Monday, June 20, 2011

Fat Tire Challenge 2011

In Butler, Pennsylvania there are a group of unicyclists called the Butler Wobbles. Dave, the leader of the group raced last year in the Fat Tire Challenge. It's a mountain bike race in the town of Sigel. He rode the whole 14+ mile course and impressed a lot of people. This year, Dave worked with the race organizers to include a unicycle class in the race.
I heard about it online and decided to go. So I took Friday off, and the family and I drove the four hours and camped at the nearby Clear Creek State Park.

On Saturday morning we scurried to get up and ready for the race. There was a kids race that was supposed to start at 9:45, and although we got there in time, that race was already underway. Apparently the kids had lined up and were ready to go early, so they just let them go. We rushed to get Sydney out there and she was able to get a lap in. Kyle didn't bother, but both kids got goodie bags and were ok with that.

The big race didn't start until 11:00, so I had some time to ride around and check out the venue. There were a lot of wheels around, but it was fairly easily to spot the ones I was interested in.
In total, there were six of us muni riders at the event. Dave, Andy, Isaac, and Connor came from about an hour or two away, and Claude was from Maryland.

There were race announcements explaining the how the racers would line up. Unicyclists would start last, of course. We would do about 7.7 miles, while the mountain bikers would either do 14 or 21 depending on their class. There would be arrows all over the course to guide us. That's all I needed to know. Or was it?
The race started on a dirt road with an uphill and downhill. I was able to use my Schlumpf on the downhill and keep up with Dave and Claude. Dave rode a 26" wheel, Claude a 29", and I rode my 24". The other three riders were not far behind. After a few minutes we turned into a trail and it wasn't long before we started spacing out. Dave was pulling away from Claude, and Claude from me. I never really looked back to see the other three riders, and I didn't see them for the rest of the race. The terrain varied a lot, from double track, to dirt road, to single track. Some areas were very technical and I doubt even the mountain bikers road it. There were a lot of big rocks jutting out of the trail. Many of them could be navigated around or over, but in some places it was more like a trials course. It also must have rained recently, because a lot of rocks and roots were wet, and there was mud every once in while. My wheel slipped out from under me causing a few UPDs.

There was a point, still fairly early on where Claude had pulled away significantly, but we popped out onto a dirt road. I was able to gain on him a bit using my Schlumpf. But it wasn't long before he pulled away again, and I didn't see him until the end.

The only people I passed were some bikers. Two had technical difficulties and ended up passing me later. Two others looked like a father and son just enjoying the experience together. Towards the end I passed a woman on an uphill dirt road climb, but she cruised away down the other side.

It felt like one of my typical rides when I push myself. Though if I was riding in my own trails, I would have found an alternative route around some of the unrideable areas. Nothing too eventful happened, and I just kept pushing forward. There was a sign at 5 miles, which seemed to come pretty quick.

Very close to the end I was riding down a dirt road. Dave was heading toward me and said the end was just up the hill. Just before that there was a hydration station with people cheering and handing water to riders, if they wanted some. Amy, Syd, Kyle, and Kessa were there. I knew the race would end for the unicyclists very shortly after this, and the mountain bikers would be continuing on through the second half of the course.

Who could ask for a more supportive family?
As I rode down what was supposed to be the final hill I somehow forgot that I all I had to do was stay on the road. Ahead I could see a few bikers that passed me had followed the orange arrow off the road and onto a trail. I had been following arrows the whole race and for some reason as I approached, it didn't even occur to me that I was supposed to stay on the road to the finish. No one was there to guide me and there were no signs, other than the arrow. So I turned off the road and headed down the trail for a while. I kept wondering if I had made a mistake and finally after cruising down a long double-track trail for what must have been 10 minutes, I decided this could not be right. I kept hearing Dave say, "The finish is just up the hill".

So finally I turned around and headed back. I got back to the road, headed down and found the finish line was right around the corner. Ugh! I had wasted what seemed like 15 or 20 minutes. In hindsight it seems obvious that I should have stayed on the road.

I came through the finish and found I had come in 4th. Dave was first, then Claude, and while I was lost, Andy had finished. I was pissed at myself for making that mistake. I explained what had happened to the other riders and Andy was quick to say I should have third place. I would have come through the finish line about 8 minutes before him. Amy took pictures of the uni riders as they passed the hydration station. Looking back at the time stamps on the pictures, I was a little less than two minutes behind Claude. Given that I had gained ground on him on the roads with my Schlumpf, I bet I would have come in less than two minutes after him, had I ridden the right way. I didn't want to take anything away from Andy, but I also felt cheated because there wasn't a sign to tell me what I was supposed to go straight. There were some fun signs along the trail saying things like "Your wife called. She says it's either her or the bike." Then 1000 feet later, "Looks like you chose the bike." Ha ha ha! If only there was a sign for the unicyclists to go straight! Thankfully Andy really didn't seem to care and we all talked to the organizer to correct the placing.

I guess my brain wasn't with me, because I also forgot to turn my GPS on before the race. And I didn't reset my cycle computer either. Ugh. I feel like the GPS trail would have been proof of how I had messed up. But I guess I'm the only one worried about it, and everyone seemed cool.

There was food available after the race, but I wasn't hungry. I had downed three energy gel packs along the way.

Awards were announced for all the many classes: experts, sports, men, women, age groups, single speed, Clydesdale, and unicycles. The awards were machined plexi-glass. Most looked like cogs, but the unicyclists' awards were unicycles. I felt bad again that Andy, having given me third, wasn't getting one. Though I would have done the same. He had to hit the road before the awards ceremony began, so I was kind of glad he wasn't still there for me to feel bad about.
In the upper left picture, from left to right: Claude, Isaac, Andy, Connor, Dave, me.

Dave gave each of us a laser etched Butler Wobble drinking glass, a key-chain, and some stickers. So I got some really great mementos from the race.
Aside from actually riding, the best part was talking to the other unicyclists. One thing I learned was that none of them had any lower back muscle fatigue while they ride. Last year at Schenectady, no one had that problem either. And yet it's got to be my number one problem while riding. I now feel like I HAVE to figure out why my back gets so fatigued and then fix it. If I can do that, I'll be a much stronger rider.

After chatting with Dave and Andy for a long time about the race, trails, and unicycle clubs, the family and I headed back to the campground to stay another night.
I was kicking myself for the next day about riding off the course. I've learned my lesson to totally understand the course ahead of time. Looking back, had I studied the map better and listened better, it could have been avoided. After all, the other uni riders did it fine. Dummy.

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