Thus far this gravel season, we’ve seen gators and sharks, and now thanks to a race in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, we have bears.
Now in its seventh year, the Bear 100 based in Laona offered gravel riders the chance to race through the beautiful Nicolet National Forest.
Bear 100. Wisconsin’s Northwoods. We know what you are thinking.
“Yes, there are bears,” race director Brent Schmaling said. “Usually a few groups see bears along the way. None reported this year. Wisconsin DNR estimates around 28,000 black bears in Wisconsin, but we aren’t sure how many are in Forest County [where the race takes place].”
The story of how the Bear 100 started is one shared across the gravel discipline. “I got the idea back in the fall of 2012. I had done a solo tour of the Divide Trail late in the summer of 2010 and was looking for a place in Wisconsin that offered similar endless gravel and solitude,” Schmaling recalled.
The Bear 100 offered three different distances of 108, 68 and 31 miles. The two shorter routes are exclusively in the Nicolet National Forest, and a majority of the 108-mile race is within its boundaries. As Schmaling found while camping at the Bear Lake campground, the area has gravel and a remote feel throughout.
Wisconsin’s Northwoods do not have the steep valleys with climbs and descents found in the Driftless Area in the southern part of the state, but with the glaciers plopping down over the area and eventually melting, there are plenty of rolling hills to keep things interesting. All told, the 108-mile route has about 4,000 feet of climbing, depending on which app or computer you ask.
Road conditions at the Bear 100 can be hit or miss. If its a soggy spring, trucks might dig some impressive ruts into the National Forest roads. Laona is far enough north that sometimes some mid-May flakes might be part of the festivities.
Why, the route even had its own mini Cyberia this year thanks to the pre-race conditions.
“Day-of conditions are always a challenge,” Schmaling said. “In 2013 it snowed. This year we had about 2 inches of rain on the Wednesday and Thursday before the ride, so the routes were softer than usual. A few muddy stretches on each of the routes added to the fun.”
Laona is located about four hours from Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, so it is a bit of a hike to get to the event. The vibe of the race mirrors the rustic, laid-back Northwoods setting.
Headquarters for the Bear 100 is JUGS, a small bar in Laona. There are no call-ups, no grand start, just a “go” and a depart down a bike path. At the end, there are no timing chips and online timing, just a log book for each rider to sign when they finish.
And the prizes? Bears. Everyone is racing to take home a bear.
“Shhh, like a favorite fishing hole or secret powder stash, let’s keep this between us,” Schmaling hinted at what the race offers.
Part of the reason there are no payouts is that the Bear 100 is free, with the entry fee going as a donation to the Laona Rescue Squad. The EMS service helps provide support during the race, and if you happen to crash in a deep rut during the race, they will help stitch you up when you return to Laona.
The author is totally not speaking from experience on that latter point.
“Laona Rescue Squad, like a lot of rural EMS services, covers a large geographic area that is sparsely populated,” Schmaling said. “Like others, they struggle with funding for training and equipment, and to keep up with regulations. The opioid crisis is very real in the area, as well. We, the recreational community, expect someone well trained and well equipped to show up when we dial 911. I think we have a responsibility to help fund those services from which we benefit.”
The 108-mile distance was the Bear 100’s marquee event. As mentioned above, results are tallied in a notebook, with riders signing their names next to their times.
Can you read that? I can’t read that.
The Women’s Bear 100 winner was Leia Rollins.
The Men’s winner was Dan Naef.
The rest of the results can be found in the book of record.
Folks who missed out on the Bear 100 can return to Laona and the Northwoods in October for the Hibernator 100, which runs it back again on the tail end of the summer.