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Elroy-Sparta trail: Town treats riders as visiting royalty

Editor’s note: Originally published in the Sun-Times Sept. 30, 2009.

Back in the ’50s, a little boy named Tom would wait in his backyard every day at 3 p.m. sharp.

That’s when the train headed for Chicago would come barreling out of a nearby tunnel and pass right by Tom’s house in southwestern Wisconsin.

“The train conductor would toss me a candy bar and a Chicago Tribune for my dad,” said Tom, who’s no longer little at age 60. Trains no longer chug by his home, either. They haven’t for decades. But Tom Cordner still spends plenty of time waiting in that same backyard. He’s waiting for cyclists on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, one of the oldest rails-to-trails paths in the country.

Cordner is known around here as Tunnel Tom because of his proximity to one of three long, underground passageways on the popular 32-mile trail.

The tunnel near Tom’s house is the granddaddy of them all, spanning 3,810 feet ­— longer than three John Hancock Centers. It opened in 1873 after three years of hard digging and plenty of dynamite. The passageway is so dark, cyclists need flashlights as they walk their bikes through this echoing, seemingly endless chamber, where the walls drip cold water from the ice cave above.

Tunnel Tom will sell you a flashlight, candy bar or a $1 bottle of Gatorade from a little shack in his backyard. But the retired woodworker is clearly more interested in having a conversation than turning a profit. He invites weary cyclists to have a seat in the shade on one of his handmade chairs.

“There’s no regular hours, so I can’t get fired. I just come on out here when I can and visit with people,” said Cordner, who’s met cyclists from as far away as Australia and Russia.

About half of those who use the Elroy-Sparta trail are from out of state, according to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Department. Elroy-Sparta is the best-seller in a series of connected state bike trails, including the La Crosse River, Great River and the 400. These four paths, made up largely of crushed limestone, link together to form a relatively flat 101-mile ribbon of scenic cycling through the verdant hills and valleys of southwestern Wisconsin, a section of the state that was spared by bulldozing glaciers during the last Ice Age.

All four of the trails came from land once owned by the Chicago & North Western Ry. The Elroy-Sparta leg was the first to make the transition from train tracks to bike wheels in 1967 -- a fact that leads many locals to proudly proclaim it the country’s oldest rails-to-trails conversion.

Not so fast, said Jean Mooring of west suburban Glen Ellyn.

“We consider the [Illinois] Prairie Path to be the first,” said Mooring, a charter member of the not-for-profit corporation that oversees the Chicago area’s 62-mile prairie path. That path got its start in 1963 when a local activist proposed turning the abandoned railway into a nature trail.

“We know Elroy-Sparta claims to be the oldest,” Mooring said, “but we think we’re right.”

Sparta also claims to be the “Bicycling Capital of America,” and I’m not about to argue that point. Sparta’s street signs feature old-fashioned bicycle icons. The town is home to a bike museum — and a massive fiberglass statue of Sparta ‘s mascot, Ben Bikin’.

When my husband and I spent the weekend here earlier this month, we were greeted by a real-life version of Ben Bikin’ (a k a Harlan Perry). Perry was camped out near the Elroy - Sparta trailhead, posing for photos with cyclists and letting people take a spin on his old-fashioned, penny-farthing bike.

For a small town with a population of less than 9,000, Sparta sure knows its branding. Even the bed and breakfasts cater to cyclists, with some offering shuttle service to various points along the trail.

Bikers who aren’t up for a 64-mile round-trip ride often get dropped off at Elroy or the town of Kendall and pedal back to Sparta. It’s a little easier on the legs than going the other way, and you’ll still hit all three of the tunnels that helped make this trail famous.

As we entered the second tunnel, it sounded like St. Paul’s Cathedral during choir practice. In the distance, a few cyclists were singing “How Great Thou Art” in perfect harmony. There were only four of them, but they might as well have been the Mormon Tabernacle thanks to the tunnel’s acoustics.

“I’m putting ‘Amazing Grace’ in the jukebox,” my husband said as we passed the Spandex-clad songbirds in the dark.

“We’ve got a request,” one of the women replied, serenading us the rest of the way.

While the tunnels are the highlight of biking the Elroy-Sparta trail, a close second sits a few blocks off the path in the town of Wilton. That’s where you’ll find Gina’s Pies Are Square, a friendly cafe with high tin ceilings, communal tables and a rack of T-shirts saying, “I’ll ride for Gina’s pies.” It’s an ideal spot to refuel with a sandwich and a slice of homemade pie baked in square brownie pans.

Before digging into a $2.50 slice of blackberry, I asked owner Gina Rae why her pies are square.

“I came up with the name first,” Rae confessed.

After 15 years of feeding hungry cyclists, Rae is trying to sell her business and move on to other things.

From a strictly selfish standpoint, I hope she doesn’t get any takers. I want this place to be around when I come back to bike the Elroy-Sparta trail again.

And when I do, I hope Tom Cordner is waiting in his backyard so I can toss him a candy bar and a Chicago Sun-Times.

Overnight accommodations for this article were provided by the Wisconsin Tourism Department.

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