Saturday, October 08, 2005

No. 49, Vol. 4. - Knee Farts and Bureau Diving

The Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival is an annual tradition for my friends the Brothers Smith, Tim and Steve, and I. The Fat 40, a 40-mile point-to-point race from Hayward, Wisconsin to Cable, is the gem of the weekend’s festivities. Since its inception 23 years ago, the race has grown in stature and its fame has spread. Greg LeMond rolled up to the line a month and a half after winning his third Tour de France in 1990 (and fresh off catching a world-record small-mouth bass in the area that very week), and promptly spanked my and 2,300 others behinds in a driving rain that sent virtually everyone on more of a muddy death march than a bike race. But the tradition of two-wheeled fellowship with the Brothers Smith began a few years prior.

Back in 1989, Steve and I shared a tiny upper flat in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, about a 30-minute drive from the Kettle Moraine State Forest, southern unit, where the John Muir Trail offered (at the time) a few miles of challenging but exhilarating singletrack. Steve was a diehard bicyclist, as well as the knucklehead responsible for getting me into bicycles in the summer of 1988. He would drive out to the Kettle and ride by himself (I didn’t own a mountain bike yet), coming home covered head to toe in loamy, Wisconsin mud, his Lycra-covered Giro ProLite helmet perched above his foggy Oakley Pilot glasses, slightly askew, with a muddy-tooth grin from ear to ear. He was stoked; I was nonplussed. I was just getting into road bikes, but was intrigued by the notion of beating the crap out of my body.

Fast forward to that fateful 1990 Chequamegon Fat 40; the mass start, the pageantry of bikes, the trails of northern Wisconsin! Nothing prepared me for the thrill (or the pain) of the race. More than five hours later, I crossed the finish line too limp to walk, pee, eat or even talk, but boy, I was hooked like a salmon swimming upstream. The camaraderie of the Brothers Smith had begun, and I became the catalyst for our return each year.

The annual ritual of doing the Fat 40 expanded once our mutual friend Bob “10 o’clock” Nelson came on board in the early `90s. Not only did Bob’s bureau diving at the Super 8 liven up the trip each year, but his shenanigans brought out the funnyman in Steve, one of the most adroit knee-fart makers I’ve ever met (or had the privilege of sharing a crowded Honda Civic with to and from Hayward, rancid flatulence notwithstanding). Matchmaker Steve also introduced Bob to his future wife Heidi during the spaghetti dinner in 1996.

Steve and Tim grew up in Morton, Illinois, just outside Peoria. Smitten with bikes at an early age, the Brothers Smith rode and raced BMX, graduated to road racing, then climbed aboard their Specialized Stumpjumpers by the late 1980s. As fate would have it, we all got into the bike industry at one point or another in the 1990s: Tim hooked up with SRAM in 1996; Steve with Hanson-Dodge, the ad agency for Trek, in 1995; myself with Allis Bike & Fitness in 1991.

Tim is now head engineer for SRAM, overseeing 100 pocket-protecting mad scientists all over the world. Steve stuck it out with the pressure cooker H-D through October 1998, and I’ve ebbed and flowed through several gigs with Rivendell, Waterford, Airborne, Schwinn/GT, then started Cycles Gaansari with my wife, Jean in 2003. The diploma I earned through the School of Hard Knocks with those companies, as well as learning about the bike industry vicariously through my days as a freelance journalist, enabled me to launch a bike company with enough legs to provide a decent living for my family and (hopefully) our employees for years to come.

So, after a seven-year hiatus from the Fat 40, I acquiesced to Steve’s incessant badgering and throw my name into the lottery (did I mention only 2,400 people are allowed entry into the weekend’s races each year, with 1,700 allowed for the Fat 40?) and accompanying the Brothers Smith to Hayward, just like old times. My bib number was 468 (I submitted my one-page “essay” in March), and the first issue was “which type of bike to ride.” A standard hardtail? Full suspension? Should I use 26-inch or 29er wheels? Singlespeed? Fully geared? Fixed? Straight, riser or drop bars? Man, it was seven years since I did the race, and I was prone to experimentation every time: cyclocross in `96, and front suspension just once, in `98. The course is pretty forgiving due to its wide-berth fire roads and non-technical singletrack, but the stutter bumps, sand, gravel and rocks can wear down even the most stalwart rider in no time. I mean, 40 miles off-road is still 40 miles in the saddle, right?

My choice for a triumphant return to the Fat 40? A singlespeed, fully rigid, steel, 29er with cyclocross dirt drop bars, geared 42 x 18, topped off with a Brooks Conquest sprung saddle as the only nod to suspension. I figured, “let’s show those high-tech racer boys how it’s really done.” I wore a brand new wool jersey emblazoned with GAANSARI in yellow, straight-out-of-the box Kucharik wool shorts, Crank Brothers Candy pedals, and Lake MTB shoes. Besides, I’ve never raced the Fat 40 to set any records, just to have fun and be a guinea pig. I did, however, post my personal best time of 3:44:29, an overall placing of 1,410 out of 1,700; not bad for not having ridden, let alone trained, off-road in 16 months. Tim also posted a personal best of 2:57:14, placing 625th overall, while Knee-Fart King Steve finished a blazing 2:33:22, placing 177th.

Curiously, I received more encouraging comments from fellow racers than years past: “Way to go singlespeed!” “Dude! Cyclocross!!” “Awesome 29er!” “I can’t believe you passed me on a singlespeed!” “Keep it up, old-school!” I owe more to the pioneers of this fine sport of off-road racing than they realize. Their influence, mentoring and inspiration through the years has been priceless: Scot Nicol (Ibis); Steve Potts and Charlie Cunningham (WTB); Ross Shafer (Salsa); Grant Petersen (Bridgestone & Rivendell); Tom Ritchey.

When my days get long and life seems to fly by with no respite from the overbearing weight of Being A Grown Up, I can always retreat to the trails and dream fondly of next year’s Fat 40, and smirk when thoughts of knee farts and bureau diving.

Gary Boulanger steers Cycles Gaansari with his wife Jean in Springboro, Ohio, just 10 minutes from the trailhead at Caesar’s Creek State Park, southwest Ohio’s answer to the Kettle Moraine.


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