Black Fly Challenge Race Report

After it rained most of this week in New England, I just couldn't get my head around racing the Pat's Peak 6-hour race on Saturday, knowing that it's super hard even when it's dry.  I decided to check out the Black Fly Challenge in upstate New York instead, a 40 mile point-to-point cross-or-mountain-bike race.  I figured, if nothing else, "it will be a unique experience and worth blogging about."

On that front, I was not disappointed.

While this race may be billed as "The Legendary Adirondack Mountain Bike Race" (now in it's 19th running!), saying that phrase with a straight face is at least as technical as any course feature.  Even in 1995, there's no way this was a "mountain bike race."  It's 10 miles of pavement and 30 miles of dirt road, and not even especially bad dirt road -- I could have driven the whole course at 25mph or more in my Honda Fit, slowing down for exactly one wide puddle at about 10 miles in.

The nature of the course means that people who know what they are doing race on cross bikes.

However!  There is equal payout between the "mountain bike" and "cyclocross" categories, because why not?  So I looked at the 2013 results and realized that while I'd never make the CX podium, I almost couldn't not get on the MTB podium (worth $100 or more).  And thus I chose the wrong bike purely for financial reasons.

For reasons I do not understand (but was part of, I suppose), the race set a record this year with seven hundred twenty nine starters.  Obviously, this seething mass of people was staged first-come first-serve in a parking lot, and obviously everyone was already lined up when I got back from warming up with 15 minutes to go before the start.

Luckily I was with the JAM team and we all just sidled up to the front few rows like we belonged.

Any shame I may have had in this move was entirely obliterated by the fact that a quad-bike was on the front row.

What's that, you say?  You thought a "quad bike" was an ATV?  Prepare to get your MIND. BLOWN.

A quad bike is a triple with a trail-a-bike attached to it.

As you can imagine, a vehicle with this level of grandeur should absolutely be on the front row of a 700-rider bike race, especially when it is piloted by a father and 3 children under the age of 10.

While we were standing there, I heard the guy on the PA say "SEVEN!", which seemed kind of odd to me, as last I'd heard we had two minutes to go and there was currently a cop car parked perpendicularly in front of me.

Unfortunately the next thing I heard was "SIX!" and yep, we are definitely counting down to start with a police car blocking half of the field.
This is what I saw when the race started.

By the time I got around the cop car there was a bunch of hyperactive juniors nuking it at the front (or so it seemed) and I was immediately chasing and HEY BIKE RACING!  I knew there was a reason I lined up at the front.

The other seven hundred people who were also blocked by said police vehicle were also pedaling quite hard with me, so we quickly reunited the peloton and started trying to pack as many people into as little space as possible heading into the first big climb, which comes up all of 5 minutes into the race.

I scouted this climb warming up and it was a mile at 6% -- the kind of thing I'd struggle to stay with Al Donahue on no matter what the situation, and doubly so if I was a on a mountain bike and he was a cross bike -- so I kind of just assumed that the lead group here would not be the group I was in.

Halfway up the climb, no separation had occurred, but then some dude's tubeless cross setup EXPLODED and it was AWESOME.  I strongly suggest having a friend blow a tubeless tire off the rim sometime on a ride, so you can think you are being shot at and then cackle maniacally when you realize what is actually happening.  Certain people who were not me even got a faceful of Stan's as a reward.
Can you see the cloud of Stans on the left here?  So bummed I didn't get it on camera.
Directly after this excitement, though, the grade steepened and I got selected by Al's pace exactly as predicted.  Given that we were only five minutes into the race, going vomit-hard seemed like a bad idea.  This was a decision I questioned for the rest of the race...

After a brief descent there was another steep kicker, this time on dirt, and I watched the lead group go from "maybe they'll slow down and you'll get back on" to "they are definitely riding away."  There were a few stragglers ahead of me and literally seven hundred stragglers behind me, but somehow I managed to ride the next ten minutes alone.
Watching the top twenty roll away.  I'm sure this is my mountain bike's fault and not a fitness-related issue.

Eventually I toughened up and closed the ten-second gap to two guys ahead of me.  This being a mountain bike race (on a dirt road a 20 mph, ahem, guys), they were not particularly interested in drafting each other, and definitely not interested in getting me to pull, so that was pretty cool.  Eventually one of them started riding 20 feet behind the other one (still not asking me to pull, though!) and then the gap started opening even more, and I had to bridge up to the other dude.

Other dude seemed like a much more clueful bike racer and he and I started rotating pulls.    After five minutes of this I started to think that I maybe definitely couldn't do this for another ninety minutes, so I sat up, ate a gel, and got back to riding my own race as the road climbed steadily.

Then I looked back and saw the peloton of 11 dudes coming up the road behind me and realized there was absolutely no way I was holding off those guys for the rest of the day, and waited.

And it turns out that was basically the end of the race!

I integrated into the chase group and, since we were riding dirt roads at 20mph, life got much easier.  I kept thinking that there would be another difficult climb, or otherwise selective feature, but nope... while the course climbs all the way to 2500 feet, it's never very steep and it's not like anyone would ever ATTACK the chase group... we're the chase group, man!  We're on the same team!
The one spot on the course I might have wanted to slow down in my Honda Fit for

There were two other mountain bikers in the chase group and we did a little game of "how-old-are-you-and-who-is-up-the-road."  Turns out there were 2 mtb riders who had made the lead group (both 30-39) and two of the three MTBers in this group were ALSO 30-39, meaning that SOMEONE wasn't going to get paid!  My plan of "ride your mountain bike and you will definitely get paid" was apparently some other people's plan, too.

On one of the rises I tried thinning the group, or at least making it a bike race, but all I got for my effort was riding off the front solo and feeling the beginnings of some cramps in my legs.  Since the difference between 3rd and 4th was $100, I decided that "having fun racing" would be taking a backseat to "get paid for racing" for the rest of the day... and also that trying to attack cross bikes on a mountain bike is really annoying.

So then I hung out.  We hit the high point and rolled steadily downward from there.  The road turned back to pavement and my bike became even less appropriate for the conditions.  I talked to the younger mountain biker in the group (NOT the guy I was figuring out how to beat for $100) and he told me there was "only eight miles to go".

Yes that is correct The Legendary Adirondack Mountain Bike Race finishes with 8 miles of pavement.

There was much sitting in.

Because this was a mountain bike race, exactly zero road racing tactics were being employed, even though we were on pavement.  Dudes basically rode two abreast at the front of the group (12 riders strong, growing to 13 when we picked up a gassed Scott Smith with about 10 miles to go) and took pulls ranging from "one minute" to "ride on the front until someone coasts past you on a downhill."

I used my mountain bike as an excuse to do as little work as possible.

With two miles to go we hit a new peak for definitely-not-road-racing when someone finally made a legit attack and his TEAMMATE dragged 11 guys back up to his wheel.  It was GLORIOUS.

We hauled ass up a hill and my cramping situation made it clear that, despite my lack of work and general pooh-pooh'ing of the group's aggressiveness, I was going to get dropped if we had too many more hills like this to go up.

Then we saw the one mile to go sign and I got ready to beat THAT ONE DUDE so I could get $100.  The cross bikers could smell the finish and we were cookin'.  I was definitely regretting not checking that I could shift into my 38x11 before the race started.


So at the start of the race they told us "the last 100m of the race are single-file inside cones, you cannot pass in the cones."

This sentence, of course, is illogical on several levels for anyone who has ever raced a bike race that wasn't a triathlon.  But whatever, I don't make the rules, I just faintly hear them on the PA and wonder if I'm hallucinating.

But I was definitely not hallucinating, because we came over the crest of a hill and HOLY SHIT THERE'S A LANE OF CONES SET UP IN THE SHOULDER 250M AWAY AND I'M LIKE LAST WHEEL OMG.

So flipped out and started sprinting even though it made no sense.  This meant I had to go all the way out to the yellow line to go around people and then all the way back to the shoulder to get into the cones, which would have been moderately sketchy even if there hadn't been twelve other dudes doing the same thing with varying levels of fervor.

The only thing I remember specifically was diving into the cone lane after the first few cones (DQ!!) next to Scott Smith while yelling "THIS IS EFFING RETARDED."   Scott was so shocked by my scandalous use of the r-word that he stopped sprinting... or maybe it was because we were inside the cones now and we aren't allowed to pass inside the cones?

Unfortunately the cone-lane was definitely two bikes wide and the finish was DEFINITELY more than 100m away.  So some guys sat up, and some guys didn't, and I had no idea what to do.  Because I am actually painfully rule-abiding, so I felt like passing the guys in front of me would be wrong, but on the other hand I can't even SEE the freakin' finish line yet, and other people are totally still sprinting!

So I moved over to pass the dude in front of me just in time to get a mountain bike handlebar DIRECTLY into my butt cheek, followed by the sound of a bike tire hitting the curb and a lot of dudes screaming about calming down.  Easy for them to say, of course, because they aren't trying to beat the other mountain biker for $100.

(Seriously I would have tried the same pass)

That was sufficiently dicey enough to calm everyone down and we rode the last 30 seconds of the race (100 meters of cones MY ASS) to the finish line in a slightly more conservative although still definitely sprinty manner.

I ended up 21st overall, 4th mtb, 3rd 30-39 mtb, which was pretty okay, although I really wonder if I could have made the lead group with a cross bike.  Meanwhile Al won the event solo by six minutes while setting a course record, and a fifteen year old got 2nd place, so talented people who work hard are still a lot faster than me.

And I got my wish for something "unique and blog-worthy."  Be careful what you wish for.


Anonymous said…

Anonymous said…
FYI, I have an unreliable memory and my judgement was effected by being a teenager for all of the 90s, BUT I do recall this race being an actual MTB race back then. Like a snowmobile, double track, mud bog sorta event. I know I raced it and feel like a road type event would have stuck in my memory back then as I was almost completely worthless at racing them.
Best line ever:

With two miles to go we hit a new peak for definitely-not-road-racing when someone finally made a legit attack and his TEAMMATE dragged 11 guys back up to his wheel. It was GLORIOUS.
Colin R said…
Anon - maybe they've improved the road since then? That's all I can think.
Anonymous said…
The BFC changes direction every year. When the race goes from Inlet to Indian Lake there is no single track. When It goes from IL to Inlet there is single track at the end.

The roads in the Moose River Plains have be greatly improved over the past three years, that's why it's so fast in the Inlet to IL direction.

The single track at the Inlet end is somewhat technical and can be an advantage to mtbs.

It's billed as an 'Adirondack Mountain Bike Race' because it's no longer just an mtb race.

I was at the start and no one said passing wasn't allowed on the shoulder in IL - they said it would be difficult to pass!
One would think someone of your "experience" would know what a gravel grinder is at this point and listen to the official's instructions.

Anonymous said…
The Black Fly is a great race, well organized, tons of fun with a good payout.
You must like to complain about everything. I'll be at the BFC next year!
Colin R said…
Ok, so the roads are way better now and the other direction is more interesting. Good to know. Still makes the 2014 race great comedic fodder though... maybe it really was a mountain bike race back in the day.

It wasn't a bad event, it was a weird event with a bad finish. If you want to ride hard, er, "gravel grind" with your buddies for two hours this is fine, but if you think part of bike racing is sprinting for a line at the end if other people are nearby then this is not fine.

Clearly 700 participants can't be wrong, so I'm totally comfortable accepting that my expectations of a fun racing experience don't match theirs, and leaving the event to them next year.

Chris Birch said…
I await your book, sir.
terry said…
Geez, and you didn't even need to ride either of the shuttle buses to get all this comedic fodder? Heard some great stories about that, apparently the first one sideswiped a bridge and stranded the riders with a 15mile pedal to the start, then the second one came along and blew out one of its rear tires on the hunk of metal siding left across the road from the first bus. Dude kept driving, apparently telling the riders to all "lean to the left" to keep weight off the one remaining rear wheel on that side, declaring on the final roll into Inlet "Look out, we're comin' in hot!" Just can't buy that level of entertainment...

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