The Yellow Jersey Lounge and Deck.
Who would you rather wake up with, Bernard Hinault or Miguel Indurain? Or how about Lance Armstrong? You have your choice at Earth Rider, the bicycling-themed hotel in Brodhead. Each of the hotel's five rooms is dedicated to one of the men who have won the Tour de France at least five times.
The inn is 33 miles due south of Madison, but more to the point, it is near one end of the Sugar River State Trail, the converted rail right-of-way that meanders through forests and wetlands from New Glarus, 23 miles to the northwest. After a day spent pedaling on the crushed-limestone path, cyclists can unwind at Earth Rider with flat-screen television and a whirlpool bath, even as mechanics service the trusty Trek in the bike shop housed in the Earth Rider complex.
The hotel rooms also feature bike-themed art, chairs made from bicycle parts and biographies of the riders. "I thought I overdid it," says owner Sharon Kaminecki of the decor in the Armstrong-themed room - pictures of Lance Armstrong are, it turns out, easier to come by than pictures of Jacques Anquetil. "But guests say it's inspirational when they wake up."
Founded five years ago, Kaminecki's business is an example of Wisconsin's increasingly robust cycling infrastructure. In the same way that Cracker Barrels and Holiday Inns popped up to support travelers along the interstate highway system, business owners like Kaminecki - along with government entities and nonprofit organizations - have developed cycling-friendly establishments along Wisconsin's Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System.
The system's more than 1,700 miles run through city and country, from the Hank Aaron State Trail in the heart of Milwaukee to the Saunders State Trail in far northwestern Douglas County. Some trails feature relatively fewer amenities - especially newer ones, like the two-year-old Badger State Trail, which eventually will run between Madison and the Illinois state line. But whether you camp or prefer the more refined comforts of a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, overnight bicycle excursions on the trail system are a fine summer option.
Why? "With the economy the way it is, people are looking for a cheap vacation," says Brigit Brown, state trails coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources. Even inexpensive bicycles are perfectly suitable for the state's bike paths, which are smooth and mostly flat and, with their crushed-limestone surfaces, aren't meant for speed.
And when you're pedaling a bicycle, you're not in a car. "I think that with gas prices the last few years, driving too far was a concern for folks," says Brown. "People are more curious about the kinds of activities they can participate in close to home."
To be certain, bicycle tourism is not limited to the trail system. Wisconsin has options for mountain bikers, and the state's paved rural byways are ideal for bikers who crave speed. Indeed, at Earth Rider, some guests use the Sugar River trail, but others "show up with those $3,000 road bikes," says Kaminecki. "The great thing is, we have both here."
Still, because they're largely isolated from road traffic, the state trails offer cyclists a solitary, near-meditative experience that's more akin to sped-up hiking than to driving. Many of the trails' pretty country routes and long straight-aways owe to their beginnings as railways.
The rails-to-trails movement is a remarkable phenomenon that encourages land conservation and healthy recreation. As it happens, the movement started here in Dairyland. The first rails-to-trails conversion was the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, the 32.5-mile stretch between those two towns northwest of Madison. Not coincidentally, the Elroy-Sparta trail, which opened in 1967, also probably boasts the most developed cycling infrastructure of any Wisconsin trail.
Just check out the city of Sparta's website. "Bicycling Capital of Wisconsin," it boasts. (Then check out the pictures of Ben Bikin', Sparta's 32-foot fiberglass sculpture of a derbied man atop an old-fashioned penny-farthing bike.) The site features links to resources for cyclists, including lodgings and the Scenic Trails Shuttle Service, which picks up and drops off bikers along the trail.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Elroy-Sparta trail, in Elroy, is the Elroy Commons, a publicly owned facility that features showers, bike rentals and other amenities. The Elroy-Sparta trail connects with three other state trails to create a path more than 100 miles long, from Reedsburg northwest to Marshland.
Back in Brodhead, Kaminecki says that the Sugar River trail does not yet boast the cyclist-friendly services of Elroy-Sparta, even though Sugar River opened 30 years ago. "I'm trying to change that," she says. "No one's really marketed it." Sugar River riders already can take advantage of Bike Green County, a service that, among other things, transfers cyclists' luggage as they travel between towns like Brodhead, Albany and New Glarus.
And Kaminecki is working to promote cycling in the area, including on the nearby Badger State Trail, which intersects the Sugar River trail near New Glarus. As president of the Friends of the Badger Trail, she is helping develop an information kiosk for one of the trail's main attractions, the 122-year-old, 1,200-foot Stewart Tunnel.
Amenities and attractions beckon, but surely every would-be overnight cyclist wants to know: What if it rains? "You carry rain gear and make sure you're prepared," says Brown. "And sometimes, when the weather's nice, the rain can be refreshing."
And a little rain can't spoil the delights of cycling. "It's great fun, and it harks back to childhood," Kaminecki says of the pastime. "You can see more things at the human speed of a bike. You get up close and personal with the communities you're exploring."
So pack your poncho, as well as your state trail pass, which is required on the trails. Passes cost $20 and are available at kiosks on the trails. To learn more about the trails and the services around them, the best place to start is the website of the Department of Natural Resources, which has maps and links to various trail-related sites. Other state trails near Madison include the Military Ridge, the Capital City, the Glacial Drumlin and the Wild Goose.
"Cycling is an activity that appeals to people who also like Wisconsin," says Brown, "people who like to get outside and enjoy our beautiful land."
Wisconsin state trail passes are $20 per year or $4 per day and can be purchased at trailhead drop boxes.
Earth Rider Cycling
929 W. Exchange St., Brodhead; 608-897-8300, 866-245-5276; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.dnr.state.wi.us/Org/land/parks/trails/tbike.html
Sugar River Trail