When I rolled up to Whitegrass Ski Touring Center outside of Davis, West Virginia yesterday morning, the thermometer in my car said it was 32 degrees, but the windchill felt like it was about 8.
Bundled-up fat bikers milled about amongst cross-country skiers outside of the lodge. Wait…fat bikes and XC skiers together in the same place? Yup, that’s right. I think we were all wondering how this would work out.
This social experiment was the first annual Mountain State Fat Bike Champs, also the first fat bike race to be held at a ski area in the mid-Atlantic or southeast region of the country. This celebration of fat tires and stout beers brought 60-something wide-tired enthusiasts out for a day of riding, racing, and, as it turns out, walking. And beer, bacon, and moonshine of course. We were in West Virginia, after all.
Race participants had the option to sign up for either the XC (3 laps of 5 miles apiece) or XXC (6 laps). There were a number of people there who had never ridden a fat bike before. The local bike shop, Blackwater Bikes, had rented out their entire fleet for this event.
In the pre-race meeting, race organizer Zach Adams mentioned that there would be some walking. I didn’t think much of it. In fact, my thoughts were, “I can ride up some pretty steep stuff. I doubt I’ll be walking that much.”
I ate my words about 5 minutes later, when, less than a quarter mile into the ride, every single one of us was pushing our fat bikes up the mountain. Not because the grade was too steep to ride, but because the snow was soft and it was impossible to gain traction. 60 or so people tromping through the snow didn’t make the conditions any better for pedaling.
“Well, this can’t last that long,” was my next thought.
Of course, I was wrong again. As we made our way higher and higher, I kept looking above me on the switchbacked trail, hoping to see people riding their bikes, instead of taking them for a walk. But as far as I could see, everyone was still plodding through the snow.
I jumped on my bike and tried to ride a few times. I would make it a few feet, and then I’d hit the soft stuff, my tires would go every which way, and I’d be done. I resigned myself to continue on foot.
The crowd spread out quickly. I passed several dudes on the way up, all of whom looked a little surprised that they were getting one-upped by a girl on a hike-a-bike.
“How’s it going?” one guy yelled to his buddy as I was making my way around him.
“I’m getting passed by a chick, how do you think it’s going?” was his reply.
I smiled to myself. All those suffer-fests with my husband, who proclaims that “it’s not a good ride without a hike-a-bike,” had paid off.
The cross-country skiers who passed us looked amused. I’m sure they thought we were crazy. We probably were. Most of them had questions.
“Is that bike hard to ride?” Hmm…normally, no. Today, yes.
“Do those tires make it heavy?” Not as heavy as most people think? I’m thankful for carbon.
And I’m sure the one they all wanted to ask but didn’t is, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Finally, we were at the top. Time to go all the way back down. The snow was still fairly hard-packed on the first part of the downhill, but became increasingly powdery and chewed-up as I careened towards the aid station. A lady taking pictures cheered me on. “Woohoo, first woman!”
I had thought as much, but wasn’t sure.
I don’t consider myself to be a “racer.” I do race occasionally, but mostly I like offbeat, not-that-serious events that have some sort of unique, quirky, or extreme element. I don’t train—I just try to get as much saddle time I can, simply because I love it. I go into every race thinking that it’s just a ride, and if I find myself near the front, I’ll get competitive and try to win.
And so, now that I found myself in the lead, I became determined to keep it.
But that didn’t stop me from taking a beer hand-up at the aid station, one of the little warming huts on the mountain at Whitegrass. I also got an introduction to the owner of Blackwater Bikes, and the promise of bacon and moonshine my next time around.
The last half of the course was rolling and trending downhill, but that didn’t translate to mean rideable. The soft spots continued, and I was hopping on and off my bike constantly. The trail went through a field that was so windy, I almost got blown over, and I had to get off my bike in order to brace myself against the gusts.
The windy field led to another slippery descent. The guy ahead of me flew off his bike hard, right in front of another woman taking pictures. I managed to stay on, though my bike had a mind of it’s own. I just stayed loose, kept my weight back, and let ‘er rip. A group of skiers in a warming hut at the bottom of the hill were having a blast watching all the fat bikers come down that hill. I’m sure the carnage was frequent.
As I closed in on the Whitegrass lodge and the end of my first lap, I began to see more and more skiers who were just heading out for the day. I wasn’t sure how they would take us—but overall, they seemed very supportive, intrigued, and not at all annoyed. Most of them cheered me on, and a few seemed surprised and happy to see a woman on a fat bike.
“You show those guys!” and “Look, it’s a lady biker!” I heard as I pedaled by.
I rolled by the timing team and another group of onlookers at the lodge. One lap down, two to go.
Hike-a-bike again, bomb downhill again, eat bacon served on a crushed beer can.
And then again once more.
I’d said I’d do a shot of moonshine on my last trip past the warming hut, and I felt it imperative to keep my word. I was handed the mason jar, then ended up misjudging how fast it would come out and poured it all over myself.
The rest of the way back to the lodge was a euphoric shitshow of me falling at least 5 times, giggling as I picked my snow-covered self back up. The soft powder and the moonshine were the reasons for my crashes, but both also made crashing a lot less painful—though I do now have a pretty hefty bump on my shin from smacking some piece of the bike during one of my flips downhill through the snow.
I finished the race relatively unscathed, maintaining my lead and winning the women’s category. Despite only riding 8.5 miles (it was advertised as 15—apparently there were some distance-measuring issues), I was more than ready to sit around the woodstove with a beer in hand and bluegrass filling my ears.
As per usual, everyone forgot about the hike-a-bike and the suffering, and all that remained were good vibes and fun times. Thank you Zach Adams of Appalachian Dirt, Blackwater Bikes, Whitegrass Ski Touring Center for being open to the idea of fat bikes on ski trails, and anyone else remotely involved in hosting this event. And, thank you to all the other participants for the great conversations on and off the trail, and the friendly, supportive atmosphere that makes events like this so awesome. I’ll be back!