“O”

by Mike Magnuson

One sunny morning, before my ride really began, I put my foot on the ground and decided to take stock, to reach an understanding, for once and for all, between me, the bike, and the road down which I was going to ride.  I stood astraddle my Trek Madone on Ridge Street in Mineral Point, on the western edge of town, and stared into a vast, bumpy, open-looking landscape to the south.  My mission this day was not complicated, The Prairie Loop, 51 miles no doubt of heavenly joy.  This would require me to head south on Highway O all the way Shullsburg, probably a 25-mile jaunt, a route so easy to follow, as they say on TV, that a caveman could do it.

I said the highway’s name, “O,” and let the vowel extend into the inevitable groan that the letter O brings to the windpipes.

By this point, I had ridden enough of the hills hereabouts to have developed a keen, cerebral sense of what I would face on Highway O.

On the Far Look Loop, for instance, I had lumbered up High Point Road (with a name like that, where else would it go but up?) southward from the American Players Theater:  High Point Road was craggy and twisty and steep and just at the point where I thought I was going to die, I heard cowbells and then saw a small happy herd of spotted cows, walking along the fence up the hill with me.  One of the cows said, “Mike, why don’t you get off and walk?  You’d go a lot faster!”

And once, on the Burton Loop, on Highway U heading eastward, the road dove from a high plateau to a riverbed area and then meandered through the trees, only to climb remorselessly to a peak near the Potosi city limits.  When I climbed this, highway crews were working on the road, and I passed an amused-looking fellow holding a slow sign. I assured him that, yes, I was gonna be going very slow.  He said, “I believe you, man.”

In other words, on this sunny morning, when I stood with my bike and stared into my future on Highway O, I knew what was coming.

But then again, I didn’t.

My old friend Headwind Gunderson blew in my face and I pointed toward him, to the south, and vowed to make the best of O.  A few miles later, it became apparent that while there are many individual monster climbs in Southwest Wisconsin, Highway O qualifies as a limitless set of monster climbs.  The landscape here was wide open, only the occasional tree, and at the top of each climb, I could look out and see more rollers and more rollers and more rollers.  Highway O was like one of those simulacrums that you can make with a set of mirrors, where one image continues reflecting into the mirror for what seems like eternity.  Only Highway O was not a mirror, it was not an image, it was a straight-line stretch of dairy-road asphalt, steep pitch after steep pitch, all leading toward a higher point on the road, which, when I would reach it, revealed another even higher point on the horizon.  I thought I would never reach Shullsburg.

A long time later, I did finally roll into the lovely downtown area of Shullsburg and stopped to collect myself.  A woman saw me along the road and asked where was I coming from?

“O,” I said.  “O”

“What?” she said.

I pointed to the north.  “O.”

“O,” she said.  “I understand.”

I exaggerate.  But not by much.

Now to make this clear, Highway O doesn’t exactly qualify as a single monster climb but instead a SET of monster climbs.  The landscape here is open and spectacular and prone to headwinds, and what you encounter here is rollers, large rollers, an endless line of rollers stretching off to the eternity – Shullsburg, that is.  At one point, after rising ever higher over a series of rollers, you would swear to God that this is it, you reach the top and, stretching as far as the eye can see, even more rollers!  Whew! 

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A Growler of Old Potosi

by Mike Magnuson

I suppose there is a certain fuddy-duddy type of cyclist who believes that once you visit a brewery, your life goes downhill.  In the case of the Potosi Brewery, however, you must ride downhill hill to get there, and the only possibly after your visit is for your life to go uphill.

            First, some background. http://www.potosibrewery.com/

When I visited the Potosi Brewery (ahem, purely out of intellectual curiosity, of course), I went downhill twice to get there.  My ride for the day began in Platteville, from which I headed west on the B.O. Loop – not to be confused with what a sweaty, hill-climbing cyclist might smell like after a long day in the saddle – following the magnificently wooded Highway O along a riverbed toward the friendly town Tennyson, where, at the top of a rise, I saw the first sign for the Potosi Brewing Company.  Incidentally, if you are unable to follow the subsequent signs to the Potosi Brewing Company, I would advise spending most of your time at home, on account of you are predisposed to getting lost.  To wit, the signs are really big and are spaced at 100-yard intervals all the way down the long, long descent on Highway 133 through downtown Potosi and finally to a short flat stretch where the brewery itself stands, in newly remodeled brick splendor, next to a thickly forested hill.

I rolled to a stop, set my foot on the ground, and contemplated my options.  The place looked incredibly inviting:  clean brick exterior, newly paved parking lot, outdoor beer garden, sparkling spring water cascading from the hillside.  The skies were a trifle gray with a hint of drizzle in the air – might have been nice to bag the ride and commence beer sampling right then and there – but I decided that the better part of valor would be to ride for a while longer before turning my attention to this inviting facility.

For the next couple of hours then, I experienced the mixed righteousness and accumulating thirst of a person who has decided to pedal an additional 35 miles or so before having a cold one.  I followed the Highway 133 along the edge of the Burton Loop and the Great River Loop then 35 back to the monstrous hilly Highway U, which bore me, or rather I bore it, all the way back to Potosi, where once again I descended to the Brewery.

This time, I parked my bike along a limestone wall that abuts a pool created by the natural spring and stepped inside the restaurant area of the brewery, the restaurant area.  First thing I noticed was 1) nobody seemed startled that a sweaty man in Spandex had hobbled into the room and 2) one of the largest, coolest-looking handcrafted bars I had ever seen and 3) the bartender was filling a rather prodigious jug of beer from the tap.  I said to the bartender, a nice lady in her late twenties, “What in the heck is that?”

“A growler,” she said.  “You want one?”

I did.  Who wouldn’t?  We’re talking a half-gallon of beer brewed on the premises, fed directly from lines in the brew-tanks next to the bar to the tap, but I declined because I had a long way to pedal to get back to Platteville and didn’t think I could carry a growler on my bicycle.  Instead, I ordered a pint of Old Potosi, a lager based on the original formula brewed here back before our great-grandfathers were glints in our great-great grandfather’s eyes.  True enough, Old Potosi was fantastic, a light golden color and as refreshing as the sight of open farmland after a long time confined to the concrete wastes of a big city.

Pretty soon, I met up with Greg Larsen, Executive Director of the Facility, who was pleased to see a cyclist stopping in for a beer.  He invited me to take a tour of the building (toting my pint of Old Potosi, of course).

So not only do they make beer here but this is the home of the National Brewery Museum, which, as Greg explained it, is as much of an art museum as it is a comprehensive history of beer in America.  Here you will find bottles and cans and advertisements from back in the old days, before conglomerates made beers, back when beer was made in the towns in which it was consumed.  I could remember seeing these advertisements when I was a kid : Chief Oshkosh beer, People’s beer, Holiday Bock, Walter’s (whose slogan was The Beer That Is Beer) and so on.  It was a truly moving experience to have this glimpse into a past that is long, long gone.  Or maybe it’s not long gone.  The Potosi Brewing Company is a not-for-profit organization and maybe, with their help, the old small-town breweries will return to Wisconsin.

Two Old Potosis and a whole lot of fond memories later, I slung my leg over the top tube of my bike and climbed gradually up the long, long hill on Highway 133 toward Tennyson.

About halfway uphill, I saw an old man fiddling with his flowerbeds in his front yard.  He waved at me and said, “How are you doing today?”

            “I’m really happy,” I said.

            He winked and said, “Me, too.”

            I guessed he might have been into the Old Potosi that day.

One Way Prayer is Answered…

by Mike Magnuson

Okay, I will confess to being the type of person whose entire outlook – even if this outlook has been swirling uncontrollably toward the vast, unhappy drain of no return – can be rectified to the better with the addition of one small, fortunate turn of events. 

I went on a huge ride, a combination of the State Park, Taliesin, Far Look, and Mill Creek Loops, and it was tough sledding – with lots of climbing, predictably enough – and the weather alternated between periods of rain and periods of hot sunshine.  I guess this was the kind of day on the bike the rough and tumble among us dream about, what with the scenery, the long distance, the weather, and so forth, but friends and brethren, when I was about three-quarters of the way through this epic, heading west through the center of the Far Look Loop (on account of I decided to bisect the Loop to save my aching legs) there just wasn’t anything left in the tank.  I was thirsty, hot, tired, and muttering unintelligible curses to a variety pack of unintelligible gods, and if somewhere were to have asked me what hope was, I wouldn’t have recognized the word.

Somewhere in there, I found myself on Highway Z, on the State Park Loop, heading south toward Dodgeville, where I had began this journey many hours earlier in the day, and I was desperate to find a convenience store or anyplace where I could wander in, rest, have a cold beverage, and save my spirits from the sewer. 

And it came to pass that the gods were listening to me, for at the intersection of Highway Z and ZZ, there appeared the Pleasant Ridge Store, an old-fashioned, tree-surrounded building that looked like it might sell cheese and sausage and cold soda and the like.  What a wonderful name, I thought!  And how well placed along this weary traveler’s route!  I pulled my bike to the side of the road, dismounted, removed my helmet, and limped up the stairs and opened the door. To my delight, I could see that the Pleasant Ridge Store is not a quaint little general store but a quaint little tavern.  So with tears of joy in my eyes, I pulled up a stool and ordered a can of La Crosse Lager.   The Bartender, a local wrestling coach, set the can on the counter and offered to fill my water bottles for me. 

He said, “Having a rough day out there?”

“Not anymore,” I said.

“That’s the spirit,” he said.

We talked for a while about the weather, the importance of cold beer, the Green Bay Packers, and after a while, outside, I could hear the telltale rumbling of the other kind of bike, the Harley Davidson.  Turned out that the Pleasant Ridge Store is also a “Biker” bar, meaning those loud two-wheeled vehicles with motors attached to them, and a number of these burley fellows wandered in.  In no time, the were happy to include me, a sweaty guy in Spandex, into their fellowship.  We all laughed about this and that and watched the Brewers on TV for a while, and the biker dudes informed me that on my way back to Dodgeville I would encounter a monster three-quarter-mile hill. 

I told them I figured there were more hills left in my day’s ride, and they all nodded. 

“If you don’t like hills,” one of the bikers said, “you will never be happy here.”

The Clean Roads of Paradise

by Mike Magnuson

The generous and correct view of human beings is that no two are alike.  The same can probably be said of quality cycling roads – to the cyclist every road has a distinct personality – but then again, here in Southwest Wisconsin, on every bike loop described in the map, one thing is in fact alike:  no trash on the roadside.  I mean, none.  I’ve ridden bicycles on back roads all over the United States, and the common theme of visual woe has been beer cans, fast food wrappers, convenience store cups, blue plastic bags from a certain chain department store; not to mention roadside washing machines, lawn mowers, baby strollers and all manner of detritus that signifies the existence of mass-consuming human life.  The lack of these roadside items in Southwest Wisconsin has been so surprising and unsettling to me that I have nearly ridden off the road my first couple days of riding.  I keep staring toward the ditch and seeing green grass! How can this be?

Aside from that astonishing similarity, however, I am happy to report that no two roads here are alike.   Some are in the trees, some follow the ridges, some follow the meandering riverbed valleys, some provide magnificent Van Gogh-like views of the farmland, and most of them are simply a blast to ride.

On the Taliesin Loop, for instance, taking it clockwise, I have ridden Highway M till it connects with Meiss Road and have enjoyed it so much that only a fanatical dedication to completing my day’s ambitious mileage prevented me from going back and riding Highway M all over again.  This is a gently twisting and rising and falling roller coaster with absolutely no traffic and with incredible southward views of the farmland.  Also on this loop, by the way, is probably the only flat road in Southwest Wisconsin, Highway C, which is a wonderfully straight stretch of low country, with excellent blacktop, that must go for at least five miles.  Highway C does come to a rather brutal end, however, with a steep leg-breaking climb to Highway 23, where I took a break at the Frank Lloyd Write Interpretive Center and spent some time watching the Wisconsin River push its way toward the Mississippi.  The river seemed, unlike me, strong and relaxed.  I resolved to be more like the river in my future endeavors.

Another rollercoaster that comes to mind is Ferndale Road, which is part of both the Prairie Loop and the Yellowstone Lake Loop.  I have ridden this road northward a couple of times now and can’t believe just how fun it is.  First, it seems like it’s way high on a majestic ridge, in open farm fields, then it descends in a hook-shaped arc to a riverbed and forestland.  Near Mineral Point, Ferndale Road takes an amazing diving descent to a flat stretch before a flattish run-in to the Mineral Point City Limit sign.  If you’re riding with a group here, the sprint to the sign would be epically entertaining.

Honestly, the one certainty on these roads, maybe because the terrain is so up and down, is that you almost never know what you will see at the top of the next hill.  In roller coaster country like this, you are forever climbing to the next horizon and with each new horizon there is another horizon.  I don’t believe it’s possible to be bored cycling in a landscape like this. 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Ride Bicycles in Southwest Wisconsin

By Mike Magnuson

I hate to be repetitious, but did I mention the terrain is hilly hereabouts?

If you examine the topographic data for any of the loops on this website, you will note that each loop averages about 1000 feet of climbing for every ten miles of road.  That ratio of elevation gain to miles traveled is exactly what you will find on an Alpine stage of the Tour de France.  In other words, wow: why bother traveling to France to ride hills when we have them aplenty in Wisconsin?   For real!  Seriously, if you want to ride these routes in Southwest Wisconsin – I mean, if you want to enjoy yourself on these loops, instead of suffering yourself into a self-loathing puddle of former cyclist – you must think carefully about the bike you will be riding and what gearing you will use on this bike.  The correctly choice of equipment will allow you to maximize the pleasure of your riding experience.  You want to enjoy the view at the tops of the many hills, right?

Me, I’m using a Trek Madone 5.2, an excellent lightweight carbon fiber racing bike, a bike that is perfectly suited to hilly terrain, but even the Trek Madone, improperly geared, could prove to be a disaster on this hilly routes, which is to say if your bike is geared for riding in a flat landscape, you should strongly consider changing the set-up before arriving here.  I’m running a compact crank – 34 X 50 chain rings – and a 12 X 27 cassette in the rear; however, I could definitely see running a triple chain ring in the front, with the grandmother of all granny gears, as it were, because the hills here are so steep and so frequent that there’s really no reason not to run a triple.  The idea is to spin up the hills and to save your knees for future use.

By the same token, the nature of the hills here mean they are relatively small and steep – the climbs tend to rise 200 or 300 feet and then immediately drop 200 or 300 feet.  So you’ll want to make certain that your bike is properly tuned for descending as well as climbing.  Use fresh cables, fresh brake pads, have new rubber on your wheels, and if you’re not an ace mechanic, take your bike to a shop and have a professional look it over before taking your bike on these roads.

For advice on equipment, definitely contact the folks at Momentum Bikes in Platteville, Wisconsin.  http://www.momentumbikes.com/  The shop is easy to access, has friendly staff, and most importantly, the staff at Momentum regularly rides the loops on this map and can provide sound advice on which loops to pick and just how far you may want to ride in a given day.  Momentum bikes also carries just about any cycling item you may need – tires, tubes, chains, Co2 cartridges, gels, and so on.

Oh, and a small but important thing, don’t forget your helmet!

Riding Driftless

By Mike Magnuson

The wrong way to begin a cycling story, especially a story about an ordinary cyclist exploring a magnificent landscape in no particular hurry, is with “once upon a time.”  According to the fastest, leanest, strongest cyclists in the sport, riding bikes is a matter of trained efficiency, of taking in so many calories and burning off so many, of producing measurable quantities of power for prescribed durations, et cetera – in a word, cycling is all too often an activity in which the fairy tale has been removed and has been replaced with a fanatical drive for efficiency.

I live in Los Angeles these days, where hustle and bustle and purposeful, quantifiable activity is as commonplace as breathing, and I have traveled to Southwest Wisconsin to ride as many of the routes on the Cycle Southwest Wisconsin map as I can.   I do this not as a cyclist attempting to transform my life into numbers but instead as a person longing to bring magic back into my life.  I have come here to ride myself into happiness, and with 28 routes to choose from, I’m guessing that the chances of me ending up happy are high indeed.

Several geologic periods ago, I grew up in Wisconsin, in the eastern part of the state, the Kettle Moraine region, famous for its odd, hilly landscape that was created by deposits left on the earth during the retreat of the last Ice Age.  I spent a good portion of my youth hiking and cross- country skiing and cycling over the kettles and kames and eskers and drumlins of the Kettle Moraine, and I had always believed that these glaciated features were indeed really massive hills.  Turns out, though, the Kettle Moraine hills are but the pipsqueak cousins of the enormous hills in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin.  I should have known this was the case, on account of the Kettle Moraine is part of the Wisconsin geologic area known as the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands; whereas Southwest Wisconsin is known geologically as the Western Upland.  Perhaps my geological sense is askew, but when I see ‘up’ added to the world ‘land,’ I’m figuring that the landscape is high and big not at all flat.  

            Ah, the hills.  It’s true.  There is as endless supply of them in the Upland.  Now, in the proverbial perfect cycling world, I would have arrived at my base of Southwest Wisconsin cycling operations in Mineral Point tanned, rested, and ready, but I have not!  I’m pasty, over-worked, and under-trained.  At times in my life, I have spent 25 hours a week riding my bicycle and have been able to go on rides that lasted from sunup to sundown, but these days, like everybody else, I have to work way too much and don’t get to play nearly enough.  So when I ride these routes that look so incredibly easy on the map, loops filled in with pretty pastel colors and interspersed with occasional yellow shapes indicating a farming community, I have no intention of getting anywhere in a hurry.  Even if did want to get somewhere in a hurry, I couldn’t! 

So with your permission, allow me to begin my cycling fairy tale the wrong way:

Once upon a time, a man came to the hills of Southwest Wisconsin to ride his bike.