Words by Mark Tucker / Photos by Mike Hitelman and Thibault
This year, 2015, was the 70th run of the Stowe Derby, a nordic ski race from the top of Mount Mansfield to the village of Stowe. It has the distinction of being the oldest cross country ski race in the country. Thanks to the efforts of several people, this year was the first year that they invited fat bike riders to race the event. Our course was the same as the skiers’, minus the cool descent from the top of Mansfield following the toll road. It was a little bit of a disappointment when I learned that we wouldn’t be riding the entire toll road from the top, but I got over it. It turned out that the lower portion of the course was more than challenging enough to make a great race.
Being a point to point race does brings some logistical challenges; namely, how do you get people, with their bikes, to the start? Or, how do you get people back to their vehicles once the race is over? The race organizers opted for the first challenge, rather than the latter. I generally agree with this approach. The down side was that we had to figure out how to get our bikes and ourselves to the start area without leaving a vehicle at the start. I dropped my bike off shortly after picking up my bib in the morning and then returned to Stowe village to park. This left me with the quandary of how I was going to get myself back up the mountain to my bike. There were some suggested options given, but those turned out to be a little difficult in practice. Originally, I was hoping to catch a ride back up with another racer, but that didn’t work out. By chance, I met up with some friends from Ludlow who were going to catch the GMTA shuttle bus up, so I decided to tag along on their journey. This would have been fine, but we somehow missed the first bus that went by. We tried to flag the driver down but he didn’t cooperate. Eventually, a bus did arrive at the stop, but that didn’t leave us any excess time to get things together. It all worked out in the end, but the process was a little stressful.
Originally, the bike race was supposed to start at the bottom of the ski trails at the Toll House area. This would have seriously made for a brutal hike-a-bike right off the bat. Just before the start, we were told that the staging area would be moved up the hill to the intersection with the Toll Road trail. The self-paced hiking up the soft ski trail on foot to the start was draining enough. Having been in quite a few downhill mass starts, I was little concerned about what the first quarter mile of the course would be like with these conditions. Fortunately, they were going to start us off in waves of five riders, thirty seconds apart. Even with just five riders at a time, we got to see (and be part of) many outstanding crash scenes. It was very entertaining. I don’t know what determined the start order, but I was glad to be in the third wave out on the trail.
As I mentioned, the first thing we were faced with was a very fast downhill with some soft snow to make things “interesting.” It was very tempting to let the bike take advantage of the free speed, but at the same time, it was was a little nerve racking because of the instability of the conditions. At the end of the first slope, there was a nice 90 degree right hand turn. What could go wrong?
The first few miles were predominantly down hill which really did test my bike handling skills. Descending has never been my strength and several riders were able to put quite a bit of distance on me. I decided to err on the side of caution and gamble that I would be faster if I didn’t crash any more than I could avoid. The trick on the first half of the course was to use whatever ruts were available as banked corners. This allowed me to rail around most of the turns with my inside foot hanging off, skimming the snow. Somehow, I only had once incident where I actually fell off the bike.
I’m going to stop here and comment on the snow conditions which I’ve already alluded to. Biking in the winter is a lot like skiing in that snow can change relatively quickly and dramatically alter the experience. What was an awesome ride on one day can turn into a nightmare slog on the next. Saturday night brought at least eight inches of snow to the area. This was probably great for the skiers, but not so much for the fat bikes. We were able to ride but the soft snow made staying upright a task requiring significant effort and concentration. I spent the entire race scanning for the most firm rut that I could put my wheels in. Whenever I missed my target or my wheel was hooked by a ridge, the front wheel of my bike would get yanked around in all kinds of unpredictable directions. Efforts to correct usually just plowed more snow without altering the direction of the bike. I probably dabbed hundreds of times to keep my bike under me and moving forward. The riders in the last waves must have had quite a challenge with the ruts.
Before the trail turned onto the Stowe village bike path, we had one final series of descents. These were a blast. The skiers had managed to snowplow the soft stuff off to the edges of the trail leaving a nice firm surface that was wonderful to ride on. Of course, this was not consistent and a smooth fast section of trail would almost randomly dump into a hollow of soft snow. I had more than one moment of high speed panic.
Once on the town bike path, the race was almost purely a matter of keeping the power on. There was still the challenge of keeping the snow from yanking the bike around, but it could mostly be mitigated with some careful line selection. It was here that we started having to contend with passing the last of the cross country skiers who were still out on the trail. For the most part, there was plenty of room for passing without riders interfering with skiers, or the reverse.
I gave up a few places in the final few miles as I was beginning to feel the effects of fatigue on my speed. I crossed the finish line just a few seconds over an hour. Ultimately, this put me in 16th place overall and 5th in the 40-49 mid-life-crisis men’s field. Not a bad showing considering how little I’ve been riding this winter. Plus, I’m supposed to be retired from racing, remember?
After the race, I hung around at the finish area for a while to see some of the other riders come in while I cooled down. Cool down I did. Riding in the winter is always a game of figuring out how to dress properly for the weather and the effort. I had kept myself a little too warm and my layers were pretty much soaked from sweat and water vapor. While the temperatures were warmer than the sub-zero to single-digit temps we’ve had over the past few weeks, it was still cold enough to get me chilled.
I biked rather slowly back to my Jeep following the sidewalks along Rt. 108 and changed into some dry clothes. This felt several orders of magnitude more than wonderful. Now almost warm, I went to get something to eat. Sushi Yoshi was providing a nice post-race meal like they did for Uberwintern earlier this winter. Later in the afternoon, the awards were given out for both skiers and bike riders. Hopefully, the Stowe Derby will include us again next year. Official results are on-line by category or overall time.