Posted by: Mark | 3 March, 2015

Winterbike 2015

[Also on MTBVT.com]

Now in the fourth year running, Winterbike has grown into a huge event.  Several times on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think about how small the first Winterbike was in comparison.  Back then, only a handful of fat bikes could be seen among the small crowd of bikers; this time, they were universally present.  While things have grown much bigger, the core of what made that first Winterbike fun hasn’t changed at all.

Once again, things were centered behind the Kingdom Trails Nordic center by the Wildflower Inn.  There were over 400 participants attending this year.  Other than a few minor congestion points out on the trail, it never actually felt like it was too crowded.  My wife and daughter helped with the registration Saturday morning and it was quite busy.  Fortunately, many people had completed their registration on Friday night which helped divert a major logistical bottleneck.

Group rides leaving the venue.

Group rides leaving the venue.

Normally, I show up for an event at the last minute and would take this space to write about how I was doing something like putting my bike together while everyone else was hitting the trail.  This time, however, I was actually early.  Unbelievable.  This was mostly due to the fact that I was slated to lead the “epic” ride, the first group ride scheduled for the morning.  We managed to get rolling a little before 9am with a small group of 15 riders.  Several of the people in this group were good friends, so I knew this was going to be fun.

It was cold out there, with the morning starting out around -12F.  Actually, it’s been at least that cold nearly every morning for the past two months, but I’ll save that for another rant.  It was cold enough that I had my tongue get cold from breathing deeply on some of the climbs.  I’ve been in Vermont most of my life, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.   The up-side of these temperatures was that it gave us super firm, grippy snow.  The traction was so good that you could even stand up for more power on steep climbs without spinning out.

Part of the "epic" group regrouping on the trail.

Part of the “epic” group regrouping on the trail. (photo by Hans Buehler)

We started the ride by looping around Bill Magill and then crossing over to the west side.  The trails on the west side of Darling Hill were just recently packed and opened to the public, so I was a little apprehensive about bringing a group down there.  Thankfully, my concerns were not realized.  We descended Fox Run which turned out to be a blast.  When I had ridden earlier in the week, the snow was nowhere near as good as this.   We rode out to the bottom of Old Webs and made a run up the left side and down the right.  Everything on in that area seemed to be in amazing shape.  The trails crew outdid themselves with their work.  I would have stayed over on the west side of Darling Hill for the remainder of the day if it we didn’t care about hitting the aid station that was on the far end of the east side.

Out on the trail (photo by Hans Buehler)

Out on the trail (photo by Hans Buehler)

I lead our group back to the East side, hitting Knob, Sugar Hill, Pines, Riverwood and a few others.  As we worked our way up the east side, we finally started to run into other groups.  We were momentarily delayed by some minor traffic jams, but nothing that dragged down the ride overall.  There were a LOT of people out on bikes by late morning.  While these are the same trails we ride in the summer months, many of the many of them have been re-routed thanks to the deep cover of snow.  The end result is that you get a little more interesting experience and avoid the VAST trail.

The aid station before the crowds hit (photo by Hans Buehler)

The aid station before the crowds hit (photo by Hans Buehler)

We climbed up Beat Bog and then found our way over to the aid station.  There, the KT crew had a good sized fire going with quite a few people already warming up around it.  There was no shortage of food and things to drink.  I thought the hot cider was particularly good.  By this time, the temperature might have climbed out of the single digits, but I wasn’t going to complain about any additional source of warmth.  The cider paired with some bread with Vermont Peanut Butter hit the spot pretty well.

Once the remainder of our group had had their fill, it was time to take in some more trails.  We rode up to the top of Kitchell and had a pretty good ride on the way down.  I think every one of us had at least one good dive into the snow in the process.  A few had numerous unplanned trips off the groomed track.  We then rode back up to the end of Riverwood for another pass, now in the opposite direction.  The snow was starting to show some wear from the warming temperatures and the crazy number of bikes.

Lunch parking

Aid station Parking

From there, we rode back up to the Connector trail and climbed back over the fields to the main venue arriving back in time to get some lunch.  My group had experienced some attrition along the way and was significantly smaller now; but everyone seemed to have a good time, even those that chose to cut the ride short for one reason or another.

Registration for the day included a meal and a couple of cups of Long Trail Ale.   I think we were all more than ready for some warm food.  The lunch was provided by Market Cafe again this year and it didn’t disappoint.  I love their wraps.  There was also the option of sitting down in a warm restaurant at Juniper’s across the street.

Riding Riverwood! (photo by Hans Buehler)

Riding Riverwood!

Later in the afternoon the 6X race was held on the hill behind the Nordic Center.  This was followed by various games, such as a fat bike log pull, sugar on snow, and others activities.  This year Winterbike was more of a weekend  event.  There were casual non-organized group rides on Sunday morning as well as pre-registration and socialization on Friday night at the Publick House.   This makes it even better, especially if you’re driving a long way to get here.  I met some people  who came from as far as Ontario and New Brunswick.  There was also a guy from Florida, but I don’t think he came up just for the biking.  Overall, it was a great day.  We had perfect blue skies, awesome snow conditions, good food and spent it all out riding bikes.  It’s hard to argue against any of that.

Odds and ends:

Posted by: Mark | 25 February, 2015

The Stowe Derby

[Also on MTBVT.com with more photos]

This year, 2015, was the 70th run of the Stowe Derby, a nordic ski race from the top of Mount Mansfield to the village of Stowe.  It has the distinction of being the oldest cross country ski race in the country.  Thanks to the efforts of several people, this year was the first year that they invited fat bike riders to race the event.  Our course was the same as the skiers’, minus the cool descent from the top of Mansfield following the toll road.  It was a little bit of a disappointment when I learned that we wouldn’t be riding the entire toll road from the top, but I got over it.  It turned out that the lower portion of the course was more than challenging enough to make a great race.

Photo by Mike Hitelman

Photo by Mike Hitelman

Being a point to point race does brings some logistical challenges; namely, how do you get people, with their bikes, to the start?  Or, how do you get people back to their vehicles once the race is over?  The race organizers opted for the first challenge, rather than the latter.  I generally agree with this approach.  The down side was that we had to figure out how to get our bikes and ourselves to the start area without leaving a vehicle at the start.  I dropped my bike off shortly after picking up my bib in the morning and then returned to Stowe village to park.  This left me with the quandary of how I was going to get myself back up the mountain to my bike.  There were some suggested options given, but those turned out to be a little difficult in practice.  Originally, I was hoping to catch a ride back up with another racer, but that didn’t work out.  By chance, I met up with some friends from Ludlow who were going to catch the GMTA shuttle bus up, so I decided to tag along on their journey.  This would have been fine, but we somehow missed the first bus that went by.  We tried to flag the driver down but he didn’t cooperate.  Eventually, a bus did arrive at the stop, but that didn’t leave us any excess time to get things together.  It all worked out in the end, but the process was a little stressful.

Originally, the bike race was supposed to start at the bottom of the ski trails at the Toll House area.  This would have seriously made for a brutal hike-a-bike right off the bat.  Just before the start, we were told that the staging area would be moved up the hill to the intersection with the Toll Road trail.  The self-paced hiking up the soft ski trail on foot to the start was draining enough.  Having been in quite a few downhill mass starts, I was little concerned about what the first quarter mile of the course would be like with these conditions.  Fortunately, they were going to start us off in waves of five riders, thirty seconds apart.  Even with just five riders at a time, we got to see (and be part of) many outstanding crash scenes.  It was very entertaining.  I don’t know what determined the start order, but  I was glad to be in the third wave out on the trail.

The fat bike start

The fat bike start

As I mentioned, the first thing we were faced with was a very fast downhill with some soft snow to make things “interesting.”  It was very tempting to let the bike take advantage of the free speed, but at the same time, it was was a little nerve racking because of the instability of the conditions.  At the end of the first slope, there was a nice 90 degree right hand turn.  What could go wrong?

The first few miles were predominantly down hill which really did test my bike handling skills.  Descending has never been my strength and several riders were able to put quite a bit of distance on me.  I decided to err on the side of caution and gamble that I would be faster if I didn’t crash any more than I could avoid.  The trick on the first half of the course was to use whatever ruts were available as banked corners.  This allowed me to rail around most of the turns with my inside foot hanging off, skimming the snow.  Somehow, I only had once incident where I actually fell off the bike.

I’m going to stop here and comment on the snow conditions which I’ve already alluded to.  Biking in the winter is a lot like skiing in that snow can change relatively quickly and dramatically alter the experience.  What was an awesome ride on one day can turn into a nightmare slog on the next.  Saturday night brought at least three inches of snow to the area.  This was probably great for the skiers, but not so much for the fat bikes.  We were able to ride but the soft snow made staying upright a task requiring significant effort and concentration.  I spent the entire race scanning for the most firm rut that I could put my wheels in.  Whenever I missed my target or my wheel was hooked by a ridge, the front wheel of my bike would get yanked around in all kinds of unpredictable directions.  Efforts to correct usually just plowed more snow without altering the direction of the bike.  I probably dabbed hundreds of times to keep my bike under me and moving forward.  The riders in the last waves must have had quite a challenge with the ruts.

Photo by Mike Hitelman

Photo by Mike Hitelman

Before the trail turned onto the Stowe village bike path, we had one final series of descents.  These were a blast.  The skiers had managed to snowplow the soft stuff off to the edges of the trail leaving a nice firm surface that was wonderful to ride on.  Of course, this was not consistent and a smooth fast section of trail would almost randomly dump into a hollow of soft snow.  I had more than one moment of high speed panic.

Once on the town bike path, the race was almost purely a matter of keeping the power on.  There was still the challenge of keeping the snow from yanking the bike around, but it could mostly be mitigated with some careful line selection.  It was here that we started having to contend with passing the last of the cross country skiers who were still out on the trail.  For the most part, there was plenty of room for passing without riders interfering with skiers, or the reverse.

I gave up a few places in the final few miles as I was beginning to feel the effects of fatigue on my speed.  I crossed the finish line just a few seconds over an hour.  Ultimately, this put me in 16th place overall and 5th in the 40-49 mid-life-crisis men’s field.  Not a bad showing considering how little I’ve been riding this winter.  Plus, I’m supposed to be retired, remember?

Brian Irwin, one of a few fat bike racers who also did the nordic race earlier in the day. Impressive. (Photo by Mike Hitelman)

Brian Irwin, one of a few fat bike racers who also did the nordic race earlier in the day. Impressive. (Photo by Mike Hitelman)

After the race, I hung around at the finish area for a while to see some of the other riders come in while I cooled down.  Cool down I did.  Riding in the winter is always a game of figuring out how to dress properly for the weather and the effort.  I had kept myself a little too warm and my layers were pretty much soaked from sweat and water vapor.  While the temperatures were warmer than the sub-zero to single-digit temps we’ve had over the past few weeks, it was still cold enough to get me chilled.

I biked rather slowly back to my Jeep following the sidewalks along Rt. 108 and changed into some dry clothes.  This felt several orders of magnitude more than wonderful.  Now almost warm, I went to get something to eat.  Sushi Yoshi was providing a nice post-race meal like they did for Uberwintern earlier this winter.  Later in the afternoon, the awards were given out for both skiers and bike riders.  Hopefully, the Stowe Derby will include us again next year.  Official results are on-line by category or overall time.

Odds and ends:

Posted by: Mark | 26 January, 2015

Will Bike for Food

[Photos by Ryan Thibault] Earlier this week I was told that there was going to be a group fat bike ride in Morrisville and was asked if I’d like to take part.  I’m not one to turn down an opportunity to ride, so it was really just a matter of checking my schedule.  The ride was organized by Chuck’s Bikes, Hank Glowiak, along with M.S.R.P (Morrisville Snow Riders & Packers) as a fund raiser for the local food shelf in Morrisville.

Obligatory pre-ride group photo.

Obligatory pre-ride group photo.

We hit the trails right around noon pedaling a mile or two over to the trailhead off Duhamel Road.  The sound of a big pack of fat bike tires rolling down the pavement is pretty cool.  The temperatures were a bit crisp to start with, but that ceased to be a problem once we started climbing.  The weather was great – we actually saw the sun several times throughout the day.  The cool temperatures had made for snow conditions that were close to perfect; the groomed surfaces were firm and very grippy.

Conditions were good for letting the bike lean into the turns.

Conditions were good for letting the bike lean into the turns.

Once out on the bike I learned that the trails we were riding had been manually groomed – by manual, I mean non-motorized grooming.  These guys packed miles of trail on snowshoes, dragging around a small metal groomer through the woods.  Yes, snowshoes.  The end result was mighty impressive.

Of course, with that many riders you do get the occasional traffic jam.

Of course, with this many riders you do get the occasional traffic jam.

These trails were like the tight single-track you’d ride during the summer.  There were switchbacks, jumps and just a generally great selection of lines over the natural contours of the land.  The trails wound around through tight stands of trees.  There were numerous small loops and intersections which caused our group to double back over on itself more than once.  It didn’t take long for me to lose all sense of direction.  I decided to just give up trying to keep track of where I was and ride like a tent caterpillar: follow the guy in front of me, wherever that takes me.  I did recognize that we were occasionally repeating some sections, but I didn’t mind at all because it was all pretty good.

me!

me!

The turnout was pretty good for a somewhat informal fund raiser.  We had at least 42 people show up to ride, most of whom donated either cash or a number of food items.  There was a pretty good sized pile of groceries at Chuck’s Bikes before we started the ride.  It was a great excuse to get out for a ride and a nice way to contribute something to help others.

DonationsAlso on MTBVT.com

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