I can’t remember exactly how I came to hear about this event. Part of me wishes I never had. I think I found a link on a mental health forum somewhere, followed the link looking for ‘ways out’ and ended up at The Bear 100 website. [Here]
Their website really doesn’t tell you much. It’s a gravel ride in Laona WI. It’s unsupported so bring your own food and water. There are 100 mile, 100 km and 25 mile route options. The roads are essentially all fire roads and ATV trails - gravel and dirt.
I dug around a little on the website and found some old photos and a couple videos taken at previous Bear 100 events. It seems in 2013 it was a cold ride, around 30 degrees F. Only half the starting lineup of around 65 riders made the full distance. There were pictures of guys expiring at the roadside. People visibly suffering. It looked like scenes from Dunkirk.
So I sent in my form just 3 days before the event, then immediately began to regret it. What the F&$K have I gotten myself into now. Why would I want to do this to myself?
You see I know I’m not really fit enough to ride in an event like this. It isn’t just physical fitness it’s the mental toughness that comes from previous experience that I’m lacking, too. I’ve ridden in a couple of organized centuries in the past, but they were entirely on asphalt and were fully supported. But the Bear is a gravel event, and I have little experience with it. I’ve ridden up and down the Ahnapee trail a few times, but that’s packed gravel and it’s almost dead flat. Plus it’s only May. I’m probably nowhere near the level that I need to be at for such an undertaking.
Planning for the Bear 100
I had some concerns over equipment. Not just my own sorely lacking excuse for a body, but the two-wheeled variety too.
Looking at the photos from previous Bear 100 events I was seeing a lot of mud, potholes, deep ruts, sand and rocks. Some quite large rocks, too. My first instinct was ‘Fat Bike’. I’ve ridden a 90 miler on the Beargrease but most of it was on asphalt.
Logic was telling me that my Salsa Warbird was essentially designed with this event in mind, but I needed some input. So I called the Broken Spoke Bike Studio in Green Bay WI and spoke with Ross.
The Broken Spoke is a great place to buy a bike and a great place to chew the fat with real bike enthusiasts. The owner George and his right-hand man Ross are both heavily involved in the local biking scene. They’re hard-core and I’d readily buy into whatever advice either of them gave me.
The conversation with Ross was cut short due to a customer entering the store but basically his advice was to ride the Warbird and go with wider tires, something wider and more grippy than my 35mm Sammy Slicks. A later phone call to store owner George Kapitz confirmed the choice of bike and George ordered up a set of 40mm WTB’s that he thought would work well.
George has ridden the event in the past so he knew the layout and what to expect.
Hydration - I packed a 2L bladder into a frame triangle bag, added a cage mount to the right fork and used the two standard cage mounts. So 3 bottles plus the two liter bladder. I used plain water in the bladder with just a squirt of fresh lime juice to help minimize the taste of plastic. I used a gatorade/water blend in two of the bottles and more plain water in the third.
Food – I did nothing special the night before. I ate dinner at a bar in town, a chicken tender wrap, fries and a sweet dessert.
On the morning of the ride the old lady who was supposed to arrive early at the Best Western to setup breakfast for the riders, was a no-show. So I ate a gas station egg salad sandwich and a day-old danish. I chugged a pint or two of water and juice and that was it. I packed a wholegrain ham sandwich into the frame bag and an assortment of energy bars into the handlebar pack. I also took along some gels and a 5-hour energy drink, which I didn’t use.
The rest of the gear included tools (unused, thankfully), a rain coat (also unused), sun block lotion, skeet repellant, batteries for the iPhone, CO2 and pump, spare tube and a few other odds and sods. I packed $90 in various bills inside of a sunglass case which I left roadside as a tip for one of the many ATV riders who swamped the trails….yep, I lost my wallet.
Here’s a picture of the gear, much of which would need to find a home on the bike - Yes, I ride with flowers and a vase, like VW Bug owners….
The Bear 100 Pre Ride Meeting - Friday 22nd @ 6.30pm
After checking in at the Best Western in Crandon I headed over to T-Bob’s Bar and Grill in Laona. Check-in and packet collection was a smooth and well organized affair and event organizer Brent Schmaling gave us some insights into what to expect. The key points from his presentation were enlightening: there would be three places en route to take on water. One section of the course was particularly sandy - Fire Tower Rd. Bears and other wildlife might be encountered along with ATV riders and other trail/road users. We were expected to get around on our own steam, though an emergency number was provided.
At the point of arriving for check-in on the Friday night I was still undecided on whether to go balls out and try the 100 mile route, or to be a little more sensible and shoot for the 100k. I’d talked more with George at the Broken Spoke whilst he fitted my new tires on the way to the event. He’d ridden the 100k in the past and he’d taken it at a more leisurely pace to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the heavily forested area. That seemed to make most sense.
I talked with event organizer Brent Schmaling on arrival and he left me in no doubt that were I at all hesitant about completing the longer distance, I should sign up for the shorter route. So with the preponderance of evidence pointing me towards the shorter 100k route, I opted for the 100 mile route and received my map, cue sheet and emergency phone number. I’ve never been one to listen to good advice.
Back at the hotel I spent until 11pm entering the route into RideWithGps on the iPad, then transferred the route to the iPhone. It was a tedious job and I was aware of the fact that it was cutting into my sleep time, but it was well worth it. I didn’t need to mess with the cue sheet at all during the ride and all of the turns were fed to me accurately via voice-feedback with the GPS app.
The Bear 100 - Ride Day
I slept very little the night before. Hitting the sack around 11.30 pm, I recall seeing 12:30 am, 2.15am and 3.00am on the clock before I finally threw in the towel and got up at 4.15am.
I arrived for the 7.00am rolling start at around 6.15 am and spent time prepping the bike and getting geared and lotioned up.
It was a beautiful start to the day, a cool 40F with clear blue skies. It was hard to gauge just how many other riders were taking part, I would estimate somewhere around 100 in total. I had no way of knowing how many were on the 100 mile route, I suspect perhaps fewer than 50.
The rolling start got underway and I set off from the very back of the pack.
The first 20 miles or so were great, better than I had expected. Yes it was gravel, yes it was a slightly tougher pedal than asphalt, but it felt comfortable and my confidence level was pretty high. So much so that I upped the pace a little and worked my way through some of the stragglers in the pack.
As we got deeper into the boonies the road surfaces became progressively more difficult. I was also aware of the fact that much of the ride for the first 35 miles or so was predominantly flat or descending. I knew I had to keep enough in the tank as the hills would surely come. But I was keeping up a pretty good pace, around 17mph average.
The turning point was at mile 47 when we hit Fire Tower Rd. Brent had prepared us for the transition onto sand but of course I’d forgotten all about it and nearly lost the bike on the corner. But he hadn’t warned us of the full extent of what we’d encounter on this stretch of the course.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on Fire Tower Rd, it was pretty much all sand, some of it quite deep. I just couldn’t ride it.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, but I needed a gear below my granny gear and it just wasn’t there. I tried hard to keep some forward momentum in the granny gear but it was hammering my leg muscles and I could feel myself burning up all of my energy reserves. Here and there the surface would change from sand to rocky gravel on top of sand, so I was able to hop back on the bike and ride; but quickly it would switch back to sand. The depth of sand would vary and in the deeper stuff my bike was sliding around as if I were trying to ride it through snow.
I knew from entering the cue sheet data into the GPS app the night before that Fire Tower Road was 9.9 miles in length. This was literally a deal breaker for me. No matter how I tried I just couldn’t get any traction and I had to walk the bike for at least three of the miles, perhaps even more. After 47 miles of riding, to hit this mother of a road and have to get off and push…give me a break Brent (event organizer), what were you thinking!
Sand, sand and more sand….
It was also quite hot. This section was mostly exposed with very little tree cover. The sun was bearing down and because of the heat and increased exertion I was going through my water at too high a rate.
I decided to turn off the screen of the iPhone after about an hour of Fire Tower Rd as I just couldn’t cope with being reminded of how slowly I was making progress. At what I thought was perhaps the halfway point of this 9.9 mile section I threw in the towel and crawled into the bushes at the roadside for some shelter from the sun. It was around 12.30pm at this point so I ate lunch and took a 30 minute break.
Whilst resting, 4 riders whom I’d overtaken earlier came by me, some distance apart. It was interesting to see how they were coping with the sand surface. Clearly they had lower gearing than me as they were running a high cadence and maintaining a slow forward momentum. I saw one guy fall off the bike then get up and push. There’s clearly a technique to riding 40mm tires in sand and I don’t have it. But it was somewhat comforting to see that I wasn’t alone. Still, I was pissed at relinquishing my place to 4 riders, so I got back on the trail for what I thought was going to be at least another 4 or 5 miles of Fire Tower Rd.
To my relief I’d taken the rest break almost at the end of Fire Tower. Just another 15 minutes or so of this motherf*cker and I was back on more solid terrain.
A little while later I was at the only convenience store on the route and I stopped to take on board more water. I also re-passed the four riders who’d overtaken me on Fire Tower, they were taking their lunch break at the convenience store.
A short while later I hit the single check-in point at mile 60.
I had to take stock of where I was at, mentally and physically, and it wasn’t looking good. Fire Tower had really taken its toll on my legs and energy level. I was OK at mile 60 but I knew the hills were coming and I knew it was going to be a tough finish.
Sure enough it became more hilly and the road surfaces became progressively worse. Porcupine Road shook me to pieces as I bounced around over small rocks the size of golf balls trying to avoid the bigger rocks the size of tennis balls and basketballs. That stretch of trail seemed to go on for ever.
ATV’s were a constant pain in the rear. As it was Memorial Day weekend I suspect the ATV traffic was higher than usual and the bastards would fly past at 50 mph whipping up clouds of choking dust and blasting my aching bones with rocks and gravel.
Often I’d want to pick a line to the left of the road but couldn’t risk being hit head-on by an ATV coming around the corner.
And so it went on.
By mile 80 I was well and truly spent. Had there been a bailout point I may have succumbed. But basically there was nowhere to bailout from or to. There were no towns or villages or rest areas….nothing but dirt and trees. I was pretty bitter at this point and I’d coupled Brent’s name with every swearword I had in my vocabulary. But I had to keep going.
The last 10 miles were ugly. I was having to stop every mile or so just to get into the shade. I couldn’t stop for more than a few seconds as I’d be swamped by mosquitoes. Actually, those little winged-angels kept me moving to the end. Had it not been for their persistent nagging and biting I may have just laid down roadside and expired. Bless the skeets!
At around mile 98 my sense of humor had completely escaped me when I came upon a crossing in the trail where the GPS cues were directing me over an asphalt road to rejoin the badly broken ATV trail. I could actually see the asphalt road running parallel with the ATV trail and I knew the asphalt and trail both terminated at the same end point some two miles distant. Why couldn’t Brent have routed us for the last two miles down a nice stretch of asphalt? Why did he insist on perpetuating the suffering through to the very end?
I thought seriously about cheating and taking the last 2 mile section on asphalt but I decided against it. I’d come this far.
So that was it. I rolled like a broken supermarket cart with two stuck wheels down the last two mile section of gravel trail and came upon the near empty parking lot of T-Bob’s Bar and Grill.
There were no roadside cheerleaders, no dancing girls blowing horns and waving pompoms in my tired face. No young children with flags, no Veterans saluting me as I rode by. Just Brent and a couple guys selling T Shirts from an old bench outside T-Bobs.
Any anger I’d felt towards Brent during the ride, and there was a lot of anger, quickly subsided. The urges I’d had on Fire Tower road to wring his neck and and feed his corpse to the bears was gone, replaced by elation at having reached the end in one piece.
Brent came over to shake my hand and congratulate me and it was all I could do not to hug him. I recalled a documentary I’d seen some time ago where hostages form a special emotional bond with their captors, even when the captors subject them to all manner of degrading acts, such as torture. That’s how I felt at that moment, all ill-will had abandoned me and I was just happy to be back. Ha!
And that’s how The Bear 100 ended. I signed in at 4.40pm or thereabouts. I can’t recall the exact number, it may have been 4.42pm. Nine hours and forty minutes of sheer bloodymindedness and stupidity.
I should at this point say some words about the bike and equipment. I love the Salsa Warbird, it’s a great bike and incredibly comfortable. I think I should’ve gone with my instinct and ridden the Beargrease Carbon Fat Bike. The 10 mile Fire Tower road would’ve been much more manageable on the wide tires and I think overall I would’ve fared better. Of course I can’t be sure, and the absence of any other fat bikes on the 100 mile route may indicate that I’m wrong about my instincts.
I had some problems clipping-in. I’d tightened my cleats the day before and should’ve really taken the time to stop and readjust during the ride, as it was a pain getting the cleats to engage and it became really distracting.
I had trouble getting the RD to shift smoothly following the last minute wheel removal and tire change on the way to the event. I rode the bike around the parking lot at the hotel on Friday night and seemed to have it shifting OK, but during the ride I couldn’t get a smooth shift and I spent too much time messing with it.
Otherwise I had no equipment issues and thankfully, no flats.
Surprisingly enough I was fine the day after the ride. My legs were fine, everything was just peachy. So I think perhaps my main weakness had been a lack of prior experience, a lack of mental toughness that can only come from having done this kind of thing before. Perhaps nutrition and hydration also played a role in making the last 20 miles so difficult. I hadn’t eaten anything after my lunch break at 12.30pm as I just didn’t feel like eating. So perhaps I should’ve forced something down. I had to restrict water intake over the last 20 or so and I could’ve used perhaps another 32 ounces.
I have mixed feelings about the whole event and how to respond in the aftermath. I’d suffered through each of my previous endurance events in different ways, but I’d always been left wanting more the day after. Thirty six hours post-ride of the Bear 100, the dust has settled and I can reflect back and look forward. At this point I really don’t see myself undertaking anything of this nature again, at least not in the immediate future. Perhaps more baby steps are needed. Perhaps my feelings will change over the coming days; who knows the way the wind blows.
May 25th 2015
Special Thanks Section:
A big thanks to Brent and his crew for organizing the event, to the Laona Rescue Squad and Wabeno Fire Department, T-Bobs’ Bar and Grill and to Stadium Bike as the event sponsors.
They say a picture paints a thousand words, and who can argue with this? Here’s a photo kindly provided by David R through Facebook. I believe this is David bidding a fond farewell to Fire Tower Rd….
…And three more ride photos here from David - thanks again!
Here’s the route including cue sheet should anyone want it. http://ridewithgps.com/routes/8004602
The last 5 miles from Blackwell to Laona are missing, otherwise it’s accurate.