In 2013 I did Ironman Wisconsin and drove the bike course the day before. That was a mistake, but it definitely convinced me not going to take the course lightly.
Hills always seems worse in a car for some reason and while I’m sure there are some flat sections, I don’t remember many. Just up and down up and down.
There were also lots of turns, which I wound up liking as a distraction. There’s nothing worse to me than laying in aero for hours on end. In the end, that hellacious bike course treated me to my favorite ride of my life. Here’s why.
Warning: I don’t wear a Garmin and describe most of this by memory and feel.
The “stick” is roughly 13 miles and takes you out to the “lollipop” or loop of which you circle twice. The loop is where the hills are, but the stick plays an important part, especially on the way back.
When you wind out of the Helix, you ride along the lake for a few minutes, then roll onto a bike path (which I believe is a no-pass zone) for a short stint. Then you’ll pedal through the Colliseum parking lot, cross over the Beltline and weave your way to a country road around mile 5. This is where (according to elevation maps) you’ll start your first climb of the day, but honestly I don’t remember it being a big deal.
Around mile 10 you’ll hit the top of that climb and this is the point when you should make a mental note of what the backside of that hill will look like when you’re closing in on home. In some ways it felt like the toughest 3 mile stretch of the course around mile 100. The wind was right in my face which I hear this is common for that point of the race.
Before the race, a friend of mine promised that the crowd support on the bike would shock me . . . and he was right. As soon as you hit the loop, you’ll start seeing little parties all over the place. People sitting in front of their homes grilling out and allegedly sipping beer. Then you’ll experience small towns like Mount Vernon, Mount Horeb, Cross Plains, and Verona, all with with people lining Main Street. You’ll also see the swarm of spectators lining the sides of the “3 bitches.”
The 3 Bitches is the nickname for the three big climbs on the course, of which you do twice. These hills are genuinely in the middle of nowhere and it amazes me how many people come out to cheer you up the climbs. They dress in crazy costumes, run alongside you, and party with you all morning.
After the 3rd Bitch you’ll be ready for some relief and Verona will satiate that demand. It is genuinely packed 4 deep for two blocks and it’s your moment in the sun . . . enjoy it before you head out for loop two. Rejoice as you go through the second time knowing you’re almost back to the stick for your return to the Helix.
Aside from the great spectator support, the course will offer classic farm country including a lot of barns, silos, and cows to calm your nerves. It will also offer a lot of turns, short and long climbs, and screaming descents.
The day I tackled it I was having trouble with my big chain ring and literally rode the entire course in my small front ring. I think it may have hurt my time a little, but in retrospect I also think it saved my race, especially the run. The truth is, the small ring actually felt fine, especially because I coasted most of the downhills in recovery.
Many have told me this is probably the one course that could be ridden just as successfully with a road bike. At the time I was terrible in aero and Wisconsin kind of lets you get away with riding in an upward position more often. The climbs for sure and the fast descents had me a little nervous about not being close to a brake.
I’ve read anywhere from 3500 – 5,000 feet of gain on this course. And most grade estimates range from 1.5 – 2.2 % on the big climbs. I suppose that seems about right, but I in general be ready to gear, be ready to climb/descend and be ready to enjoy incredible support from my home state people who come out like it’s their very own Tour de France.
Here’s a link to the Map My Ride I used.
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