Ride across Wisconsin is like a summer Birkie

Ride across Wisconsin is like a summer Birkie

Without a doubt, the first sporting event that goes on my calendar each year is the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in northern Wisconsin. But after just completing the 2nd annual Ride Across Wisconsin, known as RAW —a 180-mile one-day bicycle tour from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan—I have another event to ink on my schedule.

In fact, some of my fellow RAW finishers were already referring to it as the “Summer Birkie” as we quaffed craft beers in Kenosha following a long day in the saddle on Saturday, Aug. 26.

There are definitely lots of similarities between RAW and the Birkie.

Both courses are long and challenging—though not so difficult your average weekend athlete can’t complete the event with some basic preparation. They also highlight the unique beauty of Wisconsin, with the Birkie trail cutting through the scenic Northwoods in February and RAW taking advantage of the state’s incredible network of smoothly-paved country roads in late summer.

In addition, both events allow the citizen athlete to rub shoulders with the professionals. The Birkie attracts some of the best cross-county skiers in the world, including current and past Olympians while RAW features past and current members of the Trek Bicycle pro team including Jens Voigt, Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal and Peter Stetina.

Finally, both events require a road trip out of town, a carbo load the night before and a pre-dawn alarm clock. And at the end, there’s a huge party with friends and family to celebrate a job well done.

One difference is that the Birkie is a timed “race” with published results while RAW is a “tour” with no finish times recorded.

Unfortunately, nobody told the front group of riders, who hammered right from the start through the streets of historic Dubuque and across the Mississippi River, that RAW is a tour, not a race.

Since I’d done a lot of training for RAW—including six rides of more than 100 miles—I was hoping to hang with the front pack. But as the leaders climbed hard up the steep Sinsinawa Mound just 10 miles into the ride, I realized I’d better find a slower group or I’d never make it to the finish.

Eventually, I settled into a group of about 25 riders and we stayed together more or less for the rest of the way, trading turns in the front breaking the wind. I ended up averaging 19 miles per hour for 180 miles (not counting stops), proving that the key to enjoying ultra-distance bike events is to find a group riding at a comfortable pace for you.

Meanwhile, Voigt and his colleagues from the Trek team started at the very back of the field with the idea of giving everyone a chance to brush shoulders—but hopefully not wheels—with some of the best in the world.

Organized by the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation, RAW is patterned after the epic Seattle-to-Portland, or “STP,” 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 attracted just fewer than 500 participants in 2015 and 873 registrants this year from 21 states. There was also a two-day option this year with an overnight stay in Beloit for those who wanted a more leisurely experience.

“We were thrilled with the turnout and want to thank everyone who worked, volunteered for or rode the most epic ride in Wisconsin,” said Bike Fed director Dave Cieslewicz. “RAW is fast becoming a bucket-list event, not just for Wisconsin but for the Midwest.”

While a final front group of about 15 very fast riders finished in less than nine hours, others took the full day to complete the route.

The event was professionally run and benefitted from tremendous volunteer support throughout. You could be pedaling along in the middle of nowhere and there would be someone in a red RAW T-shirt directing riders at the turns. I must have counted 50 volunteers in Beloit helping us find Riverside Park for lunch.

Maybe the only downside to the day was the fact we couldn’t take a ceremonial lap as promised around Kenosha’s Washington Park Velodrome due to ongoing problems with a resurfacing of the historic 1927 track.

That was a minor afterthought, however, as we sipped beer and chatted with other riders at Simmons Island Beach along the shores of Lake Michigan.

Next year’s RAW is scheduled for Aug. 26-27 and I can’t wait to sign up.

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