Friday, September 24, 2010

A Few Hours in Hell, But One Hell of a Good Time

Well, my fourth Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival is in the books and I must say that despite the outcome it was one hell of a good time. Each year for the Amigos and a couple of thousand other mountain bikers, Chequamegon takes on the air of a religious experience.

In the days leading up to the race we all spent a good deal of time cleaning, tweaking, and generally making sure that our bikes and gear were all in good operating order. We packed enough food, beer, and gear to supply an army and our vehicles resembled the old truck that the Beverly Hillbillies rode into Hollywood on. Try to imagine six guys, nine bikes, and all the extras. Yes, I did say "9" bikes. Some us believe that you should always have a warm-up bike with you.

As is always the case, we started our weekend with the drive to Hayward, WI and a beautiful ninety year old log cabin that was located on Spider Lake east of Hayward. After unloading all our gear and bikes we were northerly bound for Telemark Lodge and the festivities that make up getting your race packets.
Our Amigo Kenny enjoying some Angy Minnow IPA

That included live music, beer, product tents, and of course shopping for the latest and vintage Chequamegon apparel. Matt looked like he had been to Macy's on the way back to our vehicle.

Upon our return to the cabin we feasted on pasta, chicken, salad, and a variety of veggies and beer. After dinner we went through the ritual of placing our race numbers on the bikes and made final adjustments. Dave showed us the art of making your bike more aerodynamic. Folding the corners of his race number apparently worked for him as he turned in a really good time. Then it was off to bed in preparation for the 4 a.m. alarm so we could get our bikes laid down on the starting line in a decent position near the front. The bike placement really didn't matter. Oh, one other comment on the cabin...Kenny and I being the elder statesmen of the group got the prime real estate (the two bedrooms) and mine just happened to be nearest to the bathroom.

4 a.m. came quickly and we had the bikes loaded, coffee made, and were ready to leave the cabin by 4:30. As is always the case, the starting line was like a beehive in a frenzy and this year was the worst we had seen by far. There had to be a hundred fifty people already waiting anxiously in line to get their bikes down. Riders were told that the start area would not be open until 6 a.m., but by 5 a.m. the city of Hayward had acquiesced and closed off the street. It was instant mayhem and I was actually, almost hit by a car racing through the parking lot. It was all quite laughable.

After securing our spots on the sacred ground of the starting area, it was back to the cabin for pre-race rituals which included the burning of incense, consuming large quantities of oatmeal, making sure the mixture in the camelbacks was just right, deciding what to wear and how much, along with what to put in your drop bag for the finish, and ensuring that your timer chip was not inadvertently left behind.

Our Amigo Matt striking another photogenic pose while enjoying his concoction of several varieties of oatmeal.

Once at the start area it was all about staying warm, calming nerves, and waiting in lines at he Porta-Potties. I believe Kenny and I each made five trips to the biffs before the gun went off at 10 a.m.

Photo by Skinny Ski: Bikes in the start area

My biggest disappointment to this point was leaving my camera back at the cabin, but my day of disappointment was really just beginning.

Photo by Skinny Ski: The rollout down Main Street Hayward

As usual the roll out of town was crazy and party like, but this year it appeared to go without any incidents or crashes. Riding single-speed generally leaves you vulnerable at the beginning because you do get passed by a lot of people on geared bikes, but you always know that you will catch many of them as the race goes on. At least that is what you hope.

Photo by Kelly Randolph: Riders entering Rosie's Field

After three miles of pavement the course takes a ninety degree left turn, brings you through a roadside ditch and up a small rise into the magical "Rosie's Field". From that point on it is game on balls to the walls racin'.

Photo by Kelly Randolph: Racers heading out of Rosie's Field onto the Birkie Trail

Coming out of Rosie's field I felt I had made some good progress and had passed quite a few other riders. However, I was still riding somewhat tentatively, trying to be cautious, and find my cadence for the rest of the race. Shortly after Rosie's Field comes the first series of rollers and it was here, approximately five miles into the race, that my race day expectations quickly unraveled.

At the bottom of the first long crazy downhill run, which was already littered with dozens of water bottles that had been shaken free of the cages, I noticed my front brake was engaged and not disengaging. This, of course, is not a good thing and I had to get off my bike half way up the first long climb to try and fix the problem (race done right then and there). I removed my front wheel, examined the brake. In the meantime another racer had flatted and didn't have a workable CO2 cartridge so I loaned him one of the two I was carrying. Hoping I wouldn't need it down the trail. I tried disengaging the front break by turning back on the adjustment wheel, but to no avail. Through the front wheel on and proceeded with my brake continuing to drag and slow me down, and nearly with tears in my eyes because I knew I couldn't ride an entire forty mile hilly race course with a front brake that wouldn't release. Like Andy Schleck in the TDF, my stomach was "full of anger".By the time I approached the 16 mile mark of the race I was already nearly twenty minutes off the mark I had set for myself and truly wanted to just bail on the race. I had my front wheel off three times at this point and I would stop at the spectator area and remove it once again. This time an older gentleman with at water bottle tried helping me out. I rinsed the brake with water he had given me, thinking that maybe it was just clogged with mud. Nothing seemed to work, so I torqued back as much as I possibly could on the adjustment wheel and now despite the drag I have very little front brake at all. This is how I would have to ride for the next twenty four hilly, wet, muddy miles.At about the twenty-eight mile mark I entered a place that no one else would be allowed to enter. I spoke to nobody, I rarely lifted my eyes from the trail, spectators were like ghosts on the side of the trail. As Phil Ligget would say..."I had entered my own personal little hell." This is where I would stay for the rest of the race. I just wanted to be left to suffer alone. My mind kept telling me to quit, bailout, get a sag ride to the finish. My heart would have nothing to do with that idea so I just struggled on.

The last eight miles after Fire Tower Hill were the worse. I had put myself in the red zone, expended all the extra energy I had to make up time and to push a bike that wasn't working properly. I tried riding as many of hills as possible, but pushed and carried my bike up many. I chastised a younger rider who was complaining about all the hills, telling him to be quiet and just ride. I wish now that I would have apologized, but instead I just pushed on leaving him to his own suffering.

It's always in this last eight miles that you see riders littering the sides of the trail. Laying on the ground in pain and despair. Trying hard to stretch and massage the cramps from their dead or dying legs. For many this is where the struggle to finish really begins. Fortunately, I had no cramps, just dead tired legs, and a dread of crossing the finish line with a time nearly and hour off the mark I had set for myself. I wanted to crawl off into the woods and disappear.Then I came to an all too familiar spot. It was the last turn off the gravel onto a short section of trail. I knew the end was not far. One final climb that was littered with spectators and cowbells. All of them cheering, chanting, ringing those damn bells and saying that this was the final tough climb. Just as I was ready to get off and walk, one of them stepped behind me and started pushing me the last ten feet over the hill. One downhill run and then the final turn where I could see the opening in the woods, knowing it was the top of the ski hill and the downhill run to the finish. It was the first time I smiled since Rosie's Field a long way back down the trail.
The finish brought a brief moment of relief and disappointment, but it didn't take long for me to recover my smile and laugh at what the Chequamegon 2010 had brought me. It wasn't until afterward when loading the bikes that I finally discovered what my problem had been. On that first long downhill run my front brake lever apparently slid down on the handlebars and tensioned the cable. It was nearly a half inch lower than the other lever. Despite the inability to release all the tension by backing the adjustment off all the way, It still left me little braking power. With all the adrenaline and excitement I never was able to notice what the problem really was.

I've relived it over in my mind all week and all I have to say year...I will be back next year. After visiting at the finish with a few beers and some laughs, it was back to Hayward for some pizza with friends. From there... off to the cabin for an evening of hot showers, relaxing, great views, laughing, more race day stories, brats and more beer around the fire. This was all topped off by Kenny the Cook's delicious gumbo.


Joboo said...

To bad about your mech. problem Bill. At least ya hung in there and didn't bail!! Kudos!!!
It looks like the the race was secondary to a great place to stay, and awesome friends to share the weekend with!!
Peace, Joboo

coastkid said...

despite your mech problem it looked like you had a good time!
man, how many bikes there!!!
looked like a great weekend!

Kenny said...

It was still a great time, cramps and mechanicals be damned!