Chequamegon Fat Tire 40: Wisconsin's best-kept secret

27 years and still rolling in the North woods

The 27th annual Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival will run September 18-19. This 40 mile point-to-point off-road bicycle event travels from downtown Hayward, Wisconsin over the famed American Birkebeiner Ski Trail, forest roads, snowmobile trails and other wooded paths to the finish line at Telemark Resort in Cable, Wisconsin. The field is limited to 1,700 participants, who take on the marathon challenge each year, as racers have since 1983.

BikeRadar contributor Joe Parkin won it twice (1992, 1996), as did Greg LeMond (1990, 1991). Former road pro Steve Tilford has the record for three victories (2000, 2001, 2002), while current mountain bike national champion Jeremy Horgan-Kobelsky (2006) and cyclo-cross pro Jonathan Page (2008) have balanced out the roadies-to-mountain-bikers ratio the past few years.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin rider Stephen H. Smith will be racing his 17th time. The 43-year-old father of three and BikeRadar contributor first raced it in 1989, and has only missed the event three times (parent's anniversary, cousin's wedding, broken back). His first race was on a Specialized RockHopper Comp with cantis, thumb shifters and toe straps. For 2009 Smith's weapon of choice is a Gary Fisher full sus Supercaliber, although he's 'seriously coveting a 29er', which is ideally suited for the northern Wisconsin terrain.

He finished the 2008 Fat 40 in 2:32:37, good enough for 159th overall. Page's time was 2:08:06.

Here's Smith's pre-race report:

"Stop and listen at most any four-way intersection on a drive way up north in the Midwest state of Wisconsin and, in the quiet, you can almost hear the productivity of lumberjack armies long gone. Is that metronome “WHAP, WHAP!” a double-bit logger’s axe working on the base of a tall white ash, or a SUV hitting the seams in the aging concrete highway?

Stare long enough into the deep forest underbrush and you can practically see them toiling against nature. Sporting flannel and wool “team kit,” these hearty men eked out an existence by taking on 100-year-old hardwoods with broad axes and hand tools; working with their backs in a part of the country featuring winters as harsh as any written about by the most glum Russian poets.

Hard to picture a more perfect setting for one of North America’s largest and oldest mountain bike races, the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40. Hewn out of this deceptively foreboding terrain, the 27-year-old race is as hard to get into as it is to say (she- KWA-me-gon). A lottery rewards a 'lucky' 1,700 with a chance to make the fabled gallop on the logging trails between Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin.

On the trails, competitors face a never ending wallop of power climbs and grinders, long slogs up embankments (some stretching almost a mile) confounded with baby-head boulders and rocks. It demands the same long-term stamina and ability to endure the unrelenting, repetitive muscle shock a lumberjack must have dealt with deep in the woods and far from civilization.  

On top of that, storm clouds and dump several inches of rain on the course in a 24- hour period. Temperatures can plunge into the 30s (Fahrenheit) at the start. Sun and humidity can produce heat indexes in the 80s.

The beauty remains its simplicity. There remains a chaotic mass start as 1,500 charge down Main Street in Hayward followed by a near sprint to the trail head at Rosie’s Field four miles further on. Depending on precipitation and course conditions, racers will strap in for the supersonic, near straight-line approach to the first major landmark: 16 miles and Double O.

Crossing the psychological halfway point (and first evidence the landscape has been tamed – somewhat), racers are dumped onto a trail system looking more akin to a diagram of a small intestine. The next 24 miles zig and zag in a rapid, disorienting fashion. Here, many learn that hills go up AND down in this part of the country in a natural balance that many say favors the UP. Finally, when all seems hopeless, the trail spits out competitors on the top of Telemark Mountain, with the finish line a mere mile or so downhill (mostly).

Surprisingly, it’s about the same today as it was back almost 30 years ago when a bunch of excitable locals decided to see who could make it fastest from Hayward to Cable (only 20 miles as the crow flies – longer via ‘Small Intestine’). Historical images show big smiles on the faces of the handful of competitors as they headed out into the woods on true clunkers (spelled with a 'C' not a 'K'!).

Unlike their West Coast predecessors, who bombed down mountain sides on coaster-brake equipped Klunkers (and then got bombed!), the Chequamegon founders were hardscrabble men (and women) who had to rely on bravado and a limited compliment of gears to get them the 40 miles between Hayward and Cable.

None have started bicycle companies. None have festered a tizzy by naming themselves to be a godfather of this or a founder of that. ALL have professed a love of mountain biking and spending a day having great fun outdoors. For regulars, it’s as predictable as the sun rising in the East. Nothing has changed…which makes this race more exciting and unpredictable than any around.

That same hootenanny vibe once again descends on the North Woods of Wisconsin September 18-20 with the Fat Tire 40 (1,700 field limit) or the Short and Fat (16 miler; 1,000 field limit) Saturday and a host of other activities, like the Bike Toss and Cable Criterium on Sunday.

Don’t expect to read about Hollywood A-listers in the post-race recap next week. Instead, look forward to hearing about 'normal' folk who like to put a little elbow grease into a stiff test in the woods. You may not even recognize the winner of the race – but you will look at your mountain bike, and probably want to go for a ride!"

Smith will file his post Chequamegon report next week. Here's his 2007 Fat 40 report, and his 2008 Leadville 100 report.

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