Get on your bikes and ride!
Pandemic-caused restrictions on various activities may have loosened up somewhat, but the Centers for Disease Control is still urging caution when it comes to travel, advising that the best possible way to keep from contracting COVID-19 is to avoid large gatherings and stay close to home. Wisconsin offers plenty of ways to meet both of those recommendations while still enjoying a little getaway. With over 14,000 lakes, about 7,500 streams and rivers, and beautiful topography that ranges from the bluffs and rock formations of the Driftless Area to the towering pines up north, the Badger State provides a lot of natural beauty to enjoy for a day, or even just a couple of hours, before returning home.
You can take a fun day trip by car, of course, but switch one set of wheels for another and you’ll have a whole new experience. Pedaling through Wisconsin on a bike gives you an up-close view of the state’s scenic vistas and diverse wildlife, plus it provides the added benefit of exercise. With a little forethought, bicycling is also an activity that can be enjoyed while maintaining safe social distancing and without leaving your home region. You can find someplace nearby for whatever type of cycling suits you, whether it’s pedaling along paved rails-to-trails, riding dirt paths through the woods, or cruising along town roads or county highways.
Even better, biking is an activity that can be enjoyed with a minimum of expense. High-end equipment is nice, but that old bike in the basement or garage will do just fine, as long as it’s had a tune-up at a bike repair shop to ensure it’s in safe working order. Just be sure to add a good-fitting helmet (see segment at the end of the article for other safety recommendations).
No worries either if you haven’t ridden for a while—that old saying about “it’s like riding a bike” is true; if you learned to ride at some point in your life, the skill is stored in your procedural memory, where it (fortunately) tends to stay. Just take a few short practice rides and brush up on basic bike safety, and you’ll be set for some cycling fun!
With more than 80 trails, Wisconsin offers a lot of options for biking. Many of the touring trails are paved or have other easily navigated surfaces. These trails are well traveled, but they typically cover enough distance and include multiple places to hop on that cyclists can generally find an appropriate time/place to enjoy a ride while avoiding large crowds.
Among the touring trails is the popular Elroy-Sparta State Trail, considered the country’s first rail-to-trail. This trail connects with three others to offer just over 100 miles of scenic biking in the Great River Road area, including the Great River State Trail, which crosses through Riverland Energy Cooperative territory.
There’s plenty to find on less-beaten paths as well. Many communities have local, volunteer-based cycling groups that maintain smaller-scale trails that are open to the public, often free or for a small trail fee. Laura Plummer, a member of Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, is vice president of the Chippewa Off Road Bicycle Association (CORBA). This group is dedicated to building, improving, and maintaining multi-use trails for all users, whether they’re bikers, hikers, runners, walkers, or bird-watchers: “Pretty much anyone who can benefit from being outdoors and uses trails,” she said.
The organization maintains nine trail systems in four counties in the Chippewa Valley region, including one at Lowes Creek County Park in Eau Claire, pictured on page 24. An easy way to find trails like these is with the use of phone apps. Plummer recommended three, each of which has a free version: Trail Forks (www.trailforks.com), MTB Project, (www.mtbproject.com), and Singletracks (www.singletracks.com). She noted that although these apps focus on mountain biking, most of the trails they locate are open to all trail users.
“The apps allow you to use your phone to find the trails that are available wherever you are,” she pointed out. “There might be some local trails that you might not even know about. Using those apps, you can find those hidden gems.”
Finding Trails in Unexpected Places
Some great bike trails can be found in unconventional places. Such is the case with Sand Valley, a resort located in central Wisconsin near the town of Rome, on Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative lines.
Sand Valley is known for its three distinctive golf courses, but it offers much more, including two trails for fat tire biking.
The 3-mile Whitville Loop, which runs along an 80-foot sand ridge and offers beautiful views of the Sand Valley golf courses on one side, and a fully restored prairie on the other, is open to the public. “We welcome the community to experience Sand Valley in a whole new way—via fat tire bike!” said Brandon Carter, marketing and communications manager of Sand Valley.
Carter recommends beginners ride the first half mile of the Whitville Loop first to get a feel for fat tire bike riding. This section has a few hills and enough flat sections for all skill levels to manage. “The trail will then take bikers up and down rolling hills, and through a standing red pine plantation, giving the full scope of how this land has changed throughout history,” Carter said.
For more information on Sand Valley, visit www.sandvalley.com or call 833-903-1859. (Photos courtesy of Sand Valley)
Taking it to the Street
Many of those hidden gems just might be the roadways right outside your own community. They’re especially bicycle-friendly right now due to lower- than-usual vehicle traffic.
“These rural roads are really beautiful,” said Jeremy Gragert, president of Bike Chippewa Valley, a volunteer organization that works to encourage more bicycling and make the activity more accessible for everyone. “We really have some of the most unbelievable places to ride in Wisconsin.”
Gragert recommended bringing a paper map along rather than depending solely on a phone app that might require internet connection or an extensive phone battery life. He recommended two sources for reliable bicycle maps: Wisconsin Bicycle Federation (https://wisconsin-bicycle-federation.myshopify.com/products/wisconsin-bicycle-maps) or the Department of Transportation (www.wisconsindot.gov, click on Travel), which has free downloadable bike maps for each county in the state.
“These maps really open up possibilities because they show where gravel roads are that you will want to avoid with a road bike, and show the level of traffic on roads relatively accurately,” he said. “Some of the town roads feel like bike trails, and you won’t see a car for an hour in some cases.”
However, cyclists should make sure the lower volume of cars doesn’t lead to complacency when it comes to traffic safety. Gragert noted bikers should obey the same laws as drivers, using the right-most lane of traffic or shoulder that heads in the direction you’re traveling, and staying at least a few feet away from the edge of the road. He added that bikers should look back when changing lanes or turning and always use hand signals when turning.
“The simplest way is to point with your whole arm in the direction you are going to turn a few hundred feet before the turn, and then again right before the turn to remind drivers of your intent,” he said.
Gragert also advised letting someone know when and where you’re going if you plan to bike alone. If you’re new—or renewed—to cycling, he recommends recruiting a friend to ride with. This not only increases the safety factor, but also the fun.
The social factor, in fact, is another advantage of biking that’s especially welcome right now.
“Biking is a great way to connect with neighbors from a distance,” Gragert said. “It’s a great way to kind of reconnect with people who you maybe haven’t seen in a while.”
There’s just no soft-pedaling all the benefits.
Tips for Biking Responsibly During a Pandemic
• Maintain social distancing, keeping your group small and keeping some distance between riders.
• Keep in mind that facilities such as bathrooms at trail systems may not be available and plan accordingly.
• Be flexible with your plans; if you arrive at a trailhead and the parking lot is full, try another location.
• Consider using trails at off-hours to avoid crowding.
• Bring a mask along in case you need to enter a building for water, to use a bathroom, etc.
Tips for Biking Safely at Any Time
• Wear a good-fitting helmet and adjust it properly (with the chin strap snug) and bright-colored clothing when riding on country roads. An affordable option is a yellow reflective construction vest.
• Use a front white light and rear red light at night or in low light. Put the lights on flashing mode during the day for extra visibility.
• Wear bicycle gloves to protect your hands if you fall, and also for ease in gripping handlebars.
• Pay close attention to road/trail quality and condition, which can change drastically from one stretch of road to another.
• Make sure bike tires are pumped up properly (maximum PSI is indicated on the sidewall of the tire).
• Follow all traffic rules if you’re biking along roadways.
• Yield to pedestrians and give them plenty of space, and give an audible warning if passing from behind.
• Make eye contract with drivers, especially when they are coming from driveways or side roads that could cross your path.
Source: Chippewa Off-Road Biking Association, Bike Chippewa Valley