Opinion: First Ascent of Mount Washington on Fat Bike Qualifies as Respectable Weekend Workout

Editor’s Note: While Greg Heil will never fat bike up Mount Washington this quickly, he has been tackling big, snowy routes in the Colorado Rockies for the past 3 winters. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, the opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

Red Bull recently released an article + video feature about the “First Ascent of Mount Washington by Bike in Winter.” The article, and especially the video, touted this as an historic achievement and an incredible feat of strength to climb this treacherous mountain.

However, what they didn’t discuss in the video but mentioned briefly, in passing, deep down in the article, is that the road is generally closed to bicycles, except for two days during the summer. So, they had to seek special permission to ride it: “You can’t ride a bike up there, unless it’s on one of the two annual, official race days — so we had special permission to ride up.” What, if anything, is remarkable about this ride is that Tim Johnson and film crew were able to achieve special permission to access the road, unlike your average fat biker. The fact that professional cyclist Tim Johnson won the Mount Washington road climb twice, in 2000 and 2001, undoubtedly helped him attain permission to ride on a normally-closed road.

Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool
Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool

Now let’s talk about the challenge, shall we? There’s no denying that climbing 4,685 feet in 7.2 miles is a steep climb, and that tackling the climb in one-hour, forty-five minutes and 48 seconds is pretty fast on a fat bike. But just stop for a second and watch the video that Red Bull published (click over to the feature, here). I can wait…

Professional cyclist Tim Johnson was supported the entire way to the summit. If he needed to air down his tires, a mechanic was there to help him. If he needed a drink of water, he got a bottle handup. If his little toes were cold, he stopped and got some warmers out of a snowcat. And he carried little to no emergency gear or extra layers of his own–in fact, in some shots, he’s not even carrying as much as a single water bottle with him. This entire ride was completely and 100% supported.

(For my opinion on self-sufficiency, read this: “Accept the Risks and Be Self Sufficient, or Don’t Mountain Bike.”)

Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool
Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool

But what about these terrible weather conditions on Mount Washington, which Red Bull plays up as some of the harshest in the world? While Mount Washington did indeed hold a land wind speed record of 231 miles per hour, on this day Johnson experienced wind gusts of up to 49mph, with wind chills down to -19-degrees F. Again, be sure to watch the videos… Johnson and Red Bull play up this wind as brutal and punishing. But if we take a step back and think about it, this is pretty much average for the high alpine in mid-winter in Colorado, or pedaling around a snowy pasture in Wisconsin. Sure, it’s chilly, but we’re not talking about record-breaking winds or record-breaking cold, here.

The final thing that shows me how exaggerated this entire experience was, are the tire pressures he chose: Johnson started with 8psi front and 6psi rear, and then dropped down to about 4psi, lamenting how low he was going: “that’s not a lot of pressure.” If Johnson was a legitimate fat biker and accustomed to riding in snowy conditions, he’d know that 4psi is pretty average, and some riders consider that to be a rather high pressure, especially considering this professional cyclist’s race whip weight of 150 pounds (Source). Many fat bikers would argue that he should have gone lower than 4psi, based on his weight and the steep grades he was climbing.

Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool
Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool

Sensationalization in the Media

The real problem here isn’t that Johnson went out and rode Mount Washington on a fat bike–that’s a solid ride no matter how you slice it, and at least qualifies as a respectable weekend workout for this pro racer. The problem is how trumped up and sensationalized the Red Bull coverage of this ride is. Red Bull claims that Johnson was “push[ing] the limits of what is capable on a bicycle,” but the data simply does not support that claim. Fat bikers across Colorado routinely ride in conditions this horrendous, and some routinely accomplish climbs of that magnitude. Also, the distance of Johnson’s ride was minimal–fat biking the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska, in the middle of winter, self-supported, on the other hand, is pushing the limits of what’s possible on a bicycle.

All of the truly extreme fat bikers of our day–the ones bikepacking for days and weeks in sub-zero temperatures, climbing up and over Colorado mountain ranges, and accomplishing untold feats without fanfare or film crew–are accomplishing these astounding feats self-supported. The true adventurers rely on themselves wholly in the midst of the unforgiving mid-winter landscape: they can’t stop and get a water bottle handup from a support crew or a mechanic to adjust their tires’ air pressure for them. The true fat bike explorers are indomitable freaks of nature accomplishing insane feats with no outside assistance, but if they so much as write a blog post about those feats, that may be the most you hear of them.

Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool
Tim Johnson © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool

For his part, Johnson doesn’t seem to give too much hype to his “achievement”: “but it’s really not that crazy, you learn when you start to travel. It’s 6,288 feet, so by numbers it’s really not that tall, but the way the weather works in that area makes it a really dangerous place.” But Red Bull’s coverage of the ride is a different story. As an example of how they’ve exaggerated the difficulty of this ride to the extreme, check out this infographic that Red Bull produced that compares this Mount Washington ride to a loop in Central Park, New York City:

fat-bike-ascent-infographic

While I do appreciate the spotlight that Red Bull continues to shine on our sport of mountain biking–heck, we get plenty of page views out of Red Bull Rampage coverage–Red Bull needs to dial down overly-sensationalized videos like this. This sensationalization of the mundane is a trend that has markedly increased over the past year, and this recent so-called historic accomplishment only emphasizes the unfortunate trend.

While we love to share the coolest, most outstanding videos with our readers here on Singletracks–and at times, we let our readers pass judgement, with your comments, about whether or not a video is up to snuff–at some point we just need to draw a line in the sand. This is that line.

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