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Story by Marty Zens; Photos by Eileen Zens. Feature photo: Marty (right) & road support friend, Fred Blau (left)

The Race Across Wisconsin was run for a few years in the mid 1980s. I participated in the final one in 1987 with about 60 others. The event has nothing to do with RAW (Ride Across Wisconsin) of today, it was a timed solo 223 miles La Crosse to Milwaukee with support you’d arrange on your own. Most of us were out there for the individual challenge — to ride well, see what kind of time we could make, and have a chance to go long in an organized event.

This was the era of Lon Haldeman the famed ultra distance rider from northern Illinois who’d more often than not ride in Wisconsin vs. Illinois. Together, with his equally talented and famed wife Susan Notorangelo, the couple broke barriers in both individual and tandem RAAM (Race Across America) times, she winning RAAM in 1985 and 1989. We all hoped they’d show in LaCrosse the morning of June 28, thinking maybe they’d ride in overnight and continue to Brown Deer, but they did not. A note below about a Wisconsin record that may still stand by Lon. I bring it up because what they did over time makes RAW 1987 seem elementary. 

In 1979 Lon (Haldeman) set the Wisconsin End to End Record going south against the wind. The distance was 407 miles in 23 hours 7 minutes. He used a one speed bike with a 42 x 14 gear (82 inches). Lon rode the first 250 miles without a support crew and then was joined by his parents who followed him at night the remaining miles. 

UW-LaCrosse opened the dorms for us to overnight. The organizers set the schedule to one of the longest Sunday’s of the year with 18 hours to complete the 223 miles. It was a thankfully overcast day in the high 70’s with sun and low 80’s the final 4 hours. We climbed out of LaCrosse on State Highway 33 with its 1.5 mile grade up to the ridge top where we stayed well through Vernon County. This was the most direct route and is a major difference to RAW today with the smartly tailored 2022 course utilizing the trail system and light roads. Oddly, it will be my first time through the Elroy-Sparta trail (I never liked the dark). 

We hooked into Devil’s Lake, headed for the Merrimac Ferry, and since this was a race getting on board the ferry with the lead group of riders was critical. Behind about 10 miles out, I worked very hard to arrive on time and cross with the leaders. What I had in my hip pocket at age 31 was youth—many Saturday rides of 150-183 miles from home in Brown Deer to Madison “the long way”, one double century and remarkably, 5:30am speed work two mornings a week at the old outdoor track in Brown Deer Park—this fit my work and family schedule. I believe those hour-long track sessions helped me close the gap to the ferry. My recovery rides were mostly to Holy Hill and beyond, usually 50 to 75 miles. This was all solo work, the mental aspects of adjusting to distance riding were my key interest and always exploratory. Consider your mental focus as you go through the roller coaster mind games prepping for RAW. 

The bike? Steel was real as we have come to say. Vitus aluminum frames, as ridden by Sean Kelly in the TDF, were just becoming available as an early entry to alternative materials but not yet in vogue. Following is the bike I rode which hit the scales at probably about 22lbs. Compared to today’s carbon with geometric designs by CAD and CAM software judging load and comfort designs the ’82 Merckx is light years behind, but, in its day it was a very sufficient and comfortable ride. Brazing craftsmen put frames of such quality together all around the European continent, they were and still are considered art forms. 

  • 1982 Eddy Merckx Corsa SL
  • Columbus SL Tubeset, Chrome Fork
  • Nisi 28 Hole Tubular Wheels—28 hole was pushing the tech/durability limits but I trained with them often and had no problem. 
  • Clement Criterium Seta Tubulars—probably in the 21-23mm range
  • Campagnolo Nuovo Record Group
  • Downtube Friction Shift Levers
  • 172.5 52/42 Crankset
  • Regina Oro Chain with 14-24 Six Speed
  • Sella San Marco Rolls Saddle
  • Toe Clip Pedals (the kind with the cage and strap for our younger readers)
  • Zefal Frame Pump Under the Top Tube
  • Benotto Handlebar Tape—this offered no shock absorption
  • 12.0cm Cinelli Quill Stem with Cinelli Bars 44’s. 
  • Cateye Cycle Computer with Cadence