Sitting here on my sofa with dead legs and great memories, I can say that I am probably the luckiest fatbike racer in the country. At the end of January, I raced my first ultra-marathon bike race, the Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota. I finished in conditions that were Antarctic cold, and I loved the experience. In the middle of February, I raced the far shorter Fatbike Frozen Forty at Elm Creek Park Reserve northwest of the Twin Cities. I had to bail after three laps of slot-car racing on the singletrack, but again, bike racing is fun. And on March 1 – after some domestic negotiations and my wife selflessly agreeing to be a bike widow one more time – I was at the start line for the inaugural Backyard Fat Pursuit, a 200km race staged by Jay Petervary, the ultra-endurance cyclist, and an army of volunteers.
My Salsa Mukluk was the most familiar thing about my Fat Pursuit experience. It’s a tough, reliable, fun rig that has never done anything less than everything I've asked it to do. From the moment I registered for the Fat Pursuit, it was clear that the race would be a novel, amazing experience. The 200km course was the opposite of Midwestern. Almost entirely in forests, the course ran north and east from the tiny town of Island Park, Idaho, into the mountains along the edge of Yellowstone National Park; north to West Yellowstone, Montana; over the Continental Divide near Targhee Pass; and then south and west back to the start. All told, the Fat Pursuit course included about 7,000 feet of climbing, all between 6,200 feet and 8,200 feet: literally a mile above my hometown's 900-foot elevation.
My sense of being in new territory, literally and figuratively, was amplified at the pre-race meeting. JayP ran through all the usual stuff – sponsors, volunteers, race rules, etiquette, warnings about snowmachiners, and a request that we be courteous to that group since we would be riding on their trails. He also hit a nicely positive note in emphasizing that the races were as much about accepting the challenge of the ride and enjoying the beauty of the Yellowstone Region as they were about finishing, much less placing in the top three and winning one of the cash prizes. Mike "Kid" Riemer from Salsa Cycles accented this, telling us, "Stay constant. You have everything you need to go out and come back around.”
Riding a stoke as high as I’ve ever had, I remember little of the rest of the evening. I do remember that the pre-race meal was incredible and that Jay himself stopped by our cabin around 8PM to see how things were going and to give us a little pep talk. Flying my flatlander flag, I asked him what kinds of animals we might see. I would have given up half my trail mix for a chance to see bison.
After some restless sleep, I was on the start line at 7AM for the start of the race. Jay counted us down from ten seconds, the happiness audible in his voice. When he yelled "Zero!" the fast racers at the front of the little field leapt off the line and hit the gap in the snowbank at the far end of the start area. Trailing behind at a more sedate speed that was controlled as much by my sense of pacing as by my inability to get oxygen, I watched the leaders ride away up the trail. I could see my friend Ben Doom's Day-Glo orange vest distinctly, then less distinctly, then not at all.
Less than a half hour into the race, I was pretty much alone, deep in the endless snowy forest. The first checkpoint was about 45km away, at the spot where the long course would loop back again west, and then north, toward 150 more kilometers of racing, while the short course turned east for its 10km run back to the finish.
Getting to Checkpoint 1 was hard, but doable, like some of the toughest stretches of the Arrowhead (my only real comparison).
Still, the trails were amazingly hilly, and I spent a fair amount of time pushing my bike up unrideable hills, over flats covered in unrideable snow, or through unrideable snow on unrideable hills.
Airing my tires down helped quite a bit, and I found that I was able to ride more than I walked in the second half of the loop to the checkpoint.
I was enormously relieved to finally see the pink flamingos along the trail just before the checkpoint. I had been riding (or walking) for about six hours, so I was eager to sit down, eat, drink, and rest - but first JayP made good on his promise/threat that all 200k racers would need to prove that they had the gear and the know-how to boil water. I got the job done, after a comedy of errors, a little bit of luck, some assistance, and a nice second-degree burn on my thumb.
Warmer, fuller, and amused by my dunce cap fire starting, I hopped back on the Beast and headed up the trail toward West Yellowstone. The people I left behind at the checkpoint - a couple 200k racers resting, some 60k racers who had caught us and were heading toward their finish, and a squad of volunteers - were the last people I would see for about fifteen hours.
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About The Guest Blogger
Christopher Tassava lives in a small college town in southern Minnesota with his wife and two daughters. He caught the gravel riding bug in 2009, and fell hard for fatbiking in 2012. In addition to riding year round to get to and from work and training as much as his schedule allows, he has completed several of Minnesota's great gravel grinder races. Racing his fatbike seemed like the logical next step. You can find him online via his blog Blowing & Drifting, @tassava (Twitter), http://snowandgravel.tumblr.com/ (Tumblr), and on Facebook, where he has happily gotten in touch with lots of cool bikers from all over the world.
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