Back in December, I asked for ideas for rides to tackle in 2022 on Instagram. One of the suggestions was The Bear 100 up in Laona. Back then, I took a cursory look at it and signed right up for the 73 mile of it. I really didn’t know what 2,000 feet of elevation was. I also didn’t know how much gravel or dirt there was in relation to pavement. At the time, I only knew of one person who was signed up (who was the individual that recommended it). But none of it mattered. It was five months away…out of sight and out of mind.

The longest I’ve ever ridden was 66 miles. And that ride was on accident after having to take a detour on one of my routine rides from Oak Creek to Wales that is usually 63 to 64 miles depending on how accurate the GPS is. It is also relatively flat, on pavement, and did I mention it was relatively flat. So nothing in my riding past has me prepared for something like this.

Like any good analyst, I devised a plan to get me ready for this. The warmup event was going to be the 36-mile Barry-Roubaix to get some exposure to gravel in 2022. The next warmup was the Cheesehead Roubaix, a 62-mile mostly pavement but some gravel with gnarly dirt sections just north of Milwaukee. It was the Saturday before The Bear. It rained most of the day, it was windy and it was cold. While the conditions were bordering on insanity, I was able to generally keep up with a group of faster guys that I know. It helped me mentally prepare for the weekend ahead. It also allowed me to test out my bad back that I’ve been dealing with for the last few weeks (more on that later).

A trip down memory lane

In a past life, I spent a lot of time in Northern Wisconsin every election year. (2002, 2004, 2006, 2010). On my way up, I intentionally took the scenic route to Laona for packet pickup. Not a lot has changed since those years. Maybe different cars, maybe some different businesses, maybe a few more for sale signs on Main Street, but a lot of those towns I drove through look like they were all those years ago. By the time I got to my hotel in Crandon on Friday night, I had to eat dinner at a local bar because it was the only thing open after 8 p.m. Back in the old days, that was the norm for me, but nowadays I am looking for proper restaurants. Reminded me of how much my life has changed (for better and worse) since those days as a young kid trying to find his place in life…but I digress.

The burliest ride in Wisconsin indeed

Calm before the storm. Looking pro AF. These guys were long gone after the first couple of miles. (Photo courtesy of Kristin Zarr)

I had a different kind of nerves Saturday morning. It wasn’t so much about the ride/race itself, but more of a case of impostor syndrome like I didn’t belong. I mean, there were all sorts of familiar and encouraging faces there that have cheered me on at cyclocross races and various other rides, but it just felt different this time. After getting dressed, tire pressure checked and a quick gel, I headed over to the start/finish line to set off. There I met up with some of the Madison/Femme40 crew (Kristin, Tomm and sorry I don’t remember your names). After chit chatting, we were off.

The first couple of miles were a bit of a sorting out process. I tried to ride to a power number and let let the chips fall where they landed. Like most of the races I’ve done, I was between groups. Sometimes I rode into one then dropped off at a climb, other times I fell back into a new group. I ended up riding for a bit with Brent, a guy that works at Northwestern Mutual in a different function where we talk bikes on the Bikes Slack channel. We talked bikes, talked work and whatnot. One of the guys I was riding with needed to stop to remove some clothing (it was getting hot out). While stopped I heard a “Hey Jon!!” and when I looked up and it was McKinzie from the Femme40 crew.

Some of Northwestern Mutual’s finest out on route.

My intention was to ride up for a bit, chit chat, and then eventually get dropped at some point and head back to ride with Brent and his buddy. Instead, I ended up riding with McKinzie and her partner (sorry, don’t remember that name either, see a pattern here). The miles just flew by as we chatted about all sorts of random stuff–bikes, care and treatment for back pain, work and other random stuff. I was feeling good. My back was feeling relatively good and thought to myself that it was going well.

At about mile 37 or 38, I hit a rough rut that caused my chain to drop. After a quick fix, I got going again and sprinted to get back with them. (Set an all-time one minute power record.) In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best idea to try and catch them. More on that later. At one point, my left contact lens fell out, which made finding the ruts and potholes near impossible in the shade. There was a hill to climb for the first water/aid station where I was dropped. I burned my only match of the day and I paid for it. I was spent. My back was on fire. I had some tingling down my legs. What I feared would happened, happened.

At the rest stop, I refilled on water, took on some gels and we hit the road for the final 30 miles. I took some ibuprofen (thanks McKinzie!!) to help me get to the finish line as my I tried my best to stay with them, but I couldn’t anymore. I was spent. My back was on fire. I could no longer pedal with any power. Every climb I was grinding out to get to the top and coast down. Even on the flats, I was in my little chainring. At one point I even missed a turn that my Garmin didn’t tell me about. Thankfully I figured it out before going too far off course.

The Crux at the last rest stop. Perfect ride for this type of adventure.

The miles from here were kind of a blur. It all looked the same mile by mile. At some points I was going so slow that my Garmin thought I was stopped. At mile 60, there was the final water/aid station. There, they had coolers of water and Coke. That can of Coke tasted amazing. There I ran into another member of the Femme40 team that was doing the 100 miler. (Those ladies sure can kick my ass on a bike.) From that point, there was one long gravel climb, one pavement climb and the final stretch on a recreation trail that turned into the ATV trail. 20 miles is my recovery length ride, so how hard could it be?

Very hard. By the time I hit the rec trail, I was riding consistently in my 34 chainring and the 34T on my cassette. Could have rode single speed at that point. Each of the riders that passed me gave words of encouragement. “You’re doing great!” “You’re almost there!” “You got this!” Gave me a little bit of motivation to get to the finish line.

The Nicolet National Forest sure is a pretty place to ride a bike.

It was the longest ride I ever did. I had some tears in my eyes as I saw the finish line. My body and mind were shot. At one point I may have said “I am never doing this again!” After a change of clothes, a coke and a glass of water from the bar and a few chats later with some of my adopted cycling buddies from Madison, it was time to leave Laona. Still working on that whole getting comfortable around random people thing.

Training Peaks said it was my toughest ride ever based on training stress. It was the most elevation in one ride. It was my longest ride for sure. At one point my heart rate went over 200 beats per minute. I burned more than 4,000 calories on the ride. I slept for 12 hours Saturday night. All semblance of my limits were seemingly broken.

Reflecting on the past and looking to the future

Home stretch and still smiling. How times have changed.

Looking back, I’m glad a signed up without much of a thought. The 2004 Jon that was up in the Northwoods putting up signs, lit dropping and holding campaign events would have never done something like this. That Jon was terrified of taking chances, doing things without analysis, or straying from the plan, even though in hindsight I had no plan at that time. Even a few years ago, I wouldn’t have done something like this, and would have found excuses to not show up or not even sign up. Maybe it is meeting and being inspired by all of the people I’ve met since last September during cross season, and interacting with on social media since. (Peer pressure is a wonderful drug.) Maybe it is finally starting to figure out and moving on from having my world turned upside down in 2018. Maybe I’m just starting to grow up. But whatever the reasons, it’s been wild ride that I hope doesn’t end anytime soon.

Next on the agenda is some treatment for my back. It includes an epidural steroid injection which I had Monday and some physical therapy. The next event is Unbound Gravel in Emporia, Kansas. I am doing the 50 mile race. Regardless of how my back is doing, I will be going out there. Can’t be any harder than what I experienced this weekend. Still will be all smiles regardless.