Indulge Your Impulses: Stumbling on Unexpected Singletrack

Greg explores what's possible on spontaneous and flexible bike rides.

Tosa Trails in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo: Greg Heil

“Today is Friday, May 3rd. Due to significant rainfall, the mountain bike trails at John Muir and Emma Carlin are currently closed,” the voicemail recording declared. “We will update this message when the trails are open,” the message continued… and since it was already Tuesday, apparently we were still waiting for the trails to dry out enough to ride.

While Southern Wisconsin isn’t renowned as a mountain bike destination, as a Wisconsin native who was raised just a few hours to the north, I had a hit list of trails in the region that I wanted to ride… but not quite enough to drive all the way from Colorado. As things transpired, a spring visit to my brother in Milwaukee seemed like the perfect opportunity to check a few Midwest hotspots off the todo list. Unfortunately, the exceptionally wet spring weather didn’t consult my riding itinerary, and the entire trip was plagued by sheets of rain falling on ground that was already oversaturated.

After plugging away in front of the computer for hours, I looked out the window in the early afternoon to see the sun breaking through the clouds. With more rain forecasted for the next day, I knew that I had a brief window in which to ride… but the sunny rays were deceptive. I had pedaled the day before and had battled 40-degree temps and cold winds blowing off of Lake Michigan. Not quite the refreshing drop-bar rip along the lakeshore I had planned. Forcing myself to face the cold Wisconsin temps after spending three months in the Desert Southwest required sheer force of will, but I grabbed my gravel bike, and out the door I went.

Fighting a cold cross wind blowing in off Lake Michigan the day before. Rider/photo: Greg Heil

I pointed my skinny tires toward a selection of paved greenways that run along the Menominee River through the outskirts of Milwaukee, an area that was up next on my to-explore list. As the fresh green leaves of spring blurred by, I looked down toward the river and spotted a sweet stretch of singletrack curving along closer to the bank—a different trail that was also on my to-ride list. Less signed and less regulated than John Muir and Emma Carlin, I had heard conditions for these trails were iffy as well.

As the miles turned over, I looked at the singletrack again and thought, “hmm, that looks pretty good from here. I suppose somebody needs to check it out, right?”

Photo: Greg Heil

The beauty of riding a gravel bike is that the rider can indulge fleeting impulses and embrace spontaneity in their rides. My fleeting impulses trend in a predictable pattern: off the pavement and onto the gravel, off the gravel and onto the doubletrack, off the wide track and onto the narrow. It doesn’t matter how convinced I am that I’ll actually pedal a big paved loop for once—every time I see a strip of dirt, it always looks too inviting to pass up.

And so it was this day. The dirt turned out to be perfectly tacky, the midwestern singletrack flat and flowy, allowing me to rip along on narrow tires, railing corners in the drops.

Photo: Greg Heil

What I thought would be a brief stretch of trail kept going, and going, and going. As I followed one singletrack to another and another—from one bank of the river, over a bridge, into a park, and along another bank—thoughts of logging a training ride on the pavement dissolved as I pedaled miles of springtime hero dirt. I had no clue I would stumble on trails so perfect, so pristine. Really, I had no clue that I could create a lengthy dirt ride in the midst of Milwaukee’s hustle and bustle without getting in the car and driving to a trailhead.

I find that the less tied I am to my ride plans, and the more I look around at the scenery as I pedal, the more unexpected singletrack surprises I’m likely to stumble upon. While it may take hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of work to craft a purpose-built flow trail, it only takes a few boots or hooves to carve a singletrack trail into the dirt. The bicycle is a capable machine, and if we expand our imagination to include riding a drop bar bike along cow trails through the mountains; piecing together social trails through vacant lots, under bridges, and along rivers; or simply just taking a turn in our local trail system that we have never taken before; the unexpected singletrack is guaranteed to return a reward.

We only have to indulge our impulses and allow our two-wheeled imaginations to run wild.