Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cheese Soup, Served Cold

"Oh look, stars," Steve said, pointing overhead, and sure enough, the inky night sky was full of them. I was a little surprised, given that it had been foggy or overcast since before sunrise. We all groused and joked again about the soft conditions, knowing that we'd be underway again soon. This was the longest wait yet, and I was beginning to wonder if we should backtrack to look for him. I grew impatient and walked back up the trail and into the box culvert. Maybe halfway in, the other end took on a pale blue glow, and ten steps later, the point of Brian's headlight appeared. I turned and walked back toward my bike, not eager to get back on.

I had posted a concept for a ride both as a blog and on social media with the idea of traveling the only mostly-gravel loop from Madison, sometime around the winter solstice. Long Ride, Short Day.  People have done this route before both as solo efforts (as I did this summer) and as group rides with names like the Big Ass Long Loop Shindig (BALLS) and the Militant Badger, but never as a group ride in the winter. It follows the Badger rail trail south to Monroe, connects to the Cheese Country ATV trail west and north to Mineral point, then goes along some paved bike path and road to Dodgeville, returning to Madison on the Military Ridge rail trail. Just over 130 miles, 110 of which are not paved.

The first attempt in 2013 was a solo ride for me that went only to a point just south of the Stewart tunnel on the Badger. Four inches of ice-crusted snow proved too much to bust through for that kind of distance.

This year had seen early cold, but with not a whole lot of snow, and with only minimal precipitation for the 3 weeks leading up to the ride. The forecast called for mid-forties and fog on the day of the ride. My guess had been that there would be patches of mud on the low spots along the route, but that most of it would be reasonably dry and firm.

The Start

It seemed that I was mostly right for the first half of the ride. Steve, Nick, a newcomer named Brian (who had done the Militant Badger) and I met up at the trail kiosk in Fitchburg at 06:00. Steve was a little late thanks to a non-functional taillight, but we soon enough struck south on the paved section of the Badger. When we reached the limestone, it was covered in ice and snow. This is not unusual, since this first section is in a groove cut through a hill that sees precious little sunlight, so we pressed on in our optimism and were soon rewarded with fast sections of exposed limestone.

I hadn't finished an important part of my morning routine, so we made an early stop at a C-store in Belleville. At this point, the ambient temperature was just coming up to about freezing.

Abandoned Road Bridge
The approach to the tunnel was also through a cut and covered in ice and snow. Nick and Brian both fell, fortunately with no harm done. Icy stalagmites had already formed on the floor of the tunnel, along with several loose chunks of limestone from the ceiling.

The Cheese

Further south we rolled through Monticello and on to Monroe, where we left the Badger and picked up the Cheese Country ATV trail. Though the surface is a larger aggregate mixed with more sand, the going was still pretty good despite some long icy stretches.

We stopped for lunch at a c-store in Gratiot, filling up on wedge sandwiches, pizza and chocolate milk. Upon returning to the trail, we found that it had begin to get soft and the spray was beginning to make a mess of the bikes. We made another brief stop at a Casey's in Darlington, which, disappointingly, was out of pizza.

Cheese Triangle
Nick had a brake problem out near Calamine (the spring on his rear caliper somehow got caught in the rotor) and I decided to inspect my nonfunctional rear brake while we were stopped. Turned out that the grease I had used in my rear hub is not waterproof and had leaked its grey matter all over the caliper and rotor on one side, the cassette and chain on the other, and all around the inner circumference of the rim. There was nothing to be done but rely on the front brake. Brian, being the slowest of the group, decided to forge ahead to Mineral Point, and I did the same a couple minutes later.

By this time, the temperatures were in the forties and the trail has turned to soup. The most effective strategy was to ride the narrow margins where roots made the going spongy but rideable. Steve and Nick caught me in short order, and it was clear that I was still not fully recovered from the flu I'd had the week before. We found Brian in Mineral Point, and pressed on after a brief break, wanting to clear the ten miles of road to Dodgeville before it got dark.

The Stretch

Rolling north up Shake Rag St., the fog started to get pretty thick, and stayed so all the way to Dodgeville. Fortunately, there's a separated bicycle path for most of the way that runs parallel to, and then crosses the four-lane US Highway 18.

A mile or so south of Dodgeville, the path dumps out onto state Highway 23, but we chose the option of crossing onto a short section of gravel named Lover's Lane. It was immediately obvious that it doesn't get much traffic, and still had snow drifts stretched across it that were weeks old. Dusk was almost over and the lights came on. There was more falling on ice and slogging through gravel slurry. I got off and pushed my bike at one point and declared that I could drop out and call my wife right then and there for a ride and be done with the whole thing. Steve gently reminded me that we'd soon be taking a break and to let him know if I needed anything. We rolled onto a Dodgeville pavement just as the daylight was giving its last.

Lover's Lane
Right about mile 95, we rolled into the KwikTrip parking lot soggy, tired and covered in limestone. We stalked the good provisions aisle by aisle and I remember thinking that this is about as lousy as I had felt at the very end of some of the longest, most difficult rides I've done. We did our best to eat, rest and rally, but concern about the 40 miles of unpaved rail trail ahead was clearly weighing heavily on our mood. I said I was concerned, which was sort of an understatement. I bought some string cheese, a banana, some chocolate milk, jerky, and chips. We were there for maybe 45 minutes, and somehow we rallied.

The Darkness 

It was dark when we left the store. We started out riding north on the main drag but quickly opted for back streets. We found the trailhead easily enough, but as we had suspected, most of it was soupy. There were a few stretches of snow or dry surface, but we mostly had to ride on the vegetation at the edges of the trail. There was a stretch of paved trail before Ridgeway we got to ride at speed, but it ended too soon. The parts through Ridgeway and Barneveld were the soupiest of all, and we rode the parallel streets where we could.

All of us were miserable, but Brian, riding a regular mountain bike with 2" tires and narrow drop bars had it the worst by far. We found ourselves waiting for him at regular intervals for increasing lengths of time. He told us a couple of times that we should just leave him, but no way would my conscience allow me to leave somebody alone after dark, in the middle of nowhere, on a trail with no other traffic. No way. As we rolled up on Riley, there was some joking about stopping at the Tap for a beer, and I suggested that we could also call and ask how much a cab back to Madison would cost. Brian vetoed the idea:

"I've come this far. I'm not quitting now."

So we slogged on. The low section of trail between Riley and Verona might not have been as bad as we had expected, but it was still some of the worst. The wait between the box culverts was probably one of the longest, but the last section before hitting pavement was also long enough to cause some worry. Steve and Nick and I were clearly past our Bike Fun freshness date, but I really have to hand the prize for raw determination to Brian. I honestly have no idea how he did this ride on the bike he had chosen.

The pavement was a major relief. There were some icy stretches, but forward progress was suddenly much easier and faster. The last miles rolled by in some kind of daze as the fog returned. We parted ways at the Three Trails, and I was the first to cross the bike counter at six minutes past midnight.

I Was Number One For a Day
I pulled in the driveway at 00:28 on the morning of the 14th of December and the wife was still up. She fed me and I took a shower before falling into bed. I was so exhausted, wired and mentally shattered that restful sleep refused to visit me. Taking the burden of others' well-being upon myself had taken a real toll on me—something I have to learn to deal with more constructively. I took it really easy all day Sunday, doing laundry, washing the bike and watching a couple of movies, finally sleeping well Monday night.


My hubris needs a check after this one. Frank and Tyler had both tried to warn us that the warm temperatures in the forecast were going to turn the trail soft, and it turned out that they were mostly right. It's sort of a shame that this is the only trail loop to which we have access from Madison, because it's really a little too long. Either that or my motivation is too short.

Pics on the Flickr.