Before moving to Wisconsin, the most “group riding” I’d ever done was with my friend Jonathan, who let me tag along one night on a “ramble” through the streets of south St. Louis. As I mentioned previously, my primary mode of biking was as a commuter. I’d ride with friends to work when I could – often with a coffee or Eat Rite Diner stop on the way – but these rides were, at the end of the day, mostly functional. We were riding because it was fun, sure, but we were still riding to go somewhere. Up here, I work in sales (booo) and need to drive for my job. Oh, and it was also winter for a long time up here. Like, it snowed two weeks ago – the end of April (it didn’t stick though, thankfully). I was woefully under-geared and thin-tired to tackle the snow once it came, and wasn’t going to be able to reasonably ride to work anyway, so something was going to have to change.
You see, I get a little stir-crazy if I don’t get to move, at least a little.
This has been perennially true: like many (most?) people, I feel better when I exercise. Exceedingly better. I tend to get kind of down in the dumps in the winter anyway (I’m still trying to decide whether it’s the season or my birthday), and doing a lot of sitting doesn’t really help. That, on top of not really knowing anyone up here, was a problem. So I found some people to bike with.
There is an insane amount of biking up here. I’ve heard it called a “mountain biking mecca,” “great place to ride,” and “really windy.” What’s been really interesting to me, though, is how different it all is. This probably shouldn’t be so surprising to me, but somehow it is. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time in the last few years playing ultimate, which is, in many ways, surprisingly homogenous so far as “vibe” and “interests” and “amount of beer and dancing” is concerned.
I’ve gone on (more or less) three different kinds of rides up here, and they’re all a lot of fun, but all very different so far as general vibe and demeanor (and also pace) are concerned. On all of them, though, I’ve gotten to meet some great people, hear excellent stories, and have boatloads of fun.
Fat Bike Rides, Winter and “Summer Safari”
The “Fat Rides” were my introduction to biking in North Wisconsin. I sent an email to this guy, and was put on this list, rented a bike with gigantic, ballooning tires from the local bike shop, and showed up at a coffee shop in Washburn, WI, and proceeded out, hesitantly, onto the ice in the Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior. At least, I think that first ride was on ice. All I remember was that there was snow, I was out of shape, I could not breathe, it was cold, and I had a lot of fun. Fast forward a few months, a few more adventures, and the weekly Fat Bike rides have become, more or less, the cornerstone of my experience in North Wisconsin (with the exception, of course, of living with A., who describes these rides as “hanging out with [my] old man friends”). I do, for what it’s worth, bring the average age on this ride down a few decades: there is, for example, one guy who sometimes comes on the rides at a youthful 82, though I’d say the majority of them are in their 60s. They’re all retired, and I am envious of their free time. In any case– These rides are always a hoot, and we usually ride somewhere new and with some feature of interest or other, making the rides always something of an adventure. Sometimes we go fast (usually when I’m late and have to haul-ass to catch up), sometimes we go slow (especially when the snow is powdery and high and you don’t have studs on your tires), but there is always lots of fun conversation and bullshitting and terrible puns (oh god, the puns…). It’s the kind of ride where, when you get to the top of a big hill, you stop, and then everyone catches up, and you tell stories, and make more bad puns, and then zip down the other side. It’s friendly and fun and something I look forward to every week. They’ve even got me to show up to help out with bike-trail maintenance.
Type of Biking: Fat bikes, on ice, MTB trails, or forest roads
Speed/pace: Extremely variable
Associated Beverage: Beer or whiskey post-ride
Notable Feature(s): Terrible puns
Clicky-Shoes Road Rides
I’m still pretty fresh on these, and it shows (though they’re nice and say that I’m keeping up OK). I was introduced to these rides – which assume a variety of guises, locations, and leaders – by one of the fat bikers who lives in Ashland, who generously drove me down to Mason, WI, for the first road ride of the newly-thawed season. I put the clicky ISSI pedals my mother (who used to do a fair bit of road biking herself) got me on the Schwinn and pulled on my commuter fancy bike pants over a pair of compression shorts, since I didn’t have a pair of those butt-padded shorts anymore (long story). I hung with the main group for the first half, then hung back with the folks I came with for the second. It was nice, got me moving, and taught me how to (sort of) ride with a pack of lycra-covered cyclists on fancy-schmancy bikes. I did OK, for a first timer.
I’ve been on a few road rides since then – and am looking forward to another this weekend – which usually go about 40 miles. This turned out to be a less intimidating distance that I’d thought before my first of these – a “Java Ride” – but even so, these rides are more “focused.” It’s not to say they’re not fun, but man, some of these dudes can fucking go. The group will usually split up into a few different mini-groups depending on pace, and the guys at the front will hammer the crap out of the hills and “pull” or lead the pack effortlessly (so far as I’m concerned). I tried “pulling” on the last ride, and lasted about a mile. I’d never appreciated the benefits of riding behind someone else so much before that.
These rides are great for a number of reasons, all of which are wildly different than the fat bike rides. Though I do learn skills on those (i.e., how to ride a mountain bike), riding with a group has been a whole new skillset for me. I’m slowly picking up the minutia of the hand signals and the order in which one goes up the line for their turn to lead, learning when it’s a good time to ride two-aside and when you really should get the fuck behind the guy in front of you and keep pace. I have also, finally, started to appreciate why you may in fact want to have one of those speed-showing computers on your stem, or why having your shifters somewhere other than the downtube is significantly more convenient in almost all circumstances. I’m still getting to know the guys in this group, but I’m learning a lot, getting in much better shape (even though they still have to wait for me to catch up sometimes), and generally feeling much more “cyclist-like,” which is both hilarious and kind of fun.
Type of Biking: Road bikes, the fancier the better
Speed/pace: Faster than I have ever gone before
Associated Beverage: Espresso
Notable Feature(s): They seem to go faster up the hills
Casual Monday Night Rides
This is the newest ride, and easily the most chill and cool and casual. There’s a 10-mile bike path loop in town, which seems to be the usual route (or at least a part of it), and unlike the other rides, which I typically have to drive to in some fashion, these rides are in-town and door-to-door. They start at the bike shop and go leisurely through town, with frequent stops for stories, catching-up, or “artisanal well water,” which I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
The fun thing about these rides is the people: to be honest, we (okay, mostly I) don’t know too many folks in town still, but of the folks we know, I’ve seen almost all of them on one of the two rides I’ve done, even the science professor (who went to the same PhD program as my friend Kyle!) who we did trivia with that one time at that one bar that I really liked but is now closed. Whereas the road rides and the fat bike rides, to some extent, can be semi-competitive, or at least go-down-the-hills-fast, this ride is all about good company and recreation, you know, “fun.”
I’ve played competitive sports (relatively poorly, and really not that competitively) so long that it’s a nice change of pace for me, a good, weekly reminder to chill the fuck out and smell the flowers (or whatever). Everybody comes in on a different setup, with a different level of fitness, with a different story from the weekend, or the workday, or back-when, and it’s wonderful. I think there’s even talk of having a shorter, “extra casual” option for the ride, because the more the merrier.
The mission of the local bike organization, the North Coast Cycling Association, is simply to get more people riding bikes. I think this is an excellent example of that, and I dig it supremely (plus, last night, they told me there used to be underground streets or a city or something like that in Ashland… so that’s something “dig”-related I’ll need to check out…).
Type of Biking: Ride-What-Ya-Got
Speed/pace: Casual, cool, calm, collected
Associated Beverage: TBD (Possibly beer, possibly ice cream… we’ll see as the weather continues to improve)
Notable Feature(s): Fun and friendship