HAYWARD, Wis. — This Saturday, passionate bicyclists from across the county will line up elbow to elbow and about six blocks deep in this northwestern Wisconsin town.
To secure their place among this colorful sea of helmets and moisture-wicking clothes, the 3,100 riders must first get through a lottery to earn a coveted spot at the Chequamegon (“Sha-wa-me-gon”) Fat Tire Festival. It’s America’s biggest mass-start point-to-point off-road bike race. And with 40 miles to go — most of them on the area’s internationally famous Birkebeiner Trail — cyclists need to be well-trained and ready to pedal hard.
“You can feel the wind pushing in front of the riders, and there’s this buzz-of-bees sound of the gears,” said race director Gary Crandall. “It’s just charged with energy.”
With ATVs guiding them and setting the pace, bikers will flow through town, down a highway and across Rosie’s Field where speakers blare “Flight of the Valkyries” and “The William Tell Overture” to launch them into the area’s gorgeous forest trails.
For the small, elite group of bikers who’ve been part of this race since its launch with only 27 riders in 1983, the fun begins and riders can relax a little as they hit those wooded trails and thin out across the terrain.
“It’s like an Autobahn through the forest,” said Dennis Kruse, 69, who hasn’t missed a year of the race and eventually moved from his home in central Illinois to Cable, near the race’s finish, when he retired.
Participants range from newcomers to top riders who know the “knockout punch” comes as they near the Seeley Fire Tower Climb, a five-tiered ascent about eight miles from the finish, Crandall said. Some walk it and others take comfort in knowing the last miles will be easier, with the course descending into a natural amphitheater at Telemark Resort stocked with cold beer, food and music. The slowest riders will need about six and a half hours to finish.
“The record time is a couple of clicks over two hours,” said Crandall.
Skiers, bikers flock to trails
The Fat Tire Festival helped popularize the Cable, Wis., area as a year-round destination for silent sports. The bike race grew to prominence by piggybacking on the international success of the famed American Birkebeiner 51K Nordic ski race while fueling additional interest in mountain biking through the local forests.
The Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA), which formed 22 years ago, helps bikers navigate more than 300 miles of trails, from forest roads and double tracks to almost 90 miles of single-track trails specifically engineered for mountain bikers who seek adrenaline-pumping features and challenges.
Trails are mapped into six clusters anchored by the towns of Hayward, Cable, Drummond, Delta, Seeley and Namakagon, with most clusters offering 40 to 100 miles of riding. Now a national audience of mountain bikers is noticing the area, with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) recently dubbing the Rock Lake Area trails in the Namakagon cluster among its “Epic” rides. Last year the Chequamegon area was even given the prestigious designation of official IMBA Ride Center.
There are only three other ride centers in the Upper Midwest, including Minnesota’s Cuyuna Lakes and Michigan’s Copper Harbor and Marquette.
“It’s a real validation of what we’ve known all along,” said Ron Bergin, executive director of the CAMBA. It remains to be seen whether the honor will boost the number of riders in the region, currently estimated at 25,000 per season. (For perspective, note that there are fewer than 900 people living in Cable and 2,300 in Hayward.)
Biking for everyone, year-round
What makes this part of the country stand out from other regions is the way ancient glaciers moved and melted in fingers, carving a rolling, occasionally ridged and potholed landscape that also happens to be available for trails thanks to large swaths of public land in Bayfield and Sawyer Counties and with the surrounding 1.5-million-acre Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
“You have this constantly changing topography of up and down, twisting and turning through this beautiful forest,” Kruse said. “That makes skiing and mountain biking really fun.”
Some of the rides are considered easy enough for families, such as the Patsy Lake Trail or Wild River Trail, a 5-mile route from Cable that connects to an abandoned railroad bed with views of the Namekagon River from a trestle bridge, said Bergin.
The almost 7-mile Esker Trail from Telemark Resort Trailhead rewards experienced riders who’ve climbed its knife-ridge esker with views of a spring-fed lake.
Within the same trail system, white-knuckle riders can negotiate a 90-foot-long “No Hands Bridge” over a boggy area near Hildebrand Lake, maneuver a dramatic 60-foot downhill drop at “Wall Street,” and test their balance with an 80-foot series of halved pine logs that create a rustic biker’s balance beam called “The River Pig,” a nod to long-ago lumberjacks who could nimbly jump tree to tree as logs were floated down rivers. Plenty of whoops and hollers can be heard near the Flow Mama Trail where the trail banks up and down a large gully dubbed the “Gravity Cavity” for its roller-coaster-like ride.
Anyone visiting in mid- to late-September can catch the peak of fall color. Trails usually stay open through November, with some remaining open during the winter for riders with wheels at least 3.75 inches wide.
Green Bay resident Jeff Austin, who like Kruse is considered an honorary founder of the Fat Tire Festival race as one of the inaugural and continual participants, has biked all over the country. He still considers northwest Wisconsin one of his favorite destinations.
Austin bikes about 3,000 to 3,500 miles a year. Yet he’s usually found toward the back of the pack during the Fat Tire race, often to help his fellow riders address mechanical troubles or other race-day hitches.
“It’s a looser group of folks in the back,” he said. And if he has any advice for newcomers to the Fat Tire Festival, it goes back to what made the sport appealing to him.
“Don’t race it,” he said. “Ride it.”
Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.LisaMcClintick.com) is a St. Cloud-based freelance writer and photographer.