Wausau, Wisconsin – October 19, 2019
It isn’t often that we see a gravel race come to central Wisconsin, so when the Ironbull Granite Grinder was announced in Wausau, Wisconsin, the date was immediately locked in my calendar. I was well familiar with Wausau. Just an hour from home, in 2018 Wausau was ranked by People for Bikes as the #1 best small city and #2 overall city for cycling in the country. It is known for having the largest ski hill in the area, and miles of forests, rolling hills and farmland.
The Ironbull set stage at the town square, with many tents and a marquee announcing to the community the importance of the event that was taking place. There were three race options; 140 miles, 86 miles, and a 12-mile race. I opted for the 86-mile route, which would later prove to be a wise decision, as rain started mid-day. Promptly at 7am the race director briefed the group of about 75 riders, and a slow rollout under police escort took us to the towns edge to the trail head.
A bit about myself. I picked up cycling about five years ago and have progressively increased my ability and versatility. I spend most of my time on the road bike, but ride gravel a few times a month with a local group, and enjoy the fat bike racing in the winter months. Just a few weeks prior I completed the Marji Gesick, billed at the toughest mountain bike race in the country. I’m a strong mid-pack performer whose primary weakness is hanging with the skinny guys when the big hills come.
The climbing was my largest concern, as the within the first six miles we were to climb Rib mountain – a two-mile, 700ft climb to the peak of the local ski hill. I knew if I lost the lead group on this climb, this race would quickly turn into just a group ride.
As we hit the base of the hill, the pace noticeably picked up. I knew that a maximum effort this early in the race wasn’t a wise move, but keeping pace with the slender figures in front of me became more and more difficult. I dug deep to limit the losses, but knew I was outgunned. At the peak I was in about 10th, about two minutes behind, and knew I needed to make up some time.
The next unique billing of the Ironbull was the route down the mountain. A ¾ mile boulder laden trail, officially marked as a hike-a-bike, put a unique twist on the descent. Traversing the trail with a bike on my shoulder proved challenging, but I hustled in an effort to catch up with the leaders.
About one third down the hill, we were able to remount our bikes and ride down a rocky gravel service road to the base of the hill. I may not be the fastest up-hill, but I certainly can descend. I took advantage of this to make up time, and screamed down the remainder of the hill. I was surprised how well my 40mm tires handled the chunky sections.
Once I hit the base of the hill and turned onto the first road, I was able to catch up with the lead group of five within just a few miles. Well, that is without Jake Buescher, who had promptly made an impressive 140-mile solo break away from the start, and was already a mile or so ahead of us.
Catching up to this group was my golden ticket. I knew these guys from a local cycling club, and had ridden with them in the past. They’re strong. Really strong, and I usually would get dropped at some point during a ride. Staying with this group as long as I could would be crucial to my race. Fortunately, the other five riders were completing the 140-mile route, and my presence wasn’t a concern.
Riding wheel to wheel, we hit the gravel roads in just a few miles. The gravel in central Wisconsin is unlike the chunky grey gravel in the rest of the state. Rather, it is mix of red crushed granite, which makes for a much smoother, faster ride. Not to mention, the granite roads were in fantastic shape. With very few potholes, they were some of the best maintained gravel roads I have ridden.
The route took us through the winding gravel roads of Nine-Mile County Forest and we eventually turned onto a grass forest road. Riding wheel to wheel through the cover of 100ft pines, I was starting to feel the stress of maintaining pace with this group. The grass trail eventually gave way to a logging road, which climbed for much longer distance than I preferred. Starting the climb in the front, I was slowly drifting back and was off-the-back by the crest of the hill. In an attempt to make up ground on the descent, I nearly overshot a corner, which would have landed me straight into the brush.
Catching back onto the group, the granite roads took us through the rarely traveled areas of central Wisconsin. This area of the state is known for its long, rolling hills which traverse though the countryside. The simplicity of the scenery is quite breathtaking. Farmer’s fields, red barns, rivers, bridges, and long views. The solitude and beauty of the Wisconsin backroads made this route memorable.
A few road-side aid stations were setup along the way to offer support. Everything from sweet and salty treats, to Fireball whiskey were available to fuel riders for the day. A brought a Camelback so I wouldn’t need to stop at the aid stations, but I sure wanted I shot of Fireball to help dull the pain I was feeling in my legs.
I managed to stay with the group until just before the 140 and 86-mile routes diverged. This was a bit of a relief, as holding pace, hill after hill, with the strong group had completely drained the strength in my legs. However, this also meant that I would have a 30-mile solo effort to the finish line.
Not knowing how far behind the chase group was, I pushed on as hard as I could. At the peak of each hill I could see back a mile or so, but saw no chasers. However, with each mile, I could feel my pace slowing.
The second largest climb on the course was Billy Goat Hill. A series of two long climbs that flirted with a 15% grade. As I crested the prior hill I saw Billy Goat in the distance. The view of the two large rollers was impressive, but put a pit in my stomach at the same time. Getting a running start, I pedaled hard downhill in an attempt to hit the climb with as much speed as possible. Reaching 40mph on the descent I used every bit of momentum to start the climb. Unfortunately, the hill stopped my momentum quite rapidly and continued to push up the hill at a snail’s pace, looking back often to see if I had any chasers closing in.
With 75 miles and the majority of the Ironbull’s 5,000 feet of climbing behind me, the road turned south back to Wausau. I pushed on, and watched the final miles tick slowly on my Garmin. When I crested the final large hill, I could see Downtown Wausau in the distance. I rolled into town with a little extra enthusiasm in my legs, and made my way to the finish, crossing the line in 5 ½ hours for my first-ever cycling victory.
It wasn’t until my reflection on the drive home that I grasped how fantastic of a day had just occurred. Not because of the result, but due to how epic of a route I had just experienced. Living just an hour away from Wausau for the past 20 years, I had no idea what diverse, challenging terrain lay just outside the city limits. The Ironbull Granite Grinder found those roads, and I will definitely be back to ride them again.
All photos in this article by Gary Barden Photography.