Preparing for Tuscobia meant riding the Pugsley with gear every day. There wasn't much training beyond my usual riding around town. I often commute with the Pug during fair weather but will defer to a lighter, faster bike in the interest of getting to work on time. In the past I would rock skinny tires year round. I carved through the slush like a maniac, struggling to keep the bike upright. Or take a dive to avoid getting hit by a car, when I couldn't control my bike. These days I rely on the traction and flotation afforded by almost four inches of tire. I can take the bike up and over mounds of snow left by the plows and the blowers and hold my line through the roadside slush. I create my own shortcuts and get rad at every opportunity. Fat tire bikes are unique in that they permit a rider to venture into areas that other bikes couldn't possibly. Even so, the path of least resistance is always preferable. When a firm grasp of the capability of the bike is established, you can direct and power it through even the most obtuse topography.
I spent the day chasing around after last minute essentials and wrenching on my bike at Calhoun Cycle. Pat Tsai picked me up and we loaded my bike on the roof of his car. We drove to the Hub to meet Tim Bekke. A Honda accord fits three people, Pugs and gear quite well. We got on the road around five thirty Friday night and arrived in Park Falls, Wisconsin around nine. A room was waiting for us at the Edge O Town motel, and after unloading our stuff we scouted out the trail head. This is where we would end the race. It was only about two miles away so we decided to ride there in the morning in order to avoid having to load bikes onto the car again. We found it, and met the race organizer Tim Roe. Tim is a hardcore winter athlete who is a great race organizer. He got us checked in and handed us sweatshirts. He let us know that the trail was quite fast, judging by the checkpoint times of the hundred fifty mile bikers and that the course records would likely be broken. Jason Buffington ended up shattering the record, turning over the first seventy five miles in about seven hours. He ended up finishing in seventeen hours forty minutes. This man is seriously fast. The second hundred fifty mile finisher, Lance Andre, didn't come in for over six hours after Jason. I set what I thought was an optimistic goal: to finish in around ten hours, twelve at the most.
We readied our bikes in the very nice, but small room at the Edge O Town. A Jandd frame bag held my tools and extra food. The Jandd top tube bag was crammed with energy bars. My Ortlieb saddlebag had my spare tubes and cooking kit. Bungeed under the saddlebag was my sleeping pad. Sleeping bag and shelter were strapped under the handlebars, with a small Ortlieb pouch topped off with a mix of almonds, fruit, chocolate covered cherries and crumbled up pop tarts. I filled two Ortlieb panniers with extra food and clothing and loaded them on the front rack. The panniers added seven or eight pounds to a bike that already weighed close to sixty. However I felt confident that I was ready, and I think we got to bed around midnight.
At four fifty-eight A.M., I awoke and thought 'my bike is too heavy'. I lay and thought about it for two minutes until all of our cell phone alarms went off simultaneously. We got up and I immediately started removing the panniers and distributing the food to other places on the bike. I left most of the clothing but kept one change of socks and an extra jacket. I wasn't thinking very clearly and should have grabbed dry base layers too. In the switch I also left my chemical heater packets behind. I didn't need them anyway. I'm really glad I removed the extra weight. My plan was to ride this trail without stopping. There was no need to weigh myself down with gear I would most likely never touch.
I had two potential footwear options. I could go with plastic flat pedals wearing my Gore-Tex hiking boots, neoprene boot covers and gaiters. I felt this was more versatile as I might be on foot, pushing the bike more than I'd like. On the other hand, I could use SPD pedals, wearing my Sidi winter riding boots, neoprene covers and gaiters. The Sidis are better for long distance cycling, are quite warm with covers, but have drawbacks: Not as comfortable while walking, a slippery sole sliding off the pedal when clipping in, and my continual paranoia about the metal cleat interface draining precious warmth from the boot. In the end, I opted for the Sidis. It was the right choice. I had zero problems with warmth, didn't slip once clipping in, and fared well for traction when I had to dismount.
Lots of riders use pogies – big handlebar mittens. I wanted to make my own out of an disused ski jacket, but procrastinated and ended up going with my usual setup. Pearl Izumi winter riding gloves with big canvas-leather chopper over-mittens on top. The padded gloves are comfy for riding, but they're not really warm enough for anything less than 20 degrees fahrenheit. The choppers fix that nicely and have the added bonus of a separate index trigger finger, useful for when I need more dexterity for braking or grabbing food. I packed my trusty Manzella gloves as backup.
Andiamo padded underwear. “Takes away the hurt; leaves the pain.”
Wool underwear next to my skin.
Craft windstopper tights and a wool cycling jersey.
Craft rain pants and wool sweater.
Chrome jacket, gloves, choppers and scarf.
Giro snowboarding helmet. PrincetonTec headlamp. Goggles ten dollars at Tatters. I didn't use the goggles at all on the ride.
We rolled our bikes outside the motel and rode in silence to the Park Falls trail head. After loading our bikes on a large horse trailer, we boarded a bus where we sat for quite a while. Eventually we got underway to Rice Lake where the seventy five mile race would start. The fifty kilometer foot race would start later in the morning in Winter. A runner on the bus talked with another about some socks he was trying for the first time. The socks were high tech and expensive, but experienced outdoors-people know not to experiment with critical gear in the field. This guy certainly had balls for showing up for a seventy five mile trek through the snow, but he showed his inexperience with that comment. Then he went on to talk about his rent-to-own company that exploited loopholes to operate in states where such businesses are banned. Classy!
After being on the bus for over an hour, we stopped at a gas station to get coffee and snacks. There was a long line for the toilet and I was the last one in. Luckily the bus didn't leave before I'd found someone to buy me coffee (having left my wallet in the motel room) and made my deposit. Now coffee'd and pooped, I'm ready to race! We unloaded at the Rice Lake trail head. Pat, Tim and I were actually standing around chatting when the race started. Talk about casual! We rode around and through the pack of runners towing their sleds. Initially, the riding was quite easy! We were cruising along a steady clip, feeling the wind push us along. The temperature was about ten degrees and rising. It was a perfect day to be riding bikes in the snow!
I was singing to myself, full of joy and caffeine. After about two miles, Pat, Tim and I came upon the first of many “DIP” signs and a rail bed running perpendicular to the trail. We zoomed down into it and then tried to power up the steep grade on the other side, nearly making it before realizing this was a massive waste of effort. We hopped off and pushed the rest of the way up, pausing at the top to catch our breath. Pat and Tim shed their jackets, and I took off the wool sweater under my jacket. None of us made any other clothing changes during the race. We checked behind us, and one of the runners had broken away from the pack and had nearly made it to the dip. 'Damn he's fast!' we agreed, and further decided that being passed by a runner would not look good, so we quickly jumped back on our bikes and sped down the trail.
Tim pulled away first. I kept Pat in my sights for a few miles, but eventually he lost me on some rolling hills when I stopped to adjust my tire pressure. Pat wouldn't catch Tim until late in the race. Suddenly I was alone. No one visible for a half mile in front or behind. Just me and the trail. I encountered two people walking and pulling sleds coming along opposite me. They were running the hundred fifty mile course and hadn't yet made it to their halfway point at Rice Lake, despite having been out on the trail for almost thirty hours. I waved and cheered, and asked them if they had everything they needed. One fellow managed a brave smile, nodded and waved as I passed. I don't think he spoke English. 'He has a long way to go' I remarked to the trees. Only two people actually finished the hundred fifty mile run.
Tuscobia is a groomed snowmobile trail, and with course records already falling, we assumed it would be pretty easy riding. The reality was rather more brutal. The snow machines don't pack down the snow – they churn it up. This presents a deceptively inviting track that then crumbles beneath your tires. This sends you careening across the path, seeking a better line. Or worse, kills your momentum and bogs you down entirely. I could see the tire tracks of the riders ahead crossing back and forth across the trail, over and over, trying to find something packed hard and easy to roll on. I was doing the same thing. The best riding could be found on the outside edges of the trail. The wide, heavy grooming machines had something to do with this, and the snow machine treads didn't reach that far to the outside. It was packed pretty hard for the most part, but it was a narrow line. Very easy to drift too far to either side once a decent speed was achieved. Riding anywhere else required significantly more exertion. This was challenging riding, but far from impossible.
I encountered a few more DIPs. Fun to ride down, but I usually lost momentum in the snow at the bottom and would dismount to push the bike up the other side. I probably could have powered up the grades in my granny gear and using up a ton of energy, but it just wasn't worth it. There was no one around. I could see the footprints of other bikers next to shallow tire tracks. Walking uses different muscles than cycling, so hopping off the bike to push every now and then is a good idea anyhow. I remember one dip in particular because of the sign that warned “Trains run at 60 MPH!”. Cool! I had just read the sign when I head the whistle. I gunned it! I rode so fast down that dip that if I had lost control it would have been ugly. I made it across the tracks and a good way up the other side on inertia alone. I pushed the rest of the way and stopped to pee in the bushes at the top of the climb. I ate for the first time, chomping an energy bar and some of my trail mix. I looked behind and saw another biker coming down the trail towards the dip I'd just crossed. I heard snow machines, and turned to see half a dozen coming towards me. The trail was narrow so I waited for them to go by. I waved and nodded to each one as they passed. Most waved back. The others stared, eyes wide through their helmet visors. This was the trend among the snowmobilers I encountered, with one exception. A guy passed me going way too fast and without enough control. It was over very quickly though, so I couldn't really do anything about it but keep riding. Despite the close call, I still felt like I was safer there than in city traffic.
The trail continued on in this fashion: rough riding punctuated by sections of heavenly smoothness. A farmer's field, the occasional railroad dip and some small towns made up the rest of it, but either there wasn't much to see, or I was focused on navigating the trail in front of me. Sometimes I was basically riding through back yards. At one point a dog chased me for a short distance. The bitch ran at me snarling and barking. The owner was calling from a house nearby, but the dog ignored her and came at me. Of course the trail turned to mush right at that moment and I had to stop. I turned and yelled as loud as I could “NO! BAD DOG! GO HOME!” The dog looked like it hit an invisible wall, turned tail and ran back toward the house it had come from. I laughed out loud for a half mile on.
I need to eat a substantial amount of food while riding in normal circumstances, so on a long, cold weather ride like this, I brought enough to give a small family diabetes. Some meat and cheese sandwiches on big onion bagels, homemade venison jerky, blueberry pop-tarts, roasted salted almonds, dried fruit, chocolate covered cherries, about ten chocolate-caramel energy bars, and two five hour energy shots. Because I need to eat so often I prefer to do it on the bike to save time. Riding this trail with one hand on the bars however was not exactly easy. I could manage getting to my trail mix while riding, but when I got really hungry I would dismount and push the bike while eating a sandwich and re hydrating. Eating and digesting food uses up a lot of water so its really important to drink while you eat. There's a lot of wisdom in 'eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty'. It's hard to make up a deficit in food or liquids during intense activity. Much easier to stay fueled and hydrated from the start. If you don't, you'll bonk. A nuisance on any ride, but a total disaster in a cold weather race.
I was expecting a checkpoint in the town of Ojibwa a little past mile forty. I saw the town, but saw no sign or checkpoint like I was expecting. Nearly out of water, I considered stopping at a bar I could see from across the highway. I wasn't totally dry yet, so I didn't deviate and kept on riding. At about mile forty five in the town of Winter, I saw a sign that read “WINTER AID STATION” in yellow and green reflective tape. I turned off the trail and followed signs up to a motel room where a guy named Scott was manning a checkpoint. He told me one biker had come through so far. I knew that Pat and Tim were ahead and figured they must have skipped this stop. I learned later they had stopped for water at a gas station in Ojibwa. I stayed in Winter about three minutes: long enough to refill my water, eat a fig newton, and get out my knife to slice open a half-frozen five hour energy shot.
Preventing drinking water and foods from freezing is one of the biggest challenges of a winter adventure. Dehydration causes hypothermia. Snow has such little water content that eating it is a waste of time. Stoves to melt snow and ice for water are on the required gear list. Everyone seemed to have a different strategy. Pat put his hydration packs into his pogies. This kept them thawed, but interfered with his shifters. Midway through the race, he moved the packs to pockets inside the front of his jacket, running the hoses down his sleeves. Again, this kept them warm but Pat said later he wasn't happy with the extra weight on his chest. Tim put his water inside a frame bag. I think it froze about two-thirds way through the race. I used the rear pass-through pocket in my jacket to hold a three liter hydration pack comfortably on my lower back. I stuffed the hose inside the pocket along with the bladder to keep it from freezing. I would leave the zipper part-way open so I could reach back and pull the hose out while riding. This worked well for a while, but the hose would sometimes find its way out of the pocket, freezing from the tip in a matter of minutes. At one point late in the race, about a foot of hose was frozen and I couldn't get any liquid out. After my futile efforts chewing on the hose got me nothing, I stopped the bike, got the whole hydration pack out and drank right from the fill cap. That drink was one of the sweetest I've ever had. Overall, I was happy with the rear jacket pocket configuration but in the future will be insulating the hose and bite valve.
By the time my drinking hose froze up, the sun had gone down. The temperature dropped noticeably and a harsh reality check set in. The tire tracks I'd been riding in were becoming difficult to see. I turned on my headlamp, setting it for wide beam instead of the brighter spotlight. This conserved battery but gave off enough light to see where the easiest riding would be. The trail didn't get any better in the last twenty miles. My legs were starting to hurt and eight hours in the saddle were taking their toll. However I was intensely focused on completing this ride. Through the darkness I saw a taillight up ahead. It was the motivation I needed to shift into a higher gear and pick up the pace. I caught up to the rider and slowed down alongside him. He was a hundred fifty mile biker, going very slowly. I asked him how it was going.
“I'm tired.” he said.
“Need anything?” I asked.
“Okay.” I said, and powered on.
The last few miles were grueling. Several steep climbs out of the dips, and some of the roughest trail yet. It was slow going. I cursed a lot in those last few miles. Right as it smoothed out, I saw a sign in that yellow green reflective tape that read FINISH ----> I turned off the trail and zoomed down a fun, twisty little section of path that led to the trail head parking lot where I had gotten on the bus that morning. I whooped and hollered and sang as I finished the race. What a day! I tried to give a high five to the guy directing me in. I think I blinded him with my headlamp and he left me hanging. Oh well. Tim Roe checked me in with a time of ten hours ten minutes, good enough for fourth place. Tim Bekke and Pat Tsai had tied for second place, finishing together over an hour before me. The next rider finished just ten minutes behind me. The rider I passed in the dark finished not long after that, as I was resting and enjoying bowls of chicken noodle soup in the big heated tent. I was awarded a beautiful wooden medallion confirming my finish of the 75 miles race. Awesome! Pat and Tim Bekke came from showering at the motel and picked me up and we went out for food and beers. I could only manage to drink a single New Glarus before my eyes started to droop. We crashed pretty hard and slept in until ten or so Sunday morning. We were back in Minneapolis by three.
I'm very pleased with how everything turned out. I completed the course in the time I predicted, and I got to finish behind my friends and in front of some strangers. This sort of adventure racing appeals to me for a few reasons. I enjoy the individual challenge in the race atmosphere. You can make it as competitive as you want. I get off on riding my bike in challenging conditions, bringing my camp with me wherever I go. I love geeking out on bikepacking gear and outdoor equipment. It's the number one topic of conversation among these ultra racers so I was in good company. All my equipment worked very well and my confidence is bolstered. I tend to over prepare and pack too much gear no matter if I'm riding across town or across the country. I was able to restrain myself this time, so that's something. I'm not super competitive by nature, but I believe sometimes a competitive situation can push you to do things you wouldn't ordinarily consider possible. Racing is fun and I had a blast on this ride, but nothing can replace the serenity of packing up the bike and exploring a winter wonderland at a rhythm and pace all your own.