The Chequamegon 100 is a quintessential endurance mountain bike race. The course is the stuff all mountain bike races should be made of, twisty, flowy, picturesque single track. Wait...there is a catch, each rider must navigate a seriously complex network of trails, including hundreds of intersections where decisions must be made in a split second in order to confirm that one is in fact on course and heading the right direction. Yes, the course is "marked", but not in the typical fashion (i.e. signs). The Cheq 100 is marked with spray painted arrows on the ground. So, imagine riding as fast as you can through tight, twisty single track, watching for arrows on the ground. To put it succinctly, they're easy to miss. My tiny brain had a lot going on as I negotiated all of these variables.
This race is close to Duluth, so my good friend and training partner Charlie Farrow got up super early and headed to Cable, Wisonsin. Great conversation and good laughs on the trip down had me feeling that I was in for a good day.
All "kitted" up and ready to head to the starting line for the rider's meeting I became concerned when I saw Charlie pulled over by the side of the road (the rider's meeting involved a short ride to the starting line), palms up - exposed to the sky - looking quite perplexed. I had to worry about me at this point, so I pushed on past him, figuring that every day in Charlie's life is an adventure. I was certain he'd find his way through whatever plagued him at this moment.
The rider meeting was chock full of information, most of which I couldn't hear or couldn't understand. I wasn't worried, I figured I'd just follow the guy in front of me anyway. What a mistake! Note to people who don't think the rider meetings are all that important - THEY ARE!!!
Tim Krueger of Salsa Cycles shouted "GO" and we were underway. I was feeling good about my start and the pace was easy to handle. I rode right at the front in order to stay out of trouble, which was one wise move I made on the day, as I heard a nasty crash happen on the gravel right behind me. "Hope every one's o.k., glad I wasn't in that", I thought. I hit the single track in about 5th position and again the pace was easy to handle. Granted, I was a little "twitchy" in the trail after hammering down the gravel for 3 miles, but I knew the nerves would settle and they did. Soon I felt smooth and under control and I felt like I wanted to start moving up. I asked permission to pass a few guys and in some cases I was afforded an opportunity to pass by a wide spot in the trail. Things were going very well until my front wheel started feeling a little sluggish, not responding to my commands. "Whatever, I'm sure it's fine", I thought. But, the feeling was getting worse, then I felt the tire roll on the rim as I leaned into a corner. Twenty minutes into the race and my front tire was going down - what a BUMMER! It had to be dealt with so I pulled to the side, ripped off my camel back and dug out a CO2. I blasted a canister into the tire, capped the valve and jumped back on. I only lost about 5 positions, but the leaders had escaped. I wasn't worried, I knew we were all in for a long day. I just didn't know how long...
The tire seemed to be holding while I was hooked up with my Kansas partner, Sean Mailen. We joked and laughed through the trail while we rode with a mild intensity. I liked how matched we were and I felt I could ride "all day" with him. Time wore on, creating silence between us as we began to focus on the skills needed to ride efficiently and stay on course. At times we would drift apart, but circumstances always brought us back together. "Sean and I are going to finish this thing together", I thought. However, that thought disappeared when I saw my partner dismount at an aid station and crack a beer. "Good idea", flashed through my mind, but I wanted to finish this thing in under 9 hours, so a beer for me would have to wait for the end.
The hours passed and I rode alone for the majority of them. Navigation rested solely on my shoulders, but I wasn't too worried as I had the course "loaded into my gps". All I had to do was follow along with the screen on my handle bars. Ahhh, but it proved to be much more complicated than that as the course began to twist and criss cross itself, confusing not only me, but the little man who lives in my gps.
Cruising comfortable a few minutes behind the lead group and a significant chunk ahead of the field I rode ALONE. I was in that "no mans land", chasing and running at the same time. Then, it happened. I was riding a beautiful piece of single track called the Makwa Trail when I crossed the famous Birkebeiner ski trail. After crossing the "Birkie" the guy in my gps totally freaked out, causing me to look down to see what his problem was. "OFF COURSE" was the message on the screen. I hadn't seen this before (this was the first time I'd used my gps in this way). So, I too kind of freaked out, pulling a U-turn, I returned to the "Birkie" and immediately noticed orange markers on the trail which was part of the marking system. Being the intelligent person that I am, I changed direction and started following the markers down the ski trail. The little man confirmed for me that all was right with the world by saying, "COURSE FOUND" and even offered a pleasant little chirping sound. I dropped the hammer and started trading punches with the infamous "rollers" of the "Birkie". "Man, I'm doin' great", I thought as no one was behind me. "Soon, I should be seeing the guys who 'pop' off the front group". Instead I saw a resting place (building) for the cross country skiers who visit the trail in the winter. Thing is, I had already been past this building a long time ago. I wasted valuable time trying to figure out where things went wrong or if they were wrong at all. Finally, I found my way back to an aid station where the kind lady informed me, "you weren't supposed to be on the Birkie, not until later in the race".
I have been angry before, but the rage that began to boil up inside was even scary to me. It was ALL MY FAULT. I made a snap decision without thinking it through, without inspecting the trail ahead for the tire tracks of the lead group, I ruined my race! As I rode away from the aid station it all began to make sense. The "little man" politely letting me know I was back on course made sense, I was back on course, just the wrong portion of the course!! I really wanted to have a good race. This is Salsa's race, I ride for Salsa ... you get it. All of that was gone now. I was so far back that all hope was lost in getting back to where I was. My little excursion lasted approximately one and a half hours. The damage was done, not to mention I wasted a ton of energy blasting through unnecessary miles. Back to the rage. I processed this mistake as I entered the Makwa trail for the second time. I began to mutter some bad words to myself as the weight of the situation took hold. The rain was falling heavy on me now and my mood was falling faster. Soon, my mutterings had evolved into a full on melt down. I began to scream obscenities at the trees. My throat shook as I pushed my vocal power into an area it has never been. Running on pure adrenaline the anger had produced I was taking risks in the wet trail that I shouldn't have. Eventually, I settled and tried to grasp some control over my emotions and further evaluate my situation. It was then that I noticed my legs for the first time and noticed that they felt really tired. I had been feeling fine at mile 50 when my mistake took me on the scenic route, but now that the chemicals released into my body from a temper tantrum any 5 year old would have marveled at had subsided, I was tapped. By the way, my apologies to any riders who may have been near me when these moments transpired, my friend Jay Barre from the Slender Fungus being one of them. Sorry you had to see/hear my 'dark side'.
I looked into the future and saw bigger events on the horizon, events that will really test me. I decided to consider this a training ride for those rides that lay before me. I regained focus, pushed in some calories and got back to business. Mission DBD, FINISH THIS RACE!
The remainder of the race was uneventful and involved many, many miles of solo riding, good for the head, good for the soul I figured.
I began to wonder if I would just ride single track for the rest of my life as the end never seemed to come, but finally a gravel road ahead. I was out of the woods and entering the tiny berg of Cable, Wi. The finish line was just ahead.
Tim Krueger met at the finish and asked me if I wanted to do the "Cheq. 120" next year. "Sure", I said, "I know the way".
Thanks to Salsa Cycles for putting on such a great race, specifically, Tim Krueger, Joe Meiser, and Ryan Horkey (who "blew up" the race, taking 4th overall!!! Way to go buddy!)