Chequamegon Fat Tire 40: The joy of first

Hot and heavy in Northern Wisconsin

A personal mantra for my annual Northwoods pilgrimage to the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40 is “If you can’t be fast, be first.” Look carefully enough and there are plenty of opportunities to be “first,” even in a capacity field of 1,700 racers.

Like the unseeded mass-start: you don’t have to be fast to be the first bike set at the line. You DO have to be an early riser. I was up at 4 a.m. driving bikes up to the start, hoping to secure one of the coveted spots on the front row of the grid.

Amazingly, a dozen others had the same idea. Keeping an eye on “our spots,” we nervously joked about the merits of bike placement six hours before the race on a road that had not been closed yet. When the barricades finally went up (about 4:45 a.m.), I quickly planted my bike in “position A” in the front. Then it was back to the hotel and some satisfied slumber at achieving the first “first” of the race. A year’s planning was coming to fruition!

My Chequamegon goals (aside from getting in the front row) always calibrate around beating my nine riding mates and earning engraved recognition on a travelling trophy. That requires some significant prep work on getting fast. Several of the guys have extensive road racing calendars; one of them competed in the Master’s National Road Racing Championships in July.

This year, I dedicated myself to putting in regular three- to four-hour weekend rides to prepare for the punishment. On top of that, I joined up on various group rides with guys aiming to finish in the top 50. With a drought-baked course, I knew it would be a fast year.

The relativity of “fast” in a sold-out starting paddock spans those with only a few miles in their legs to elite racers with international street cred. Fortunately, I only had to be fast enough to beat my  trophy hunting friends. Rejoining my bike at the line at 9:30 a.m., the training had me feeling as fast as ever.

The start of Chequamegon always has the feel of the running of the bulls of Pamplona and this year, my 17th, was no different. When the gun sounds, 3,400 knobby tires surge ahead, packing the street. Racers go curb to curb down main street, with 20 riders packed in the space for half that. Wheels touch; spills are frequent.

History told me to hold back on up through Rosie’s Field and the trail head. Restraint would be important this year, with warmer than normal temperatures (60s at the start, high 70s at the finish). The ability to maintain pace for these five to six miles is telling for the remainder of the event. I kept my eyes glued to the wheel in front as we blazed onto the trails, cruising along at 22 miles per hour. Sun was out; legs felt great.

This hills start to come in rapid succession in the first half of the race. Quick chops up and down, up and down. Dry conditions had the leaders in my train absolutely drilling it on downhills, then pressing the pace on the uphills for good measure. It was difficult to find the rhythm and comfort to recover from the unrelenting pace.

Near the psychological “half-way” point of County Road Double O, I was still in contact with my train, but I was letting gaps open as the pace pressed on. Crossing this road opens up a new part of the race. A couple fast sections demand that you grab a wheel and hold on. Here is where the lug nuts started to loosen. With the trail flat, I was easily able to keep position.

Sickeningly, when the trail pitched upward, I would lose contact. For a time, I was able to regain contact at the back of my train, but then I found myself dumped on the uphills and having to wait for another group to come on up. With 18 miles to go, this was not a good sign.

A key obstacle on the back end of the race is Firetower Hill, a near mile-long slog that can severely dent a racer’s physical and mental condition. In a first, I rode nearly the entire three-tiered climb, only walking the final 20 yards after slipping off the best line on the steepest pitch. And then it hit. Hoping back on the bike at the top, a cramp stabbed both quads. With 10 miles to go, I knew this was a grim prognosis on the remainder of the race.

Indeed, heading into “The Dead Zone” (miles eight to six to go), the cramps worsened on a part of the trail that requires full climbing faculties. Big gaps were now opening and it was becoming difficult to even walk up the hills. I knew the importance of grabbing wheels for miles six to three, a super fast fireroad run in towards the finish.

It was a struggle to hold on, and I harbored grim thoughts of the last two miles, which serve up some tough climbs. Indeed, the first climb with about two to go inflicted near rigor mortis on both legs. I hobbled along like Frankenstein, pushing my bike to the top of the hills set out before me like sharp spikes. Riders were passing me like I was a spectator in a parade; time and distance seemed to stretch on between mile markers. When the final mile kite appeared, I would have wept had the daggers in both legs not had me so concerned with not falling over entirely like an upturned turtle.

It’s a fast run in to Telemark Lodge from there. I soft pedaled it on in, trying to regain some composure for the cameras and crowds. It was clear I wasn’t fast OR first. Two others in my group had crossed five minutes before me (on the plus side, another of the group wheeled in behind me by only 15 seconds!).

The finish line at Chequamegon is a perfect venue to forget any “missed opportunities” on a day perfect for achieving personal records. The steep hills and layout create a natural “theater” to watch other competitors finish.

It’s also a place to share war stories, hand off the trophy to a new owner for another year, and start thinking about how to be the first to get my entry in for next year.

Here's Smith's pre-Fat 40 report, and the 2009 race results.

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