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Day 18: Red Wing, MN to La Crosse, WI

Aaand we have a new state and my 4th century ride of this trip!

Given the storm-shortened ride yesterday, I knew I was in for a long ride today because I really wanted to make it as far as La Crosse. So turning over a new leaf, I dragged myself out of bed before 6, ate a couple of bowls of cereal at the hotel’s free breakfast, and managed to hit the road at 7:15. Baby steps. A short ride brought me into downtown Red Wing, and from there I got on the US-63 bridge to Wisconsin.

One of the interesting things about the Mississippi here is that, while the main channel is half a mile wide or less, there are all sorts of islands, wetlands, and side channels, so all of the crossings of the Mississippi in this area take 2-3 miles from end to end.

When the road was finally on firm ground, I took a turn onto Wisconsin Route 35, which would be my road of choice for the next 60+ miles. It’s actually an excellent cycling route⁠— wide shoulders in most places and not much traffic. I saw quite a few cyclists going the other way, especially during the morning hours when it was cool.

Ten miles into my ride, I came to a hill. And I don’t mean one of those small rolling hills that I had across North Dakota and Minnesota. I mean nearly two miles of steady climbing, which I hadn’t done since Montana. It’s good to keep in practice for these things and not become too complacent. The hill also meant that I was then treated to nearly two miles of steady descent. It was the perfect grade, too. My speed naturally topped out at 35, and given the good road surface I didn’t wobble at all so I didn’t have to brake.

At the top of the next hill, there was a great lookout over Lake Pepin.

Lake Pepin is actually just a really wide part of the Mississippi, where the water flows so slowly because of the river width that it might as well be a lake.

Just after descending from that view, I rolled into the town of Maiden Rock, which has this amazing bakery called Smiling Pelican. The mango cranberry scone was awesome, and they mentioned I was lucky to have gotten there early in the morning, because their scones sell out quickly. I was a bit puzzled how a bakery of that quality could stay in business in a town of 100, but they said they attract a lot of day trippers and weekend vacationers from the Twin Cities.

As I was getting ready to leave, I saw a couple in cycling gear, so I figured I’d chat with them. The woman was a local who lives in Pepin, the man was her boyfriend visiting from Quebec City, and they were just out for a day ride, though they mentioned they’d spent a few days touring Italy by bicycle last summer. Now, if they had come in when I was arriving, I would have loved to chat further. But the morning was getting on, and I was getting a bit antsy about getting more miles under my belt while the sun was still low. However, the man was really curious about all the features of my bike. So I was in the awkward position of explaining them while also trying to excuse myself. By the time I finally extricated myself, I’d spent 45 minutes at the bakery, which is an awfully long break after only 17 miles.

Another dozen miles down the road, totally out of the blue, I ran across a winery! My last winery visit was in Richland, WA, so I thought it would be cool to check out a Wisconsin winery. But it was only 10 and the tasting room didn’t open until 11. Oh well.

Continuing on into Pepin, the local woman from the bakery had told me the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum wasn’t worth it (she was born in Pepin and the Little House in the Big Woods was a few miles out of town), so I contented myself with a photo.

Pepin also, despite being a small town, has a pretty good-sized marina on the Mississippi. Still trying to get my head around having a marina this far upstream on a riverbank.

The other recommendation the woman from Pepin had given me was to check out Nelson Creamery, another 8 miles past Pepin, so that was my next stop. Along the way, I crossed the Chippewa River, which was surprisingly big for a relatively small tributary of the Mississippi.

Nelson Creamery came up soon enough though, and I discovered they specialize in both cheese and ice cream. Since this is, after all, America’s Dairyland, I decided it was only fitting to over-indulge in both. The joys of being able to eat what I want on this ride! I followed a generous two-scoop ice cream cone with a cheese board. The cheese board was surprisingly expensive at $15, so I was wondering what would come on it. The answer was seven(!!!) cheeses, plus pitted olives and marcona almonds. By way of comparison, a $15 cheese board in Boston would probably come with three cheeses.

So that wound up being an early lunch. And by early I mean when I left the creamery it still wasn’t quite noon. But now I was only 38 miles in, and I had quite a ways to go. Fortunately a nice tailwind was starting to pick up, so I was able to really book it for much of the rest of the ride. 18-19 mph on flat terrain became easy, and sometimes I was even doing 20-21 without thinking about it. These are the conditions I was waiting for!

In very little time I was another 8 miles down the road in Alma, where I paused to get a photo of Lock & Dam #4. The Upper Mississippi has a whole series of 25 locks and dams stretching from Minneapolis to St. Louis. Given the size of the river they’re pretty impressive!

Breezing along, 63 miles into my ride brought me to the town of Fountain City. I saw a sign for a winery, and this one actually had an open tasting room. So stopped at Seven Hawks Vineyards and in the process managed to visit my first Wisconsin winery before my first Wisconsin brewery! Bet you didn’t see that coming.

The bartender was generous with free tastings, so I got to try about half the wines on their list. My favorite from among their regular wines was their Old Fashioned Frontier red blend. I can’t believe I’m praising a red wine from Wisconsin, but here I am doing just that. The bartender said that since the 1990s the University of Minnesota has been developing varietals that grow well in cold climates, and the result has been all these varietals that are generally unknown but can actually work out quite well. There are now 12 wineries along the Mississippi from Red Wing to La Crosse. Who knew?

Oh and I did say “regular wines” before. They also do dessert wines, two port-style wines and an ice wine. I thought the ice wine was quite enjoyable as well.

Now came a slightly weird part of the ride. Between Fountain City and La Crosse, Route 35 veers away from the river and adds on several miles in the process. It’s actually quite a bit shorter to cross into Minnesota, follow the road down on that side of the river, and then cross back to Wisconsin at La Crosse. So why did I bother crossing the river at all this morning? Because the towns on the Wisconsin side seemed like they’d be more interesting. And as a bonus, being on the east bank of the river in the morning meant that the hills and trees to the east gave me a lot of shade.

So at 69 miles into my ride, I turned back across the river and re-entered Minnesota in the city of Winona. This will come as a complete shock, but Winona has a brewery, so I went to check out Island City Brewing. This was actually partly influenced by how long my day was going to be. La Crosse has three breweries that I would have loved to have checked out, but they all close early on Sundays. If I had made it farther yesterday, I would have gotten to La Crosse in plenty of time to do that, but as it was I was going to miss them. So Island City was actually my only brewery for the day.

As you can see, I got a very colorful flight. Thing is, this was one of many breweries where, while everything was perfectly good, nothing was especially noteworthy. The Lunar grapefruit radler was nice and refreshing, but it was made with grapefruit soda rather than grapefruit juice. Having now had two radlers with grapefruit soda and one with grapefruit juice, I definitely preferred the grapefruit juice. The High Forest red ale was also nice, but again, nothing super exciting.

Taylor, my warmshowers host for the night, had asked me to text him when I left Winona. He hadn’t been on a bike ride yet today, so he wanted to head out to meet me and ride the last bit back to his house with me. So I revisited Highway 61 and headed down it towards La Crosse. Just out of Winona I saw this mileage sign that I can’t look at without chuckling.

How can you name a city “La Crescent”? I guess the proper French name would be Le Croissant, which would also be impossible to say without chuckling, thanks to a certain crescent-shaped pastry.

Further along US-61 I finally got a good vantage point for photographing one of the many bluffs that I’d seen all day on both sides of the river.

At 90 miles into my ride, I exited US-61 because it was merging into I-90. As you may recall, I hadn’t seen I-90 since Missoula, though I certainly saw plenty of it my first day out of Seattle. And right at the top of the exit I met Taylor, who had just gotten there and was about to text me to see if I was doing ok. (I had stopped for a few minutes en route to down some quick energy because I felt myself about to bonk. Otherwise with me benefiting from a tailwind and him fighting a headwind I should have gotten there before him.)

Now, I knew from Taylor’s online profile that he was a triathlete, and he showed up riding a lightweight road bike. Meanwhile I’m an average Joe riding a touring bike and carrying a lot of weight. Keeping up with him was a big challenge, and at times I just couldn’t. He always eventually slowed to wait for me though.

When we got to La Crosse, he made sure to take me by the world’s largest six-pack.

Since he knew from my profile that I was into craft beer, and since he knew as well as I did that I’d be arriving too late to visit any breweries, he had incredibly generously gone out and bought a beer selection from Pearl Street Brewery for me to try. So even though I didn’t get to visit the brewery, I did get to try three different beers of theirs in the city where they were brewed, so that sort of counts, right? I really liked the 17-Up lemon lime gose, which is their 17th anniversary specialty beer. When I saw the description I was apprehensive because I thought lemon and lime in a gose would just make it undrinkably sour. But somehow it worked! Also, That’s What I’m Talkin’ ‘Bout organic rolled oat stout was very good. Not my absolute favorite oatmeal stout or anything, but they did a solid job with it.

And that concludes my busy day! It also concludes what is hopefully my last century ride until after Kalamazoo. The weather’s supposed to hold up for the next several days, so barring injury or mechanical issues I should be on track without any more super long rides.

Total distance: 104.0 miles
Average speed: 16.3 mph

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