Rico threw down the gauntlet. His email challenged ten of us Duluthians to go mountain biking in “glorious northern Wisconsin.” That is, if we were “man enough.” There’s a serious Vikings vs. Packers vibe up here in the Twin Ports. There was no way my Cheesehead co-worker was going to get away with that kind of smack talk. So, overweight, almost forty, and vaguely remembering my cycling career, I accepted the challenge.
Apparently, some of the ten invitees had eye problems. They couldn’t see going with us. So, only three Minnesotans remained to defend our state’s honor: Fozz, Divot, and me. Fozz is a happy-go-lucky guy in his mid-twenties riding a Specialized with front shocks. Divot is riding a similar Specialized and just loves his new bike computer/heart rate monitor. Unfortunately for Divot, he’s even older than me and will soon re-earn his nickname while exploring new heights in the pulse arena. My bike’s a 1991 Bridgestone MB-1 with no suspension. I don’t think Bridgestone even makes bikes anymore. The thumb shifters are on top of the handlebars. Years ago in Utah, I rode by some grommets who recognized my bike and said, “Cool! Retro!” I’m not retro, I thought, this is just my ride. Sadly, it still is.
Rico, our Wisconsin tour guide, is in his early thirties and also riding a Specialized with modern amenities. He invited us down to Lake Nebagamon for breakfast at a local diner. Flush with testosterone, I didn’t ask about our upcoming ride. ¿Quién es más macho? Let my legs do the talking and all that. We carpooled east to the Chequamegon National Forest.
To my surprise, we intercepted my annual route to the Birkie, except now it was green. It was nice to see Cable clearly in the warm spring air. Normally, I’m looking at a snow covered Cable through frosted bus windows, holding back a pre-race pee, and wondering if this is the year I’ll be late for my wave. Seven miles east of Cable, we found the Rock Lake Trail parking lot. I was concerned for Divot. On the drive over, he confessed to me that he “really didn’t like single track that much” after a biking misadventure at Lutsen with his wife. She’s now his ex-wife. Oops.
We put on our battle gear and I was once again accused of being “old school.” How is it old school to wear regular black Lycra bike shorts? Apparently I should’ve worn some knee-length, motocross baggies like the other guys. Kids today. We pedaled out and, within 50 yards, I knew this would be interesting. We’d already lost Divot. Rico had a big grin on his face. Fozz and I shuddered as we realized the Packer fan had home field advantage.
“So whaddaya think?” Rico asked.
“Sweet!” we said. Yikes, I thought.
The Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) has done some nice work. This trail system is known as the Namakagon Cluster. There are several trails here that spider web south of County Highway M. We were on the Rock Lake Trail which traverses some surprisingly big glaciated hills. Rico shouted over his shoulder that this was one of six clusters in the area, adding up to over 300 miles of bike trails. This loop was really well signed and made sense. There was a pretty stop at the shore of Rock Lake where beavers had girdled some trees. There was a storybook view above Emerson Lake from the trail. I loved the swooping banked turns through the beautiful old hardwoods. Big maples and oaks galore. Probably insanely scenic in the fall.
Rico, Fozz and I stopped at one intersection and watched Divot “play dead” when he stopped and forgot how to get out of clipless pedals. He got up smiling and I touted the toe-clips and straps that I was using. No, they’re not retro. They’re “proven technology.”
We leapfrogged through intersections leaving one guy at each to gather up Divot. I could see the headline if we didn’t: Hunter Finds Body of Biker Missing for 10 Years. One time, when he caught up, he proudly displayed an array of bloody scrapes on his arm. “I tried to give a forearm shiver to a maple. But at least I didn’t go down!” He was still smiling. I questioned his sanity.
Rico advertised the next stretch as the steepest of the day. I psyched myself up and managed to hang onto him until the top. He asked me how I was. I explained that I always snort like a plow horse, no matter what effort I put out. Nice, I thought, I’m sure he bought that, cough, cough, puff, hack. How can Fozz and Rico look so calm? Then the skies opened up with a cold thundershower which made the rocks extra slippery. Then, I was more worried about my fellow oldster, Divot the Newbie, as he faced single track that was also wet.
We were relieved to see Divot doodle up the trail on a side-hill under the green canopy. Then, there was a “Whoa!” as he went down…on the downhill side. We felt the impact in our feet, ten yards away. The three of us grimaced and gave a sharp, “molar cooler” intake of breath because that was going to leave a mark.
“You okay?” we hollered.
No reply but rustling and grunting. But he got up smiling.
We weaved our way through the trees and I started to have trouble holding my wet handlebars over my rigid fork. I had paddled a kayak the two previous days and my mitts were already tired. Then, two hours into our ride, I started to lose my grip. I giggled uncontrollably at one point, and Rico yelled, “What’re you laughing about?” Both my hands had come off at the same time and I had flailed no-handed for an eternity. Terror can hit you funny sometimes.
Finally, the parking lot. Divot rolled up as tail-end Charlie, inventoried his bruises and lacerations, and declared, “I only had one more mile in me. But I learned a lot!” I learned a lot when I got home, too. I went to www.cambatrails.org and learned that the Rock Lake Trail is “difficult” and “100% single track” and “unrelentingly hilly” and “Clean off your granny gear, you’ll need it!” Poor Divot. I learned there are many other trails that are mostly forest road or two track; a broad spectrum of trails for a wide variety of riders. But not for us when it’s Wisconsin vs. Minnesota. I tell you, those Cheeseheads are evil. That’s what I told Rico while he and his wife fed us Leinie’s, brats, and ice cream after the ride. Pure evil.