Many Miles and Many Years Around Petenwell Lake

Thanks to Bike Fed member Tom Mortensen for this nice retrospective and video about his years of riding around Petnenwell Lake. Tom is a passionate cyclist, drummer, writer, park designer, artist, bow hunter, homebrewer, and it bares repeating, a proud, long-standing member of the Wisconsin Bike Fed.

The year was 2005. My good friend Greg and I were up at my cottage in Adams County, Wisconsin. It was a balmy spring day in April; The kind of day that makes one think summer is almost here, except that it’s Wisconsin and we could still get clobbered with a blizzard at any point within the next few weeks. The wind was strong and the spring was dry. We knew there would be no campfire for that night.

We decided to take advantage of the weather and bring the bikes along to get out and map out a ride that, unknowingly at the time, would become an annual event for the next seven years. Thanks to Greg, I had just started getting into riding longer distances that year, but all I had was a heavy hybrid bike that I used to haul my twin daughters around in a Burley. Perhaps I should have never sold that Schwinn Super LeTour I had bought back in the 1980’s with the money I made working at the local private golf course. Greg had his then new Giant road bike and he had generously lent me his slightly modified 1981 Peugeot, which I fondly named “Cool Blue” because of the icy blue frame color and light blue tires.

If you’re at all familiar with Adams County in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, you know that it is primarily flat terrain with both wide-open farm fields and wooded corridors of Jack Pine and Black Oak. For the most part the roads are well maintained and have very little traffic on them, although at any point you can cross into another township and the roads turn into gravel and sand. So mapping out a paved route was important.

My cottage is several miles east of Petenwell Lake, one of the many impoundments along the hard-working Wisconsin River. It is a large, shallow body of water – the type of lake a cyclist would want to ride around. On this maiden voyage, Greg and I rode along the eastern shore and took back roads to the levee, over to the dam and up to Petenwell County Park. We wanted to explore routes and then later take a drive around the other side of the lake to see what a good route would be for next year’s ride.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2005 I continued to ride with Greg and others on Cool Blue until I purchased a new road bike for the upcoming riding season. I took Cool Blue off the trainer and swapped it with a new Trek road bike.

Color: blue. Name: Cool Blue 2.

Fast forward to July of 2006. By now we have formed a larger group of seven riders who all looked forward to riding the Petenwell Lake loop. We mapped out the route and realized that it is only about 68 miles, but for the first ride we were OK with the distance. We stopped at Wilderness County Park on the western shore of the lake before making our way up to Nekoosa for another rest stop. We all pulled into a convenience store wearing tight, colorful clothing and funny looking shoes as we went into the store and bought bananas and refilled our water bottles. Some of the locals threw us some interesting looks as they bought lottery tickets and cigarettes. Before too long we were on our way down the eastern shore of Petenwell Lake to Devil’s Elbow – a nice section of curvy road that hugs the shoreline of a large bay before spitting you back out to the open, hot, flat roads of Strongs Prairie.

The day finished up back at the cottage with beer, fire, jambalaya and fun conversations and making plans for the next year – to make it a century ride.

The 2007 ride was an epic event. We now had ten riders, including a few humanimal athletes who were training for various triathlons. These are the kind of riders that you lose on the curvature of the earth when they drop you. My good friend Kirk was training for Ironman, so a good long distance ride was just what he needed in the saddle. The plan was to ride around Petenwell Lake and continue south along the western shore of adjoining Castle Rock Lake, crossing over what appeared on the map to be a road over a causeway at the 85 mile mark. This is something I should have checked out first by car before making any assumptions. More on that soon.

As if riding a bike for over 100 miles in one day was not enough, two of the first time Petenwell riders, Paul T and Gregg “G-man” decided to participate in the Castle Rock Triathlon that same morning. They departed before sunrise to ride their bikes over 20 miles to the triathlon, where they participated in the event and then rode their bikes to meet us on the west side of Petenwell Lake in the afternoon to complete the ride.

After a brief stop and water break at Buckhorn State Park, all ten of us proceeded down to the causeway to cross over Castle Rock Lake and make out way back to the cottage, where good food and cold beer were waiting. We were unexpectedly met with an impenetrable fenced off gravel road with signs everywhere about national security and no trespassing and threats of imprisonment. It appeared that at one time, one could have crossed the lake at that point, but I guess 9/11 changed everything. We were at the 85 mile mark, and when we pulled out the maps to find an alternate route, a sinking feeling entered everyone’s head….especially mine. I should have checked the route.

The only alternative was to continue south to HWY 21, adding about 30 more miles to the trip along an ungodly busy highway to get us to the south end of Castle Rock Lake and back up the east side to get back to the cottage. At this point my mind started playing games with me. Several of the riders took off at a frenzied pace to get back to the cottage. I couldn’t blame them – cold beer, a fire and good food was waiting for us. From what I hear, they set a pace of 25 MPH and hammered back to the cottage in a pace line.

Luckily for me, my good friends Paul T and G-man who had started their triathlon journey before sunrise, along with Greg, all hung back with me at a 17-18 MPH pace, pulling me along on their wheels to get me around the lake. I was on an empty tank. We all stopped and shared what I had left of my goo gel, Clif Bars and other enhanced products that are supposed to help you get through a long day in the saddle. We were all done with the taste of this stuff and just wanted a cold beer and some jambalaya.

That was my first century, albeit more than 100 miles. Memorable, for sure. The evening found us around the fire, talking about all the adventures of the day and planning for the following year.

As the years went on, we continued to enhance the route by adding another leg and riding around Lake Arrowhead. The group continued to change from year to year, sometimes having as may as twelve riders. In 2009, we were down to only five riders. This was the first year our friend Steve joined us. It was a cloudy, drizzly ride for part of the ride. G-man pulled away from us after 20 miles and went on his own way and at his own insane pace. The ride for the remaining group of four was uneventful until a farm dog came out of nowhere and sent us all into a sprint.

We were back at the cottage after the ride relaxing and drinking beer, wondering what happened to G-man. It was now 7:30 pm and we started to get concerned, when he pulled up if front of the cottage. Cold and clammy, eyes sunken, he walked his Cervelo up to the cottage and Kirk looked at his odometer and shouted, “152 miles?!” From that point on he was known as G-man 152.

We kept up the tradition through 2012, inviting new riders every year and changing the route to keep things interesting. We haven’t been back since then, partially due to conflicts with various triathlons, family vacations and obligations and my new-found passion for doing multi-day, long mileage bicycle rides. We will do it again though. Probably on an unplanned, spontaneous weekend, much like the first weekend that Greg and I had back in 2005.


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

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