Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Bratwurst Triangle

Originally published in Bicycling (on-line edition) 3/14/07:]

By John Greenfield

Riding a century is tough, but try doing two of ‘em, back-to-back, in the middle of winter, in the heart of the Midwest. Since 2004, dozens of cold-weather cycling nuts have done just that, relaying from Chicago to Milwaukee and back each February for the Frozen Snot Century.

The last three Snot rides were a blast, but there’s a thin line between a groove and a rut. So this year my girlfriend Elizabeth and I attempted the Bratwurst Triangle, linking three sausage-loving cities: Chi-Town, Brew City and Madison, WI. Although this was her first overnight and we met with some truly nasty weather, we polished off the polygon in a multi-modal manner.

Friday morning we loaded our bikes on Metra, Chicagoland’s commuter rail, to catch a lift towards Mad City, de-training a few miles south of the Cheddar Curtain. As we mounted our steel ponies, conditions were ideal: blue skies, temperatures in the low thirties and a friendly wind for our 70-mile ride northwest to the capital of America’s Dairyland. We arrived at sundown at a cozy brewpub where Bike Federation of Wisconsin staff greeted us.

But as I scarfed down a plate of the triangle’s namesake encased meats, I noticed a blizzard outside the window. Afterwards, we foolishly stopped for more road soda at the UW student union. When we emerged, the streets were frosted with several inches of powder and motorized traffic had slowed to a crawl.

We tried to ride the two miles to our homestay in the whiteout but our steeds shimmied scarily on the slippery surface. I soon heard the distinct twang of a broken spoke on my rear wheel, and Elizabeth pulled to the side of the busy four-lane, too shell-shocked to ride further. We were trudging through the storm when our hostess Robbie called, offering to pick up my girl and her bike.

I was loading the Bianchi into the Toyota when a police car pulled up behind us. I thought we were going to be scolded for blocking the road. Instead, the officer, a laid-back dude with a “Fargo” accent, offered to give my bike and me a ride home as well.

The next morning the roads were clear, but I needed a new spoke and we faced the prospect of a strong headwind for our 80-mile ride east to Milwaukee. Robbie begged us not to bicycle there because another storm was predicted to dump 25 more inches on the City that Beer Built.

I called Paul, who was leading the regular Frozen Snot ride up from the City that Works. I guess people were scared off by the forecast since only five guys had the cajones to ride this year. When he picked up, the crew had been pulled over in a ritzy suburb because one of them was enjoying a can of High Life as he pedaled along.

Paul had to put his cell down when the officer addressed the group and I heard every word of the lecture. “Now I know you fellas are out here to have a good time,” said the man in blue, “but you have to obey the rules of the road just like everybody else. I don’t want to see your friend there get splattered all over the road.”

After the cop released the Snot riders, Elizabeth and I decided that discretion is the better part of valor and hopped the Badger Bus with our bikes to rendezvous with them. Safely in Cream City when the flakes resumed, we rode to the designated tavern for a few pints of What Made Milwaukee Famous.

When the Snotters finally arrived they were completely fried. The hard crosswind had made riding a chore and blown snowdrifts onto Route 32, forcing them to bike in the middle of the road in front of impatient drivers. Most of them decided to sleep in the next day and take Amtrak home.

The massive storm never materialized but the next morning there was a layer of wet snow on the streets and freezing rain blew off the lake. Still, Elizabeth wanted to ride 60 miles south to Waukegan, IL, where we could catch Metra back to the Hog-Butcher to the World. I was impressed that she was willing to take on such crappy weather.

Swaddled in Gore-Tex, we started the slow slog southward through the slippery slush. The roads cleared as we left town, but the wicked sleet beat on us as we pedaled against the crosswind. Entering the Land of Lincoln, I realized we were running out of time to catch the train back to the Big Onion, so we sprinted eight miles to the station, arriving with a minute to spare.

After I’d lashed our bikes to the inside wall of the train, Elizabeth said, “Wow, that’s the fastest I’ve ever ridden in my life.” We walked to the next car to find Paul and another Snotter named Rubani. They’d slept in and left by bike from Brew Town at a brisk pace, beating us to the station. We sat down next to them and I passed around a pint of Jim Beam. Cozy in our liquid blanket of booze, we watched the scenery roll past as the train carried us back to Sweet Home Chicago.

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