“The Bear: A Fat Bike Adventure in Steamboat Springs” is a brand-new winter fat bike racing ultra in beautiful Colorado. Riders are treated to what, according to race organizers, “is arguably one of the most scenic fat bike races around. Both the 50 and 105-mile distances will take you above 10,000 feet in places with views to the Continental Divide and some of the least seldom seen craggy peaks of Colorado – The Zirkels. The 105-mile course will also blast you up to Wyoming where some of that states finest individuals will greet you with the hospitality only Wyoming can provide.” Tough to come up with a reason not to sign up for that!
Salsa sponsored rider Neil Beltchenko lined up with his Mukluk for this inaugural run and brought home a win. We asked him to go into a little more detail about the event, and how he finished at the top of the field.
Congratulations on your victory at The Bear, Neil! What led you to sign up for this event?
I appreciate that; it was a great event! I signed up because I wanted to try something new. I was looking around at races in the Midwest, but nothing worked out with my schedule. When Jon, the event creator reached out to me and said his event was going to happen pending U.S. Forest Service approval, I was instantly excited. A few months later the race was approved, and it happened. The main draw was that it was in Colorado, relatively close to where I live. Less driving or flights means more time on the bike and an overall more convenient experience.
How would you describe the course?
Ohhhh boy, bring your climbing legs because it’s packed with 10,000-plus feet of climbing. The beauty of that is what goes up, must come down. Overall the route is stunning; it travels through Routt National Forest, into Wyoming and back down into Colorado. It has some out and backs, which was a bit strange, but I learned this was more of a mental challenge than anything. The trails are for the most part on snowmobile trails, which are groomed by the local snowmobile club, and the route has plenty of checkpoints throughout the route, making it an attainable race for everyone. There is also a 50-mile version, which is a quality day ride if that’s what you are into.
For an event with no history yet, how did you plan regarding clothing and gear, which bike to bring, and nutrition?
That’s the draw to me, no history, no resources, just a map, a track, and the organizer’s word, which if we have learned anything by now, is something to take with a grain of salt. :) Like any race, clothing is weather dependent, and it was again for this race as a rather warm, but stormy period settled in. This lead to soft and sweaty times on the bike, but I was able to leave the -25* sleeping bag at home and a bunch of extra layers. I think the important thing is bringing the proper bike and tires. Knowing it was going to be soft, I swapped out my Mukluk’s Alternator Dropouts for a longer wheelbase, threw on the Whiskey Parts No. 9 100mm rims, and some 45NRTH Dillinger 5s. I was set. Nutrition wise, it was pretty easy as the aid stations were extremely stocked with a variety of goodies both savory and sweet. I did throw a bunch of Tailwind Nutrition in my Camelbak by the end of the race, as I was sick of all the food in my toptube bag.
Give us a recap of your race.
We all started at 7:00 a.m. and my goal was to stick to the front of the pack, with the 50 milers. Quickly a lead group of three formed up front, and the pace was rather swift but not full on. It was nice to push each other, but all good things must come to an end as they turned off on the 50-miler while I kept straight at mile 20. After that I was basically by myself, trudging through soft, snowmobile chundered snow. The area north of Steamboat where the race takes place sees a lot of snow – even on this down year, they have seen over 150 inches of snow, and to make things interesting, the Continental Divide got about four inches overnight. With wind and soft snow, I slowly made it to the northernmost portion of the route, which then turned around and came back to that aid station I passed at mile 20.
This way I could see how much of a gap I had on the field, and it was rather slim, so it was time to turn it up a bit. After reaching the 40-mile checkpoint, it was time to climb some more, this time up to the Continental Divide to about 10,000 feet. I started pedaling as much as I could, but this was hike-a-bike terrain. The goal was to climb as much as I could, but once I ran out of gears, hike as fast as I could. After finally reaching the top, I was confronted with some extremely sketchy descents. I had completed the crux of the race, but not knowing how far back the field was, I still didn’t feel safe.
These races are all about saving time, and when I race, I think about that constantly, whether that be pushing a slightly more difficult gear than I think I can handle, not stopping while eating, and most importantly, keeping the stopped time down. A lot of us ultra-riders do this, but before checkpoints, I think about what needs to be done, how much food I need to add to my toptube bag, how much water is necessary for the next section, if I need to adjust my tire pressure and so on. I did that as I was nearing the Columbine aid station, but I took it a step further and decided to think about what I needed to get to the finish line, as I knew the last 40 miles would be rather fast.
Once I arrived at the 60-mile Columbine aid station, I took 15 minutes to get what I needed, adjust my tire pressure and get ready for the 40-mile push. I jumped back in the saddle and continued on route to the second out and back section of the race, this time on a minimally maintained country road. Essentially it is an extremely long descent with a handful of power climbs on a snowy dirt road that is plowed on occasion, but this time was covered in a few inches of snow. It was fast, and I reached the end point just as the sun set. I turned around and started to climb back up to the Columbine aid station, nervously pedaling, awaiting the sight of a light in the distance, hoping I had a decent lead.
It turns out I did. I was nearly done with the almost 30-mile out and back before I saw Chris Plesko and Jefe Branham. After that, I knew I had the race if I could avoid disaster. I had ten more miles after running up to the Columbine checkpoint house to check back in. The last section was fast, even with a bit of hike-a-bike. That final 10 miles was a time to reflect on the day. I felt glorious at this point and was pleased with how everything went. I dealt with a few low moments, but for the most part, the race was an enjoyable experience. I rolled into the Hahn’s Peak Road House at 10:25, just in time to enjoy a beer, some bluegrass, and of course, a normal night’s sleep.
Will you be returning to The Bear? Would you recommend it to other ultra-seekers?
You bet, it’s a great event with a great vibe. The Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse is a fantastic base camp for the weekend too. This is only the beginning of this race. It’s going to get longer and harder. I hope we can get a big group of ultra-riders up in Northern Colorado next winter. Colorado is known for its high altitudes and climbing, and it certainly did not disappoint during the Bear. I would recommend it to any front ranger, aspiring fat biker, or ultra-cyclist.
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I love being outside. I prefer to ride on dirt. Or snow. If I was born a hundred years earlier I might have been a polar explorer. There's a great natural world out there to see, smell, taste, listen to, and experience. Life slows down out there and the distractions we've created will disappear if you let them. Give me a backpack and let me go.