For avid cyclists who are familiar with the area, the Driftless region of Wisconsin and Iowa has been the well-kept secret of road bikers for decades. My husband, who happens to work in the cycling industry, has boasted at length that the cycling here is as good as or better than anywhere in the country. No, we do not have 9,000 foot mountain passes, no, we do not have coastal highways, but this unexpectedly hilly Midwestern territory can come close to matching the elevation gains and losses of a day’s ride in any western state, and comes with its own brand of pastoral beauty. Furthermore, there are hundreds of miles of paved road (to accommodate the dairy industry) with remarkably low traffic, making the riding all the more enjoyable.
Yet despite the outstanding road biking in the region, it has been only a short ten years since the area began to draw attention for excellent singletrack mountain biking and other trail-related sports; snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, and disc golf, to name a few. And that is where this story begins. It is the story of how a post-partum “moment” transformed the culture of an entire community, bridging the spaces of age, social groups, history, and political persuasion by bringing people together through volunteer hours, outdoor recreation, community vision, and good, old-fashioned fun.
When, in their mid-twenties, Pete and Alycann Taylor left their home in the Midwest to move to Boise, Idaho, they were a young couple in love — in search of adventure, and in pursuit of mountain biking mecca. At the time, leaving their families in Wisconsin (Pete’s family in LaCrosse and Alycann’s in the Milwaukee area) did not seem so difficult as the promise of a world-class cycling community and the excitement of new experiences beckoned. All told, Pete and Alycann would end up spending 7 years out in Boise, enjoying the new landscape, making new friends, learning new professional skills, and logging an untold number of miles on their bikes. But the very things that originally pulled them out there would ultimately end up playing a pivotal role in their return to the Midwest.
As much as Pete loved the riding scene in Boise, he began to tire of working in the highly competitive pro-cycling realm, which seemed to take most of the fun out of the activity he loved so much. Years later, when he was offered a job with the Boisie Parks and Rec —tasked with kids’ programing and spearheading a mountain bike camp— the excitement of bringing recreation back to the pastime felt like a game changer. After six years working the shop life, the idea of children’s programming and finding the playful piece of cycling again held great appeal.
But at the time that Pete was considering a move over to Parks and Rec, Alycann discovered that she was pregnant with their first child. She was also working a 60 hour/week job. Suddenly, seeds of uncertainty were planted around their life in Boise as they considered the reality of having a child, placing their baby in daycare (no matter how good) and being such a great distance from their families. When, shortly after being born, their daughter, Wilma, landed in NICU for 5 days, the weight of being so far from family pulled with more force.
With their newborn back at home, Alycann continued to feel deeply unsettled by the distance from family and their talks of moving became more persistent. Alycann was overwhelmed and conflicted, as the pull was strong but, being the pragmatic planner in the family, the idea of giving up a job that she loved, selling their house, and moving halfway across the country with a newborn seemed both risky and daunting. Furthermore, she had two legitimate questions for Pete:
First, “What if they moved back to the Midwest, managed to build the best little bike shop in town and then they end up saturating the market really quickly?”
Pete did not have a really good answer for this. His comprehensive vision was to be something bigger than a small town bike shop. He wanted to create something regional — a destination shop that would promote the amazing riding in the region and draw others to experience the area —similar to Poison Spider in Moab. But whether he would be able to pull it off was a still big unknown.
The second question that Alycann posed was concerned with Pete’s emotional wellbeing. Pete moved to Boise for one reason, and one reason only: mountain biking. Year-round, world-class riding sat right outside their door, and there they had access to more mileage than someone could ride in a lifetime. But Vernon County was not yet home to a single mile of trail. Alycann wondered: “what will happen when the luster wears off? Even if you are able to build the trails that you dream of, will you get tired of riding the same trails all of the time?”
Today, Pete still feels the same way about this question as he did when they finally decided to make the move —that the opportunity in this small, untapped region is unbelievably exciting. It is a “beautiful blank canvas” to be developed through community-building, conversations with land managing agents, and lots of hard work. And ten years on, Bluedog Cycles, the small town shop that Pete and Alycann came to build, is very much on the map, but they still have a long-range plan involving many more miles of trail —one that will continue to excite and draw increasing numbers of people to the area.
In the end, it was Alycann’s mother, out visiting her new grandbaby, who would propel things forward, advising Pete: “If you want to make this move, then you need to just start moving forward. Alycann will not be the one to orchestrate a change.
The choice of Viroqua, WI was carefully researched and vetted early on in the process. Pete knew that he wanted to open a shop, but more importantly, he knew that he wanted to do it in a place that was not already home to a saturated market, yet held strong potential to build a fervent cycling culture. He was also looking for places where there was easy access to land along with amenable land managing agents, so that he could make the dream come alive without too many hurdles or too much red-tape. A close friend of the couple, Brad Merkel, was by then living on the outskirts of Viroqua and very enthusiastic about the prospect of having them join him. Taking Pete’s vision to heart, he began to look for space and made connections with locals who would be able to help Pete formulate his vision.
But as the couple’s commitment to moving east gained traction, there remained the rather large obstacle of selling their house in Boise. As luck would have it, while they were visiting with a local friend from Boise shortly after the prompt from Alycann’s mother, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. When the topic of relocating to the Midwest came up in conversation, Pete and Alycann lamented the obstacles still looming large —most notably the hassle of preparing their house for sale.
Destiny struck as the couple happened to live one block over from the “super groovy, up-and-coming” neighborhood and their friend, seeing a win-win opportunity, offered to buy the house “as is.” No realtor, no prep, and a price that brought a decent return paved the way for a move back to Midwestern soil, and gave them the means to open the bike shop. It was the magical moment that transformed Alycann’s postpartum angst into a community game-changer.
With Pete’s passion for bikes, kids programming, and singletrack, and Alycann’s business acumen, the couple packed up their 3 month old and hauled themselves back east. The baby was born in May, they moved back to Wisconsin in August, and by October they had opened the doors of a nascent Bluedog Cycles. Young, earnest and passionate to spread their message, they came to Viroqua, “told their story,” hoped that it would resonate, and prayed that people would come. And sensing that something good was happening, people did come. They came to purchase bikes and have them repaired. They came with pulaskis and mcleods, volunteering to cut and build trails. They came to offer resources and to expand programing, and they came to have fun. And in an unexpectedly short span of time, a layered community of enthusiasts were able to find each other and build a dream.
The first collaboration occurred shortly after Bluedog opened their doors in October of 2005, when members of two dormant groups —Vernon Trails and DART (Driftless Area Recreational Trails) approached Pete and Alycann. Busy with life and work, the founding members of VT and DART were struggling to keep their organizations going, and turned to the vibrant young couple hoping that they might be able to rekindle the fires. Jumping at the opportunity, Pete and Alycann incorporated, established non-profit status, and wrote the mission statement for Vernon Trails as it is known today. To further invigorate his trail-building vision, Pete immediately corralled a team of volunteers to start developing a trail system at Sidie Hollow Park, four miles outside of town. Over the ensuing 10 years, the rejuvenated Vernon Trails has created a diverse network of trails at Sidie Hollow —expanding from 0 miles in 2005 to 11 miles today — all built by volunteer efforts. Additionally, they have served as consultants for the design, building, and maintenance of an additional 35 miles of trail at the nearby Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and overseen the design and construction of a disc-golf course.
Shortly after being approached by Vernon Trails, Dick Iverson from nearby Sugar Creek Bible Camp approached the couple, disclosing that there were trails on his land that had once been used for a mountain-biking race series, and wondering whether Pete and Alycann might be interested in running some races out there. While not so interested in racing, the couple were very anxious to actualize their dream of a camp, and proposed a collaboration. Iverson quickly came on board with the vision and offered them a great deal on the facility in exchange for additional trail-building on the land. Suddenly, within a year of moving back, Pete and Alycann had amassed a team of volunteers who were willing to help them build trails, and had inaugurated the first mountain biking camp for kids in the Midwest, demonstrating that when you start something with a passionate vision things will fall into place. What started with 20 kids in 2006 is now capped at 60 —one of the largest in the country.
Since 2005, when they moved back to their home state, Pete and Alycann have expanded their business with a strong commitment to place, a passionate vision, and the patience to allow things to unfold. They work from the belief that most people want the same things for themselves and their children, and with the understanding that when people from all corners come together in public service for a common cause— communities unify.
With this model in mind, the couple offers ongoing personal engagement, and you can feel it as soon as you step into their shop. The couches and coffee counter, the long lists of community events and calls for volunteers elevate the warmth and friendliness that emanate from Pete and his staff, working behind a long, low counter —always willing to offer friendly advice or engage in a neighborly conversation. The feeling of welcome and belonging created through trail-building events, community rides, an annual candlelight snowshoe outing, and even a cup of coffee, brings a diverse group of people together with meaningful connection on a regular basis.
Over the past ten years, as Vernon Trails has expanded in breadth and scope, Bluedog Cycles has felt that momentum in the shop. Two moments that stand out as emblems of the couple’s work came when Bluedog was recognized by Bicycling Magazine as one of the “100 Best Bike Shops” in the country — a strong endorsement of the energy they had poured into their new home— and also when Kona Bicycles invited Pete to come out to their headquarters as one of the “Top 50 Kona Dealers” in the country. Feeling out of place in the companionship of so many “big players”, Pete could not imagine how his small-town cycle shop could be recognized in such company. It was not until later, when his rep pulled him aside and explained to him that Bluedog sold more kids bikes than any other dealer in the nation, that Pete was able to fully appreciate the lasting impact that his passion —community engagement and kids programming — was having on both his business and the community in which they lived.
As time has marched on, the creativity and spirit that Pete and Alycann bring to their home continues to ripple outward. In 2010 local landowner, Cyndy Hubbard, approached them with a remarkable offer. After decades away, Cyndy, along with her young daughter, had recently moved back to 28 acres of family land that sat on the edge of town. Not wanting to farm the land, but unsure what to do with it, she offered access to Vernon Trails who have installed nearly 3 miles of trail on the property. Cyndy considers it a win-win, as outdoor enthusiasts have the opportunity to enjoy miles of trail with easy access from town, and she in turn has a community of people invested in caring for her land. Aligned with Cyndy’s sentiments and following her lead, neighbors Sarah Mayer and Scott Champion offered additional land access through their property which stands adjacent to Cindy’s. The two parcels, beginning on the edge of town and extending out toward Sidie Hollow Park, are the foundational pieces of a potential trail corridor that would link town to park and furnish many additional miles of trail.
Given this access to private lands, Pete and Alycann recognized the potential for a pathway connecting city limits with Sidie Hollow Park, and began to draw inspiration from the Kingdom Trail Network, located in East Burke, Vermont.
Established nearly 25 years ago, Kingdom Trails hosts 101 miles of trail on 68 parcels of private property; issued 70,000 passes in 2014; owns state of the art trail-building equipment; employs 10 fulltime maintenance workers in addition to an executive director; and was voted to be some of the best trail riding in the country. Pete considers it to be the greatest success story that he knows, and a model of business, eco-tourism, and family fun that inspires him.
So galvanized by the generosity of local landowners who stepped forward and offered access to their land for public purpose, and motivated by the Kingdom Trail model, Pete traveled to Vermont to investigate the agreements that Kingdom Trails held with the local property owners, and to see what their liability releases looked like. Much to his surprise, rather than a document filled with legalese, it is a simple gentleman’s agreement with no easements, no purchases, and no backroom bargains. The stewards of the land agree that they will not do anything to the land without consent from the owners, and in exchange, they are given permissions to utilize the land for public purpose. It is as simple as that, and it has bolstered Pete to begin approaching more local landowners in the hopes of building the connecting corridor of his dreams. And when that day arrives, he and Alycann will consider their legacy complete.
Talking with Pete and Alycann, the theme of connection dominates their work. Connecting parcels of land, connecting people to place, connecting people to each other and to the outdoors. Alycann waxes eloquent as she notes: “When we get too attached to the comfort of our inner circle — when we adopt an “us vs. them” mentality— we place unnecessary limits on what can be accomplished and it is counterproductive to the overall good. Don’t we all want what’s best for our kids? Don’t we all want places to play? When you start building things for our youth, you bring everyone on board —parents get involved, schools get involved, and kids find meaning. THAT is what community looks like. When we step outside of our own little tribes and comfort zones to something that is a little bit bigger, when we layer our networks beyond the nucleus— that is where we find the true power of community. Let’s work together to breach the limits of our imaginations!”