This was my third time riding the Circumburke Challenge and I decided to take a different approach to the ride year. Although billed as a “challenge,” not a race, I often rode it as if it were a race. For a change, I decided I would ride it as a challenge to see how much fun I could have. No Strava KOM attempts, no concern for who passes me, and no desire to beat my time from last year. To make sure I wouldn’t become victim to my inner propensity towards racing anyway, I decided to bring the Mukluk. Weighing in around 35lbs, this bike is the antithesis of speed: it’s big, it’s fat and rolling resistance is its middle name. Leading up to Sunday, I messaged a few of my friends that had fat bikes hoping we could organize a little bit of a group ride within the event. While that didn’t work out quite like I’d hoped, about half a dozen or so riders on fat bikes did show up: me, Dave Tremblay, Joe Brzoza, Matt Moody, Jeff Hale and at least one other guy I didn’t know. There were a couple of Krampus bikes as well – they’re close enough to fat bikes to count.
I showed up earlier than I cared for as my wife would be helping out with the registration and whatever else needed to be done. She’s very organized and enjoys that sort of thing. The morning wasn’t all that great. It was about 34 degrees out, cloudy and windy. I was freezing before I even got into my bike stuff. Surprisingly, there were people already looking to register at 7:30 in the morning. In spite of the less than perfect weather, there was a good turnout with somewhere around 300 people showing up to ride or run all the way around Burke Mountain.
The course was changed this year with a new venue location. Everything was set up in a big tent in a field across from a farm on Kirby Ridge Road. This also meant that we would be starting the climb to Victory via a different route. I was in the parking area with Joe when the start went off. He was fumbling around last minute with something for his bike. We quickly packed things up and got moving. We ended up being fully last off the line. I was okay with this but was hoping to connect with some other guys so we could ride together. Eventually, we did find Dave when I stopped to remove some layers. Prior to the start, I had finally gotten warm, which should have told me that I was way overdressed. Regardless, the three of us trudged onward and upward with the fat tires giving us an advantage in the muddy parts of the climb.
We climbed for quite a while before we finally got the chance to descend. This would have been great but we ran into our first mechanical with Joe’s chain dropping off. With an internal gear hub, you don’t have the derailleur to take up the slack so getting proper tension is just as important as on a singlespeed bike. Little did we know that this would be the first of many such stops. Apparently, the Alfine hub didn’t like to stay in place on a Pugsley.
We rode on some double-track and log road terrain for a short while before entering the single-track. The singletrack warrants some serious reflection of it’s own. The previous times I’ve ridden the Circumburke it has been my favorite part of the route. It seemed like there was a LOT more this time around. As near as I can estimate from my GPS data, there was at least eight continuous miles of the narrow stuff. It seemed to just go on forever and ever. With all the twisting and turning, I soon lost all sense of where I might be, other than knowing in a general sense that I was somewhere out behind Burke Mountain. I distinctly recall mentally pausing at one point realizing that I had been riding singletrack non-stop for close to an hour straight. It was glorious. The volunteers that were out clearing the leaves off the trail last week deserve a huge thank you. I would still love to see this route made an option for year-round adventure/marathon riding. This portion of the route alone was worth the price of admission.
We rode a pretty good pace through the singletrack, picking off riders and runners as we went along. At the aid stations, many of the runners would catch up and pass us while I ate and Joe fixed his chain tension (again). It was a “tortoise and hare” sort of thing. The ground was just wet and/or soft enough to make the additional floatation of the big tires justifiable, or at least not a massive liability. Certainly not necessary but nice. Just like in the past, the singletrack ultimately ended in the old orchard clearing. The whole thing had this seriously remote feel to it.
Another great part of the Circumburke were the aid stations. I never really appreciated how good they were in previous years, but that may just be that I was too focused on making good time and not stopping to enjoy myself. Well, that wasn’t the case this year. I did stop – at every one of them. We ate, talked and generally had a good time. I think I could have gained weight on the ride this year. The volunteers were great and the stations were well stocked. In addition to drinks, cookies, oranges and bananas, they had several energy bars from Vermont companies: OWL (my personal favorite), Monkey Chew Bars, and Garukabars. Some stations even had Green Mountain Creamery yogurt and pudding. The only complaint I can make is that there weren’t any Twizzlers to be found this year.
From the aid station in the orchard, we began the “Gold Road” section of the route. This would be a tremendously boring trail from a technical perspective if it weren’t for the mud holes. Our pace may have increased a bit here, but the temperatures did not. I felt like I was running the risk of dehydration not from sweat, but from my runny nose. My nose always runs profusely in the cold. A mile or so into this section and the light rain turned over to snow. The snow then started to stick to the ground. I was hoping that the intensity would increase so we could ride our fat bikes through a couple of inches of snow to finish the ride. That would have been amazing. Sadly, the snow let up and we didn’t get to have that experience. Maybe we’ll get lucky and that will happen another year.
Eventually, we dropped out on Pinkham Road to connect with the Parr’s Yard trail. This involved traveling just under a mile of gravel road. There’s nothing like getting out on a road with a fat bike to make you feel really, really, slow. Honestly, it felt like we were moving slower than when we were in the woods, with the exception of a nice downhill. We followed Parr’s Yard over to the Burke ski area, taking the Shire as a descent.
From the Burke base lodge we crossed the parking lot, climbed the Red trail and finally descended the Kirby Connector back to the finish area. Since Dave, Joe and I were still together, we engaged in a fat bike sprint for the finish line. I was boxed in and couldn’t pull around resulting in a shameful loss. You can see how devastated I was in the next photo.
I figure by taking my time and riding slower, I maximized the amount of enjoyment I got out of the challenge this year. I can’t really claim to be that well calculated, but it did work out that way. By keeping my pace down, I felt great. I honestly felt like I could have done another lap like that and had just as much fun. Once we finished, there was hot food from the Market Cafe waiting for us: wraps, soup and cookies!
At least for me, this was the best Circumburke yet. In spite of the weather, or possibly because of it, I had a blast. A huge thanks to the folks at KT, the volunteers, sponsors, and landowners for making this happen. See you next year.
Odds and ends:
- My totally non-competitive Strava data (an embarrassing boatload of non-KOM riding)
- More of Dave’s impressionistic art photography.
- Official timing results for the mountain bikers are up (PDF). Other results are also available at the Circumburke results page.
- Herb Swanson’s photos are up on SmugMug.
- Burkie Bear Blog
- more links will be added as I find them…