A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
The Lutsen 99'er: The Belly of the Beast
A glance to my heart rate monitor told me my ticker was already working hard at 55 beats per minute above my usual resting pace. I tried to breath through my advanced rate in an effort to slow it down. My hands were shaking as I moved through a series of mental gymnastics in an effort to calm down. I was standing at the starting line of the 2016 Lutsen 99'er and I was nervous.
Coming off a disappointing Dirty Kanza, where I failed to finish the event, I think I was more scared of a repeat performance than I was of the 99 hard miles that lay before me. I've tried hard to put Kansas behind me, but for some reason she kept tapping on me on the shoulder and reminding me of what she did to me, almost mocking me. I'd concluded that the only way to say "good bye" to that day would be to complete a race in a way that I could feel good about. I had over 6 hours of riding in front of me full of opportunity to do just that.
I positioned myself in the second row of some 550 riders waiting for the start. I chit chatted with cycling friends that I've shared some of the hardest miles of my life with and as I did so my mind kept replaying my game plan over and over in my head. The plan was the same as it was in 2013. I call the plan, "Give yourself a chance". Here's what it entails. Ride as hard as I possibly can right away in the hopes that I am able to latch on to a fast riding group, and then hang on for dear life with that group until the finish line. This has been the business model I've operated with at Lutsen and it has worked every time. I should add that this is far from the plan that I approach all races of this distance with. I'm not sure what it is, but the format of the Lutsen 99'er with it's mix of mountain biking and gravel agrees with me. But, a lot can go wrong in 99 miles while beating mercilessly on your bike.
I stared at the backs of some of the heaviest hitters in the Midwest as we cruised up Highway 61. Close behind the motos were Minnesota's hero Jeff Hall, Michigan's Matt Acker (and my Salsa teammate), and super stud Jorden Wakeley. It felt good to be close to their wheels in a bike race even if it was while I was still in the lead out. The motos rode side by side and escorted us up the highway for much longer than in years past. I kept my eye on them as I knew soon they'd be cutting us loose and the already quick pace would go straight to the moon as soon as they did so. Suddenly, the moto rider on the right looked directly over to his partner and made a swirling motion with his left hand. "This is it" I thought. In unison they squeezed their respected clutches, knocked it up a gear and their engines roared. The pace went up as I expected and we thinned out into a long line as if we'd all practiced it the night before.
The final selection would be made once we began the long climb from the shore of Lake Superior inland to the high country of northern Minnesota. Finally, the left hand turn came and Jorden Wakeley stood on his pedals and absolutely hammered away from the field. It was something special to see, his bike rocking back and forth as he moved away from some very talented riders. The big guys gave chase and it wasn't long before the men were being separated from he boys. I was one of the boys, well maybe a teenager.
I counted the chase groups in front of me and I was unfortunately sitting on the front of the 3rd group back. I didn't look behind me, but it was a big group and they were satisfied with letting the Salsa boy sit on the front and create the pace. I kept asking myself if I was going as hard as I could and the answer was always YES!
I needed to get off the front as precious matches were burning quickly and I hadn't even hit the dirt yet. My friends behind me must have noticed that my pace was slowing. They crept by me on my left allowing me to slide backward looking for a place to hide from the wind. Not a word was spoken as the line silently passed. Occasional glances toward me were their thank you. The moan of knobby tires on tarmac was the only sound that could be heard.
I checked my mileage and I was closing in on 8 miles. The right hand turn to the gravel was coming soon and I wanted to get through that turn unscathed. It sounds easy enough, but if one is mixed in with a dozen strong men riding their bikes as hard as they possibly can it can prove to be dicey. Coming off a strong draft and a bit of downhill I was able to move back into the front position of my group with some momentum. A few hard pedal strokes and I was 100 meters ahead of them and alone...perfect. I handled the turn by myself and was soon overtaken as the pace once again lifted.
This year I was on Salsa's 2016 Spearfish. The bike is tight and fast, but was still pretty new to me. I opened the suspension on the first two track section and it wasn't long before I forgot that the imperfections of the trail were even there. I felt good and was happy with where I was in the field, probably in about 40th position. While I settled in to the business at hand I noticed a familiar, friendly voice as he moved past me. It was my most trusted mechanic and friend Ross Fraboni. Ross is an exceptionally talented rider. He is steady and strong and watching him ride difficult single track is like attending a mountain bike clinic. The trick is you have to stay with him long enough to be able to watch. This day I was determined to watch.
Ross moved effortlessly up the rolling hills of Lutsen's forest all the while weaving in and out of heavy bike traffic. "Keep your eye on him, don't let him get away" was all I told myself. Ross had developed a significant gap between us and I was resigned to wondering if I'd ever see him again. It wasn't long before I saw him pulled over, his chain slack on his bike with the all too familiar sight of the derailleur cage curled in an ugly upright position. "He's done" I said to myself as I passed. I felt bad for him, what a way to go out and so early.
I put my friend's experience behind me and reminded myself to avoid the loose sticks in the trail and to ride smart. The pedaling was beginning to feel mundane and the focus centered on keeping the pace pegged on "very high" while the minutes slowly crept by. Suddenly, Ross' voice echoed in my head. He was back! He giggled as he moved by me again. "I thought you were out" I yelled. He laughed and made some light hearted comment about his silly little problem. This is Ross' way, he never gets worked up and reminds me all the time that this is the sport we love.
While working the bike for all that it had I was opening and closing my suspension depending on the terrain under my wheels. A strange rattling sound began to develop every time I opened the rear shock. "What the?" I thought. This was a new sound. I scanned my machine the best that I could while on the fly. Nothing jumped out at me as a problem so I chalked it up to the fact that I was really putting the Spearfish through her paces, harder than ever before. Maybe it was the sound of all the hits reverberating up through the carbon frame, I wondered. "Ross, I'm getting a weird rattling sound every time I open the suspension!" I yelled. I secretly hoped he'd offer some mechanic's advice that would make me feel better about the situation. His reply was simple, "You're going to hold together Tim and you're going to do fine!" I told myself he was right. I wouldn't worry about the problem until it was a PROBLEM.
The race was now in it's middle stage and my rattling sound was just back ground noise to me. Instead, I began to focus on the darkening skies above. My last check of the hourly forecast let me know that there was a mere 15% chance of thunderstorms, but this looked more like a 90% chance. My mind flashed back to the room before the start where I held my fenders in my hand debating whether or not to take them. Quinn, my travel partner, friend, and fellow racer mocked me for even considering it. "Don't you like to get dirty?", he asked. I dropped them where I stood and left the room, my bike in tow. I cursed the decision to leave the fenders behind as the first few rain drops hit my helmet with a resounding splat.
It seemed that the ominous clouds above offered a few false alarms as the storm failed to materialize initially. I didn't mind the little showers I was experiencing at the time, in fact they felt good. However, as I entered my second loop of off road the clouds were done kidding around. A clap of thunder went off above me and the tree tops...KA-BOOM!!!!!! A shudder went through my body as I shrunk closer to my handle bar. I had my hands full at the time as I was moving through either lapped riders or 69'er competitors. Needless to say the trail was busy. The explosion that occurred above me seem to be what the clouds needed to unleash all that they were holding. A torrent of rain began with such earnest that a spookiness came over the woods. I tipped my yellow lensed glasses down to the tip of my nose in an effort to see some semblance of the trail. My search for the single track turned into a decision to just put my tires in the middle of the flowing water. A mini flash flood was happening before my eyes. I marveled at the mist that hung in the air, a byproduct of the sheets of rain that pummeled down. Every few minutes a clap of thunder similar to the first would rattle my ear drums and pound my chest. "Man, this is serious" I thought doing my best to stay on top of the pedals despite the biblical weather situation going on around me.
Ross and I completed the second loop together and he mentioned that he needed to grab his drop bag at the aid station. I let him know that I would soft pedal in order to wait up for him. He thanked me as he pulled off for his bag. I decided to make a 5 second stop at the volunteer's table so I could spray off my glasses. I spotted several cycling style water bottles lined up on the table. I asked if they contained just water and was assured that they did. I grabbed one and blasted my face and glasses only to find out that it was a sugary GU mix, not what I expected. Disgusted by what was now mixed in with the mud on my face I left the aid station trying to keep my head in the game. I knew that another 10 - 15 mile off road section lay before me and once that was complete I'd be in the final stages of the race. The turn to the section came quicker than I expected and I was alone. Unsure of where Ross was I decided to get my speed back up to where I felt it needed to be. Suddenly, my bike and it's rattling sound became impossible to ignore. "Something is definitely not right" I thought. I looked down between my legs toward the back end of the bike only to notice the rear caliper bouncing around on top of the disc. "Oh my God! My brake is falling off!" I said aloud. I had no choice but to stop and inspect the situation. I laid the machine down and wiggled the caliper. It was very loose! In fact, one of the two bolts that held it to the frame was completely gone and the other was backed way out. As efficiently as I could I dug for my multi tool. My camel back was a muddy mess which caused the zippers to stick and fight me the whole time. Eventually, I retrieved my small tool bag and was ready to get started when I heard, "Ohhhh Tim". My friend had caught me and was riding past. I yelled to him a short description of my problem and went to work. I counted 7 rotations of the remaining bolt before it finally started to bite into the frame. It was almost all the way out. Losing that bolt would have meant a catastrophic end to my race as well as a slow death by mosquitos for me.
I snugged the bolt up as tightly as I dared, shoved everything back into the camel back and jumped aboard. My spearfish was as quiet as a church mouse for the following 35 miles. But, if a bolt backed out once, it could back out again. I must have looked at that rear caliper 200 times in those final miles. I couldn't get it off my mind.
I finished the two track section alone and was now slogging my way through the final miles of gravel. The beast of all storms had subsided and the skies were brightening. I felt I was riding agonizingly slow as fatigue began to take hold. My legs were like rubber and my mind was floating in and out of the task at hand. Just then a fast moving train of 12 riders overtook me and I made the decision to jump on the back end. I had to dig deep more than a few times to stay on, but I knew that riding by myself meant 15 mph and riding with these guys meant riding at 19 or 20 mph. "This thing will be over a lot quicker if you just stay with this group" I reminded myself.
I counted 13 riders in the group and I was holding my own in 11th position. The miles were coming down now and the final aid station was in sight. The pop up tent was positioned on the far side of a left hand turn and was located shockingly close to the finish. As we approached the turn I readied myself for the acceleration that comes after every turn when riding in a group. Inexplicably, the first 8 or 9 riders went to the tent. I took the turn hard and to the inside. Suddenly, I went from 11th position to 3rd of the group. I glanced over my shoulder and there was a gap. I went hard on the pedals as did the two riders in front of me.
Once I hit the trail I knew it was the end of the end game. It was all or nothing time. I could no longer make out anything on my GPS due to the mud so I relied on memory. "There's about 4 miles to go" I told myself. "Give it everything you've got!" The messages were sent down to the engine room, but there was nothing more than a rubbery response. I was certain that the other guys were feeling the same. "Stay on it!" I silently reminded myself. I entered the single track leading about 6 or 7. "Should I let them pass?" I shook off the thought, telling myself that if they wanted by they'd have to fight for it. An open section appeared as we traversed the side of Moose Mountain and two riders slipped by me. They quickly gapped me and definitely deserved the pass.
Down in the valley the only portion that remained was the mile long climb up Lutsen Mountain. I kept checking behind me and determined that the riders behind weren't gaining on me, they were hurting too. I felt I'd be able to hold my position and that quite possibly I'd met my goal of finishing in the top 40. I knew this section of trail well and I knew where the steepest pitches were and how many remained. With two hard, steep sections remaining I slowly turned over the pedals. A lone spectator stood next to the trail slowly clapping as I approached. "Nice ride, you're 23rd overall" (really I was 24th). "What?" I asked incredulously. He repeated his statement. A smile crept over my face as the pain slipped from my legs.
My eyes scanned the overpass above me from left to right, I climbed the final 100 meters. Suddenly, "Way to go Tim!" stood out among the cheers. There was Amy smiling and clapping, a sight I'd anticipated for 6 hours and 30 minutes.
As soon as clipped out of the pedals and dismounted the bike happiness replaced the hurt my body was feeling. I had overcome a mechanical, stayed on top of a very hard pace, and beat down the demon from the Dirty Kanza. In some ways I wonder if that beast of a storm was really the beast of Kansas challenging me, testing my resolve. If so, I'm happy to be able to say that I rode straight into the belly of the beast and came out with a smile on my face. Until next year Lutsen 99'er.
Amy Fullerton. You are the best support crew I could ever ask for. You inspire me to do my best. I am your biggest fan.
Quinn and Kari Williams. You guys made this trip so fun! Without you two my pre-race jitters would have been much worse than they were. Quinn, you killed it on your fat bike! Kari, thank you so much for your amazing photos.
Salsa Cycles. As always you make these experiences so much better and my Spearfish was the right tool for the job.
Rudy Project. Wow! Without you I'd be blind right now. My Rydons were light weight and the yellow lenses were the perfect choice for the overcast conditions. Thank you for keeping my head and eyes safe.
Schwalbe Tires. The Racing Ralphs are the best all around mountain bike tire on the planet. They are fast on gravel with just enough grip for off road.
FLUID Nutrition. 100oz of FLUID on my back was exactly what I needed for this race. The perfect ratio and taste. Thank you for being with me over the years. I will continue to spread the word about his wonderful product.
Lutsen 99'er and it's volunteers. This is and always will be one of my favorite events. So professionally run and organized. Course marking is perfect and your volunteers get it. They are excited by what we're doing and it shows through their tireless efforts to keep us moving in the right direction. Finally, thank you for offering your photos for free.