Beers Across Wisconsin: Drinking and Biking from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan

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Potosi Brewing Company. All photos by Dave Schlabowske.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.]

The Badger State is where I go when I want to get away from my daily grind in Chicago and leave my troubles behind. So when my old friend Dave Schlabowske recently invited me to join him on a trans-Wisconsin bike trek, I jumped at the chance.

Dave, a Milwaukeean whose brother Dean plays guitar in Chicago’s Waco Brothers, works as the director of communications for the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. He wanted to scout out the Badger Brewing Trail, a bike route from the Mississippi River to the Lake Michigan linking several rails-to-trails bike paths and a number of breweries, part of a network of intrastate paths the bike federation hopes to implement by 2020. I’ve posted the route here.

In October, Dave rode Amtrak to Chicago to photograph our new protected bike lanes in hopes of importing the concept to Wisconsin. Early the next morning we catch a Trailways bus from the CTA Blue Line’s Cumberland stop with our boxed touring bikes to Dubuque, Iowa. After stopping at a greasy spoon to scarf down pork tenderloin sandwiches, the indigenous cuisine, we mount our steeds, cross the Mississippi back into Illinois and pedal north along the river into Wisconsin.

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Can Indy rock? Exploring Indianapolis, the Midwest’s next bike mecca

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Eric McAfee and Kevin Kastner on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

If I had to sum up Indianapolis in one word, it would be “Underrated.” With a population of 829,718, the Hoosier State capital is the second-largest Midwest city (although it’s only the ninth largest metro area in the region.) Despite its size it’s known as “Naptown” and “India-No-Place” due to its reputation as a bland, suburban-style metropolis with few attractions besides the Colts, the Pacers and the Indy 500. I’m told that in the 1980s you couldn’t even buy a sandwich downtown after 6pm and the massive streets, lined with dozens of garages and oceans of parking lots, were so deserted you could safely walk down the middle of them.

But two weekends ago when I took Megbus there to meet up with my buddy Jake, in town for a conference, I discovered a surprisingly hip city with some fascinating architectural features and plenty of fun stuff to do. And while there’s little public transportation to speak of, and the city’s dominant image is a racecar, I was shocked to find a level of bike-friendliness that gives Chicago a run for its money.

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Turf and Surf: car-free fun by land and lake

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Todd on the sailboat American Excess.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Thursdays.]

It always bugs me when people say Chicago’s a great city but complain that there’s no access to natural beauty or outdoor adventure here. True, there are no mountains or saltwater for hundreds of miles, but we have ocean-like Lake Michigan close at hand, making this one of the few major U.S. cities where you can work in a skyscraper and easily take your lunch break on a sandy beach.

And this is great place to live if you want to commune with nature without polluting the environment to get there. The South Shore Line electric railroad takes you directly from Millennium Park to the campgrounds of the picturesque Indiana Dunes. The bicycle-friendly Metra commuter rail system means that you can get to state parks likes Illinois Beach, Fox Lake and Kettle Moraine via a relaxing train ride plus a bit of pedaling, instead of fighting traffic jams. And since this is the nation’s rail hub, and Amtrak lines within the state accept un-boxed bikes, it’s easy to take a journey in the mountain-like hills of Southern Illinois or along the mighty Mississippi. So having a good time in the great outdoors near Chicago is really just a matter of attitude.

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Berlin bicycling: an interview with bike blogger Wolfgang Scherreiks

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Wolfgang Scherreiks with his English-made Pashley Guv’nor.

It’s ironic that I’ve written dozens of articles about efforts to make Chicago more like the bike-friendly cities of northern Europe, but until recently I’d never actually been to any of these places. Last month I finally made the trip across the pond to check out bike facilities in Berlin, Copenhagen and several towns in the Netherlands.

It was inspiring to experience places where cycling, walking and transit are given at least as much respect as driving, with the result being livable, vibrant cities. During the trip I met up with various transportation advocates and bloggers to pick their brains about the local cycling scene, in hopes of gleaning ideas for Chicago.

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Circumnavigating lower Lake Michigan by Metra, bike, ferry and bus

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Sunset near Muskegon, MI.

[This piece also ran in Newcity magazine.]

One reason I’m glad I’ve cycled coast-to-coast a couple of times is that I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove when it comes to bike touring. As long as I’ve got my bicycle with me and get a few miles of pedaling in, it doesn’t matter what other non-car transportation modes I use – it’s a bike trip. Or at least a trip worth taking.

Case in point is a circuit of lower Lake Michigan I took a few years ago. While I covered a lot of ground with my bicycle in tow, I didn’t actually ride much more than a hundred miles. But this actually enhanced the experience.

Instead of my usual death-march mileage, the relaxed pace left me time to take walks in the woods and hang out on the beach before hitting the road to the next destination. Of course, a well-disciplined cycle tourist would leave early and get the day’s pedaling done before sightseeing. Maybe next time I’ll do it this way.

This excursion was inspired by a Time Out Chicago issue about Lake Michigan getaways and a yen to escape the big city and catch some sunsets over water. I was also curious to try the high-speed ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, MI. I’d already ridden the entire perimeter of the lake in stages before so this jaunt was about R & R rather than breaking new ground.

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Savage ride: a trans-Chicago bike trek with Nelson Algren scholar Bill Savage

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Bill Savage at the McKinley Park lagoon.

[This piece also appeared in Checkerboard City, John’s weekly transportation column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets in print on Wednesday evenings.]

“Nelson Algren wrote, ‘It isn’t hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers, its pleasant parks or its flashing ballet,’” says Algren scholar Bill Savage, strapping on his bicycle helmet. “‘But you never truly love it until you can love its alleys too.’ So there’s this dynamic in the city between the boulevard and the alley, between the beautiful urban spaces and the place where the garbage and the rats are, and if you really love Chicago you’ve got to love both.”

An English lecturer at Northwestern University, Bill grew up in Rogers Park with his brother, sex advice columnist Dan Savage, and still lives in the neighborhood. “I tell my students, it’s very easy to experience the city secondhand, in books and movies and online,” Bill says. “But if you’re not out there on the pavement, whether on foot or on a bicycle or in a car or on public transportation, you’re missing something.”

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