ONALASKA — Johnny King hadn’t been on a bicycle in nearly three decades, so when he purchased his first mountain bike this spring he knew he needed a refresher.
Having recently relocated from Madison to Onalaska, King, 41, was ready to set aside his mainstay motorcycle for a jumpstart on fitness and recreation with friends, and he found a perfect opportunity to ease back into pedaling at the Driftless Sports Convergence.
Held Saturday at the Onalaska OmniCenter, the event, sponsored in part by Explore La Crosse, drew thousands of outdoor enthusiasts to the 50,000-square-foot spread of sporting equipment, demonstrations, vendors and speakers. Visitors had the opportunity to try out disc golf, log rolling and arrow tag, learn fishing, canoeing and hiking tips and visit with special guests, including bow hunters Pat and Nicole Reeve from Driven TV and author and kayaker Ellen McDonah. Former Green Bay Packer Gilbert Brown was on hand with the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners to raise money for area charities and “Flukemaster” Gene Jensen talked “Catching Bass in the Grass.”
Outside, former competitive cyclist Jed Olson led the Outdoor Recreation Alliance Bike Skills Clinic by the soccer field, running through safety, navigation and positioning techniques for mountain bikers.
“The better form you have, the better you’re going to perform,” Olson told the group, comprised of King and seven others. “The more skills you develop, the easier it is to enjoy yourself in different situations.”
Participants practiced rounding sharp corners, instructed to lean their bikes, not their bodies, and lunge through, before attempting wheelies and bunny hops, strategies for lifting weight from a wheel to conquer rocky terrain.
Working his way through a series of cones and testing his skill set on a grassy slope, King was finding his footing, saying, “It feels good. A little bit awkward, but (they are) moves to do on my own and practice before I go on the trail. Jed is super helpful. He has a genuine passion to get people out there and see them do well.”
Bode Nesler, 11, of La Crosse, was making swift progress on his turning maneuvers, while Michelle Barribeau of Tomah was heeding the advice to “disconnect your body from the bike” when wielding narrow curves.
Like in all sports, endurance and persistence are essential to developing a strong cycling style, but the soaring sensation, Olson says, is what makes it so appealing.
“It gives you freedom and ease of movement,” Olson said. “That’s why so many people fall in love with it when they’re five and that’s why it’s so enjoyable no matter what your age.”
While mountain biking falls under the category of recreational riding, Smith’s Bike Shop highlighted the convenience factor of commuting on two wheels, demoing Trek electric bikes at a nearby booth. Available in styles including Cross Rip +, Powerfly 8.0 and Verve+, the chargeable cycles, which range in cost from $2,200 to $5,000, can reach speeds as high as 28 mph, depending on style, and operate for up to 100 miles on a single four hour charge.
“This type of bike is the fastest growing bike category right now,” said Randi Pueschner, owner of Smith’s Bikes. “We sold 12 last year and already eight or nine this year. They’re the hot thing.”
The advantages of an electric bike, Pueschner notes, are numerous. Faster than a traditional bike and requiring less effort, riders can reach their destination without fatigue. Unlike a moped, electric bikes can be parked at a bike rack and require no gas. With the battery sustaining up to 1,000 charges, the savings are considerable.
Even for hobby cyclists, a battery assist can be of appeal, allowing less experienced riders to sustain longer rides and more challenging courses.
While not currently in the market for an electric bike, LuAnne Kratt of La Crosse took a look at the display out of curiosity.
“It would come in handy,” Kratt conceded, “when you’re riding big hills.”