Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fat Tires and Fast Friends

It’s been a whirlwind fat biking season here in Michigan, with a banner year of snowfall across most of the state. In fact, at some of the events this year, snow has actually been removed from the courses to make them passable. With the deep persisting cold, the snow hasn’t been very cooperative at times when it comes to packing in firm trails, which has left some venues a veritable trail of tears for the participants. In general though, the riding has been fantastic and the options have left riders and racers alike with options on most weekends and even weekdays. A great ongoing venue for testing out one’s mettle on a fatbike has been the Fat Tuesday weekly rides put on by Brent Walk of Fun Promotion at the Pando Ski Area. For a mere $10 riders have had access to some awesome groomed trails starting at 5pm until 9pm every Tuesday with the exception of one or two days the entire season. Grand Rapids Bike Co has been kind enough to send friendly folks with a number of demo bikes to ride around, and Freewheeler Bike Shop has ponied up items to give away as prizes to the racers. With the weather we’ve had it looks like the Fat Tuesdays will be ongoing for some time to come so get out there, there’s really no excuse not to…
A sweet ice beard is one of the Fat Tuesday prizes up for grabs...

As far as the weekend races have gone, there are several series to choose from in the Midwest: Winter Rush, Fun Promotions Fat Bike Series, Great Lakes Fat Bike Series, and Northern Michigan Fat Bike Series. Being my first season rollin’ a fatty I have chosen to sample from each of the series and multiple venues to get a feel for what’s out there and where there’s a good time to be had. Frankly, every race I’ve been at that involves tires of girth has been a blast! Maybe the courses have been grueling and frustrating at times, but that is easily solved with a choice beverage and good camaraderie. Here’s a quick breakdown of what each series has to offer:

Winter Rush:
This series has been great for the local GR fat bike scene, offering reasonably priced races ($15 pre-reg and $20 day-of) that aren’t too long to scare away new racers (typically around 50 minutes). The biggest challenge of this series has definitely been dealing with the weather and conditions with a couple of the races taking part during or just after a major snowfall. The prizes have been good with growlers for winners and various other swag (Harmony winter hats, Velocity hangers, gift cards, etc..) which is pretty darn good if you’re only forking over $20!
You too can win a growler of beer!

Fun Promotions:
Brent Walk has long been putting on good races, so it’s no surprise that these events and venues have been a blast. The first race of the series took place at Pando Ski Area and the conditions couldn’t have been better. With a hard pack XC ski trail to blast and great scenery the course was a pleasure to crank out laps on, and with average speeds approaching 14 mph it made for a race where there was no walking (a bonus in fat biking). The entry fees are reasonable and with a cash payout to the A class it’s one of the few series that forks over dough to the winners. The timed format (Pando happened to be 2 hours) made for a longer race which is a nice option to have outside of the shorter ones. There’s a couple more races in the series so don’t miss out!
Team Freewheeler crowding the podium
Great Lakes Fat Bike Series:
The GLFBS is comprised of several major races taking place throughout the Midwest. Yours truly has only participated in a couple of the events in his mitten shaped homeland, but has heard good reports of the races over the pond. Farmers Fatbike Race was the first GLFBS race I made it to, and it was a doozy. With heavy rain and warm temps leading up to the race, everyone and their adopted siblings knew this was going to be a sufferfest, especially given its 3 hour duration. The Farm Team did a terrific job salvaging the course the best they could, but conditions were still arduous. A single fat lane formed in the center of the course, but faster riders were left slogging through the boggy mess if they wished to advance their lead. Every lap packed a healthy elevation punch which sapped the already aching legs of much needed energy. Prizes were good with custom growlers, gift cards and heavy duty shovels being doled out to victors. The second race I sampled of this series was the Noquemanon World Championship race in Marquette. This was a last minute decision which was reinforced with the addition of an epic travel partner. Adventure was the name of the game, with it being consider a great feat just arriving at the start venue given the storm conditions and closed roadways. The ass end fell out of the thermometer in Marquette that weekend and racers faced bleak sub-zero temps with wind chills dipping to minus 30. At 50K in distance and plenty of punchy climbs this course was no joke. The scenery was grade A though, and the miles ticked by more quickly than I expected with awesome trail conditions and a fast run into the finish. The spoils to the racers were sweet customized cowbells and a center stage podium. This is definitely a series geared at the serious fat bike racer.
Shovel Envy
Cowbell envy

Northern Michigan Fat Bike Series:
The NMFBS is a short series consisting of just 3 races in the general vicinity of Traverse City. I only have the chance to participate in one of the three, but it was completely worthwhile! My race of choice from this series was the King Vasa 27K fat bike race, and I chose it for a number of reasons: I’m a fan of the VASA trail system, I like the Timber Ridge Finish area and it’s short and fast! Many of the fat bike races may see average speeds top out at 9-10 mph which can sometimes be a bit of a drag for the speed freak in all of us, but with speeds touching 16 mph for this race it was a totally different animal. I used my brakes more in this race than probably all of the other combined what with the fast descents and turns. The crowd that was out for the race was awesome too, and the finish venue had that Iceman air to it. The prizes were good with some sweet custom medals and lots of swag and free beer. If I’m on a fat bike next season, I plan to hit this one again fo sho!
King Vasa
GR holding down the podium with Jill and Danielle on the steps!

It wasn’t until this past fall that I even remotely thought about racing on a fat bike through the winter. When I heard about the Borealis Yampa and got the opportunity to get my hands on one though I simply couldn’t resist. While I spend a good portion of my time on the road bike, I’m a mountain biker at heart. I love cruising single-track, checking out new scenery and having the ability to cover any conditions I choose. The fat bike further fuels this passion for exploring on the bike, and opens up a whole new list of opportunities and venues to ride. Now that I’ve been on one and have been in several races I think I’ll have a hard time not coming back. I never planned on doing so many fat bike races and actually contending them, I just figured I’d bomb around all winter and have fun getting out to show off the new rig. I have to give a huge thanks to Freewheeler Bike Shop for getting their hands on one of these for me and getting it built quickly last year so I could enjoy the full season! I can’t endorse the shop and this bike enough, I’ve had the chance to ride other fat bikes, and much heavier ones, and the difference is noticeable.
I'm not worthy

Probably the best part of getting into fat biking this season has been the new friends and acquaintances I’ve made throughout the cold harsh Michigan winter. The folks that ride fat bikes are a truly unique and awesome group of individuals, and the camaraderie I’ve experienced has been unparalleled at many other events. It’s been an honor to line up with the Grayling Giant and get to chat with him about racing, bikes and generalities. Watching GRs own Danielle Musto take on the women of the Midwest has certainly been impressive, and I take pride knowing that GR has been well represented at the fat bike races! Duking it out with the Farm Team at the winter rush races has made for some brutal workouts and good stories post-race. When traveling to races, I’ve had good company in the form of a bear (Jenny Scott, not an actual bear…) and a teammate, Bill Shaver. Up at Noquemanon the racers from GR were kind enough to let us crash at their place in town and share good company. It’s been the best off-season a racer could ask for, and I’m sad to see it fading into the sunset with the impending season and training demands beginning to ramp up.
Even the bears party in Marquette
GR Joe staying fueled with me on an urban adventure
Fat Jimi at Fat Tuesday

Tying the races, equipment, and good times all together has been the Freewheeler Racing Team. I’m proud to be a part of such a diverse and awesome team of people. I can count on seeing red and grey at each and every fat bike race in the form of racers and sideline fans. These folks come and brave the cold to just shake a cow bell and heckle you if nothing else. When you’re digging deep in a race it’s always refreshing to have a friendly smile or chanting teammate to lift your spirits. I can always count on solid help from all of the guys over at the shop, whether it’s Curt, Pat, or Tim getting their hands on some random part for me, or Logger, Gordy or Sam helping me keep my rig in tip top shape. It’s really less of a team and more of a family.