It's the cows.
These three words have become the standard, slightly wry explanation for why there are so many sleekly paved roads in the 35-mile radius surrounding Madison, Wisconsinhundreds and hundreds of winding miles of 'em. This is the Dairy State, after all, and milk is money; washouts, deep mud, and other excuses for missing the daily udder-to-market runs are unacceptable to farmfolk. Hence the flawless blacktop and attendant roadies. The cows, quite simply, have made Madison the unassailable nucleus of Midwestern road riding.
During the summer months, after spring rains have washed the salt from the asphalt, it's not uncommon to see a paceline descend a twisting dairy road at 50 miles per hour, apparently without fear of potholes. And on weekends, the Madison-based 300-member Bombay Bicycle Club leads a peloton into the rippling pasturelands to hills like the Pinnacle, a climb with an 11 percent grade that tops out with a 360-degree view of the Holstein-dotted valleys below.
You probably wouldn't expect hills to pucker up so steeply in these parts, but near Madison, they do. The last glacier to steamroll the Upper Midwest missed southwestern Wisconsin, leaving sweeping ridges that look more Catskill than flatland. Here there are climbs of 1,000 feet in less than a mile, sublime vistas of blue-gray escarpments, and corkscrew dropsall on roads so lightly traveled as to be almost empty.
Madison itself (population 200,000) is home to a strident Small-Is-Beautiful counterculture that has promulgated the cycling life by adding bike lanes on all major roads, opening bike shops (a dozen in and around town), forming 12 or so cycling clubs like Bombay, and hosting over 20 bike-related events each year. But the best riding is in the outskirts, near the old Norwegian town of Stoughton, 25 miles south of Madison. Phil Caravello, a 35-year-old local road racer who owns the town's only bike shop, Stoton Cycle, is happy to give you a map of his favorite route, the Dunn This Tour, a 30-miler past red barns and green hillocks and through towns no bigger than ten revolutions of your wheels. Phil also organizes an informal weekly Thursday evening ride of 20 to 30 miles (sign sprints between town line signsare optional) that ends with micro-brews in the alley behind his shop.
Or forget the group, as I often do, and take a crack at the solo equation: just you, your bike, and the quiet chewing of cud. Every April, the lure of the hills works its magic on my muscles and I ride, venturing farther and farther afield on my beloved Bianchi, until one day I find myself hitting the drop bars and pushing the big ring down the beautiful, unblemished Wisconsin pavement, past fields of Holsteins that leave me reverential. You gotta love those cows.
The Dirt: The solo pedaler should refer to Milwaukee Map Service Inc.'s road map of southwestern Wisconsin ($6; 800-525-3822); it shows every farm road, dead end, and possum trot in remarkable detail. For group rides, call Bombay Bicycle Club (608-274-1886) or hook up with Phil Caravello at Stoton Cycle (608-877-1134). Road-bike rentals are scarce, so you'll want to BYOB. If you're feeling especially fit, sign up for Bombay Bicycle Club's Wright Stuff Century Ride on September 4, which passes Taliesin, home of the late architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
VITALS: $1,630; 800-724-9466; www.schwinn.com
WEIGHT: 3.8 pounds frame, 19.6 pounds complete
FRAME: Schwinn's chrome-moly tube set
FORK: Carbon-fiber Time Club
COMPONENT HIGHLIGHTS: A complete group of workmanlike Shimano 105 parts, including brake-lever shifters and lightweight Speedplay X3 pedals
THE RIDE: Nothing stands out as remarkably new here, but that's just fine: The Peloton incorporates classic angles and frame materials. Unfortunately, the classic lugged construction method preferred by retrograde roadiesjoining the tubes with ornate metal sleevesis expensive, so Schwinn opted for TIG welding. Still, the Peloton possesses the same angles and quality steel tubing of the more expensive and beloved Paramount frame. Not that you or I could tell the differencethe ride quality is almost identical. A low bottom bracket promotes aggressive cornering and handling by positioning the rider's center of gravity closer to the groundall the better to see the pavement streaking by underneath.
SEVEN CYCLES AXIOM TI
VITALS: $2,595 (frame only); 617-923-7774; www.sevencycles.com
WEIGHT: 2.7 pounds
FRAME: Hand-crafted 3AL/2.5V butted titanium tubes custom-built to match your measurements
THE RIDE: Cursed with long legs and a short torso like T. rex? No problem. The artisans at Seven will shorten the top tube so you can reach the drop bars in comfort. Created on the premise that a bike should fit like a custom suit, Seven Cycles can build a bike tailored to the sideshow freak in us all. And nowhere is a perfect fit more important than on pavement, where you spend long hours in a relatively static position, which makes the Axiom Ti quite the dream ride. Aside from size, the folks at Seven also handpick the diameter, thickness, and profile of the tubesthey claim to have infinite options availableto match your style of riding. To top things off, the Axiom's seat stays are bent to absorb road shock, and the chainstays are bent to allow ample heel clearance. It's about as close to perfect as you can get. A.J.
It's the cows.