In the world of cycling, it used to be easy to keep track of the type of cyclist you were. A road rider, a mountain biker, a long-distance tourer, or a commuter. But the past decade has seen the popularization of new genres while fracturing the others into many sub-genres. And that’s a good thing. It frees the feeling of elitism in the sport and provides many more avenues for entry – regardless of your fitness, the length of time you’ve been riding or the amount of money you spend on gear.
These days, whether you’re a seasoned rider or simply cyclo-curious, you don’t have to train to keep pace at motorized speeds, worry about rubbing elbows in a peloton or fear dangerous drops down steep descents.
One popular new genre, along with its many sub-genres, is adventure cycling. Adventure cycling is a mix of road riding, touring and cyclocross (which, itself, is a mix between road riding and mountain biking). There is no "one bike" required for these rides. You don’t have to have an expensive carbon bike or require spendy suspension. Really, it can be whatever bike you have. Mountain bikes, fat bikes, cyclocross bikes, drop bars, flat bars, even singlespeeds.
And you can make rides like this into whatever challenge you want. Just a ride? Maybe try for a personal best? Make it through without walking? Or race against the other riders? No answer is wrong. It is all up to you.
The Dairy Roubaix – named after the punishing European classic race, the Paris-Roubaix – is a road ride of either 54 or 107 miles along the Mississippi River valley, featuring beautiful back roads, long stretches of gravel, challenging hills and fun descents.
So on Saturday I joined some 200-300 other riders and tackled the 54 mile route. Because of the amount of gravel sections –around 30 miles – the personality of this particular ride can fluctuate depending on the weather. Rain, for example, could turn the loose gravel into something like peanut butter.
Thankfully, the sky was scheduled to be clear. The ride started a little chilly at around 38°F, but the weather report promised to hit 70°F by mid-afternoon. This was ideal because most of the riding would be done in the sweet spot for effort – between 45°F and 60°F – and end with temperatures perfect for lounging in the grass afterwards. Really, you couldn’t ask for more ideal conditions.
The farmlands were verdant with last week’s rain, and the reasonable temperatures meant farm animals were out and about, basking in the sun. At one point, a horse whinnied and galloped up behind us, cheering us on. Being on the back roads meant very little traffic, so there was a certain amount of peace, despite some of the ride’s challenges.
And speaking of which, after spending so much of my time participating in rides around the Milwaukee area, I was completely suprised by the challenging hills in the area. The ride started with a long, fast descent down to the Mississippi River valley. It was enjoyable, but I knew in the back of my mind I was going to have to climb out of the valley before the end. And that happened several times. Up the steep roads, then back down again. By the end, we had completed over 4,400 feet of climbing.
The ride was completely unsupported. Save for one water stop about halfway through, riders had to carry everything they needed on either their backs or their bikes.
At the stop, spirits were high, but the toughest hill so far was just around the corner. It was a steep climb out of the valley and just at the crest of the hill, the road split. One way went down the other side, and the other continued upward to a new crest. I’m sure you can guess which way we had to turn.
The second half of the ride was certainly more challenging than the first, and about six miles from the end, I encountered County Road C with a climb that put the previous one to shame. I can safely say I’ve never had a greater challenge laid before me.
As I clicked my gears into lower and lower speeds, I found myself desperate for just one more cog in back, just a few more teeth that would never come. So I resigned myself to what I had, reached into my back pocket, pulled out a peanut butter energy bar and concentrated on spinning and eating.
My mind alternated between stopping and walking, and continuing to push through. There’s the crest, I thought. Just a few more feet. I’m going to walk. No, just keep going. Keep spinning. Keep eating. I have to stop. No, I’m almost there. I’ll stop at the top. Just get to the top.
And eventually, I made it.
Doing a little bit of research afterwards, one of my riding partners discovered this climb would have been rated by pro racers as a Category 3 climb, meaning there are two more levels of difficulty above it. I certainly have a new respect for pro riders.
A few more small descents and a couple climbs later, I found myself entering the final stretch, a ride through a sand pit, a grassy cyclocross course, and then coolers of beer and camaraderie at the finish line.
This was the first ride of this kind that I’ve completed, but now I’m an instant convert. Gravel grinders provide the fun of a road ride, but with a few extra points of interest and personal challenges, along with fun people who are happy to help get you into the spirit.
If you’re interested in trying a ride like the Dairy Roubaix, you’re in luck. The Cheesehead Roubaix is coming up this weekend on April 27 in Newburg, Wis.
Want even more rides and races of even greater variety? From road to mountain, from Milwaukee to Spooner, join the Wisconsin Bike Fed and pick up their ride guide. It features hundreds of opportunities to spin your legs and enjoy the beauty of our great state.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.