Late-race surges and victorious sprint finishes dominate coverage of the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival.
For many, however, the key to a successful race plays out in the pre-dawn darkness, in the scrum for prime positions on Main St. in Hayward. Steve Smith, a Fat Tire veteran from Wauwatosa, shares this tale from Fat Tire 2011.
I grew up being late for everything.
In my family, the Catholic Mass started with the second reading, as my dad quickly hustled us into one of the last pews, well past the top of the hour.
There is one event, one outlier in my overall tardiness: the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40.
If somebody ran into Lambeau Field, threw up an armload of $100 bills and yelled "FIRE," you’d get a sense of how this marathon mountain bike race is staged.
Rumor suggests that there are "suggested finish" markers to guide riders to their proper place in the starting grid. It‘s based on the honor system. But there is no honor the morning of the biggest race of the season. Instead, ambition crackles in the frosty morning air.
Sure you may have finished your last four or five Chequamegons in four hours, but this year, maybe this year is different! Start up front, and you could jump onto one of the fast moving pace lines flying down the trail and avoid the time-consuming congestion on the first of the Birkie Hills.
My interests in timeliness are steeped in survival. The roll out from Hayward’s Main St. is slightly more manageable (safe) from up front, a place theoretically free of the inevitable piles of wheels and chain rings.
In Fat Tire year 29, (Saturday, Sept. 17, on the traditional calendar) I followed protocol and headed from my hotel to the start line to claim my valuable piece of pavement more than FIVE HOURS early.
At 4:45 a.m., a group of 50 already crowded the staging area, 15 minutes ahead of the official road closing that signals the start of the madness, when bikes can be stacked into the corrals.
This tradition becomes more bewildering as early becomes earlier each year.
Twenty years ago, my brother Tim and I pioneered our first Chequamegon. We rolled up to the start line at 9 a.m. and queued up in the 15th row (about 200 riders back). That kind of impudence today would put you about 1,200 riders in arrears, the leaders out of sight and reach.
Nonetheless, here I was along with the other hopefuls, two hours from daylight. I quickly surveyed those around me.
The first guy (it’s a nearly all-male endeavor) had arrived at 4:30 a.m. to an empty street. Within 5 minutes, he said, 15 riders crowded around him.
He had suffered the indignity of losing his preferred start last year and was determined to win it back. A finish in the top 100 guarantees a spot the ropes of the preferred start paddock. It’s a paradise, where competitors come and go as they please, venture for coffee, enjoy a pre-race spin to loosen the legs.
Our leader on the street brought a buddy, with a realistic view of his spot, second in line.
"I’m going backwards as soon as the gun goes off,” he told me. “I just came down here since he was already up!"
Then there was Dennis, from Chicago. I’d met him at Leadville a couple years ago and here he was in the front row of the group hoping to get in the front row. Based on a full year of racing, including his 5th Leadville, his goal was to finish in 2:25 and also earn a preferred start. (He ended up in a respectable 2:31...unfortunately 67 places outside the top 100.
When the appointed time arrived, the officials opened the road and more than 100 shadowy figures surged forward with the resolute force of a Black Friday throng attacking a Wal-Mart. This was hand-to-hand combat: Knobbies jammed into legs, handlebars shoved into backs, bikes handed here and moved there.
As early as I was, I was STILL late! In the scrum, I positioned my bike in the third row, a disconcerting 40 bikes back from the start banner. Heading back to the hotel, in the darkness, I began to contemplate next year’s charge, and a still earlier alarm clock setting.