It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of full suspension,
it was the age of hardtails,
it was the season of Indian summer,
it was the season of killing frost,
it was twenty miles in front of me, 
it was twenty miles behind me,
it was agony,
it was ecstasy,
it was the Chequamegon 40 mountain bike race.   

Dust kicked up by superior riders filled my lungs as they flew by me on our trek north to Cable. The warm autumn sun baked my neck as my old Gary Fisher Sugar plodded on at a figuratively glacial pace. And to think six months earlier it was both the same and yet completely different. 

I was on the same trail system, but headed south instead of north. And I had a similar view: the backsides of better athletes passing me. I was on Fischer Superlight cross-country skis and not a Fisher mountain bike. Inhaling dust wasn’t a concern but frostbite was. The temperature was 80 degrees colder. My pace was both figuratively and literally glacial. I was getting my butt kicked here, too. 

Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities juxtaposes life in Paris and London during the onset of the French Revolution. The venerable metropolises serve as the anchors to a story about the brutal oppression of the French peasantry and their vindictive overthrow of the aristocracy. London, caught up in the start of the industrial revolution, does not escape unscathed with the plight of displaced lower classes brought into clear relief. 

In contrast, two small northwestern Wisconsin hamlets, Hayward and Cable, serve as anchors to two of my favorite and humbling events, the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival and the American Birkebeiner. 

In my opinion Hayward, Wisconsin, is “the little town that could.” This village, with a population of 2,000, manages to host the nation’s largest mass start mountain bike race, North America’s largest cross-country ski race and the Lumberjack World Championships. Now that’s overachieving.

Cable plays Robin to Hayward’s Batman. This tiny crossroads of a village is about 30 miles northeast of Hayward and serves as the terminus of the big bike race and the starting point for the hallowed ski race.

Race basics
The Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival is held on the third weekend of September. The 2012 edition marked the 30th anniversary of the event and, as usual, the Saturday morning Chequamegon 40 mountain bike race was the centerpiece of the event. The race starts in downtown Hayward and zigzags its way north to Telemark Ski Resort just outside of Cable.

The race is so popular that a March lottery is held to get a spot in either the “40” or the 16-mile Short & Fat. The latter race starts in Cable and loops back to nearby Telemark Resort. The Short & Fat race is called by many the “Short and Smart” as it is far less punishing than its big brother. 

Sunday of the festival is a low key fun day highlighted by a mountain bike orienteering event and a closed circuit mountain bike cyclocross race. There are also some wacky events, such as bike limbo and clunker toss competitions. 

The American Birkebeiner affectionately known as the Birkie is hosted on the last weekend of February. Classic skiers used to share the same 50K course with the freestyle cross-country skiers with parallel track set on either side of the lane set for skaters. Then several years ago the Birkie created a separate and slightly longer 54K trail for the classic skiers.

As at the fat tire festival, there are shorter skiing options on Birkie weekend. Competitors in the Kortelopet start with the Birkie skiers, but loop back to Telemark for a total of 25K. The Prince Haakon is a low pressure introduction to the weekend with 11K of untimed skiing.

Class systems
Old world France had the equivalent of a caste system with society divided into three estates: nobility, clergy and peasants. While England was in theory more egalitarian, the gap between the aristocracy and the poor was also very wide. The Chequamegon 40 and the American Birkebeiner give weekend warriors a chance to rub elbows with the elites.

For many years the organizers of the mass start mountain bike race reserved space nearest the start line for elite riders. After the elite section, riders self seeded themselves based on past finishes. My need for beauty sleep and lack of ability meant I started at the back of the pack. 

Birkie skiers are assigned to starting waves based on prior year finish times. The waves are sent off in five minute intervals with alternating waves of classic skiers and skate skiers.

During the French Revolution mobs of French citizens stormed the Bastille on the 14th of July. In mid September, I stood next to Hayward School with 1,800 other spandex-clad riders ready to storm Telemark Resort. Instead of thick stone walls, Telemark is protected by 40 miles of logging roads and hills. At 9 a.m. the phalanx is unleashed for the 40-mile assault. The cyclists hammering through the narrow downtown create a palpable draft. The sound of 3,600 knobby tires reverberates off the buildings of downtown Hayward. There’s plenty of whooping and hollering, no yells of “off with their heads!” With a quick left turn and a right, the riot of riders is out of town for two miles of asphalt on local Highway 77 and heading for dirt. With all of those riders packed together, you need to keep your head and your wits about you.

At Rosie’s Field the real off-road riding begins. After three miles of smooth, rolling on paved roads, the grass of Rosie’s Field takes a little adjustment. I’m instantly reminded why I never liked riding on grass. Marie Antoinette may have said of the starving French peasants “Let them eat cake,” but this race is no piece of cake for me.

The slower surface starts to thin out the field. At the end of Rosie’s Field we get treated to some hard-packed clay, and the undulating hills. From here on the trail alternates between double track, ski trails and gravel fire roads.

To accommodate 1,800 Chequamegon 40 riders, more trail than singletrack provides is needed. In the couple narrower sections things tend to get bunched up. Those in back may have to put a foot down until the traffic clears.

In September in the northern Wisconsin, the hardwood trees are near to or fully bursting into crimson red and golden yellow. One is tempted to look around and gawk at the beauty. But the surrounding riders and promise of beer at the finish keeps you focused on the task. 

Knobby tires bite into the hard packed clay to propel riders up the hills. The route also includes gravel fire roads and a bit of sand near the serenely beautiful Lake Helene. Six months earlier this trail is buried under a foot of compacted and groomed snow. The knobbies are replaced by kick wax and ski edges to provide the precious traction against the combined powers of gravity and slick snow.

Hills in both directions
The common denominator between the races is the hills. Lots of hills. One would think that 34 miles of cross-country skiing in sub-zero temperatures would be tougher than 40 miles of mountain biking on a relatively nontechnical course. Some people have referred to the 40 as a road race on mountain bikes. 

For me, the opposite seems to be the case. The Chequamegon 40 kicks my butt more than the Birkie. The change in direction may be part of the explanation. Cable is about 100 feet higher in elevation than Hayward. That may not sound like much, but the highest point on the course is about 600 feet higher than Hayward and is much closer to Cable. The highest point on the Birkie course is earlier in the race while you’re still fresh. The last three miles of the Birkie are across frozen Lake Hayward, which isn’t bad as long as the wind is not blowing in your face. 

In contrast, the big climb for the bikers is Firetower Hill which is 30 miles into the race when I’m running on fumes. I don’t even try to ride it. I get off and push my bike up the hill, and I am not alone. Most of the stronger riders, who are capable of riding the hill, are long gone. 

The look of all those riders pushing their bikes up that hill is not unlike the countenance of condemned prisoners on their way to the guillotine. At this point I would not mind a guillotine to hack off my aching legs. Near the end of the 40 I’m dreaming of a cold beer. While striding across Lake Hayward at the Birkie, I’m thinking only about hot chicken soup with massive noodles.

Big events usually require big leaders. In the Dickens novel the real life Robespierre and the fictional Madame DeFarge lead the revolution against the out of touch French aristocracy. The Fat Tire Festival and American Birkebeiner had their own larger than life visionaries. Tony Wise organized the first Birkie in 1973 to help publicize his Telemark Ski Resort. Thirty-five skiers toed the line. 
Ten years later the first Chequamegon 40 rolled out of Hayward towards Cable. The inaugural field consisted of 27 mountain bike zealots. The Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival is now one of the nation’s most popular off-road gatherings. Festival father and director Gary Crandall was inducted into the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame in 2003.

Like Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations, I visualize gliding on my skis across Lake Hayward or climbing steadily and surely up Firetower Hill on my bike. My great expectations are mercilessly dashed by harsh reality. The races can be cruel to the undertrained. During the 40 I feel the spiteful Madame DeFarge is exacting her vengeance on my quadriceps. My legs are ready to revolt. My spindly arms take more of a beating at the Birkie. Yet I keep coming back for more. I must be a masochistic version of Oliver Twist: “Please, sir. I want some more” as I sign up for next year’s race.

In A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton selflessly sacrificed his life so that his look-a-like Charles Darnay could live. He traded places with Darnay and faced the guillotine. I only risk sacrificing my self-respect with my performances at the Chequamegon 40 and The American Birkebeiner. Yet Carton helped just one man. I help raise the self esteem of over a thousand cyclists and skiers who consistently beat me to the finish line. Remember, without losers, there would be no winners.

On Saturday night, as I drag my achy body off to bed, I start to relive the day’s race in my mind. I see rider after rider spin past me through Rosie’s Field. I see far more efficient skiers glide by me on Lake Hayward. I see muddy Martel’s Pothole gobble up my front tire. I see the tight turns that clutch at my ski edges. I see the immense Firetower Hill that I have no chance to climb. I see that steep, cold Bitch Hill with its taunting cheerleaders waiting for me to slide back down. I see the gauntlet of raucous fans at the finish line cheering on my competitors.  I see the guys who finished long before me drinking beer on the sidelines. 

As I drift off to sleep, I misquote the last line of A Tale Two Cities: “It is a far, far longer race that I ride, than I have ever ridden; it is far, far better night’s rest that I to go than I have ever known.”

Mark Ollinger Twist is chief financial officer for a tradeshow marketing company. He is being held prisoner in Barrington, Illinois, and is waiting to be paroled back to Wisconsin.