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Celebrating its 40th year with 40 miles of racing, the Chequamegon Mountain Bike Festival was the fifth stop in the Life Time Grand Prix series of mixed surface events, and saw Ruth (Winder) Edwards and Alexey Vermeulen proving best in the women’s and men’s events.
The punchy point-to-point mountain bike contest started in Hayward, Wisconsin and traversed the ski trails of the legendary American Birkebeiner nordic race.
The front of the pro women’s race stayed intact for the first half until Edwards pushed the pace over the top of the Fire Tower climb with Alexis Skarda the only rider able to hold her wheel.
The two worked together and established a gap of nearly two minutes over a chasing group that included Grand Prix series leader and eventual third place finisher, Sophia Gomez Villafane.
Going into the sprint, Edwards was forced onto the front. “I really wanted Alexis to lead but she kind of made me lead. I was definitely in too hard of a gear and she was coming up behind me and really almost got it,” said Edwards at the finish line.
There appeared to be some confusion at the finish as there were two timing strips. Apparently, Skarda lunged for the first strip but it was the second timing strip that counted for the win.“It’s a little bit shit to have a confusing [finish] line,” said Edwards, when asked what happened.
The men’s race came down to a pack sprint led by Alexy Vermeulen. A previous winner and twice podium finisher, Vermeulen considers Chequamegon a home race.
Fresh off a second place finish at the Gravel National Championships last weekend in Nebraska, Vermeulen came into the weekend with confidence.
“I have a special feeling towards this race,” Vermuelen told Velo on his way to the airport. “It was a dog fight the whole time. Everyone was all in. Things played out in my favor but I bet there were ten guys who could have won that sprint.”
Vermuelen paid careful attention to his key rivals throughout the day and said positioning was critical going into the sprint. “I knew [the sprint] was going to be fast. Everyone would be spun out. In the end it came down to who could pedal the fastest,” said Vermeulen.
Five time Chequamegon champion, Brian Matter got things started when he launched an early solo move off the front of the group of around 30 riders which included all the main favorites. Matter’s 25 second gap held until the midway point when the race came together with 14 riders left in the front group, and would remain that way until the finish.
“Relentless,” said Russell Finsterwald, who came into the weekend second in the Grand Prix standings and finished 17th, three minutes down on race winner, Vermeulen. “Chequamegon is the shortest race in the Grand Prix but it’s one of the most difficult,” said Finsterwald.
It also offered a lot to the other competitors, with the massive 2,800 rider community event encompassing a range of events, including kids races. The party in the Northwoods saw pirates offering rum hand-ups on the trails, contributing to the atmosphere.
The final two races in the Grand Prix take riders back to gravel with The Rad Dirt Fest in Trinidad, Colo. on Sept. 30 followed by Big Sugar Gravel in Bentonville, Ark. on October 21.