The group returned to the Capitol Square shortly after 7 a.m. on Saturday.
Cyclists know that there are few pleasures quite as calming as a star-lit bike ride. Whether it's a commute after a night shift, a training ride at the coolest time of day or a nightcap to an evening out, cycling in the evening is a joy -- especially around Madison, where bike paths and trails abound. Unfortunately, Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 45.04(2) prohibits the use of state trails between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., making it illegal for cyclists to train, commute on or otherwise use cycling paths at night.
Last weekend, a group of cyclists took a round-trip ride from Madison to the Illinois border to express their love for the sport and to demonstrate the importance of keeping trails open and accessible to bikers at all hours.
Leaving at about 11 p.m. Friday night, the cyclists used the Badger State Trail on their 90-mile ride, bringing along a trailer to "sweep" those who only wanted to ride part of the distance. The group returned to the Capitol Square shortly after 7 a.m. on Saturday.
"A couple of years ago a few friends and I were talking about putting together a fun ride down to the Illinois border," explains Richard Schick, the ride's organizer. "Not many people know that you can get down there so quickly on the Badger State Trail; it's less than 100 miles. We've been trying to think of a way to make it a better group ride and it slowly evolved into this system where we drop off a trailer and it's got beer and cola and everything else in it, and whoever [arrives first] gets the privilege of pulling it back."
Schick says the ride started simply as a way to introduce bicyclists to this attractive route. "It's a really beautiful trail," he says. "There's never many people out there; it's super desolate, you only pass through a couple road towns. And it's the right distance."
Martha Laugen rode much of the trail herself this year and found it "very meditative -- you're sort of singularly focused on what you're doing. We were fortunate to have clear skies full of stars, and a really awesome moon. So you just kind of get in the zone and keep putting one foot in front of the other."
Schick says he received an email from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) after last year's ride indicating that officials "weren't really happy about it."
But Schick says the rule barring people and traffic on state trails after 11 p.m. lumps transportation corridors in with state parks. "It's not a good rule for cyclists at all," he says.
Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator, says in an email that the DNR is talking internally about changing the rule. Any rule change, however, would need to be approved by the DNR board and the state Legislature and would need to be subject to a public hearing.
Brown says individuals who would like to see something "more quickly than our process can accommodate" should speak to the Wisconsin Bike Fed or their local legislators.
For now, though, Brown says Schick's group should have worked with the DNR before organizing its nighttime trail ride.
"We never said the ride couldn't happen, but rather that we wanted event organizers, for this and any proposed special event on our properties, to get in touch with the property manager and to work with us on these proposed events," says Brown. "A special event permit could allow an event like this to take place, legally, after hours."
Schick says he made an effort to address the safety issues raised by the DNR. "I do everything I can to make this a safe ride and stay within the bounds (and spirit) of the law, which is why the only violation they have come up with is one that shouldn't apply to transportation routes to begin with," he says. "There's nothing wrong with using the trail at night; we're not out there causing trouble, we’re just out there to have fun."
Bill Hauda, who works with the Wisconsin Non-Motorized Recreation and Transportation Trails Council and the Friends of Badger State Trail groups, says the law comes from an outdated idea of how the trails are used. "The state trails used to be considered something you just used for a bike ride while you're in the park," he says. "Since that time this has become part of a transportation network. Consider the economic impact. The trails are a transportation facility for people commuting, going to a 24-hour pharmacy -- anything."
Hauda says the Non-Motorized Trails Council has passed a resolution seeking repeal of the law as has the Bike Fed board.
Schick and Hauda encourage cyclists interested in helping change the law to contact the Bike Fed and work with their local advocacy groups. Says Hauda: "It's important to have these trails accessible 24/7."