By Stephen H. Smith
In the sensible Midwest, long before exotically-mapped fondos, gravel centuries, and mountain bike epics with entry fees steeper than a Colorado mountain peak, there has always been the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40. This meat-and-potatoes, point-to-point 40 miler has consistently filled the starting grid for three decades with racers eager to line up for the love of racing in a venue decidedly void of the trappings of A-lister cyclerati and hipster race names.
Sure, some notables have made appearances. In fact, down through the years Greg LeMond regularly toed the line (perhaps most epically riding post Tour de France in road shoes and pedals in a year  that welcomed riders with hub-high mud bogs). And, just this year, Wisconsin native and professional roadie Matt Busche (RadioShack/Nissan) set a course record (40 miles in 2:00:32.8, a 20.3mph average), last set in 2011 by Brian Matter. But, at its core, this is an everyman bike race. You show up, you line up and you go!
Thousands of entries are narrowed down by a lottery each March, and for those lucky enough to earn an entry a demanding seesaw mix of trail plays havoc on head and hamstrings between Hayward and Cable, Wisconsin on the second weekend in September. The unrelenting course runs reverse on many of the trails used for the grueling American Birkebeiner ski marathon, a race that draws almost 10,000 skiers each February to the same Northwoods.
In these parts, any mountain biker worth a huck ALWAYS aspires to do Chequamegon. The magical mystery of one of the biggest and longest-running races in the country (in the world?) has drawn my cohorts for more than 20 years. With such an extensive trail record on the fabled course, we’ve come to thoroughly understand the quirks of the race. Traditions emerged and are now followed religiously:
Thou shalt ALWAYS upgrade: The annual rite of “Buying Speed” to account for the race conditions is part art, part science…and part temptation. This year, astride a new Milwaukee Bicycle steel 29er, buoyed my spirits with a chance to introduce a new story line into my personal 22-year narrative. This wide open course is made for big wheels.
Thou shalt dine on beer batter and fry: Friday nights in Wisconsin mark much more than the start of the weekend. It indicates a meal service in which fresh fish can be deep fried and served with coleslaw and a stout ale. Beer-battered perch and a freshly brewed River Pig Pale Ale at the Angry Minnow always produce a happy pre-race sleep.
Thou shalt watch HBO/cable TV right up until the start: "For a Few Dollars More" was an excellent way to get the competitive juices flowing!
Thou shalt manage the start: A three mile roll out on pavement (“controlled” …at 27 mph), quickly dumps competitors off-road and onto Rosie’s Field. Catching the right wheel on the fastest train is critical. Enjoy the schizophrentic “Flight of the Bumblebees” blasting the field through massive speakers; this is the last sight of humanity for the next hour.
Thou shalt burn many matches climbing Fire Tower Hill: This four-tiered mile climb forces a steady cadence, ability to avoid loose screed and walkers. Riding over the top earns you the affection of the two dozen tifosi up top, who may even offer you a beer for the fine work.
Thou shalt respect the Rooster: Since 2000, a dedicated group has raced for the honor of being the Big Cock of Cable. First across the line wins the travelling trophy, a ceramic Rooster atop a running tally of previous champions. Rooster hunting has inspired some top-70 finishes and ALWAYS demands a perfectly scripted day of racing.
Thou shalt celebrate like lumberjacks: In this case, the post-race feed must be taco pizza at Coops, topped off with cherry pie from the Norske Nook. Celebrating commences through the night starting with white Russians at Turk’s Inn, followed by dancing at The Sawmill and capped off with pool and pickled eggs at the Moccasin Bar, where my former racing buddy Gary B. almost got his ass kicked by a gang of locals for choosing a Nirvana song on the jukebox in 1993.
About the author: Stephen H. Smith, 46, races for the Cafe Hollander cycling team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He finished his 23rd run at the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival with a personal record time of 2:29, finishing 199th overall. This means Smith gets to cherish his Big Cock of Cable Rooster trophy for the next 12 months. He’s lobbying to have the state motto changed to “Welcome to Wisconsin: Smell our Dairy Air!”.
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