Go Dad Go!

A self-important blog about riding bikes, raising kids and the all-too-rare nexus of these two pursuits.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Romp in the Wisconsin Woods with Friends Old, Rediscovered and New

Note: I originally posted this as an email to my cycling team.

As I mentioned earlier, I hated to miss BATO, but did so to meet up with some friends in Wisconsin and race in the Chequamegon 40, the feature event at the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival. Again, I’m sorry not to have joined all of you on Sunday for that worthwhile ride, but I did have a blast in the North Woods.

I found out about the race a few months ago from my old friend Scott, who lives in Minneapolis and rode it last year. He’s a former D-3 college hoops player who blew out his knee; now he’s a 6’ 3”, 245-lb bear, but gets around on a bike pretty well. He lured me and three other friends into taking part by telling us it was a lottery-based entry, so we should at least throw our hats in…and sure enough, we all got in. The other three guys range from generally fit to massively out of shape; needless to say, they took a different approach to the race. My wife Karen swung a late entry – they needed more women in the race – so it was six of us racing together.

The trek to the race was a long haul: a flight to Minneapolis, and then 3.5 hours to the town of Hayward, Wisconsin. But then, this isn’t your everyday NORBA romp; it’s a wide-ranging festival, including the Cheq 40, which drops 1,700 racers onto one course covering fire roads, grass fields, some pavement and a bit of single track. (Note: I included the comma in the number of participants so you wouldn’t think I’d accidentally added a 0.) Plus, this was about more than racing bikes; we turned it into a reunion, as a couple of wives came along, serving as support crew.

We rented mid-level Trek hard-tails in Hayward; mine seemed mostly to fit me and would probably survive what I heard was not a terribly technical course. Was it what I needed to exact optimal performance from this event? Nah. But it would get me around the course, and I wasn’t about to pack my mountain bike into a box for the weekend.

Wait – I don’t own a mountain bike! Now I feel great about my decision to rent.

That night, at our rented, rustic cabin 45 minutes away, I prepped for the race by drinking four glasses of wine, while my friends asked me things like, “So…do you eat when you do something like this?” Scott told me all about his buddy Dave, “another skinny guy who’s really into this stuff” and who hoped to beat his time of 2:40 from last year, which put him around 250th out of all 1700. I mentally set a new objective: beat Dave.

Competitive goals notwithstanding, we decided to sleep in and arrive at the line around 9:30, 30 minutes prior to the starting cannon. We knew this would put us at the back, but my friends didn’t care, so I decided I wouldn’t either, especially since the forecast put the morning low at 28 degrees. Dave would be out there at 7:00 to start near the front, but I didn’t want to risk my friends’ grief to compete with a guy I’d never met, or to place in a different decile in a race that was supposed to be for fun.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t race hard; the heart rates I saw tell me I went almost-Tuesday-night-hard for an event that took more than twice as long. But again, this race wasn’t (only) about placing, and we indeed started at the very, very back – I slotted in around 1,650th. The scene at the start was just what you’d think: a sea of bikes and riders, the latter ranging in shape and size far more widely than at your typical race. I walked along the field to the back of the pack, past the preferred-start riders (skinny, hairless, lycra-clad, with matching shorts and jerseys), through the field’s midsection (mostly hairy legs, a bit more around the middle, some baggy shorts and helmets with visors) to the very rear (baggy shorts only, a lot of custom-lettered cotton t-shirts reading things like “Team Fat Guy”). Standing in my matching kit next to a guy who looked a lot like Jerry Garcia, I definitely attracted some ireful gazes.

The gun went off and…we stood still. About a minute later we began moving, rolling ever so slowly toward the starting line, which we crossed nearly three minutes after the actual start. The field was thick at that point, and we were under orders to stay together until the support-wives took our picture. A half mile later we saw them, so I turned to my buddies and wished them luck, blew a kiss to Karen, swung left and accelerated along the gutter of Hayward’s main street.

The race’s first 3 miles run along paved roads, but most of my rear-starting peers took them very slowly. I found a nice, clear line and put the hammer down; after a mile I looked back and saw a train of 15 riders behind me. Then I turned left onto a grass-and-dirt fire road, approached a short, steep climb – and ran into a thicket of dead-stopped riders who had dominoed off their bikes after someone up ahead lost traction and had to dismount. This would set the tone for much of the race.

The course was beautiful, with dense, deciduous forests, just starting to turn for autumn, and a number of ponds and streams alongside the trails, which traced much of the course of the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. Pleasant for the eyes, yes, but not for the legs: a line of hard-packed dirt ran through most of the course, and while there was typically plenty of room to pass, doing so meant slogging through dense grass, loose dirt or even sand. And the constantly rolling hills – we gained 3,400’ over 40 miles, even though only one climb took us up more than 250’ – meant bottlenecks on the climbs, where I hoped to pass people, with plenty of room on the descents, where I’m a complete weenie. For a rider like me, who prefers steady, consistent pacing (aka, “the Rhythm Method”), and who was looking to pass, say, 1,450 rivals, it was a tough course.

Still, I managed to pass a lot of people, and by the 25 mile mark I was beginning to notice that I was among my skinny, hairless brethren. In fact, around 25 miles, I passed a tall, older guy with ‘ “2” on his number plate, and I thought, “Wow, I’m into the preferred-start riders.” Turns out it was Gary Fisher, and he’d fallen back after – wait for it – his bike broke.

A few miles later, on the course’s one major climb, amid the carnage of dismounted bodies and their bikes strewn along the rocky trail, I passed a guy who didn’t fit the surrounding mold; he had to outweigh most of us by 30 pounds, even though he looked a few inches shorter than me. Then a minute later he blew by me, descending very aggressively. I caught him on the next little rise, and as I did so, I noticed his front number plate: “1”. And then I thought: “Aha – that’s Greg LeMond.”

Some of you already know that eight years ago I wrote a business plan for Greg, and he took me and Karen to France to watch the Tour. I got to know him pretty well – stayed at his house a couple of times – but after he decided not to move forward with the business, I hadn’t spoken to him, so I figured I’d take advantage of my close proximity. “Greg,” I said to him quietly, not wanting to seem like every other yahoo who was excited to pass a Tour de France champ, “it’s me, Mike Fee.” “Hey Mike!” he replied. “How’s Karen?”

Note that at this point, Greg looked like his face was going to explode. No one was going harder. He could have made his appearance, ridden at the back, waved to the crowds, but he was racing, and racing hard. Yet he thought to ask about my wife. Of course, then he said, “These hills are f***ing killing me.”

We exchanged a few more words, and then I told him I’d see him at the line and began picking off more riders. The trail widened, and I was finally able to develop a rhythm. I found a guy who was interested in working together, and we traded pulls on the course’s few mostly flat sections, reeling in others who would then tuck in behind us. But I was beginning to feel the earlier accelerations, and it soon became clear I hadn’t timed my effort just right.

With two miles to go, back in some stiff rollers, I started to shut down. I tried to hang onto my pace-partner’s wheel, tempted to give in to thoughts about having started waaaay behind him. Finally I gave in, and for the first time started getting passed. Fortunately we were very close, so I didn’t lose much ground. We mounted a last long-ish slog of a climb and emerged above the Telemark ski resort, where a thousand people stood cheering, set against the forest and hills; I think it was an appealing sight, but I was mostly blind at that point. I managed not to crash on the descent, cramped on the last little spike before the line, and saw that the clock read 2:40. I quickly subtracted my 3 minutes to the start line, and decided I could feel good about the ride. Learning later that I’d beaten Dave didn’t hurt.

Just 30 seconds later LeMond rolled in, amid a great deal of fanfare. Other riders immediately surrounded him to pat him on the back and get their pictures taken, so I called out to him, told him I was impressed with how hard he’d ridden and that I hoped he had a great weekend. “Wait a minute – don’t go anywhere!” he called back, so I hung around. Soon he found his son Jeffrey, who’d ridden very fast – 55th overall, I heard – and introduced us. And then he started in: “I’d love to see Karen…Where are you staying? What are you doing for dinner? No, no, bullshit…we’re hanging out. Don’t go anywhere.” When my supporting friends found me, I had to tell them I couldn’t go anywhere, including back to the course to cheer on my buddies, because I was waiting for Greg LeMond to find a pen to write directions to the place where we’d all be having dinner that evening.

It turns out that Greg, Jeffrey and a coterie of friends were staying nearby with Diane and Frank, who had a home nearby. I met Diane, who was hanging out at the race, and immediately demurred: “I feel really funny about this, bringing eight people when you didn’t really even invite me…” She told me not to worry about it, that she’d love to have us. I offered to bring some of the dinner we’d been planning to eat at our cabin, to which she responded, “No, I’ll just tell the kitchen staff to fix eight more dinners.”

Kitchen staff. Check.

When Greg gave me the directions, I asked Diane for the address. “Oh, there’s no number,” she said. “Once you take that last left you’re on our property, and all the houses are ours. Just go to the last one.”

No house numbers. Check.

“Oh,” she continued, “you’ll know you’re going the right way when you see the golf course. That’s ours too.”


I told Greg, Jeffrey, Diane and everyone else I’d see them later, and rode back to watch my friends finish. Everyone had a great ride, exceeding their own expectations, whether those were to ride a certain time or just to finish. We hung out for awhile, did the right Wisconsin thing by eating brats and drinking beer, and all enjoyed feeling exhausted and being kid-free for an afternoon. Reminiscing about the race, Karen told us about a guy who, as he lost traction going up a hill, exclaimed in a pure-Fargo accent, “Oh jeepers.”

Once it started to cool down we drove to Diane and Hank’s place. Sure enough, we drove along a golf course, then past a number of Frank Lloyd Wright-looking homes set back in the woods, and arrived at the main meeting house, where Greg and his friends were drinking beer. The friends included a couple that owns a ski-and-bike shop in Big Sky, a VP from LeMond Fitness and – get ready for this one, Mike Hardy – the CEO of Training Peaks software. Greg showed us where we could shower – we arrived not only empty-handed, but dirty from the race, with a couple of us still in riding clothes – and then took off to buy more beer. We kept checking in with each other, wondering whether we were imposing, but kept coming back to: “When someone invites you somewhere, you take it face value.”

I tested that potential for imposition twice: First, after showering in a guest house, I sat on the toilet seat to put on my socks and shoes, and cracked it cleanly in half. (My friends loved that one: “You’d think it would be us big guys who would break a toilet seat, but it’s Fee with his sharp ass.”) Then, later, I decided to go find Diane, as she still didn’t really know we were there, and I was getting concerned that we were over-accepting the invitation (I get really concerned about propriety), so I hopped in a golf cart to go find her and some others who were out on the links. Unfortunately, I took a cart that was running low on juice, and in conked out in the middle of the fairway. I couldn’t think what else to do, so I left the keys in it and slinked away, a la Bill Murray in Caddyshack, after the priest gets struck by lightning. (Later, after a great deal of wine, I told Diane about both mishaps, and she said, “Oh, don’t worry about it; Bob will deal with that.”)

Diane told us it would be a bigger imposition if we left, since the staff was already making our dinner, so we committed to staying. Over drinks we learned that Hank was an architect who had designed the remarkable homes on the property, as well as a scion to the SC Johnson family fortune, and that we were at the family’s compound. In all, 18 of us dined together, recounting race-war stories over steak (my first red meat in three years; I’d had a veggie burger instead of a bratwurst) and excellent red wine.

Greg sat between me and Karen during dinner, and while the others recounted the race and got to know each other better, Greg walked me through the last eight years of his life. Much of this has been public knowledge, so you may be aware of some of the crap he’s been through. Suffice it to say that he may be a loose cannon, and may not always make the best decisions, but he loves his family and places them above other priorities, and he sincerely wants what’s best for cycling.

By the end of dinner we were all good friends. We’d heard early-career cycling stories from Greg, found out what’s next for LeMond Fitness and Training Peaks and received invitations back to the Compound – or to Park City or Hawaii, depending on the time of year. What’s more, we had a full chicken dinner still in the fridge when we got back to the cabin late that night, which my friends brought home to Minneapolis.

My memories of this weekend would be fond had we never met up with Greg, Hank, Diane and the others; the race was a low-key but very challenging blast of an event, we saw a new part of the country, and I got to catch up with good, old friends. On top of that, now we have some very funny stories to share – and a place to stay when we come back next year.


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