Wisconsin bicycling roads measure up: riding in popular Girona brings new appreciation for the home turf
BY MIKE IVEY
It’s a gorgeous September morning and our little peloton has just cruised nearly a mile of downhill on freshly-paved Pioneer Road outside New Glarus, Wisconsin.
The Swiss-style village (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Glarus,_Wisconsin) about 30 miles southwest of Madison is a popular destination for local cyclists for a variety of reasons: the country roads are smoothly paved, highly scenic and free of traffic, save for the occasional farm vehicle or wayward turkey.
As we noodle along the valley floor at 15 mph, I’m struck by the setting. Lush green fields cover the earth before giving way to the wooded hillsides. A few wispy white clouds drift across the blue sky.
“Take it in, Gents,” I tell my buddies, sweeping my hand across the horizon. “Pretend you’re in France.”
OK, call me a homer, but I’ve always thought Wisconsin bicycling roads were world class. Granted, we don’t have the high mountains of Colorado, the coastlines of California or the cycling culture of western Europe.
Still, I challenge anyone to find a place where you can more quickly access such a variety of outstanding routes featuring steep climbs, rolling hills, glaciated terrain or deep woods. Some of the best pure road riding anywhere is right here amid the dairy farms and small towns of the Badger State.
And I can say this with even more confidence after finally visiting storied Girona, Spain, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girona) which over the past 20 years has evolved into the epicenter for serious English-speaking cyclists from around the globe.
Situated between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains, the Catalonian city of 100,000 is now as a top destination for professional and amateur riders alike (https://www.cyclinglocations.com/the-service-course-girona/). The climate is mild, the roads are many, the old buildings are incredible and the cuisine is outstanding. It’s Spain, after all.
In the late ‘90s, George Hincapie became one of the first Americans to discover Girona. There’s even a climb called “Hincapie Hill” just outside of town where he’d secretly do repeats to prepare for the efforts of the Tour De France.
But it was Hincapie’s teammate, Lance Armstrong, who really put Girona on the map. After joining US Postal Service in 1997, Armstrong moved from Nice to Girona in 2000, ostensibly to escape France’s anti-doping laws (https://www.velonews.com/2012/10/analysis/analysis-how-spain-became-center-of-operations-in-armstrongs-doping-ring_261622/3). And despite the scandals that sullied his career, Armstrong remains closely linked to Girona and the many cycling routes, including the popular climb to the Els Angels monastery (https://www.cyclinglocations.com/els-angels-girona/) right out of town.
On my first day in Girona, I showed up for the regular Thursday morning club ride hosted by Bike Breaks Cycle Center, (https://www.gironacyclecentre.com/story-behind-bike-breaks-girona-cycle-centre/) a shop started by expat Dave Welch and his Dutch wife Saskia about 15 years ago. Nearly 75 riders turned out and we quickly got to test our legs on the rolling hills just north of town where I was happy to hang with the front group, which included a few wafer-thin locals and some British beer-belly riders.
The next day, I rode solo up Hincapie Hill and thought I was climbing okay until a middle-aged couple swished past, leaving me barely enough time to blurt “Bon dia!” – the only Catalan greeting I picked up.
But returning from Girona has made me appreciate even more Wisconsin’s own incredible road cycling scene. On any given weekend, there are plenty of events from racing to tours. The advent of the smartphone has only made it easier for people to put their own things together
The state also boasts an unparalleled collection of dedicated bicycle trails, something you don’t see often in European capitals like London or Paris, where there is simply no room on streets designed for donkey carts.
So for now, Wisconsin can remain our little secret. Best of all, it’s right out the back door.
(Mike Ivey is a freelance writer based in Madison)