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.