Same as it ever was
Hybrid Chequamegon Fat Tire courses still appeal to riders of different stripes
Recently, I overheard a customer in a bike shop say that the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40 wasn't a "real" mountain bike race. I couldn't help but listen, pretending to be interested in the women's shorts and jerseys in front of me as I eavesdropped on the conversation.
"It doesn't have any singletrack, it's not a mountain bike race," the guy ranted to the bored worker who could only nod his head and agree. After all, the customer is always right.
I wanted to help the luckless employee out and say to the racer dude, "You know, you're right. Why don't you do the race with one of these since it isn't a mountain bike race?" I would then point toward the rack of shiny new road bikes. Surely our bike shop hero could do the Chequamegon on a road bike. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut.
For the past 20 years, I've often heard what the Chequamegon isn't or what the race doesn't have. It isn't technical. It doesn't have any singletrack. It's not hard enough. It's not long enough. It doesn't even require a mountain bike. On the other hand, thousands of cyclists relish both the short and long courses, and rave about the event. The Chequamegon curmudgeons are clearly in the minority because the race remains hugely popular - it sold out again this year - and continues to be one of the most successful grass-roots races in the country.
The course - a mishmash of ski trail, logging roads and doubletrack - has remained essentially the same since the mid-1980s when it stopped finishing at Lakewoods Resort, according to festival director Gary Crandall. Except for minor tweaks for weather and reroutes, like the Smith Lake bypass, both the Chequamegon 40 and the Short and Fat look and feel the same every September.
Rather than familiarity breeding contempt, the Chequamegon courses are traditional routes that reassure those racing and inspire stories and traditions that last for years, "Remember when you went over the bars in Rosie's Field?" and "I almost slammed into that bear when I dropped down into Martel's."
The Chequamegon courses appeal to both veterans and beginners, to both the winners and the rest of the field. Even though our bike shop hero implied that without singletrack the Chequamegon course was somehow "too easy," he was really only spouting his personal preference, most likely because he does better in races with miles of singletrack rather than in those with faster, open sections. Very few races are easy, at least that has been my experience. Even a flat, four-corner criterium can grind up and spit out much of the peleton.
The Chequamegon 40, however, is anything but flat and it gets progressively harder as the race grinds on. By the time the race gets to the Seeley Fire Tower climb with about 10 miles to go, it's pretty much everyone for herself or himself. Those last few miles determine the fate of most riders. You can gain or lose a whole lot of time here as the race climbs relentless hill after hill on the Birkie Trail until the course finally descends Mount Telemark and dips down to the resort and the finish line. One look at the leaders' faces as they cross the line tells a story of pain and suffering, as would be the case at any hard bike race.
The race also appeals to riders in the middle and the back of the pack as well. You don't need the technical skills of Hans Rey to get through the Chequamegon. There are no switchback descents, no rock gardens, no downed logs that require big air bunny hopping. For the average rider, the race is challenging but doable, which is not to say there are no technical sections. The first one is surviving the mass starts; the mad dash of nearly 2,000 riders charging out of Hayward and down State Highway 77. Riding elbow to elbow, tire to tire takes both courage and skill. The sandy soil, loose gravel and rocks, the washed out trail, the occasional mud bog, all these features coupled with high speed require technical skill.
For the most part, the course requires a mountain bike and fat tires, a testament to the difficulty of the terrain. Even U.S. cyclocross star Jonathan Page rode a mountain bike when he won the race in 2009, opting for a longer wheelbase, wider tires and more upright position. Dozens of riders have tried using a "cross" bike - no doubt someone will this year as well - but most end up disappointed in their choice. Cyclocross bikes with their high pressure tires, rigid frames and roadlike geometry get pounded by the Chequamegon course and their riders are left scared silly by the narrow tires. But for some riders it is just too tempting to resist taking a cross bike on the course. They dream of dropping their rivals on the faster sections, glossing over their likely uglier fate on the more nasty sections of the race.
The long and short courses' roadlike qualities combined with the off-road features have largely created and sustained the event's popularity. The point-to-point courses, the high speed sections, the pack-style riding that necessitates drafting and race insight - these make Chequamegon a hybrid of sorts, a combination road and dirt event, like the gravel grinder races that lately have become so popular elsewhere.
The Chequamegon really is a hybrid race, a place where mountain bikers intersect with roadies. Some very elite roadies have won the race, starting with Greg LeMond, a three-time Tour de France champion. On the other hand, off-roaders, like Brian Matter, Jesse Lalonde and Jeff Hall, have taken it to the roadies. And a rider like Steve Tilford, who races road, mountain and cross bikes with equal skill, show that a rider from any discipline can win this race. And why riders of all of persuasion ride in the Fat Tire Fest.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.
Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, Sept. 16-18
The 29th annual Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival runs September 16-18. Telemark Resort is open and back for this year's event, but so is the big tent. Telemark will once again put on their traditional pasta feed on Friday night before the event.
On Saturday, the Chequamegon 40 will start in Hayward at 10 a.m. while the 16-mile Short and Fat begins at the same time in Cable. Both events finish at Telemark Resort.
This year the event will use timing tags affixed to the handlebar numbers so riders won't need to pick up a separate timing chip or return it after the race. This should speed up bib pickup on Friday, as well as avoid having to return chips.
Sunday will again feature fun events at Telemark along with the competitive events, the Cable CritCross and the Rough Stuff Poker Ride. For those not registered for the CritCross or the poker ride, there will be $3 off day of registration. Riders who complete five of seven fun events will get a chance to win a complimentary entry to next year's event.