How Door County does it
My first visit to Door County, Wisconsin, was about 12 years ago. Growing up in Wisconsin, my husband had been up there many times. I, however, spent my youth and young adult life going up to Ely and Grand Marais, Minnesota, and the Apostle Islands. Door County wasn’t even on my radar.
For some odd reason, my husband chose to first take me there in February. This is what I remember from that weekend: Everything looked grey, the wind was so strong I could lean over the lake and feel the wind hold me up. Only a few restaurants and shops were open. We walked through the parks and spent hours near the fire drinking hot chocolate, which may have been spiked with peppermint schnapps.
I wasn’t sold on Door County after that trip, to be honest. A year and a half later, we went up again, this time in the spring, and we biked. Boom. That got me. Since then, the two of us have trekked up there about a dozen times and I’ve gone alone and with friends as well.
For me, cycling is always the cornerstone of these trips, but hiking and running make wonderful bookends to my visits. Over the course of a week on the peninsula, I typically put some 300 miles on the bike, hike in Potawatomi, Newport and Peninsula state parks, visit several of the land trust areas open to the public, and go for a few runs. In my eyes, Door County is the perfect playland. If I had more time, I know I’d add some kayaking.
On one of my earlier visits, I stopped into Ephraim Clayworks and met Brian Fitzgerald, owner of the pottery studio. I have no clue how we got talking or figured out how our paths had crossed multiple times over the years, but we hit it off right away and went on a couple rides together. When I found out he organized several outdoor events – at that time, the Door County Half Marathon, Ridges Ride For Nature (now the Peninsula Century Spring Classic) and the Fall 50 run – I knew I had to sign up for one or more. The half marathon was honestly one of the most scenic runs I have ever done, but it was the Ridges Ride for Nature which I remember best.
Prior to this event, I thought I had ridden most of the roads in Door County. I remember the day being quite windy, which is not uncommon up there and the reason weights are installed on the power lines. I hadn’t ridden a century in years and I remember not knowing how I’d feel. Although I started a bit nervous, all of that fell away within a few miles. The scenery, the amazing volunteers (most of whom were local residents), and the attention to details made this event extremely memorable.
I’ll ride my first Door County Century on September 13. For some reason, I have always gone up to Door County the week prior or after this event and have missed it. I made sure there were no excuses this year, and I’m looking forward to seeing how another very successful cycling event is put on. Sure, most of the roads will be ones I’ve ridden, but I can bet they will all look and feel different.
While the peninsula jutting into lake Michigan has nearly 300 miles of coastline, I wondered how the county can support three distinct century rides every year, not to mention multiple running races and a triathlon. So I decided to ask the event organizers. I wanted to know the dirt if you will.
So along with Brian Fitzgerald, I contacted Sean Ryan, one of the organizers for the Door County Century, Door County Triathlon, Fall 50, Green Bay’s Bellin Run as well as several other running events. I hoped to find out how the county has embraced organized outdoor activities in ways other Wisconsin and Midwest towns might do well to try to replicate.
First, let’s look at the history of the three Door County century rides offered.
Door County Century
The Door County Century was started in 1979 by Joyce Mahlik and Bob Gaie, two members of the Bay Shore Bicycle Club. Under Joyce and Bob, the event grew to a capacity of 2,000 riders each year.
In 2008, Joyce’s son, Dan Mahlik, and his friend, Eric Resch, took over ownership and management of the ride. and Sean Ryan was soon hired to update the look, feel and appeal of the ride. The starting point was moved from Sevastopol to the fairgrounds in Sturgeon Bay to accommodate the event’s growth and larger post-ride gathering.
The Sturgeon Bay School District is now the event’s primary charity partner, staffing all facets of the event from packet pickup to post-ride cleanup. Now, in 2015, the event will host 3,500 riders.
Spring Classic/Fall Challenge
The Spring Classic started out as the Ridges Ride for Nature, a fund raiser for the Ridges Sanctuary. Although the Ride for Nature existed prior to Fitzgerald helping out, he and his team made the event much more successful in raising funds to support the unique sanctuary. The current Peninsula Century Fall Challenge grew out of the Ride for Nature.
“When Sister Bay invested millions in their waterfront project, staging a major cycling event seemed like a great way to take advantage of it. It didn’t take long for the community to get behind it with full support.” Fitzgerald said.
The Spring Classic now offers a beer festival at the finish line.
The hosts with the most
So I asked both Fitzgerald and Ryan how the county can support three centuries, with two being only one week apart – the Door County Century on September 13 and the Peninsula Century Fall Challenge on September 19.
Fitzgerald said that because Door County is primarily a tourist community, its businesses, local government and residents understand the value of such events bringing people to the area in different seasons. He also mentioned how great the roads are, largely due to local government investment in its infrastructure.
Some 75 to 90 percent of riders of their events come from outside the community, which means they stay in hotels, B&Bs and campgrounds, eat at local restaurants, bars and coffee shops or purchase food at area grocery stores. They also shop at local retail outlets on the days just prior and after the events.
This is why both Ryan and Fitzgerald work extremely hard to involve the business community in their events from start to finish, and they make these events about those businesses.
This not only helps the local economy but, as Fitzgerald said, improves bicycle infrastructure and public perception of bicyclists.
By 2020, most of Door County’s towns and villages intend to have bike lanes or shared lanes and safe trails and routes connecting them. He also said that the backroads are being widened to accommodate cyclists. Twenty years ago, none of this seemed possible. It was events like the century rides in Door County which sparked the changes.
Eyes to the future
Finally, I asked Fitzgerald and Ryan where they see their events heading and what changes they’d like to make.
Ryan said he sees increasing safety and engaging a younger audience as priorities. He and his team hire local sheriff’s deputies to patrol intersections and ticket riders who blow through stop signs. His hope is that by holding participants accountable, the behavior of cyclists will change for the better and the rides themselves will become safer.
To appeal to younger riders, Ryan added a cyclocross race the day before the Door County Century.
Thinking along the same lines, Fitzgerald said he dreams of more folks coming up to do both the Door County Century and Peninsula Century Fall Challenge to string together entire week of cycling adventures in September. Knowing him, he just wants to share the beauty of the area and wonderful communities with everyone. The first time I rode with him I was sold on riding in Door County.
And during my first Ride for Nature Century, it was the thousand smiling faces of amazing volunteers willing to help in any way possible that convinced me to return. Although Fitzgerald and Ryan put their time and energy into these affairs, they simply wouldn’t happen if not for the welcoming attitude of the people in the communities through which we ride.
Kierstin Kloeckner used to race bikes and now commutes by bike in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is a personal trainer and yoga/pilates instructor. She blogs at twowheelsfromhome.blogspot.com.