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Wisconsin's cycling secrets

There’s a thing or two our province could learn from this beautiful state

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NO one can say our family’s not trendy (well, they could say it behind our backs, but not to our trendy faces).

We decided to take a ‘staycation’ last fall, which, in the middle of the recession, was apparently all the rage.

We opted for a cycling trip, like the self-guided tours we had taken several years ago in France and northern Quebec.

We were looking for a place we’d never been before, but close to home so we could drive there.

As the family’s designated tour guide, I chose Wisconsin, which resulted in a few interesting family conversations.

"Are we going to rent bikes?"

"No, we’re taking our own in the van."

"Who’s going to move our luggage from place to place?"

"Um, we are. In the van."

"Where are we going again?

"Wisconsin."

"Why?"

"Why not?"

It fit the criteria: it was easy to drive to, and none of us had been there, but the central draw was something I never knew about Wisconsin until I started doing my homework online — it’s a cycling mecca.

Wisconsin is a lovely state of rolling green farmland, big skies and beautiful lakes and rivers. It’s Manitoba on hormones, a little more lush, a little more undulating. But there are many similarities, too.

Wisconsin’s down-to-earth and helpful residents can match our Friendly Manitobans any time, and they have the same attitude towards tourists. "I can’t believe you chose to come here" is a common reaction.

But Wisconsin could teach a thing or two to Manitobans about marketing, and making the best of what we share — abandoned rail lines.

Over the last half-century, the state has been quietly converting its old rail lines into cycling trails. We tried a few on this trip, and they were fun — well-groomed and flat, easy enough for the whole family, they wove through small towns well off the beaten path of that monster I-90 or 94.

IN fact, if you were to ‘explore’ Wisconsin from its main highway, you’d miss most of the state’s subtle beauty. You need to get out into farm country to appreciate Wisconsin and its people.

Cyclists must disembark to traverse the three dank, dark and wonderfully spooky old train tunnels of the Elroy-Sparta trail.

Enlarge Image

Cyclists must disembark to traverse the three dank, dark and wonderfully spooky old train tunnels of the Elroy-Sparta trail. (DALE KIFFEL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Wisconsin’s conversion into a cycling destination started with the ‘granddaddy’ of them all, the Elroy-Sparta State Trail. It was created in 1965 by some very clever people who realized that they had to do something to revive the area. Farms were going corporate, towns were dying, so what did they possibly have that could bring people in?

Elroy was once a prominent railroad centre, but cars and modern freeways had long rendered this obsolete.

So they embarked on the very first rails-to-trail conversion project in the country, and a new kind of tourism was born.

More routes followed, and today the Badger State boasts more than 1,000 miles of these trails, nearly 10,000 miles of secondary roadways for bike touring, plus many more ambitious kilometres in the state’s 60 parks.

Since it became a national leader in recreational biking, the state has created all kinds of maps and marketing campaigns to lure in the two-wheelers, and it attracts thousands of Spandexed and Goretexed outdoors enthusiasts a year.

Not bad for a place otherwise famous for its dairy products and a humongous amusement park called The Dells. One 2009 report claimed the ‘bicycling industry’ now contributes $556 million and 3,418 jobs to the Wisconsin economy.

We started with the Elroy-Sparta trail, a 32-mile (51-km) route linking those two little towns in southwest Wisconsin.

Sparta has about 9,000 residents, one main strip with a great pizza joint, and not much else, but it proudly bills itself as the ‘Bicycling Capital of the World.’ Head west from Sparta and you’re on the LaCrosse River Trail, but we headed east, making our way to the oldest rail-trail in North America. It was particularly fun to traverse this long-abandoned Chicago Northwestern Railroad bed — over little wooden bridges and streams and right through the heart of a number of small towns — because it has three covered rock tunnels, one as long as 1.2 kilometres.

You have to disembark and walk through with flashlights to get through these dark, dank tunnels, and it’s just a spooky enough experience to make it well worthwhile. The trail ends in Elroy, which hooks up to three other major rail-trails, the 400 State Trail (35 kms) and Omaha County Trail (20 kms).

The biggest problem with a linear bike trail is that, well, it only goes one way. So our driver got the short end of the stick, taking the van to Elroy and joining us on the trail mid-way. Aforesaid driver only got to see one tunnel, twice. We lied about the other two not being so great.

(There are shuttles available at some of these places, and some of the hotels and B&Bs will pick you up for a fee.

The Wisconsin Biking Guide offers some really nice circular on-road bike tours, too.) The other former rail-trail we tried was the Glacial Drumlin, an asphalt/ limestone route through southeast Wisconsin, about 83 kilometres long.

It got its name from Glacial Lake Wisconsin, formed by the mighty Glacial Lake Agassiz, which once crushed the Manitoba prairies and extended all the way to northern Minnesota more than 15,000 years ago.

Wisconsin’s converted rail-trails are well-groomed, and super easy to ride.

Enlarge Image

Wisconsin’s converted rail-trails are well-groomed, and super easy to ride. (DALE KIFFEL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

This state celebrates its ‘glacier ridge’ in many areas. A ‘drumlin’, according to signs along the trail, is a little mound of dirt and ‘Canadian’ rock left behind by the glacier when it finally melted away.

Wisconsin lives up to its name as a national leader in recreational biking.

Even the state capital of Madison has a great trail system, linking up with some of the big state trails. There are some 200 kilometres of shared-use paths and trails in this university town, and it’s full of cyclists.

On the way home to Winnipeg, we even tried the Paul Bunyan State Trail around Bemidji, where the great Mississippi River begins. The trail winds south, 180 easy kilometres to Brainerd, and is one of the longest paved trails in the U.S.

It was a week of exploring a whole new place on two wheels. And the one thing I wondered about on the way home was this: Manitoba was once the centre of rail transport for the country. We have big skies, easy rides and small towns that could use some visitors. What could we learn from Wisconsin?

Desperately seeking Dells

NOBODY seems to go to Wisconsin without a trip to the Dells.

Then again, nobody seems to know what the Dells are.

They know it’s the big tourist spot in Wisconsin; they know about roller coasters and waterslides, IHops and fun houses like Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but they honestly cannot explain what a ‘dell’ is.

So what is a dell?

Blame Canada. The Dells are a deep 8-kilometre gash along the Wisconsin River — rocky islands and towering cliffs — carved by torrential meltwaters 15,000 years ago from Glacial Lake Wisconsin, which was created by our own Glacial Lake Agassiz.

I’m sure they’re cool. We just never got a glimpse of ’em from the ‘waterpark capital of the world’ that has grown up over top, attracting three million blissfully oblivious visitors a year.

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