The morning was already hot and humid as we pedaled out of Perrot State Park. The mercury had passed 80 on its way into the mid 90s, but my thoughts were focused on one thing: what do they mean by “Hip Breaker Hill?” On my biking cue sheet it’s singled out with an exclamation point. When a hill is named, it usually means that it’s long… and steep.
The area east of the Mississippi near Trempealeau is filled with long winding valleys connected by short steep passes. Narrow paved roads hug the valley edge and then snake along through the hills to the next valley. We pedal by chicken farms with long low windowless coops. In between, fields of corn and soy beans dot the landscape.
We ride into the village of Dodge, past sheds, a church and a couple of taverns. Before we can blink we’re heading out of town on the smooth rolling asphalt of county G. Turning off G and onto Pine Creek Ridge Road, we spin ever closer to “Hip Breaker.” An approaching pedestrian looks at me and nods, or was that a smirk and shake of his head? As I contemplate this, a couple on a motorcycle roll by in the opposite direction. I can’t quite hear as I spin past, but I swear the driver and passenger are laughing at the crazy guy trying to bicycle to the top of that hill.
With these thoughts swirling, I roll along the valley floor to thethe foot of “Hip Breaker.” As usual my friend surges past me and disappears. The road curves slightly and gently slopes upward into the woods that form a natural canopy overhead. I look down. Spray painted on the road is “12%.” Is that the pitch of the hill or the percentage of it I’d ridden?
The road levels and I look down on the roof of the barn I’d just passed. So far, this climb isn’t so bad. Another painted number: “16%.” The trees seem to lean in closer and the odd pine branches hang like jagged teeth over my head as I shift to the lowest gear. The road disappears into the trees. I creep slowly, knowing that the “16%” is indeed the pitch. The breeze dies and the stillness causes the temperature to soar, making breathing nearly impossible. “Don’t stop, don’t stop,” pounds in my head as I start to switch back across the width of the road. Another corner and the hill only ascends farther into the trees.
I stop. Gasping for breath, I know I need to regroup, but pedaling and clipping into my pedals without falling over on a 16% grade isn’t easy. Finally, I manage to clip in and slowly zigzag up and up. The hill feels endless. Finally, I see the growing horizon. In a few minutes, I’d be there but that short distance might as well have been the rim of the Grand Canyon.
As I approach the crest, two guys with red faces wearing camouflage hats on ATV’s shout over the roar of the engines, “’you could have used one of these!’ “Wouldn’t have been as much fun,” I gasp. At the top, I savor my conquest. My lungs burn and my legs ache, but my hips are fine. Maybe they should have named the hill “Lung Scorcher” instead.
The next six miles gently slope along, back to the flats leading to Trempealeau where a cold glass of beer awaits my full attention.
(This story originally aired on August 23, 2017.)