By Rob Quinn
Ok bike people that know everything there is about the sport, I have a pop quiz for you; name the Bicycling Capital of America?
Pencils down. Let’s take a look at your answers.
- Boulder, CO. Home to the pros with great road riding and limited access Mountain Biking. Nope.
- Portland, OR. Another great guess. Hundreds of miles of bike lanes and people that ride in the rain every day. Wrong.
- San Diego, CA. Nice try. Awesome town with perfect weather and the home of Triathlon. Incorrect.
- Durango, CO. You’d think. Bike crazy town with Fort Lewis…College cycling powerhouse and a huge Devo program. No.
All right…we could go on all day…but in the name of brevity, I’ll put you out of your angst.
The answer my friends…is Sparta, WI. That’s right. That little town of 10,000 in Western WI is at one end of the Elroy-Sparta bike trail opened in 1967, this is considered to be the first rail-to-bike trail which is a 32 mile bike trail that passes through rural scenery and three tunnels; and is part of a larger bike trail system operated by the state of Wisconsin. www.bike4trails.com
Based on this, Sparta dubs itself the “Bicycling Capital of America”.
A heady claim, but if you have the same name as the warrior Greek City State, you are used to punching above your weight. When the original Greek City state was issued a demand by the capital Athens to lay down their weapons their response became the city’s slogan “Come and take them”. Don’t mess with Texas? Don’t mess with Sparta.
Western Wisconsin, more specifically, the crown jewel city of La Crosse officially qualifies for Cycling Mecca status. Let’s take a look at the check list.
Great Riding. Check. This area is known by a few other handles. God’s Country, The Coulee Region, River City and Three Rivers to name a few. The Mississippi River reigns supreme here and La Crosse is a river crazy town, taking advantage of the three rivers that meet there (Mississippi, La Crosse and Black Rivers) in an area the original native residents deemed sacred. After the ice age melt, what was left is a series of bluffs and coulees with 750 to 900 feet at their highest ridges or “Bluffs” as they are called there. It’s easy to do 10k of climbing during a Century in this area. 7% to 9% grades appear often. Traffic is light and courteous, and the scenery is the best in the Midwest. www.explorelacrosse.com
Beer. Not to brag. These folks have been over-the-top beer consumers long before most of you guys were born. Longtime home of The G. Heileman Brewing Company that dominated the economy and Chicago Beer sales operated in La Crosse from 1858 to 1996 and really defined the town as a rip-roaring brewery town. Before that it was a rip-roaring logging town and before that it was a meeting place for Outlaws, Explorers, and Native Americans. The main drag, 3rd street was once in the Guinness book of World Records for having the most taverns on one street, I believe the number was 135. It’s culture so loose and void of strata that immigrants from many areas settled there because of the lack of social structure and opportunities for those tough enough to make something of themselves. Home to the World’s biggest Six pack and a giant statue of Gambrinas, the German god of beer. La Crosse can drink Boulder under the table, even with a hangover.
World Class Cycling Company. Yep…they even have one of those.
Borah Teamwear. www.borahteamwear.com has been putting world class cycling wear out of their plant in tiny Coon Valley, just outside of La Crosse. Founder Chris Jackson, went to college at The University of Wisconsin La Crosse and fell in love with that hilly region, training as a road racer and in 1998 rented a grocery store in town and bought sublimation machines that broke constantly and tested his resolve in founding a custom apparel company. Fast forward to 2019 and Borah Teamwear is a world class company with sales north of $5M annually by offering high quality Cycling, Nordic and Alpine wear for teams or individuals cut and sewn in the good old USA. They reside in a state-of-the-art-facility with their own Mountain Bike and Nordic Ski loop to complete the deal.
People. Check. This is one sporting town. Originally known as Stickball (yo, not to be confused with the New Jersey version) The Native Americans in the La Crosse area (forefathers to the Sioux) played this Stickball on 100 mile stretches on river plains for weeks at a time in non-warring years.
It was when they saw the first White Explorers to the region, The French-Canadian voyageurs who traveled by birch canoe with a Priest. This Priest held a staff (La Croix) that reminded them of their Sticks…and that’s how the game of La Crosse came to be named. If you play your cards right…you can use that trivia to win free beers for life. Ironically the sport of La Crosse is not played in La Crosse today. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction.
Back in the day, each University of Wisconsin Campus had a specialty. La Crosse was a “Phys-ed” school that specialized in training gym teachers, coaches and athletic trainers. As a result, this has always been an over the top “jock” town that also included winter sports and cycling. Nearby MT. La Crosse has the best skiing in the Midwest taking advantage of the 750 to 900 vertical the area offers. The athletic prowess of all La Crosse sports teams is a big part of the culture.
The Midwest attracted different ethnic groups during the great migration. Swedes took to Minnesota. Dane’s to Iowa. German’s to the brewing and manufacturing industry in Milwaukee. La Crosse was dominated by Norwegian’s. The toughest outdoorsmen and relatives to the Vikings (not the football playing ones in Minnesota…this is Packer country hoser) set roots in this valley and created a bit of a utopia. To this day you will notice a very Nordic look in this area. With them, they brought the traditional values of robust health through work and exercise. It’s not unusual to have a 90-year-old guy named Ole Olsen buy you a beer at the Fjord Inn in Coon Valley before he has to excuse himself to feed his 200 head of cattle with below zero temperatures in January. And he’s not wearing gloves.
In the 70’s Wisconsin Super Week was the biggest week of bike racing in the U.S. and attracted the likes of Greg LeMond (whose wife is from La Crosse) and Eric Heiden. Hometown boy Greg “Doughboy” Demgen was an original 7-11 team member. The town used to host a truly epic century called The Oktoberfest 100…that you guessed it …sported 10k in climbing in 100 miles. With the world headquarters of Trane Air Conditioning, three Colleges and three world class health care organizations, there has always been a healthy cross pollination of outsiders. Many brought their love of cycling. Many have moved here especially for the cycling. A $6k road bike does not get a second look around here. There is a bonafide mountain bike scene with a few dedicated areas. Last month the city allocated a $100,000 grant to develop a downhill / gravity area. Gnarly dude.
As mentioned, this was primarily a Beer town before the era of consolidation sealed the fate for the home- town brewery (Don’t despair Colorado people. You can get an Old-Style Lager at the Rocky Flats bar outside of Golden). La Crosse’s world class Oktoberfest is the definitive celebration of the area. Started as a community gathering in 1960, the event has grown into a defining event that celebrates the harvest and Bavarian culture that is also prominent in the area. This event draws over 150,000 people opening weekend. I’ve been around the block and seen a thing or two, this event is a two fisted rager by anybody’s metrics.
So, my 5-day solo jaunt was going to be double time. Trying to get as much riding in as possible while not missing any of the fun “Fest” ivities and old friends.
I’d be remiss to not mention my history. My parents moved there after World War II and a 2-day courtship and marriage. My Mom’s first husband was killed on a mission three months before that. Things moved fast in those days. My dad enrolled at The La Crosse State Teacher’s College to study and play football (Now UWL) as a 26-year-old WWII vet, (as was most of the team) he was born and raised in The Bronx and never heard of Wisconsin until he moved there. These guys went on to compose one of the most famous College Football teams in the history of Wisconsin, winning the now defunct Cigar Bowl and earning a degree of national prominence. Dad went on to open Quinn’s University Sports Shop that resided on Main Street for 40 years and was a big part of the fabric of that town. My dad was one of the big personalities in town with his WWII record, his football heroics and his New York accent…there was nobody like him in town, and La Crosse adopted him as their own. My promising football career was derailed by a serious knee injury in high school. Guess what the old German Doctor told me in 1976? If I rode my bike every day, I’d make my leg strong enough to have an active adult life after a then mind blowing operation, that included a full reconstruction; old school ACL drill and wrap, meniscus removal and patella realignment and then…six months in a cast from toes to hip. Dr. Hayden…wherever you are in heaven…you were right! The bike fixed everything and I’ve barely missed two days in a row since then. After numerous tune-ups the new school hot shots in Vail still marvel at the workmanship of that surgery and the strength of a leg I rebuilt one mile at a time.
My wife’s family were equally involved in Sports with her dad and uncle being a few of the more storied athletes to come out of La Crosse. Both received pro baseball contracts but WWII called and that was that. Her uncle Steve Pavela “The Blond Bomber” was Commissioner of The Wisconsin Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association and Captain of The Notre Dame baseball team. The family spoke Polish at the dinner table even in the 80’s.
This was also the start of a few passages in life where something bad can turn into something good. I doubt I’d be a life-long Football player but am a lifelong cyclist. Bored out of my brains and done with football in high school I began messing around with drums and percussion. I crossed the line from “jock” to “freak” about a week after my injury and learned to navigate both cultures with ease. Another trait that would serve me well later in life and business. Today I describe myself as a drumming bike rider. I play every day and am in two bands, it’s a big part of what makes me happy. This was my first lemons to lemon-aid scenario in life. Little did I know there would be a few more.
Over the course of 4 days I rode a hardtail on the 4 Rivers Trails with my Wisconsin buddy Steve tapping out a nice pace on his new Gravel Grinder and also road biked on the roads through God’s Country with those rollercoaster hills taxing my Colorado hardened legs. I finally stopped taking pictures of bald eagles after the 6th one in 3 hours. The epic Saturday locals ride was called so everybody could set up at the parade and get their party one. When I mentioned we rode 30 in the AM people bought me beers. The parades, parties, Packer Game and beer tents and bars packed with the people I grew up with (my wife is also from La Crosse but politely declined this caper) competed for my time equally. By Sunday the weather was about to settle in (the storm that brought 2 feet of fresh snow to Montana was about to encamp in the Three Rivers area for a week) So I picked up my bat and ball (actually two bikes) and limped home (driving a 1990 Mazda Miata no less…nose to the storm) after living a week in dog years, where 1 year is 7. You ask why? Because it’s impossible to teach an old dog new tricks. Woof. To quote a saying from old Sparta…”Sparta only gives birth to true men”. They play both ends of the clock here.
I think the term “Suck it up buttercup” should have been invented here. Or in the words of Steve Earle…”It was a small price to pay for a week of living dangerously”.
Looking for a new adventure that’s the real deal on a few levels?
Look no further than La Crosse and the “West Coast” of Wisconsin. You might not want to come back.
awesome read- Rob- amazing stuff-great story I loved it well written too .. tough people in the midwest- for sure -we will have to get together for a hot dish sometime- L’Etoile Du Nord- ya you Betca – DaveMeister