the growing excitement for trails and biking in the area, Bluedog Cycles has certainly prospered. Now in his 10th year, Taylor said the business has nearly outgrown its second Main Street location. He needs more floor space – another canvas, if you will – with which to generate even more love for life on two wheels.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports.