All you cyclists need to get off the road…every kind of road…at least for a little while now and then. While there is a lot to learn from a road, you can, and should, take opportunities to veer off it and see, feel, smell, and listen more to the land it goes through. Assuming you’re wanted there and legally can of course. Stop, get off your bike, and stand there with receptors set to 10. Wonder where you are.
There aren’t really any wrong ways to ride, but I think you’re doing yourself a disservice if, when you climb aboard your bike, your only focus is on the physical and mechanical aspects of forward motion. Just like a great composition in art utilizes positive and negative space, or a good narrative has some reading between the lines to be done, a great ride out on your bike should be done in tandem with awareness of the environment you’re in. I’ve made a point in the last 10 years to add to my rides, wherever they are, with non-bike related garnish.
Three of my four decades have been solidly occupied by bicycles. Even those of you with shorter histories of bicycle symbiosis know why. Bikes are the best. There are universal commonalities among us like the feeling of freedom on the first ride we can remember, or frustrating flat tire stories, but from there, the reasons we ride can vary greatly. I still stand by my initial request though.
I have very sporadically raced road and mountain bikes in my time, barreling through courses I trained to get through as fast as I could, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you much about where they really were. I’m not anti-racing, but I feel I missed out on something each time. There are notorious events everywhere, hammered and shredded upon, but it seems they’re usually described by the features contained within the edges of the course’s tarmac or trail – that one hill, descent, corner, or drop.
Riding as fast as I can doesn’t rank too high on my “to-do list” anymore. Not nearly as high as wanting to know as much as I can about the place where I’m riding, camping, or having a beer during or after said ride. Whenever possible, I like to ask or read about a place or region I’m in or will be spending some time in - at least keep a list of questions – I even carry a notepad now if I’m pretty sure my mind is going to be blown – that I can find answers to when I return.
Understanding where you are adds dimension to the ride. When you’re in the middle of a ¾ mile long tunnel on the Elroy Sparta trail over in Wisconsin for example, it’s pretty hard not to think about the thousands of times trains also passed through, how they fit in there, what it must have sounded like. Knowing about that former rail corridor makes the placement of the little towns along the way make sense. I like to imagine what it was like when the prosperity of living along that new technology was peaking, or wondering what had already changed by the time the train stopped running. Wonder like this all changes exponentially depending on where you find yourself – a city street in Copenhagen or a cliff top in The Cascades.
On your own, and without inquiring, you never really know what a place is like just because of the day or days you’re in it. You might have happened to catch it during a bout of atypical weather. It might just so happen that you rolled into a place when The Town Charmer or The Hilarious Ranger had a day off, keeping you from that unsolicited golden local or area knowledge that would have changed your view.
I find that there are three reliable ways to dissect your coordinates – Ask someone who’s already planted where you are, from someone who’s found themselves in the same place you are and asking what brought them there, and by making the effort to investigate on your own when there’s no one around.
Being out on a bike is a pretty disarming way to approach someone and start a conversation. It’s not unusual that one will get started before you can say a word, by the person you rolled up to, or was already seated at the restaurant or bar you just parked your bike next to. I’ve been asked hundreds of times, “So where are you coming from today?” But don’t wait for someone to make the first move. Pull up a stool at the bar and ask, “What’s the story here?” Chances are likely someone will be happy to share their version.
A spoken account or a point in the right direction to information that starts with, “It was on this very road,” or “This area used to be known for” sets up scenery both present and imagined, and gives you multiple realities to pedal through. Does it matter that Sayner, Wisconsin is the birthplace of the snowmobile, or “snow toboggan” as it was called, when you roll through as a cyclist? I think it should if you can relate to the human desire overcome the terrain over a given distance.
If you could go back in time to 1924 and ride parallel to Carl J. Eliason on his first winter run, I’m guessing you’d both be scanning the landscape with similar looks on your faces - despite the different vehicles. I know about Carl because I stopped and looked around, and asked the first time I was through there. I think of what he did there every summer I’m back in the area, and I’ll likely never forget it. I think stuff like that is cool.
It also happened to be in that region where my high mileage friend Craig and I met the woman we now refer to as “Ursula”. Craig is fortunate to have a cabin in Northern Wisconsin surrounded by hundreds of miles of rolling gravel roads, and we’ve ridden them for the last 11 summers. Since acquiring fatbikes a couple of years ago, we’ve discovered an equal amount of gated snowmobile trails that all but guarantee total solitude since we’ve never seen another fatbike up there, and getting a trail map is a tricky thing if you’re not a member of the Barnstormers Snowmobile Club, or you don’t have a pontoon boat and an adorable 8-year-old daughter. That’s another story.
But yet, on one ride in a new section of forest, we unexpectedly met her. We stopped by a creek for beers and lunch four hours in to the day and heard the familiar sound of a straining truck engine. She got out with her Chesapeake Bay retriever and was definitely as surprised to see us, as we were to see her.
As her dog set about pulling tree roots out of the ground with its mouth, this 60-something year old former Indian reservation lawyer, currently living a few towns away, shared how much she too loved the area, and how in her down time there she was teaching herself Mongolian before heading to that country a few months from then for the Peace Corps. She told us that that creek was usually full of ducks, and she was verifying that for her son who’d be coming up from Minneapolis to hunt the next day. Oddly enough, it turns out her son lived a couple of blocks from Craig’s house down there.
She told us about where the creek went which led to more descriptions of what else we could encounter depending which direction we headed. These trails we learned, navigable only by the kinds of respective machines we both chose for the task, were once far more travelled and maintained when more people lived out there. Paved roads and conveniences likely led the hands of these old inhabitants into surrounding populations, but like Ursula, folks are still around who know the history. The woods swallowed any evidence we might have stumbled upon on our own.
Maybe that history will become less and less available over time as people who know it move on, or the assumption that there’s nothing to see in those parts keeps people from wondering or exploring them. But we were lucky enough to learn it because, like Ursula, we were pulled by our own curiosity to see for ourselves, listen when we were told, or ask when we weren’t. You can make the right time in the right place.
The world is not only small, but full of individuals with vastly different backgrounds that figure out how to exist within the well-defined parameters dictated by an environment, environments you sometimes both happen to find yourselves in. Their take and your take about “why” and “how” both tell as much about a place as any version of prior documentation, and it’s just another angle on the “sense” a place makes. Ask yourselves and each other, what are you both there for?
Then there are the places or chunks of Earth, free from people, which you can safely bet have never been reached via or touched with a bicycle. I experienced that recently on a fatbike trip with my friends Benton and Hansi near the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota. Off trails and fireroads, on tree-choked soil too soft or debris strewn for any other kind of tire, we were fully immersed in a landscape that we couldn’t talk about in well-known specifics with other bike riders later, let alone non-bike riders.
As first-timers-far-as-we-can-tell-types, we alone could explain the details of some of these locations, and we made sure to take in as many as we could. Those moments are invaluable and increasingly rare unless you put yourself out there. When I found out later that what we were on was a mountain range 2 billion years ago, it made the brief time we were riding a bicycle over it harder to wrap my brain around, and endlessly fascinating. The things that land has seen are impossible to fathom.
Remember and work to replicate and build on that feeling of freedom we all felt the first time we rode somewhere, away from home. On that ride, even familiar places had new sights, sounds, and smells because we arrived exposed and free to absorb it all. The thing that hooked us all was about far more than the bike. Now think about all the other rides you’ve been on, and some of the particulars you may have missed. Go back if you can. Keep your eyes and ears open. Taste the “world famous” dish a town is known for, and wonder why if it’s weird. Keep asking questions.
There will always be times when “a quick spin” is all you can squeeze in, but for every other ride, take that ability to flood your senses and imagination with the space around you and your bike, finally knowing where you are or were.
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I had to live on both coasts a couple of times to realize that maybe being born in the Midwest wasn’t just arbitrary. I’m drawn to the terrain here, and if you catch me with one of this region’s supreme IPAs in hand, I’ll talk your ear off about my favorite spots. I’ll always take every opportunity though to explore every nook and cranny anywhere I can on a bike, because that’s what makes me feel most alive.