Chippewa Herald * October 1, 2003

We finally made it to the Sparta-Elroy bicycle trail

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

We got started a little later than I had hoped, but by 9:00 a.m. we were all packed into the Arnebus heading for Sparta, Wisconsin. At long last, we were actually going to ride the famous Sparta-Elroy Trail! And we couldn't have picked a better day -- Labor Day weekend this year was perfect weather for biking.

The only question was whether we could pedal the entire 32 miles.

Bicycling the Sparta-Elroy Trail was something we had wanted to do for a very long time. We had been reading about it since the early 1980s, as it is frequently mentioned in bicycle touring magazines. While living out west, I remember thinking that some day we'd get all the way to Wisconsin to try out this most famous of trails.

When we moved here in 1991, I figured that being this close, we would inevitably be riding the trail. Of course, I didn't think it would take quite 12 years -- but there's something about being pregnant or caring for a baby that makes a mother not thrilled with the idea of long bicycle rides.

This year I knew we were ready. In May, I took all our children cycling up the Old Abe Trail from Chippewa Falls to Cornell. How can five kids aged 13 to 3 years old make a 21-mile bike trip, you ask? It's easier with some of the cool inventions introduced since we were kids.

When we had our first baby in 1989, we bought a Burley bicycle trailer. They were relatively unknown at the time, but we happened to live not far from where they were made in Oregon. The trailer is made of lightweight aluminum tubes, nylon, and large bicycle wheels, complete with screen or rain cover. It can haul one or two small children, and even has room in the back for extra gear.

Riding with a Burley behind your bike is surprisingly smooth. In fact, you might even forget it's there, unless you're going uphill, when you can feel its weight, or into a headwind, when it acts like the parachute brakes of a race car.

Another bicycle invention that has been growing in popularity is a device that goes by names like Co-pilot, Tag-along, Trailercycle, Piccolo, or Pedal Trailer. This looks like half a small bike - it has a rear wheel, pedal and crankset (sometimes with gears), and handlebars. But in place of a fork and a front wheel, there's long curved bar that attaches to the seat post of an adult bike.

This allows a child of 4-8 years old to go along for the ride and actually contribute to pulling his weight, without the danger of a younger child weaving too much or falling behind.

Putting them both together -- hauling a trailer behind a copilot behind a normal bike -- can make for a long "train," but with our three-year-old and seven-year-old and gear thus taken care of, our older kids, ages nine, eleven and thirteen, were all more than able to go 21 miles on the Old Abe Trail in a couple hours last May.

So when we got to Sparta around 11:00 a.m. that Saturday, we thought we'd have a pretty good shot at going the full 32 miles.

After posing for the obligatory family pictures in front of the World's Largest Bicycle, we hit the trail. Because the Sparta-Elroy trail is built on top of an abandoned railroad, the slopes are always very gentle. This makes it a perfect ride for families with children, as there are no grueling climbs or frightening descents.

Since this pioneering trail was built, there have been hundreds of other railroad beds around the country converted to bike trails. But it's the tunnels that make the Sparta-Elroy trail unique.

The first tunnel we went through was almost one mile long! I had tossed a headband flashlight in my front bag just in case, but went ahead without wearing it, thinking that there was enough ambient light from the tunnel entrances.

Halfway in, I realized how wrong I was -- it was pitch black! And there was water dripping everywhere, forming puddles and streams. So I fumbled around my handlebar pack to find my flashlight to use for the rest of the way. (Our nine-year-old dutifully reported that it took 19 minutes to walk through the mountain.)

We ate sandwiches in Norwalk, then went through another tunnel before having pie in Wilton. (Eating is a big part of biking.) Spinning on from there, everyone was feeling great, and since we had already biked 22 miles and still had plenty of energy left, we were optimistic that we'd conquer the whole trail.

That all changed in a few seconds.

Benjamin, our 13-year-old, hit a wet spot just as he was going one-handed to scratch his back. He lost control of the handlebars and tumbled down a ditch. He was not injured, but the pretzeled front wheel put an abrupt end to our trip.

To paraphrase a California gubernatorial candidate, though, "we'll be back." Now that we've sampled the Sparta-Elroy trail, I think it will become an annual tradition for our least until we can complete the whole trail!

(You can see some photos of our trip, and links to more information, at "".)

You can reach Tom at

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