Sharon Knuth is the newly elected mayor of Elroy, Wis., population 1,500, and she sounds mayoral as she cites the civic virtues of the Elroy-Sparta State Trail.
"We're just very positive about the bike trail," she says of the 32-mile path, at whose southern end is her town 85 miles northwest of Madison. She praises the area's natural beauty, and touts the trail's interesting old tunnels. She notes that the Elroy commons features showers for visiting cyclists.
Opened in 1967, the Elroy-Sparta trail is believed to be a first in the nation, a multi-use path constructed on an old railroad right-of-way. It is one of Wisconsin's 42 state trails, a 1,700-mile network that lets visitors take in the state's countryside and small towns - and even some citified sights.
The trails, recently designated the Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System, are excellent for walking, and some are available for snowmobiling. But they truly shine when enjoyed by bicycle. Biking on the long, largely straight, largely hill-free trails is an outdoor activity of a peculiarly modern kind: It combines the meditative hush of hiking with exhilarating speed.
Saturday, June 7 is National Trails Day, and it will be a fine opportunity to explore this resource. The state's Department of Natural Resources has planned hikes, runs and volunteer activities. And for cyclists, the DNR will waive the trail fees, which normally cost $4 per day, or $20 for a year-long pass.
Madisonians need not travel far to explore the trails. The 17-mile Capital City State Trail runs through the east side and south through the Capital Springs State Recreation Area. The Capital City trail is lovely, but offers a distinctly urban experience.
On a recent weekend afternoon, the trail was busy and hectic, even tense. Much of the bicycle traffic was lumbering family caravans, and these did not coexist easily with cycling-clad road bikers, who moved fast and barked warnings in an impenetrable cant.
But there are other options nearby. One is the Military Ridge Trail, which runs 41 miles west of Madison to Dodgeville. Like many of the state trails, the surface is not asphalt but crushed limestone, which makes for slower pedaling.
Near the trail are examples of the infrastructure that has evolved to support cycling, including Mount Horeb's Village Inn Motel, which has a paved entrance opening directly onto the path. "It's the only motel on the trail like that," says owner Ed Moen.
Moen maintains a full set of tools and supplies for cycling, as well as a fleet of bikes he lends to guests. "I've really been enjoying recumbents," he says. "I have four."
Another nearby trail is the Glacial Drumlin State Trail, which stretches 52 miles between Cottage Grove and Waukesha. The trail meanders gently through woods and farmland. One especially charming segment, near London, traverses the Zeloski Marsh, just a 90-minute ride from the trail parking lot in Cottage Grove.
"One of our former board chairs said that the trails are a window to the DNR," says state trails coordinator Brigit Brown. "The rail trails are maybe a first and only exposure to the department" for some people.
Last summer saw the grand opening of the Badger State Trail, which eventually will stretch from Madison to the Illinois state line. Southern portions of the trail are indeed grand, especially the damp 1,200-foot train tunnel south of Belleville.
But although the Badger State Trail eventually will connect with the Capital City Trail in Madison, at the moment the only connection, on the southwest side, is a forlorn bridge to nowhere. What eventually will be a paved, seven-mile segment through Fitchburg is now a rough path through a dense thicket.
Brown says that hikers and snowmobilers might try it, but cautions that the segment is "not patrolled, not developed - it's not recommended."
Tire tracks are evidence that cyclists have recently found their way down it, and someone has helpfully planted tiny orange flags to indicate an especially treacherous segment north of McKee Road. But, Brown says, paving the segment will cost an estimated $1 million, and these days governments are not flush with cash for bicycling projects.
But that is just one short segment in a statewide network of trails - trails that are not meant only for cyclists, notes Ald. Robbie Webber, who is on the Governor's Wisconsin State Trails Council. "There are water trails, snowmobile trails, ATV trails, horse trails," she says, as well as hiking trails.
But, she says, the state trail system does a great service in encouraging people of all ages and skill levels to cycle. "It's a great way to see the state," she says.