Come and Gone is a rare, frank, and intimate sports memoir about the lifestyle of the pro scene during the heyday of American mountain bike racing. Enjoy this chapter about the Chequamegon 40 mountain bike race.
“There are two types of bike racers: those who find great strength in the face of a setback and those who crack because of it.”
My 1996 season, which had started with so much hope, was going nowhere. I knew I was not going to be on the Diamondback team in 1997, but I was in negotiations with Charles Aaron, who was running the Ross/Jeep program, and the prospect of landing a ride on his team was motivating. Despite the bad rides I’d been turning in for Diamondback, my fitness level was, amazingly, still quite good, and since I was not going to the World Championships, I set my sights firmly on winning my second Chequamegon 40.
By 1996 only one rider had won the Chequamegon 40 twice: Greg LeMond. I’d won the 1992 event, and my friend Geno Oberpriller had taken home the trophy in ’93. In ’94 I was definitely strong enough and believe I would have won by a huge margin if I had not double-flatted and then turned in close to the slowest tire repair in bike racing history. I had missed the event in 1995 because I had been representing the United States at the World Mountain Bike Championships.
It was time to win again.
My preparation for Chequamegon didn’t include anything out of the ordinary. I stuck with my normal schedule of racing as much as possible, which included weeknight road criteriums, mountain bike races, track races, and whatever road or mountain bike race I could get to on the weekends. The “40” is a fast, rolling race that favors a strong rider. Admittedly it is nothing like some of the epic, all-mountain-style races that take place out West, but at race-winning speed there are plenty of sections on the Chequamegon course that can cause crashes if not ridden with skill. There aren’t any places to hide either, so if a rider starts to come apart, the wheels come off the wagon in a hurry. Chasing back through groups of riders in the 1994 event, I had witnessed more than one otherwise strong rider who appeared to be dragging a 500-pound anchor.
I heard that Trek Factory rider Jeff Bicknell was going to be there, and my friend Bob Roll was in too. He had called to see if he could bum a ride with me to Hayward, Wisconsin, and back. Of course I had no problem chauffeuring Bob, nor was I averse to having some time to hang out with him again. The last time I’d had him in my car we had gone to see a weekday matinee of the David Lynch film Blue Velvet. Not surprisingly, we were the only two people in the Walnut Creek, California, theater. After the movie Bob wanted to drive around the neighborhoods blasting Metallica loud enough to be heard all the way to San Francisco.
The level of competition Bicknell and Roll would present was a complete coin toss. I knew Bicknell to be strong, as I had raced head to head with him on numerous occasions in the California State Series. Racing against Bob, on the other hand, was more of mystery. I’d seen him do absolutely astonishing things in the Belgian cold, rain, and wind. If he had his mind set upon it, he might just ride my legs off and leave me for the bears.
I picked Bob up at the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, and the next day we made the three-hour drive to Hayward. Bob was being hosted, so, as his driver, I was to be hosted as well. Hayward is not a big town, but for most of the year hotel rooms are available if not plentiful. However, when you descend upon the area with more than 2,500 mountain bikers and their entourages, rooms become scarce in a hurry. I was relieved to have a place to stay.
I was also happy to have a premium starting position. The Chequamegon promoter, Gary Crandall, always roped off space at the start line for roughly a hundred spots, which he filled with elite racers, former winners, and a select few VIPs. Thus, Bob and I didn’t have to join the cattle call of riders who started lining up in the wee hours of the morning as if they were trying to get concert tickets. Instead we were able to warm up a little, and I was able to fit in time for my customary hundred pre-race trips to pee before forcing myself to the front of the line, just behind the lead ATV.
In the start everything went according to my plan. The gun went off, and, as I had done in ’92, I began my impersonation of a keirin rider, sweeping my bike back and forth behind the ATV so no one else could join me in its draft. We rolled a short distance down Main Street, made the left onto Highway 63, and then turned right on Highway 77. My legs were easily able to follow the lead ATV’s little accelerations, which I knew was a good sign. The giant peloton increased its speed as it made the gentle climb up Heartbreak Hill, named for the deadly toll it had taken on logging horses when the road iced over in the days before horses were traded for trucks. As soon as the entrance to Rosie’s Field became clear, the ATV sped up and the race was officially on.
Despite the Chequamegon course being conducive to road racing tactics, my plan was the same each year: Go as hard as I could from the start to shake the tree, then continue on. With so many people vying for the same bit of ground, the best place to be was in front of the fray. Once I’d entered the field and my bike was clearly pointed toward the finish in Cable, I put my head down, grabbed the biggest gear I could turn over with any degree of efficiency, turned my brain off, and pedaled. Shortly after the start the lead group whittled down to just Bicknell and me.
Bicknell was matching my effort pedal stroke for pedal stroke, which made me a little nervous. Jeff was a better climber than I; that didn’t mean much in the Chequamegon forest, but since we seemed to be equally strong in the opening stages, any little bobble on my part could prove to be a death blow to my shot at a second victory.
As we neared the halfway point it seemed clear that one of us would go home with the win, barring some sort of catastrophe. Shortly before the steep climb to the top of the Seeley Fire Tower Hill, Jeff was on the wrong end of catastrophe.
“I’ve got a flat,” he announced.
“Awww, man . . .” was my only reply.
There are two types of bike racers: those who find great strength in the face of a setback such as a flat or crash and those who crack because of it. I didn’t know Jeff well enough to anticipate how he would respond to his flat, but I didn’t want to take any chances. As soon as I knew I was out of sight of my breakaway partner, I shifted into an even taller gear and began my individual time trial toward the finish.
The foremost advantage to leading this race was the constant company of Mike Cooper, the ATV driver. He was never close enough to reward me with shelter from the wind, but simply having someone in front of me to act as a course guide was a great comfort. I could stare at the quad and pedal without even thinking about the course. Had Mike not been in front of me at the approach to the Fire Tower Hill, I surely would have blown through the course tape that marked the turn off the trail and onto the climb.
As I began the climb, the toll of my big-gear, do-or-die solo time trial effort became instantly evident as even the muscles in my neck screamed in protest. The ascent to the Seeley Fire Tower stair-steps its way upward, with steep pitches followed by short, flat sections. Each steep section requires so much effort that the little bit of flat that follows feels like riding in quicksand. I crested the top, knowing I’d gone faster on previous trips, and was happy to be done with it.
A long logging-road descent followed, so I took the brief opportunity to suck down some of the contents of my water bottle and shove some food from my jersey pockets into my mouth. This would be the last good section of the course on which to grab food, and the absolute last thing I needed was to bonk and start firing on only three cylinders. I managed to choke down the last bit of food I would touch just before turning right off the logging road onto the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski trail.
When most riders speak of this race, they allude to the fire-tower climb as the pivotal point of the race. Though the ability to stay on the bike all the way to the top definitely allows a faster ascent than climbing on foot, the section of Birkebeiner trail I was just entering is really the most crucial section of the course. I would soon know exactly how much gas I had left in the tank because the trail’s undulating terrain would tell me instantly if I was still going fast enough to win. Traveling fast over the short, continuous power hills of the Birkebeiner trail requires a rider to crest each little rise with enough speed and energy to continue down the back side without any hesitation. At the bottom of each dip I would need to power out of the trough and up the next hill, downshifting no more than one gear toward the top. If I lost my timing or my legs ran out of power, I would end up struggling up each hill and then slowly coasting down. Luckily for me, my rhythm in the power-sapping rollers was spot-on, and I checked this critical section off my list.
The last section of trees that marks the entrance to the World Cup Trail was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I ducked into the trees and enjoyed an instant drop in temperature. This part of the course is definitely the most fun, and even with screaming legs I enjoyed flowing through the trees at speed.
If I had been a race car, the engineers in the pits would have been wringing their hands at this point, hoping I could get to the finish under my own power. The low fuel light was fully illuminated, my legs were beginning to telegraph the telltale signs of cramps on the horizon, and my vision was becoming more than a little impaired. But I had just one short section of false flat across a field of power-sucking dead grass and a short climb before the descent to the finish. I fought with the bike across the face of the hill and turned upward. The short climb through dead grass and sand drained what was left in the tank, and at the top everything went black. If the slightest gust of wind had it me at that moment, I would have tipped over, and I doubt I could have found the strength to even unclip from my pedals. I quite literally could see nothing for a few seconds. But once the world started pointing downhill, my vision returned and my legs agreed to keep turning the pedals over.
The feeling of wind on my face as I descended toward the finish line tipped a tiny bit of fuel back into my tank. I ventured a quick peek over my shoulder to see if anyone was close and, seeing no one, allowed myself a little smile. I made it to the bottom of the descent, downshifted, negotiated the big lefthander, grunted up the little rise toward the finish, and claimed my second Chequamegon victory. I had nothing left as I crossed the line. I couldn’t even remove my helmet.
Jeff Bicknell, who’d fixed his flat quickly and chased to within just under a minute, missed a crucial turn at the bottom of the descent and ended up in the parking lot before sorting himself out and finding the course again. Jeff’s bobble allowed Bob to sneak in ahead of him.
It was one of my proudest performances on the bike, yet the victory was bittersweet. I was not the strongest rider in the race, just the most motivated on the day. I threw all my cards on the table and walked away with the win. I honestly believe I could have taken on any of the world’s best mountain bike riders of the time and still come out on top. All the same, it was a bit too little, too late. Had I ridden with that much defiant anger and motivation in the final Olympic qualifier, I might have marched in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic games. As bike racers we all too often look at race wins as stepping-stones toward something else—something life-changing, perhaps. In reality, it seems that the experience of racing itself is the important part.
Bob and I stuck around for the awards ceremony that evening, where I collected a custom-made plaque and a Trek mountain bike for the overall win. After talking with a few friends and shaking some hands, Bobke and I loaded our stuff into the back of my truck and headed back to Minneapolis.
Come and Gone is a rare, frank, and intimate sports memoir about the lifestyle of the pro scene during the heyday of American mountain bike racing.