Bike Fed members should see the July edition of our quarterly magazine in your mailbox soon. The latest issue went hot from the printer in Ripon directly to the post office on Tuesday. New this issue, we included a map of the Dairy Roubaix to go along with a Kierstin Kloeckner story about the growing popularity of gravel grinders. The map comes courtesy of the race organizers, Stewert and Michelle Schilling, who also put on the Dairyland Dare.
Perseverance is the overall theme of this issue, with other stories about Sotherland Custom Cycles, an independent frame builder who bucks the carbon trend by artfully handcrafting lugged steel frames out of his small shop in Whitewater. In honor of the Tour of America’s Dairyland races taking place right now, we included a story on the struggle to improve equity for women’s bike racing. The cover story is about people who actually choose to ride bikes with nearly flat tires on sandy beaches. Our Bike Fed story this issue details the Milwaukee Safe Routes to School Program, which teaches thousands of kids how to safely and legally get around on bicycles.
Finally, Steve Smith, a 23 year veteran of the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40, weaves together a story about the hallowed traditions of racing in Wisconsin’s beautiful Northwoods and one of the oldest and largest mountain bike races in the country. To hold readers over until your postal carrier drops the coveted book in your mailbox, we include that story here, along with some additional photographs we couldn’t fit in the 52 page issue. If you are not a member (join please), you can still get our magazine from your local bike shop. If they are out, just ask them to order more from Olympic Supply, who kindly distribute our magazines to every shop that has an account with them. We also have even more photos on the Bike Fed’s Photoshelter website here.
Story by Steve Smith
Photographs by Dave Schlabowske
On a stagnant summer weekend afternoon, this newly minted journalism grad from Eastern Illinois University pored over a brand new Wisconsin map, which filled the entire surface of the thrift-store coffee table in my sparsely furnished second-floor flat in Fort Atkinson.
The phone occasionally slipped from my shoulder as drops of sweat fell in Sawyer County, and my older brother’s voice sparked with excitement with news of a bike race in my new home state. It was big, he’d heard from an office mate in Chicago, with more than 1,000 racers. We’d get to use the all-terrain bikes we’d just picked up from our old hometown bike shop back in Peoria and compete in the biggest off-road race in the Midwest.
I tried to follow along, deciphering the garbled geographic landmarks he shared, tracing my finger along the highways through Madison, up through the Wisconsin Dells, to a place called Eau Claire and right up to the edge of a huge green block on the map: the Chequamegon National Forest.
Epic, he was told. This race stretched 40 miles, all off-road, and it goes by a crazy name: Chequamegon. The Fat Tire 40 is what he told me it was officially called…Road trip!
I had to trust his wisdom as this was back in 1991 PG (Pre-Google). Back then, the only web presence we were concerned with was the position of the city in the spidery network of highways and backroads on a map. With no other information available, my throat tightened at the prospect of planning a Shackleton-esque 40 mile race through the logging country in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.
That first year, we just made it in time to register the morning of the race (an impossibility now with lottery positions announced in February) and slogged through one of the muddiest episodes on record over the course of 4 hours.
And we were hooked. Over the ensuing 23 years, like the thousands of other Chequamegon veterans, many of whom we now call old friends, we have refined our route up to the Northwoods mountain bike paradise and built cherished traditions.
Our motivation was obvious, as it is hard to picture a more perfect setting for one of North America’s largest and oldest mountain bike races than what is now referred to as the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Trails. Hewn out of this deceptively foreboding terrain, the 30+ year-old race is as hard to get into as it is to say (she-WA-me-gon). A lottery rewards a lucky 1,700 riders with a chance to make the fabled gallop on the logging trails between Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin.
On the trails, competitors face a never ending wallop of power climbs and grinders, long slogs up embankments (some stretching almost a mile) confounded with baby-head boulders and rocks. It demands the same long-term stamina and ability to endure the unrelenting, repetitive muscle shock a lumberjack must have dealt with deep in the woods and far from civilization.
On top of that, storm clouds can dump several inches of rain on the course in a 24-hour period. Temperatures can plunge into the 30s at the start. Sun and humidity can produce heat indexes in the 80s.
The beauty remains in its simplicity. There remains a chaotic mass start down Main Street in Hayward followed by a near sprint to the trailhead at Rosie’s Field, four miles further on. Depending on precipitation and course conditions, racers will strap in for the supersonic, near straight-line approach to the first major landmark: mile 16 at Double O, an unpaved logging road.
Crossing the psychological halfway point (and first evidence the landscape has been tamed – somewhat), racers are dumped onto a trail system akin to a diagram of a small intestine. The next 24 miles zig and zag in a rapid, disorienting fashion. Here, many learn that hills go up and down in this part of the country in a natural balance that many say favors the up. Finally, when all seems hopeless, the trail spits competitors out on the top of Telemark Mountain, with the finish line a mere mile or so downhill (mostly).
Perhaps what makes this race so special is that it feels about the same today as it did back when a bunch of excitable locals decided to see who could make it fastest from Hayward to Cable. Historic images show big smiles on the faces of the handful of competitors as they headed out into the woods on true clunkers (spelled with a ‘C’ not a ‘K’!).
Unlike their West Coast predecessors who bombed down mountainsides on coaster-brake equipped Klunkers (and then got bombed!), the Chequamegon founders were hardscrabble midwesterners who had to rely on bravado and a limited complement of gears to get them the 40 miles between Hayward and Cable.
While none of them have started bicycle companies, all have continue to share a love of mountain biking and the joy of spending a day in the woods. For regulars, it’s as predictable as the sun rising in the East. Nothing has changed…which makes this race more exciting and unpredictable than any around.
That hootenanny vibe descends on the Northwoods every third weekend in September with the Fat Tire 40 (1,700 field limit) or the Short and Fat (16 miler; 1,000 field limit) Saturday and a host of other activities, like the Bike Toss and Cable Criterium on Sunday.
Beyond the ride, enjoying the traditional Northwoods amenities is a big part of every trip to the race. After 20 years of journeys north of Highway 8, I have some tips on which black and white picket fence signs you should follow to dine on traditional meals while soaking in the genuine flavor of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Favorites are many; there almost aren’t enough eating episodes in a weekend.
Start with a lunch at Norske Nook in Osseo with tasty salmon in a light potato leftse wrap, and top it off with cherry pie made with TLC by somebody’s grandma who works expertly in the kitchen bakery in traditional Norwegian garb.
On your way to pre-ride the finish, grab an espresso at the Brick House Café in Cable. Put the scone in your back pocket for later.
After the ride, and on the way to dinner, grab some mementos for those less fortunate back home at Redberry Books. A favorite request is a jar of Big Butts BBQ sauce. Delicious to the last drop, it is made from the tears of farm-raised muskies, according to some folk tales.
Then the evening becomes more complex: Dinner offers you many options. Up in these parts, there aren’t bars on every corner, there are Supper Clubs.
A no-fail recommendation starts at the Angry Minnow in Hayward. Albeit not a Supper Club, here a River Pig American Pale Ale will open the food sensors to properly receive the tender fish fry.
Race day breakfast is exceptionally boring: bananas and steel-cut oats procured from the Marketplace grocery store in Hayward. You are simply saving yourself for post-race regeneration.
That process could begin back at Redberry Books and a pizza pie. Here again, the options are many; the long wait gives you plenty of time to rehydrate and make a selection. I prefer Coops Pizza (Hayward). Previously a dingier dive across the street, now it sits within a palatial log cabin restaurant with huge aquarium to stare at between bites of your taco pizza.
A quick jump over to the Hayward Norske Nook gives you the opportunity to procure a celebratory slice of pie to go. A fruit base is not mandatory in this post-race phase, so go with lemon meringue, or if your stomach is settled, chocolate cream tower pie.
Then it’s time to really celebrate. This typically included White Russians at Turks, but alas, the eccentric Supper Club closed its doors two years ago. Tip your hat in respect on the way to the Sawmill (Seeley). Here you might rub elbows with cycling dignitaries like Gary Fisher and even Greg LeMond.
A great nightcap can be had at the Moccasin Bar. Admire the taxidermy displays while digesting a pickled egg and sipping a good Wisconsin beer.
That comfortable predictability and downright charming hospitality of the event and weekend may be why, it’s more and more common to see a legit mountain bike celebrity like Fisher, or even pro riders settling down from a summer campaign in Europe.
But don’t expect to read too much about Hollywood A-listers in the post-race recaps. Instead, look forward to hearing about ‘normal’ folk who like to put a little elbow grease into a stiff test in a unique adventure in the Northwoods.