I get several recurring questions about fatbike riding:
"Do you get cold?"
"What do you think about?"
"What do you eat?"
"What do you wear?"
The questions interlock: I do get cold, sure, but not usually that cold, in part because I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m cold or hot and adjusting accordingly. I also spend a lot of time thinking about eating and drinking, and of course actually eating and drinking. And when I get everything just right, I don’t have to think about being cold or hot because I’ve chosen the right clothes, and can think about the race itself, about conditions on the trail, about the state of my body and mind, about other racers, et cetera ad infinitum.
I’ve already thought a lot about the race-day weather. Conditions at this year’s Arrowhead look to be similar to last year’s – around 20°F – though we might get a little snow this time. Given this straightforward situation, I’m going with a very reliable set of clothes that I’ve used in other races and long rides, stuff that keeps me warm and, as important, dry but that is also comfortable and easy to adjust as needed. After I put this clothing on around 6 on Monday morning, I hope I don’t have to think about it again till I’m done!
Layers are key from top to bottom, because they help manage moisture – preventing excessive sweating that could lead to dehydration or, worse, frostbite. In pursuing layering nirvana, I have not chosen much cycling-specific clothing. In fact, only the boots are something I couldn’t wear for any other outdoor winter activity.
The boots are 45NRTH’s Wolvhammer cycling boots – sturdy, warm shitkickers that clip into my pedals. Inside, I wear compression socks inside thin wool socks. (If I expected colder temps I’d wear thicker outer socks.)
On my legs, I wear thermal windbriefs, fairly lightweight Craft baselayer bottoms (super long so they stay tucked into my socks), and an old but wonderful pair of fleece-lined Craft skiing tights. I’ve never had cold legs, so I know this combination works.
On my trunk, I often wear a thin wicking undershirt under a long-sleeved but lightweight Craft baselayer shirt (the match to the longjohns). I may forego the undershirt this year as it’s too effective an insulator for 20° weather. I wear fairly thin fleece gloves, as I usually have my hands buried in the big overmitts called "pogies" that are fixed to my handlebars. I carry several pairs of gloves to have options if one pair gets sweaty or if the temperature fluctuates. (At the halfway checkpoint this year, I plan to change into a completely fresh set of baselayer items: both pairs of socks, windbriefs, long bottoms and top.)
My outer layer is a soft shell jacket by Eddie Bauer’s "First Ascent" line. It’s a fantastic piece of clothing: close fitting but very stretchy, with two deep side pockets and a deep chest pocket, a full zipper, and a huge hood that, pulled up, protects the neck and even my lower face. I also wear a very lightweight reflective vest, to comply with race rules that mandate a certain amount of reflective material – the better for other racers and especially snowmobilers to see you.
Keeping my head warm but not sweaty is a challenge. I usually carry two or three different hats so that I can change out of a sweaty one or into a warmer one. The jacket’s hood is a secret weapon here. I always wear some sort of eye protection – usually clear-lensed cycling glasses, though I carry regular cycling sunglasses too, because even an overcast day can be damn bright on the snow. I wear a headlamp all night so that I can see and be seen, but also in the hours before and after dark when I need to be seen in tricky flat light. Fatbike races typically don’t require racers to wear helmets, so I forego that too, which makes regulating my head temperature a lot easier.
Though all this stuff is expensive, it’s all very effective at keeping me warm and dry and therefore safe. And I’m inordinately proud of the fact that I didn’t pay full retail for a single one of these items, except the boots, which I bought with a bonus a couple years ago.
I was happy on Saturday to race again, this time in the inaugural Snow Crush event at River Bend Nature Center, a gorgeous and well-run educational preserve on about 750 acres of prairie, woods, and river floodplain in Faribault, just south of Northfield. I’ve been to RBNC many times, most often for school field trips but also just to enjoy the landscape, which is pretty great for walks and mountain biking.
The Snow Crush races were RBNC’s first foray into bike racing, so the center’s staff worked with the local MTB club, Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails (CROCT). Together they put on a hell of a good event, including presentations on winter cycling, vendor booths, beer from a local taphouse and coffee from a local roaster, demo bikes for adults and kids, and two races on a great five-mile loop – a one-lap race for "beginners" and a three-lap race for "experts." Notably, all the race registration fees went to RBNC and CROCT, which was pretty great.
I went down to the race with my friend Dan, a good athlete who was eager to race his brand-new fatbike. We formed up at 1:00 sharp for the expert race, looking into a westerly breeze that was taking the -1° F air temp down to something like -10°. Though I didn’t know how my legs would feel five days after the big ride at Tuscobia, I couldn’t resist going out pretty hot when the race started. 200 meters later, I knew my buuuuuuuurning legs were not in fact ready for race pace!
I pulled back a little and focused on a sustainable effort as we left the short opening pavement section and hit the snow. The track was in good shape everywhere except a few corners, so I was able to ride pretty smoothly throughout the first lap. A couple guys went by me, but they didn’t get too far ahead, and then one took a spectacular crash when he missed a turn. I avoided laying it down and took note of spots where I bobbled, trying to remember them for the second and third laps. The best bit of the lap was a set of downhill switchbacks that could be descended at a decent speed and didn’t require much braking. My friend Jim Wellbrock was shooting photos at a choice spot in this section, which meant that I got a rare photo of myself riding.
Lap one went by quickly, despite a couple headwind sections, and ended with a fast run down the hill we’d started on and then quick whip through the finish area. I saw the leaders going out on their second lap and gave a wave to a couple friends. Heading out for lap two, I felt much better – like a bike racer. Back on the snow after the pavement stretch again, I could see another rider in front of me – black jacket, dayglo orange and pink bike. Whenever I could, I counted the seconds between the moment Orange passed a certain spot and when I did.
The gap was 30-some seconds when I first noticed him, but crept down into the high 20s when we crossed the bridge over the Straight River (a spot where racers could be traveling in both directions, requiring my friend Todd to do some traffic control). The gap was in the low 20s on the only real climb in the back section, then the teens as we reached a long straightaway at the far end of the loop. I was jazzed. Orange got away a bit on the fun switchbacks, but when we came back toward the front section, he was close enough that I could read the text on his jacket. As we crossed the train tracks that seemed to be about three-quarters of the way through the lap, Orange was five seconds up. I took note of the time on my computer so that I’d have a sense for the last lap of how many minutes were left to race from that same point. I got onto his wheel on the long gentle uphill that came right after the RR tracks, a moment that CROCT maestro Griff Wigley captured.
I sat in for a few minutes as we rolled toward the lap zone, recovering, then went around Orange just as we crossed the lap line – and immediately bobbled in soft snow on the next corner. "Sorry!" I called back to him. I dunno if he had to put a foot down, but he was right behind me as we rode up the pavement section for the last time and onto the snow. Checking my computer, I saw that I’d hit the RR tracks about seven minutes before, so I figured that a hard push from that spot at the end of the lap would mean maybe six minutes of riding to the finish line.
The fact of being on the last lap was motivation enough to press a bit right there. Maybe I could catch the next guy in front of us! I bombed a fun straight downhill that came immediately after the turn onto the snow and tried to hammer the subsequent flat straightaway. Zooming through a very low tunnel under the railroad tracks and then through a gorgeous stand of cottonwoods, I could sense that Orange was close, but not too close – I couldn’t see his shadow. Over the river, up the climb, down a drop to a little bit of prairie, back up a gradual slope to the far-side straightaway, and then through the switchbacks again. My back was getting sweaty, finally, and I could feel the familiar sense of constriction on my cheeks where an icebeard was forming.
Glancing back from the bottom of the switchbacks, I couldn’t see Orange anymore, but I didn’t trust my glance. Maybe he was still there, and I somehow didn’t see him or his insanely bright bike. Going over the bridge across the Straight for the last time, I got up out of the saddle to fight a little harder against the headwind. Some softening track slowed me down a little as I rode along the edge of an open area, but then the trail took me onto some singletrack through woods that I didn’t recognize, even slightly! Bizarre to have ridden it twice in the previous hour but have no memory of it.
That mystery section ended in sight of the railroad crossing. Six minutes! Up out of the saddle again. Up the grade where I’d latched onto Orange. Through some twisty stuff, including a couple soft spots where I managed to find good lines. Looking up, I could see the volunteer at the spot where we jumped onto the trail back to the finish area. I figured I had two minutes of riding left, all of which I could do standing in my biggest gear. It felt great to really be hammering – first up a small incline and then down the hill where we’d started the race. I slowed to take the last turn, a sharp mushy thing, then got up again to sprint myself to the finish line. I crossed in 1:22, good for tenth place – a very satisfying result given how I’d spent the previous weekend.
Cooling off, I hung out for a bit in the River Bend interpretive center, watching other racers finish and running out to cheer my friend Dan when he came through – happy, tired, and well icebearded. The overall atmosphere was great, with smiling racers, warm volunteers and sponsors, free-flowing beer and coffee, and some spectacular bikes. It was easy to feel like I’d spent the afternoon doing just the right thing.
Last weekend, I finished the Tuscobia Winter Ultramarathon along the Tuscobia State Trail in northwestern Wisconsin – my fifth winter ultramarathon. I placed 12th out of 29 finishers (25 men and 4 women) in a time of 23:38. I had a great, brutal, wonderful time riding my bike in the woods.
I’d been looking forward to Tuscobia for a while, having heard from other fatbikers that it’s low-key, well run, and straightforward. Many other racers use it to tune up for the Arrowhead 135, always held three or four weeks later. I hadn’t ever done that, but when I decided last fall that I couldn’t spend the time or money to go out to Idaho to race the Fat Pursuit again, I was pretty happy to be able to register for the Tuscobia instead.
In two ways, the 2016 race was a new event. For the first time, the full-distance race ran from Rice Lake to Park Falls and back (rather than from P.F. to R.L. and back). With the start/finish in Rice Lake, the course was lengthened by four miles at each end to take advantage of a flat, straight four-mile spur trail connecting Rice Lake to the Tuscobia trail. Race HQ was a no-nonsense community building with a back yard abutting that spur.
I rode that spur trail the day before the race, getting a sense of snow conditions and stretching my legs midway through a very pleasant day of travel and prep. The mandatory gear check that afternoon felt pretty casual, perhaps because I’d done gear checks four previous times. Some of the rookies looked awfully nervous as race officials scrutinized their required gear. I tried to stay relaxed by chatting with other racers, drinking water, and thinking about my race strategy. I was aiming for an 18 hour finish, but I was prepared for a 24 hour ride.
After passing the gear check, I had a quick dinner with my friend Ben, attended the race meeting to pick up any last-minute intelligence on the course (such as a warning about a dangerous spot on the trail), and then went back to the hotel to pack my bike, which as luck would have it I could do while hanging out with Ben.
Six hours of restless sleep – full of nervous dreams about racing and especially about missing the start of the race – ended at 4 a.m. I dressed, nibbled on some high-calorie food, and got myself over to the start in plenty of time to finish some last-minute tasks like attaching my sleeping bag and pad (both mandatory pieces of gear). I couldn’t fit my bike into my rental car when fully assembled, see! As always, I got a little bit high from the way the Buffalo looks when ready for a race:
Just before 6:00 a.m., the 44 bikers tackling the full 160-mile distance formed up outside in the starting area. My thermometer showed the temperature as being 10° F, which is pretty much an ideal race temp. After a few more words from the race director, we were let loose with a hearty shout of “Go!”
Over the four-mile run north out of Rice Lake to the Tuscobia State trail, the pace increased from easy to manageable to fast, but I hovered around tenth place, near enough to see the leader if I stood on my pedals. I relished finally racing: the squeak of tires on the snow, the breathing of other racers, occasional calls as one person passed another, the warm yellow glow of headlights and the unpleasant red blinking of tail lights – by rule, two on the back of every bike.
When we made the right-hand turn that took us over a highway and onto the Tuscobia trail proper, the speed went through the roof, stretching and then breaking the line of racers. I monitored my speed on my computer so that I didn’t get sucked into chasing racers that I’d never catch. Soon enough the leaders came back to me and we traveled along together for a few more miles.
As we headed east, my sleeping pad started to slide upwards, catching the bottom half of my headlight’s beam and reflecting the light back at me in an irritating way. Too, the tire pressure that had served me well over the first 5 or 10 miles was proving too hard for the softer, less heavily ridden snow that we were now on. Earlier than I would have liked, I pulled aside to adjust the pad (folding it in half and strapping it further down) and let quite a bit of air out of my tires. Though as always I second-guessed the new pressure with pretty much every pedal stroke for the next few miles, it turned out to be just right; I didn’t have to tweak it again.
Back on the bike, I could see the sun gradually illuminating the sky in front of me – or at least what of the gray sky I could see above the near-tunnel of trees. Around then, another racer caught up to me – Tom E., a guy with whom I had shared a table at the gear check. We said our hellos and decided without really deciding to ride together for a while, trying to find the right lines in the softer snow. We’d spend the next 22 hours within ten feet of each other, sharing the race and the experience.
Racers say of the Tuscobia that the trail is flat and straight, which some complain is “boring” – a quality that’s amplified, for some, by the unusual out-and-back format. You see everything twice, and “everything” is pretty much just a straightaway through the trees.
I’m a big believer in the grandmotherly maxim that only boring people get bored, so I’d been looking forward to this “boring” quality of the trail. I love out-and-back courses, and do quite a bit of training on them, enjoying the way they turn this uphill into the downhill, or that left-hander into this right-hander, or flip-flop the scenery so the big red barn that was on the left going out is on the right coming back. Very simple pleasures.
The Tuscobia was no different. Talking with Tom about this and that and the other thing, I soaked up the view in front of us, occasionally glancing to the sides if we passed over a river or through a swamp or crossed a highway. The low ridges of snow along the edges of roads were nearly the only bike-handling challenges. The landscape was very much like the low rolling woods in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I grew up, or in northern Minnesota, where the Arrowhead is held – and very unlike the spectacular mountain forests in the Idaho of the Fat Pursuit course. I loved it all, even the little towns that were usually nothing more than a convenience store, a bar, and a few houses: Brill, Birchwood, Wooddale, Couderay, Radisson, Ojibwa. These names seemed familiar, akin the names of little towns elsewhere in the state that my family drove through on the way from the U.P. to Minneapolis or Green Bay.
The race’s first checkpoint was just past Ojibwa, an old stone cabin in a city park. The ride from the Ojibwa city limits sign to the park seemed painfully long, but we hit the checkpoint just before 11 – five hours and 45 miles into the race. At that 9 mph pace, we’d finish in about 18 hours – my target time.
Though we didn’t have a real plan for the checkpoint, Tom and I were pretty efficient at Ojibwa: checking in with the timekeeper, drying wet clothes in front of the fireplace. I melted off the day’s first icebeard so that I could eat and drink better. Soon enough, we were good to go, and checked out after 40 minutes inside. Tom started back toward the trail, then nearly took a wrong turn onto the driveway that led from the park to the highway. Calling to him, I led us back to our trail, laughing as explained that he’s just too used to riding on the road.
The leg from Ojibwa to the turnaround checkpoint in Park Falls was 34 miles, a solid ride under any circumstances and tougher thanks to an insistent headwind and a steady increase in elevation – nothing alpine, for sure, but plenty of false flats. Just after the checkpoint, we passed through more little towns – Winter, Loretta, Draper – before the emptiest part of the ride, a big, silent expanse of state forest interrupted only a few creek crossings and a bit of riding next to the highway. The snow thinned, and we even rode on short stretches of gravel here and there.
As we pedaled, Tom and I chatted. He talked about his experiences as a long-distance road rider, doing brevet rides of 300 and 600 and 1200 kilometers, including the famous Paris-Brest-Paris randonnée that’s held every four years in France. He also told me about his ride over the summer of the full Tuscobia trail, which gave him a nice sense of where we were and what we were approaching. Usually riding in file, we occasionally rode side by side and stopped about once an hour to eat something, adjust our clothes, or take a leak. I took every chance to stretch my back, which was tightening up as we rode, paining me especially on uphills.
What was new was race traffic. First, bikers doing the 80-mile half-distance race came through. The fast guys zoomed by while middle-the-pack riders approached more slowly, traveling more at our pace, and exchanged friendly calls and waves. Then the runners started coming, endlessly, pulling their sleds. Some were actually running, most were walking energetically, and a few were barely moving, even though they were only a third of the way into their races. We even met a couple skiers, who were standing at the bottom of one of the course’s only hills, waving their poles and cheering madly for those of us going in the other direction. Mixed into the short-event racers were the leaders of the 160-mile bike race. They appeared up the trail, closed on us with shocking speed, and then whooshed past. I waved to my friend Ben, riding alone in second position, and greeted the other guys in the top 5 or 10 as they came by in a small group.
The race traffic thinned again as we approached Park Falls. I knew from my cue sheets and from common sense that we’d start crossing roads more frequently as we neared Park Falls, but dammit, not all the roads were signed where we crossed them, or they had a name that didn’t jibe with my cues. Still, my computer told me that we were getting close: 75 miles. 75.5 miles. 76. 76.5. Where the hell was that town? We saw the silvery water tower, which then disappeared as the trail curved. Finally, we could see something that wasn’t trail ahead of us – a trailhead sign! We sped up and popped out with relief onto the city streets. A few turns later, we pulled in at the checkpoint, a Catholic school which had given its cafeteria over to the race. I leaned the Buffalo up against the wall to unpack some stuff I’d need inside: an energy drink, a change of clothes, fresh batteries for my headlamp.
By no means plush, the cafeteria was comfortable – too much so, it turned out. Amazingly and (in retrospect) dismayingly, Tom and I spent a full 80 minutes there – eating soup and pasta and grilled cheeses, resting our legs and stretching my back, drinking soda and coffee, chatting too much with each other and with other racers (including my friend Mark S.), changing our wet clothes, swapping new batteries into my lamp. It felt great to put on fresh, dry clothes and to see that my headlamp would be nice and bright when the sun went down again, but had I been watching the clock, I would have tried to get us, or at least myself, moving sooner than we did. Lesson learned, at least for the next race.
We finally headed back out at 5:20, with the sun already gone. I got a little thrill from seeing that we would be riding in the dark again – “already,” it seemed. Riding the Buffalo in the dark is one of my favorite things, and here I was, literally in the middle of a big race, about to do just that thing for another 10 or 12 hours.
Weaving over the streets back to the trail, I checked my thermometer. As forecasted, the temperature had dropped all day, and was now at a nice round zero. I’d put on thicker layers inside, so I felt ready for that temp, and for the even colder temps that we’d have overnight – all the way down to minus 10 or 15.
When we hit the trail, I couldn’t help myself, and stomped on the pedals. I wanted to go. Behind me, I could sense Tom’s headlight fading, and then he called for me to sit up, not ready yet to go so fast. With 80 miles to go, I was okay with that, so I pulled back a little. This yo-yo’ing occurred on and off throughout the rest of the race, but I was fine with going at about 80% of my maximum. We had a long way to go, riding with someone – especially overnight – is nice, and making the race take longer would, I hope, have a good effect on fitness for the Arrowhead.
The trail was the same, but different. What had been on the left was on the right. What had been steady uphills were now steady downhills. Or, no, wait. They weren’t downhills. They’d somehow become regular flats. Signs we had read as we approached P.F. – like the ubiquitous ones reading “Dip” that marked literally every bit of uneven terrain – were now just silver shapes on posts, and ones that had been silver shapes were now legible. The trail mileage markers now counted down, though I had to remind myself to add four to each number to account for the spur back to Rice Lake.
The big difference was that the trail that had been lit by gray light all day was now a black tunnel – my favorite view, equal parts scary (what’s up there?) and comfortable (the trail is up there!). The abyssal blackness was punctured by our headlights, which lit up a nice cone to help stay in the track other racers had worn into the snow. I had decided at the halfway to use my Princeton Tec Apex headlamp rather than my handlebar-mounted headlights. The headlamp has a big sentimental value (I won it at the first Fat Pursuit), but I also like the way the beam, cast from my head rather the handlebars, lights up a wider patch of trail. And since the lamp is on my head, I can shine it off to the sides of the trail to light up that mountain lion that’s waiting to pounce. Oh, no, that’s just a snowy log. I think.
The black trail was also intermittently broken up by the blinking tail lights of a few runners whom we were now catching – some 160-milers and lots of 80-milers. In the blackness, the blinkies were visible from a mile away, which created many opportunities to chase, not that it’s difficult for a cyclist to catch someone walking. More difficult and more satisfying to catch was a group of four cyclists who had left Park Falls in the half hour before we did. We exchanged encouragement as we went by.
These spurts of motivation helped shorten the 34 miles from Park Falls back to the Objiwa checkpoint. Though Tom and I were hardly talking anymore – just a few words now and then about mileage or time – we still stopped a couple times to have a snack and a drink and adjust clothes. I tried to work my back loose, too, and needed both on and off the bike to shake my hands back to life. Thanks to the cold and a recent tweak of my handlebar position, my palms and pinkies kept falling asleep. I pondered how to correct this for the Arrowhead.
We couldn’t quite reach Ojibwa in one push, deciding out of hunger and thirst and tiredness to swing off the trail in the little town of Winter (aptly named!) for some nourishment at the gas station there. I leaned the Buffalo up against three massive ice cooler and went inside to let my stomach identify its needs. My icebeard alarmed the clerks who gamely sold me some orange juice, which looked so incredibly good in the cooler and tasted even better. The two skiers who’d earlier cheered madly for us were there too, having dropped out of the race. They liked my icebeard, and asked me to pose for a picture with them. I really want to see that picture.
Though I don’t think we stayed too long, we probably did stay too long before wheeling back out onto the trail, especially since Ojibwa was only five miles away – well under an hour of riding. The distance was wearing on us, and my thermometer was now showing five degrees below zero or so now, which meant for the first time meant that the air felt bracing, even unpleasant.
Within the hour, we came on the reflectors that marked the trail down to the checkpoint. I hadn’t taken a photo of the trail since my early-morning shot, so I paused as Tom headed in to take a murky picture of the trail leading on toward Rice Lake and the finish.
The Ojibwa checkpoint had been tidy and energizing when we hit it on the way out, but now, after about 12 hours of solid operation, the atmosphere was different. Racers and volunteers packed the place, first of all, with a group of French-Canadian runners occupying the prime spot in front of the fireplace. The food tables were in disarray, having been attacked by waves of racers since the morning, and the volunteers were working hard to supply everyone with soup, hot water, pancakes, oatmeal, and other warm stuff.
Tom and I chowed down and thawed out and bitched with less and less good nature about the fact that everyone seemed to be forgetting to close the cabin’s giant swinging door. I pulled hunks of ice out of my beard and tossed them into the fireplace. I did a round of back stretches in a bit of open space on the cold floor. We chatted a little bit with other racers about how things were going for them. Opinions were mixed. The lead woman looked disappointed as she messed with her tire. She headed out soon after we arrived, back to the race, I thought. I learned later that she’d dropped out. Gradually the crowd thinned and we realized that we needed to get moving too. We checked out, appallingly, after another 80 minutes of stoppage – the same amount of time we’d spent at Park Falls.
We rolled out just before 11 p.m., with the last 45 miles staring at us out of the dark woods. We knew that the leg to the finish would be tough, and we were pretty much silent, focusing on the effort we needed to make. We’d agreed again that we’d stop every hour or so to drink and eat, which I understood to mean that we would not stop anywhere else if we could help it.
I was in front, as usual, listening for Tom’s tires and watching for his lights behind me. I’d occasionally have to sit up to keep him close; at other times, we’d come up alongside me for a bit, joking a couple times about my tail lights’ obnoxious blinking. I could understand that, even as I was getting foggy from about 18 hours of work.
Surprisingly, the witching hour was not as empty as I’d expected it to be. Soon after Ojibwa, we passed the same group of four riders that we’d caught as we approached Winter. They were still traveling together, a nice little team that cheered as we went through. I was surprised that they didn’t stick to us, but within just a minute or two of catching them, they were behind us again, for good.
We didn’t find any other cyclists on the trail. Instead, we regularly came up on runners who were working their way back to Rice Lake too, including that group of French-Canadians, who took up all of the trail and only moved aside with sluggish surprise. They were a tired bunch. A few runners’ lights were turned off, or burned out, so we didn’t know they were there until we were almost literally on top of them. Moving without illumnination was strictly against the race rules, but what could we or they do?
Most of the time, we could see the runners from hundreds of yards behind thanks to their blinkies or their reflective vests. As fatigue settled into my brain, these spots of light started to play tricks. At one point, I saw a red ribbon hovering over the trail that turned out to be two pairs of blinkers on sleds behind two runners who were walking next to each other. At another place, my eyes told me that a car was parked on the trail. I could see the running lights! I knew it couldn’t be a car, and sure enough, the mirage turned out to have been created by solid red lights and reflective panels on the sleds of two runners who were standing at the edge of the trail.
I tried to call out encouragement to the other racers with a voice that was getting hoarse and slurred with tiredness and cold. I could feel a big icebeard growing on my face, and when I glanced down, I could see the rounded shapes of ice under my nose. I was having a hard time focusing on my cue sheet, too, but I knew we were approaching a railroad crossing that my friend Minnesota Mark, a very experienced ultramarathoner, had warned me about. Though the crossing had been a straightforward down-and-up bit in the daylight, I was a little worried about it in the dark. I didn’t want to hit the rails at the wrong angle and crash on them, to miss the noise and light of an approaching train and ride into its path, or – perhaps worse – to get stuck waiting for a train as it passed or idled. I focused whatever energy I had at that point on this tiny little bit of the race: looking and listening for a train, setting my bike straight down the trail so I’d cross the rails perpendicularly, plunging down the descent, getting up off the seat to ride over the rails as smoothly as possible, and then grunting up the other side. We stopped at the top of the incline for a drink and a snack and a photo of the ominous warning sign. 29 miles to go.
Those 29 miles are mostly lost to me. I remember not catching any more runners or riders. We were alone out there, pedaling down the trail at 7 or 8 mph – 9 if we were on a downhill. I remember watching the elevation reading on my computer, then trying to figure how many feet we still had to lose before Rice Lake. Of course, I couldn’t remember Rice Lake’s elevation( 1,148 feet), so I my arithmetic was futile, just something to occupy the brain. I remember needing to stop a few times to stretch my back, which was stubbornly tight, verging here and there on spasm. I remember talking now and again with Tom about the mile markers, and trying to remember to add the four extra miles to them so that I had an accurate distance to the finish. I remember being disturbed by how drunk I sounded when I tried to let Tom know that the roads we were crossing were clear of traffic. I remember my thermometer showing a temperature of minus 20. I remember seeing a SUV alongside the trail in one of the last towns on the trail, with a couple racers sitting in back. I remember a guy yelling and waving to us as we cruised through another town. I remember thinking that the bars and restaurants looked awfully sad at 2, 3, 4 in the morning. I remember at one point starting to weave from side to side on the trail, falling asleep on the bike. I stopped immediately to down a caffeinated gel, which chased the fatigue just enough to let me ride straight lines. I remember trying to calculate from the display on my GPS how many minutes we needed to go a mile, and failing.
Somehow my legs didn’t stop turning, and nothing on the Buffalo stopped working, and we covered the miles. I had to slow way down to negotiate the bumps along the highway that marked the end of the Tuscobia trail and the start of the spur trail to Rice Lake. Turning my handlebars to make that left turn felt monumental, but then we just had four miles. Tom was right behind me as we made this last push, jostling over the frequent road crossings. Finally, far far far ahead I could see a blinking light – a runner? a rider? No, a tail light on a sign at the finish line. The anticlimax was fitting: no banner, no clock, no spectators, not even a timekeeper. We rolled over the line at 5:41 a.m., leaned our bikes up against the wall of the community building, and went inside to announce ourselves to the two volunteers who were recording finishes.
The hall was full of racers, every one of them asleep in their sleeping bags. The indoor warmth and light made me feel nauseous. Before I started shivering violently, I let one of the volunteers take my picture, needing to record the icebeard:
Gradually I warmed up and stopped shivering. I might have had some water or a snack. When I felt reasonably whole, I said goodbye to Tom, whom I’d see soon at the Arrowhead, and rode my bike a few more yards back to the car. I managed to load the bike into the car without too much trouble and to drive the deserted streets back to my hotel. There I took a shower and a nap before meeting Ben – who’d finished second, in 15:47 – for breakfast. It had been an amazing 24 hours.
Wednesday, Genevieve had a bad cold, so she had to miss school, so Shannon had to stay home with her, so I had to drive Julia to school, so I had to drive to work, so I broke my years-long streak of getting to work by bike.
I started biking to work soon after we moved to Northfield in December 2005 – ten years ago. We needed a few months to work out the kinks, but by the next summer I was biking every day. Shannon drove me sometimes during the following winter, but with two kids under three at home, we soon found it easier for me to ride than to get rides.
I’ve taken at least three distinct routes, including one that goes through Carleton’s Arboretum park (because nature) but not including the occasional route through downtown (because coffee). Since Northfield is a small place, each round-trip route is about four miles.
I’ve now commuted on six bikes of my own* and at least two loaners**, and I’ve loved all of them, even though I only ever owned two at most at once.
I’ve used my bike to run innumerable errands; to get to work meetings all over town; and to go to appointments with doctors, dentists, counselors, optometrists, physical therapists, chiropractors, and probably others whom I’ve forgotten.
I’ve crashed a half-dozen times, though I’ve never suffered worse injuries than ruined clothes and scraped arms. (Well, I might’ve broken each thumb at different times, but the X-rays were inconclusive.) I’ve never been hit by a car, and only yelled at once.
I’ve experienced just every possible Minnesota weather condition (never a tornado) in all four seasons, and appreciated them all too, though some are better respected than loved. I’ve only been completely soaked a few times, which made for pretty unpleasant workdays until I started keeping a complete spare outfit at work.
Counting pretty conservatively, I’ve commuted about 240 days a year, which means – with a minimum four-mile round trip each day – that I’ve ridden a total of about 9,000 commuting miles. One corner at a time.
* In order of acquisition:
Kona Lava Dome
Surly Cross Check
Salsa Mukluk (the Beast)
Salsa Vaya (Giddyup)
Salsa Mukluk ti (the Buffalo)
Salsa El Mariachi (the Elk)
God, I love the day before races. The anticipation is so wonderfully energizing. The day usually includes some travel, often with friend, which is almost always great because I love traveling and friends, especially for a good reason like getting to a race.
But the day before a race also includes race-y stuff like eating and drinking right, checking in for the event, attending the pre-race meeting, and of course hanging out with other racers and volunteers and such.
If there’s time, the day before also might also include a bit of riding on the course – stretching the legs, getting a sense of the trail, and enjoying the scenery that race-day focus will obscure, like these pix from my pre-rides with the Marks at the Fat Pursuit in Idaho last January
and with Galen, Ben, and Tim at the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota in July.
My trip to the Tuscobia was less involved than either of those race trips, requiring just a short drive to western Wisconsin. But I jammed to my own music, sipped some good coffee, soaked up the views of rolling snowy hills, thought through the race, and stopped for a photo:
Once I got to Rice Lake, Wisconsin, I checked in at the hotel, ran a quick errand, and checked in at the race HQ, then headed up the trail for an hour’s ride. The conditions were very good, so I had a nice time and definitely built up a bank of good feeling for the next day.
Afterwards, I met up with my friend Ben (with whom I went on an epic trip to the first Fat Pursuit in 2014). We hung out for a while before we hit the registration and gear check, had a great dinner (pizza, of course), and then attended the racers’ meeting. Back at our hotel early in the evening, we set up our bikes for the race – a process I love, love, love even though it’s a little bit maddening, since it involves both the pleasant routine of getting all my equipment on the bike, but also trying to guess about new ways to pack the bike. Having Ben in the same room was great because the guy knows his business. (Literally: he runs a bike shop.) By 9 p.m. we had everything ready for the start. One more sleep till the race!
Every winter, our townhouse association’s plowing service creates a huge pile of snow at the end of a cul-de-sac down the block. For years, my girls have loved playing on “Mt. Sunset” – making sledding runs, carving out caves, building tunnels. It’s a seasonal playground.
Every winter till this one, I’ve needed to go help them with the work, especially cutting into the compacted snow. (Other dads like Todd and Dave have helped too.)
This winter, though, is different. The girls don all their winter gear, grab our shovels, and trundle down the block, maybe meeting friends there. They return 60 or 90 minutes later, sweaty and exhilarated and thirsty, having enlarged an elaborate set of tunnels and ramps. It’s marvelous.
I’ve been lucky to be able to ride on snow every day since we came back from our Christmas trip to Moorhead. We arrived home on Monday about an hour before the forecasted snow arrived. About 24 hours of steady snowfall transformed the landscape and created some excellent riding conditions.
Monday night, a short jaunt through the local MTB trails.
Tuesday, 7 hours and 58 miles of tough grinding on the snowy gravel, including some hike-a-bike and a couple crashes.
Wednesday, just a commute to work, but with a little extra riding for fun.
Thursday, New Year’s Eve, a nighttime ride on the MTB trails and a stop for cocoa when it was midnight in Amazonian Brazil.
Friday, New Year’s Day, a fun outing on some of the snowmobile trails outside of town.
Saturday, after loading the bike with most of my race kit, another cruise on different snowmobile trails.
The thing about bikes – or at least one thing about bikes – is that they’re so pretty. I’ve had occasion over the last few days to reflect on this twice.
Friday, I stripped the Buffalo down to its dryland racing setup for the Solstice Chase. It looked gorgeous, in my opinion, after the race. A little mud only added to the overall look: clean lines, bare titanium tubes, big black winter tires, and two red bags (one fore, one aft) for a little color. The machine was of course as functional as it was beautiful.
After that short race, I figured I might as well set up the bike for my longer winter races. So Tuesday night, I decked the bike with bags of nylon, fa la la la. I love the way the Buffalo looks in its gray-and-blue [Porcelain Rocket](http://www.porcelainrocket.com/store/) bags, and putting the winter gear on the bike is as meaningful a marker of the seasons for me as decorating the Christmas tree is for weirdoes.
If anything the Buffalo is *more* fun to ride when fully loaded – though yes it’s a little silly to ride a loaded fatbike to work and on errands. However, I should point out you can fit a whole six pack in the seat pack and another in the frame pack.
Had I known that the winter kit would change the weather, I’d have put it on sooner: we got a bit of snow not 24 hours after the bags went on! The bike can’t wait to race on snow again. We’ve got 17 days till Tuscobia, 33 till Arrowhead.
Wednesday, I watched Jumbo Wild, an accomplished and moving documentary about the ongoing fight to keep a developer from building a massive ski resort in a pristine valley in the Canadian Rockies. The place took its wonderfully odd and fitting name from a failed late-1800s mine.
The film is gorgeous, full of jaw-dropping vistas of the mountains in all four seasons. And while from the first the filmmakers are arguing against this particular project – which would, let’s be honest, ruin any wildness in the Jumbo Valley – they are also pretty good at respecting the perspective of the developer. (They are markedly less respectful of Canadian provincial and national government officials who seem weirdly eager to advance the project almost no matter what.)
Against that perspective, the film advances at least* three separate but interconnected points of opposition. White Canadian locals don’t want to see big money come in and permanently alter the valley where they live. Scientists – represented principally by a grizzly-bear researcher – think that the project would irreparably damage the region’s ecology, fragmenting one of the last big chunks of wilderness in the Canadian West. And members of First Nations oppose the project for the way it would literally profane a sacred space where they’ve lived for generations.
All of these views are woven artfully and engagingly together in a film that concludes just where you thought it would: in a vigorous call to defend wild places. Jumbo Wild a wonderful film that anyone interested in wild areas will love.
* I say “at least” because a) the film is sponsored by an outdoor-clothing company with a vested interest in wildlands recreation in places like Jumbo and b) the landscape is present in the film in such a way that the mountains, snow, and trees offers powerful opposition of their own.
As a rule, I – like many cyclists – don’t enjoy encountering dogs on my rides. Some filthy cur bit me on the leg a few years ago, and while I didn’t contract rabies, this only heightened my concern.
Wednesday’s ride was no different. I had to squirt some water at one beast that ran at me from its driveway, and outsprint two other growling hounds that decided they needed to check me out.
Toward the end of my ride, approaching a stiff little climb, I heard a dog barking off in the distance. I figured that it was at the house at the top of the hill, but I took a wary look around anyhow, not wanting to get caught by some vicious mutt as I ground my way up the ascent.
Lo and behold, I discovered that I wasn’t hearing the barking of a dog far away, but the panting of one nearby – a shaggy but grinning golden retriever who was running right next to me. I reflexively veered away from him (her?), but he tracked my move and continued trotting along, glancing up at me and then slowing to cross behind me from one side to the other.
Figuring that I wasn’t after all in any danger, I finished the climb and, breathing easier, asked the pooch where he lived. Again he just looked at me, smiling, and I could see that he was a handsome old guy:
Recovering from the climb, I soft-pedaled for a bit, chatting with my new friend, who trotted alongside very easily. Finally he glanced back toward the hill, slowed, and peeled off, presumably to go back home for a well-deserved snack and drink and nap.
Bernd Heinrich’s Homing Instinct was a great book to read in the early fall, when Northfield’s skies are full of geese and ducks wending their way south – after long, leisurely stops in our ponds and creeks. The book’s subtitle – “meaning and mystery in animal migration” – suggests that Heinrich will explore animals’ instinctual seasonal movements, and indeed much of the book does deal with that topic. In the first section – “Homing” – Heinrich tells staggering stories about how various birds, insects, and mammals find their way over distances that are extraordinary on both their own scales (bees that thoroughly master acres and acres of forest and field) and on global ones (eels that breed in the Sargasso Sea but live most of their lives in coastal waters in North America and Europe).
The science that underlies human understanding of these animals’ movements is amazing, but the animals’ own comprehension of the world is far more so. Loggerhead turtles apparently navigate incredibly long distances by reading tiny changes in the earth’s magnetism. I was impressed by the Heinrich’s stories, by scientists’ efforts to comprehend animal migration, and by the animals’ own skills, but I was also depressed by the realization that by wrecking the planet, we humans are directly and indirectly destroying animals (and of course plants and other kinds of life) that are so much more complex and mysterious that we do or perhaps ever will know. (Here my wonderings ran to bison, which in their herds before the Great Slaughter may or may not have migrated seasonally or on another schedule across hundreds or thousands of miles of North America.)
The book’s subtitle is misleading though in that much of the second half of the book concerns animals’ homes, not their movements. Here, Heinrich deals with all kinds of birds’ and insects’ nesting behavior and structures as well as a few mammals (pointing out that very few “higher” mammals actually build homes!). The center of this second section – “Home-making and Maintaining” – is a long, engrossing description of Heinrich’s own efforts to understand the spiders that lived in his Maine cabin. Their web homes are both shelters and tools, which – as Heinrich shows – the spiders used in sophisticated and, frankly, terrifying ways. This chapter – like the “Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass” chapter in the first section – are standout natural-history essays.
In the book’s third and last section, Heinrich changes register dramatically, writing at length about his own “homing instincts” for what sounds like a gorgeous patch of Maine woods. I was at first put off by this change from animal to human life, but gradually, Heinrich shows how his drive to live there, and not somewhere else, is continuous with the instincts and drives of the animals he’d discussed earlier in the book. This section is a lovely way to bring the book home.
Today, November 1, is National Bison Day, a semi-official date that recognizes the historical and ecological importance of the North American bison.
I’ve been obsessed with buffalo for a couple years now, so I really like the idea of a day “for” them and for what they do or should represent to us as Americans: strength, freedom, wildness, beauty, but above all the value of nature.
As amazing as they are as symbols, bison are even more amazing as animals. They are huge and fast and strong and gorgeous, but almost as adaptable as humans to a variety of ecosystems and landscapes. Though the giant bulls get a of attention, a herd is actually led by its mature females, who collectively assure the group’s survival in the face of often incredible odds – from harsh winters on the Great Plains or the challenge of fording a spring river to eluding the killers who nearly exterminated Bison bison in the 19th century or simply finding good places to graze all summer long.
The U.S. probably contains more bison right now than at any time since the Great Slaughter. Though almost none of the American herds are truly wild right now, every year sees the establishment of new conservation herds (e.g., in Alaska, Illinois, or Minnesota) and the growth of existing ones, such as the already-massive but ever-expanding herd at the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana, which (as their new annual report describes) has grown from 16 buffs in 2005 to 600 this year – and looks to grow to 1,000 animals by 2018.
All is not rosy for American bison, however, even and especially for the herd that is most prominent in the American imagination: the animals of Yellowstone National Park. Though the bison there are justifiably famous as wily survivors of the Great Slaughter and as the denizens of a spectacular place, they are also subject to enormous, awful abuse. Montana law allows state officials to take brutal and often fatal steps to control the buffs that, seeking forage, migrate out of Yellowstone National Park. This control is supposedly necessary to keep the buffalo from infecting domestic cattle (as fragile a species as one can imagine!) with diseases that would harm the state’s beef industry.
I took the day off today to do a medium-length gravel ride, just letting the legs know that I’ve got big plans for them over the next four months – starting I hope with heavy training mileage over the next six weeks. Today, I just wanted to hit some of my favorite gravel roads east of town. To get a little more out of the ride, I rode all the hills twice, which turned out interestingly in that I rode each hill better the second time than the first. Getting a little descending practice was fun too. What wasn’t fun was a very achy back, but even that hardly detracted from the solid outing or the gorgeous autumn sights. I’m lucky to have enjoyed them.
At my friend Julia’s recommendation, I read Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs through It” today – a gorgeously warm fall day that seemed perfectly suited to the action of that incredible, indelible, devastating story.
I made sure to finish the “novella” with the girls in the room so that the ending – stupidly given away by my edition’s foreword – didn’t make me cry. I won’t spoil that ending here, except to say that MacLean knows exactly what he’s doing with and to his reader.
Even without knowing much about the story, I knew that fly fishing featured prominently in it. I’m no fisherman, with flies or live bait, but while reading the book, I had fixed in my head two scenes from my trips out west to race in the Fat Pursuit this and last winters. Rivers run through my experiences with those races.
Looking north up the Henry’s Fork in Island Park, ID. Supposedly the best fly-fishing river in the world.
Looking north up the Gallatin River from Greek Creek Campground along US 191, south of Bozeman, MT. If you had the full file you could see bighorn sheep on the left and fly fishermen downstream.
I’ve only been to these rivers a couple times, but I love them. If or when I see them again I’ll think of Maclean.