Bike Tour 2014 – Damn the Headwinds, Full Speed Ahead

Jim and Tom's 17th Bike Tour

Prologue

Tom began working for his former employer, Cray, last spring while I retired from Slippery Rock University in May. Tom's new job has kept him busy, so I am filling in for him on the write-up of this bike trip.

We love the experience of cycling and of discovering new places on our bicycle trips but inclement weather may diminish our enjoyment or, in a few instances, obliterate it completely. High heat usually isn't too bad, because you're always air-conditioned on a bike, at least when you're moving. Rain can be a real problem. We have usually avoided it by waiting out a morning rain or starting early to beat afternoon thunderstorms. We were concerned this time around, though, because Minnesota and Wisconsin were having their wettest year in many decades, and we were traveling in June, which historically is the wettest month. It had rained three straight days before the start of our trip. We were not thinking about wind too much, although we plan our bike trips with the hope of getting a tailwind at least some of the time. The prevailing winds in the contiguous United States blow from west to east, so most of our trips have a major westward component, as seen in the two maps below showing all of our trips. We always start in Minneapolis or Mercer, PA, with the one exception being our 2005 trip from Redfield, SD to Minneapolis (in part to beat the wind). What would the weather have in store for us on this trip? Hint: see title.

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Map showing our previous 8 trips, as well as this year's trip, planned by Tom

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Map showing our previous 8 trips planned by Jim

Tuesday, June 17, 88.75 miles, Average 12.2 mph, 7h16m riding time, 2,228 climbing feet and 2,224 downhill feet

Minneapolis – Menomonie, WI

Day 1 Map

The map comes from the Cyclemeter iPhone app, but for some reason it doesn't show all distance markers (the markers that do appear can be turned off by deselecting "Splits")

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Start

We get up at 6:00 and enjoy a pancake breakfast prepared by Pam. We pose for the traditional starting photo, and there's something new this time — my bike. At the end of a retirement speech to colleagues at Slippery Rock University I said that I was going to pedal off into the sunset on my new bike. In a concession to my age I got a Waterford bicycle with "relaxed geometry." The handlebar sits higher above ground than one on a traditional road bike, so the top tube on my bike is not parallel to the ground, unlike Tom's top tube. Riding should be more comfortable because you don't have to lean over as much. In a couple of ways the bike is old school. The frame is stainless steel instead of carbon fiber. Stainless steel is heavier but more durable. The design of the bike's leather saddle is mostly unchanged since the 19th century. Leather saddles have a long break-in period, and some riders give up on them because the saddle never does get comfortable. Many long distance riders swear by them, though, so I thought I'd give one a try. So far it had been working pretty well, but then I didn't have a lot of miles on the bike, about 375 since I got it in April. This trip would be a good test of how well the bike, and in particular, the seat, would fit me.

A couple of minutes before we left, we saw Tom's neighbor, Bill Flynn. We told him we were heading to Green Bay so he had to make sure it didn't rain. He smiled and gave us that 'good luck' look and then shook his head before saying, "good luck." We are on the road at 7:25 am. It is 68° and cloudy with no sign of rain. We follow one of Tom's commuting routes. Tom is a dedicated bike commuter, which helps explain how he usually racks up more than 4,000 miles a year. That total probably puts him in the top 1% for cyclists in his age group. We bike for about 6.5 miles in Minneapolis and depart the City of Lakes when we cross the Lake Street Bridge into St. Paul.

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High above the Mississippi River on the Lake Street Bridge

In St. Paul we mostly ride in bike lanes and often with groups of bicycle commuters. The Twin Cities have a well developed regional bike system, and usually rank with Portland, OR at the top of the list as the most bike friendly metro area in the US. This is quite an achievement, considering the inclement weather, most notably a longer and colder winter than that of any other big US metropolitan area. For insight on how the Twin Cities got so bike friendly, see this article from Grist, an online environmental magazine.

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In a bike lane near the Minnesota State Capitol

When we get east of the capitol the rush hour traffic mostly disappears. It's kind of a tangletown now, and some zigging and zagging because of construction complicate the route, but Tom knows this area like the back of his hand, so no problem. It takes about 12 miles to get across St. Paul. The final portion in St Paul is on Minnehaha Avenue, and then the road goes nine miles almost all the way to Wisconsin as 10th St North through Washington County suburbs, strip development, wooded land, the Oakdale Gun Club, and farm country. We ride by Goose Lake in Lake Elmo, MN.

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The USGS Geographic Names Information System lists 222 Goose Lakes. This is one of them.

Lake Elmo, MN is named after Lake Elmo, which is a few miles away. The US only has three Lake Elmos. Skyview Elementary School in Oakdale is visible from 10th St North. Skyview seems a little unimaginative as a school name. After all, you can probably see the sky from just about any school. Oakdale is not alone--the GNIS lists 15 Skyview schools in the US.

We use the pedestrian and bike lane on the I-94 bridge over the St. Croix River and cross into Hudson, Wisconsin. We get a treat at the Dairy Queen on 2nd Street, which is the commercial spine of the old part of Hudson.

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High above the St. Croix River, which divides Minnesota from Wisconsin

We turn on Coulee Road and see the Casanova Liquor Store/Nova Wine Bar. They began brewing beer back in 1896. We climb out of the St Croix valley, and now Coulee Road is part of a sprawling commercial district serving the needs of the swelling population of St. Paul's eastern suburbs in Wisconsin.

We proceed on County N through residential areas in St. Croix County, and see Green Bay Packers dècor here and there. This is Cheesehead country. We are on the outskirts of the Twin Cities in the westernmost part of Wisconsin, and the Minnesota Vikings stadium is much closer to this area than the Packers Stadium, but state loyalty trumps geographical proximity.

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NFL Football fan map from theatlantic.com

As we continue on our 30-mile stretch of County N the housing developments with curving streets peter out. At one farm we saw a Deere Xing sign. Some dogs came out to investigate and their owner came out too. We told the guy that we liked the sign and we were taking a picture. He said his girlfriend gave it to him. Then we took the picture and were on our way."

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John Deere tractor on a sign and in the background

There are scattered exurban houses, and dairy farms are more evident. The landscape is gently rolling as seen in the profile for the day's ride. The trough just past the 30-mile mark is the St Croix River. It shows a depth of 700-feet, although that depth refers to the river, not the bridge. After the trough, almost all of the hills have less than 100 feet of vertical, and the couple that exceed 100 feet are about two miles in length.

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Profile for first day (from Cyclemeter). The elevation refers to the height at the final mile (the profile shows 81 miles instead of the 88.75 mentioned above because it does not include the miles we biked to a Menomonie restaurant in the evening)

The recent rains have waterlogged the fields. The rivers and creeks are swollen and filled with brown water. We go over the Rush River, and when I look at maps and imagery later, I see that it is usually dry, but not this year.

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Rush River. The dog's owner was doing some yard work nearby

We take County N to WI 128 and go north across I-94 and have lunch at the Hearty Platter, a truck stop. Then we head east on 53rd Avenue, we cross into Dunn County, and the road changes to 700th Avenue. The southern border of Dunn County is 10th Avenue and the northern boundary of the county is marked by 1450th Avenue — that's the biggest avenue number I know of.

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Hills along 700th Avenue in Dunn County

700th Avenue leads to 672nd Avenue. This area is part of the transition zone between two of Wisconsin's five geographic provinces: from the Western Upland to the Central Plain. This transition is seen in the green trip profile discussed above as the big downhill past the 70-mile mark.

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On the phone on 672nd Avenue

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Cows in America's Dairyland

We wind our way through dairy country to Menomonie and at 4:00 reach our motel off I-94. The weather was not inclement: a high in the low 80s and only a slight headwind of 3 or 4 mph with gusts to 9mph. Later we bike into Menomonie for dinner and bike around a little bit. Menomonie is by Lake Menomin, a reservoir of the Red Cedar River.

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Google Earth screen capture showing Menomonie and Lake Menomin. The blue line shows our route.

pics_2014/image032.jpg Happy figures at Dunn County Fairgrounds in Menomonie

Wednesday, June 18, 70 miles, Average 11.8 mph, 5h56m riding time, 1,719 climbing feet and 1,384 downhill feet

Menomonie, WI – Thorp, WI

Day 2 map

We wake at 6am and it is raining hard with occasional thunder and lightning. The storm covers many counties and does not end until 10:30am. Menomonie got 1.4 inches. It's a good thing we were not biking in the Minneapolis area — they got more than 4 inches. We start riding at 11:00am into a stiff east wind. At the beginning of this trip journal I mentioned how we plan trips to take advantage of prevailing westerly winds. The screen capture from http://hint.fm/wind/ for 6:58am June 18 shows that our planning strategy didn't work for this day. The whole state is covered by strong east winds, and that pattern stayed in place all day.

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Screen capture from hint.fm/wind/ for 6:58am, June 18, 2014 showing a strong east wind in Wisconsin

Later, I wondered how atypical this weather pattern is. I did a little research, and much to my surprise, I see that is fairly common for Wisconsin. I used the Iowa Environmental Mesonet website to find a wind rose for the month of June for the nearest weather station, which is in Wisconsin Rapids , about 100 miles to the east. The wind rose shows that south by southwest winds are the most common, followed by winds out of the east while winds from the north are rare. What does this all mean for our bike ride? The roads dry off quickly, but it's a lot more work to get from point A to point B.

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Wind rose for Wisconsin Rapids for June

As we leave Menomonie we see some impressive evergreen trees.

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Multi-trunk pine tree on 470th Street in Menomonie

We bike in the forested areas along the Red Cedar River, go across the river and get a great view of the Cedar Falls Dam.

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The Red Cedar River has lots of water going over the Cedar Falls Dam

Then we get onto County BB, which goes through a farming area.

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Horses, grain bins, and irrigation equipment along County BB, from street level

The Google Earth screenshot shows, faintly, the concentric ring pattern of center pivot irrigation. I guess they do have some dry years. A lack of water is not a problem this year.

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Horses, grain bins, and irrigation equipment along County BB, from above (Google Earth screen capture)

We continue on County BB into Colfax. Our route this morning has roughly followed the Colfax Tornado Outbreak of 1958. A maximum strength F5 tornado went on a 34-mile path through Menomonie, Cedar Falls, and Colfax, killing 21 people. In 2013, Colfax had an estimated population of 1,165. We stop there for a snack, go by the railroad museum, and ride on curvier, hillier roads. Somewhere along here we enter Chippewa County. It is more forested, in part because some of the land is too steep for farming. The hills here are the biggest of the day, with about 100 feet of vertical. The profile below shows these hills starting at about the 23-mile mark and going to the 32-mile mark.

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Profile for second day (Cyclemeter)

Now the land flattens out and the roads get straighter. On straight, open roads, like 100th Avenue/Meinen Road, the wind is more of a factor, and we're biking right into it.

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Meinen Road/100th Avenue cuts a straight path through dairy country

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It takes a breeze of 8-12 mph to extend a light flag

On 102nd Avenue we reach a small valley cut by Duncan Creek. The drop in elevation and presence of forested land reduce the wind. The creek has a wide section called Tilden Mill Pond, and we see some kids and a pair of alpacas after they had cooled off in the pond.

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Kids and alpacas alike are refreshed after a dip in Tilden Mill Pond

We continue eastward and in about 4 miles reach Lake Wissota. It's a reservoir formed in 1917 by damming the Chippewa River. It was named by combining the beginning of "Wisconsin" and the ending of "Minnesota." We cross part of the lake on a bridge and have lunch on the edge of the lake at the Edge Pub and Eatery. Houses dot the lakeshore and nearby areas; we are just a little bit north of Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. As we continue east, we feel KO'ed by the strong headwinds. The temperature is in the low 80s.

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The KO intersection is OK with us

The map below is a screenshot of one of Tom's route maps from the DeLorme Wisconsin Atlas and Gazetteer. The figure shows the long straight path of County O. The 1-mile square sections of the federal Township and Range survey system are apparent, and 13 of these sections are along our route on County O.

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Portion of the DeLorme Wisconsin Atlas and Gazetteer showing our route

This road crosses the Yellow River (it flows through Cadott). We stop for a break, and like the other rivers it is swollen with brown, sediment-filled water. About 7 miles later we stop at Chapman Park on the outskirts of Stanley and watch some young men practice baseball. Just past Stanley we arrive in Clark County.

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Wisconsin's Yellow River is brown today

We reach our destination of Thorp at about 7:00pm. The sun finally comes out, the sky is blue, and Tom kisses a cow. We were unlucky about our 11:00am start, and unlucky because of the damn headwinds, but luckily this was our shortest riding day, at about 70 miles.

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Love at first sight

Thursday, June 19, 94.2 miles, Average 11.6 mph, 7h46m riding time, 2,066 climbing feet and 2,233 downhill feet

Thorp, WI – Stevens Point, WI

Day 3 map

We rise at 5:45am and are on the road by 7:00am. The temperature is typical for this time of day, 66°, but the wind speed is atypical — 15mph from the east-southeast. We take County M south for three miles and then County N for seven miles to the east.

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The wind is blowing early in the morning at the Sylvan Cemetery on County N

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Thick wool

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Pastoral scene

Our next turn is on County O, which we take for an 18-mile straight shot. Farmscapes are typical for today's ride, as are straight roads. The Google Earth screenshot below shows that our route mostly traverses a Township and Range Survey checkerboard consisting of one-mile square sections.

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Dairy infrastructure

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Google Earth screenshot showing our 94-mile route on top of a checkerboard pattern of one-mile square sections

The long east west road on the Google Earth image is County H. That segment is about 44 miles long. After a mile and a half, we cross Black River. Not surprisingly, it is running high and brown.

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The brown Black River

After a few miles on County H we cross WI 73 and traffic picks up. The road widens to include a good shoulder so it's a good cycling road overall, even when big gravel trucks go by. Most of them are coming or going from Marawood Sand and Gravel Pit. This operation typically runs 60 loads of sand a day. The sand is used for construction, bedding for cows, and exported longer distances for fracking.

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Marawood Sand and Gravel Pit in the distance. See it from above here, and zoom in to see the trucks.

The biggest industry in this area is of course dairying.

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These two yearlings are part of Wisconsin's approximately 3,350,000-strong herd

As we work our way eastward into Wood County, the road is hillier, although none of the hills are particularly large. A topographic map helps show the size of these hills. In the screenshot below, the brown contour lines connect points of equal elevation and the contour lines are spaced at 10-foot intervals. When the contour lines are close together, the hill is steep and conversely, greater distances between lines show flatter areas. In the figure, some contour lines form circles, and the smallest circles are hilltops. The blue line shows our route up and down these hills. The cumulative total of these little hills is large; by the end of the day we climbed 2,066 feet according to my Cyclemeter app.

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Screenshot of National Geographic Topo layer for Google Earth showing City of Marshfield

Topographic maps show a ton of information. The green areas show woodlands, indicating that on this map most of the land is used for crops and pasture. You can see the Township and Range sections, and close inspection shows a red number identifying each section. These numbers range from 1 to 36. Thirty-six sections make up a township. The City of Marshfield is shaded red, and the oldest street grid formed parallel to the railroad that runs from the southeast to the northwest. The newer street grid lines up with the cardinal directions of the Township and Range system. The main limitation of this map is its age — it was completed in 1979. There are newer versions, but they are computer generated. The new maps have a lot of advantages, e.g., layers can be turned on and off, but they don't show contours quite as well as the older, manually produced maps.

We get back on County H after our lunch break at China Chef in Marshfield and face the headwinds, which have picked up. We get the full force of the wind, as the road is open with few trees

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County H: long, straight, and windswept

Part of Weather Underground's weather history graph for Marshfield on June 19 shows wind information. The lower graph shows the direction to be mostly at about 90, i.e., east. The upper graph's red line shows wind speeds of about 16-20mph after 2:00pm and the blue dots show gusts of 21 to 27mph. It's a good thing that Tom is a super strong, Lance Armstrong-type cyclist, although Tom never used performance enhancing drugs and he never lies. When two riders bike in single file at a close distance, the back rider saves energy because there is significantly less wind resistance. During the windy periods Tom leads most of the time, and I led sometimes to relieve him.

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Marshfield wind data for June 19, 2014 (Weather Underground)

As we bike eastward the land becomes marshier to our north. This land is part of the George W. Mead State Wildlife Management Area. We stop for a break at Bear Creek. When trucks go over this bridge, the whole bridge shakes.

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Bear Creek

A little ways past Bear Creek we enter Portage County. After a few more miles on County H we turn south onto County O and take it to Junction City, named for the meeting point of two important railroads — the Soo Line and Milwaukee Road. Here we get on to Old US 10. The farmscapes give way to resort and residential land uses. The Wisconsin River is on our left and we stop for a break at a boat launch. The Soo Line is on our right and we see a timber-laden train.

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The Soo Line

We are getting close to Stevens Point.

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This city is for the birds

We cross the Wisconsin River and enter Steven Point. Thanks to this river, Stevens Point got its start as a lumber town, and a mural in the city memorializes this heritage. Today, the University of Wisconsin — Stevens Point is probably the most important contributor to the local economy.

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"Rivermen" and bikeman in Stevens Point

We are happy to be in Stevens Point. We had a 90 plus mile day. The temperature was cool, with a high in the low 70s, but damn those headwinds!

Friday, June 20, 101.9 miles, 12.8 mph, 7h55m riding time, 2,066 climbing feet and 2,233 downhill feet

Stevens Point, WI – Green Bay, WI

Day 4 map

We are up by 6:30am and on the road by 8:00am. The temperature is a comfortable 64° and there is no wind at all. We ride through the UW — Stevens Point campus, which is sizable, as the university has more than 8,000 students. Continuing east on Main Street, we then find Old Highway 18. As the suburbs give way to farmland we are in open country, although it doesn't feel very open because it is foggy. This route is calm in terms of wind and traffic — there is none of either. We make a right turn somewhere when we should have gone straight. We get on Custer Road and rejoin the route, with the detour costing us about four miles. We head east on Rolling Hills Road, which lives up to its name. It's up and down with 50- to 100-foot verticals. We see hops fields on this road.

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Hops and fog

At some point Rolling Hills Road dips down to the Tomorrow River. The river is narrow here because it is only about ten miles from its source. It becomes the Waupaca River when it flows into the next county. The Native Americans in this area took about 24 hours to travel its full length and they did not reach the end until Waupaca, their word for "tomorrow." I don't know of any other rivers that have a different name when they cross a county line.

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Tomorrow River, soon to become the Waupaca River when it crosses the county line

After 5 miles on Rolling Hills Road we take Grayson Road for a couple of miles before getting onto Trout Creek Road. Near this last junction, after 21 miles of riding, we see a mirror smooth pond; there is no wind at all. Biking is now a breeze, no pun intended.

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No wind means a glassy pond and fog

We continue on Trout Creek Road and go by an abandoned shed and a little later cross into Waupaca County.

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Ramshackle shed with festive light string above the right-hand bay

On our way eastward, we miss a turn onto Johnson Road, and end up on WI 161. This turns out to not be a bad thing. The distance is about the same. Tom didn't route us on WI 161 because it is a state route, and we prefer the less travelled roads. But 161 is velvet smooth with a nice shoulder and no traffic. We also enjoy gliding down a major downhill. This hill is part of a larger pattern. We leave Wisconsin's Central Plain and enter the Eastern Ridges and Lowlands. This transition is easily seen on the profile for the day, where we have beginning elevations above 1200 feet and finish in Green Bay about 600 feet above sea level. The general trend is down, but our hill climbing for the day exceeds 2,000 feet.

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The profile shows an elevation drop from more than 1,200 feet to 600 feet, but we still climb more than 2,000 feet because of frequent small hills

WI 161 leads us to Iola, a village of about 1,300 people. The Iola war memorial shows that hundreds of people in the area lost their lives in conflicts from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. Most of the names are Scandinavian.

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Iola's war memorial

The village's Scandinavian heritage is also reflected in a chainsaw carving of Vidar, a Norse God.

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Chainsaw carving of Norse God

The sun has burned off the fog by now, and the sky is getting brighter. The hilly terrain after Iola is not conducive to a grid pattern of roads as we curve around on County J and B. We pass through the hamlet of Ogdensburg and on our way to Royalton via N. Water Drive we see a sand hill crane in a cornfield.

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Sandhill crane

In Royalton we have some cartographic confusion. Tom's route map below makes finding Ostrander Road seem like a no-brainer, but we can't find it. We scratch our heads. We don't want to miss any turns on a 90-mile plus day. We try Pine Street instead, and are relieved when it eventually turns into Ostrander Road.

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We now see resort-oriented activity: rafters on Wolf River, parachutists, and vacation homes. Then we drop down to a marshy area along the Wolf River. It is part of the Mukwa State Wildlife Area. Dozens of houseboats are docked along the river. Lots of cabins too.

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Marshes in the Mukwa State Wildlife Area and New London

We enjoy our lunch at El Tequila on Main Street in the historic core of New London. Maybe we enjoyed it too much. Some miles later we discovered that Tom left his route maps in the cafè. Our backup plan saved the day, though. We always bring a second set of maps (the one exception being the 2011 trip to Chautauqua when I tried to use cell phone maps — that was a flawed plan). On the way out of town we cross into Outagamie County and stop on the bridge over the Embarrass River, a tributary of the Wolf. The Embarrass is not labeled on the map above, but it enters the map in the upper right hand corner. Wikipedia cites the Encyclopedia of Wisconsin on the origins of the river's name: "French voyageurs named this river the Embarrass, French for obstruction, because, while canoeing down the stream, they frequently found their passage blocked by fallen logs."

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The Embarrass River

We leave New London on County S, which follows a narrow tongue of land between a large bog and the meandering Wolf River. There are several oxbow lakes: U-shaped bodies of water that form when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a freestanding body of water.

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Our route parallels the meandering Wolf River

We jog up to Center Valley Road, and we're back on the Township and Range grid. It's a straight shot for about ten miles. There are few trees, and we enjoy panoramic views. Also, there is almost no traffic. When we reach our turn at County EE, we have gone 77 miles and take a little break.

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A straight up cyclist

County EE goes north-northeast for 3 miles and then proceeds straight east for 12 miles. Uh-oh. The wind is picking up, and because it is northeast it's mostly in our faces. The June 20, 2014 weather history graph for Green Bay shows the wind getting up to 15mph in the late afternoon and early evening and it shows a northeastward shift.

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Green Bay wind data for June 20, 2014 (Weather Underground)

Tom's wife Pam is waiting for us in Green Bay. We have a restaurant reservation to meet. Will we make it? The answer, so to speak, is blowing in the wind. It's time to align ourselves with the Wisconsin state motto, which is "Forward." So for us it's "damn the headwinds, full speed ahead."

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The Dairy State quarter, one of seven US quarters to show a state motto

It is now late in the afternoon. In our final leg, County EE goes into Brown County and a little later into the Oneida Reservation. The Oneida Nation is headquartered in New York, but one branch of the tribe migrated to Wisconsin during and after the Revolutionary War. This part of County EE is open and windswept. It begins to mist, and we occasionally need to clean our eyewear. The temperature has dropped from the upper 60s earlier in the afternoon to about 60 now. County EE changes to Grant Street when we reach the suburb of West De Pere. Pam calls up Tom, wondering where we are, and in one part of the phone conversation he says, "I'm freezing." We cross the Fox River, and get on a nice bikeway on the east bank of the Fox River. It's wide and smooth and goes through the backyards of homes varying from modest to very fancy. My toes and the two small fingers on each hand feel numb. We sprint a couple of times to generate a little warmth. Toward the end of this bikeway we have pedaled 100 miles. It's the first time we've done a century on a bike trip since 2003. We didn't plan this century: there was a missed turn earlier in the day and a mileage undercount or something in the route map.

We reach downtown Green Bay. Evidence of Cheesehead country is seen in an outdoor Green Bay Packer festival on Washington Street, well before the start of the season. I do like that the Packers are a non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States. In fact, they are the only such team in the country. We ride around the streets a little disoriented — we can't find the Hyatt Hotel. We are in a sort of a purple haze, what with the long day and all, but the main problem is that the hotel itself doesn't have a sign on it. We eventually find the entrance behind a large parking lot. We see Pam and then go in and warm up. A little later we enjoy a delicious dinner at Chefusion and replenish some of the 4,500 calories or more we burned on the day's ride.

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Finished

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Chefusion

Epilogue

Back in the Twin Cities, when we spoke with people about our bike trip, they figured that we got soaking wet on multiple occasions. Minnesota did have its wettest June on record. We had some headwinds, more than on any other trip, but we stayed dry.

My new bike performed well, but I didn't know that in all senses until the last day. The overall fit was fine. I didn't notice the leather saddle much on the first day, it seemed hard on the second day, and even harder on the third day, but on the fourth day I turned a corner — the saddle was broken in and comfortable.

Here's hoping for some tailwinds on our next tour.