I can’t lie to you. When I signed up for this year’s Fat Tire, I wasn’t really excited about it. I really just felt obligated to go. An obligation to my shop to ride my new Kona Big Kahuna, an obligation to my team to be there, an obligation to my bike to actually race it. Then I saw the route and was even less excited. Then I watched the forecast go from 67 degrees to 59 degrees and rain. I almost didn’t go. What made me finally go was spending the money on registration, the notion that it was only going to be 1-1.5 hours of suffering and taking advantage of an opportunity to go at race pace to start getting fit for cyclocross.
As I’ve done for the last few years, I made the 2-hour roundtrip drive to the Harbor to pick up my race packet on Saturday so that I can do all the normal church things on Sunday morning and have a little less stressful drive to the race. Fortunately, the race organizers switched to the disposable timing chips that attach to the number plates, so that was one less thing to have to do on Sunday. All I had to do was get myself ready — both physically and emotionally — and start pedaling.
It was nearly a bad start, as I left my albuterol inhaler at home before we left for church. Then I left it in the car after I was kitted up and warming up. I needed it a little more than usual, since allergies and colder weather combine for rougher breathing. I was wearing all my Twin Six METAL kit, including the wind jacket, trying to combat the wind, rain and temperatures. The rain was sporadic enough that I decided to take off the jacket at the starting line, only to have 10-second downpour fly through. There was actually a cheer that rose up from the riders as the rain fell. Four hundred riders had shown up to suffer that day, and no rain was going to dampen their spirits. I wished for their enthusiasm. I had some nice chats with the folks next to me about how we couldn’t hear the race director with a bullhorn at all, about how we would climb our way out of our relatively poor starting positions once we hit Brockway and about how the 60% chance of rain was already exhausted by the earlier sprinkles. One foot clipped in, far more pushes with the unclipped foot to get started and off we went.
Right away, I found myself chasing hard to make up time. Nobody was in a hurry off the line and there were already gaps forming. This was ridiculous. I knew we had the insanity of the Brockway Mountain climb coming up, but I wanted to be with riders of similar ability when I got to the base of the climb. With the fork locked out and chain on the big ring, I took off.
I don’t know if people don’t know to shift before hills or what, but they were not climbing well. I watched one guy come to a complete stop and just fall over. I was down in a pretty easy gear and was struggling not to ride right into the back of riders in front of me. Yeah, it’s supposed to be a 20% grade right at the bottom, but we live in the Keweenaw. Climbing is what we do.
For this part of the race, the hardtail 29er was ideal. It climbed wonderfully. I passed a lot of riders I normally think of as being stronger than me. I also passed another gal who was fully decked out in Twin Six METAL, which was fun to see. We turned on to The Flow and started a rip-roaring 3.1 mile downhill. Really, the climb up Brockway was included solely for us to ride this new trail, but I wasn’t excited about it. (In that sentence, the pronoun “it” can refer equally to The Flow or the Brockway climb.) While people had said lots of good stuff about it, it didn’t look that fun. Now that I’ve ridden it, I still don’t know if I would call it “fun”. It’s certainly intense and not for the faint of heart. When we finally rolled off the Flow onto a freshly-cut doubletrack, twenty minutes had passed without any meaningful chance for a drink or food. I grabbed a couple pulls from the bottle and watched a handful of racers go by. Most of them I would see again, as soon as the trail turned up.
I’m still pretty new to this 29er thing. Part of riding in the Keweenaw, I had believed, was riding full-suspension. Full-suspension 29ers were few and far between until very recently, so we mostly rode 26″ bikes. During this race, I noticed a lot of the things people have claimed about bikes:
- Hardtails climb way better than anything with rear suspension.
- 29ers don’t like tight corners.
- It takes a lot more upper body strength to muscle around the front end of a 29er.
- Hardtails don’t descend technical terrain as well.
One thing I didn’t find to be true was that a tire like the Maxxis Aspen isn’t appropriate for these trails. The Aspen came stock on my Kona and while I felt like I needed something different for the front (a Specialized The Captain, natch), I’m not sure that was really necessary.
In any case, the trail turned up again as we climbed a trail called Garden Brook as we headed up to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge. I love riding this trail, not so much for its inherent qualities as for the section of trail that I flagged out and benched with the IMBA Trail Care Crew several years ago. I always want to yell out, “That’s my corner!” (It is a very good corner, though.) We headed up some singletrack that would barely be rideable in the best of conditions and turned into a parade of pushers during the race. It was here that I went back by the lady in the tall socks that is in the picture above. Hooray for cyclocross remounts. She would pass me again during the downhill singletrack away from the Mountain Lodge and then I dropped her for good on the climbs again. That was kind of the story all day.
The climbs back up to the Lodge have been bad for me in the past. I get into a very bad place mentally and just want to quit. I will be feeling like there is no way for me to climb any more. Whether it was my fitness or my bike or some combination of the two, I was in a much better place and just climbed happily back to the Lodge.
I was anxious about riding Red Trail and Mango, the final bits of the race. They have the most bridges that could have been slippery and wet and I had never ridden them on a hardtail or a 29er before. Turns out that 29ers take a lot of the drama out of small bumps and I actually have some technical descending skills. (Not much, but some.) I got a nice reality check when Andy, one of the wrenches at the Bike Shop, went flying past me at the top of Red Trail and then put 2 minutes into me in the next 2 miles.
The last descent down Manganese Road into Clyde’s Field was uneventful and I crossed the finish line at 01:30:15.0, which was good for 11/50 in my age bracket and 32/252 overall. Given the lack of intensity in my rides lately and riding an unfamiliar bike, I am completely pleased. There were also a lot of the local fast guys who were riding the short race for some reason or another, which put me a little farther back than usual.
The Kona is going to be a good race bike yet is still fun to casually ride around on the trails. It really needs a Body Geometry fitting and some tubeless tires, but that can wait until after cyclocross.
So another mountain bike race season is done. I’m happy with it, but am looking forward to next year. I want more podiums!