In 1976, Crested Butte inadvertently played a pivotal role in the history of mountain biking with the first “Annual Pearl Pass Tour.” Solidly entrenched in the mountain bike culture, Crested Butte has now positioned itself in the forefront of fat bike fever with the first-ever rendition of Fat Bike Worlds. My photographer husband, Scott, and I headed over Monarch Pass to cover the historic (and often hysterical) inaugural five-day event.
We arrived in CB at noon on Wednesday, January 27, eager to get our fat tires rolling. Since event venues were closed to allow the snow to set, we hit up Kebler Pass for a quick introduction to CB’s fat biking. It seemed an appropriate choice considering Kebler’s role in Crested Butte’s Bike Week, the oldest mountain bike festival, first held in 1981. Kebler Pass is the venue for Bike Week’s “Chainless World Championship,” a seven-mile descent from the top of the pass. We kept our chains on, since we had to ride the fatties up before descending.
In the winter, the trailhead is two miles from town, where the plowed road ends and the groomed snowmobile trail begins. (Thanks, Gunnison County SnoTrackers!) On a Wednesday afternoon, the parking area was crammed with vehicles, so we fully expected to be constantly dodging snowmobiles. We were pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong. In fact, the snowmobile traffic was light and for much of the ride, we were the only ones in sight. When we did encounter machines, the riders were courteous and friendly; one rider even stopped to share a grooming update with us. Coming from Buena Vista, where we are used to riding Cottonwood Pass on fatties, we were lulled into complacency by Kebler’s mellow grade. Well, at least until we were jolted back to reality five miles into the climb, when the grade got steeper, the switchbacks tighter, and the snow exponentially deeper and softer. Turns out, we were no longer on the Kebler Pass route, having gone straight, past the Kebler route at 4.5 miles. By 5.8 miles, mired in deep snow, and realizing our error, we turned around and began the descent back to Crested Butte and Fat Bike World’s Kick-Off party.
The Kick-Off Party was held at Brick Oven Pizzeria, sponsored by Chopwood Mecantile. By the time we arrived at 6pm, volunteers and racers alike were lined up for assignments and packet pick up. The place was packed, beer was flowing, and pizzas were disappearing. We hung out, absorbing the electric energy, alternately watching the showing of First Tracks Productions “Off the Beaten Path,” and chatting with event organizers, media folks, presenters, and sponsors.
We spent some time with Steve Kaczmarek, the owner of Borealis Fat Bikes, the title sponsor of Fat Bike Worlds. “Kaz” is undeniably passionate about all things fat bike and is a huge element in the fire that kept this five-day party blazing. We knew we’d definitely be test riding a Borealis in the next few days.
Brick Oven is where we had our first sighting of Dave Ochs, the frenetic mastermind of Fat Bike Worlds. Ochs is the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce Director, who is seemingly capable of being in numerous places at once: grooming trails, rallying volunteers, event announcing, snomo-medic transport driver and problem solver, just to name a few. Over the course of the event, Ochs and his crew rarely ceased motion and, amazingly, never lost their collective patience and enthusiasm. The Kick-Off Party left us stoked for Thursday’s North Village races.
Thursday morning greeted eager racers with temperate, dead-calm conditions and bluebird skies. We arrived at the Sponsor Village at North Village, Mt. Crested Butte, by 9:30am. We got permission to pre-ride the 2.5-mile, 250-foot elevation gain course, and set out at 10am. The solo racers would complete 8 laps, for a total of 20+ miles and over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. There was also a relay option–both two and four person classes.
At 10am, the course rode like a cement sidewalk. Our fat tires barely left an imprint, and climbing traction was stellar. Even for a conservative descender like me, the steep, two-stage descent located about halfway into the course could be bombed with confidence. After selecting Scott’s photo shoot locations, we settled in close enough to the race start to hear the pre-race announcements. Thus, we knew to expect riders in tutus, a biking banana, and Gunnison’s own Dave Wiens, “Telluride has Oprah Winfrey, we have Dave Wiens!” and memorably, “We are branding human beings this weekend!” We heard the direction for the Le Mans start, and the race was on.
After the 60-odd riders passed by, we jumped on our bikes and pedaled to the next spot, where we gaped at the amazing view of riders strung out on the undulous, circuitous course with stunning mountain views in every direction.
By the time we got to the double-stage steep descent, the race was two laps in. This time, the 120ish sets of tires and intensifying sun had set a dedicated squirrelly groove down the right side. My confidence was shaken and as the laps continued and the sun beat down, the conditions deteriorated. The course initially had two hard-packed tracks with an ungroomed median between, but as racers began to hit the median, the carnage began. Bikes and bodies were flying, resulting in injured pride, a few bloody noses, tweaked torsos, one broken clavicle, a broken chain, and some twisted handlebars.
While helping out with first aid for both bodies and bikes, I was impressed that nearly all riders maintained or regained smiles and enthusiasm.
By the time we got back to the finish, Taylor Shelden, Dave Wiens, and Jordan Williford had taken 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places, respectively. Susan Caskey was the first woman to roll in. The vendor village had turned from snowpacked ground to muck and mire, but no one was complaining about drinking beer from sponsor Odell Brewing and basking in Colorado’s sunshine.
The action moved on to Montanya’s Rum Distillery for an after party that included a free drink for racers. Judging by the noise level, standing-room-only, and smiling, sunburned faces, race day number one was a success.
We appreciated being able to walk back to the beautiful Elk Mountain Lodge, just a few blocks away. Nothing beats a hot shower and comfortable bed after a day out in the mountains.