With nightfall pressing, the barren Wisconsin woods grow quiet as a lone rider emerges. As he pushes further, darkness envelopes all but the narrow beam of light, shining outward to create a brilliant disc on the floor ahead. As snow blows through, it looks like some sort of warp tunnel. The light fissures along the trail as he steadily breaks new ground – two robust tires churning lightly across the top layer of snowpack. His cadence is smooth and synchronized with his breath. The series of motion is hard wired: Pedal stroke, intake – cold clean air stings his lungs while they balloon within his ribs. Combustion drives power through his legs like connecting rods to the crankset. Pedal stroke, exhaust – he exhales warm air back into the elements, and plume of condensation shows this machine is working well, for now. There are many moving parts to this system, and a myriad of variables could bring it to a halt at any moment.
Meet Chris Davison, General Manager to the three locations of Grand Rapids Bicycle Co. The scene seems fictional, like the winter wonderland of Narnia from the set of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.” But it isn’t fiction, it’s just as real as the frigid temperatures threatening every rider in the field during this past December’s Tuscobia Winter Ultra.
Tuscobia, as it’s known, is an annual race between Rice Lake and Park Falls Wisconsin. Contestants run, ski, or bike lengths of either 80 or 160 out-and-back miles in semi supported fashion. This race will test the mettle of any experienced athlete. It has earned a reputation for putting contestants through the frozen grips of hell. The 160-miler serves as a qualifier for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a huge draw for folks who want to embrace a challenge. Frostbite and exposure are common, and with temperatures dipping to negative 30 degrees, these were two of Chris’ main concerns.
His Camelbak (water supply), even though worn underneath his jacket, had begun freezing. He’d planned liquid nutrition for this race with mixed supplements added to his water. By mile 50, it had completely frozen solid, leaving him with only the reserves in his body. The dexterity in his hands and toes were long gone too, so jumping off the bike to fix the Camelbak would likely result in falling over. Without the use of fingers, how would he put his jacket back on? Translation: check-mate. The 80-mile course had won, and this stretch of woods is where it all unraveled. It’s for scenarios like his, Tuscobia requires everyone carry enough rations and gear to spend an uncomfortable night in the elements. Chris was fortunate enough to intersect with a passerby in a pickup truck just after the wooded section who was happy to give him a lift. “Athleticism and endurance are only part of the equation. A lot of things must line up correctly to finish at Tuscobia. This just wasn’t my year,” he says.
As I sip an Americano and listen to more details of the race, I pulled out my journal and took a few notes.
He tells of the phone call that started it all. A friend called in October, just a few weeks prior to the race, and informed him of an opening in the registry. Chris verified with a quick internet search and secured his place right away.
With limited time and a restricted budget, all efforts went toward obtaining the proper equipment. He sold off another bike in order to fund the required gear posted to Tuscobia’s official rules. “There’s huge importance to striking that balance of form and function. If your gear is too heavy, it’ll slow you down. Too bulky, it won’t fit on the bike. Too thick, you’ll overheat…” you get the idea. Also, you’re required to have a bivvy and cold weather sleeping bag in case you get stranded. We share a moment of laughter together, both admitting our fascination with outdoor products has led us to testing gear in our own backyards. Our wives react similarly when we decide to forego warm beds in order to sleep outside. Anything for the cause, I suppose. Some other guy in the coffee shop overheard us and chimes in to say he’s actually done the same thing. It leads me wonder, how many of us are out there?
Chris so badly wanted to finish that race. I know this because he’s already sharing his plan for completing it next year. He speaks with a quiet determination and enthusiasm that shape his character. We’ve only known eachother for several months so I feel honored he’s already shared with me something typically reserved for more intentional group settings. Prior to January 1st, 2017, his use of alcohol had become problematic. He’s been sober now for just over a year. My immediate reaction is one of excitement. Who doesn’t celebrate one’s sobriety? My other thought is one of concern because Chris loves all things bikes. He’s built his career around them. From my limited knowledge, alcohol and alcoholics can’t co-exist in the same space. Cyclists are known to herald post-race events, which are almost always present and come with music and calorie-filled libations. To any of us who have ever craved an ice-cold beer after a long day of work, it’s easy to understand why these after-race drinks have become part of the social fabric. They’re both refreshing and rewarding.
His honesty makes for a genuine connection. I feel like a best friend from summer camp just shared a secret. His love for bicycling and the industry comes with inevitable proximity to booze, and I sympathize with his catch twenty-two. Interestingly though, I also learn about the several brush-ins he’s experienced with the small sects from within who share the same dilemma. They’re looking out for one another like big brother. They stick together and enjoy being part of the cycling atmosphere while opting for a water or La Croix.
We pay our bill and head next door into the bike shop. I’m drawn to the industrial-chic vibe of the joint. The blonde colored wood flooring brings certain warmth, and powder-coated steel railings accent the place perfectly. This time of year the racks are packed to the gills with inventory. I walk a row admiring the uniformity, gently touching the noses of the colorful two-wheeled war-horses as I pass by each of their stables. He introduces me to Tom, the owner, whose relaxed demeanor seems to set the tone for the rest of the shop. He’s understated for top brass, but doesn’t overlook the formality of a proper handshake, extending me his gargantuan hand. Then I meet Lee, the friendly mechanic, who takes an earnest interest in The Adventure Deficit Podcast. His passion for cycling prompted a cross-state move to establish roots here in West Michigan. Then there was John, with a ZZ-top beard and coke bottle specs, flashing a friendly smile and jumping right into a conversation with me about his experience at Tuscobia. John was one of the few to finish. His stature doesn’t indicate the underlined truth of the matter: he’s a freakin stud on a bike. John holds not a hint of arrogance, not even in jest towards Chris, which let’s be honest, one might come to expect from the locker rooms of more traditional sports. Nope, it’s all just positive encouragement from John. I get the idea he knows the same thing I know about Chris – that his quiet determination will undoubtedly lead him back to those frozen Wisconsin woods. I begin to see the dynamic more clearly now; these fine folks will jump on board like family at the opportunity to help Chris get there.
In a way, this community is intoxicating all by itself. As I’m leaving, Chris offers me an opportunity to drop some cards in order to help me promote my business. I say yes and I’m pinching myself – I think I may have just found Narnia.
Whether you’re a pro-level athlete in need of a home shop, or a novice searching for your first bike, you may want to pay a visit to the fine folks at Grand Rapids Bicycle Co. They’ve got the staff, selection and expertise to handle it all. Who knows? You might just find out there’s a community here for you too.
For store hours and locations visit them online.