About two months ago a whole bunch of ECCC mountain bikers lead by Ian, Kenny, and Forrest gave me a fat bike. I almost literally haven’t ridden anything else since. It’s less of a bike and more of a pet monster best friend that sleeps in the basement and goes on adventures with me. This Saturday’s undertaking was our first race, the D&L Fat Epic, an 116 mile gravel path fat bike race along the Delaware and Lehigh canal trails from Washington’s Crossing to Allentown and back, organized by Hilltop Bicycles.
Fortunately for me it did not snow as the organizers hoped, though we got close with the dusting earlier this week. Thinking about this event in advance was a bit awkward and quite different from summer racing: If conditions were good, I figured it’d be a 9–12 hour race; if it snowed, it could easily become a 24 hour race or longer. That’s a huge difference, and a much greater span than summer where I generally have my time estimates dialed in. In the end though the trail was muddy in several sections but others were very fast, at least by fat bike standards. Wind was minimal but with the riverside trail largely exposed and the sun not making an appearance, temperatures never went above the mid-30s.
Unfortunately I did not have my act together and missed the start. Dragging my feet about the whole affair, I arrived in what would have been just barely in time for the opening gun but still didn’t have my equipment fully arranged. I had not been able to acquire a frame bag for my bike in time, and my untested, last minute, half-assed stopgap solution to pack extra clothes turned out to be at best quarter-assed, so it took a while to get strapped up and rolling. A powerful “Do as I say, not as I do” testament to not trying out new things on raceday…
That was a huge bummer as it meant I missed the best part of the race, some 40 fat bikers all streaming along on the very narrow trail as the field slowly disintegrated. On the “upside,” I got right down to the heart of the business: Grinding along the totally flat, completely non-technical rail trail for hours and hours on end. Normally that could at least be maybe justified with scenic views, but not on such a dreary overcast day. Needless to say, I had a lot of quiet time to ponder the absurdity of a race premised on taking some of the most rugged and capable human powered vehicles in existence and dropping them down on a basically linear, terrain-free route. Definitely the kind of “I’m-a-gonna do this ’cause I’m-a-gonna do this!” blockheaded project that I support 100% or more.
One semi-subconscious true upside to missing the start was that I didn’t have anyone to be tempted to keep up with, as hard race-pace efforts are challenging for my lower back. I had also been pretty careful to put as much as possible on my bike rather than in my hydration pack. Still, after about an hour my back hurt significantly from a combo of extra supplies weight, chugging along at a good pace with no terrain to force frequent posture shifts, and a slightly more aggressive saddle height for this gravel route. I was pretty set on turning around at the 1st-quarter aid station and heading home.
When I got there though I was ahead of the positive end of my internal schedule and had already caught a third of the field, so at that point it was game on. Knowing I had more than enough water, I didn’t even pause at the tent so that I could put a few more minutes on the handful of people refueling there. Continuing on without any easy bailout was definitely a risk, but I was able to keep my back under control and the more serious spine/nerve symptoms I’ve learned to monitor didn’t develop at all.
After that, catching people became naturally harder and harder. I lost several more minutes falling on rocks portaging my bike along the river edge to skirt an active construction site completely blocking the path. Another good bunch of minutes I lost to navigation. Of course the several seemingly tricky spots on the route which I’d studied were no-brainers in real life, while another junction that seemed completely straightforward beforehand for some reason left me uncertain. Fortunately another rider, Shawn, came by shortly and helpfully confirmed the way with his GPS.
At the halfway point I also spent a good amount of extra time to change everything but my bibs and leg warmers. Obviously not in contention for a high result and with the people around me in the standings fairly well spread out, I thought I could make it home ok in my sweat-soaked, thinner outfit even with sundown coming soon, but it wasn’t worth it.
That was probably a good call as I slowed down quite a bit in the home stretch. As a guy at the final aid station put it in the best racing pep talk I’ve ever gotten:
Ok, you’re two to three hours from the end, the winners just finished, the sun’s going down, and you’re deeeep in no-man’s land so I really doubt you’ll see another competitor up or down for the rest of this race. But go, go, go!
Stopping there was humorously incongruous. By that point they had their routine totally down and were the model of a high efficiency pit stop. But I just wanted to eat cookies and chat, so I couldn’t understand why they were so eager for me to “Go, go go!” He was right, however. Having not seen anyone since the halfway stop, I wound up going for four hours in the second half of the race without seeing another competitor. Eventually I just got complacent and was moving smoothly but relatively slowly when out of nowhere a rider, Bill, caught up. That was great though as all of a sudden I remembered I was racing and the two of us rocked out the last seven miles at a quick pace for a strong finish.
In the end I finished 19th of 39 starters, 34 finishers, with official race time of 10:14 (including my 14 minute late start!) and 9 hours of actual riding. It’s tempting to be a little frustrated: I should be faster. I have been faster. Objectively though that’s pretty good. In a few rough patches I reflected a bit on the many people I know, even active cyclists, who would be real jazzed to just go and ride like that on essentially a whim, and I kept chugging along.
All told the D&L Fat Epic was a great day, assuming you’re into that kind of thing. Hilltop Bicycles and the organizing crew did a good job with this event debut. In most ways and in the style of this kind of racing it was very low key: The aid stations were minimal though much appreciated and the volunteers awesome; the course was completely unmarked once out of the starting lot; nobody knew the trail was out at the construction site and the way completely blocked; and the final aid station got booted by the park rangers at sundown for not having a permit. But they had really great, relevant trophies for everybody; warm food at the finish; and in a surprise, everybody got a Mehler bikepacking tent. More tellingly, people came from a broad geographic range just to do this event. A large crew was down from the far reaches of upstate New York. Having people willing to travel and make a whole weekend of a race is a great positive indicator. I would definitely do it again.
More than the solid finish, this is the first ultraendurance-ish race I’ve done since abandoning last year’s Cascades RAAM qualifier due to back and neck injuries from an earlier 24hr MTB solo. It’s actually even the first long-ish ride I’ve done since then other than a casual double century earlier this summer. Going in I had real doubts about the wisdom of signing up—road riding remains somewhat uncomfortable after more than about two hours, and I’m still regularly seeing a chiropractor. Being a bit tired but otherwise in solid shape today is thus a big relief. It was also deeply rewarding to be ten hours in and maybe not too fast, but still pedaling smooth, mentally on board, and not at all struggling despite not having done a ton of riding lately. All those hours and hours of ridiculous training rides the past few years are in there somewhere. As satisfying is the competence to just head out and do a ride like that without real worries, with almost no hope of on-trail support or pick-up, just above freezing temps all day, and a fairly new bike and a lot of new, last minute gear.
It’s difficult to classify this sort of thing as “fun”—the couple times I stopped I got a stream of text updates from my fellow fatbiker friend Forrest (who, to be fair, is in NH and couldn’t make it) about his much more exciting activities throughout the day, like sipping homemade hot chocolate while luxuriating on a couch with a warm blanket. But this is definitely what I’d rather be doing.