Cycling event spans southern Wisconsin

Cycling event spans southern Wisconsin
Jens Voigt, 17-time Tour de France rider, mingles with fans during a recent kickoff event for the Ride Across Wisconsin scheduled for the last weekend in August.

Well, I’ve gone and done it.

I just committed to riding my bike 175 miles in one day from Dubuque to Kenosha regardless of heat, rain, wind or lack of training.

The good news is I won’t be alone and might even catch a draft behind 17-time Tour de France rider Jens Voigt and his Trek-Segafredo pro teammates.

The event is the second annual Ride Across Wisconsin, or RAW, which is looking to become the signature tour in a state rich with cycling history and no shortage of other great biking events. The fun starts on Saturday, Aug. 27.

Organized by the Wisconsin Bike Federation, RAW was patterned after the epic Seattle-to-Portland, Oregon ride staged by the Cascade Bicycle Club of Seattle. That 200-miler attracts some 10,000 participants annually and is widely recognized as a “must do” event for cyclists in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

RAW will be capped at 1,200 participants this year, but Bike Fed officials hope the ride can continue to grow as word spreads throughout the nation’s cycling community. This year, the event includes a two-day option with an overnight in Beloit for those looking at a less grueling challenge.

Nearly 500 cyclists completed the inaugural RAW last year, battling showers and an unfortunate easterly headwind. I’m hoping the prevailing westerlies will push me to Kenosha this year, but you never know.

The idea to hold a ride across the state was hatched two years ago during a conversation between Trek Bicycle President John Burke and the Bike Fed over how to grow the bicycle advocacy group. Trek has been a major financial supporter of the Bike Fed over the years but was frustrated that membership in the Milwaukee-based nonprofit was stuck at less than 4,000.

“John pretty much laid it out that we needed to get our membership up to 20,000,” recalls Bike Fed executive director Dave Cieslewicz.

So it was decided the quickest way to get more people to join was to hold a big ride that included a Bike Fed membership. Registration is currently $200 for the one-day ride or $285 for the two-day, with $35 discounts for existing Bike Fed members. Prices go up June 30.

“It was kind of weird that we were doing all these great things for bicycling in Wisconsin but never had a ride of our own,” says Cieslewicz, past mayor of Madison who has helped push membership up 52 percent to 5,800 over the past 24 months.

To further boost interest, Bike Fed deputy director Dave Schlabowske has been looking to get more events organized, like the popular Polish Moon Ride, August 6 on Milwaukee’s south side—while also urging members statewide to host free “show and go” rides. He notes the Cascade Bicycle Club backs more than 2,200 member-led rides under their insurance umbrella.

“We’re not in the ride business per and we’re not trying to compete with any other rides,” he says.

In terms of RAW, Schlabowske says it’s the rare opportunity for recreational riders to mix with the professionals including Voigt, 44, who retired from racing in 2014. Voigt’s career included three Tour De France stage victories, but he’s most popular with fans for his aggressive riding style and outgoing nature.

“It’s not like you can scrimmage with the Packers or play with the Brewers,” Schlabowske notes.

What I like best about RAW is that it’s not a timed race but rather a challenging point-to-point ride where the object is to simply finish before the sun goes down. Last year, 490 riders started and only eight of them needed sag-wagon support into Kenosha.

The entire group will roll out together at 6 a.m. from Dubuque at sunrise and cross the Mississippi River before heading into the hilly first 85 miles through the unglaciated Driftless region. There are some rolling hills through the middle section, but the last 45 miles is pretty much downhill from Lake Geneva to Kenosha with the entire route running just north of the “cheddar line” border between Illinois and Wisconsin.

Last year, a front group of about 25 riders managed to hammer to the finish in eight hours, averaging over 20 miles per hour. The last rider pedaled in at about 14 hours. Rest stops are provided about every 25 miles and are staffed based on the slowest riders averaging 12 miles per hour.

Given there will be 13 hours and 20 minutes of daylight on August 27, I’m hoping to average 15 miles per hour including stops and make it to the finish well before sunset at 7:33 p.m.

One key to enjoying the day will be finding a good chatty group going my speed to help the miles fly by. Last year, Voigt was warning fellow participants against trying to keep pace with the Trek team, which ended their ride early in Beloit at 104 miles because of a commitment to race in Canada the next day.

“They were going full on gas for those last 10 miles and I was telling people not to go with them because they were going to pull out …. but nobody was listening,” Voigt told me last week during a kickoff event at the Bicycle Doctor in Dousman.

Voigt, who claims he is no longer training but looks pretty darn fit regardless at a skinny 6-foot-3, ended up riding into Kenosha with the second RAW group, which included a few riding buddies of mine from Madison.

Who knows? If I get in a couple of 100-plus mile rides and work in some hills between now and the end of August, maybe I can hang with the Jensie.

Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.