Border Crossing MTBing

What: the marathon class (four-hour) event at the Border Crossing MTB race, part of the Minnesota MTB series

Where: Whitetail Ridge MTB trails, River Falls, Wisconsin – really fun trails that loop up and down a wooded hillside. Apart for a couple straight stretches along the cornfield at the top of the hill (perfectly situated for recovery!), the trails are very twisty and turny, and very rooty, and not particularly technical except for a section – near the end of our lap – that featured some burly rock sections. Our lap also included two short but steep climbs, which did a very good job of exploding my legs.

When: 8:50 a.m. till about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why: I had hoped to do the Dirt Bag gravel race this weekend, but family plans made that hard or impossible, so when my friend Galen asked if I was interested in this event – rescheduled from July – I jumped at the chance.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi with a new 1x drivetrain. 

My best gear was the bike, of course, and my new Revelate Wampak hydration pack – which I hope will be a key element of my winter-racing setup.

My worst gear was my new 1x drivetrain on the bike, which was wonky all day. Still, it never failed, so…

The low points were not very low:

  1. When I realized, halfway through lap four of five, that I wouldn’t be able to hold pace for six full laps. Not actually that bad a problem!
  2. When my Four Hour Energy drink wore off after three hours. False advertising!
  3. When the elite-class racers came ripping though about two hours into my race. Good lord they’re fast.

The high point was when, on my last lap – pretty much totally gassed – I still managed to clean all but one of the various fairly technical obstacles on the course. I had been hit or miss with them all day, so I was happy to put my experience with them to good purpose so late in the race. Now I just need to be able to do this on lap two, and at three times the speed!

It was in the bag when I made it up the last serious climb, a steep ramp covered with loose rock, and knew I pretty much just had easy, fun trails to the finish.

The key lesson learned was that Four Hour Energy isn’t, and that the Whitetail Ridge trails are great. I’ll have to try to do this race next year, at its usual time in July.

The takeaway is that the MMBS races are pretty damn fun. I did three this year (this one, the Red Wing Classic in RW in July, and the Singletrack Escape in August in St. Cloud), and found the race experience to be quite different from my usual kind of event – gravel centuries and fatbike ultras. I like the vibe, especially having racers around almost all the time. I look forward to getting better – smoother but especially faster – at this kind of racing.

Sweaty Fun at the Red Wing Classic 

What: the Red Wing Classic race, event #4 in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series

Where: the Memorial Park trails above Red Wing, MN

When: July 10, 2016

Why: To try a “short” mountain bike race! I decided to enter the “comp” class to get the most time out there – three laps of a decently tough 6.1 mile course. 

Who: my Salsa El Mariachi, the Coyote.

My best gear was my tire setup: Bontrager XR2s, tubeless. Good stuff. 

My worst gear was my sense of balance, which betrayed me on a tricky off-camber turn early in lap 1, causing a bad crash that screwed up my right hand for a while. 

The low points were

  1. when I crashed,
  2. when I got so badly dehydrated on lap 1 that I started seeing stars, which were only chased off by pounding three cups of cold water, and 
  3. When I reached the infamous Stairway to Heaven climb on each lap, a steep, straight, rocky bastard. I had to walk it each time. 

The high point was when, on lap 3, I felt like my legs had come around and that I’d finally gotten a sense of the course. 

It was in the bag when I hit the top of the last climb and knew I had only a few hundred meters to go, finishing in 2:27 for 50th place – third from last and 44 minutes behind the winner. 

The key lesson learned was that going hard for 2 and a half hours is fun but totally different than racing a marathon. 

The takeaway is that these short races should be part of my “off-season” racing schedule. Many are pretty close to Northfield, all are inexpensive compared to marathons, and each (I learned) is quite different from the others. My lap times got longer through the race: 45:25 on lap 1, 49:58 on lap 2, and  52:15 on lap 3. Gotta get faster. 

Note: the photo above is by Todd Bauer, an excellent photographer who covers a lot of bike races! He published a great gallery of photos from the Red Wing Classic, including that shot of me

Cheq 80

What: The Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race – actually only 80 miles this year due to rain damage on one part of the trail network. 

Where: Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association trails near Cable in north-central Wisconsin. The CAMBA trails are tight, technical paths through dense hardwood and conifer forests. 

When: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – a warm, humid northwoods day.

Why: To redeem myself after failing to finish the Cheq 100 in 2015, when I stepped down to the 62-mile race after the wet trails proved too much for my legs and fatbike.

Who: the Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi, which got a little buggy and dirty. 

My best gear: my Osprey hydration pack, a Syncro 3 that held a big reservoir and a few gels and nothing else. Light, comfy, ideal.

My worst gear: my lower back.

The low point was when I had to stop with ten miles to go to to stretch my aching back for the millionth time. The brutally rough trails were almost too much. 

The high point was riding the whole day with my friends Galen and Sarah, who though much faster than me, rode with me from start to finish. I valued the company and the inspiration as well as the chance to watch how they handled the trails. 

It was in the bag when we hit a high point on the last section of singletrack and saw the road that led back to this finish line.

The key lesson learned is that flow is everything on MTB trails. Being able to generate and maintain momentum is a far more important skill than being able to generate massive power. (Power and speed helps too though!) 

 The takeaway is that I became a better MTB rider between the 2015 and 2016 Cheqs. On to 2017: I hope it’s my first full MTB century.

Lazy Sunday

Today was a near perfect autumn day. Though I’d have liked to have done a hard ride on some local trails, instead I headed out with Julia on a big loop that included a little dirt in the Arboretum

before stopping at the Carleton library (where she checked out two Shakespeare plays – wha?) and then heading downtown to browse the art shop (cardstock for her new greeting-card project slash business) and bookstore ([this book on the famous Lewis chessmen]( looks great) and get a snack at the coffee shop. Small business Sunday! While doing all that, we chatted about everything: school, work, college, stores, food, biking, being a kid…

On our way home we rode through a street-construction project, which is always good for a little frisson of riding, harmlessly, where you supposedly shouldn’t. Six miles of east, fun, relaxing outdoors time.

Marji Gesick 2016: 100% Effort, 49% Complete

What: the Marji Gesick 100

When: Saturday, September 26, 2016: 7:47 total riding time, about 9 hours total time on course.

Why: Because the MG is supposed to be one of the hardest MTB races in the Midwest, if not the country, with more than 10,000 feet of climbing over the 100-mile distance, and because I need to finish a 100-mile MTB race. I’m 0-3* lifetime!

Also, because I’d never raced in the homeland!

Where: Marquette to Ishpeming, Michigan – in the center of the gorgeous Upper Peninsula. Our drive up to the race took me through some old stomping grounds and directly past my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Channing. This is a fire tower outside Crystal Falls, not their house. 

The course was mostly singletrack in the woods – always demanding and often relentlessly technical. Though there was plenty of fast, fun trail

and lots of hike-bike for me and others.

Who: The Coyote, my Salsa El Mariachi 29er hardtail.

Best gear: My front shock and my Bontrager XR2 tires, run tubeless at about 20 psi.

Worst gear: My rear derailleur, which failed catastrophically at mile 53.

The high point was when I realized at about mile 50 that I felt about as good as I’d ever felt near the midpoint of a long race. I was confident I had the legs and lungs to finish in 14-16 hours. 

The low point was when chain suck wrapped the derailleur around my cassette and neither I nor a fellow racer could fix it or switch the bike to singlespeed.

It was in the bag at no point in the race. It was on a pipe and in a tunnel at different moments in the event, though. 

The key lesson I learned was that I have the fitness for a long MTB race, and that my technical skills have improved enough that they’re no longer a liability (as they’d been at the 2015 Chequamegon 100). I just need to combine those qualities with a good day from the bike – or a different, more forgiving bike. It’s no surprise that virtually all the finishers rode full-suspension machines.

The takeaway is that the Marji Gesick is a great event run on a stupid hard course. I need to get back to there in 2017 and earn a finish like my friend Galen:

* My results in four attempts at century-length MTB races:

  • 2015 Chequamegon 100: switched midway to the 62-mile race, DNFing the 100.
  • 2015 Maah Daah Hey 100: quit at about mile 50 after the fatbike’s drivetrain blew up.
  • 2016 Chequamegon 100: completed the full course, which had been shortened to about 80 miles due to rain damage to the trails.
  • 2016 Marji Gesick 100: DNF at mile 54 with a mechanical.

Into the Woods

One aspect of cycling that surprises and pleases me is how a bike ride will sometimes – by accident or by subconscious arrangement – bring me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go. Fatbiking has done this figuratively and literally, creating or at least heightening a passion for being in the snow. Riding the Arrowhead literally changed my life.

But this happens often enough on regular old rides too. A mindless drift down a favorite road brings me at just the right moment to a view of a prairie landscape that shocks me with a feeling of being small but in just the right place.

Isaacson Corner
Isaacson Corner

A ride with the girls creates a sense – rare but welcomed – of being possibly okay at parenting.
Lebanon Hills
Lebanon Hills

Or yesterday: a careful plan for a pretty hard training ride delivered me to some wooded trails, just a few miles but a world away from home, that dripped with rain and a feeling of home – of my actual childhood homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my ancestral homes in the woods of eastern Belgium and central Finland. Even barrages of mosquitoes couldn’t detract from my sweaty happiness at being deep in the trees and ferns and mud. 

Caron Park
Caron Park

Fat Pursuing

Today I registered for the Fat Pursuit, the fatbike race that Jay Petervary stages in eastern Idaho each winter. I was registrant number two for the long race – a 200 mile affair that starts on January 6.

After completing the 120-mile distance in 2015, I had to skip the race this year, which only stoked my fire to go back in 2017. Now the race is on the horizon again – 158 days away. It’s hard to overstate how much I’m excited to train, to prep my bike and gear, to travel out there, to see the mountains again, to hang out with race friends, and to ride those amazing trails on the Buffalo.

The Buffalo in its summer garb

Mallets, ready to hammer

My preferred fatbike pedal is the [Mallet by Crank Brothers]( – technically a downhiller’s pedal, but perfect for winter riding because the big platform supports your foot even when you can’t or don’t want to clip in.

I’ve been using a pair of Mallet 3s for about a year and a half now, through at least four fatbike ultramarathons plus untold snow and gravel training miles – tough use, but without any trouble at all.

Till a ride about ten days ago, when the left one failed on a short ride near home. I limped back to the house and wrote to Crank Brothers to see about repair or replacement. They told me to send the pedals back. Today, I received the repaired pedals – rebuilt at no charge. I like that they still look worn, but aren’t now worn out. Pretty sweet. Great customer service.
Mallets, ready to hammer

Parenting by Bike

If there is one downside to my love of winter cycling – and there isn’t – it would be that my girls can’t join me out on the snowy trails. So as bummed as I am to see winter go (especially a short, mild winter like this one), I’m equally happy to go riding again with the girls, and even more so after we had so much fun last summer.

My spring cycling fever spiked on Friday when I learned that Northfield’s in-town mountain bike trails were scheduled to open for the season on Saturday.

But! When I told the girls this news, Julia said that she was too nervous to ride the trails again – and specifically that she was afraid of falling off the bridges at the trail. (This happened once last year, so it’s a semi-real fear.) I didn’t say much except that I hoped she’d change her mind, and went riding by myself on Saturday.

Sure enough, this morning she announced that she did indeed want to go riding – which made Genevieve upset because she couldn’t come along, being already committed to going to a party. Kids!

I calmed Vivi down by promising to take them next weekend to a nearby mountain bike park (what a burden!), and then Julia and I hit the trails.
Shooting the gap

She did great, riding the bridges without any problems and re-conquering several features that she’d learned last year. She even insisted on posing for a picture:
Semi-scenic overlook

Altogether we rode ten miles in about 90 minutes, which is a great first outing of the season. In addition to the planned trip to other trails next weekend, we decided at dinner to sign up for a short gravel race near Northfield in May, and are thisclose to convincing the non-cyclist in the family to let them do a MTB race in the fall. Yay bikes!

A Good Winter’s Riding

My winter of racing ended with Saturday’s Fatbike Frozen Forty race at the Elm Creek trails in Champlin, Minnesota. I did this race in 2013 (my first-ever fatbike race) and in 2014, and found 40+ miles of snowy singletrack to be just a little beyond my abilities. This year I did the race as a relay with my friend Dan, who’s new to fatbiking but is a killer on the trails. Alternating our laps, we turned in some insanely consistent times: Dan did our first and third laps in 1:11.01 and 1:11.02 respectively; I did laps two and four in 1:11.48 and 1:10.39.Not bad, and good for third place out of 13 relay teams! We await our bronze medals.

With half as much riding to do at the race, I was able to enjoy the singletrack a lot more, and even to think, at points, that I am actually getting better at that kind of riding. I only had one serious spill, one of those Schrödinger’s crashes where you’re both vertical and horizontal at the same time. No damage to body, kit, or bike, so it was fine.

Apart from that, I managed to maintain a decent pace over what’s, to me, some very tricky trail: with plenty of tight corners and some off-camber climbs and descents. I even enjoyed Grizzland, the “advanced” back section of the Elm Creek trails, that I found, frankly, terrifying the last times I raced here. I’m not yet smooth as a singletrack rider, I did do a lot less of that herky-jerky riding where I smash the brakes and then accelerate. More flow, more go!

Altogether, I did five races this winter:

December 19: the Solstice Chase (26 miles) in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin

January 9-10: the Tuscobia (160 miles) in Rice Lake, Wisco

January 16: the Snow Crush (15 miles) in Faribault, Minnesota

January 25-26: the Arrowhead (135 miles) in northern Minnesota

February 13: the FFF (22 miles)

That averages out to be a race every 11 days, and 358 miles of racing! Not bad. Between my arbitrary first day of my winter training on September 1 and the FFF yesterday, I did 1,681 miles of riding (commuting, training, and racing), an average of 10 miles a day.

Spring, summer, and fall 2016 will be quite a bit quieter than the last eight weeks. I’m only planning to do four races before October. Perhaps most, I’m looking forward to trying to finish two mountain bike races that I didn’t last year: the Cheq 100 in northern Wisconsin in June and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands of North Dakota in August. In September, I’ll do the fifth and last running of the Inspiration 100 gravel race in Garfield, Minnesota, and then the Marji Gesick 100 mountain-bike race in the Upper Peninsula – a new race for me, and probably the toughest of the four. But hell, I have 222 days to train, and a still-new-to-me Salsa El Mariachi MTB to train and race on!

Then the winter will come around again. I am already excited to travel out west again to try Jay P’s Fat Pursuit in Idaho in early January, tackling the new 200-mile option. I’ll also do the Arrowhead 135 again in late January, and I’m jazzed about a new “unsupported” way to race the event, as announced yesterday by the race directors:

How do you make one of the toughest races on earth harder?? We will offer the option to race totally self supported for prior Arrowhead finishers or those with prior approval from Race Director. Unsupported racers will check in at checkpoints but will not be allowed food, water, or time to warm up at checkpoints. Unsupported racers will receive a unique finisher award.

Our vision is that an unsupported racer leaves International Falls and gets no help and stays outside until the finish line. No purchases, no Melgeorge drop bag, no hotel, no food or water from other racers (emergencies would be the exception.) Just stop at checkpoints long enough to register.

Sounds like a good challenge!


With this year’s Arrowhead now complete, I’ve crunched some numbers.

In my view, the big story of the race is Tracey Petervary’s third straight win. With the three-peat, T-race is now the winningest Arrowhead bike racer, female or male. Her winning times have ranged from 27:22 in 2014 (the cold year) to 18:27 last year – just 9 minutes off Eszter Horanyi’s women’s record (2012). (John Storkamp has three wins on foot.)

On the men’s side, Jay Petervary’s win places him alongside Dave Pramann (2006, 2008) and Jeff Oatley (2010, 2011) as two-time champions.

The 2017 race could be interesting simply as a chance to see if any of those three riders can win for a third time or if other one-time winners like Jorden Wakeley (2015), Kevin Breitenbach (2012), or Todd McFadden (2013) can win again. (Sarah Lowell [2007, 2008] and Alicia Hudelson [2012, 2014] both have won twice on foot, and Jim Reed appears to be the only person to have won the race in two disciplines – ski in 2010 and foot this year.)

Here’s a spreadsheet on all of the AH winners:

Obsessing a bit about ways that I can get faster, I ran some simple analyses of bike finishers the last two years, basically tabulating the time taken to ride the four legs of the race (start to Gateway, Gateway to Melgeorges, Melgeorges to Skipulk, Skipulk to finish) and time spent at the checkpoints.

The two takeaways are stupidly and slightly less stupidly obvious: first, the fastest racers go fast on the course, and second, the fastest racers spend very little time at the checkpoints.

While the top five men all did the first leg, to Gateway, this year in less than four hours, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Dan Dittmer (3rd man) did the second leg of the race in under five hours (4:13, 4:16, and 4:44, respectively), and only Petervary (5:33) and Ross (5:44) did the third leg to Skipulk in under six. (Dittmer was next closest, at 6:25). The flat fourth leg saw a huge accordion effect, with fifteen racers going under four hours, including Ross at 2:52 (the only person to cover that leg in under three hours) and Jill Martindale (2nd woman) doing it in 3:41.

Fast on the bike, fast off it: Plenty of folks – including most of the men’s top 10 finishers and Martindale – didn’t stop at Gateway at all. (Like several others, Tracey Petervary stopped for only a minute). At Melgeorges, only Jay Petervary, Will Ross (2nd man), and Ben Doom (4th man) spent less than 10 minutes refueling. Eight men spent less than 10 minutes at the luxury of Skipulk, led by Dittmer at 2:00, Petervary at 3:00, and Doom and Pat Adrian (6th man) at 5:00. All told, Jay Petervary spent just 6:00 at checkpoints (about three seconds per race mile!), while Ross spent 12:00 – more than accounting for his three minute gap behind Petervary at the finish. Only seven racers – including Jill Martindale – kept their total stops to under an hour.

Too long, didn’t read? Ride fast, stop quick.

Here’s the full spreadsheet of data for this year’s race, which can be sorted as you might like:

For the hell of it, here’s the data for 2015 too:

Arrowhead Race Report – Arrowhead III: Revenge of the Snows

I was lucky to have Salsa Cycles publish my Arrowhead 135 race report on their “Culture” blog!

Arrowhead III: Revenge of the Snows

They wove in a bunch of my own photos as well as some much better shots taken by Mike Riemer from Salsa, like this one.

Early On (Photo by Mike Riemer)
Early On (Photo by Mike Riemer)

Blue Monday Art (Guest Post by the Girls)

**JULIA**: What a great morning: Muffins and art and snagging the window chairs at Blue Monday. It made me appreciate how pretty and quiet Northfield is on a Sunday morning. The red Raleigh outside the window had “Townie”written all over it. Northfield is a bike town, even in January. I have to admit, that bike is nice, but the owner would get more admiring glances if she rode a Salsa Beargrease. 🙂

Julia's version

A perfect morning always starts with a sketch, and a beautiful Northfield scene in the background lit a match of ideas. And so my drawing began there. The bike immediately caught my interest. It was my kind of challenging sketch: complex and not too colorful. Of course, I would have put more effort into the art (although I put plenty into this one) if it were a green and black Salsa Beargrease!

Genevieve's version

13.5 Quick Thoughts on the Arrowhead

The Arrowhead Trail, near Kabetogama Lake
The Arrowhead Trail, near Kabetogama Lake

1. It’s an outrageous, unearned privilege to be able to do a race like the Arrowhead. I can’t think about this fact too much or I’ll start dehydrating through my tear ducts.

2. When the winner of the race says, “It was the hardest conditions I have ridden in with such an intense pace,” it must have been a damn hard race.

3. There must be a time and a place for margarita-flavored Shot Bloks, but the Arrowhead is neither. #yuck

4. On the other hand, sliced salami is a delicious and nutritious race snack at any time!

5. Next year I’m not sharing my Red Bulls with anyone! I need that crap. It’s magical.

6. I’m sure some egghead can explain the fancy science behind ibuprofen, but that crap, too, is magical.

7. I love the “racer against the trail” feeling I get leaving Melgeorges (checkpoint two, at mile 72) to tackle the hardest section of the course.

8. I’m almost happier to reach the last checkpoint – Skipulk at mile 111 – than the finish, because if you can get there, you only have 24 miles to go. The finish is more a relief than anything.

9. I think that with more and better training, I have a real shot at a top-ten finish next year.

10.Some carbon rims would help, cough cough.

11. I also need to cut my time at the checkpoints down to under an hour, total. That’s what fast racers do. (Wearing a wristwatch and starting the timer each time I hit a checkpoint was a good reminder to keep my stays short.)

12. Riding bikes often humbles me, but watching Tracey Petervary and Jill Martindale ride away from me in the last leg of the race was humbling, awe-inspiring, and motivating. I couldn’t hold either of their wheels, but my weak attempts to chase first T-Race (who won) and then Jill (who finished second) did speed up those endless straightaways after Skipulk.

13. It’s a question as to which racer was tougher this year: Mike Brumbaugh, who skied twenty miles after breaking a ski pole and then finished the race after using PVC pipe and strapping tape to fix the pole; Jim Wilson, who was the last biker to finish, in 55:28; or Sveta Vold, who was the third-place female biker and who stopped during the race to nurse her new baby and pump milk!

13.5. Hungry.