Opinion

The Riley Tavern is one overdue bike ride away

Doug Moe puts off riding for too long

When an oak tree fell and crushed my car on the Fourth of July, my wife, Jeanan, and I decided to make do with one car — hers.

I do a lot of work from home, anyway, and enjoy walking. All my necessities — libraries, golf courses, beer vendors — are within a half hour stroll. I also got my first smart phone and a rideshare app installed on it.

We live across the street from the Southwest Bike Path, so at the same time, we decided to get bicycles.

It's instructive how this played out. We went down to Budget Bicycle Center on Regent Street. Jeanan, who is everything I am not — focused, strategic, decisive — soon had picked out and purchased a new electric bike.

My biggest problem is that I am shopping-impaired. I hear voices. My palms get sweaty. There were too many choices — Budget Bicycle boasts it has 5,000 bicycles on display at its Regent Street locations (yes, more than one). Five thousand!

I am a particularly poor shopper when I don't know anything about what I'm shopping for, and I hadn't been on a bicycle in close to 50 years. I was waiting for someone to say, "It's just like riding a bike."

At some point I fled the store and went home empty. Jeanan, heroically, did not ask why I had acted like a doofus. Instead she casually mentioned that we had a bike hanging up on the back wall of the garage — a Trek bike she owned but hadn't been on in a dozen years.

Long story short, we took that old bike to Budget, and for a modest fee they cleaned it up, repaired the chain, inflated the tires and handed it back.

The friendly service guy said it might be a little small for me, but maybe not. He grinned and added, "What this bike needs is to be ridden!"

I rode it home — up the path parallel to Regent Street, then left at Camp Randall Stadium — an easy 10-minute ride home. It was fun. Really fun.

So the next day, July 28, I decided, after about 30 seconds of deliberation, to bike out to the Riley Tavern for a beer. The Riley Tavern, I learned later, is about 14 miles by bike from Camp Randall, meaning about 13 miles from my house.

Now, in the spirit of William Faulkner of Mississippi, who once declined a White House invitation by saying "It's a long way to go for dinner," you might ask why I decided I should bicycle 26 miles round trip for a beer.

For one thing, I had never been to the Riley Tavern, although I had written about it. Years ago I chronicled the exploits of Troy Zurbuchen, who set a Riley Tavern record by dispatching more than 30 pancakes in one Sunday morning sitting.

I liked what I knew about the Riley: that it was friendly, unpretentious and right on the Military Ridge State Trail.

I had a great ride out to the Riley Tavern, though in hindsight I was missing a few important components: a helmet, a bicycle license and a state trail pass.

Early in the ride I was kicking myself for letting so many years — decades — slip by without getting on a bike. It was sunny and glorious. Maybe just hot enough to keep the crowds on the trail down.

The trail follows the Sugar River for a time. In a rural area west of Verona, I thought I recognized a property to my right. I got off the trail and, sure enough, found the entrance sign to Indigo Trails, the holistic wellness center I wrote about in Madison Magazine earlier this summer. Nobody was around but several horses were grazing and stared at me, unimpressed.

Before I got to the Riley — I knew I must be close — the part of my anatomy in closest proximity to the bicycle seat began to ache. Yes! That's why you don't take a 26-mile ride after not having been on a bike for half a century.

When I arrived, the Riley wasn't having its best day. A pump had malfunctioned and the bathrooms weren't working. The Spotted Cow tap was working fine, though. I sat on the front porch, one table over from a young family having a late lunch.

A couple days later, I caught up by phone with Jim Murphy, who has owned the Riley Tavern for almost 28 years, though now he wants to sell it.

"The main reason," he says, "has nothing to do with the bar business. I still like the bar business. I'm sick of the Wisconsin winters and until I get the tavern sold, I'm kind of stuck here."

On Aug. 17 Murphy will marry his longtime partner, Katherine Redican, who likes winter even less than he does. Where do they plan to move? "Wherever white stuff doesn't come out of the sky," he says. 

He'll miss the friendships with staff and customers, he says, but it's time for a new chapter.

A little like finding your way onto a bicycle after so many years away.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.       


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