Polar Roll Recap by Greg Gentle

The Polar Roll 2022: Year of the Mullet

The Polar Roll Fat Bike Race takes place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula every February. It has taken up space on my race calendar for years due in part to my belief in the 906 Adventure Club’s mission, but also for the challenge. My first crack at The Polar Roll in 2018 did not go as planned. Dead legs and poor tire choice left me struggling all day. My second attempt offered no relief and a similar outcome. I finished both times but was left feeling unsatisfied with my finish. Bike racers put pressure on ourselves to compete…to perform…to conquer. Undeterred, I held a quiet vendetta against The Polar Roll planning to keep coming back. I skipped out on COVID-plagued 2020 hoping 2021 would be my year of redemption. 

Once again COVID put the screws to a mass start race for me. However, Race Director Todd Poquette remedied the situation. He created the “EX” format. There is no mass start or single-day event. You ride the course whenever you want, record your finishing time, and submit some selfies proving you were on the course. I had a great experience at 2021’s Polar Roll EX. I liked the low-pressure approach the EX format provides. No crowds, no fan-fair, just you, your bike, and if you’re lucky–good friends.  

The 2022 Polar Roll offered both options-EX or mass start including an entirely new opportunity to punish yourself. The Polar Roll is one of three adventure races that push people to reach new heights of “self-discovery”. These events are hard. Very. Hard. Advertised distances are often a mere suggestion. Expect a few bonus miles at these events free of charge. That is part of the reason I keep coming back to the Polar Roll and its companion events, The Crusher (gravel race), and The Marji Gesick (mountain bike race). I like the challenge and sense of self-satisfaction overcoming difficult odds and under difficult conditions.

This year The Polar Roll offered a new challenge I couldn’t refuse–The Double Trouble. Normally the Polar Roll offers a 30-mile option, a 15-mile short course, and a snowshoe option. This year Todd added the Night Roll. Racers can sign up to race the course twice. Once Friday night under the cover of darkness, and again at 8:00 AM Saturday. Sounds like fun, right?  

Past Polar Roll Editions were point-to-point from Marquette to Ishpeming or vice-versa. This year the course was a loop entirely contained around the RAMBA trails in Ishpeming and Negaunee, Michigan. Since my friend Lisa has a house in Ishpeming, we had front row seats to the starting line. We will roll out her front door right to the starting line a few blocks away.

The forecast for Friday night was horrendous. The weather forecast promised 45 mph gusting winds accompanied by 5-7 inches of snow. A Winter Storm Watch was in effect until the wee hours. It was nasty. Mercifully, Todd made the difficult but correct decision to cancel. There will be no Night Roll. It would’ve been near impossible to groom and prepare the course for another race the next day under those conditions. But more importantly, the race crew would’ve had a very difficult time reaching any racers in trouble out on the course. Safety first.  

Race Plan: Business up Front. Party in the Pack. AKA-The Mullet

By late Friday morning, our team was fully assembled. A composite of seasoned race veterans from several well-known Midwest teams– 

(Editor’s note: these nicknames are entirely fictitious gleaned from three days of goofing around in the U.P. Don’t try to make them stick.)

A late-night strategy session formulated the ultimate race plan:

  1. Sleep in
  2. Let the race roll out without us
  3. Mop up any leftovers
  4. Stop at every aid station accepting all “assistance” offered
  5. Have an awesome day of riding bikes in the snow. 

I call this race approach “The Mullet”–Business up front. Party in the back. We let the racers do their thing on the front of the race thus freeing ourselves from any expectations beyond having a good time. Frankly, it is a refreshing approach after so many years of self-inflicted pressure wrought by chasing belt buckles and podiums.

The Rockets Red Glare

Our team headquarters was a convenient 2 blocks from the starting line facilitating a precise execution of our plan. The Star-Spangled Banner was heard clearly from the comfort of our living room drinking coffee. “And the rocket’s red glare…” was our cue to start moving. After 10 or 15 minutes we crossed the starting line much to the surprise, wonder, and amusement of race volunteers. 

We rolled out of town following the course up the arduous climb past the base of Jasper Knob to Hill Street, the first section of single track. Despite our efforts to begin the race unencumbered by crowds we were met with 30-40 racers at the top of the climb stuck in a bottle neck. After a few minutes of foot shuffling and good-humored heckling things started moving. It wasn’t long before the line stretched out and we could get things moving. We kept a slow but steady pace with the other riders in the back of the race rolling up and down the perfectly groomed single track.

Party in the Back

It wasn’t long before Charles-In-Charge called out for a whiskey stop. He was nursing an injury requiring multiple medicinal stops throughout the day. I normally wouldn’t embrace a shot of whiskey shortly after breakfast, but these were special conditions warranting exceptions. After all, we had a plan to execute. Racers we passed earlier caught up to us laughing as they rolled by. 

About an hour into the race, we came across the first unofficial aid station manned by the RAMBA trail crew. Cases of Black Rocks Brewery and Pabst Blue Ribbon ringed a campfire welcoming one and all. The aid station was strategically placed between an out and back section of the course. I saw riders coming down the hill opposite the firepit. I opted to ride on taking our team up the climb and back down to the RAMBA reception committee. This was a long and difficult climb. Nik-Knack led the way until a miscue caused a dab, allowing me to get around her. I continued up the climb unwittingly putting some distance on my team members. 

It felt good to stretch my legs. After an hour plus of a slow-rolling party-pace, I was a little anxious to put the metal to the pedal. My plan was to get to the top of the hill and loop back down to the aid station to welcome my crew. Turns out my mental trail map was off.  I had to ride for another 20-25 minutes before reuniting with my team.

Distancing myself from my team members provided an opportunity to celebrate the day with the RAMBA trail crew. Mark the Viking promptly secured a PBR for my empty fist upon arrival. How can you turn down a beer from a 6’2” Viking in a fur coat? Knowing that strict adherence to our race plan was critical to our team’s success, aid and support were readily accepted by the team. After a round of PBRs and High-Fives, we said farewell to the RAMBA Trail Crew and set off for more fat tire fun. 

Here Comes the Sun

The temperatures were hovering in single digits when we started the race. By the time we hit the RAMBA pit stop the sun was beaming gloriously overhead creating HERO conditions for the rest of the day. We ticked off the miles anticipating a rendezvous with our Ishpeming host Lisa. She spent the morning making soup and hot toddies for her unofficial aid station along the Malton Loop. She was a welcomed sight at the 12.5-mile marker with her double burner camp stove, warming soup, hot water to defrost water bottles, and hot drinks to warm your soul. 

Lisa is a gem. No stranger to danger, or Type-2 fun, this gal decided to set aside her own Polar Roll ambitions to support our team AND anyone else out on the course. Always there with a smile and encouraging word, Lisa’s been a huge support for every effort I’ve made at the 906 events.

Next Stop-Hugs and Bacon

What makes 906 Adventure events such a great experience is the amazing people that come out to support the races. Todd’s volunteer pool is deep, and these people come with their “A” game year after year. They are there to support the 906 Adventure Team cause and the racers that accept the 906 Adventure Team challenge.

The Polar Roll race has a famous aid station known as Hugs and Bacon. An entire crew is set up in Negaunee with bonfires roasting massive skillets of sizzling bacon. And I mean pounds and pounds of bacon. Needless to say, a party atmosphere fills the air around Hugs and Bacon. Naturally, beverages were also made available to help quench your thirst. And speaking of bringing their “A” game. This year’s Hugs and Bacon Station included the Wheel of Destiny. Spin the wheel only if you dare.

Full Effect

Our race plan was in full effect. Laughing as we got back on our bikes, we left Hugs and Bacon but not before I noticed riders coming through the other side. The racecourse looped back through for a second pass. Looks like will be back. Sated by bacon and hugs we pedaled our way through more delicious single track around Negaunee.  A second stop at the Hugs and Bacon Station to top off our efforts left us with only a handful of miles back to Ishpeming and the finish line. 

We were getting close to the end. Unlike previous editions of the Polar Roll where I was begging for a merciful conclusion to my suffering, I didn’t want this day to end. Between the sunshine, the stellar company, and amazing course conditions, I was feeling bittersweet about the pending finish line.  

Unfortunately, not everyone was having a banner day. With four miles to go we encountered a couple in distress. Poor planning can make for a hard and unpleasant experience out there. Know your limits and have a solid plan. This poor guy was completely shelled and in need of help. His lady friend didn’t quite know what to do. Our team snapped into action providing liquids, salt tablets, some calories, and encouraging words to help get them back to Ishpeming. He respectfully declined offers of medicinal whiskey. On to Ishpeming and the finish line. 

Podium Finish

We crossed the line in victory formation knowing we pulled off the perfect race plan. Bike racing requires strategy…a plan. Sometimes you attack the front and find yourself in the selection setting yourself up or a teammate for the win. We had a different plan. Today our plan was about friends, bikes, and community. Turns out The Mullet was the winning move. Business up front. Party in the Back. See you next year, Polar Roll.

Special thanks to Ryan Stephens Photography for generously sharing his work for this story. You can see more of his work at http://www.ryanstephensphoto.net. Also to Lisa Thompson for her race support. If you’re ever in need of a place to stay in Ishpeming. Check out her Air-BnB the Ish House.

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Just an old cat that rides bikes, herds pixels, ropes gnomes and sometimes writes stories. I love a good story.