More Poor Choices: The Chequamegon 100 MTB Race – by Greg Gentle
My documented life of risk-taking and foolery on the bike knows few boundaries. To keep my streak of poor choices and bad decision-making running strong I decided to race the Cheq 100 mountain bike race in Cable, Wisconsin last weekend.
Technically the Cheq 100 is only 90.5 miles long but that is just fine with me. I appreciated not having to ride for another hour. In fact, I should give Tim Krueger some more money for sparing me the extra seat time.
Before I go any further I want to take a moment to thank Tim and his wife Odia. Being a race promoter is a thankless endeavor and they deserve some high praise for their ongoing commitment to putting on their events. The Cheq 100 mountain bike race, Hungry Bear gravel race, and Frozen 40 winter fat bike race are all low-key, super fun events. The global pandemic crushed any hopes of gathering groups for cycling events last year.
Tim and Odia remained vigilant in their commitment to COVID safety protocols. Like so many others, they had to cancel most of their events in 2020. They decided to open up with the Hungry Bear this spring with masking, socially distanced staggered starts, and no after-party adding more logistics to their already challenging effort. They are consummate hosts, lacking in ego, and are long on patience. They put up with us for some reason and they deserve a public thank you. So…thank you Tim and Odia!
The Chequamegon100 race offers three-course options at 30, 70, and 100 (90.5) miles. As you may have guessed I chose the 100-mile route. The weather was picture perfect. Temperatures at the 7:00 AM start time hovered in the low 60s and stayed in the low 70s throughout the day. You couldn’t have asked for better conditions. For those of you unfamiliar with this region, you can expect temperatures in the mid to high 80s in early June with a matching dew point making for a steamy hot mess. This weather, on the other hand, was perfection.
The beauty and vibe found in the Cable area matched the weather. The Chequamegon National Forest is home to abundant wildlife and a lush green canopy for miles. The CAMBA (Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association) network is massive. Tim didn’t have any trouble finding enough terrain for a 100-mile mountain bike race. One change from past events is a start and finish at the OO Trailhead in Seeley. Past editions started and ended at Hatchery Creek in Hayward. A scheduled wedding at the park at Hatchery pushed us north to Seeley. This was not a bad change, by the way. The giant parking area allowed us to spread out.
From old school rocks and roots to new age flow trails, the CAMBA trails are a treasure to behold. The 100-mile course started in Seeley heading south to Hatchery Trailhead. The fast and flowy Makwa and Hatchery trails treated riders to a fast start without putting out too much effort. Riders turned back north at the trailhead to connect us back to Seeley Pass, one of my all-time favorite trails. To keep us from riding back into traffic, we pulled off the trail at Mosquito Brook Trail Head and dipped into some Birkie Ski Trail to bring us to Phipps Fire Road, a gravel section northbound to the next section of single-track.
About halfway through the Phipps Fire Road section, I looked down at my Garmin to check some stats and noticed my screen had not changed for the past four or five miles. It was completely frozen, locked up-completely useless. Thanks, Garmin! Fortunately, I know the trails well and trusted the crew marked the intersections and road crossings well. Normally I like to monitor my heart rate to make sure I’m staying in the “safe zone” for a long day. No Garmin display meant I was riding without that option. But riding by feel was a refreshing change.
The end of Phipps Fire Road closed out the first 30-mile section. After cutting loose from a group in the Hatchery section I was alone on the gravel road back to Seeley. I jumped into Seely Pass starting 40 miles of uninterrupted single track. That’s right…40 miles. I knew what lay ahead so I had to think through some strategy.
It is tempting to hit the single track and want to start ripping through it, but I knew I had to temper my effort with 70 miles to go. Pacing is key in these events. The best scenario is when you’re in a small group that works together to keep the pace high, but not too hard. When I found myself solo with no way of checking my time or effort for over two hours I started to feel a little nervous that I was not putting enough into the pedals to keep on my target pace.
Trouble Ahead Trouble Behind
Friday afternoon I helped mark a section of the race-course covering two trail sections called Esker and Danky Dank. Keeping in the spirit of poor choices, I ended up riding for over two hours to mark the technical single-track followed by five or six miles of steep rolling gravel to get back to my truck. Not a good plan the day before a huge effort.
Esker and Danky Dank sections are part of the “old school” CAMBA trail network littered with baby head boulders, slippery roots, and jagged sidewall ripping rocks. I knew I was going to lose a lot of time in this 20-mile mess, and I was right. I held off a group of three riders through the last section of Dirt Candy (the most aptly named trail ever) but decided to stop and have a bite before continuing to slog through the next 20 miles of carnage ahead. I let another rider go by before I decided to get back in the jam. I was still feeling pretty good about 45 miles into the race but truly dreaded the next three trail sections.
I believe the term is “self-fulfilling prophecy.” True to my fears I started to go backward in Danky Dank and nearly unraveled in Rock Lake. The constant rocks and roots made it nearly impossible to keep a steady rhythm, killing momentum-smashing hopes and dreams. On top of it, the course was not well marked around Rock Lake. Fatigue and frustration started to mount as my calorie load diminished creating the perfect storm for a mid-race meltdown. Another rider caught me standing in the middle of the trail. He checked in to see if I was alright. I grumbled and got back on his wheel for a while. I found myself complaining and bitching about how much I hated that section of trail before I got a hold of myself. He wisely decided not to join my chorus and rode off to finish fourth on the day.
Head games can be the ultimate killer in these races. I know the signs and generally avoid the trap. For some reason, I was not able to beat down the darkness and found myself riding with a brooding cloud over my head for several miles. My destination was the Namakagon Town Hall where the only aid station was hosting our drop bags. It is at this exact point I began to question my choice to race the Cheq 100. My legs hurt. My back ached, I was tired of the choppy rocks and rooty trail, and wondered whether I can even finish. Before I exited the Rock Lake torture chamber I dropped two more places, but I started to think about the baby coke and burrito waiting for me. My attitude changed magically, and I was able to push on.
Nourished by my five-minute snack break and renewed optimism, I set out for Patsy Lake and Glacier Trail, the final 10-mile single-track sections before I hit the final, merciful miles of gravel roads. I have fond memories of Patsy Lake. Last summer during another poor decision-making session I got lost in Patsy Lake for about an hour on day one of a 300-mile solo bike packing trip. So, I know Patsy, and Patsy knows me. The trail is well-ridden, relatively flat, and smooth. I felt stronger after each pedal stroke pointing my nose towards Glacier Trail.
Glacier Trail, while relatively short, offered a few more punches to the gut. Like Rock Lake, Glacier has a number of short, steep climbs and offers ample opportunities to slash a tire or break your spirit. Undeterred, I picked my way through the wreckage and rolled onto Rock Lake Road. Next stop… the finish line.
The last 12 miles were all gravel roads. Thank you very much! After grinding out the last 40 miles of single track I was ready for a relatively easy ride back. I say relatively easy because Rock Lake Road is famous for leg zapping rollers. Two years ago, I was racing the 100-mile Hungry Bear Gravel Race. Rock Lake Road is four or five miles of 12% grade rolling hills you hit at about 80 miles into the Hungry Bear. It kicked my butt. But not today.
The final miles are mostly downhill on fast gravel before the last short single-track climb on Seeley Pass to the finish line. I had been riding by myself since I left Namakagon. One last look over my shoulder discovered a few helmets bouncing on the crest of a roller not far behind. Given that I rode this far without company I decided to maintain my hermit like existence on the course. I hit the gas for the last gravel mile, climbed up Seely Pass to be greeted by Tim, Odia, and a cast of friends and allies.
I want to throw a few special shout-outs to Matt and Morgan Sylvester for sharing their space in Cable, and to Dave Schlabowske for sharing his images from the race. Dave’s got a cool blog called Life Above Eight chronicling his departure from the urban landscape to the northern wilds of the Cable area. Check it out.
This is my first mass start race following the loosening of COVID safety measures, and I have to say it was fantastic to be back with my tribe. The pandemic is not over, but everyone was in such a great mood swapping stories, laughing, sharing hugs and high-fives. I guess making poor choices can still have some good outcomes after all.