Ben Petty recently crossed the cheddar curtain for his first 100-mile ride up in the Northwoods. After making his way through Stevens Point, he and his friend did the Bear 100 and made it to Jar's Bar & Grill with photos and a story to tell.
Story by: Ben Petty
I’ve been riding and loving Iowa gravel roads for years, but it’s always good to try to get out and explore some new areas. I’ve done several combination type biking/paddling/fishing trips to the Driftless areas of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota over the years, as well as further into the Wisconsin Northwoods in the Seeley CAMBA area and around Tomahawk. However, I’d never done a really “long day in the saddle” up in the Northwoods gravel & forest roads, and was itching to take on that challenge.
I came across the website for The Bear 100 out of Laona, Wisconsin, and was intrigued by the sound of it. I had a friend newer to gravel riding that had just purchased a gravel bike, and it worked out well to go with a buddy as there were multiple distance options available (31, 70, or 100 miles). I kept it on my radar for awhile, as I had been through a couple major knee surgeries on my left leg the year before and wanted to see how it held up at its first real test, the Mid South in Oklahoma in early March.
I completed that gravel century (slowly, but knee pain-free!) and that gave me the confidence to sign up just a couple days after getting back to Iowa when I saw registration for The Bear quickly closing in on the 500 rider cap. I signed up for the 100 mile option and my friend Peter for the 31.
We wanted to make a weekend out of it and not feel too rushed, so headed out of Iowa on Thursday, making our way to Stevens Point, Wisconsin later that day for our first night’s stop. I made it out for a short ride on pavement and gravel south of town that evening, and we spent Friday morning exploring the Green Circle Trail (which is a very scenic trail, at least in the western sections along the Wisconsin River and northern reaches of it that we explored), along with some fun and interesting sculptures we rode by in the Stevens Point Sculpture Park.
Along the ride, we stopped by the Ruby Coffee Cafe (just slightly off-trail) for a caffeine break, and picked up some of their instant coffee packets to try out on future camping trips. After that ride, we loaded up and left Stevens Point, and continued our trip northeast to where we were staying in Crandon, Wisconsin.
Race day on Saturday we made it to Laona in plenty of time, but not exactly stress-free as I was struggling a bit to get the route into my Garmin (it’s always something getting ready for these rides!) but managed to get it uploaded and to the line just in time for the start.
After a little gravel trail at the start, we were soon into gravel and forest roads of the Nicolet National Forest, surrounded by woodland and cruising through some sandy gravel roads. The first 15 miles also had quite a few wet sections and some standing water at times, but I could usually find a line to slowly make my way through those without issue. As the route progressed, there were fewer of these wet sections to deal with. The route passed by the little village of Armstrong Creek at mile 45. There was a convenience store in town, and I was ready for a little break, so grabbed some food and drink and chatted with some fellow riders. After about a 15 minute break there, I grabbed a bag of my go-to energy bites (gummy bears) and was off for the back half. Of the 500 total riders, there were 207 registered for the 100 mile option, so while riding alone at times, I ran into other riders periodically throughout the day.
Although I love my Iowa gravel roads, it’s fun to explore different places; one thing that’s different on this ride from most of mine is that being surrounded by forest land in often winding roads tends to throw off my “natural sense” of navigation; it’s much more difficult to find landmarks in the distance or know intuitively what direction I’m going (although I guess that just adds to the sense of adventure!). There were several stretches of some gnarly and beautiful, rocky rough forest roads in the 2nd half of the route, and a gorgeous river crossing around mile 61 at the Peshtigo River, where I admit to being a little envious of a couple I saw fishing and looking very relaxed.
Although the weather was nice and mild that day, I’ll admit to feeling a bit worn down by this time, and was pleased to find an aid station around mile 80, manned by “Eric the Fox” from Embark Maple. I appreciated his support for the riders and contagious energy, and after chatting a bit and filling a bottle with their Elderberry hydration mix, I was off for the home stretch, and I was starting to feel ready to get there by this point!
After correcting a wrong turn (thankfully not long after making it!), the last several miles were a beautiful gravel ride on the Rat River Trail, and I enjoyed watching its namesake river rushing around the boulders while cruising up this final section back to Laona.
After 102 rugged and beautiful miles, I was at the finish at Jar’s Bar and Grill, and found Peter who had successfully completed and enjoyed his 31 mile route (and his first ever “official” gravel event!) We enjoyed visiting with other riders and the food and drink at Jar’s. It was a great location and race, very well organized and definitely whetted my appetite for further bike adventures in the Northwoods!