Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Moose Brook Fat Bike Race Report

This past weekend Cathy and I participated in a new, at least to us, type of race, the Moose Brook Fat Bike race at Moose Brook State Park in Gorham, NH. Though similar in most ways, this race took place in the frigid cold of January in northern New Hampshire and we rode fat bikes. You may have noticed that fat or snow bikes have been a pretty hot topic for me this winter. In fact, other than a little road riding when the weather turns, the post cyclocross season has been dominated by riding the fat bikes in the snow.

View from the cockpit.
Last fall Cathy and I picked up a set of Charge Bikes new entry into the field of fat bikes, their Cooker Maxi. As I have said before it was an affordable, chromoly steel bike with good workhorse components. It is not a lightweight but by the same token, it is not a beast. A great bike for the money and available through Cannondale dealers in the United States. Our shop, the Bikeway Source, and Cannondale set us up with a matching pair that we have been riding to beat the band since we purchased them. Anyhow, the bikes have been serving us well and we welcomed the opportunity to try our hands at racing them.

This winter in New England has been a good old fashioned winter; one with extended stretches of cold temperatures. Unfortunately, we have also has some warm ups and rain. This had made for either great conditions for fat biking or great conditions for wiping out on the ice. We have been pretty lucky in Bethel, Maine though and for the most part, the sled trails have been fantastic, allowing us many a great ride. Many of those rides however have been in frigid temperature, the likes of which we have never really spent much time riding in. Don't get me wrong, Cathy and I have always ridden all year long but I can not remember so many times riding in temperatures that were in the teens, let alone all of the times we have been out in single digit temperatures. We have had to really step our game up in terms of appropriate dress for these conditions, which has been challenging.

Following suit, this past weekend was supposed to be seasonable for northern New England, with temperatures on the mild side Saturday reaching the twenties but dipping back below zero over night and peaking in the low single digits Sunday with sustained winds.On Saturday, Cathy and I took advantage of the weather and headed to Gorham for a pre-ride of the course. We started out by following tracks in which we later found to be the wrong direction. No matter as it was great trail and conditions. There was very little ice and hard, fast and well laid out trail. We got lost at one point, only for a moment or two, but corrected and eventually made it back to the park entrance.

Pinned up and ready to race.
For the second lap we traveled in the correct direction. The course rode much better that way but had some good sustained climbing that was certain to be a challenge when at your limit. We finished up and met the organizers Jason, Jeremiah and Ben from Coos Cycling Club in the parking lot and chatted or a while, expressing our delight at the event and trails as well as our gratitude, before they headed out to do some trail work. Then we headed home, preparing for the race the next morning but stopping first on the way at the White Mountain Cafe in Gorham for some coffee.

Sunday came and as expected, the temperature was brisk. We read 3 degrees here in Bethel and the wind was howling. We ate breakfast and packed for the short drive to Gorham, watching the thermometer in the truck not rise but drop as we made out way west along RT2. When we exited the truck at the venue the cold and wind slapped us in the face like a gauntlet issuing a challenge; come out, if you dare. After some time we emerged from the truck, clad in layers of down and wool and made our way quickly to registration nestled in the shelter of the ranger station, which also had a roaring fire in the fireplace. Our friends, team Seib arrived shortly after us as did the rest of the Bikeman crew with Big Al, Ryan and Forrest as well as our friend Derek. We stood around the fire and chatted for a while but eventually retreated to the truck to get ready for the race, which was to be a total "Belgian warmup" We basically put everything we had on and went from the truck with the heater blasting to the start line. I wasn't fully prepared for what was to come.

In terms of gear, I chose the following;
  • LEGS: Champion fleece bib shorts, fleece leg warmers, Pearl Izumi Amfib bib tights
  • UPPER: Craft wind block long sleeve thermal, Pearl Izumi Select Thermal jersey, Champion wind jacket
  • HEAD: ultra thin balaclava, Pearl Izumi Thermal cap, Giro Xen helmet
  • HANDS: Ibex thin wool liners, Pearl Izumi Barrier insulated lobster mitts
  • FEET: wool liner and Smartwool socks, Pearl Izumi GTX winter shoes, Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier covers
As a side note, I also studded the shoes the night before with sheet metal screws into the treads to make the scramble on icy stuff easier.

The start was very low key, no staging based on fatbikeresults.com points, just line up, get a couple instructions and then "5-4-3-2-1-GO!" and we were off. With a long, wide, snowmobile trail climb to follow, I didn't worry much about position and took a few seconds to settle in. The shock of the cold air on the face and in the lungs was searing. I started with a balaclava over my face and was wishing for more. That would change quickly as the breathing became more intense and labored as we sprinted up that first long climb. One racer whom I did not know was absolutely flying. He had a really spiffy full carbon fiber Borealis all decked out in race mode, similar to my friend Alec Petro (who just finished the Arrowhead 135 ultra race this AM in 3rd place overall). I must admit, this unknown fellow, who it would turn out was Christian Gauvin from Quebec, had me more than a little concerned. He looked legit and the way he was riding was backing up that appearance.

I moved up the outside and passed Big Al and Ryan and started chasing Christian. By the first singletrack woods section I was almost on and we had a small gap back to the Bikeman.com chase pack. It was about then that my hands froze up, an all too familiar happening, making it awkward, but certainly not impossible to control. My hope was that they would come back once I had a chance to recover a bit and some blood made it's way from the core and legs to the extremities. As we ripped through the singletrack I quickly came to respect the technical ability of Christian as well as his fitness. He was giving nothing up anywhere on the trail. When we popped back out onto the snowmobile trail climb I sat on for a bit and then tried an attack. At first I thought I might get some room but that was quickly nailed back and on the steepest section at the top just before we dipped back into the woods, my brief lead was snatched away. If that was to be my test, the results were clear.

Keeping the race in sight (photo by Kristen Seib)
This is how the first lap went, trying to stay attached. We rode steady and quick and there were no real issues causing big separation. We came through the start finish together, with me following and headed back up the climb. Once again, the pace was all too familiarly uncomfortable and a small gap opened up. Just a few seconds but I told myself I'd pull it back together in the woods.

The lies one tells themselves when on the brink of collapse are comical. It became clear on the second lap that Christian was not slowing down and although I would make small gains and still had him in sight, the writing was on the wall; he was slowly pulling away. By the time we came through the start finish area there was a gap of nearly ten seconds. Luckily ten seconds on a fat bike is less than 100 feet so we were still well within sight but now we had the climb in front of us again. When we dipped into the singletrack the gap had grown a few more seconds and I had now lost clear view of the leader.

When we crested the top on the last stretch of snowmobile trail climb I was told the gap was at fifteen seconds and Christian was out of view. I tried to regroup and ride my own race and within a couple minutes regained composure and put in a mild surge. I kept plugging along like ever other race, trying to stay off the brakes and flow smoothly through the corners. Oddly enough, coming into the last half of the lap I could once again see the competition ahead. I now had the advantage because if I could see him, he could see me.

Done! (photo by Kristen Seib)
I kept chasing him and he was forced to start running from me. As a racer, that is a terrible spot to be in, the pursuee (to quote Jackie Gleason's Buford T. Justice). You are forced to ride harder than you want to, harder than you were already riding when the pursuer caught up to you while the pursuer can now throttle back just a hair from where there were and still dog you. The term "dog" refers to using dogs to hunt a prey, letting the dogs chase that prey and wear them down before the hunter moves in for the kill. I'm not a fan of it for hunting as it just doesn't seem sporting, unless of course you are actually doing the dogging, solo, but it sure works well for racing if you can get it to work. This, IMHO, is the best place to be in a race, pushing someone harder than they want to go because inevitably one of two things usually happens; they make a mistake from the stress or they collapse from the exertion. Well, there is also the off chance that they just punch it and ride away.

It became clear that Christian was working hard. Near the end of the lap we came upon Cathy who was still moving along well. I called out to her in a calm, clear voice saying that two of us were coming up around. I also cheered encouragement. That is another race tactic, psychological warfare. By sounding upbeat and chipper it gives the appearance that you are fresh and under no stress at all. Better yet would be to engage the competition in idle chit-chat but that is often a bit overboard with someone you don't know.

Going up the icy climb there was a small bobble. This climb took all of your strength and composure to make and we had some traffic as well. Christian slid out and had to run, forcing me off the bike as well. I could see his legs were tired in the way he ran. I thought about running around him but it would be awkward and in poor taste, so hung back and waited for the right moment, the one I'd been contemplating for a while now as the absolute best place on the course to attack. As we swooped down the last icy descent, over the bridge and were greeted by a stiff headwind on the wide open drifted field just before the start finish and the long climb, I knew that was the spot. Insanity to lay down huge power to sprint that section only to then be faced with the long climb.

Men's Open podium (photo by Kristen Seib)
So naturally, that is what I did. I came around hard enough that it would take a really big effort to jump on and follow, hoping that Christian was smarter than that. He was and by the time I hit the climb there was a gap. I settled into a nice tempo and ground my way up. In the woods I tried to remain smooth and quick while taking no extra risks. With each climb I expected to get caught by the fully recovered gentleman I'd spent so much of the race in awe of, but it never happened. Luckily I finished clean and maintained a narrow lead.

A quick change into warm, dry clothing and then run up the course to cheer for Cathy, who by then was working on her last lap. She was doing awesome and still having fun, at least it appeared as though she was having fun despite the suffering I knew she was enduring. I raced around to the last icy descent and then ran along with her as she finished up strong. She spend over three hours out there battling the course. She stopped to help our friend Melissa get her bike fixed and she still was not the last person to finish. She was however, the only woman brave enough to finish the full four lap race.

The best podium/trophies ever!
The post race awards ceremony was great, once again inside the ranger station with the roaring fire. There was ample food and coffee provided by local sponsors of the event. There was a raffle of many really great things and then there were the podium presentations that included the best combination podium/trophies ever. All in all, one of the best run and most fun events ever. Jason, Jeremiah, Ben and the other organizers, the volunteers, the State of NH Parks Service and the sponsors really put on a first class event. This was a first rate course with excellent preparation, flawless scoring and excellent competition. I only hope that this can become a tradition. Many thanks to all involved on making this an event to remember.

1 comment:

  1. As one finishing near the end of the pack, it was interesting to read a race report from the winner. You had a lot more to think about. My thoughts were almost exclusively "Should I take the time to stop and let some more air out". I think the answer was yes even though I never did. At least my hands were never cold.

    Nice job out there!