By Mike Ivey
Even in retirement, Jens Voigt has plenty left in the tank.
After over three hours of signing autographs and chatting with fans during a recent kickoff event for the Ride Across Wisconsin, the 17-time Tour de France rider is still going strong.
While his handlers at Trek Bicycle wait patiently, their ebullient front man is still jawing with those remaining outside the Bicycle Doctor store in Dousman, Wis. – even though he needs to catch an early flight the next morning. The beer keeps flowing and Voigt is keeping his audience entertained.
The lanky 6-foot-3 Voigt looks fit enough to jump into the professional peloton. No wonder he won’t be doing anything too special to prepare for the 2nd annual Ride Across Wisconsin or “RAW” which runs from Dubuque to Kenosha the last weekend in August.
Voigt and the Trek-Segafredo pro team will once again headline RAW, which last year attracted nearly 500 curious participants but is expected to draw twice that many this year.
“It’s flat, so there isn’t much to worry about,” Voigt, 44, tells me in dismissing the 6,886 feet of climbing for the 175-mile ride.
To someone whose hard riding used to come in the Alps or Pyrenees, the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin may not seem too daunting. But for us mere mortals, with some of the climbs topping out at 10 percent, the RAW is not to be taken lightly for the climbs as much as the challenging distance.
Lack of mountain passes aside, however, Voigt has plenty of good things to say about the riding in Wisconsin. He visits fairly regularly given that his sponsor Trek is headquartered in Waterloo about midway between Milwaukee and Madison.
“One thing I have really noticed is the drivers here are very courteous,” he says. “And you also have very smooth pavement, which I like.”
Indeed, Voigt has learned what many cyclists already know about Wisconsin. And RAW is designed to introduce even more of them to the state.
Organized by the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Bike Fed, RAW was patterned after the epic Seattle-to-Portland ride staged by Washington’s Cascade Bicycle Club. That 200-miler attracts some 10,000 participants and is widely recognized as a “must-do” event for many cyclists, drawing riders from nearly every state and a dozen countries annually.
The RAW is capped at 1,200 participants this year, but Bike Fed officials hope their ride can continue to grow as word spreads. This year, the ride includes a two-day option with an overnight in Beloit for those looking at a less-daunting challenge.
The idea to hold a ride across the state came together two years ago during a conversation between Trek Bicycle President John Burke and the Bike Fed. As a major financial supporter of the Bike Fed over the years, Burke had grown frustrated that membership in the advocacy group was stuck at less than 4,000.
So it was decided the quickest way to get more people to join the Bike Fed was to start holding rides that also included a one-year membership in the organization.
“It was kind of weird that we were doing all these great things for bicycling in Wisconsin but never had any rides of our own,” says Bike Fed executive director Dave Cieslewicz, the past mayor of Madison who has helped push membership up 52 percent to 5,800 over the past 24 months.
To further boost membership interest, Bike Fed deputy director Dave Schlabowske has organized other events aimed at more casual riders – like the “Polish Moon Ride” named after the iconic Allen Bradley clock tower on Milwaukee’s south side. He is also urging members statewide to host regular free “show-and-go” rides, noting the Cascade Bicycle Club backs more than 2,200 member-led rides under their insurance umbrella.
“I’m not smart enough to reinvent the wheel, but I looked at what other organizations were doing and said ‘We can do that,’ ” he says.
In terms of RAW, Schlabowske says it’s the rare opportunity for recreational riders to mix with the professionals, including Voigt and others.
“It’s not like you can scrimmage with the Packers or play with the Brewers,” Schlabowske notes.
One of the attractions of events like RAW is that they’re not timed races but rather point-to-point rides where the object is to simply finish. Last year, 480 riders started and only 8 needed a sag into Kenosha.
A spicy front group of about 25 managed to blast to the finish in eight hours, averaging over 20 miles per hour. The last rider pedaled in at dark around 14 hours, but most others finished in daylight. Rest stops are provided about every 25 miles and are staffed based on the slowest riders averaging 12 miles per hour. Full mechanical support along the entire route is provided by Wheel & Sprocket.
Plans again call for the whole group to roll out together with a police escort at 6 a.m. from Dubuque and cross the Mississippi River before climbing over the river bluffs on the Wisconsin side. Most of the bigger hills come in the first 85 miles, but there are plenty of rollers throughout the course – although the last 45 miles is pretty much downhill from Lake Geneva to Lake Michigan. All of the course runs north of the “Cheddar Line” border between Illinois and Wisconsin.
RAW organizers say that if you can average 15 miles per hour, including rest stops, you should have no problem finishing within the 13 hours and 20 minutes of daylight on Aug. 27. But bring lights just in case.
“If you have any doubts about being able to finish in one day, then opt for the two-day ride,” Schlabowske advises.
Of course, the key to enjoying a long ride like RAW is finding a good group going your speed. Riding in a pack and chatting with others can make the miles fly by.
Last year, Voigt was warning fellow participants against trying to keep pace with the Trek team, which ended their ride early in Beloit at 104 miles because of a commitment to race in Canada the next day.
“They were going full-on gas for those last 10 miles and I was telling people not to go with them because they were going to pull out… but nobody was listening,” Voigt says.
Voigt says he ended up riding to the finish with the second group on the road. Another group that finished later in the day included Trek president Burke and his wife, Tanya.
Voigt ’s career included winning the Criterium International a record-tying five times and claiming a number of one-week stage races, in addition to two Tour de France stage victories. In Sept., 2014, he set a new one-hour record on the track, pedaling 51.1 kilometers on a Trek Speed Concept frame, although that record has since been beaten.
Fluent in French and English in addition to his native German, Voigt remains incredibly popular with cycling fans. He now does TV commentary and has replaced the disgraced Lance Armstrong as the face of Trek Bicycle.
“We couldn’t do this without all the help we get from Trek,” says Bike Fed director Cieslewicz. “They are known for putting on quality events and this is certainly one of them.
Mike Ivey is a freelance writer following a 30-year career with The Capital Times in Madison. He is registered for the one-day RAW this year and is hoping the prevailing westerly winds blow that day.