For someone who considers himself a cyclist, I didn’t spend very much time on the bike this summer. What I did spend a lot of time doing is standing in the dugouts of Little League baseball fields. I do not in any way believe that wasn’t a valuable usage of my time — rather, I think it was one of the most important thing I can do for those kids. But one thing that coaching baseball doesn’t do is make you faster on a bike.
That’s not to say I didn’t get a little time on two wheels. I finally made time for my Houghton-Marquette century ride. I raced the Deer Chase and came in 3rd in the 35-39 age bracket. But I also ran the 5-mile Canal Run and did a 5k trail run (which I won). I played church softball and even showed up at a drop-in hockey game one evening. I kept myself active — just not on a bike.
This was all very concerning to me, knowing that I had spent nearly $100 registering for the largest point-to-point mountain bike race in the country. Based on the facts that I had been active, that I had ridden well at the Deer Chase, I approached the Cheq40 with a little bit of confidence. I knew it would never be my best effort, but I would give it my all and see what happened.
Getting down to Hayward was pretty uneventful. The Lifetime Fitness people (and longtime Cheq volunteers) really know what they’re doing, so packet pickup is just super-fast and easy. We got to the KOA in Hayward and started setting up our tent next to two really nice guys. They were amused I was going to set the tent up by myself, but it’s something I’ve done so many times that it’s really quite easy. They came over to chat and babbled on about how light some other guy’s bike was, as if having a lightweight bike automatically makes you faster. Then they dealt my ego one of the more considerable blows it has received lately. In order to seed the race well, Lifetime assigns every rider a gate to line up at the start. Our neighbors assumed that I was going to be starting in gate 7 (the very back), when my 2014 ride had qualified me for gate 4 (near the middle). They were visibly surprised when I told them that. I can’t figure out what would cause them to make that assumption. The fact that I’m 30-something with a family? The fact that I ride an aluminum hardtail? The fact that I’m not built like a traditional cyclist? In any case, it put a big chip on my shoulder for the race.
The morning of the race dawned early, with a dog who has no concept of “time zones” getting pretty anxious at 6:30 AM Central time (7:30 AM at home). It didn’t help that the kids started getting pretty loud too. Then our neighbors got up and were making a lot of racket next door. It was pretty chilly, so I had on my beanie and gloves along with the excellent Twin Six hoodie. I just kept thinking, “Long sleeve jersey and thermal knickers for the win!”
As I mentioned last year, Lifetime did away with the horribleness of people showing up at 6:30 AM to get a primo start spot (for a 10 AM race start) by assigning the starting gates. That also makes it so you can arrive much closer to the actual start time without sacrificing a good start position. (Incidentally, every big race needs to do this. Ore to Shore, I’m looking at you!) Traditional pre-race bathroom breaks were happening regularly, even after getting to downtown Hayward to line up. I saw a Holiday Station and thought it might be easier to pop in there than wait for one of the port-a-potties at the start line. Some guy was just sitting in the one and only stall, texting away and not moving at all. Other people came in and I smiled grimly and made comments about a small line, hoping that it would get the guy moving. He refused to budge. I left that Holiday station and walked across the street to another Holiday Station to take care of business.
My wife was utterly confused when she saw me crossing the highway. She asked me if I was looking at cars at the Jeep dealership.
I suited up, still shivering, still thinking that my thermal jersey and knickers was going to be perfect and rode to the start line. The best part about doing Chequamegon is that, as a member of the Twin Six METAL team, it’s the race I get to see more of my teammates than anywhere else. It’s fun to have this instant connection with people and there was much well-wishing between green-clad T6-ers.
The race rolled out quickly and for the first time ever, I didn’t have to do a bunch of crazy passing to get up to a point I was riding with people of equal ability. I was just there. We rolled quickly into Rosie’s Field which had a mud pit that was apparently supposed to be a access road for logging. It was in no condition to have logging truck traffic that day. In fact, pretty much everything was wet from recent rains. The Birkie Trail was soft and wet, the fire roads were wet, the two-tracks were wet. And it had gotten warm. While I was shivering like crazy at the start line and thinking, “I am dressed SO PERFECTLY,” by the time we had done 10 miles, I was completely unzipped and thinking, “I am dressed like a MORON.”
The Cheq40 is a race that demands and rewards road racing techniques, especially pacelines. I don’t spend a lot of time riding on the road in packs, but I know how to ride in a paceline. Somehow, the riders I’m around are mostly unwilling or unable to do this. As we cruise along these gravel roads, they ride several abreast or solo. Well, until they suck your wheel for a quarter mile then launch off you without so much as a “thank you” or “hop on”. A half-dozen times or more, riders did this to me. Am I the sucker who lets them suck wheel or are they the jerks who don’t offer a pull?
The normal Cheq40 landmarks came and went. The OO crossing. The pirates with their shots of rum. The Seeley Fire Tower climb and descent. The final return to the undulating, unforgiving hills of the Birkie Trail. I was riding with a broken spoke that was interfering with my shifting, hitting my leg when I stood to pedal and generally made a bunch of noise. I stopped to bend the spoke around other spokes on the wheel. I wondered what it would be like to do this race on a singlespeed. I began to hear the PA system at the finish and let it fly during the last downhill. I sprinted across the line to a 3:06, which was 6 minutes past my optimistic goal. (It was, however, 9 minutes faster than 2010, when I had specially trained for the event!)
So I was an hour behind the leaders and finished 773/1899 overall. Here’s where I take away my consolation and overall lesson. Before the event, I prayed for the safety of the racers. I prayed that I would give my best. I prayed in thanksgiving for an opportunity to ride. I confessed that I was going into the race with the aforementioned chip on my shoulder and that if I did well, I would probably think it was all about ME and MY glory. So I prayed that it would be about God’s glory. He made me with the body that I have, which apparently has a pretty high baseline fitness. How else does one end up in the top 40% of riders in such a large and prestigious race? How else does someone who runs for the heck of it and signs up last-minute for running races beat dedicated runners on the road and on the trail? This is all about who He made me to be. Can I get back to a high level of racing again someday? When it’s time, yup. When God is ready to let me life be more focused on bike racing again, my body will be ready because He made it that way. Until then, I’ll be able to enjoy what fitness I have and what time I have to train.
But I am searching out singlespeed frames to build up for next year’s Cheq40. I’ll spin out on the flats, but I bet those Birkie rollers are easier when you just suck it up and pedal up the things.