For maps of these routes, click gallery, above.
Minutes beyond Madison's urban edges, the best local bicycling depends on good escape routes that provide short and swift access to Dane County's extensive network of scenic two-lane town and rural roads. The less time cyclists devote to getting out of town, the more leisure they have to savor the resource.
Asking a biker to explain why they favor one escape route over another can turn out to be almost as personal and impertinent as asking someone why they ride the bike they ride. The answers are often revealing and thoughtful.
Michael Barrett bursts out laughing. "Holy smokes," says the geographer, cycling enthusiast and visionary Urban Thoreau blogger, pondering as he recovers his composure. In terms of frequency ridden, he decides, his favored escape route involves following the Lake Monona bike path, ducking under the Beltline near John Nolen Drive and continuing along the Capital City Trail to Larsen or Lake Farm Road. From there, he proceeds south to Goodland Park Road and cuts over to Lalor Road, which brings him to the Waubesa Wetlands State Natural Area at the southern end of Lake Waubesa.
An increasing number of southbound cyclists are favoring this corridor en route to Brooklyn, Oregon and/or Stoughton.
Barrett's own cycling forays tend to be recreational tours. "I like having destinations," he notes. "Somewhere where you can get a piece of pie." He'll sometimes extend the Waubesa Wetlands ride by continuing south via County B to Sand Hill Road, where there's a small cemetery with "Civil War-era stuff."
Barrett favors this escape route because "you're in rural areas pretty quick - 20 minutes and you're in the middle of the countryside." That mile-long stretch of County B has a bit of traffic on it, he observes, but also a very nice shoulder to accommodate cyclists, and it is set in the context of abundant rural roads. "If there's any advice I have for people," he notes, "it's take the town roads."
Barrett's choice of escape routes is often dictated by wind direction. He prefers to start into the wind and come home chased by a tailwind. When the winds are northerly, he often heads out Portage Road, off East Washington near East Towne. "You get out in the country pretty quick on that one, too," he observes.
Straight east, Barrett often escapes Madison via Buckeye Road past its rechristening to County AB to County MN, where he turns east for about a mile before pointing his front fork south on Door Creek Road to Lake Kegonsa State Park - "a really nice ride," he says.
One popular escape route is not so nice, in Barrett's estimation: "The whole Paoli ride is so cliché. There are so many fun roads out there. I just think people don't pick up a map and investigate the alternatives."
He contends development to Madison's southwest has boosted motor-vehicle traffic on Seminole Highway, Whalen Road and other arteries composing the classic Paoli ride, which many cyclists still consider Madison's premier escape route. "Too many of our former escape routes have been lost to bad development decisions," argues Barrett.
Arthur Ross, Madison's bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, cites a northbound escape route as his most frequent, attributing this to the location of his home on the north side of Madison. "I'll head up through Maple Bluff," he begins, following as close as possible to Lake Mendota to Westport Road, then turning west on County M and then toward Waunakee, or heading east by cutting across Hwy 113 to the Yahara Dog Park and then taking River Road toward Windsor and beyond.
Many local cyclists tend to head west, Ross allows, because that's where the most significant local hills make for the most challenging workouts and rewarding vistas. This comes at the expense of overlooking the less severe and sometimes table-flat terrain toward the east.
Eastbound options include either Milwaukee Street or Buckeye Road to Sprecher Road, which connects to a short stretch on Cottage Grove Road (a.k.a. County BB) before this escape route turns southeast on Vilas Road for the Glacial Drumlin State Trail or the wonderland of secondary roads leading to Cambridge, Deerfield, Lake Mills and points farther east.
The interactive route-planning map on the city's Bike Madison website provides powerful tools for finding and refining escape routes. Enter your starting location and desired destination, click the Submit button and up comes a map and cue sheet. Some of the interactive map's features are still in beta, sometimes yielding routes that include roads not well suited to biking for reasons of traffic volume, speed limits and other factors. But if you're not delighted with the suggested route, you can micromanage the heck out of it - zooming in to get a sense of adjacent alternatives, then clicking and dragging specific segments of the suggested route to whichever streets and trails you might prefer before printing out the cue sheet to take with you.
IronMan Wisconsin veteran Brad Werntz cites Midtown Road as his westbound Madison exit of choice. "That gets you to the meat of the IronMan hills" in a hurry, explains the Boulders Climbing Gym founder and owner of Pemba Serves, a regional sales representative for outdoor brands like Mountain Hardwear and Sea to Summit. Looped with Timber Lane and Old Sauk Road, it affords a "short timed ride that's just brutal," though he acknowledges Old Sauk's heavy traffic can be a deterrent.
To the south, Werntz favors the escape route of the Capital City Trail to Larsen and Goodland Park roads, and on from Lake Farm County Park to the secondary roads in the vicinity of McFarland and Oregon, like Schneider Drive. "It's territory I don't go to a lot on my own," he admits, but lighter traffic and the lack of what he calls "heart-attack hills" make this area attractive for early-season rides. "You get some nice long downhills that you can cruise."
Werntz often consults the man he calls his "road guru," Dr. Stanley Livingston, on matters including escape routes. Livingston cites the Paoli route - via the UW Arboretum to Seminole Highway and on to some combination of Whalen Road, County M, Range Trail Road, Sayles Trail, Borchert and Fitchburg roads - as an enduring classic, but notes Madison's extended Southwest Commuter Path now provides an enticing alternative. Beyond the city limits, it becomes the Badger State Trail, which continues to Purcell Road, a few miles shy of Paoli. There it converts to a crushed-limestone surface and continues to Belleville, Monroe and the Illinois border - linking the Capital City, Military Ridge and Sugar River trails.
"On Sunday mornings," Livingston adds, "when it's really quiet and there's not much traffic, I often go out East Washington to Portage Road," heading north toward Token Creek and Windsor. Within that window of opportunity, he suggests, this may be one of the most overlooked bicycle escape routes out of Madison.
Great Dane Bike Rides is another good resource for finding your way out of town on two wheels. The spiral-bound guide includes almost three dozen maps and cue sheets for popular Bombay Bicycle Club rides all over Dane County, including seven leaving Madison out of Vilas Park, six from Middleton's Lakeview Park, and a handful of others from Elver, Olbrich and Warner parks.
The second edition was published in 2005, but you can still find copies here and there around town. Things have changed in the intervening six years, of course. Traffic volumes have spiked on some roads along designated routes, for example. An updated third edition is now in the works. Meanwhile, what sustains the 2005 edition as a rich resource is the clarity of its black-and-white maps, which makes for brilliant reproduction on almost any copier, and its generous inclusion of dozens of neighboring town and rural roads along each designated route, in case construction or traffic hazards renders part of your chosen itinerary impassable or intolerable.
Many of the 2005 routes remain familiar to Bombay Bicycle cyclists. This year, some 17 of the BBC's rides leave from Lakeview Park, a dozen more depart from Vilas, and scores of others start from locations distributed throughout Dane County.
Toward the east out of Olbrich Park, Bombay Bicycle Club president Greg Hyer favors the bike path to Cottage Grove Road to County BB to Vilas Road, which brings you to the Glacial Drumlin State Trail or any number of secondary roads. "It's really pretty once you get out there," he says.
Amanda White, associate director for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, favors Pheasant Branch Road when heading north from the vicinity of Lakeview Park. "I love that road to bike on," she says. "It's not super hilly," distinguished instead by rolling hills flanked by rural landscapes she calls "just beautiful." It points cyclists toward Waunakee and Lodi, though Dane County's extensive network of two-lane town and rural roads on either side of Pheasant Branch afford a plethora of options ranging from DeForest and Poynette to Merrimac, Sauk City and beyond.
The escape-route infrastructure continues to evolve, White observes. She cites plans for the Lower Yahara River Trail, proposed as a link from the Capital City Trail at Lake Farm County Park to McFarland and Stoughton.
Kevin Luecke, lead planner for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, still likes Seminole for quick exits out of Madison whenever he is bound for Paoli, Belleville or New Glarus. He notes, however, that his tolerance for motor-vehicle traffic may be higher than that of some cyclists. Ditto his willingness to endure "terrible pavement," which explains his patience when riding on Old Sauk Road long after so many other cyclists have abandoned it for alternate routes.
With its straight lines and motor-vehicle traffic that "isn't too bad," Luecke adds, Middleton's Airport Road is a decent westbound alternative. Westbound from Elver Park, he favors Midtown Road for straight and true access to the hilly terrain in the Blue Mounds vicinity.
He has, however, abandoned Whalen Road because it has become "more trafficky" since he moved to Madison six years ago. Mineral Point Road, he observes, is likewise "not a pleasant experience."
Your own choice of bicycle escape routes out of Madison will come down to considerations like traffic volume and pavement quality. The point is to find ways to make a break for it and escape - however and whenever you can.