Arrowhead 135

This week I’ve been spending my time at the Arrowhead 135 winter ultramarathon. This is the iconic winter ultra in Minnesota, and it is known for being one of the most brutal and harsh races around. Participants much traverse (on foot, bike, or ski) from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN on the 135 mile long Arrowhead Trail. They have to be prepared to survive in any conditions, and therefore must carry mandatory gear including -20 degree sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and stoves with which to boil water and heat food. It’s a grueling event, and made even more difficult by this year’s extreme temperatures.

On the Sunday before the race, air temps hit -40 degrees F (well, and C at that point). Thankfully, by the time the race launched on Monday things had moderated to -10. Monday ended up being a good day overall with temps getting above zero for a large part of the day. I even managed to get out for a 4 mile run on the trail, and the conditions were amazing and perfect for a run. However, with nightfall came brutal cold.

IMG_0024As the temps dropped overnight, they stayed there. Ever since late Monday the temp hasn’t been above -15, and the mornings are closer to -32. Going out to start our car for 10 minutes every few hours has become a part of our regular routine. Thankfully, we have a nice warm hotel to sleep in, and when we’re working at the finish line we have a beautiful hot tent to keep us warm. Because it can sometimes be hours between finishers, we often get to relax in the tent and enjoy beer and whiskey and pizza cooked on a wood stove.

In terms of participants, this year looks like a very low finishing rate. The bikers are doing OK at 51%, but many of them were able to make solid progress all day on Monday and even finish the race before the temps got too brutal. On the foot participant side it’s looking like only 18% of participants will succeed. Most have (rightly) decided to end their race early, instead of putting themselves in danger. This year, not a single skier managed to complete the entire course, which was not ideal for skiing at all.

My wife and I have been lucky enough to have been able to work remotely for our jobs for a couple of days while we volunteered in the evenings. It’s been great to be around so many amazing people and see them achieve great things. It’s also marked with a bit of sadness, because one of our trail tribe lost his battle with cancer while we were here at the event. He was a frequent participant in this event, and his loss is keenly felt among the people participating. There’s a certain poignancy to his passing during an event that meant so much to him.

Tomorrow we head back to life in the cities, but for now, it’s nice to have been able to be a part of this amazing event, and the incredible people who are testaments to the power of human beings to survive no matter what.

2018 Biking Year In Review

Although not quite as big as my running year, 2018 saw me biking a lot more than I ever have in the past. I’ve really come to love the idea of two wheeled transport, and wish that my job was close enough for me to actually do it as a commuting option. I did commute a couple times this year, but not nearly as much as I would like to. My wife and I also didn’t get out quite as much as I had hoped together, but I did get her a new bike seat, so hopefully that will help encourage some additional adventures next year.

IMG_2248.JPGAt the beginning of the year I picked up some studded tires for my hybrid bike, and gave a little bit of winter riding a try. I only got out a couple of times, but it was a lot of fun, and showed me that you can actually do this year round. Once the snow cleared I was able to start getting out a bit more regularly.

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PC: Michael Tangen

One of the most consistent times that I ride is on Wednesday nights with our Beer & Bikes crew. My friend Michael started this years ago and it’s been a great way to keep consistently riding each week. Our little group grew a bit this year and we’ve added a few new regulars. It’s been fun getting to know more people through the biking community, as it’s still a group that I’m not quite as connected to.

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PC: Abe McEtheron

I also managed some nice weekend rides, including a trip down to Saint Paul to cheer on the Twin Cities Marathon. I had a ton of fun on this ride and might make it a tradition. I also did my third annual Fall Fifty+Five ride. This is a 50 mile bike ride that include stops at 5 different breweries. This year we had a ton of people join us, and from the sounds of it almost everyone had a great time.

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PC: Michael Tangen

One of the other joys of biking this year is learning more and more about how to maintain and fix bikes. I spent a lot of time learning about how to tune up my ride and even make some slightly more in-depth repairs, such as shifters and disc brakes. I then got to practice my skills with the wonderful organization Free Bikes 4 Kidz. They take donated bikes and fix them up to give away to kids who don’t have bikes. It’s a great thing to be a part of, and I’m super happy that our Beer & Bikes group did this activity again this year.

DSC08967Finally, this fall I took the plunge and purchased a fat bike. I’ve only managed a handful of rides so far this winter, but simply knowing that I have the option is awesome. Plus, I feel like I’m much more likely to connect with the adventure/off-road biking community than the typical road bikers. Similar to how I’m more of a trail runner than road runner. Maybe it has to do with the beer and beards?

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 12.09.07 PMAt the end of it all I had a new high mileage year of 735 miles, which is not too shabby for someone who also ran 1602 miles throughout the year. I’m hoping to break 1000 next year with my ability to get on wheels in the winter time now. The biggest challenge I’m currently facing is trying to sell my old bike rack so that I can buy one that will fit my fat tire bike. Hopefully, I’ll have that squared away soon.

Cheers to all my fellow beer loving bikers, and can’t wait to do more rides in 2019!

 

Joining the fat tire set

For couple of years now I’ve been interested in fat tire bikes. I test rode some a year ago, and then again twice this year. I really love the smooth feel of them, and I’d hope that it might be something to help me get outside biking in the winter a bit more. Plus, we have lots of single track around here that I’ve never been able to do on my road-focused tires of my fitness bike.

In my deliberations I tried out a bunch of different brands: Surly, Trek, Framed, Felt, and Salsa. I enjoyed most of them but felt most comfortable on things like the Trek Farley 5 and the Framed Wolftrax. They had a more comfortable geometry for me, and didn’t feel as aggressive. Ever since I test road the Framed bikes I’ve been pulled towards them. They’re really great feeling bikes at a much lower price point than other brands, plus they’re a Minnesota company.

In this same time period I also joined a local FB group for people to post bike items up for sale. The other week I came across a 2 year old Framed Wolftrax at a really great price and so I reached out to the owner to take a look. Long story short, it was is pretty good shape and the price was right, so I got it. It needed a few things tweaked on it (I have no idea what he was doing with the limiter screws….), and a new front disc rotor, but that was easily fixed.

I took it out for a little ride to a local brewery on Wednesday and had a blast. I can tell it’s more work to move, but I was able to keep up with a 14mph pace that the group was doing. That’s a fast pace for me on my regular bike to begin with. Needless to say, in the winter, or off-road, I’m not going to be concerned with pace, so this works out just fine. I’m excited to get it out there more in the coming weeks and get more comfortable with off-road riding.

If you’ve never tried a fat tire bike, give it a shot sometime. It’s incredibly fun, and a great way to get around.

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More fat bike testing

My buddies Abe and Chuck joined me today at a fun event at Surly Brewing. The bike maker by the same name (Surly) joined forces with the brewery for a fun little event called the Surly Masher. There was music, door prizes, silent auction, fat bike testing, and of course beer.

We arrived mid-way through the event, got a beer and checked out the silent auction tent. There was come really nice stuff up for auction, but we passed on that, and simply entered our names into the door prize drawing. From there we headed over to the test track to try a couple bikes. I tried two different Surly frames, the Ice Cream Truck and the Pugsly. This was the first time that I had tried a fat bike on snow, which was a totally different feel.

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PC: Abe M.

I tried the Ice Cream Truck first, and it was touted as a true mountain bike feel, with a lot of mobility and speed. I found that I was slipping and sliding a lot, and any time I fell off the side of the track I had a hard time getting back up without putting my foot down. It was a fun bike, and I could tell it had some speed, but it felt very difficult for me on thick snow. Then I tried the Pugsly and wow, what a difference. The Pugsly is a touring frame, so it’s longer from front to back. I found that the longer frame gave me a lot more confidence and capability on the course. I was able to pull myself out of ruts a LOT easier, and get myself back on course. Even though I doubt I could go as fast, or be as maneuverable, I felt like I was more stable and more comfortable.

This is all really useful information for me as I consider getting a fatty some day. I have no idea if Surly will be the brand that I choose, but getting some time on the two different types of frames gives me a lot of valuable information. I’m going to start looking at frame length from now on, and lean myself more towards a longer frame in deciding what I test ride.

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PC: Abe M.

After some rides we had one more beer and headed out. It was a lot of fun, and I’m thrilled to have gotten the chance to check out a different fat bike brand in real conditions on snow and bumps. As with most equipment, real world experience it invaluable.

Testing fat bikes

I’ve talked about wanting to commute, and generally get around more, by bike. One of the issues in Minnesota is the winter time when streets are icy, snowy, and generally hard to travel on. Since I had some time on Monday I decided to check out a couple of fat bikes at Freewheel Cycle to see what they were all about, and if they might be the answer to my winter biking issues.

I tried out two different models, the Salsa Beargrease, and the Trek Farley 5. The two main differences on these bikes is that the Salsa has a carbon frame, vs the Trek aluminium, and the tire size (Salsa: 3.8; Trek 4.5). I took them both out on the same route down the street from the store, down and up a hill, and a few tight loops in a parking lot.

I tried out the Salsa Beargrease first, and almost immediately I found out why fat bikes are so popular. The smoothness of the ride, and the feeling of stability is incredible. The handlebars extend wide, so you really feel like you’re as stable as possible. The tires make a ton of noise on pavement, which gives you the immediate sense that you’re riding something “different”.

Both bikes have a single cog in the front with 10 or 11 gears in the back. This makes for very easy shifting, but it also does limit how fast you can really go. I took both of the bikes down a slight hill, and wasn’t able to get over 17 mph before I ran out of gears and had to settle for coasting. I wasn’t complaining too much though since riding on flat pavement isn’t what these are intended for.

I also took both bikes around a couple tight curves in parking lots and I could feel how tightly the studded tires were gripping, making my much more confident in my turning. I can see how these would be a tremendous benefit on some of the sharp curves on local mountain bike trails. Heading back up the small hill was slow but steady. Once again I had to suffice with a limited amount of gears, but I managed to get it done just fine. Before I knew it my short test rides were over.

Overall, I found the Salsa Beargrease to be the more enjoyable ride. It felt speedier and lighter, due to the frame and smaller tires. The Trek was fun, and “tank-like”, but lacked just a bit of the “wow” factor of the Salsa. Considering the comparable price, it’s easy to see why the Salsa’s are so popular right now. I think that either one could be a great bike, but if I were to pull the trigger on buying one, the Salsa would be the way to go.

I don’t know if I’ll invest in this, this year, but I got a taste of how amazingly fun these bikes are, and why they’re as popular as they are. If winter is calling and you want to keep biking, these seem like an awesome way to go.