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- Keweenaw Chain Drive Comes to an End

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Dave Grant Reigns on Brockway, Kate McCloud Repeats Fleche Vicotry

Author: btk
May 7, 2017
road | gravel

The interminable winter of 2018 released its grip on Michigan's Upper Peninsula just in time for the eighth running of La Fleche du Nord, the first of an arduous series of spring cycling classics contested among the hardened locals – and done so on their own terms. The past month’s snowfall had only recently melted away, like the dreams of victory soon to be transformed into daydreams of what could have been for all but the victor.

Despite warming temperatures, an icy slag had clung to north-facing slopes and forced organizers to omit several of the key climbs. Even so, measures were taken to ensure that fatigue and, perhaps punctures and mechanicals, would shape the race as it had so many times before through the addition of both new ascents and forgotten backroads, some in a condition found only in a war zone. But this is what brings racers to the Fleche: a race designed to be won through attrition by the strongest of the peloton. Only determination, fitness and a spot of luck will get a racer to the line first – strategy and carbon fiber are of secondary importance.

Any uncertainties about the course conditions and fitness of the competition were put on hold as the peloton rolled out of Houghton under bluebird skies and temperatures that would top in 60s, led the first two hundred meters by future Fleche champion Esme Schmidt and to the discordant echo of bells and whistles sounded by striking snowplow drivers, protesting the untimely end to the endless winter.

As is tradition, the first 20 km of the 100 km odyssey through Michigan’s least populated county were traversed at a snail’s pace, giving riders time to eye the competition and make final adjustments to their mechanical steeds. The peloton was this year once again sizeable and deep in strength and experience. Over 40 riders from three states were on hand. Notably absent this year, however, were the first and second place riders of the 2017 edition: defending champion Ryan Craig and runner up Eric Isaacs were graduating from their respective universities, NMU and MTU. Third place finisher of last year’s race, Dave Grant of the Marquette-based Ace squad, was in attendance and, after ascending the steps of the podium one year ago, was perhaps hungrier than most for a taste of Fleche glory. Joining Grant in the red and black Ace colors were Joe Bettendorf, Andy Stevens, Nicole Alexander, and D.S. Tom Mahaney.

Host team, Red Jacket Cycling of Houghton, was more powerful than ever and had set its sights high, aiming to keep Ace off of the podium. The team was led by hopefuls Justin Hoffmeyer and Sam Kilpela. Hoffmeyer had been thrown out of contention in 2017 by a flat tire on the always treacherous Gratiot River descent. The rock-, sand- and gravel-laden section of “road” had been removed from the course this year, easing the fear of puncture for all riders. Kilpela, who had shown promising form in the early season runup, would join Hoffmeyer in a two-pronged offense against the Ace squad and any other potential threats to the crown in his first Fleche. Steve Webber, signed on to the team for the classics season as a stagiaire, was given free reign and a chance to show team management what he was capable of. Chris Schmidt, who finished fourth in 2017 on the heels of Dave Grant had no interest in victory: vanquishing his rival on the snow-crested slopes of Brockway Mountain was paramount in his mind and was all that motivated him to lace his cleats since suffering defeat a year ago. Dan Motowski, RJ D.S., was committed to protecting the designated team leaders for as long as his legs would allow. Troy Eddy, the Red Jacket diesel who was contesting the Fleche for his first time, would silence the peloton throughout the day, riders’ jaws dropping at the sight of his sculptured calves and their lungs left vacuous hollows during his endless forays at the business end of the race. Kit Cischke was ringing in the first full day of his 39th year with the race. Defending women’s champion Kate McCloud crushed the competition, male and female alike, throughout the 2018 snowbike season. Her form was sure to have carried over,making her the odds-on favorite to take the title again. Assisting McCloud in the women’s edition of the race was Red Jacket treasurer Sharon Stoll.

Several unknowns were also on hand: Brice Sturmer of the Velodrome Coffee team out of Marquette was testing the waters of the U.P. Classics. After a strong showing in the 2017 UPCROSS series, he was a man to watch. Another new face was that of Jason "The Bavarian Terror" Dahl of Minneapolis, hoping to take the coveted Hamms tallboy back to its homeland. Jason Jilbert, riding for 906, has threatened in the past and was another contender for the title. Representing Michigan Tech in her first Fleche and with aspirations for victory was Ashley Berton.

Pleasantries exchanged, water bottles topped up and leg warmers peeled off, race officials waved the cyclists clear to start at the end of the neutral zone. Troy Eddy was the first to test the pace and roll off the front, the remainder of the field still content to bumble along until the first gravel climb, still 5 miles distant, but quickly approaching.

Any banter among the riders was lost in the sound of seventy wheels churning through freshly graded gravel as riders faced the first test of the day: the climb to Bumbletown, an ascent that has many times in the past served as the launchpad for the winning move. The five miles of gravel snakes up several hundred feet of elevation over a mixture of sand, packed gravel and smooth hardpack. The sole causes for celebration on the climb are its eventual finish and the feed zone midway up the climb, manned by Bob and Jan Haase. Though no leaders were able to break from of the group, 7 riders crested the summit together and another three would bridge up by the time field returned to pavement. Ace riders Grant, Bettendorf, Mahaney and Stevens were joined by Red Jackets Hoffmeyer, Kilpela, Eddy, Schmidt, Webber, Kate McCloud and the lone Velodrome rider, Sturmer, in what would be the key selection for the day.

Descending into the lush Trap Rock River Valley down the serpentine Mayflower Road, the group was content to let gravity do the work for a couple miles before the racing heated up again on the Col du Copper City and on the gravel descent leading into the base of the mile-long Fulton climb.

It was gruppo compatto as the pack hit the base of the short yet potentially decisive climb into Copper City. Red Jackets Sam Kilpela and Justin Hoffmeyer tested the resolve of the Ace Squad with a series of digs on the 15% climb. Only Joe Bettendorf would take the bait, and the trio soon established a threatening lead. Discord in the front and a well-oiled Ace machine, led by peloton patron Tom Maheney, kept the break in check on the gravel descent to the Gay-Mohawk road, however, and the advantage was neutralized near the summit. The blistering pace had taken its toll, however, with Mahaney and McCloud losing contact with the group on the climb.

Nine riders entered Cliff Drive, each with one thought on their mind: please, no flats. The craters in the road grew deeper and wider with each passing mile. Lingering snow added to the treachery, potholes potentially hiding beneath. Passing over the Cliff gravity anomaly, attributed to an undiscovered lode of copper, riders experienced the strange sensation of softening tires as a gravity hotspot pulled the racers down towards the ground. Nevertheless, all riders cleared Cliff Drive free of mechanicals and punctures and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The gravel roads and all but one climb finished, it appeared as though the contest would be decided in a sprint on Brockway Mountain. Opportunities for a break were running out and motivation was on short supply. The evenly matched teams marked any moves, nothing having lasted for more than 5 miles on the day. A heated discussion at the back of the group between Red Jackets called for a last-ditch effort to send a duo up the road in pursuit of victory. On a small rising leading into a five-mile descent into Eagle Harbor, Hoffmeyer and Kilpela - with a boost from Troy Eddy and assistance from Schmidt who worked to slow the pace of an Ace counterattack – dug deep and established a small gap, only to be joined yet again by Joe Bettendorf of the Ace Squad. The Red Jackets kept the pace high for several minutes before conceding the attempt and hunkering down for the final 15 miles.

As the riders clicked off the miles on the ribbon of pavement along Lake Superior, minds began to contemplate the finish scenario. Would someone launch a final attack? Would team tactics come into play? With less than a mile before the climb to the mountain top finish, Red Jacket rider Justin Hoffmeyer took a Hail Mary flyer, cresting a small rise with a promising gap. As the base of the climb approached, however, Hoffmeyer began to fade as did his lead. Smelling weakness, Joe Bettendorf countered for Ace, driving hard as he entered the gravel-covered Brockway Mountain Drive. Unfortunately, what may have placed Bettendorf at the top of the podium, threw him to the ground, breaking his rhythm, if not his drive. Dave Grant took over at the helm for the Ace squad and, Red Jackets wilting like tulips on a July day, saw hopes for victory dashed. Steve Webber, Brice Sturmer and Sam Kilpela continued in pursuit, but Grant was able to claim victory. Steve Webber crossed the line second with Kipela third. Schmidt was able to repeat his fourth place finish, overtaking Sturmer in the final meters.

In the women’s’ contest, Red Jacket Kate McCloud crossed the line alone, only minutes behind the men and just a few minutes ahead of second place woman Nicole Alexander of the Ace team. Michigan Tech rider Ashley Berton rounded out the women’s podium.

U.P. Classics continue in two weeks time with the Ronde van Skandia, the premire race in the classics series.

A huge thank you to Rhythm Bike and Board for hosting the start, Bob and Jan Haase for supplying riders with water, Adam Webb for driving support, the Mariner North for hosting the finish party, Sam Kilpela for the awards, and Dan Motowski, Justin Hoffmeyer and Craig Hughes for assisting with course setup and teardown as well as to everyone who came out to ride!

Fleche du Nord

Updated: March 12, 2018
Author: btk
pain, suffering

Ryan Craig, Kate McCloud Claim Flèche Titles

Author: btk
May 7, 2017
road | gravel

Spectators crowded the tree-lined boulevards of Houghton this Saturday to see off a near-record number of riders in the seventh running of La Flèche du Nord, the queen of the U.P. Spring Classics, second in grandeur only to the venerable Ronde van Skandia. Squads from across the U.P. were on the start line, including host team, Red Jacket Cycling of Houghton – which had yet to land a rider on the podium, the once dominant Ace team of Marquette, 906 Adventure Team of Marquette, SISU Cycling of Marquette, a few young guns from the Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan University cycling teams, a number of unattached and seasoned veterans and several aspiring espoirs looking to impress and land a contract for the remainder of the season.

The sunshine and clear skies that beaconed the unsuspecting riders over the Portage Lift Bridge and onto Copper Island would be a grace to only one rider, the winner, as even the slightest rainfall would have masked the tears of disappointment on those who would follow in his wake. Brisk winds from the north would prove to be favorable only occasionally as the riders made their way north to Copper Harbor, frequently reaping havoc on the peloton and shredding it into fractured echelons even in the earliest moments of the contest.

Following the traditional and largely ceremonial rollout to the crest of the first unpaved climb of the day, event officials waved the riders clear to start and pulled away. The first to take the bait was Ace rider Dave Grant, perhaps stretching his legs or – more likely – breaking wind, as it were, for the benefit of those behind him. In the end, it would his only taste of life at the front of the peloton before being deposed by the cadre of young climbers lurking in the wings.

Coming off day’s first of many high-speed descents towards the shores of Lake Superior, the group coalesced for what would be the final time before the battle for control of the race began in earnest on the climb towards Bumbletown. Setting a blistering pace on the first pitch were Red Jacket rider Ian Connick and NMU powerhouse Ryan Craig. Sisu rider Zeb Johnston, who, like Craig, had previously suffered misfortune in the Flèche, courageously bridged up to the duo. The group of three wasted no time in pulling away from the imploding peloton. Cresting the toughest section of the climb together past ardent race supporters Bob and Jan Haas was a group of seven, with riders of all teams represented.

The most damning section of the Flèche can only be described as a drop into the deepest pits of hell. Sharp gravel litters the initial descent. A long stretch of sand with hidden, fist sized boulders lies in wait for those who survive the gravel. And riders lucky to have made it that far must contend with exposed rock, loose sand and the shrapnel of brass tire valves from the failed tubes that have collected over the years. All who enter the section want only one thing: to see the pavement on the other side with both tires intact. Two of the three riders at the front had made a conservative tire choice: wide and strong – their sole purpose to ply the sea of gravel unscathed. The third rider had speed on his mind and was willing to take chances, despite his past misfortune. All three would avoid the clutches of fate and make it to the sinuous Five Mile Point road together. The poursuivants would not fare so well. The first to see a chance at victory vanish into thin air was Ace hopeful Andy Stevens. For Stevens, the flat was especially bitter, having flatted in the same location last year. Just one right-hand turn from safety, Red Jacket strongman Justin Hoffmeyer was summoned to the sidelines with a puncture. In the end, it would be a quintet of chasers who emerged on the pavement: a pair of Ace riders –Dave Grant and Joe Bettendorf – Red Jacket rider Chris Schmidt, BIKE member Josh Myles, and 2016 Flèche runner-up Eric Isaacs, riding for Michigan Tech. Other riders failing to clear the section unscathed included Red Jackets John Gershenson and Evandro “Watts” Maicon as well as Ace hopeful Christina Bennett.

As the lead groups made their way towards Eagle River and the base of the arduous Garden City climb, the two groups wheeled and dealed amongst themselves, making soon to be forgotten promises of leadouts and payoffs in exchange for long pulls at the front and mercy on the climbs. The trio at the front made headway and countered the efforts of the chasers, their number now down to four after Myles succumbed to the feverish pace of the chasers.

Cresting the first pitch of the Garden City climb, the trio of leaders looked back in unison to take in the majestic view of an endless Lake Superior and were surprised to see a group of four starting the climb ¬¬– in the same spot they had passed only minutes before. Their labored movements and downcast glances led the leaders to believe that they had crushed the spirits of the chasers. They needed only maintain their pace, and the podium would be theirs. Retelling the story of the tortoise and the hare amongst themselves, the trailing quartet found new strength, reorganized and pushed onward to the base of the looming Delaware climb. Red Jacket rider Chris Schmidt cracked on the first pitch the longest climb of the day, leaving the other three to continue the chase. The north winds increased in strength as the riders neared the summit, lending a false sense of strength to the trio and giving Schmidt renewed energy. As a result, the quartet reformed at the summit just as the silhouette of a lone rider came into view. Passing Delaware Mine, four became five, a faltering Zeb Johnston joining the chase.

With only two riders up the road, a spot on the podium had opened. A mere ten miles remained and the chasers viewed one another with increasing suspicion. Would there be a surprise attack? Would the two leaders be caught? Clicking off the poisonous hellingen that litter the final miles of US41 at high speed, the group worked to reel in the leaders in brief period of truce. The short, steep climbs left Johnston increasingly in the red and eventually detached him from the original four chasers. Shortly afterwards, another figure dangled in the distance. The telltale red jersey of Red Jacket Ian Connick came into view and Ace quickly hit the brakes, preferring to allow the competition to dangle off the front and further deplete his reservoirs. Connick had cracked hard, however, shattering hopes of a Red Jacket victory. Again five, the chasers worked their way towards Copper Harbor and the Brockway Mountain finish. Ryan Craig powered on alone at the front, victory within reach.

The final mile of the Flèche features nearly five hundred feet of vertical and two pitches in excess of 20%. Many a man has been left crying in the gutter and it is deemed a shortcoming of no man to conquer the final walls by foot. Though Craig was in the lead as the climb started, a group of five was less than two minutes behind. Victory was a possibility for all at this point. Isaacs was the first to take up the chase, with Grant and Bettendorf battling for third behind him. Schmidt was being distanced behind them and Connick had clicked out of pedals and ascended by foot. As Craig entered the final straightaway, Isaacs caught sight of him. The gap was too great to be closed however and Craig was given the hero’s welcome by the spectators who lined Brockway Mountain three of four deep in places. Dave Grant claimed his second podium finish and the first for Ace within recent memory. The battle for fourth was hard fought, as Schmidt caught a tiring Bettendorf on the final rise, crossing the line in Grant’s long but fading shadow. Behind Bettendorf, Ian Connick salvaged sixth place, a solid finish after a powerful start to his day.

Though the Red Jackets were once again not able to claim a podium spot in the men’s contest, Kate McCloud gave the team a long-sought moment of glory by crossing the line as the first woman.

Behind the leaders, countless riders trickled in, telling tales of woe, showing battle scars deep and painful, lamenting flat tires and broken bars. Stories were told long into the night at the Mariner North in Copper Harbor – depleting their stock of Belgian ales over talk of what could have and should have been and giving warnings of what awaits at the upcoming Ronde and in next year’s Flèche. The queen of the U.P. classics may be over for another year, but the stories will live on, as will¬ – for all but the winners – hope of better fortune next year.

A huge thank you to everyone for making this year’s Flèche a success, especially the numerous members of the Red Jacket Cycling Team for setting up and tearing down the course, Red Jackets Sharon Stoll and Bruce & Robyn Harvey for support during the ride, Esme Schmidt for manning registration, Rhythm Bike and Board for hosting the start and the Mariner North for their continued support of all types of cycling in the Keweenaw.

La Flèche du Nord: Spring Classics Come to the Keweenaw

Updated: May 3, 2017
Author: btk
road | events

The Red Jacket Cycling Team is proud to present the seventh annual La Fleche du Nord, an informal, but high-paced ride in the tradition of the Belgian spring classics on May 6. Starting in Houghton, finishing on top of Brockway Mountain, the 70-mile route will take riders over some of the toughest terrain the Keweenaw has to offer. A ride unlike any other, La Fleche features six sections of dirt that account for nearly half of the total distance and will give riders the opportunity to see the Keweenaw from an entirely new perspective. Though not a race, the event will be anything but a leisurely tour to the top of the peninsula.

Gear
In spite of an endless winter, it is expected that the standard course will again be used this year. The route features sections of packed dirt, rough gravel, chewed asphalt, loose sand and possibly flowing water. Riders have fared will on standard road times. Beefier is better, however, as flats are a common occurrence. For gearing, 39x25 (minimum) or a compact or triple crank are advised for those not wanting to walk the 20% pitches that await riders on Brockway Mountain and several other short, steep sections.

The course will be marked; maps will be available at the start.

Everyone is welcome to hit the Mariner North in Copper Harbor afterwards for lunch (eveyone is on their own).

As this is a one way ride, riders will be responsible for organizing return transport from Copper Harbor to Houghton. A limited number of seats will be available for those unable to secure return transport. Please send a note to cts@bikethekeweenaw.com by May 2 if in need of a ride. If planning on riding, please either send a note or rsvp on the event Facebook page.

No entry fee, no support, no feed zones, no aid stations, no prizes, no glory. Just old-fashioned pain and suffering.

Schedule:
May 6, 2017
9:00a.m.: Rider sign-in at Rhythm Bikes and Boards of Houghton
10:00a.m.: Unofficial start (rollout through Houghton and Hancock)
2:00p.m.: First riders expected on Brockway Mountain

BIKE!

February 16, 2015


BIKE! works to empower people in the Keweenaw to ride bikes more often through education and community outreach, encouragement, and advocacy and regional development. For info, visit the BIKE! website.

The Keweenaw?

March 1, 2011

A lonely peninsula jutting into Lake Superior at the northern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the Keweenaw isn't a place one passes through by accident. You need to want to come here. And if you ride a bike – road or mountain – this is a place worth wanting to get to. Hundreds of miles of low-traffic roads, six top-notch mtb trail systems, endless water and temperate climes, it's worth discovering if you haven't already checked it out.