I Really Like Ashland, Wisconsin

Back before I started doing quite so much biking, we lived in Minneapolis.  (Well, actually a suburb called Shoreview, but whatever.)  My parents had moved to Houghton and in our drives back and forth to visit, we stopped frequently in a town called Ashland.  It was a convenient stop, just about halfway between the Twin Cities and Houghton.  It’s a neat little town with a rich history in the timber industry.  It also happens to have a good selection of fast food restaurants and a lovely bay of Lake Superior where extra-furry dogs can get a cool drink on hot days.  I can’t count the number of times we’ve stopped in Ashland on our way to some place in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

So last year, in the midst of a year when I really wanted to do more cyclocross but was simply not able to, the folks at the local shop asked if I was going to race Baycross.  It was put on by a nice guy who is constantly making the 2.5 hour trip up to the Keweenaw for bike races.  He comes up for all of our mountain bike races, and usually hits up the whole UPCROSS series as well.  And just to spite me, he races way faster than I do and he only uses one gear.  Show-off.

Baycross 2009 fell on one of the only free weekends I had, so we went.  For the first time in 4 solid years of racing bikes, I podiumed.  Third place in Men’s B!  I more or less resolved then and there to come back in 2010.  We also spent some time wandering around Ashland and checking out what is really a cool little town.  Their big claim to fame now is all of the murals painted on buildings throughout the town.  Even on a blustery day, we enjoyed checking them out.

When this year rolled around and I started really considering ‘cross season, I almost backed out of Baycross.  It was going to be one more travelling weekend, one more hotel stay and one more weekend of stress.  Work had started keeping me much more busy, the kids were going to bed earlier and we were running from engagement to engagement almost every night of the week.  I decided that if we did it right, it would actually be the best thing we could do.  Get away from everything normal and spend quality family time together doing something fun.  So just a week before the races, I sent in my registration and made reservations at the AmericInn, which plays host to a small waterpark called SplAshland.

Saturday

One of the things that you don’t realize about Ashland is how close it really is.  2.5 hours of driving gets you there, and you gain an hour on the way.  So getting to Prentice Park at 11 AM meant leaving Houghton around 9AM and still having some fudge room on the drive.  No hurry, no fuss, no stress.  The weather was set to be perfect — right around the mid-60’s.  After checking in (and finding that I was one of very few people who bothered to send in registration ahead of time), I pre-rode the course.  Lots of fun.  The course started with a long grassy section you could ride in the big ring, leading into a well-maintained (and fast) section of gravel ATV trail. Then you rode a little rougher two track through a giant mud puddle back onto a gravel road.  You finally drop off the big ring to ride some short sections of singletrack before a cool stairway run-up.  Wiggle around through the woods a little more, another short run-up and a straight, grassy shot brought you back to the start area.  Then you just had to contend with the sand in a volleyball court and a set of triple barriers to complete your lap.  Each lap took 7-8 minutes.

The Volleyball Sand Pit

After the LeMans start I was in third place, but lost another place before we even hit the ATV trail.  The first four of us stayed pretty close together during the rest of that lap and just before we hit the barriers, I took third place back.  I wanted to bridge up to the first two riders, but didn’t want to go that deep so early in the race.  I never did make up that gap.  I rode alone in third place for the next few laps with only a few memorable occurrences.

Cranking near the end of a lap

During the pre-ride and almost every lap during the race, I portaged the bike around the the big puddle.  On the second lap, I tried riding it and got completely mired halfway through.  My shoes were pretty soaked after that.  One or two laps later, remounting after that puddle, I just completely screwed it up.  I jumped on, but was struggling to find my pedals, struggling to not run into trees and struggling just to get moving forward.  Eventually I got my act in gear.

On the final lap, I dropped into my little chainring just before the staircase run-up and dropped my chain.  I hopped off, rethreaded it and ran the bike until I found a good place to jump back on.  I couldn’t believe that I was so close to another podium finish and might get derailed by my derailleur.  (Ha! It’s a cycling joke.)  Everything turned out okay though and I rolled across for 3rd place, about 1.5 minutes behind the leader.

Happy with a good finish

We stuck around for the awards, which included door prizes.  Even my wife and kids walked away as winners.  Cameron picked a y-wrench bike tool for some odd reason, but was really excited about it.  I talked with the winner and found out that he had been a Forestry student at Michigan Tech at the same time my wife and I were students here.  Crazy coincidences.

Picking up the award for 3rd place

We headed to the hotel and played in the pool for a bit.  The kids were having a blast.  They even played with some of the kids of other racers who were staying there.  The waterpark is just about the right size and not too busy.  People were incredibly friendly and the water was warm.

We went out to dinner at the Deep Water Grille, using our 10% coupon that was a perk of the Saturday race.  We had delicious food in a really cool atmosphere and it was really reasonably priced.  Highly recommended.  Back to the water park for a little while longer and then to bed.

Sunday

Julie had really wanted to go to a church service down there if it fit into the schedule, and it totally did.  We talked to some friends up here who had lived in Ashland for a while and they recommended a church to attend.  It was really nice and felt very comfortable.  The people were immensely friendly, the worship was authentic and the guest speaker was interesting and challenging to listen to.  It was the complete opposite of the experience we had at the unnamed Twin Cities church a few weeks back.  The number of people who said, “Hi!  I don’t recognize you,” was encouraging.  These are people who want to be there each Sunday morning.  In another case of the Small World Syndrome, I ran into a student I had in a couple of classes a few years back.

After the service, we squeezed in one last trip to the waterpark, packed up and headed to Bayview Park for race number 2.  This was at the same location that I had gotten third place at last year, so I was feeling pretty confident going in.  I didn’t know how my legs were going to recover, but I had done my best with FRS and POM Wonderful.  The pre-ride revealed a few changes in the locations of the barriers and a few extra wiggles in places where the course used to just go straight.  Otherwise, it simply wound through the grassy areas of the park, dropped you down onto a sandy Lake Superior beach with a rocky run-up, more grassy wiggles and that darn set of triples again.

Taking the triple barrier and moving into 2nd place

Here’s a video of me looking like I know what I’m doing going through those barriers: http://gallery.me.com/cmcischk#100048

This time, we started on our bikes.  I slotted into fourth position, behind two men and one of the ‘A’ Women until after the run-up.  I moved up one spot getting back on the bike and was tailing first and second place pretty closely.  Going through one off-camber section both first and second place had some trouble, but I didn’t.  Going into one little twisty section, the second place rider slid a bit and hit a tree.  I was stuck behind him, but he seemed to recover quickly enough.  At the same time, by the time we were going through the barriers, I found myself passing him.  As we rode through the start line, I had a sudden realization that made me briefly sick to my stomach.  I could see the lead rider was fading fast.  I was clearly riding better than third place.  Shortly, I realized, I was going to be leading the race.  More than that — I thought I could win.

Cruising through the barriers again
Navigating the Run-up with Lake Superior in the background

I can honestly say that I remember very few details of the next 30-some minutes.  I remember taking the lead and hearing my son shouting that I was winning and that second-place was way behind me (as I wondered what “way behind” means to a 5-year old).  I remember watching the laps count down and watching the gap grow on each lap.  Eventually, I rolled across the line with a one-minute gap on second-place.  I had just won my first bike race.

 

Crossing the line first!

 

Amazed at a good finish.

Third on Saturday and first on Sunday was good enough for second overall and I took home a growler of South Shore Brewery’s “Nut Brown Ale”, which I promptly gave to my father (since my position at the church prohibits me from consuming any alcohol).  The whole family walked away with some more door prizes, including a couple of new Camelbak Podium bottles.  Again, Cameron surprised us by picking a bottle of chain lube over ICE CREAM.

The second-place rider (that Tech grad) demanded a rematch with me at the Keweenaw Cup races this coming weekend, and it’s fun to have a friendly rivalry.  We’ll see how this week treats my legs and bike to know how I’ll ride come Saturday.

Overall

So here’s the thing.  I had some great bike races.  I can’t lie to you — it’s really exciting to win something.  But that’s not what made this a great weekend.  We spent time with some truly nice people, both at the bike races and at church.  We had quality family time, doing something unusual and fun and it didn’t cost a fortune.  By the time we got home on Sunday, everybody was happy, having had a fun, memorable weekend.  And I think that sometime I’m going to have to take my wife on a special weekend down there as just the two of us.

I’ll definitely be back for next year, as long as the schedule works out.  We’ll see how the rest of the UPCROSS series goes to figure out whether or not I need to move up to class ‘A’.

And all of that is why “I Really Like Ashland, Wisconsin.”


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