Sometime in late 2008, I was seized by a desire to be involved in one of the largest point-to-point mountain bike races in the country: The Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival. I didn’t get in during 2009, but was finally able to race it in 2010. I “Cheq’d” it off my list (I’m sure no one has ever made that joke before in the history of forever) and didn’t see a reason to go back.
It’s not that it’s a bad race or somehow unworthy of its reputation. The problem is the timing. After the Cheq40 in 2010, I had my best cyclocross season ever. I was having fun and getting great results. September turned into a cyclocross month and I had no interest in traveling down to Wisconsin for fat tire racing, as I stared packing up the mountain bike for the season after Labor Day.
This year, for no apparent reason, I entered the lottery again. Honestly, I remember the day I submitted my entry, thinking that I wouldn’t get it anyways but why not? I may have been somewhat influenced by the Fat Tire Birkie, but I certainly didn’t wake up one morning thinking, “Dang, I need to go race Chequamegon again!”
Imagine my surprise when the email came in early April — I was in. Suddenly my season had new focus and I started wondering if my wonderful 2010 ‘cross season hadn’t been positively impacted by the fitness needed to finish a 40-mile MTB race.
I counted back from September 13 and started my training. Apparently, counting like that is some sort of weakness for me, because I actually started my training a week early. “Never mind,” said I. “I shall use the whole month of September for racing at top fitness.” I made a few tweaks to the bike: I put on some Lizard Skins DSP grips to give a little more cushion on a 3-hour ride. I swapped over to some Maxxis Aspen tires for fast-rolling, non-technical course. Training rides in late August and September were feeling just awesome. Then I started hearing about flooding and major storm damage around Hayward the week before the race. Then I saw the forecast for race day: high of 54, low of 31. Yikes. If it wasn’t so expensive to register for this race, I would have just stayed home.
Instead, I packed all kinds of warm clothes and worked up a positive attitude. The forecast said by race start, it would be around 48 degrees and mid-50’s by the end. I have apparel for that kind of weather, so I felt confident I could be properly attired. An Under Armour base layer and my 2013 METAL thermal skin suit were the order of the day and really turned out to be perfect.
One of the enduring traditions for the Cheq40 is getting up insanely early to drop your bike off at the start hours and hours before the gun goes off. I refused to participate in this tradition in 2010 and one of the improvements Lifetime Fitness made when they acquired the race was to assign starting corrals based on past performances. Since I technically had no history with the race (they only counted results back to 2011), I got stuck in Gate 7. I was pretty jazzed about this up until I walked to the very back of the back to my assigned gate. It felt like the ENTIRE race was ahead of me. In some ways, this took some pressure off. I wouldn’t embarrass myself being farther up than I belonged. In retrospect, it just meant that I was passing people for the next 3 hours. My rough estimate is that I passed 1100 riders before I crossed the finish line.
The race rolls out quickly on Hayward’s Main St. (or at least it does when you are near the front). At the tail end, it felt more like a parade or leisurely group ride. I wasn’t content to stay back there, so I poured on the gas, trying to make up places where the road was wide and it was easy to pass. As I breezed past other racers, I found myself wondering if I was going too hard, too soon. It wouldn’t be the last time.
(Incidentally, the answer, every time, was “No.”)
Bottlenecks abounded in the first 5 off-road miles. There is a bottleneck into Rosie’s Field. There was a bottleneck at a particularly muddy portion of the Birkie Trail. There was a terrible bottleneck where the Birkie Trail had flooded and the organizers cut a small bypass. People were surprisingly calm through all these, except the morons who rode through the muddy Birkie sections, hollering out, “It’s a mountain bike race! This is what they were made for!” These comments were particularly grating to me as I had passed those riders like they were standing still on nicer parts of the trail. I can ride mud and technical stuff, you dopes. I choose to save the trail and my drivetrain.
The only hard part about those bottlenecks was getting back to race pace. Each time we stopped, that part of you that urges you on, that pushes you through the pain, would just quietly settle down. I found myself treating the race as a leisurely trail ride as I tried to reawaken the competitive spirit.
With apologies to Camelbak and other hydration pack manufacturers, I hate wearing a pack when I ride, so I convinced my wife to give me a bottle handoff where the course crossed OO. We had agreed to meet on the lefthand side of the course, but as I approached the modified crossing, I just barely heard my kids hollering out, “Mom’s on the RIGHT SIDE!” I saw her and had to be a bit of a jerk to get over and stop in front of her. I ditched the empty bottle, grabbed a full one (and some more food) and rolled away. It was so quick that I can’t even find the stop on the GPS trace.
It seems like a good time to talk about what kind of food and drink I had with me. About 30 minutes before the race, I chugged some Skratch Labs Hyper Hydration. Otherwise, I had two bottles of the Lemons+Matcha Exercise Hydration and a small bottle of the raspberry flavor. Despite Gu’s aggressive marketing at the race, my primary food was two small PB&J sandwiches. I had made a very accidental discovery several weeks before that Bimbo white bread is so soft that it doesn’t really even need to be chewed. Slather some creamy peanut butter and jelly on a single slice, fold it in half, and you have real food that goes down almost as quickly as a gel. It’s a great mix of protein, complex carbs and simple carbs as well. No stomach upset and no bonking.
At various times, we were on gravel roads that really demanded a paceline, but I never found a good opportunity. Every time I found a group, I would want to blaze past them. I started getting a little aggressive about it, driving up right into someone’s slipstream and then launching out of it over and over. I would love to see what can be done for this race when people get a good train going.
At some point, I started getting nervous about the Firetower Hill.
See that nearly vertical line at mile 27? Yeah. That’s the Firetower climb. I remembered it being brutal and nearly unridable. My memory seems to have played nasty tricks on me, because it didn’t really seem all that bad. However, I am really disappointed in way I rode this. I had to dismount and push multiple times, not so much because I didn’t have the legs to climb it, but simply because I chose stupid lines and got stuck. Each time I had to dismount I felt like I got in somebody’s way and felt awful about it. I will be back, Firetower!
We were warned repeatedly about the condition of the descent from Firetower. I’m not sure why. It was rockier than other parts of the course, but I still rode it (as well as the vast majority of the race) with my fork locked out.
As I prepared for this attempt at the Fat Forty, I read through my old post and remembered how my legs were seizing up and my stomach was roiling and I felt awful on the last few miles to Telemark. As I blew through all of those locations, still feeling strong, I wondered what had happened to me that year. Into the big bowl at Telemark and across the line in 2:52. I was hoping for a 3-hour finish, but course alterations make it so I can’t rely too heavily on that result as an indicator of how fit and fast I was. I can’t complain too much though.
I found myself thinking about how much I love my Big Kahuna at various points during the race. That is such a good bike. So. Good.
Everything was perfect this year, except my starting position. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back at the Cheq40 next year so that I can start in something other than Gate Very Back. Ore to Shore organizers, you could learn a thing or two from this.
So I left Hayward satisfied with my effort, looking forward to a few more ‘cross races and next year’s 40.