Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 168 - Riding the Grain and Grape Bike Tour

I have never ridden a bike tour. Now, this is not an event I would normally be excited to take on, but when I recently discovered the Grain and Grape Tour in Madison, Wisconsin that perspective shifted in a big way. Basically, the Grain and Grape bike Tour is a monthly event that takes participants around to the many local breweries, wineries, and distilleries in and around Madison. With an abundance of each popping up all over the city in the past decade, this gives bikers ample opportunity to tackle long distance routes with incredible pitstops all along the way. The concept by itself was enough to make me squeeze this "I have never..." event in as soon as I possibly could, but its happening at the end of my week of Wisconsin food, beer, and wine couldn't have been more perfect. As a result, Rachael and I pulled our bikes out of the basement and headed to the nearby Atwood neighborhood in Madison this morning to take a bike ride unlike any other we had experienced before.

Our touring partners

The short ride to the designated meeting location for the Grain and Grape Bike Tour gave Rachael and I a much needed opportunity to warm up our legs before we set to work on a yet unspecified route around the city. When we arrived, we speculated as to where the bike tour would take us as more bikers slowly gathered in the parking lot serving as our meeting point. As we waited, our group grew to around 10 people, which included a familiar face, Andres, who had helped me find the best beers on site during my previous "I have never..." event at the Great Taste of the Midwest. Happy to know the event was drawing some connoisseurs of beer, I asked the growing group about our possible routes through the city. While many were fast to say they had never experienced the event before, the few riders that had provided some insight regarding our likely path as we ping-ponged from one location to the next.

Fortunately, our speculation didn't last long given the tour organizer, George arrived shortly after the group had reached its peak. After introductions with each of the newcomers to the event, George laid out his tour route for the group, which had us completing a little over 20 miles with four distinct stops throughout town. As the group worked through the finer details of the fastest avenues from one location to the next, I excitedly geared up and prepared myself for the forthcoming ride. While I knew self-regulation throughout the day would be critical to making the "I have never..." experience a success, a part of me knew to gain the full experience I would have to try a variety of new drinks at our chosen locations. Luckily, our first stop, the Next Door Brewery, provided a second "I have never..." experience with ample opportunity to do just that.

The first drink with the crew

With only a few blocks from our meeting point to the Next Door Brewery, our group arrived at the location mere minutes after starting the tour. As someone that had never visited the Next Door Brewery before, I found the building's spacious interior, onsite brewing facility, and expansive food menu rather surprising. Doing our best to balance our intake of alcohol with the forthcoming long stretch of riding, it took Rachael and I little time to decide we were try the brewery's beer and cheese flight, which gave us the opportunity to sample several of the brewery's offerings with some unique, top-notch cheeses from around the world. Although it took some time to receive our order, it quickly became clear the wait was worth it. The beers were full of flavor and expansive in their range, and the cheeses with which they were paired provided a near perfect complement to the varied elements of each brew. Needless to say, we quickly worked through our flight as the rest of our party sipped away at the last drops of their beers. With that, we took to the road once more to tackle the longest leg of our journey, the Lake Loop bike trail that would take us to Lake Monona's south shore.

On the road
Our ride on the Lake Loop caught many members of our group by surprise given its length and uneven terrain. Although many of us had ridden the path before, the consensus among the riders was that it had been some time since anyone had ridden the full trail. We were certainly enjoying the ride, but we felt as though the Grain and Grape tour could use a little more "grain and grapes" between legs of the ride. As a result, we found ourselves discussing alternative plans for our second stop of the tour as we traveled deeper into our ride. Ultimately, the group settled on stopping at a location I have always wanted to experience, the South Bay Lounge, which falls in a unique place between south Monona residential homes and highway off-ramp big box retail space. After a nice ride through the rolling hills of Monona we were quick to find the South Bay Lounge tucked into a nook just off on the Madison beltline highway.

The South Bay Lounge
Upon entering the South Bay Lounge, I immediately knew the tavern was my kind of place. Two dogs grown chunky with plenty of bar food happily greeted us as we entered, and a small group of people wearing their Packers gear gathered around an aged bar. In many ways, the South Bay Lounge reminded me of one of the locations I visited very early in my "I have never..." journey, Simm's Place, the storied tavern that calls the Oscar Mayer factory parking lot its home. Like Simm's, the interior of the South Bay Lounge was dated, but it was clear it had stories to tell. It was simply a classic Wisconsin tavern, and that made me feel more than comfortable and ready to have another beer. As a result, Rachael and I ordered a beer and took a seat on the deck with the rest of the Grain and Grape gang. Over our drinks we chatted about our individual histories, shared stories about our biking experiences, and talked about Madison as a whole. Much like Simm's Place, it appeared the South Bay Lounge had a knack for pulling people together, which provided some of my favorite moments from today's "I have never..." experience.

Getting back to town
After finishing our drinks at the South Bay Lounge, our group took back to our bikes and made short work of the remaining ride around Lake Monona. No more than 15 minutes after leaving the tavern we found ourselves back in the heart of downtown and headed back toward the Atwood neighborhood. With the afternoon quickly moving into evening, George decided we would make a stop at a Williamson Street bar known for their craft and microbrewery offerings, Mickey's, to enjoy another round and grab a bite to eat. After finding our way to the bar, Rachael and I grabbed a table with a portion of the Grain and Grape riders for a drink and a meal. After ordering some unfamiliar beers and a lunch, the two of us made idle conversation with the members of our group until our food arrived. Although the wait for our orders was unusually long, the food and beer proved a perfect way to top off a day of great experiences.

With the sun quickly setting and plenty of housework still waiting to be done, Rachael and I decided to part from the group after Mickey's given its proximity to our home. Although our fellow riders were sad to see us go, they were understanding and happy to give us thanks for being a part of the trip. In turn, Rachael and I expressed our gratitude to George for putting the tour together and for giving us a new experience that was unlike any we have encountered during my year of new experiences. That point became clear as we made the short trip home and picked up with the chores that were left to wrap up before the last light of the weekend faded away. As I mowed the lawn and raked up leaves I found myself still wishing I was on the ride with the Grain and Grape crew. The reality is the event was more about good, beer-loving people getting together to take a ride, have a few drinks, and make some conversation. Like many things in my journey thus far, the focus of the event took a back seat to the experience of getting to know new people and enjoying what life has to offer. That's never a bad thing, and when you're in a group that shares that perspective, you're among good people.

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