On The Road Again: Road Biking in Door County
By Sam Perlman
Road biking has enjoyed a major resurgence in recent years with the phenomenal success of American bike racer Lance Armstrong and his unprecedented seven consecutive victories in the Tour de France, the premier road biking event in the world. The secondary and tertiary backcountry roads in Door County offer fantastic opportunities for those who want to fulfill their desire to be the next Greg LeMond (the first American to win Le Tour) or Lance Armstrong.
For those who aren’t quite up to speed on biking lingo, a “road” bike is the kind with turned down handlebars and skinny, smooth tires, with frames often made of high-tech, lightweight materials for maximum speed and efficiency. Road bikes differ from mountain bikes, which have straight-across handlebars for an upright riding position, stiffer frames and wide, knobby tires for greater traction on rough surfaces. Road bikes can range from a few hundred dollars for an entry-level bike, to well into five figures for a custom-built bike weighing less than fifteen pounds with handmade frame and super premium components.
State Highways 42 and 57 are the main thoroughfares around the county and, because they don’t have wide shoulders, are really not suited for lengthy cohabitation between bicycle and automotive traffic. Another road to try and avoid as much as possible is County Highway A, which links Jacksonport to Ephraim in one straight shot and is frequently used by locals and others to circumvent heavy summer traffic on 42 and 57. County A can get busy at times with very swift travelers. As long as you limit your exposure on these busy highways, you can very safely bike the roads of Door County and encounter few automobiles.
The Door County Visitor Bureau publishes a “Backroad Bicycle Route” map that shows how to bike from the county line near Forestville all the way up to Gills Rock and around Washington Island, and includes a mileage chart to effectively gauge distances. The map also indicates roads that are a bit more difficult, due to either traffic or terrain.
The book Biking Wisconsin: 50 Great Road and Trail Rides by Steve Johnson highlights three separate rides in Door County. Johnson recommends a 14-mile loop in the area north of Ellison Bay and the ride along County Highway T from Valmy to Sturgeon Bay, including Glidden drive, which Johnson calls his “favorite ride in Door County and one of the best in the state.”
Another route that Johnson describes is the 15-mile ride on County Highway Q, from Baileys Harbor to Ephraim. For the more ambitious rider, you can add an extra leg to this ride and tour the roads of Peninsula State Park. One of the more strenuous hill climbs in the area can be found by following Shore Road from the Fish Creek park entrance north to Nicolet Beach and beyond up to Eagle Tower.
The Wisconsin Department of Tourism, meanwhile, publishes a “Wisconsin Biking Guide” which also features the trip up Glidden Drive, but extends the trip to include Whitefish Dunes State Park and Cave Point County Park to create a 40-mile loop that begins and ends at Sunset Park in Sturgeon Bay.
The roads of Door County south of the City of Sturgeon Bay are particularly ripe for road biking. There is very little traffic, and if you don’t mind the occasional whiff of Wisconsin’s “dairy air” from a nearby farm, you can practically ride down the centerline of the road without fear. The Visitor Bureau map highlights the trip down the lakeshore from Sturgeon Bay to Robert LaSalle County Park as one leg of a loop all the way around Southern Door County.
In addition to Peninsula State Park, the two loops around Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay make for a nice ride, with great views of the Sturgeon Bay canal as you cruise Shore Road. The heavily forested land in each of the state parks offers a nice break from strength-sapping wind on breezy days. For those who want to load their panniers and turn a bike trip into an overnight adventure, the parks have multiple campsites available, provided you book ahead (http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/parks/reservation/).
The roads that circle and crisscross Washington Island are also fairly devoid of traffic, and with very few steep grades, make for an easy ride for riders of any skill level. The entire island can be circumnavigated in about 20 miles round trip from the ferry dock at Detroit Harbor.
Door County is also fortunate to have two very experienced and savvy local bike shop proprietors, in addition to other bike rental outfitters. Leif Hagman, general manager of DC Bikes on Third Avenue in Sturgeon Bay, has been an amateur bike racer for more than 18 years. Brian “Stretch” Merkel grew up in his parent’s bike shops in Milwaukee and Fish Creek, and is now the owner of Nor Door Sport & Cyclery, located on Highway 42 in downtown Fish Creek. Both can guide the purchase or rental of a road bike and provide you with the equipment and knowledge you need for a safe and enjoyable road bike experience on the peninsula.
Additionally, DC Bikes sponsors three road rides that offer a variety of challenges for riders of any skill level. The weekly Tuesday Night Road Ride (“not for the faint of heart or legs”) and Wednesday night no-drop group ride meet from April through September. There is also a Sunday Morning Breakfast Ride that meets twice a month. Nor Door Sport & Cyclery serves as the meeting place for a Thursday evening group ride.
Besides the regularly scheduled rides, there are also a variety of organized and charity rides throughout the summer season in Door County, including the Ridges Sanctuary Ride for Nature (June), the Door County Century ride (September) and a HELP of Door County benefit ride (October).
When asked about their personal favorite Door County road rides, the experts’ answers reflect their locations more than anything else. Hagman enjoys the ride north from Sturgeon Bay on County Highway B, the climb up Bay Shore Heights, then across the peninsula on Whitefish Bay Road to Glidden Drive. Merkel cites the climb up Skyline Road in Peninsula State Park to Sven’s Bluff as the road he most likes to ride.
No matter where you decide to ride in Door County, make sure you do it safely. Always wear a properly-fitted helmet and appropriate clothing. Make sure your bike’s engine (you!) is adequately fueled and hydrated before you start. Bring a 16-ounce bottle of water with you for every hour you plan to ride, obey posted traffic signals and, most of all, enjoy the roads of Door County on bicycle.