We like to think that northwest Michigan, with its scenic coastal rides and miles of routes through forests and farmlands, might offer the best biking in the Midwest. So when Charlie Decker made the statement "I think the biking there is better than here," we were curious and a bit taken aback. The "there" was in reference to Trempealeau County, Wisconsin. Charlie was so convincing that a year later, a dozen of us, drove nearly 600 miles to the town of Whitehall on the far west side of Wisconsin to see if he was right.
We checked into the Oak Park Inn Bed and Breakfast, a stately white mansion which was designed to resemble Mount Vernon, along with several buildings that accommodates groups of cyclists almost every week from June to mid-September. Linda Mossman, the innkeeper, was there to welcome us. After settling into our rooms, we gathered back in the office to look over maps. With nearly 500 miles of paved roads in the county and 17 bike loops available, it was hard to know where to start. Linda answered our questions and offered suggestions about local attractions and eateries, while her printer spit out maps and cue sheets.
No cars to contend with
Heading west out of town, we pedaled along County Road S as it wound past cornfields and pastures where cows turned to watch us. It was Sunday and several Amish were gathered outside a church; men talking on one side while the women stood in a group on the other. We encountered two horse-drawn buggies coming toward us and overtook a pair of inline skating Amish boys who smiled and waved at us. We never saw an automobile.
The no-traffic phenomena wasn't unique to this road. I had read that several area roads average less than three vehicles an hour. In the coming days, shouts of "car back" or "car up" were rarely heard. Vehicles were encountered so infrequently that we often could ride two abreast. Perhaps the low traffic volume accounts for the lack of litter and potholes on the road surface. Nevertheless, the more prevalent use by horses had us occasionally swerving to avoid dribbles of manure.
With so little motor vehicle use, I wondered why virtually all the roads were paved. From Linda I learned that years ago the numerous dairy farms in the area needed to be able to get their milk collected every day and the gravel roads were often impassable in the spring.
In the mid-1990s, Walter Ordway and Olin Fimreite realized that with all those paved roads Trempealeau County was perfect for road biking. They applied for a grant and received $40,000 from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation enabling them to lay out and measure seven bike routes as well as produce a pamphlet promoting cycling in the area. Local fund raising in recent years has collected enough money to create additional loops. The six days our group was there wasn't nearly enough time to sample all that was available. Even Michelle Andrews and Charlie Decker, who like to post daily mileages in the 80 to 100 mile range, couldn't complete every loop.
The daily dose
Each morning we'd gather for breakfast in the inn's dining room and agree on the day's riding plan. By 8:30 most mornings we were on our way. Typically we would decide to cover about 60 miles, but usually by mid-afternoon, several were looking for ways to add on another 20 to 40.
Whatever the plan, we were destined to find hills. When the glaciers came through thousands of years ago, rather than flatten the land, it left hills and valleys, which are called coulees. This meant we rarely could go a mile without making some kind of altitude adjustment. We did a couple climbs that measured a mile in length. Some downhills, most notably the Alligator Slide, dropped as much as 600 feet over nearly two miles of coasting. Although there were some real uphill grinders as well as some white-knuckle descents, much of the terrain consisted of gently rolling hills.
When the roads were first laid out, no one thought to create a grid pattern so there are almost no straightaways. Instead the roads twist and wind over the rolling terrain. Though occasionally we were hemmed in by hardwood forests, for the most part we could look out over sweeping valleys dotted with red barns and white farmhouses. It reminded me of Italy's Tuscany highlands, except instead of olive orchards and vineyards we were seeing fields of corn and soybeans.
Without the distracting sounds of traffic, it was the sizzling staccato pitch of crickets and grasshoppers along the road shoulder that provided the natural soundscape. About the only time we had to deal with cars was when we'd pass through villages with names like Strum, Arcadia, Independence, Pigeon Falls or Blair, their welcome signs listing populations of around 1,500. Outside of the towns, we'd rarely see anyone, which isn't surprising since the entire county has less than 29,000 residents. Usually the only eyes watching us ride by were those of cows and sheep grazing just a few feet from the road.
Our days in Trempealeau County will be remembered for providing me with the most relaxing bike touring that I've ever experienced. Cycling with friends and not having to deal with traffic had a lot to do with it, but being able to look out over miles of picturesque rural backcountry while pedaling down roads made me realize that Charlie may have been right when he said that "the biking there was better than here."
Dave Foley lives in Cadillac, Michigan, where he is an avid runner, paddler, cross-country skier and snowshoer as well as a cyclist.