No Tuscobia phobia
Against all odds, I was poised to steal a win seven hours into the 75-mile fat bike race at this year’s Tuscobia Winter Ultra held between Rice Lake and Park Falls, Wisconsin. That didn’t look at all likely at the start, when the sub-zero temp caught me a little off guard. I was losing sensation in my toes before I even got off the bus.
I ran some life back into my feet and hammered my frozen Cliff Bars against the metal rail of the trailer to shatter them into bite-sized pieces. I was acting like the rookie I wasn’t at the winter endurance game.
That didn’t stop other veterans from nudging me to the front of the pack of 50 bikers, runners and skiers that would trek all day and into the night, if not the following morning.
The snow was solid on the Tuscobia State Trail, which is dedicated to motorized snow machines on every other winter weekend. We were decked out in red blinky lights, reflectors and numerous admonitions to yield to the snowmobilers lest a collision doom the tireless efforts of many to open these trails to silent sport access.
A fat bike paceline coalesced and kept the hammer down wheel-to-wheel, not so much to battle the wind, but for the psychological illusion of drafting and the minor drop in resistance that comes from following a broken trail before a passing snowmobile would fluff up the line again.
Five of us hit the first checkpoint like the freight trains that once rolled down the grade that would become the rail-trail. I knew I was in for a long, hard day as I fumbled to fit a bottle into an insulated pocket before a three-mile chase back to the group.
Up with the big dogs
There was a lot of firepower up front, including Minnesota’s Steve Yore, a former champion who had come within four minutes of winning a nine-hour battle the year before. Legendary Dave Pramann once won this race and twice the frostbite-inducing Arrowhead 135 around International Falls, Minnesota, in February. He was coming off back surgery, but there he was, up at the front and chatty.
Green Bay’s Marcus Steele was probably the hungriest racer in the group. A former winner of the 35-mile event, Steele had dropped to third last year when changing conditions in the last half gave the advantage to Yore who had kept more air in his tires and was able to buzz down the solid path. It’s painful to stop to make adjustments while your competition rides away, but often those gambles pay off in an event this long. Steele was back smarter and fitter this year. He’d ridden the fat bike in the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Series six-hour division all summer and was known to bring his fat bike to ride asphalt with the roadies. After a few fat bike centuries, Steele was ready for 75 miles at Tuscobia.
There would be no dramatic moves in this race, but there would also be no let up. Any other bike race gives a rider a chance to coast once in a while, but to coast on this snowy rail-trail would be to rapidly grind to a stop and freeze in your tracks. It was just a matter of time before riders would drift to the end of our paceline and then fall off altogether. I could be next for all I knew.
The entirety of Chris Schotz’s first-hand account of the Tuscobia Winter Ultra fat bike race appears in the March 2015 print edition of Silent Sports magazine. To order a copy, call 888-706-4045. Or avoid missing another issue and subscribe online here now.