You’d think after a couple of decades in a place I’d have seen it all. I mean really – how many hiking trails can you discover, how many bike races can you cheer on, how many river sunsets can make you misty, how many theater performances can you marvel at – before the amazing things happening around you become ho-hum ordinary? Well, after this summer in Winona, I’m here to tell you we’re not even close.
Take, for example, the Single Speed USA 2013 Bike Race crew that just left town. Bike races are nothing new here – we have gloriously challenging terrain and a core group of enthusiasts who have managed to attract the business of some awfully cool races. So when I’m asked to give up my Saturday morning to photograph the event, it’s with a tinge of whoop-de-doo-itis that I say yes. No offense, bike race lovers, but bicyclists in spandex and helmets are a little like kids in the pool — you all look the same, and every lap looks the same, and it’s hard to imagine how the photographs will look different than the last race. But I love Winona, even if I don’t exactly love bike racing, so I say yes.
It will be hard to find enough words to describe what lunacy this race entailed, but I’ll try: Costumes. Water stations that hand out beer. Biking trails that are treacherous to WALK up and down, much less tackle on a bike. And single-speed mountain bikes ridden by people with thighs so strong they could crush walnuts. This, my friends, is Single Speed USA, a group from all over the country that has redefined the “work hard, play hard” mantra by managing to do both at the same time.
Now when I say single speed, I mean these bikes have one gear, and you’d better choose it carefully if you want to climb a hill with it. The 35-mile course laid out for the riders was so extreme that it involved trails most people don’t know exist, like yours truly, and that few would ever brave, or so I thought. This terrain sounded like awfully serious business to me, so imagine my surprise when I saw cowboys and cowgirls, several unidentified super heroes, a guy with a lucha libre mask, a frau with an Oktoberfest dress on, a fur-clad Viking, guys wearing wigs, guys wearing Daisy Dukes, guys wearing Fruit of the Loom, you name it, lounging on the grass by Holzinger Lodge. A few hundred people or so were milling about and having a cold one, and, oh yeah, it was 9 a.m. Now this is my kind of race.
Not that I would ever do it. Over the hours that followed I hop-skipped around with my car to various vantage points where I could catch riders coming through, and these folks were either insanely brave or just insane. When I think of bike riding on trails, I think of nice, wide, smoothish surfaces that we have miles and miles of for your riding pleasure. But the trails on this race were in some places little more than deer paths strewn with rocks and tree roots and drop offs. And those were the easy trails. Towards the end of the race, riders had to ascend the Sugar Loaf bluff from the west, then take a teeth-gritting ride down the back side of the bluff on a path that looked more like a rock slide than a biking trail. But at least there was a beer and water station at the top.
Yes, it was hours after I would have normally called a courtesy photo shoot quits, but I was hooked, so I hiked up the Sugar Loaf trail to capture the madness. Maybe “madness” is too tame a word. I watched so many people crash trying to navigate the rocks I stopped counting. I watched a guy do a somersault over his handlebars. I watched bikes break. I watched quite a few smart folks, or perhaps people who just liked having all their teeth, hop off their bikes and heft them down rather than attempt the worst parts. A few made it through the gauntlet on their rides – very few – and they were definitely the ones who were going to have bragging rights at the party later on.
Oh, and there was a party. Hard to imagine how these people had anything left in them after a day like that, but they were going strong when I poked my head into Market Street Tavern at 11 p.m. Listening to their war stories, I felt a surge of pride that Winona would go down in Single Speed USA lore as a place that had tested the best. I also felt a surge of respect, mostly that they were still standing.
From the outside, Winona may seem like another little city in a pretty little corner of the world, but you just never know what you’re going to find here. I didn’t even tell you about the Ragnar Relay that happened here the day before with 3,000 runners (also in costumes!), or about the massive classic car show going on at the same time, or about the new show at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum, or about the pub crawl on bicycles, or about the squirrel that fell on my head. Seriously. (Another blog entirely) Heck, I could prattle on forever. For now, suffice it to say there’s more to do in a single day here than anyone could ever accomplish, and boredom is just not a word in the Winona vocabulary. And it’s not just because we got to see people mountain biking in their underwear, though that was definitely a first for Winona’s trails, at least as far as I know.
By the way, we have awesome trail maps for hiking, biking, and paddling here on our new website: visitwinona.com/itinerary/outdoor-recreation. Download them and map out your own bluff country adventure 🙂