—Deep River Blues, Doc Watson
Some Notes on the Lutsen 99er Mountain Bike Race
Cycling with Dan Woll
When my wife Beth and I woke up, it was raining. I could see the rain out the screen, I could hear the heavy pitter patter on the tent, and I could feel the hard wet ground through our troubled and deflated air mattress. The steady rain was to persist the entire day, except when it poured.
I considered bagging it, but sleeping in a puddle was not an ideal option, and who wants to miss one of the great mountain bike races of the Midwest? Attracting 1,500 riders at three distances including the 99-mile grandaddy, the Lutsen 99er includes the added cachet of being a Leadville 100 qualifier. Having done Leadville four and a half times back in the day, racing your tail off on this brutal course in the mud to get into Leadville strikes me as knocking yourself on the head with a hammer to qualify for hitting yourself with a sledge. Nonetheless, a herd of high-quality racers showed up, including mens’ and womens’ winners, Corey Stelljes of Madison and Larissa Connors of Silverado, California. They hammered the long course in mind-blowing averages of 17.68 and 15.48 mph, after times of 5:36 and 6:23. That’s good riding for a road century let alone 99 miles of rocky quagmire, with 7,000 feet of climbing.
However, most of us came just hoping to do the best we could, comforted by the knowledge that even a finish is no small accomplishment. We were also grateful for the chance to ride one-of-a-kind terrain – deeply forested hills, lupine-filled alpine valleys, lonely bogs, pristine streams and hidden clear lakes, carved out by ancient glaciers. For much of the race, a rider is more likely to encounter a bear or a moose than a car or a person. Later in the day, it occurred to me that if there were problems, quitting would not be easy, stuck in the middle of nowhere. The race was to be like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you are tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired. The Lutsen 99er never quits.
Rod Hasse photo
“I’m going!” I told Beth. My resolve was challenged when I grabbed my race clothes out of the back of the truck. (We racers call these clothes a “kit.”) Mine was next to a cheap styrofoam cooler containing strawberries, a couple of mini bottles of wine and melting ice. The cooler was cracked, the truck was parked on a slant, my “kit” was downhill from the cooler and soaked in ice water. I put it on realizing that for the next ten hours it would make no difference. I was right. Standing at the starting line in the rain, I noticed that everybody already looked like they had been soaked in ice water. My friend Todd told me that we should ride together and start out easy, always a good plan. He said to meet him at the back of the line-up. I went to the end of a quarter-mile-long pack and waited. No Todd. Eventually, way up in the distance I saw movement. I asked a neighbor, “I guess that was the start?”
“Only for the 99-milers.”
“I am a 99-miler.”
He said, “Too bad.” I was at the back of the 33-mile pack. I had to wait about five minutes for the 66-milers to start and then after another five minutes the 33-milers rolled out, with me bringing up the rear. For the record, my ankle chip did not correct this timing insult, making my sad time at least ten minutes worse than it was. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I told myself, “I’ll be the best of the worst,” so after the paced 2-mile descent, I hurried up a 5-mile road climb the best I could, zig-zagging through first timers, little kids, lost souls and hundreds of other earnest peddlers all wearing nice clean “kits.” When we finally hit dirt, I was feeling pretty good, with only 93 rainy miles to go.
Not much happened for a long time. We rode along on jeep trails, ATV trails and some forest roads. Eventually we started to see signage sorting 99ers out from short course racers onto a long rugged figure-eight path that we would do twice, eating up over 20 miles in the process.
Rod Hasse photo
During this loop a couple of young hipsters you shall hear about later rode up alongside me. “Dude! Hey! Are you riding with us? Cool!” One of them had an iPhone sound system which worked well in the rain until it didn’t. When it quit, we still had music because our grinding shifters and squealing brakes sounded exactly like their music selections.
They kept me occupied until their young legs pulled them away, at which time I met Clinton Kollars and John Jenkins of Duluth. Clinton was particularly interesting, with facial hair and baggy pants that were falling off. Later in the race, he had half a pair of pants. He rode an old 26er and said he had never done a mountain bike race. It seemed not to deter him, even though it was pouring rain and 50 degrees. To his credit, he had protected his hands. He told me that right before the start he ran back to his truck and cut the fingers out of a pair of old leather work gloves with his bike knife. Hipsters are tough. John was riding for a personal reason and Clinton was there to support his buddy, of whom he said, “Our interests were like that of the Calico cat, many of the same colors, but not always in the same spot. Except for one color that was exactly in the same spot. This race and what it meant.”
In the latter aid stations, it was not uncommon to see riders wrapped in space blankets waiting for rescue, but not my new friends. I told them they were dressed oddly. I think they thought I was a funny old guy. We were all correct and so we hit it off for many miles, laughing in the midst of the biggest gullywasher I had ever endured on wheels.
I began to notice that a lot of this race was underwater. Big puddles on the first lap of the figure eight became swimming pools the second time around. Riders gave up trying to ride around them on the slippery bushy edges, and rode right through, crank deep. For the rest of the race, over fifty miles, it is not an exaggeration to say that on trail, we were knee deep at least every quarter mile, including a monster puddle created by a beaver dam. There was a big ribbed culvert on the edge of it. When I came to it, all of the riders were picking their way around it on foot. Well, not all. I heard a guy come up behind and yell, “On your right!” and he hit the slippery tube full speed. Very impressive riding for a couple of feet. Then it became more impressive as he transformed into a space experiment, launching off into a monumental sideways levitation. He bounced off the pipe and landed in the swamp with a spectacular splash. “Ow!” he said.
Dan Woll feedbag photo
The rain picked up and it became difficult to see on descents. My food became odd looking. This is also where things got very hard from a mental standpoint. For me, the middle miles of a century are where egos go to die. Sometimes with a soundtrack. In this case, Randy Van Warmer’s 1979 one hit wonder, “Just When I Needed You Most” began playing a torturous loop, complete with the autoharp solo. It would haunt me for the next five hours. I have no idea why this song attacked me, but if you decide to google it and try to listen to it for a few hours, make sure a friend ties you to your refrigerator first to ensure that you do not run screaming out of your house into the highway.
Miles 60-70 were on a semi-unbearable two track path that was rocky and punctuated with Gulf of Mexico-sized water holes. A stricken rider was lying in a ditch being attended to. I offered up a quick prayer and blessed the souls who had stopped to keep him safe.
Dan Woll photo
When we finally came out, I told my hipster friends that I could not take another thirty miles of that. An aid station volunteer assured me that the next twenty miles were good forest road. Meanwhile that good old boy poured a gallon of water on my cassette and tried to wash the goop out of the gears. By the way, Minnesota Nice is real. I have never been encouraged by so many helpful nice people before, during and after this event, and that includes Clinton. He rode in to the aid station with me ahead of his friend John. He was worried about the cutoff time, but he chose to wait when I left because he wanted to help his buddy. I’ve seen a lot of that in mountain biking.
At mile 95, I prepared for the final 5-mile piece of singletrack up to the mountaintop finish at the Lutsen Ski Resort.
The path was a swamp for two miles. Then it turned into an uphill swamp. I think in dry weather one would call the trail moderate in terms of technicality, but in extremely muddy conditions, a serious set of expert riding skills is necessary to ride it. I did not possess said skill set. When the trail kicked up onto a short steep wooden bridge, I lost it. I did not hit it hard enough, the boards were slippery, and I was not going to make it. My front end came up. I was on the verge of performing a twisting half-gainer so I grabbed the rear brake which stopped the bike but not me. Due to the steep pitch, I slid off the saddle backwards hard, almost depriving me of my ability to identify as a male in North Carolina bathrooms.
Rod Hasse photo
That really hurt. It also wrecked what little mojo I had left, and for the last two miles of singletrack I could do nothing right. With a half mile to go, there was an easy off-camber traverse across a ski run, but I was so flawed and it was so greasy that I beefed it good and landed in 3-foot-tall weeds with my head pointed down the fall line.
It was steep and I was so backwards with my legs tied up in the bike that I could not get up. “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t …” ran through my head. It took me about five minutes to ratchet myself around and crawl back up onto the path. I hike-a-biked it until the singletrack ended, and finally rode in. I crossed the finish line shouting, “I’m actually ten minutes faster than this!” Beth cheered. The pair of hipsters with the sound system were with her. “Hey, Dan!
Remember us! We rode with you, man! Excellent!”
Rod Hasse photo
Later that week, I ran into Patrick Ellis of Hudson, Wisconsin, who rode the race of his life and finished 19th out of over 600 starters. He told me that he crossed the finish line thinking, “about how lucky I was to be right where I was in one of the most beautiful spots in the country.
“Despite the weather, the experience was priceless.”