...as the dust settles over the hoisting of pit stop tents, over support crews making last minute bike repairs and stocking coolers with cold drinks and energy-rich food, only the birds make a sound. The tension in the air is palpable. Occasionally a rider grins at another, but most wait, heads down, eyes focused on the trail before them.
The Lumberjack is a mountain bike race of gargantuan proportions and, for these riders, the journey training to reach the starting line has already been immense. The race attracts the fittest of the fit. The best. They’ll ride 100 miles today, making three 33-mile laps through national forest and the Big-M Ski Area, most of it on Michigan-style single track. Together, they’ll face down hard packed trail, grind through sandy stretches, fly over fast-rolling terrain and soar around green-blurring twists and turns to push over 9,000 feet in elevation.
It’s still cool at 7 am. As the siren wails, 450 cyclists head off, some sprinting, others more relaxed. Racing is a solo sport, but no one can do it alone. To compete, each rider needs a support crew to maintain their all-important bike, monitor their physical state and sustain them with food and water at each pit stop. Now, these support crews peel off to their tents to cool their heels, and wait.
Jay Bridgeman rides center pack. He’s riding easy, pacing himself, and seems oblivious to the flurry of activity around him. The pack surges forward, occasional cyclists waving and shouting goodbye to their families and crews, but already, Jay’s in the zone.
This isn’t Jay’s first competitive ride, although it’s the hardest he’s faced. He’s taken on the Barry-Roubaix Killer Gravel Road Race in Hastings, Michigan, which unites 3,500 mountain bikers in the largest gravel road race in the USA—and possibly the world, Jay says. He’s joined 5,000 riders in the Iceman, a 30-mile point-to-point from Kalkaska to Traverse City, Michigan. He’s followed trails with his team mates and gone on countless training rides alone, with the wind in his ears. “I’m at peace when I’m out riding,” Jay says. “I don’t think much of anything. I just let the eyes wander as I’m riding the bike down the roads or through the woods, the back country. I just take in the scenery of nature, the farmland, the stuff you normally don’t see when you’re cruising down the highway at 80 miles an hour in a car. The chirping of the birds, mother nature at her best. It’s my way of putting work aside, family aside, clearing the mind and being free.”
Now Jay’s an integral part of his mountain bike team. He has sponsorship by Custer Cyclery, GIANT Bicycles and Territorial Brewing Company, and has a crew of his own to support him here today. But today’s race, the Lumberjack, is like nothing he’s ever seen. “I know people that have tried for 5 years, and they’re yet to finish this race,” he says.
As Jay finishes that first lap, he’s on the lookout for his team. He’s ridden 33 miles, climbing 3,000 feet, but he’s not slowing down, not yet. He flies into the tent, tossing the bike to his crew where they set madly to work, fine-tuning, peppering him with questions about how the bike’s running. Jay heads straight for the cooler—refilling water bottles, changing out the bladder of his camel back, grabbing a snack to keep him going—then he’s off on lap two.
The sun’s high in the sky now, the temperature in the 90’s. “You’ve got to stay hydrated,” Jay explains. “You drink 120 ounces of water per lap, maybe more. I have everything pre-made, stuffed in the cooler and packed with ice”. And it seems this simple sustenance is key. “The last thing you want is piss warm water. Your food, you want it cold. You’re going to be in the heat 10 hours, up to 12 hours. A great cooler is key for that race. Hands down.”
With sponsorship from KONG, Jay and his team can rely on military-grade, made-in-the-USA coolers to keep their food and beverages fresh and cold, throughout the race and well into the party beyond.
Even as he reenters the race, Jay is mindful of his team. “It’s a very trying event,” he says, “very hard on the body, the bike, the crew. They work hard, waiting in the heat. They need refreshments to keep them hydrated as they wait for their team mates to come through.”
Jay grins when he says he was fooled into his first race, the Fort Custer Stampede. “I’d started working on my bike, making it better, faster, lighter, as all mountain bikers do,” Jay explains, “and I stumbled upon Custer Cyclery in Augusta, Michigan. I hadn’t raced before, just rode to be healthy, but Dan Stewart, the owner, just kept pushing the buttons”. Dan urged Jay to enter the Stampede. “‘Just do it for fun,’ he told me. Then the brother in law walked in, throwing down the gauntlet. ‘I’ll kick your butt,’ he said. Well I raced, and I beat him,” Jay laughs. “That first race got me, hook line and sinker. I finished the race. I thought I made pretty decent time and all I wanted was to do it again, and faster”. Eight years later, Jay just can’t seem to stop.
“If it wasn’t for that day, who knows?” he says. “Now riding’s my path. I’ve met a lot of great people. We ride all over Michigan, competing or just joyriding. We pack up a cooler with drinks and snacks and we take off for the day, go ride a trail that’s not one of our locals”.
Now screaming into his second pit stop, Jay goes through the maintenance routine again, swigging back icy water. The news is in: the winner’s made it in 6 hours 45 minutes, but Jay doesn’t let that stop him. He’s busy restocking from the cooler, strategizing, readying himself for that final 33-mile lap.
Jay fell in love with racing as a boy, riding his BMX through the trails of his Portage, Michigan home. “We’d never heard of mountain bikes in the late 70’s,” he laughs. Of course Jay grew up, discovered girls, got himself a car and forgot all about the bike, until his daughter was born and he started looking around for a family sport. “When I discovered the Fort Custer trail I was hooked,” he says. “It reminded me of my childhood, of where I used to ride”.
Jay is starting to tire now. He’s sweat-soaked as he flies around the now-familiar bends, but he keeps pushing. “The trick with this race is you have to start your third lap before 3 o’clock, or they’ll say you’re done, you didn’t finish. It’ s pretty keyed up,” he explains.
Jay, and the 450 riders around him, are competing for $7000 in cash and prizes, but most won’t even get a look in. So, why do it? As Jay himself admits, mountain biking is a taxing and brutal sport. “For me, and most other riders on the team, sure it’s great exercise,” he shrugs, “but really, it’s about the challenge. It’s a competition, I guess, between the event and yourself, or yourself and local friends and rivals. We do it to challenge ourselves, to do something that some people may not be able to do. When you do it, you want to do it again, and keep on getting better. It’s all about the inner challenge”.
And with a great crew and rock solid gear, Jay can meet that challenge with open arms. “Riding’s grueling—on body, bike and gear. In a 100-mile ride you could break apart with a single shift of your thumb changing gears, if you don’t do it just right, and then your race is done. If you pay a little more money for a better quality part and take good care of it, it’ll last you a lifetime.
Sure, Jay’s racing for himself, for the challenge, for his team. But he’s also riding for, and often with, his family. “Racing’s a family sport,” he says. “When we get together, it’s like a big family gathering. Potlucks, you name it. We support one another, and if someone gets hurt we all chip in. Our team’s made up of all shapes and sizes. We have team mates with kids participating in beginner events, and men and women riders over 60 years old. We want to promote the sport, to keep it going.
As he rides the final stretch, exhausted muscles quivering with every push of the pedals, Jay can’t help smiling. He’s faced down another challenge, ridden 100 miles today, pitting himself against the best. He’s made it in 10 hours 2 minutes. And he can’t wait to do it all again.