Jay Winter Challenge 30 Miler Race Report

Last year Linnea dragged me to the Jay Winter Challenge, and it turned out to be one of the funnest races I've ever done. I crossed the finish line of the 10-miler and proclaimed, "I'm coming back next year with fatter tires and riding the 30!"

My reasoning was simple. 10 miles was fun. Having trouble staying afloat was the only thing that wasn't so fun. If we get fatter tires, then riding 30 miles will be three times as fun, right?

Note: This is the same reason that six gaps are actually six times as fun as one gap. Ask anyone.

Up until last Wednesday, this plan was looking good. I had a 2.4 front and a 2.5 rear, surely that would be the perfect combination, I should probably figure out what to do with my winnings, eh? And then it snowed 14 inches in Newport, and last year's icy, rideable trails disappeared.

What was left was a soft mess of powder, churned over daily by the innumerable snow machines that roam the area, a surface that ate up narrow tires and heavy riders. I barely managed to avoid falling into either of these categories, so I had a chance of surviving -- but it was clear that the day would be ruled by Pugsleys and ski bikes. Combining the elements with my freshly toasted legs from the ice crit, and it took exactly 60 seconds of riding to decide that finishing the race would be challenge enough.

Have you ever ridden a mountain bike on snow? I don't mean on frozen ice, I mean real, packed snow. I'll assume that you haven't, since it's basically the stupidest transportation method possible in that environment -- during the race I routinely struggled to ride at a walking pace. Let me try to illustrate the futility of a mountain bike on snow:

It was like riding a 30 mile sand pit. You know how you hit the Chainbiter sand pit at high speed, and then hang elbows, knees and/or your head out to try to keep the bike in the groove? Imagine spending 5 hours staring at your front wheel, trying to detect the next moment your bike was going to deflect, to hopefully throw your weight with it and stay on the bike -- that's riding on snow.

It was like riding up an 8% grade for 5 hours. You have wheels on your bike, and you might think that they are rolling -- but they aren't. Stop pedaling and you'll be lucky to get a full coasting revolution out them before you're stuck. They're too busy plowing a 2-inch deep furrow through the trail to coast. I pedaled 99% of the race.

It's like driving a car with a slipping clutch up Mt. Washington. There is no such thing as "putting the power down" -- you place the power down, as gently as possible, praying that you can add a few more watts before your traction collapses like a house of cards. I spent the entire ride seated, directing as much weight as possible straight through my sit bones into my rear tire, via a saddle I've never ridden for more than 45 minutes at a time, recently borrowed from my cross bike.

Yeah, not really the best equipment choice I've ever made.

The race started across Lake Memphramagog, on a nice plowed bit of ice about two bikers wide. My legs were feeling utterly useless after only five minutes, the leaders were already gone and it was all I could do to cling to Justin's single-speeding wheel, which was geared for hills and snow, not flat ice. We were going kind of slow.

We hit the first hill and everyone got off. Justin started running with his bike (bastard did a marathon in November) so I yelled, "you gonna run 30 miles," to which he replied cheerfully, "yep!" And that was the last I saw of him.

Once off the ice things started looking up for me, as I had better equipment then a lot of the other folks near me at the back, and technique/balance started to outweigh legs. So I gradually crawled my way forward in the pack, making extensive use of my easiest gear (24x34) to ride up hills where others walked at the same speed. At least for my body, riding at walking pace is always less work than walking at walking pace while pushing a bike, so it kind of made sense.

The first ten miles were sweet. The snow was still somewhat packed from the night's grooming and I was overtaking people at a snail's pace. I caught one of last year's podium members, Joe Cruz, so I was pretty stoked, and starting to think that fat tires and deft balance might be enough to overcome the tubes of sand that had replaced my legs.

At the first checkpoint I couldn't find my gels, which was mildly worrying, and Joe and another guy passed me, so I forgot about them and hit the trail again. Five years ago, this would count as foreshadowing ("hey guys, remember that time I bonked at Jay Winter Challenge and almost died?!"), but I managed to realize how bad not eating would be and guzzle most of my camelback and two bars over the next hour. Sorry.

Riding into the 15-mile checkpoint I saw Trek pro and last year's nemesis Lea Davison leaving, so I was potentially only a minute or so down on her after 2.5 hours. For a minute I considered rushing through the check and trying to catch her -- then I realized that going toe-to-toe with one of the fastest women in America would only lead to several hours of intense pain and inevitable defeat. When I saw they had fresh, hot, meat chili on the stove, it made the decision that much easier. Getting girled by pro bikers is at least a step up from getting girled by high schoolers, which is dangerously likely when I get on skis these days.

The chili was ill-advised but tasted fantastic. I washed it down with one of my gels (now rescued from the bottom of my pack) and got back on the trail a leisurely 10 minutes after arriving.

I didn't know it at the time but this is where the race would turn from "fun" to "not fun." As the day warmed, the snow got softer and the snowmobile traffic got heavier. Leaving the 15 mile checkpoint, the last solid strips of groomed snow from the night before were gone, replaced by wall-to-wall snowmobile slough. Never has the word "churn" so aptly applied to cycling.

Over the next 5 miles I traded back and forth with a very laid-back guy on a Pugsley. His bike enabled him to ride far faster than me, but his relaxed approach and bad fitness meant I could nearly make up the difference walking up the climbs. Finally, when he had nearly disappeared in the rolling fields, I saw him stop and lean on his top tube.

As I ground slowly toward him he stayed there, soaking in the sunshine. Eventually I got close enough to see his hand in front of his lips... then move away... and then back.

"Want a hit?" he asked as I churned past. I laughed. "It'll make the pain go away..." he offered.

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that this guy wasn't a roadie.

After declining his offer of performance "enhancing" drugs I made it to the 20 mile checkpoint. Once again someone came running out as I was going in -- but this time the interior was devoid of racers, so he represented my closest competition.

Any thoughts of "picking it up" and "catching him" were once again dashed by the food provided at the checkpoint. This time it was a massive pot of chocolate fondue, with bananas and apples for dipping, and once again I ignored normal mid-race fueling rules and started gorging myself on chocolate.

My friend on the Pugsley eventually finished 45 minutes behind me. I would imagine that this checkpoint caused him to stop for a very long time.

I set off again with a belly full of fondue and ten miles to go. This was the ten mile course I rode last year so I was fully aware of of its length, which was not really a good thing. The last ten miles are the hilliest, and were the loosest, as it was nearing lunchtime and the snow machines were out in force -- and not especially friendly.

I suffered through the last ten miles while thinking about all the scathing things I would write about snowmobilers when I did a race report, and how incredibly territorial they were, but really, what's the point? By the end of the race I was not having three times as much fun, or even one third as much fun, but it's the damn Jay Winter Challenge, what do you expect? In retrospect, I consider dealing with assclowns on snow machines just another part of the challenge.

The last downhill provided temporary euphoria -- descending at 20 mph in 4 inches of sugary snow is the scariest fun you've ever had. If you wanted to go straight, the bike would try to turn -- when you needed to turn, it wanted to go straight into the barbed wire fence on the outside of the corner.

The glissade ended far too quickly, and all that was left was another run across the lake. And just to make that run a bit harder, I was now only 30 seconds or so behind the guy I had last seen 2 hours ago at the fondue station. No five hour race is complete without some pointless hammering to the finish!

Unsurprisingly, I was the more hypercompetitive rider, so while I buried myself to catch and drop him on the lake, he mostly ignored me, eventually rolling in 30 seconds back and breathing considerably easier.

I spent the next hour beached in a chair, telling anyone who came near me, "that was so friggin' hard!" Only one thing could have made it harder -- being sick and suffering for 90 minutes longer than I did. Which is what Linnea had to do.

That's the thing about endurance events. There's always someone crazier than you.

This was a long post, I hope I did the epic-ness of this event justice. The short version is: Race was f'in hard. Going back next year. Hope to see you there.


Luke S said…
Why you would ever want to ride a bike in the snow...why you would ever spend five hours on a bike in the first place...
JB said…
LOL... great report, thanks!
Colin R said…
luke: because it's unique. and hard. at some point, you too will get sick of interval start 10ks.
josh said…
you shoulda taken the hit. its actaully a roadie secret. its a myth we spread (to protect the secret). crack makes you super fast also...try that. black tar herion is the new epo...just ask dr. saiz.
Great report, man. LOL at several points. Congratulations on finishing! Are you going to get a Pugsley? We Minnesotans are awful proud of them, being born and bred here.

(Semi off-topic: the other night I had a weird dream that was actually a WCSN "broadcast" of a road-cycling race in which you - whom the announcer kept calling "Colin R." - were in solo pursuit of a long Kuitunen-Saarinen breakaway. You caught them near the summit finish to win the stage, and I remember thinking, "This will be a great race report on his blog." That didn't happen, did it?)
Jess said…
Oh man that sounds hard. And I can totally picture the Pugsley guy having the munchies, hehe.

Tassava: You dream about Colin? Nice!
Colin R said…
chris- If I wasn't a skier I'd definitely have to think about getting a pugsley, it makes winter riding so much easier, aka funner. But I would only use it like 3 times a year because most weekend I ski race...

Maybe I can get a bunch of Boston mtb'ers to all chip in and buy a shared Pugsley, and then we could take turns using it.

Actually, that's not a bad idea. If I was on a team I'd totally start a Pugsley drive.

Oh, and your subconscious should know that I would never pass Virpi if she was on my fantasy team.
gewilli said…
dude - riding in snow is fahking AWESOME...

me love it

for the ice race - just cut the center screws down to bare nubbs... and leave the big side ones on...

then mess everyone up ;)
I'm not sure I was dreaming "about" anyone, having never met either Colin or Virpi, but that's what happens when I stay up too late watching ski-race videos and reading blogs. Everything gets all jumbled together.
megA said…
you two are tough. WAY tougher than I am. I'm impressed and a little frightened by you. I think I would have stayed at the fondue station for an hour or so. Maybe a little nappy-poo in the sun too.

Hope all else is well. My best to L-dawg.


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