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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Exploring Fatbikland

There's a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.
Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

Recently, I rode a fat bike on snow for the first time. A Maiden Voyage To Fatbikland. Leading up to that event, a variety of experienced fat bikers shared their knowledge and wisdom to help me prepare. At the start, I believed I had a sufficient understanding of fat biking fundamentals for a successful race.

Well, yes and no.

Here are five things that I thought I knew before my fat bike race, but clearly did not understand.

Taking a short break on the initial 10 mile climb at the 2020 28 Below Fat Bike Race.

1. One Ring To Rule Them All
Tire pressure rules all. It's still hard for me to believe that fat biking on snow typically means single digit pounds per square inch of tire pressure. It's even harder to believe that a pound or two per square inch can make a tremendous difference in bike handling. It does. Even after experiencing it, I still struggle to process that concept. No matter. Next time, I will know the tire pressure exactly at the outset and adjust it precisely for the conditions. Tire pressure rules all.

2. Fat Bike Tires Float Like A Butterfly, Drag Like a Bee
It's amazing the snow you can ride over and through on a fat bike. But the cost is mammoth rolling resistance, compounded by riding what feels to be flat, or even empty, tires. Although there's seemingly nothing that I can't ride, there are limits of snow depth and compactness. And just to keep moving forward on solid snow demands serious horsepower and relentless focus. It all adds up to pedaling a tractor through a wet field. Temper your expectations of speed.

3. Gorilla Glue Grip
A bicycle tire 4-5 inches wide with tire pressure in the single digits provides serious traction. All that grip climbs the steeps and holds a line. But it takes some getting used to and doesn't help when wandering off the packed track into fresh, deep snow. With so many variables of snow, handling a fat bike well will come only after significant trials.

Even with a decent track to follow, it takes some work to stay on line.

4. Pogies For The Win
What's a pogie? Think of two large oven mitts that install over each side of your handlebars, enclosing the brake levers, shift levers and bar ends. Simply insert your hands into the openings to hold the handlebar and operate the levers. Inside the pogies, my hands stayed toasty all day in 20 degree temperatures, while wearing just a pair of thin polypropylene glove liners. Wow. Just wow.

I know that folks for years have raved about these for winter riding, but I never tried them until this event. I didn't have a good reason to ignore them, other than my winter gloves worked fine. Pogies are the next level. They also would be great for commuting during our six month winter here.

5. A Fat Bike Is A Bicycle
A fat bike is a crazy contraption, with capabilities and characteristics unique from other bikes. First and foremost, however, a fat bike is a bicycle. Keep it simple. Ride your bike.

For the 28 Below Fat Bike Race, Co-Race Director Kristi Jewett loaned to me her Fatback fat bike,
decked out for Snowmaggeddon. 

There's nothing like an all day race in the snow filled Northern Black Hills of South Dakota to reveal the capabilities and limitations of a fat bike, and of the rider. Exploring Fatbikland pounded me into a better understanding of things I thought I knew, but clearly did not. A hard experience is a tough coach.

Maybe I'll go back next winter. Now, spring awakens. Remote roads call.

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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Support and Mentor

Architect:  Just how long do you think this peace is going to last?
Oracle:  As long as it can.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003).

The gravel scene has been percolating on the back burner of the cycling world for years, marginalized and misunderstood by the powers that be. But the vibe created and nurtured at gravel events drew cyclists from all corners of the cycling world. Numbers grew organically, persistently, quietly. That's what happens when something genuinely builds from the ground up.

Now it's 2020 and gravel events seem to be everywhere, all over the country and even abroad, with all sorts of newcomers to the scene. New riders, new races, new sponsors, new interest in a different mindset. For the most part, these events are still grassroots at their core, so you see a wonderfully creative variety of races and people. For the most part.

Race Director Lucas Haan (right) checking up on gravel newcomer Dave Litzen
at the 2017 Black Hills Gravel Series - Spearfish.
Closing quickly from behind are Jessica and Erik Linquist.

The gravel scene is worth protecting.

If you're a gravel veteran, please support the folks putting together the events that connect with you. Ride those events. Bring a friend. Tell others. Spread the word on social media. When patronizing event sponsors, thank them for supporting a valued event. Contribute to the organizers some schwag, some dollars, some brewskis or some other tangible thanks. Be part of making it happen.

Equally important, continue to welcome newcomers, as I know I was welcomed. Keep hanging out at the pre-race gathering. Keep helping each other out on the course. Keep sticking around a little after the race. Keep sharing your experiences. Keep listening to the stories of others. Keep mentoring newcomers of the vibe that makes the gravel scene special. Keep adding them to the gravel clan. Keep it going.

If you're a gravel newcomer, please leave at home your expectations of conventional bicycle races and launch into a brave, new world of self-sufficient discovery and interdependence with fellow racers. Accept the event for what it is and experience all that it offers, especially those aspects that seem foreign, quirky, or even non-sensical. Pedal out of your comfort zone. You may find something out there worth exploring, in body, mind and spirit.

It's not for everyone. That's OK. If you ride a gravel event and prefer the trappings of sanctioned bicycle racing, there are plenty of those races for you to enjoy. Return to them. If, instead, you try to graft the gravel scene into the tyrannical bureaucracy of homogenized USCA racing, expect to encounter resistance. Grass roots riders are a force. A friendly force, but a force nonetheless.

Back in 2014, I wrote an introduction to gravel road bicycle races that was published on the website and social media of, a group with members all over the United States and throughout several other countries.  Gravel Grinder 101. At that time, very few of those avid cyclists had even heard of, let alone experienced, the grass roots phenomena of gravel races taking root in the Mid-Western United States. This was the gravel scene as I had experienced it at such races as Almanzo, Dirty Kanza, Gold Rush, Gravel Worlds, and Odin's Revenge. Like a well worn saddle, I think it still fits.

Protect the grass roots gravel scene. And enjoy it as long as you can.

Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, welcoming me to grass roots gravel during some early miles
as we pull into the first check point at the 2013 Odin's Revenge. (photo by Kyle Vincent)
A better riding companion, and cycling ambassador, you will not find.

Addendum. To some readers, this post may sound familiar. Well, I first posted it on January 2017. With so many new events and inquisitive newcomers, I decided to encourage gravel lovers to support what you love and to welcome newcomers. Once again, I remembered an old post that said what I wanted to say today. So, I re-posted it. My only changes were the date starting the second paragraph and the photographs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Hey You Dang Woodchucks!

The rankling dust-up between the great, unwashed mass of gravel enthusiasts and the elite racing establishment streams into spring. Like the relentless rollers at Gravel Worlds, no end seems in sight.

From my saddle, I see a wonderfully diverse community of cyclists free to choose from an expanding number and variety of rides. Gravel Freedom. And the number of participants continues to increase, far beyond that of simply road racers shifting sights from pave to gravel. So, the gravel community is not about to be overrun by a stampede of UCI or USAC racers.

I believe much of the growth in the gravel community flows from informal rides and shorter distance, lower production races attracting new, or re-newed, cyclists. Many participants in such local, grass roots events may not know, or even care, whether others are squawking about other races, racers, rules, attitudes or organizations. They're out there to ride. Support and mentor everyone who shows up at your local event and our gravel family will continue to thrive. A Call To Support And Mentor.

Of course, a big production race, even with all the trapping of the road racing establishment, may draw some of those cyclists to a destination event for a unique experience. But that doesn't mean that local, lower production rides are somehow a lesser experience. And it doesn't mean that local, lower production rides will wither and die.

Nonetheless, it's irritating to hear that the latest, greatest thing in cycling is the big production gravel race scene, with history ignored and all else marginalized or neglected. Then, it's easy to transform into the grumpy old man yelling at kids to stay off the grass.

For me and all the other grumpy old men out there barking, let's protect the wood pile we helped build, while inviting the woodchucks into the gravel family.

And all you woodchucks out there. You're welcome to join the gravel family, but quit chucking our wood. If you don't like a gravel event, make your own and chuck all you want.