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Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Maiden Voyage To Fatbikland

I've never worked so hard, to go so slow.
Me, at the 28 Below Fat Bike Race finish.

Looking for a break from your daily bike path commute and weekend gravel grind? Is winter refusing to release its grip, leaving paved roads and single track sketch? Where to turn?

Time to try fat biking. Yeah, this long time cycling enthusiast has ridden many types of bikes and routes, but never a fat bike on snow. Time to give it a go. So, I plunge headfirst into the frozen abyss by entering the 28 Below Fat Tire Race in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota.

That's 31 miles of snowmobile trails climbing about 3,000 feet to the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower at 6,647 feet and then dropping back to the start/finish. The route is slated to be groomed for fat bikes the day before the race, but this event has a history of new snow burying the groom. The route also is popular with snow mobiles, which apparently obliterate the groom. So, I'm told that the biggest variable is the condition of the snow on the trail during the race. All that doesn't matter much, since I don't know what it means.

The challenging "Snow Pit" winds 1.5 miles along School House Gulch at the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.
(photo by Ridge Rider Racing, LLC)

Here is something that is well known around these parts. Race Directors Kristi and Perry Jewett know how to put together an event. 2020 will mark the 7th annual 28 Below fat bike race (28 Below), the 8th annual Gold Rush gravel grinder (Gold Rush), and the 20th annual Dakota Five-O mountain bike race (Dakota Five-O), all directed by Kristi and Perry. This event will be a well organized, well-sponsored, popular, tough but fair challenge for every endurance cyclist willing to toe the line.

One problem. I do not own a fat bike. I do not want to own a fat bike. I just want to finish this race. Kristi Jewett to the rescue. Since she'll be busy race directing that day, she offers to loan me her fat bike. Really? What race director does that?

Now that's a fat bike ready to roll. Thanks, Kristi!

Alright, I'm in. On race day, shortly before the pre-race meeting, Perry presents Kristi's bike - a gorgeous FatBack fat bike adorned with 4.8 inch CakeEater tires, 45NRTH pogies, DirtBag insulated water bottle/grub bags, a custom frame bag and mammoth flat pedals. Wow. That bike looks like it could take on the Iditarod.

A quick seat post adjustment and I'm jazzed to go. Perry runs through an equipment check and cautions me that tire pressure is everything to fat bike handling. He checks the pressure and advises to put a little air in, as Kristi is more than a few pounds lighter than me. With a borrowed pump, I add some air. As an old roadie, I think those tires still feel pretty flat, but others milling around the start thought they should be about right. OK. Let's roll.

At the blunt end of the spear, ready for the start of the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.

There's nothing quite like the flash flood of cascading emotions and thoughts at an early morning start of an endurance race over an unknown course. Especially a race perhaps a bit beyond my skills, talent, conditioning, or experience. I love such a moment, and soak it all in.

But this race is unique for me. There are so many more unknowns, both known and unknown. How to sort it all out? As my mind drifts, Perry shouts, "Pedal Power!" and abruptly we're off. Suddenly, my maiden voyage to Fatbikland launches to a chorus of hoops and hollers.

Little Spearfish Canyon near the start/finish of the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.
(photo by Ridge Rider Racing, LLC)

The peloton quickly sorts out, as racers stream up the long initial climb up Little Spearfish Canyon. Snow has been falling most of the night, burying much of the groom. But much remains and I have many racers ahead of me packing a rideable track. I search for a line to follow and a rhythm to maintain.

Soon, I settle in for the initial 10 mile climb. This feels somewhat familiar. It's something like riding my Black Mountain Monster Cross bike with 1.6 inch tires uphill on soft, saturated gravel. Maybe a little like plowing through that sinking Iowa gravel at last year's C.O.G. 100. C.O.G. 100 - A Fine Mess. But instead of working my tail off to ride 10-12 mph, I'm working my tail off to ride half that. And those 4.8 inch tires feel flat, flat, flat.

But it's still just riding a bike. I got this. Follow a line. Find a sustainable rhythm. I got this.

Steady climb for the first 10 miles or so at the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.

Although the first 10 miles up Little Spearfish Canyon climb without much of a break, it's a steady, moderate grade with some decent tracks. I find my rhythm. I feel strong. I pass the 10 mile mark in just over 1.5 hours. I'm pumped. At this pace, I can finish in about 4.5 hours. Wow. And there's a lot of downhill ahead. Wow. I may even be able to go faster from here. Wow. This is great.

Not so fast, buster. I hit the first of those much anticipated short downhills. Whoa. My front end flops all over the place. I fight to keep control, but I lose a line. Crash. I remount. Start again. Lose the fight with control again. Crash. Just repeat that. At least once on most every little downhill for the next 5-6 miles. Over, and over.

It doesn't seem that long ago when I bounced right up after a crash. No more. Now, I thud. And I lay there a moment, hoping nothing broke. Then I gingerly get up, apologize to the bike and walk a little to work things out, physically, mentally and emotionally. Now, it's a process just to move again.

The final pitch up to Cement Ridge Lookout Tower at Mile 18.5 of the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.
That looks flat. It is not. It most definitely is not. (photo by Ridge Rider Racing, LLC)

Those series of falls beat me up. I actually look forward to uphills, where I'm confident I can stay upright and move forward. However, when the trail finally turns seriously uphill for the final pitch up to the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower, I'm toast. I ride a little, rest some, walk a little, rest some more. This winter wonderland fat bike ride turns into a slugfest.

Eventually, I drag bike and body into the lookout tower checkpoint at mile 18.5. Instant relief. Energetic volunteers. Relieved racers. Hot chicken noodle soup, crackers, chips, cookies, and more. I plop down, inhale food and drink, and rest. Legs and lungs feel OK. I'm just beat.

Checking up on everyone out on the course, Perry bursts into the checkout and enthusiastically encourages me. When I tell him I am crashing a lot on the downhills, he immediately replies that my tire pressure is probably too high. After a quick check, Perry says that the tires have probably twice the air they should for the conditions. We let air out seemingly forever, until it was down to about 5 psi. Now, the tires no longer feel flat, they feel empty. But I go with Perry's expertise.

Riding through Little Spearfish Canyon near the start/finish at the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.
(photo by Ridge Rider Racing, LLC)

Eager to try this barely-registered tire pressure in these mammoth tires, I cautiously work my way down the first hill. Sha-zam! Immediate, dramatic improvement. Amazing!

Just like that, I can hold a line. I can follow a track. I can even ride atop a snow mobile track, when before I could not. What had been practically unrideable, now is.

It isn't easy. It's arduous. It's slow. Although rideable, the riding demands hard pedaling, constant handling and laser focus. Even downhill. Maybe especially downhill, for me.

But I'm moving toward the finish. Slowly. Methodically. One pedal stroke, then another. One trail turn, then another. Although descending into survival mode, I do not crash once during the final 12 miles to the finish from the lookout tower.

I'm toast. I'm burnt toast. But I ride to the finish. 6 hours, 47 minutes. I'm elated.

Race Directors Perry and Kristi Jewett at the finish of the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.
Thanks. You guys are the best.

Perry's counsel to significantly drop tire pressure saved my race. Kristi's bike loan got me to the race. Both of them encouraged and coached this rookie through a challenging day.

I'm so grateful for the opportunity to participate in such an event. Kristi and Perry made it possible for me. And everyone involved was welcoming, positive and encouraging. Thank you.

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