My Ride of the Falling Leaves by Wiscot
Photos by Wiscot
Variety is, as they say, the spice of life. Hence my seven bikes. Well, six get ridden but my 30 year old Trek carbon mountain bike doesn’t see much action. Four road bikes, a fat bike and a gravel bike all get their share of love and attention during the season and the latter gets a couple of special adventures each year in a part of Wisconsin commonly referred to as “up north.” Starting and finishing in the little town of Laona, the local Rescue Squad put on the Bear 100 and the Hibernator 100 in the spring and fall respectively, in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest which covers more than 1.5 million acres.
Ride options are 30, 63 and 107 miles and this is not an event for the casual rider – the trails and forest roads that make up about 95% of the route soon mean you are somewhat oblivious to where exactly you might be. The “rest stop” is the rescue squad trailer parked in the woods with a couple of coolers full of water, sodas and a few gels. Help yourself and carry on. No technical support is on hand. This year 120 hardy souls turned up. A few years ago I curated an exhibition of Trek bikes. I think the Trek guys regarded me and my claims of being a bike rider with some disdain and suspicion until I told them I’d done the Bear 100 three times. Instant respect.
Anyway, it was damn cold at 8am on the morning of the ride: 32-33 degrees with strong slanting sun. The trail was uneven and unpredictable so 100% focus on what was directly in front of me was critical. My fingers were freezing – my toes not so much due to the old aluminum foil trick. Pedaling away the miles clicked by as I slowly came to the realization that the absence of tire tracks meant I may have missed a turn. After almost 10 miles an ATV pulled up alongside me, “You’ve gone too far! Turn around and take a right on County T!” the man yelled over the engine’s roar. Instead of taking a left at 5 miles I’d gone five too far and was now ten miles in the hole. Cue expletives and massive self-recrimination.
I’ve always maintained that long rides of five or six hours are as much mental as physical. You just need to be prepared in your head to do the time in the saddle. Usually, the full Bear or Hibernator takes me about seven hours and as usual I’d planned on doing the whole thing. Not this year. The screw up just buggered me mentally and the thought of doing 117 miles was just not feasible – mentally, physically or chronologically. Ultimately I did the 63 which, with my “extra” gave me a final ride of 74 miles. Still respectable, but just a tad frustrating and disappointing.
On the plus side, the forest’s fall foliage was spectacular; near peak as possible. At one point I was riding on a carpet of golden leaves beside a burbling river; at other times I was “snowed” on by falling leaves. The day warmed up and the sun was out. I switched my thermal beanie for a cotton cap. The creamy colored gravel was dry and mostly firm as it rose and fell, twisted and turned through corridors of reds, ambers, golds and greens. I fell in with three guys from Kenosha in southern Wisconsin and we rode most of the last 25 miles together – a welcome development given my annoyance at missing that early turn. Normally, the ride starts and finishes (in true northern Wisconsin fashion) from a bar. Not this year – the ATV guys were out in force and hogging the hostelry so we stopped by for a beer afterwards to discuss rides, routes, tires and tire pressures.
For the last few years my work schedule has clashed with either the Bear or the Hibernator. Not next year; I’m planning on doing both. As an event, the setting is spectacular. Organization minimal but perfectly adequate. As the gravel scene gets bigger, more organized and professional, these northwoods rides seem determined to cling to a more humble approach: a very modest entry fee, minimal rest stops and just a small raffle/t-shirt sale afterwards. Sure, there’s always that group of fast guys who are beholden to their Stravas and ride the course flat out, but for most, it’s a ride to savor the terrain, the colors and the peace and quiet. The camaraderie that can be found can be just wonderful; it takes a certain mindset and dare I say it, masochism to drive to a remote part of Wisconsin and ride an almost bare-bones event. Anyone stopped by the trailside is checked on to make sure they’re ok. Food and drink are offered if needed.
Next May and October I’ll be heading back “up north.” Like most riders, the occasional change of roads and scenery is always welcome, except next time I’ll be much more attentive to my route and looking for the markers. In the meantime, winter is on my doorstep which means the “winter” road bike and fat bike will see some miles, but the memory of my ride of the falling leaves will endure.