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September 17, 2019

Fred Williston/Lakeland Times

Todd Niles recently completed his quest of riding every bike trail in the state of Wisconsin. Three Lakes was his last stop, and he rode the trails on a collapsible bike.
Fred Williston/Lakeland Times

Todd Niles recently completed his quest of riding every bike trail in the state of Wisconsin. Three Lakes was his last stop, and he rode the trails on a collapsible bike.
Fred Williston/Lakeland Times

Todd Niles stands next to the plane he built, the a Niles-Rans model S-6X. The “X” means for “experimental.”
Fred Williston/Lakeland Times

Todd Niles stands next to the plane he built, the a Niles-Rans model S-6X. The “X” means for “experimental.”
9/10/2019 7:30:00 AM
'It's a dream worth living'
Kenosha man completes quest on Vilas and Oneida bike trails
Fred Williston
Special to the Lakeland Times

Mike Robillard is the property manager of Tara Lila, LLC and the president of the Three Eagle Trail Foundation. On Aug. 23, he was re-stocking maps into the kiosk at the Three Eagle trailhead in Three Lakes when a man rode up behind him on a tiny bicycle.

"Excuse me," the man said. "Is this where the Three Eagle Trail ends?"

"Yes," Robillard answered.

The man dismounted his bike and took a ceremonious step off of the trail and onto the pavement. "Well, that's it," he said. "I've done it."

The man was Kenosha native Todd Niles, and what he'd done was complete his quest of riding every bike trail in the state of Wisconsin. Three Lakes was his last stop.

In all, Niles estimates he has pedaled more than 2,000 miles of the state's trails since he first began his effort two summers ago.

'It's beautiful up here'

"I've always - throughout my life - thought 'Boy, it would be really neat to ride every bike trail in Wisconsin,'" he said. "I did the easiest trails first; the ones in southern Wisconsin near my home ... I worked northern Wisconsin from west to east, and it was just by chance Eagle River was the last trail, so I was excited to get up here and do it."

The previous day, Niles arrived in Manitowish Waters and rode the Heart of Vilas Trails.

"The Heart of Vilas is great because it's beautiful up here in the northern part of the state, but I do prefer to be away from cars and roads," he said. "The Three Eagle Trail was wonderful because even though I got dumped out on some public roads at times, it basically went through the forest, and that's what I want to see - forests, farm fields, rural areas, Amish people. That's what really excites me."

It is no coincidence the Three Eagle Trail runs through so much forest. Tara Lila purchased hundreds of acres of land in the area when the trail connecting Three Lakes to Eagle River was still just a proposed project. The purpose was to ensure the rural setting would remain that way.

In the years that followed, Tara Lila built miles of peripheral trails which connect to the Three Eagle and are intended for use by pedestrians, snowshoers, and off-road bikes. In the winter, the trails are groomed for fat-tire bikes. The LLC owns and maintains park units in Lincoln, Sugar Camp, and Three Lakes townships.

"It's one of the best, actually," Niles said when asked how the Three Eagle Trail compares to others in the state. "The crushed limestone trails are my favorite to ride. The paved ones are the easiest; there's no doubt about that. But the limestone holds and grips really well."

Niles wants the local governments and private foundations responsible for the state's trails to know their investments of time and money "are absolutely worth it."

"Because this is something that brings in tourism," he said. "I've spent a lot of money since I started doing this ... It gives people a reason to drive up to northern Wisconsin where they might not otherwise go, and they discover places like Minocqua. I never knew about Minocqua until I rode the Bearskin Trail there. Now I know about it. So it's worth it to have these trails."

"What I can tell you for sure is that these trails have made at least one person very happy," he continued. "Because I have fond memories of what I just did, and I want to thank everybody. I'm deeply appreciative that there's enough interest in Wisconsin to put in all these trails, because many states don't have this. This is like a little diamond for us here in Wisconsin. We should all be really happy that we've got these trails to ride."

Niles does not document his travels with logs, journals, or photographs. Instead, he keeps a map of the state pinned to the wall in his basement. When he returns from a trip, he denotes his most recent ride with a yellow highlighter, turns off the lights, and shines an ultraviolet flashlight on the map. The trails glow in the dark.

"The maps, the highlighter, and the memories," he said. "That's how I keep track."

According to Niles, the memories alone are worth his efforts.

"My fondest memory was of being on an extremely rural trail," he remembered. "I was riding down, and I saw three Amish girls in their long, homemade dresses. They had bonnets on. They were carrying baskets; just picking berries along the trail."

"In my world, I live close to Milwaukee and Chicago," he continued. "This is a whole other side of the planet for me to see that. New things like that are really exciting to me, and so is all the wildlife."

Niles looks forward to seeing bears the way kids hope they will get a glimpse of Santa Claus.

Mode of transportation

There is a qualifier to Niles' accomplishment. The trails he has ridden are those that accommodate road bikes. There is plenty of dirt track out there built for off-road bikes which his collapsible Critical Judd - and its 20-inch tires - cannot negotiate.

Niles chose the tiny bike for its portability. Due to his unique mode of getting around the state, he is forced to travel light.

Niles is a 51-year-old retired civil engineer. He is an explorer, a tinker, and an outdoorsman. It would not be much of a stretch to call him a Renaissance man - he even built his own flying machine.

Making his quest even more noteworthy is the fact Niles packs his tiny bike into an experimental airplane he assembled and pilots himself around the state as part of each trip.

Another qualifier was due to the distance between some trails and the nearest airports, Niles was forced to make three trips in a motor home he converted from a cargo van.

"It's actually a bit easier in the motor home, because I can park right next to the trailheads," he said. "I said it's easier in the motor home - it's much more fun to fly. I always fly for the bike trips, even if it's just something like Kenosha to Burlington, which is only like a 25-minute drive in a car."

Niles earned his pilot's license two years ago. Prior to being certified to fly, he bought an experimental airplane kit and assembled it over the course of two and a half years. Earning a pilot's license "is a difficult thing," he said, "and I used that aircraft as my motivation to push through it."

Once he was licensed to fly, the inspiration hit him for his bike quest.

"It was just kind of spontaneous," he said. "I built this airplane and I was like 'Jeez, now what am I going to do with it?' Riding all of Wisconsin's trails was something I wanted to do since I was a kid, and it just dawned on me: I've got this airplane and not much to do with it. And there are little airports all over the state. I wonder if there's one close enough to each trail to do this, and sure enough, there is. It came together beautifully. It was the perfect use for this airplane."

His aircraft was purchased in pieces from Rans, Inc of Kansas. Since Niles actually built the craft, he is legally considered 51% manufacturer and the airplane is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a Niles-Rans model S-6X. The "X" stands for "experimental."

Its frame and most of its components are made of an aluminum composite; the underwings are fabric. Empty, the craft weighs 735 pounds. With fuel, cargo, Niles, and a passenger, it must not exceed 1,230 pounds. Niles is licensed to fly it to an altitude of 10,000 feet with some leeway for high terrain. With a tailwind, the S-6X sustains speeds between 100 and 125 miles per hour.

"I always look for tailwinds," Niles said. In the proper weather conditions, the aircraft has a range between 700 and 900 miles.

The airplane's four-cylinder engine produces 80 horsepower, which is roughly equivalent to an economy-class automobile.

"I used to drive a Geo Metro with three cylinders," Niles said. "That put out about 45 horsepower."

And, as Dan Aykroyd famously said in "The Blues Brothers": "It runs good on regular gas." Niles does not fill his 28-gallon tank with high-test aviation fuel. Instead, he feeds it 87-octane automobile gasoline which he purchases from stations in the towns he visits.

The airplane is equipped with a state-of-the-art Garmin instrumentation panel and features artificial horizon, synthetic vision, and systems monitoring options which were not even available on commercial airliners until just a few years ago.

"It's what pilots call 'glass avionics,'" Niles said. "Where you don't have little round gauges anymore, you have a computer screen."

The FAA mandates experimental craft must carry certain fallback fail-safe instruments like a floating compass. Niles not only complied with all of the FAA's mandates, but he also exceeded them by installing a rocket-propelled parachute to the airplane's frame.

"In my opinion, my aircraft is safer than many of the certified ones out there," Niles said.

Now that he's completed his flight-and-bike quest, Niles isn't sure exactly what's next for his retirement.

"I want to get the airplane out of my system," he said. "I'm still thrilled - absolutely thrilled - every time I fly it. It's never boring at all. So I still have a couple more years of flying around and maybe hitting the trails again. And exploring. Maybe fly to cities where I haven't been before, get on the bike, and ride."

He does plan on making return trips to Vilas and Oneida counties.

"Oh, yeah, I'll be back," he said. "I'm going to return because there's a new trail in Conover that's under construction now. And once they connect (the proposed River Trail from) St. Germain to Eagle River, I definitely want to do that."

"And my brother Scott and his wife own her family's farm near Eagle River," Niles said. "He loves to snowmobile. He wants me to experience that winter world and ride all of the other trails you have here."

Niles recommends a state-wide bike quest for other riders whether they travel by land, water, or air.

"It's definitely worth doing," he said. "If you have the dream of riding every trail in Wisconsin, it's a dream worth living."

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