2012 Copper Harbor Trails Festival Race Report

I remember writing posts a long time ago on my Specialized Rider’s Club Journal about mountain bike racers who frustrated me.  They had bigger aerobic engines than I did, cruised through the paved roll-outs and beat me to the trails.   Then they would be sadly, slowly picking their way through the trails because they didn’t have adequate technical skills to navigate the trails.

I have become that guy.

For those of you who have been playing along at home, I spent the whole summer training for triathlons.  I biked, I swam, I ran.  During the months I was doing this, I realized that I tolerated running, was fairly bored of swimming and still just gleefully enjoyed riding my bike.  After the triathlons were done, it was time to get back to my roots as a cyclist.  Especially with cyclocross season coming up, I needed to reacquaint myself with my bike handling skills.  Enter the Bell’s Brewery Copper Harbor Trails Festival.  (This is the event formerly known as the Fat Tire Festival.  However, with New Belgium brewing a Fat Tire Ale and a title sponsor in Bell’s Brewery, there was a necessary name change.)  There has  not been a year since 2006 that I missed this race, though in retrospect, I don’t know why.

When I first moved to the Keweenaw and was getting fully engaged in mountain bike racing, everybody said that Copper Harbor was the place to be.  The trails were the best, the atmosphere was the greatest and if you could ride it all, you were a “real” or “good” trail rider.  All of that may be true.  IMBA declared them “epic” a few years back and this year gave it Bronze-level “Ride Center” status (whatever that means exactly).  These are clearly good, hard trails.

The thing is, if you’re really going to ride them, you need the right bike.  A friend I know rides them weekly on his Trek Slash.  A Scott Genius LT wouldn’t be out of place.  A Specialized Enduro or Ibis Mojo are other great choices.  You’ll notice I did not list a 29″ hardtail like my Kona Big Kahuna.  To be sure, you can ride them on anything you want.  My friend and teammate rode the full 29 mile loop on a 29″ hardtail singlespeed.  But what would you pick if you had any option?  The short answer is, “not my bike.”  And the takeaway is that I don’t really enjoy riding Copper Harbor as much as I should.

As for the race itself, it’s getting big.  They actually had to cap the number of racers this year, whether or not we got to that cap.  It’s getting to a point where I wonder if I, as a local, need to focus more on volunteering for the event instead of riding in it.  They sent all of us down to a new start location at the Fort Wilkins State Park Headquarters, which is about a mile outside of Copper Harbor proper.  The notion here was to spread out the racers a little bit before we reached the Brockway Mountain climb and headed onto The Flow.  When those of use who actually race considered this, we were apprehensive.  Why?  Here’s the first mile or so of my GPS trace, courtesy of Strava:

Yeah.  The only reason I wasn’t going faster is because I ran out of gears. It was fast.  And mountain bikers don’t know how to ride that fast in groups. And Copper Harbor spectators don’t know how to spectate those kinds of speeds.  Consequently, we ended up with a pretty good wreck that took one of my teammates out.  It did absolutely nothing to spread things out that didn’t already happen on the slopes of Brockway.

This is us cruising to the foot of Mount Brockway.
Even our super-fast DSLR couldn’t really capture us clearly due to our speed.


I was climbing Brockway pretty well.  I was way up near the front of the pack.  I would guess I was in the top 50 or so.  Here’s where my revelation from the beginning of the post comes in.  When we turned onto the Flow, I thought was was really giving ‘er.  But I was constantly peppered for requests for a pass.  It’s almost all downhill, so it wasn’t my fitness that was in question, but my bike handling.  It was humbling and a little depressing to think I was physically capable of racing near the front until the trail turns down.

My speed down the Flow was a lot slower this year, since we the “Accordion Effect” was is full force on this section of trail.  Eventually, I was in a line with all of those people who had passed me, even coming to a complete stop a couple of times.  I was incredibly grateful to get off that trail and back onto stuff I could ride better.

Finally finishing the Flow.

However, I was pretty tired and my triceps were completed exhausted from the downhill ride.  The climb back up the hill to the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge was better than last year, I think due to new trail construction.  We still got to ride “My Corner” on the Jim Rooks trail, which is always a treat for me.

A line of riders exiting the Flow.

The rest of the ride is less distinct in my mind and filled with innumerable details of very little consequence.  Little things kept wearing me down and robbing my motivation.  Prepping for a steep little climb, I tried shifting down onto the little ring and threw my chain.  Ten or so people passed me there.  A little later I looked down and my front quick release was loose for some reason.  I had to stop to fix that and another ten or so people went by.  Each of these little things just pecked away at my confidence and drive.  By the time we left the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge on Red Trail, bound for the finish line, I was just ready to be done.  I needed more energy and to be focused though, because Red Trail (and Mango, which it is connected to) are some of the most technical downhills you will encounter in Michigan.

I knew I wasn’t riding Red Trail well, but wasn’t losing any places this time.  My triceps were really starting to hurt and get tired.  One rock drop-off had a big crowd around it and I couldn’t bring myself to ride it — discretion being the better part of valor and all that.  When we got on Mango I was starting to really worry about the narrow bridges that litter that trail.  I rode the first one fine, but the second one — not especially difficult when you’re fresh — saw my front tire drop off the side.  It’s only 6 inches, but I went over the bars and smashed my face on the bridge.  I was sure my face was bleeding, but got back up to ride.  I actually rode off the next bridge too, but managed not to crash there.  When I finally got off that trail onto the pavement, I was mentally cooked.  I wasn’t riding well, I was sure I had torn up my face and just wanted to be done.  Somehow Clyde’s Field wasn’t as punishing as it usually was and I cruised across the finish line in 1:39:15.5, some 25 minutes behind the winner.  55th overall (out of 268) and 13/40 in my age group.  Not terrible, but not my finest showing.

As for my face, it was scuffed, but no scrapes or cuts.  No broken teeth, glasses or bikes.  Quite a lucky fall, all things considered.

It doesn’t look like it, but the left side of my face really hurts.

So, post-race analysis:

  1. I am still trying to recover top-end fitness after a summer of sub-threshold endurance training.  I can push myself hard (my average heartrate for this race was still 168 BPM), but it’s not taking me as far and I feel a little worse after about 35-40 minutes.
  2. I am also still trying to find my bike handling skills again.  Going in a straight line for an hour — I can do that.  Riding Copper Harbor singletrack?  Riding that like a schmuck.
  3. The fit on my Big Kahuna must not be quite right.  Going downhill shouldn’t require so much out of your arms.
  4. I let myself give up before the end of the race.

What can I improve?

  1. If I do this race next year (and I should probably force myself to do so), I should figure out if I can squeeze some 2.4’s in my frame and set them up tubeless.  Lower pressure will mean more cushion, more traction and should make me faster on the singletrack.
  2. I need to go up to Copper Harbor with some of my teammates and get some pointers on descending.
  3. Get a real fitting for my bike one way or another.
  4. Dropper seatpost?  Pretty expensive solution.  Might still be worth it.  Also might be throwing money at a problem of technique.

The funny thing about the Fat Tire Trails Festival is that the instant I cross the finish line, I’m a cyclocross racer.  All I can think about is the Wednesday Night World’s training races and getting my Tricross ready for the CX season.  I hope these last few weeks on the mountain bike have started me back to a place where I will be a competitive off-road cyclist again, skinny tires or fat.



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