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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Bicycle trips in Dane County and slightly beyond
Near and not so near, but still not far
Ice cream and art are rewards when biking all the way to Paoli.

With so many cute towns to check out, parks to hike and lakeside beaches to enjoy, the land beyond the Beltline offers fantastic options for summer bike touring. An extended bike trip can feel like a bit of an undertaking, but the practice can be incredibly worthwhile. On a bike you're likely to see more wildlife, notice more colors and smells and sounds, and remember more of the journey. The exercise will feel good and make your destination dining and drinking taste infinitely better, and you'll save money leaving the car at home.

Best of all, a good long bike trip is a great social activity. Whether it's a group of old friends looking to try something new, coworkers getting to know each other, or a date, the endorphins will put everyone in a good mood, and the journey is sure to inspire good conversation.

Because paths and trails abound and roads are generally in good condition, any bike will do. Just make sure to be prepared. Make use of Google Maps' helpful "bicycle" setting, for route suggestions, mileage and estimated times. Bring extra sunscreen, more water than you think you need, something to eat and a patch kit, pump and tire irons in case you get a flat.

I've only lived in Madison for about eight months, but learning the city and surrounding area on two wheels has already given me several ideas for this year's bike excursion to-do list. Here are a few of my favorite rides from last year, followed by my "must list" for this season.

Pretty Paoli

I discovered this ultra-popular route, Paoli via the Badger State Trail, by accident. It's widely known among longtime Madisonians, and it's a great first country ride for newcomers. The 14-mile route leads straight into this cute town on the Sugar River, where shops and eateries provide a pleasant respite. (The directions have been edited to reflect the lack of direct access from the Badger State Trail to Sun Valley Parkway.)

Take the Southwest Commuter Path west until it picks up the Badger State Trail, and stay on it for about seven miles. When you get to the junction with Purcell Road, take a left, then a right onto Sayles Trail, which will intersect Sun Valley Parkway. Take a right there, and you'll head straight into town.

The Creamery Cafe features tasty and locally sourced food, and the adjacent Artisan Gallery, which focuses somewhat but not exclusively on local art, is a delightful follow-up. Across the street the Schoolhouse Cafe is a great place for a slightly fancier meal, particularly if you're staying the night at a B&B or camping and continuing your journey.

Time: 75 to 90 minutes each way
Difficulty: Easy

Selfie with trolls in Mount Horeb

This route makes use of the Military Ridge Trail/Ice Age Scenic Trail, a lovely and slightly rugged trail that will take you all the way from the Beltline to your destination. Oh, and your destination involves trolls.

Start from downtown on the Southwest Commuter Path, riding over the Beltline overpass and shortly thereafter, under the Verona Road. Then take a right onto the Verona Road Frontage Road until, just past the Saris offices, you can pick up the Military Ridge Trail. Stay on it for 16.4 miles. When you get to its intersection with 2nd Street in Mount Horeb -- I believe it's Pluto in the Planet Bike galaxy -- take a right, and welcome yourself to the Troll Capital of the World.

Get your picture taken with one of Mount Horeb's famous woodcarved trolls scattered throughout town, grab a burger at Culver's or a pint and pizza at the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub, take a peek in the several shops, and check out Fisher King Winery on Main Street. Camping overnight is a nice summertime addition to this trek -- find a site at Blue Mound State Park, the highest point in southern Wisconsin, or one of the 25 rustic sites at nearby Brigham County Park.

Time: 2 hours each way
Difficulty: Easy

The Oregon Trail

I normally bike-commute to the Oregon vineyard where I work part-time, and it's the best part of my day.

With its rolling hills, occasional opportunities for wildlife sightings and pretty farms, the trip out to Oregon makes a great training ride of about 30 miles round-trip from Madison. A third of the trip is on the Badger State Trail, where you'll be warned to watch for flying discs: The trail goes right past the Capital Springs State Recreation Area disc golf course. Bring your discs, if you're so inclined, and add 9 holes to your bike ride for a little cross-training.

Take the Capital City Trail south past Olin Park toward Waunona Way, then take the right under the Beltline and continue south for three miles. There, switch to country roads (left on Larsen, left on Goodland Park Road, right on Lalor, left on County Highway B, right on Sand Hill, and right on Rutland-Dunn Town Line Road, into Oregon).

In Oregon, stop for coffee and a pastry or bagel sandwich at Firefly Coffeehouse or a pizza from Maria's.

Time: 1.5 hours each way
Difficulty: Moderate

Side roads to Middleton

There's plenty to eat and drink in Middleton, so it's a good thing the ride features at least one sizeable hill. I love riding out for an afternoon to shop, taste and explore, but it took me a few tries before I figured out how to avoid the terror that is University Avenue. On the near west side, pretty Kendall is a parallel bike boulevard that will warm you up with small hills. Take a right on Highland, going under Campus Drive, and then pick up the bike path on the left. Shortly past the Original Pancake House (if you can pass it without going in), take a left on Heim Avenue, a right on Old Middleton and a left on Gateway to cut over to Hubbard Avenue, one of downtown Middleton's signature streets.

With the Mustard Museum, the Capital Brewery and a variety of specialty stores, downtown Middleton could easily take up an afternoon. Neapolitan pizza is the order of the day at Novanta, slightly farther west but worth the extra effort.

Difficulty level: Easy to moderate

To-do list

In slightly better shape now and with my first full Madison summer ahead, I have an ambitious bike touring checklist. Since I travel cheap, I favor camping over other forms of lodging, but these destinations also offer B&Bs and inns.

Camping on the Glacial Drumlin Trail

Beginning in Cottage Grove, the Glacial Drumlin Trail features several camping areas en route to Waukesha, the trail's eastern terminus. I'd camp in PINEWOODS, in the Kettle Moraine State Forest- Southern Unit, and also check out some of the hiking trails in park. Plan a side tour to the Tyranena taproom in Lake Mills; I'd bring a picnic to pair with my pint.

Biking to the border

It's possible to bike all the way to Illinois on the Badger State Trail. I can't pass up the challenge, especially when a reward like the National Historic Cheesemaking Center is nearby in Monroe.

Stops along the way

Creamery Cafe - Artisan Gallery
6858 Paoli Rd., Paoli

Schoolhouse Shops and Cafe
6857 Paoli Rd., Paoli

Culver's of Mount Horeb
1700 U.S. Business 18, Mount Horeb

Grumpy Troll Brew Pub
105 S. 2nd St., Mount Horeb

Fisher King Winery
102 W. Main St., Mount Horeb

Blue Mound State Park
4350 Mounds Park Rd., Blue Mounds
Campsites are reservable online.

Brigham County Park
3160 County F, Blue Mounds
Campsites are reservable online.

Capital Springs State Recreation Area

Firefly Coffeehouse
114 N. Main St., Oregon

Maria's Pizza
134 S. Main St., Oregon

National Mustard Museum
7477 Hubbard Ave., Middleton

Capital Brewery
7734 Terrace Ave., Middleton

National Historic Cheesemaking Center
2108 6th Ave., Monroe
9 am-4 pm Mon.-Sat., 11 am-4 pm Sun.

8452 W. Old Sauk Rd.
Pinewoods Campground, Kettle Moraine State Forest

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