Life is what happens while ones waiting for the next big race…Lately, I have been unusually busy, way too busy with work and parenting, etc., but I fear it is just the beginning as my wife’s adventure into graduate school has manifested into less time for me on the bike and even less time on the blog. I love bike racing and I greatly enjoy reflecting in print on past race performances/experiences and yet due to the time constraints resulting from my new role as single-parent, I have simply not had the time…and itz a sad thing, as the last two races in which the writer was involved represent two of the premiere races of the season; namely—The Mega-classic Chequamegan 40 and the potentially “classic” 12 Hour Thunder-Down at the Under-Down. Thus the following is an abridged compilation on my experiences regarding these two highly thrilling endeavors, complete with a short prelude dealing with the term “classic” as applied to cycling events. The idea is to submit to the reader the obvious contrasts between these two late season races and yet at the same time make a compelling case that; while these events are very different, it is these differences that make them classic “can’t miss” events for 2008!!!
Just as obscene language and overt violence are overused in the movies and on TV; the term “classic” is over used as a descriptor for cycling events. And like in all things overused, when the term “classic” is used generically to describe any and all races, then the term looses its effective meaning. Accordingly, in my view, there exists only a handful of real authentic “classics.” Examples of general cycling “Classics” that come immediately to mind include The Paris-Roubaix, The Tour of France, The Trans-Alps, and the Iditabike in Alaska. In my little micro-world of cycling, “Classics” include the Powder Monkey course at Spirit Mountain, The Chequamegan 40, and the MN State Cyclocross Championships. The Ore-to-Shore is on its way to becoming a classic and the course that I raced on at the Thunderdown near Merrill, Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago has the makings to one day claim the title as well. The list goes on, as it would seem from what I have been able to gather that the Trans-Iowa certainly could claim ownership to the title of “classic” in the near future and the Arrowhead 135 is clearly justified in claiming to be a “winter classic.” Ambiguous, subjective, and contextual; it is hard to adequately articulate what a “classic” cycling event encompasses. The obvious attributes include the course, history, depth of challenge, participation, level of competition, etc. Yet, I think the best way to describe a “classic” is to simply observe that the experienced racer (or the knowledgeable racing fan) will know when he or she has participated or witnessed a classical cycling event.
The Fat Tire Festival of which the Chequamegon 40 is the main act is a full on CLASSIC. From the anticipatory hours leading up Saturday’s big XC race to the low key, yet momentary intensity of Sunday’s short criteriums, it’s a showcase for all that is good about mountain bike racing in Wisconsin. The annual epic battles in which the top-notch racers engage provide fertile ground for the annals of legend. When I just spontaneously think of the Chequamegan, I am reminded of a very youthful Harry Anderson’s great effort several years back; of Greg Lemond’s victory by in the late 80s; of Tilford’s great efforts over the years; of the Postal Rider winning [his name escapes me, Jemminson?]; of Brian Narum’s top ten finish several years back; of Bushey’s Kelly frame breaking; of Todd McFadden’s amazing second place finish; of Doug Swanson’s great repeats a couple of races ago, Sara K-J's great victory in 2006; of lining up next to famous mountain bike icons like Ned Overend, Gary Fisher, and now of course Jesse Lalonde’s unprecedented victory this year on a single-speed. Lalonde’s victory was so amazing that I have heard people say crazy things like, “yeah, well on that course, a single speed is an advantage.” In any event, I love the Chequamegan. I cherish the event and even though the course itself is rather mediocre, it’s the extraordinary competition that makes it such a classic. The numbers of talented racers that turn out for this race is outrageous- a minute or two either way can easily mean the difference between a top 20 finish and finishing way back in the 70s or worse. For example, this year I was in 60th place at the half-way point and I knew that if I felt good I could easily make the top 40, but if I faltered (as I did) I could certainly finish way back in the 90s or 100s...Plus the course allows for a full on road race feel coupled with a frantic start, scary high-speed descents, and a set of crippling Birkie “rollers” at the end. Even though it’s only about two hours, it really wipes a guy out. This year, I was completely gassed with about thirty minutes to go. But who cares? In other words, from my perspective this race is all about trying to hang with my biker heroes for the first hour or so. Itz not about really contendin', itz about pretendin'...And this year, I rode along with the Lalonde boyz for a few minutes as the massive peleton crossed Rosie’s Field, for awhile I rode in the same group as Erikson and Fisher, and at about the halfway point I got to see lots of Ski Hut guyz fly by me…And afterwards I got to chill with lots of my biker buddies including Sara & Scotty K-J, Mike Haag, Grady, Jan Rybar, Dave Pramann, Team McFadden, Rosscoe, Harry, Ekimov, Whitey, Mark W, and many others etc…The Fat Tire is as advertised; namely a “festival.” Essentially, the Chequamegan is a “Classic” festival in the true sense of the word; just ask any one of the 2500 participants.
In contrast, two weeks after the Fat Tire, I traveled with Nikolai (with Kate & Ross in tow in another vehicle) over to the sleepy little hamlet of Merrill, Wisconsin to partake in the last of the WEM series; namely, THE THUNDERDOWN @ THE UNDERDOWN. WEM stands for Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series and I am here to bare witness that this series is a real jewel. These WEM guyz know how to build single track, they are not worried about attracting large crowds (which is kinda refreshing), and most importantly they know how to put on a real mountain bike race. I was completely surprised at the amazing single-track that we raced on at the Thunder-down, the first lap was like, "I can't believe how great this is!." It was top-notch, challenging, fast, discriminating, required climbing strength, prejudicial against balanced-challenged riders (like the author), Good technical riders were rewarded, guyz that can ride in tough conditions were supplemented, while fair-weather rider received their deserved punishment. In other words on this course, it aint good enough to be fast on easy stuff and it aint good enough to be a talented techy rider…to really go hard and fast at the Thunder-down, you have to have it all. Itz a lot like Spirit Mountain in that aspect.
Kate’s parents put us up for the night before the event in an authentic log cabin built by her father on beautiful rolling, wooded country just a few miles away from the race course. The hospitality was top-notch, FIVE STARS, and it was a grand time. It is my sincere hope that someday I will be able to return the favor as it was really generous of these fine people and I really enjoyed the time spent at their wonderful home. As stated above, the race venue was just down the road.
Now again, in staying with the theme, this race is not yet a "classic" as it lacks history, etc…But I’m tellin’ you it has all the components to one day become a bonafide classic! All it needs to become a classic race is for the word to get out and for endurance racers to make the commitment. The soloist can choose between three, six or twelve hour tests. Also team brackets are also available. Along with fourteen other “brave soldiers,” Rosscoe, Tim Ek, Nikolai, and the author all signed up for the 12 hour race. In total, there were approximately fifty racers or teams competing. With a 8:00 A.M. start, the day began cloudy and cool, but warmed for a few hours and then the rain started and it rained and rained and rained and the course became harder and harder to negotiate (note:they had to call it when the lighting started; about two hours earlier than the official finish time of 8:00 pm). Itz been a few weeks and with a less than top notch memory I have forgotten most of details…In order of importance, I do remember the following: They had great “free” beer at the conclusion (I think it some kind of pumpkin ale, earthy, spicey, and slighty warm...nectar of the gods for a man who had just spent ten hours+ on a bike), Rosscoe WON, putting it to all of us as he was clearly the best rider, as stated above we had to quit with two laps to go, about 6:00 p.m....so I was bummed, cuz part of me held out the hope that Rosscoe's bike would break (my mantra throughout was "Rosscose bike will break"), Eki was not himself in so much as he was suffering from a bad cold, Nikolai did a great job for his first time out, Kate and Eki’s lovely wife were both a ray of bright sunshine at the conclusion of each lap. Itz was a great race and may be destined for the esteemed title of “classic” in the future. Got to go!!! the offspring is into something!!!! & the cat is screaming bloody murder!!!! & I think the two are somehow related!!!!!!!……..so it goes!