Circumburke Fat Bike Slog MMXIV

The first climb
The first climb

When I woke up on Saturday morning, the ground was white with frost.  That’s not what I consider a great start to a day on the bike, but today it worked out better than I had hoped.  The week leading up to Circumburke was wet.  Maybe not as wet as some of the coastal areas in New England experienced, but we didn’t lack for rain either. The forecast looked something like this:

Wet, with chance of soggy.
Wet, with chance of soggy.

Saturday was supposed to be a more of the same, too.  Occasionally, the forecasters get it wrong and it turns out to be a good thing.  The valley fog burned off and it quickly warmed up through the morning.  The sun stayed out pretty much the entire day and it was the warmest Circumburke I’ve seen yet.  Late October in the NEK is usually cold and damp  (actually, that pretty much applies to any month you pick around here) so the deviation from the norm was appreciated.

The Start
The Start under blue skies!

The turnout was great with over 300 pre-registered and close to 400 actually showing up the day of the event.  Big crowd.  Apparently a lot of people got the message about riding this thing on a fat bike.  Unlike last year, where there were only a handful of us on fat bikes, this year there were too many of us for me to really count.   I’ll take credit for that with my article last year giving everyone the idea.

I started the ride on time for once.  I had no intention of racing in any form, so I was happy to settle in at the back of the long pack, along with several friends.  We couldn’t hear much of the pre-ride briefing back there, other than something about crawling under a gate.  I still don’t know what that was about.

Once we got rolling, the climbing started almost immediately.  This progressed from a dirt road, to a driveway, to a jeep road, to crawling our way up even steeper class-4 type roads.  There were a LOT of people out on the course and that first climb felt like trying to navigate commuter traffic on a Monday morning.  The upside of that long climb is that it really stretched out the riders so that congestion wasn’t much of an issue for the rest of the ride.

The CCC road.
The CCC road.

Once we regrouped at the top of the climb where it intersects the CCC road, it was time to strip layers, add air to my tire and then roll out for some more.  The long descent down the back side of Burke is always fun, even if it seems much shorter than the climb up.  At the bottom, we took the hard left that starts the wilderness riding in Victory.

It wasn’t long after this turn that we came upon the first aid station.  They located it at a junction in the woods where the 18 mile runners would take their shortcut and the rest of us would continue to follow the full length of the single-track.  It made for a congested stopping point.  Again, most of the guys in my group managed to reconvene here for a short rest and snack.

Every year the single-track has been a little better than the last and this year continued that trend.  It is one of the best things about Circumburke that I look forward to.  I think it was mostly the same as previous years, but I really couldn’t tell for sure.  Dave, Hans and I broke off our little group, keeping our own pace.  After a little while I lost all sense of direction.  I kept thinking we must be getting close to the next aid station but that didn’t seem like it was going to ever actually happen.  Honestly, getting stuck on never ending singletrack is not a bad problem to have.  This was only broken up by one field section that was very well worn from the Back Country Cross earlier this fall.  It was quite fast riding.  From there, it was back into the woods for some more.

Field riding was even fun.
Even field riding was fun.

It was well over an hour of winding through the woods before we hit the next aid station.  We were pushing lunch time now and I was getting really hungry.  I just didn’t realize it until I stopped.    Joe arrived soon after Dave, Hans and I stopped.  And…. there were grilled cheese sandwiches again!  At this point, I realized that I hadn’t been eating or drinking enough, but I thought I had made up for it at this aid station.

Grilled cheese anyone?
Grilled cheese anyone?

Our little group split became official when we left the aid station to take on the Gold road.  The Gold road is always muddy, it’s just a matter of how muddy it will be.  This year, it was muddy.  Fortunately, this was where having a 4 inch wide swath of aggressive tread makes a big difference.  We rode through many sections where fat bike tracks were the only ones other than foot prints.  Some of the mud holes were surprisingly deep and could be challenging, even with that extra traction.  Unfortunately, all this mud was taking its toll on my drivetrain.  I started having chain suck pretty consistently when climbing in the small chainring.  Eventually, this started showing up while pedaling in the big ring too.

More mud please!!

Soon, we had reached the next aid station.  The mud glommed around my bottom bracket was pretty amazing.  I was operating with the assumption that I still had a derailleur somewhere underneath it all.  A brief snack and a few minutes rest and then we were back in the saddle for the last few miles of the ride.  There was one more aid station on Pinkham Road and then it was a brief dirt road grind, followed by Parr’s Yard trail, The Shire and over to Kirby Connector.  On the final climb from the Burke Mountain base lodge, I was just starting to feel the dehydration in my legs.  A few more miles and I’m pretty sure I would have been getting full blown leg cramps.  Thankfully, the last mile or so is all down hill and a fun descent at that.


It felt good to finish.  Really good.  I put some clean, dry clothes on which made me feel even better.  Market Cafe was serving up burritos, soup, and cookies.  There’s something about a long ride that makes a good meal taste even better.

For me, Circumburke signals the end of the summer season.  This would be depressing if it weren’t for the fact that it also starts my mental shift to winter biking.  We still have to get through November which is the most depressing month on the calendar: a bleak, dismal, cold, grey month where I have to stay out of the woods for my own safety.   This event is like the big end of year mountain bike party that takes a bit of that pain away.  Oh, and we got pint glasses too!

(most photos by David Tremblay or Joe Brzoza)


Is this thing on?
Is this thing on?


Circumburke Fatbike Slog

On the trail.
On the trail.

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 view from the back.
The view from the back.

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.

See Joe.  See Joe fix his chain tension.  See Joe fix his chain tension again and again.
See Joe. See Joe fix his chain tension. See Joe fix his chain tension again and again.

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.

I think there was one good line to follow here.
I think there was one good line to follow here.

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.

photo courtesy of the Dave Tremblay pectoral cam.
Photo courtesy of the Dave Tremblay pectoral cam.

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.

Grilled cheese sandwiches at an aid station?  Show me any other event that can top that!
Grilled cheese sandwiches at an aid station? Served by a guy in a cow hat?  Show me any other event that can top that!

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.

It snowed enough to accumulate on the ground.  Technically, it was groupel, not snow but the effect is the same.
It snowed enough to accumulate on the ground. Technically, it was graupel, not snow but the effect is the same.

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 lost the fatbike sprint finish but still had fun.
I lost the fat bike sprint finish but still had fun.

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:

Joe fixing his chain again.
Joe fixing his chain again.
A little snow stuck on the top.
A little snow stuck on the top.
Guess what's going on here.
Guess what’s going on here.
Nice and clean before the ride.
Nice and clean before the ride.
Dave cropped my head off.
Dave cropped my head off.  It hurts.
Everyone got a pint glass too!  I'm trying to collect the whole set.
Everyone got a pint glass too! I’m trying to collect the whole set.

CircumBurke 2012

This is my second time riding the CircumBurke Challenge.  I missed the on-line registration deadline, so I showed up a little bit early to sign up.  It was a good thing, because the registration line soon stretched up the stairs in the lodge.  There were enough people that they pushed the start time back 1/2 hour because registration hadn’t caught up.

The turnout this time around was surprisingly bigger than last year’s.  There were 145 bike riders preregistered but, by the time we lined up to start, it seemed like there were a  LOT more than that there.  There were only three or four other single-speed riders – not as many as I had expected for an event this size.  I would be riding with a rigid fork on my race bike this time.  I guess I was sticking to the theme of riding “old school.”  I was really counting on David Tremblay to join me again with his rigid single-speed but that didn’t work out this year.  It seems like he and I cannot coordinate a ride together at all lately.

The start from above. Photo by Jeff Hale.

They started us in the lower parking lot in front of the lower lodge this year.  I’m thinking it was because the group was so large, but that’s just speculation on my part.  The first two or three miles is just a long, steep climb and there’s really nothing enjoyable about it with the possible exception of the Camptown trail.  I took off a bit faster than I would have liked so that I wouldn’t get stuck behind someone climbing slowly in the initial single-track.  It worked out well, because I was somewhere in the top 10 when we finally entered the woods.  The Camptown climb was almost fun, and we were soon on the old CCC road that crosses the main mountain.  There were sections of this climb that were quite boney with loose rocks.  Unfortunately, those loose rocks were all covered by a thick blanket of leaves which made keeping traction an interesting affair.

The CCC road eventually turned downhill.  The descent goes on for at least a mile, which was a little more challenge than I expected with the unsuspended front end of the bike.  This was mostly because of the leaves that obscured the ruts and rock.  Still, it was nice to have a chance to recover from the long climb.

The descent was followed by more double-track.  This placed us on some dirt roads out in Victory.  We rode the roads for a mile or two before returning to the trails and the first aid station. The trail started out with a section of double-track that was quite muddy with large rocks hidden beneath some grass and weeds.  I had to pick my line well and try to stay light on the wheels to prevent any unexpected hard hits.  This lasted for about half a mile before things became a little more enjoyable.  We hit another short portion of dirt road before getting back to the trails.

Note the really cool looking fork on that bike.  Awesome.  Photo by Jeff Hale

Soon after leaving the road, I took a wrong turn which led to a log road intersection which obviously was not intended to be part of the course.  I had to turn around and back track a little.  Once back on track, I was on the “never ending” single-track section of the ride.  Nearly all of this single-track was freshly cut.  I think a lot of this was the same as the single-track we rode last year, but some of it may have been rearranged.  Some parts I recognised and others seemed like I might have been riding it in the reverse direction.  I’m really not sure because I was completely turned around after about 10 minutes on those trails.   Like I mentioned last year, these trails were really, really fun to ride.  I love this section.  The Jabber with the rigid fork was amazing in this stuff; the handling was lightning quick and I could pick my line with amazing precsion.  It felt faster, even without the plushness of a suspenion fork.  It would be great if Kingdom Trails could somehow make this part of a regular trail or route that was available to ride all year long.   I mentioned this to Tim Tierney, the KT director, at one of the aid stations but he didn’t seem excited about the idea at that moment.

From here we rode on and eventually were on the Gold Trail.  Things were quite a bit drier here than last year.  There were a handful of riders that were in view now.  I wasn’t exactly racing at this point but for all practical purposes, that’s how we wer riding.  Over the next few miles, we traded places a few times and generally provoked each other to work harder.  Eventually, I was riding with only another rider on a green, rigid 26″ bike.  We stuck together through the North Pasture trail.

Soon the trail opened up to Magill Fields.  Now I knew exactly where I was.  We rode the edge of the field to to Pinkham Road.  Once we crossed over to Trillium, I let the bike go and flew down the familiar trail.  This was followed by the gradual descent down Dashney Rd  and then to the Burke lodge.  I finished in 2:22 which put me in about 6th or 8th place overall.  Here is my Strava data.

After the ride, I changed into some dry clothes so I could sit down and enjoy the lunch from the grill. Very good food.  It was nice to hang around and visit for a while after the ride.  The weather was particularly warm for this time of year which made the whole day quite nice.  I’ll be putting this on the calendar again for next year.


I got another cool pint glass too!

Circumburke Challenge 2011

For various reasons I missed the Circumburke Challenge last year, so this was my first time participating in this ride hosted at Burke Mountain ski area.  It is a non-race “challenge” to ride (or run) a course around Burke Mountain following jeep roads, single-track and XC ski trails.  The ride is held in memory of Dave Blumenthal, a Vermonter who died in the 2010  Tour Divide.

The start area

The weather was actually pretty nice.  It was 37F  at my home in the early morning.  By mid-morning, it had warmed up considerably but it still wasn’t truly warm.  I started the day by trying to get my act together for the ride.  I had to replace my pedal since it was damaged from the race I did the previous day.  I also needed to adjust the chain tension on the bike.  Even though I only live about 25 minutes from Burke, I still managed to leave myself just barely enough time to get to the lodge and register.  There’s nothing quite like doing things in the last minute to give yourself a focused start to the day.

Fat finger

My friend, David Tremblay, talked me into registering for the two lap option (not that it takes much to talk me into something like that).  I was beginning to question the wisdom of that choice since I had raced yesterday and was still feeling a bit fatigued.  On top of that, I had hurt my finger pretty badly at some point during the race on Saturday.  I don’t recall actually injuring it but that is typical for most of my race injuries.  I noticed that it ached after the finish, and it grew progressively more sore that evening.  By morning, it had become quite swollen.  I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to ride with it or if I could even get my bike glove on over it.

Circumburke Start
The start. Photo by David Tremblay.

It seemed like there were quite a few riders at the start – many more than in the photos I saw of last year’s event.  Later, I learned that there were a total of 88 participants including runners and bike riders – a pretty nice turnout for a non-competitive event.

The ride started at the base lodge at Burke.  They lead us out with a 4-wheeler for the first mile or so.  I’m not going to take the time or space to describe the course much as the website covers it quite well in detail.  I will say that the first mile or so leaned towards the miserable end of the riding spectrum.  The group started off at a quick pace and the climb to mid-lodge is pretty steep.  Dave and I had agreed to do the ride together, both riding single-speeds, but he started off climbing faster than I was ready for.  I should have warmed up for a few minutes first.  At least we were able to get past many of the geared riders while the course was wide and open.  Climbing on a single-speed requires a more aggressive approach than on a geared bike, and we didn’t want to get stuck behind someone slowly spinning their way up the single-track section of the climb.

Burke upper lodge parking lot
Me trying to catch my breath and Dave on the Burke upper lodge parking lot. Photo by David Tremblay.

Once we climbed a short section of single-track (Camptown trail), we then took the CCC road around the south side of Burke Mountain.  I used to ride this part of the mountain a lot many years ago when I was in college, and I always liked it.  The latter part of this “road” is a very long descent into Victory bog.  Following Dave here felt like the rides he and I used to do 20 years ago out in the Reading and Plymouth, VT area.  I was having to work to keep up with him and then realized he was riding on a bike with a rigid fork.  He was always discouraging me like that on the descents, but that’s another story.

Somewhere in the first part of that descent, Dave went over his bars in a muddy waterbar.  It looked like his front wheel sank in up to the axle in this little mud hole.  We were riding quite fast there, and his crash looked really bad.  Fortunately, he was able to get up and keep going without much more than a few minutes of reorganization.  He must have hit just the wrong spot as I had no issue with it only a few feet to the right.

Most of the route, as the web site says, “harks back to the early days of mountain biking.”  There was a lot of rough double-track riding and enough mud to keep any 3 year old happy for months.  Dave and I were able to talk throughout the ride and had a great time chugging up the hills and bombing the downhills together.

Riding in Victory
Me with Dave (partially obscured) somewhere in Victory. Photo by John McGill.

One part of the course that merits mention was the single-track before the second aid station.  I don’t know exactly how many miles of it there were, but it was amazing.  I’ve ridden on freshly cut single-track many, many times over the years and this was outstanding.  Whoever had picked the lines had a great sense of flow on the bike.  The fact that they had raked or used a leaf blower to clear the leaves was icing on the cake.  I would gladly slog my way back there during the summer months if I could locate that single-track section again.  It was that good.

The second aid station was unmanned when we arrived but obviously well stocked.  The best part was that they had chocolate chip cookies!  YES!  I scarfed a cookie and a banana and then we headed on our way.

From here on the route was rough double track with even more mud.  At the third station, I grabbed another cookie and some red licorice.  I rode a while with a red Twizzler hanging out of my mouth.  Not a bad way to take on the mud.

There would be a really cool photo here of me riding with a Twizzler in my mouth but I couldn't get Dave to take it.

The course finishes by following several of the XC ski trails and then descends a dirt road (Dashney Rd.) to the lodge area.  We turned onto the ski area road where there were some children pointing the way to the final section of trail that leads to the lodge.  Dave and I rode in together at 2:08 according to my cycle computer.

Dave was ready for a second lap, but I knew I was not up to it.  I felt pretty good, but I know that I would have bonked if I had gone around a second time.  The race yesterday had definitely taken a little toll on me.  Next time I ride this event, I will come a little more rested so we can take in that single-track section a second time.  I don’t know who came in first, or second or anything like that.  I think Dave and I were around the fourth or fifth riders to come in – not that it matters.

After the ride
Dave and I after the ride. Photo by Herb Swanson.

The event as a whole was surprisingly fun.  I live pretty close and was skeptical about how enjoyable it would be to ride trails that are generally available to me. Thankfully, that concern was unfounded.  After we finished there was pretty good grill food in the Burke lodge.  It was very nice to put on some dry clothes and hang out talking with others who had done the course.  I’ll be putting this ride on my calendar for next year.

Beer glass from the Circumburke
Cool glass that everyone got for entering.