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Preview: The Chequamegon 40

The penultimate event in the Life Time Grand Prix promises fast and furious fat tire action — "it's the ultimate Northwoods drag race," says event director Peter Spencer

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The Chequamegon Mountain Bike Festival kicks off this weekend in the great Northwoods of Wisconsin.

The fest is home to the Chequamegon 40, a storied cross-country mountain bike race that, this year, is the penultimate race in the Life Time Grand Prix series. 2022 marks the 39th year for the event that started in 1983 with only 27 riders.

In addition to the pro race Saturday, there’s an amateur version that starts earlier in the day, as well as a kids race and the 16-mile Short and Fat course.

Last year, Cole Paton and Melisa Rollins won the pro event, finishing the 40-mile course in 2:15 and 2:36, respectively.

Cole Paton sprints ahead of Alexey Vermeulen at the 2021 Chequamegon 40 (Photo: Life Time)

The course

According to event director Peter Spencer, the Chequamegon 40 course is actually 39 miles. Elevation gain? Just over 3,000 feet. Sure it’s no Leadville, but the point-to-point event poses plenty of other challenges.

“It’s a drag race,” Spencer said. “We call it the Northwoods drag race. It’s more like, ‘when are you gonna blow up?'”

And Spencer should know. Although he’s only been at the helm of Chequamegon since 2019, he’s been participating for over 20. Spencer says that what makes the event so special is that it lacks some of the barriers — altitude, elevation gain, technical singletrack — that makes other races intimidating.

“Back in the day, you’d just hope you got in through the lottery,” he said. “You come up with all your buddies, make some bets, and then race hard. That’s what makes it great — everyone can do it. There’s no barriers.”

A large portion of the Chequamegon 40 takes place on or near the Birkie Trail, home of the legendary American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. The climbs are very short, steep, punchy, and “in your face,” Spencer said.

(Photo: Life Time)

Spencer believes there are a few places where a bold rider making a move could get away for good.

The race begins with a series of short punchy climbs that will likely lead to some separation. A gravel section follows, making regrouping possible. Then, at around mile 29, the Fire Tower climb poses the first opportunity for someone to make a move and potentially stay away.

If nothing sticks at the Fire Tower, Spencer said, “the next potential area is Seven Sisters, a never-ending climb on a bike trail. The last aid station is at the top, at High Point. If there’s any gap there, that person could potentially win.”

While the Chequamegon 40 is known more for being a “superhighway through the woods” than a technical mountain bike course, this year’s deep field and the unknowns of weather, conditions, and fitness will make for a supremely exciting race.

Riders to watch

Defending champions Cole Paton and Melisa Rollins will both be back at the start line looking to defend their titles, as well as gain points as the Grand Prix series winds to a close. Paton currently trails series leader Keegan Swenson by eight points, and Rollins sits in seventh.

Women get their own race at Chequamegon, starting at 12:30 PM local time, 30 minutes ahead of the men. According to Spencer, the fastest women should stay ahead of the men all day.

In a season that has mostly been about endurance, it will be interesting to see how riders react to the short, punchy course.

Grand Prix series leader Haley Smith has been trying to maintain some World Cup XC racing during her freshman gravel season but has proved to be very adept at endurance. Will she be able to transition back to short and sweet after finishing first at Crusher in the Tushar and third at Leadville?

Other XC pros like Evelyn Dong, Hannah Otto, and Alexis Skarda will also be ones to watch in Wisconsin.

Sofia Gomez Villafañe will be back in action after dropping out of the Leadville 100 and SBT GRVL due to illness and spending the last month training at home. We can expect a strong race from the former XC pro who trails Smith in the Grand Prix by just one point.

And, we can never rule out riders like Sarah Sturm, who is in flying form and has been known to rip around a cyclocross track very quickly.

While not in the Grand Prix, another very serious contender is US national champ Savilia Blunk.

For the men, well, it goes without saying — Grand Prix leader (and near sweeper of the series) Keegan Swenson is always one to watch. Chequamegon will be a quick tune-up before the 28-year-old flies to Australia for his road worlds debut.

However, there are a handful of mountain bikers chomping at the bit behind Swenson in the series. Paton and Alexey Vermeulen, who went 1-2 at last year’s event, are 2-3 in the Grand Prix series. They are also some of the few who have the benefit of experience racing in Wisconsin.

Another Chequamegon veteran is Payson McElveen, who won the event in 2017 and 2018. McElveen is in a good place right now, mentally and form-wise, after winning the stage race at Rebecca’s Private Idaho.

Other MTB pros like Howard Grotts, Andrew L’Esperance, Alex Wild, and Russell Finsterwald will make a strong showing at the pointy end and likely create exciting group dynamics.

If Lachlan Morton is recovered enough from the Colorado Trail and Alex Howes can keep the rubber side down, the two EF Education-EasyPost riders will also be in the mix.