Earlier this week, Salsa sponsored rider Neil Beltchenko won the Arrowhead Ultra 135 event in northern Minnesota. Neil was entered in the Unsupported Category, meaning he had to be entirely self-sufficient and could not access checkpoints for resupply. Despite this handicap, Neil wound up taking first place overall in a time of 14 hours and 3 minutes. Here we do a short interview about how the event went for him, and Neil shares a look at this bike and gear setup. -Kid
Salsa: What was your game plan coming into this year’s race?
NB: The plan coming into this year’s race was to be in better shape than last year, and that was my number one goal. I put in a lot of time and energy into training in October and November. That, paired with the Tuscobia 160 and the St. Croix 40, meant I was dialed in and felt great leading up to the race. The other objective was to be better prepared for the Unsupported category. Last year my water froze and I didn’t eat enough, so this year I made sure I set up a system where I would be able to hydrate better and eat more. A lot of my practices that I took to the race were learned over the last two months, so practice truly does make perfect. I would say it was almost a perfect race for me except for the end, when I quit eating for some reason. My last goal, if everything fell into place, was to win the race unsupported.
Salsa: What sort of emotions were you feeling on the start line this year?
NB: I felt much more confident this year than last year. Many people might not know, but I participated in this race back in 2014. It was my first winter ultra. I dropped out at Gateway (the first checkpoint) because I got a bad case of food poisoning. So last year was my first year back, and it was very emotional for me. I had lots of butterflies and nerves. This year, boosted by the confidence of wins at the Tuscobia Ultra and St. Croix 40, I slept much better the night before. As the fireworks shot off, I raced out to the front like I was on a mission.
Salsa: When you’re riding as fast as you are, do you still feel you have the chance to look around and take in some of the beauty of the Northwoods?
NB: That’s something that actually keeps me coming back to these races, especially Arrowhead. Arrowhead feels similar to Alaska. You pedal though a narrow row of snow-covered trees on a groomed track. Those are the memories that I’m left with at the end of the day. This year was extra special, with frost covering every inch of every tree. It was like a winter wonderland out there. Oh, and Elephant Lake was picturesque setting to ride a bike—rolling onto the frozen lake showcased by the beautiful shoreline. I imagined what it would be like in the summer, but then I thought of mosquitos, so I quickly changed my thoughts back to how beautiful it is in the winter. :)
Salsa: Where does your mind go while racing? Or is it constantly busy thinking ahead?
NB: I think a lot, but none of the thoughts are all that deep. I feel like I’m good at these races because I have such a short attention span. So when things hurt, I think about them momentarily then forget pretty quickly. I obviously do a lot of thinking about people in front of or behind me. I also consistently keep an ear open for snow machines, as they can quickly sneak up on you. Most of the thoughts are ideas of how far I might be from the next checkpoint. More times than not, I have a GPS with just a track that I follow, No other stats like speed or mileage. This is my way of not worrying about how far I am from a checkpoint or the finish. Sometimes I feel like this hurts me, but other times I know it helps.
Salsa: Events like the Arrowhead aren’t easy for anyone. What words of advice do you have for those who might be entertaining thoughts of taking on a winter ultra?
NB: I think the best thing to do is understand what you are getting into first, and I think the best way of doing that is signing up for similar races. The St. Croix 40 or even the Tuscobia 80 are great starting points. Keeping things attainable at the beginning is key. There is no reason to rush into big events before you are ready. I also think there is a particular willingness to suffer you need to have, as well as being comfortable taking care of yourself, knowing what may go wrong and how you can avoid or fix the problem. I got into these events because I loved summer ultra-racing. It was a natural progression for me, and over the years I’ve really come to love this community. It’s much more tight-knit than any other bike community I have been part of, which really helps when you have questions.
Salsa: Looking back on this year’s race, is there anything you would do differently?
NB: The biggest thing I would do would be to eat more. Since I was unsupported, I was much more conservative with my intake of fluids and calories because I didn’t want to run out. Between not knowing how much I would need and the fatigue, I just quit eating. I actually did a better job of fueling towards the beginning of the race. The other thing would be to lower my tire pressure maybe ten miles sooner. Once I did that, I was significantly faster and more stable on the climbs. When you think your tire pressure is off, nine times out of ten, it is. When in doubt, take a few seconds to drop pressure. Outside of that, last year’s preparation really helped in my success this year.
Salsa Beargrease - I went with the Beargrease over the Mukluk mainly because this has been the bike I’ve been riding for the past year. It’s super fast, accelerates quickly and comes with 27.5" wheels. I believe that in rather firm conditions, the 27.5" wheels carry better momentum and thus propel me faster. It's a bike that feels most like a mountain bike, and I really appreciate the handling, as it’s a seamless transition from fall to winter riding. Mounted to my downtube was a large thing of Justin’s Almond Butter, as each rider is required to finish with 3,000 emergency calories. I also mounted a bunch of red blinking lights—another piece of gear you must start and finish with.
I ran a studless 45NRTH Dillinger 4 on the back and a Dillinger 5 up front. With the right pressure, this was a great combination. The extra width up front gave me a bit more room for error. I ran both tires on Whisky No.9 80w 80 mm carbon rims laced to Industry Nine Torch Hubs. Gearing wise, I went with what I learned worked for me last year: a SRAM XO Eagle Driver with 34-tooth elliptical chainring. I’m able to run the 34-tooth because of the Wolf Tooth CAMO system, which changes the chainline a bit but still shifts perfectly.
I’ve been using an older Alpamayo Designs Seat Pack for ages, and it has not failed me once, so that’s what I continue to use. I’m not sure if they are still in business, but if they are, I really recommend this bag for big items. I stuffed my -20 degree Big Agnes sleeping bag and bivy sack in there. Knowing I was not going to actually use it, I stuffed it in there really well to keep the weight as close to the bike as possible; a set-it-and-forget-it type of deal. Those two items are also gear you are required to start and finish with.
I had this beautiful custom Cedaero frame bag made for me last year, and it has held up very well over the past two winters. Inside the main compartment I stored an extensive repair kit, one 27.5" fat tube, a pump, my MSR Stove set and pot (required), a pair of 45NRTH Sturmfist 5 gloves (required), insulated Big Agnes sleeping pad (required), and two 17-oz soft flasks filled with hot tap water and Tailwind Nutrition. In the small non-drive-side compartment I had my wallet with insurance card (required), a small packet of Justin’s Almond Butter to round out my required calories, a pair of hand warmers (required), extra batteries (required), a lighter (required), a multi-tool, some ibuprofen and my phone.
Top Tube Bag:
I’ve been using the EXP Series Top Tube Bag for a while now, and it has always treated me well. This time, to ease the task of eating, I cut up all of my bars and waffles, mixed them with nuts and M&Ms and threw them directly into the top tube bag. This way I didn’t have to deal with unwrapping bars or the leftover trash, and it got calories into my mouth faster with less fuss: win-win! I also threw two un-wrapped snickers bars in there; one to have in the first half of the race, and one to have after I left Melgeorges (the halfway point). It was a nice little bit of motivation to get to Melgeorges to eat my deliciously frozen Snickers.
My Revelate Mountain Feedbag held all of my sweet treats. In a Zip-Loc bag, I put a large bag of Sour Patch Kids, four packages of Shot Bloks (two caffeinated, two ginger flavor), and two packages of Scratch Labs Matcha Green Tea and Lemon chews. I then closed up the bag and shook it up to get the sugar to stick to all of the goodness. I then dumped all of it into the Mountain Feedbag for easy eating. This left me with one bag full of savory treats, and another bag full of sweet treats. The side pocket of my Mountain Feedbag held a lighter, extra blinky and my Garmin InReach Mini, which died on me as I forgot to turn it off the night before.
I rode with 45NRTH Cobrafist Pogies, and not just for warmth. Inside the pogies, my hands were insulated with 45NRTH Risor gloves (essentially a thin wool liner glove). Tucked inside the pogies were 45NRTH Nokken gloves just in case the forecast was wrong. Inside each pogie’s interior pockets were three Honey Stinger Ginseng Gels, the only thing I really needed to keep from freezing.
On My Bars:
I had a new Fenix BC21R V2; a great new light that I’m confident will be my every-day light from here on out. I also had my Garmin eTrex 30 with my track from last year loaded onto it. The trail is well-marked for the most part but having a track to follow gives you a bit more confidence if you haven’t seen a sign in a while.
Knowing it wasn’t going to get too cold, I still dressed on the conservative side. As many know, this race is held during the coldest time of year on average, and the weather has a mind of its own—like the snow that fell all day despite not being in the forecast.
On my head, I had a Tailwind Nutrition buff folded over once, my Rudy Project glasses with clear lenses, and a Black Diamond head lamp.
On my upper body, I wore a 45NRTH wool t-shirt, a Revelate Designs Wampack hydration pack paired with a 3L Camelback bladder filled with hot tap water, a long-sleeve Salsa Cycles jersey, and a thicker Salsa Cycles vest. Sewn into the front of my jersey were four pouches for 17-oz soft flasks. I ended up carrying two of those soft flasks filled with Tailwind Nutrition and hot tap water in the upper pockets. Because I raced unsupported, I had to either carry all of my water from start to finish or stop to boil water. I opted for carrying, so in total I had a little more than five liters. Last year my soft flasks froze but this year I tilted them upside-down, which helped keep the hot liquid on the spout. It worked, but it also was 30 degrees warmer this year, so that helped.
On my lower body I wore some bibs, Adidas Terrex pants, and in my pants pocket I carried my whistle (required).
On my feet, I wore the new Wolvhammer boots, some mid-weight 45NRTH wool socks, and expedition-weight Carhartt socks. This system was fantastic. I ordered a size up in the Wolvhammer boots so I could layer up socks and vapor layers if necessary. Tight is not right when it comes to warm feet!
Share this post: Tweet
I’ve always had a bike since I was a kid, riding the dirt jumps in the park behind my house. It was not until 2010 when I finally got on a mountain bike again. Things kinda took off in 2012 when a friend and I took on the Colorado Trail in 10 days. It was an eye-opening experience that lead me to take on the Arizona Trail Race 300 in 2013 – my first bikepacking race. Basically, after that, the rest is history.