Rekindled by Chequamegon
Emily Newsom shares her experience racing Chequamegon and looks ahead to the final Life Time Grand Prix race
I've always been intrigued by a new challenge, especially if this challenge looks as fun and exciting as mountain biking.
When I first agreed to race the Life Time Grand Prix, I knew I would be facing many fears as I undertook learning this new discipline. I remember meeting up with Mat Stephens, my teammate Lauren's husband, on some local trails in Texas and within the first 15 minutes of the ride, I crashed, and overwhelmed, sat in the dirt and cried over the daunting prospect of becoming a proficient rider. After Sea Otter, a race that I faced with great trepidation, my Cannondale Lefty sat forlorn in a bike bag, still wearing a bit of California dust, waiting for me to find the time and mental energy to renew my efforts.
As the year progressed through more gravel, some US stage races, nationals and a trip to Europe, mountain biking was always at the back of my mind. I wanted to be good at riding it. I wanted to give it the time it deserved. I wanted to give myself a chance at this new undertaking. But as life would have it, one week before the Chequamegon mountain bike race, the fifth of the six Grand Prix races, I finally headed out to hit a few local trails. As I well remember from my days at music school there are some things that cannot be faked. The mantra "fake it till you make it" does not work when it comes to something that takes practice and skill. I knew I had not done my homework and packed my bags ready to accept whatever may come. Imagine my great relief when arriving in Wisconsin and after previewing the entire course, realized I was given a pass; this was not at all a technical course and suddenly I was filled with confidence and excitement for the event.
We lined up facing a grassy hill that curved sharply upward and away from us. The sky had cleared after finally releasing a torrent of rain only an hour earlier, and there was much laughter and chatter as we waited for the start gun to go off. Everyone seemed excited and edgy, knowing that this race would be fast and furious given the shorter distance. I was hoping for a hard race knowing that the field would not split apart unless the pace was high. The start was given and immediately the tempo skyrocketed. I fell back a little as I struggled momentarily to get my foot into the pedal, and then gave it all I had to regain positions as we fought our way up the hill. The pace stayed hot as we catapulted up and down the undulating ski trail. I expected it to be hard, but I was a little in shock over just how hard it was! But, I had wanted to test my legs with intensity so I embraced the difficulty and fully committed to the effort.
We emerged onto a gravel road in a lead group of about 15 women. The race would often come out onto a gravel road which would then connect it to another trail, sometimes wide with room to move up, sometimes a little narrower where positioning into it became important. I knew we would be turning onto a trail soon so I quickly pushed my way towards the front of the group. I was passing with a good amount of speed when a rider pulled out from the group, connecting handlebars and forcing me out. At the same time a race moto was passing with no warning and connected with my outside handlebar sending me flying. I quickly got up, recovered my bottles and jumped on my bike. I noticed my knee was bleeding, but other than feeling chagrin over reopening a recently healed wound, I focused fully on regaining contact with the front group. With my adrenaline soaring I quickly made up ground and soon found myself once more with the others. I was a bit rattled as the full impact of being hit by a motorcycle sunk in. Even in the midst of a race, I found a moment for thankfulness that I wasn't hit worse and on my way to a hospital.
About the time I reconnected with the group, we began to hit the mud. The trail had been ridden by thousands of age group riders earlier in the day and was now a sludgy mess. We churned our way through, laughing as the bikes spun this way and that, some wishing they had chosen different tires, some expertly fishtailing their way ahead, others face planting here and there as we all fought to keep position. It was during this first slog that the race split apart with Savilia Blunk charging her way off the front, and small groups of chasers forming behind her. I hung onto the back of a group, but found that the effort and perhaps the crash had taken its toll and eventually found a more moderate pace I could sustain.
From this point it was a race of perseverance and constant focus. I pedaled hard up the final long climb and through the remaining kilometers.
The finish came after a final turn that opened up into a wide field narrowing down into a finishing chute lined with folks cheering the muddy contenders crossing the line. One by one we rolled in, indistinguishable from each other, the colors of the kits all turned varying shades of brown, a mixture of amazement, elation, disappointment and incredulity marking our faces. I rolled up to our team mechanic Adrian, happy to have finished, thankful to be in one piece, but also fighting feelings of disappointment and confusion over my race.
With Chequamegon being my second mountain bike event and perhaps my tenth time on the bike, I had very little data to be able to analyze and compare my effort. I knew what kind of shape I was in, and though I don't like to come into a race results oriented, my placing did not match the effort I put out. I was frustrated, confused, and angry. I called my coach ready to throw in the towel, but after some conversation, began to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I still can't put my finger on exactly what happened, but I do know I can be proud of what I did despite the circumstances I was dealt. Disappointment can either dampen the fire, or stoke it. In my case, though I felt like I had been turning a disproportionate amount of negatives into positives lately, it merely lit the flame brighter. I returned home, ready to work hard. With one Life Time Grand Prix event remaining, my eyes are focused, my mind is confident, and my spirit is determined and ready to let the hard work shine through.
A special thanks to Emily Newsom for writing this piece about racing Chequamegon.