Vino in The Valley of Death Part I: By Mike Courteau

“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” (Abandon all hope ye who enter here).

Loren stood in the grass along the roadside replacing the inner tube that had just punctured. In the background, a combine mowed down the rows of corn and raised dust. Just behind, a shallow stream, not more than ankle deep, trickled over the pebbles. I stood by, waiting to see if my riding companion needed assistance or a tire lever or an inner tube.

We had only just begun the Vino in the Valley ride. Billed as a 54-mile route through the rolling hills of western Wisconsin, which was to begin and end at a restaurant/winery called Vino in the Valley, it all sounded bucolic enough.

The ride marked the official end to the outdoor cycling season for all of the local Lifetime Fitness cycling clubs. The three members of our club, Brad Dettman, our club coordinator; Loren Willis, our ride lead and I, rode out to Maiden Rock, Wisconsin for the start of what would turn out to be a rather harrowing experience for some of us.

The Vino in the Valley event is new, and thus, it is a fairly casual event with minimal rider support or route markings. Participants had to navigate the course as best they could with the aid of maps and cue sheets downloaded from the website Map My Ride.

This was problematic.

The map did not show, for example, that an early five-mile stretch marked only as County Road A was actually a gravel road reminiscent of early season classics races like the Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders. No, we weren’t rattling over pavè, exactly, but the sensation was no less jolting for that.

At one point, the Highland Park Club was at the head of the peloton. We led the way out of the Vino in the Valley parking lot to Highway 10 and then onto the crushed rock of County Road A. For a few brief moments, I even found myself at the head of the peloton of 70 riders.

Brad Dettman, Loren Willis and I actually had about a one-minute gap over the main pack, and no sooner had we commented that this rugged section of the course was reminiscent of Paris-Roubaix did Loren announce that he had flatted. Brad, who was approximately 50 yards ahead, did not hear my shouts that Loren was off his bike and rumbled off into the dust.

It didn’t take long for the main field to rattle on past. To their collective credit, we were asked by the host of riders if we had all the gear we wanted or were otherwise in need of assistance.

We got off the grated road at the first opportunity by crossing a small bridge over the stream. Rather than continue our assault of County Road A, or its assault on us, we elected to ride parallel to it on the other side of the stream on E Rush River Road.

Then came the hills.

The first categorized climb was nearly two miles long. I saw riders up the hill ahead of me peddling squares as they struggled to the summit. About half way up, I actually saw a rider walking her bike up the incline, and that vision nearly broke my spirits. But my abiding memory of that climb was the sound of my own breathing. I was gasping for breath. If you’ve seen the animated film The Triplets of Belleville and how the Tour de France riders fought their way up Mont Ventoux with their mouths agape, then you have some point of reference for how I felt, and no doubt looked, climbing that first hill.

Still, I climbed the hill well, I felt, and I even passed a number of riders on my way to the summit. The second categorized climb was another matter, however.

I may have been on the wheel of the first intrepid cyclist of our little pack to brave the incline, but I was mentally defeated before I started. I put in so much effort climbing the first hill that the prospect of expending a similar amount of energy on another hill so soon was daunting.

I spied a wayside rest of sorts—nothing official, just a little unpaved shelf off the side of the road about half way up—and succumbed to its temptation and pulled over for a breather. I unclipped and slumped over my handlebars, exhausted. Soon, the riders behind me began to crawl on by—including, heroically, a father and daughter commandeering an impossibly heavy tandem bicycle that must have weighed 35 pounds. One rider, seeing me athwart my top tube and my lungs working like bellows, said, “Everything all right?”

“Yeah, I’m just gassed,” I managed to say.

Soon, all of the riders who had begun the hill with me had gone past—including my riding companion, Loren, who I had left at the bottom of the hill on the previous climb and who was well behind me on this second one. I clipped back in and, somehow, found a sustainable rhythm up the rest of the hill.

At the top, I wondered how far ahead of me Loren had gotten. I raced on past a number of riders just in front of me as I accelerated in my efforts to latch back on to Loren’s wheel—wherever he might be.

We were on a plateau now and, every once in a while, I could see a trio of riders across the fields charging down the shoulder of the road. I thought I could spy Loren’s familiar markings and riding style among them.

They seemed to be riding at a good pace and, try as I might, I didn’t seem to be making any headway in my efforts to catch up with them. Of course, they were enjoying the advantage of drafting off each other and sharing the workload, whereas I was by myself, between groups, having to do all the pulling myself.

When we started to hit the rollers, however, I saw it as a chance to make up ground. I figured that if I descended well, I might be able to pull back some time, and since I had started to recover a fraction I figured I could pull back a few seconds more when the triumvirate ahead of me was struggling up the next incline.

In this way, I managed to pull back the 45 seconds or so that I was in arrears.

Loren had somehow managed to ride both of his erstwhile companions off his wheel, so when I finally caught up with him, it was just the two of us once again.

To his credit, Loren had mistaken another rider for me and was trying to chase him down. Thus, when I latched onto his wheel, he said, “I thought you had already gone on past with an earlier group, so I’ve been trying to catch back up to some guy I thought was you.”

We hit roller after roller after that.

Finally, mercifully, we hit a long, winding descent that sent us careening around a bend at upwards of 43 miles per hour. As we neared the bottom, I saw chaos strewn all over the road for several hundred feet.

It was unclear, at first, if there had been a cycling accident, a motorcycle accident, or both. I could see a motorcycle on its side near the edge of the road and an array of plastic and metal parts strewn everywhere. As we slowed, a female cyclist walked toward us while on her cell phone and said, “Do you know what this road is exactly? I’m on the phone with 911 trying to describe to them where we are.”

Between the three of us, we managed to ascertain the road, and the woman relayed the information to the 911 dispatcher.

There wasn’t much for Loren and me to do since there was already a number of cyclists and motorcyclists on the scene when we arrived. As we picked our way through the detritus, we could see a motorcyclist lying on his back being tended to by a couple of Vino in the Valley riders. His leg was at an acute angle and when we cycled slowly past I could hear one of the cyclists say, “Just stay calm. It’s gonna be alright. The ambulance is on its way.”

A few seconds later, I overheard one of his motorcycling companions say to another, “John’s got a broken leg.”

Sadly, we saw another cycle that had gone off the road and was well down into the brambles, and yet another, a little farther up the road, that had clearly bounced across the asphalt and flown down into the bushes where another group of riders was attempting to extract him from his predicament.

It was a grisly and upsetting scene, and any joy that I had been deriving from the day’s excursion was gone.

Climbing out of the valley on the other side of all the mess, I rode up alongside a woman who was crying. “I just feel so bad for all of them,” she sobbed. “I hope they’re all okay.”

“I know,” I said, “I didn’t even want to look.”

We had a long climb out of the valley after that. At one point as Loren and I were riding side-by-side I said, “Do you get the sense that you’ll just be happy to finish this ride in one piece?”


To be continued……..

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2 Responses to Vino in The Valley of Death Part I: By Mike Courteau

  1. Melissa says:

    We are anxious to read more on how this trip ended. When can we expect part 2 of the article?

  2. Mike Courteau says:

    Melissa, thanks for reading. Part II was posted earlier this week. I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

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