By Mike Ivey
All photos by Jeffrey Phelps
When the alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I looked out the window of our hotel room in downtown Dubuque, a steady rain was falling.
Considering I was about to bicycle some 180 miles across the entire width of Wisconsin, it was looking like a long, wet day in the saddle.
But by the dawn start of the 2nd annual Ride Across Wisconsin (RAW) on Saturday, Aug. 26, the rain had thankfully slowed to a light mist.
So with over 700 others – including Tour de France veterans Jens Voigt, Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal and Peter Stetina – I nervously set off across the Mississippi River on what became the most memorable day I’ve ever spent on a bike.
Sponsored by the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin with the support of Trek Bicycle Corporation, RAW is designed to highlight the beauty of the state while also providing a boost to the Bike Fed. All registrants for the event receive a one-year membership to the Wisconsin Bike Fed, a statewide organization that lobbies for bicyclists and is increasingly offering major ride events.
RAW is billed as a tour, not a race, and there is no timing per se. Unfortunately, nobody told the front riders who hammered right from the start through the wet streets of historic Dubuque and across the Mississippi River bridge on U.S. 61-151. The pace never eased on the way up the huge bluff on the Wisconsin side of the river in the dark.
I was hoping things would mellow some after we turned off the main highway, but it was not to be. As the leaders climbed hard again up the steep Sinsinawa Mound just 10 miles into the ride, I realized I better find a slower group or I’d never make it to the finish.
As the front group of about two dozen continued to pound away, I drifted back and started collecting other refugees as we rolled through the first rest stop at the old mining town of New Diggins, Wis., 25 miles into the day.
By then the rain had stopped and roads started to dry out. I ended up in a nice group of about 20 guys and one strong gal – Mia Cheeseman of Madison – that stayed together most of the day. We averaged 19 miles per hour (not counting stops), proving the key to enjoying ultra-distance bike events is finding a group riding at a comfortable pace for you.
Meanwhile, Voigt and his colleagues from the Trek-Segafredo pro team started in the very back of the entire ride with the idea of giving everyone a chance to brush shoulders – but, hopefully, not wheels – with some of the best in the world.
By the time our group reached the lunch stop in Beloit, the sun had come out and spirits were high as we realized it was more-or-less flat for the final 75 miles to Kenosha and Lake Michigan.
RAW is patterned after the epic Seattle-to-Portland or “STP” ride, staged by the Cascade Bicycle Club of Seattle. That 200-miler attracts some 10,000 participants annually and is widely recognized as a “must-do” event for cyclists in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
RAW attracted just under 500 participants in 2015 and 873 registrants this year from 21 different states. There was also a two-day option this year with an overnight in Beloit for those who wanted a more leisurely experience.
“We were thrilled with the turnout and want to thank everyone who worked, volunteered for or rode the most epic ride in Wisconsin,” said Bike Fed director Dave Cieslewicz. “RAW is fast becoming a bucket list event – not just for Wisconsin, but for the Midwest.”
Indeed. Some giddy finishers were already calling RAW the “Summer Birkie” since it included all levels of participants and ended with a party — just like the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race. The course was challenging in its length, but not up-and-down silly like some other ride events.
While a final front group of about 15 very fast riders finished in under nine hours, others took the full day to complete the 178-mile route. Of those who started on Saturday in the one-day event, only 30 failed to finish under their own power and caught sag wagons to the finish.
The event was professionally run and benefitted from tremendous volunteer support throughout. You could be pedaling along in the middle of nowhere and there was someone in a red RAW t-shirt directing riders at the turns. I must have counted 50 volunteers in Beloit helping us find Riverside Park for lunch.
And the food, well, it was off the charts. The Bike Fed provided free breakfast burritos at the start line and that was only the beginning. Each rest stop was fully staffed and stocked with energy drinks, Bonk Breaker bars, fresh fruit and chocolate milk.
Stops in both Monroe and Beloit included box lunches prepared by chef Peter Sandroni of Milwaukee La Merenda restaurant.
But the real topper was the celebration tent, where riders were treated to unlimited quantities of Kenosha’s Public Craft Brewing beers quaffed from the trophy goblets awarded to all finishers. We also chowed down on Italian sausages and hot beef sandwiches topped with spicy hot giardiniera relish.
Maybe the only downside to the day was the fact we couldn’t take a ceremonial lap as promised around Kenosha’s Washington Park Velodrome, due to ongoing problems with a resurfacing of the historic 1927 track.
That was a minor afterthought, however, as we sipped beer and chatted with other riders at Simmons Island Beach along the shores of Lake Michigan.
Next year’s RAW is scheduled for Aug. 26-27, and I can’t wait to sign up.
Mike Ivey is a former USCF licensed racer out of Madison, who now prefers to spend long hours with his pals riding the backroads of Wisconsin at a more civil pace.