In its 30th year, Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival is riding highBack in September 1983, 27 mountain bike riders set off from Main Street in Hayward for a 40-mile trek through the forests of Northwestern Wisconsin.
By: Andrew Krueger, Duluth News Tribune
Back in September 1983, 27 mountain bike riders set off from Main Street in Hayward for a 40-mile trek through the forests of Northwestern Wisconsin.
The riders knew where they were headed that day. They probably never imagined where the event itself would head during the next three decades.
More than 2,700 riders will return to Hayward, Cable and the trails in between this weekend for the 30th Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival. And festival director Gary Crandall said that the event’s name — “festival” — is a sign of the spirit that has guided the event during its hundred-fold increase in participation over the years.
“It’s not just a race,” said Crandall, who competed that first year and has served as director for the past 29. “It’s a really good time that mom, dad and the kids can all enjoy.”
The two main events begin simultaneously at 10 a.m. Saturday: The Chequamegon 40, from Main Street in Hayward; and the Short and Fat 16-mile race, from downtown Cable. They’re unique among mountain bike races, both for being mass start events and for being point-to-point as opposed to circuit races.
Both races end at Telemark Resort, which will host a wide range of other festival activities during the weekend.
Several factors came together back in the early 1980s to spur that first festival. To start, the sport of off-road — or mountain — biking was gaining more attention nationwide.
“Off-road cycling was just getting going,” Crandall said. “In the Midwest it was pretty new.”
Race organizers saw an opportunity to do for mountain biking what the Hayward-based American Birkebeiner had done for cross-country skiing the previous decade, Crandall said — popularize an up-and-coming sport.
The festival date — the second weekend after Labor Day — was picked because there’d be few bugs and some nice fall colors, and also to give local hotels and businesses a nice boost during a slow time of year.
From the first year, the festival grew exponentially so that it now has a cap of 1,850 riders for the 40-mile race, and 900 for the 16-mile event. Participants are selected by a lottery system.
‘Atmosphere like no other’
Scott Kylander-Johnson of Duluth has been racing at the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival off-and-on for about 20 years. He and his wife, Sara, will take part in the 40-mile race again on Saturday.
“The atmosphere is like no other race in this area,” he said. “That was the draw the first time, and over the years it has kept that tradition.”
Beyond just a race that’s well-supported by the community, it’s a chance to catch up with old friends. It’s not an event where you finish, hop in your vehicle and leave, Kylander-Johnson said — the camaraderie at the finish line “goes for hours.”
“It’s a lot more than a bike race,” he said.
After Saturday’s big races, the festival continues on Sunday with some more colorful events at Telemark, aimed at riders of all ages and abilities. There’s a race that combines mountain biking and orienteering, and a circuit race with obstacles tossed in.
And then there are events like the bicycle toss, bicycle limbo and bicycle bowling — instead of walking up to the lane to toss a bowling ball, participants will ride with bowling ball in hand, and must be sure not to cross the foul line before they let the ball roll.
Crandall said the trails are in good shape this year — not too dry — after some rain last weekend. He said riders have described the surface as “tacky,” with good traction on hills.
Among the top riders in this year’s 40-mile race are three-time defending men’s champion Brian Matter of Sheboygan, Wis., who is seeking his fifth overall title; and defending women’s champion Lea Davison of Jericho, Vt., who is seeking her third crown. Sara Kylander-Johnson of Duluth, the 2006 women’s champion in the long race, also is taking part.
Crandall noted that many of the riders who’ll take to the trails this weekend weren’t born when the first festival was held. They add to the legacy of the thousands of participants and volunteers who have come and gone over the festival’s 30-year history.
“It’s really wonderful, the Chequamegon family we’ve built,” he said.
For much more about the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, including event schedules and course maps, go to the festival website at www.cheqfattire.com.