When 27 bicyclists lined up on Hayward Wisconsin's Main Street for the start of the inaugural Chequamegon 40 in September 1983, they had little idea of what they were about to set in motion. For sure, nobody had any idea of how they would forever change the Midwest's mountain bike landscape.
Dennis Kruse and Jeff Austin, two of the original 27, will ride in this year's 30th anniversary event as the only founders who have ridden all previous 29 Chequamegon 40s. Festival director Gary Crandall lined up for that first Chequamegon wearing No. 1 and likes to brag how he finished in the top 20. (He was 12th.) The first race was the only Chequamegon Crandall ever rode in. He assumed the race director's position for the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival (CFTF) in 1984 for the second and every race since.
Obviously, much has changed since that first race. The mountain bike technology we take for granted today was not even a brain synapse in 1983: hydraulic disc brakes, full suspension, carbon fiber, indexed shifting, tubeless tires. By today's standards, the bikes then were crude, heavy, bone-shaking clunkers.
Helmets were optional at that first race. Wool apparel was not merely a fashion statement. One competitor sported a wool alpaca hat, for protection or warmth, who knows? Lycra was just coming into vogue in road racing circles and not much in evidence in Hayward that day. Sweatpants, T-shirts, even jeans worked. The classic photo from the first race shows Bob Chadderdon (No. 17) with a foot down, motostyle, cornering from Main Street onto Highway 63. He's wearing a T-shirt, church pants and tennis shoes.
Explosion in trail building
The radical change in bikes and gear over the past 30 years is hardly surprising considering the march of technology has altered the gear of nearly all sports and hobbies. What is surprising is the trail development the race spawned. No one saw that coming. According to Crandall, those first 27 riders were the seed for all the mountain bike development in the Hayward-Cable area in the last 20 years; the many miles of Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) trails that now meander through Sawyer and Bayfield counties.
CAMBA is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and continues to build and maintain trail. When CAMBA first organized, it overlaid trail on existing logging roads, two track and ATV trails, just like the CFTF courses. Doing so was a matter of signing and mapping the routes mountain bikers were already using. But CAMBA quickly got into the business of building singletrack, which entails significantly more time and money.
CAMBA Executive Director Ron Bergin credited CFTF with "getting people here to ride in the first place. But there weren't many good places to ride, so people rode the Birkie and Rock Lake trails and otherwise got lost. As bike shops were trying to promote places to ride and marking their own trails, it was realized that a better approach would be to get together and do it area-wide with some consistency, hence CAMBA."
CFTF and its sponsors were instrumental here, providing cash to cover some of these expenses. CAMBA has spent over $120,000 to build nearly 80 miles of International Mountain Bicycling Association-standard singletrack. The "Save the Trails" check-off box first appeared on CFTF entry forms in 1993. Since then, with Trek Bicycle Company offering matching funds of up to $10,000 each year, the festival has poured more than $80,000 into trail building. With this year's contribution, the total will top $100,000. The "Save the Trails" program became essentially a "Build the Trails" program.
"CFTF was at the table when CAMBA started, and besides some initial funding, Gary Crandall offered input for many years," Bergin said. "The real building started almost 10 years later. But the Trek funding for the past five years along with CFTF check-off donations (which went back even further) have provided almost half of our annual trail building budget."
Much of this season's trail building centered on the last link of singletrack between Boedecker Road and the Ojibwe Trail. When this is completed, riders will be able to take singletrack the entire length of the Birkie Trail, from the Fish Hatchery to Telemark Resort.
Chequamegon 40 a 'power course'
What's ironic, though, is a wide open mountain bike race with no singletrack, in part, touched off miles of singletrack building.
The first Chequamegon used existing roads and trails to get from Hayward to Lakewoods Resort east of Telemark on County Highway M. Today's race follows this same formula, producing a race that is a hybrid road bike-mountain bike event, one that requires both off-road skills and on-road speed. Crandall calls it a "power course." It's similar to the gravel road rides popping up all over the country over the last few years.
Every year a few riders compete on cyclocross bikes. Even with the widest of 700c tires, a 'cross bike remains an iffy choice for the Chequamegon. A mountain bike - 26 inchers, 650Bs or 29'ers - still work best. After all, it is still a mountain bike race.
In 1983, the race finished at Lakewoods, rolling down Rock Lake Road for the final portion of the course. Five years later in 1988, the finish moved west to Telemark Resort, and the course has stayed essentially the same since: the chaotic rollout from Hayward, the rollers of the Birkie Trail, Martel's Pothole, Lake Helane, the Firetower Climb and the final relentless hills of the northern end of the Birkebeiner Trail.
Besides being necessary to safely move nearly 3,000 mountain bikers, this blend of forest roads and two-track has been wildly successful, despite the lack of singletrack. The race has reached its field limit every year for the past decade, evidence of its continuing popularity and the riders' commitment to racing it. As long as the traditions of the Fat Tire Festival, the friendships rooted in the event and the siren call of the Northwoods in early autumn endure, mountain bikers will circle the third weekend in September on their calendars and keep coming back.
For the rest of the year, they can ride the miles of singletrack that have made the area a prime mountain bike destination. Without those original 27 riders and the wacky vision for what could be, none of this might have happened.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.
Start gates new this year at Chequamegon 40
For years, the Chequamegon 40 has used a single preferred start for the top 200 or so riders. This year, the race organization will employ a gate system based on rider placement in the previous two 40s.
Gate 1 will hold the top 100 men, top 40 women, top five tandems and top five mixed tandems based on the better of the two previous years' ranking, replacing the old single preferred start area.
Riders ranked 101 through 200 will go in Gate 2; riders ranked 201 through 300 will go in Gate 3; riders 301 through 400 will go in Gate 4; and riders ranked 401 and above will fill Gate 5 on a first-come, first-served basis.
Those without Chequamegon times for the past two years were encouraged to submit a race resume by September 1 for possible placement in Gates 1-4. The race organization hopes the new system will be more fair to riders close to but not making it into the old preferred start. The new gates should alleviate some congestion and maybe lessen the 5 a.m. rush for a good spot at the starting line.