Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Bicycling Capital Of America - Welcoming Those On Both Two Wheels And Eighteen

Yesterday we delivered a load to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, a place we had only been to a couple of times.  On this trip we were able to unload early in the day which left us the rest of the weekend to explore, so after doing a little online research we decided to hit the next town over - the Bicycling Capital of America - Sparta, Wisconsin.

Get ready for a picture-heavy post!

We hit the store for some groceries then found a place to park in the downtown area. We were less than a mile from Water Street, which is where we needed to be if we wanted to be close to where we'd pick up the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail. Everywhere you went in town, there was a bike - on people's lawns, in business logos, on the street signs. But there was no bike as big as the one on the southeast corner of the intersection at W. Wisconsin and S. Water streets.

That's where you'll find Ben Bikin', the 32-foot-tall bicycling mascot of the town.  He's billed as the "world's largest bicyclist" and was built by the F.A.S.T. Corporation, a local company specializing in the manufacture of fiberglass statues.  In fact, their mold yard is just a few miles away on Highway 21 between Sparta and Tomah. That alone is a tourist attraction worth seeing.   

From this park area, we crossed the little wooden bridge and headed south on Water Street.  We were making our way to the Sparta Chamber of Commerce, located in an old train depot, at the south end of Water Street.

Just a few blocks down, before the railroad tracks and almost to the train depot, we came to the Caboose Cabin. It's a 1968 SOO-line caboose that you can stay in! 

It's set up like a cute little vacation home, with a beautifully landscaped yard and as you can see, SOO painted on the side, like all the SOO line rail cars sported. 
It was here that we discovered just how much Sparta loves truckers.  Because this is where we found the parking lot they have dedicated to truckers ONLY.  Just past the edge of the property of Caboose Cabins, if you make a right on Foss Drive and follow it to the end, you'll see a sign that says "Parking for Semi Trucks ONLY.  All others will be towed."  Well isn't that refreshing!  Usually the sign is the other way around, restricting the trucks.

This is the only city we can think of that has done this.  So yeah, awesome move Sparta.  A place specifically for those of us with eighteen wheels to park, in order to explore on two wheels. 

Just across the tracks from that intersection of Water Street and Foss Drive is the old train depot, which houses the Chamber of Commerce.  It's also where you'll pick up the trail.  To the east is the Elroy-Sparta Trail, to the west, the La Crosse River State Trail.
We decided to head east because we wanted to see the first of the three stone train tunnels along the trail.  Riders over the age of 16 have to buy a $4.00 day pass to use the trail (a yearly pass is $20.00), but people walking it can do so for free.  We paid our money and headed out. 

Wisconsin was the first state to convert abandoned railroad tracks into bicycle trails.  The Elroy-Sparta trail was their first.  The trail surface is hard-packed dirt with finely crushed stone on it.  I actually felt like I was riding on slightly bumpy pavement.  It was very comfortable to ride on. 

Most of the scenery on the trail is pretty much the same - it looks a lot like the photo above - but there are spots where you'll see cows, barns, and silos peeking through the trees.
There are several wooden bridges along the way, most of them pretty small. This one was a little longer than most and seemed like just the right spot for a quick photo break.  Since it was late in the day, there weren't too many people on the trail.
But when there were, they seemed to come in packs.  And there were several families, like this one passing Ed.
The scenery in the open spaces was classic Wisconsin.  I swear I saw cheese being grown.  Yes, I'm kidding.  I know they don't grow cheese.  Because if they did, I'd totally quit trucking and go into farming.
We saw wildlife both scary and cute.  This thing made me stop in my tracks.  I saw something odd shaped in the trees.  It looked...well...out of place.  Round.  Not a leaf.  Not an animal.  So I took a picture. 
Then I zoomed in and realized it was a nest.  Hornets, I'm guessing. I remember seeing them when I was a kid. I didn't stick around to see what exactly was flying in and out, as those things freak me out.  And there's no way I can out-bike a swarm of flying stinging whatever-the-hell they were.
This little rabbit was one of the cuter critters we saw.  Earlier on the trail we saw another one hauling ass out of the weeds.  Right behind him was what we later found out was a mink.  Apparently, they're common in that area and they chase and kill the rabbits.  Damn.  The minks may get their jollies chasing and killing bunnies but unfortunately (for the mink), they're later made into beautifully luxurious coats.  
The trail was nice, lots of trees, lots of shade - not that we needed it since it was a cool, overcast day - but not much to look at.  Personally, after the first mile or two, I was bored.  I like to see stuff.  I like to ride through villages or cities, taking pictures of interesting things.  This was too much of the same. 

The path is lined with trees on either side most of the way, so you really aren't seeing anything but woods.  And from the train depot to the first tunnel is nine miles.  NINE miles of woods is about eight miles too much tree for me.

As I mentioned, the trail is straight and relatively flat, but really it's a slow, gradual upgrade.  For Ed, it's cake.  For me, a bit more challenging. Small hills do me in. I needed to stop more frequently.  When I hit a long, steady upgrade, my quads - those muscles on the front of your thighs, the ones I thought I'd go my whole life never knowing the name of - burn as if I were doing squats for hours.  And if you know anything about me, there is no exercise I do for minutes, let alone hours.  But man, when I ride, I feel that freakin' burn. Maybe I need to start doing squats!

I was just about to give up on reaching the damn tunnel when we rounded the bend and came across this guy - Tunnel Tom.  He lives right on the trail, had bikes in his yard, and runs a little stand that sells drinks, snacks, and flashlights, which you need for the tunnel.

Tunnel Tom had been living on this property his entire life.  He had ten acres of land and the house belonged to his parents, who had passed.  He was a furniture maker - once working at one of the factories in town but later making furniture at his home - a guitar player, a cat lover (he had more than ten of them), and a cyclist.  He rides over 100 miles a week. 

After we were talking for a bit I asked him, "How far is this damn tunnel??"  He said we were two minutes from the opening.  "Is there food on the other end?" I wanted to know.  He said the tunnel was a mile long and the town of Norwalk was three miles past that.  I was seriously thinking of buying a dinner of Snickers bars right there at Tom's shack.

He was so nice, I could have sat and talked to him for hours.  But I'd already ridden nine miles and I wanted to get this damn tunnel over with.  So we said goodbye to Tom and headed toward the tunnel.  We were thrilled when we got the first glimpse.  
As we got nearer, we noticed the temperature changed noticeably.  It was very cool.  Almost cool enough for a sweatshirt, which is a significant remark coming from me, the lover of all things polar.  Look how beautiful this is.  Like a storybook.  Or a horror movie.
We realized the cold air was blowing out from the tunnel, which as we got closer seemed a little creepier.  
The plaque near the tunnel said:

Back Breaking Work

Boom!  Dynamite blasts echoed throughout this valley as workers excavated the tunnels.  They used hand tools, horses, mules and oxen to remove the freed rock.  All tunnels were dug from both ends, but this tunnel was so long that workers also dug two long, deep shafts from above to help remove the rock.  These shafts were later sealed with bricks.

This tunnel was slow and labor intensive to build.  Workers struck an overhead spring which kept the tunnel wet and difficult to excavate.  Today, the ceilings and walls still drip with water and provide cool relief on a hot day.

The tunnel is 3,810 feet long, cost $247,272.00 to build (or, $65 per foot), was started in 1870 and took three years to complete.
They were not kidding about the cool or the wet.  The sign outside the tunnel requested those riding bikes to walk their bikes through the tunnel.  We had a flashlight in our pannier bag so Ed got that out and he also strapped our lights to the handlebars. 

We started walking.  It was very cold and once we got past the light that came in from the opening, it was also very dark.  You couldn't even see the other end.  And you couldn't see people walking either, only the lights from their bikes until they got closer and the dark masses turned into faces and baseball caps and little kids.  The trail surface was the same inside the tunnel as it was out except that it was raised a little in the center with drainage ditches on either side where the water ran freely.  And there were several ruts in the center of where we were walking, which I think was probably due to the dripping water. 

As you get into the center of the tunnel, you really can't see a thing.  It's even colder at this point, probably forty-five degrees, and the sound of water dripping creates a constant, hollow echo.  I guess I'm glad we visited when we did because from November to May there are bats in the tunnel and I don't really know how I'd feel walking through there knowing there are creatures that thrive in that inky black environment flying around my head.   It was so spooky.  I've never been in anything like it.  The tunnel was really unique and probably the highlight of the bike ride, but I can't say I loved it.

 a shot of Ed exiting the other side.  The tunnel is almost a mile long (.73) and for the last 500-feet, we got on our bikes and rode out.  My feet were wet from stepping in puddles, my hair was soaked, and my shirt and pants had big, wet drops on them. 
Once we made it to the other end we decided not to ride the additional three miles into Norwalk.  We were hungry, but it was getting late and we didn't want to go the extra distance and then get caught riding back in the dark.

So we turned right around and went back through the darkness.  We rode most of the way this time, only seeing one or two people along the way.  I just followed Ed's silhouette and steered wherever he did. 

After we passed Tunnel Tom again, shouting our thoughts on the tunnel to him and thanking him for the chat, we commented to each other that we'd probably enjoy the ride back more since it was mostly downhill.  I know I was happy about that because that meant the ride would go a lot faster.  I was bored with the scenery at this point and starving.  I brought water and a package of Fig Newtons, which we devoured the other end of the tunnel, and now I just wanted to get back to Sparta, eat dinner, and relax for the night.

In all, with our riding around town before we hit the trail and after, we logged about 25 miles for the day.  That was enough for one day and I was happy to see Ben and his giant bike again because it meant we were close to the truck. 
We used the hose at the Information Center to spray the mud and debris off our bikes and then rode to get a bite to eat.  It was a full day and a great experience. 

This place is great for anyone who wants to put a few miles on their bike (or feet) and for truckers who like to bike or walk and are looking for a place along their route to do it.  Now you know there's a place where you're welcome, and where you can safely park to get out to explore.  There are other locations along the trail that offer parking, so be sure to check out  Bike Sparta and the other links in this post for additional information. 

There are over 101 miles of connected trails that all come together in Sparta.

I'd say that's a damn good reason to call it the Bicycling Capital of America. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
2012: Crossing The Mojave
2011: Justin Time For A New Pair Of Boots
2010: Miles Of Smiles, Hours Of Laughs
2009: I’m Dreaming Of Blue Skies, Key Lime Pie And Pink Flamingos*
2008: Stop Beyond The Palm
2007: Kittery Dittery Do
2006: Crab Infested Thoughts
2005: Bi The Way


dlg aka:Ed' mom said...


Rachel said...

Your pictures are absolutely beautiful! We are looking for trucking related guest bloggers, I'd love to talk to you more about it. If you're interested shoot me an email at

Angela said...

Ok that's awesome. I keep trying to convince Nate to go on vacation to Wisconsin. He says "People go to the beach, the Tennessee mountains, the Grand Canyon and stuff for vacations.... Wisconsin isn't for vacationing". But I totally think he's wrong. I love Wisconsin. Now I might have ammunition for my next trip suggestion... we love biking rail trails and that looks like it was an awesome one to do! Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know where a trucker is suppose to park?? It's kinda hard to park an 80+ foot vehicle. Any place that I know of where they would have to park, they would have to walk or bike to the trail before they even start "on the trail". Sparta does have some pretty spots, but they have some pretty ugly spots too.

The Daily Rant said...

ANONYMOUS: Did you read the post? If so, you might have missed this:

"It was here that we discovered just how much Sparta loves truckers. Because this is where we found the parking lot they have dedicated to truckers ONLY. Just past the edge of the property of Caboose Cabins, if you make a right on Foss Drive and follow it to the end, you'll see a sign that says "Parking for Semi Trucks ONLY. All others will be towed." Well isn't that refreshing! Usually the sign is the other way around, restricting the trucks."

We didn't actually park there, we already had a spot in a lot in town. Which meant yes, we had to bike from the truck to the start of the trail. But it wasn't far, and if the purpose is to ride your bike, what's another mile or two?