Ice River Fat Bike Death Ride
Bicycling with Walter Rhein,
“Let’s go ride the river,” Frank said.
“Are you nuts?”
“Naw, it’ll be fine, I’ve done it hundreds of times. David Gabrys of 45NRTH goes out there to get pictures for international magazines. It’ll be beautiful and epic.”
I could sense control of the situation slipping away from me. I’ve done a lot of rides with Frank throughout the years. He’s famous for putting a “positive spin on things.” When he gets you up at the crack of dawn and assures you, “We’ll be back by dark,” take it from me and pack a headlamp.
“I don’t have a fat bike,” I said.
“I’ve got one for you.”
So I reluctantly agreed and showed up on New Year’s Day at Frank’s cabin to ride the ice. There were six of us total, including our friend Steve who decided to camp out overnight and ride his bicycle up from Siren. Steve is the guy who rides his Trek Crossrip from Cushing (Minn.) to Cable, camps, skis the Birkie, and rides back the next day. If you’ve skied the Birkie, you might have seen him on your drive back home.
Upon arrival, Frank handed me my bike.
“There’s no studded tires.”
“You won’t need them.”
“Does your bike have studded tires?”
From there the conversation was changed to the safety briefing.
“The river is a living thing,” Frank said. “The water runs high and low, so there are ice formations scattered about as it freezes and refreezes.”
“How deep is it?” Steve asked.
“Oh, it’s only between ankle and thigh deep.”
I glanced down at the river. It was more of a stream just a couple yards wide. There were wolf tracks down the center. Rumor was they got a lot of fatbiker to eat this time of year.
“Would you ever think of riding the St. Croix?” Steve asked.
“No, that would be insanity. If you broke through it’d be all over. Here you’re basically stomping on a puddle.”
“Okay, good to know.”
Frank rode his bike down to the river and rumbled along on his studded tires. I pushed mine down to the shore, straddled the beast, took one pedal stroke and skidded out like I’d hit the throttle on a parked motorcycle. The treads left a pattern of clear ice exposed under the thin layer of snow.
It’s going to be an interesting day.
I tried again, sitting on the bike and shuffling forward until I had enough speed to pedal. It seemed to work well enough, as long as I didn’t have to turn.
The tracks of the other riders stretched out before me. The river meandered beautifully through the Wisconsin wilderness, and there was enough snow to provide traction for the most part. Occasionally the trail went over mounds of ice that had formed on the river.
I was lagging behind the others, navigating a mound, when something hit me in the face. At first I thought it was a tree branch gouging out my eye, but then I felt my nose get plastered across my cheek!
That’s when I realized how much of your mental capacity goes to sustaining the complex algorithm that allows you to ride a bicycle. Time seemed to slow down as the remainder of my thought power worked on the problem at hand.
What the heck is this thing dragging across my face and eyeballs? It’s hard, it’s rough, it’s got little slivers in it… It’s a rope! I’m being clotheslined! Help! Murder! Emergency!
I was getting pushed back further and further off my saddle. My angle was awkward, and just as I started reaching up to grab the rope to stabilize myself, the rope broke and I went over backwards flat on my back on the hard ice.
In my 20s, I used to laugh at crashes like that and hope that somebody got it on video. In my 40s, I lay motionless and did a foggy diagnostic.
Shoulder: Not even…
Conclusion: Total catastrophic failure, abandon ship!
About then, Frank came rolling back.
“Oh, hey, did you hit that rope?”
The remnants of the rope were coiled beside me like a discarded snake skin. “Yes,” I replied.
“I should have mentioned that.”
Fragments of a saying came back to me, “If you can’t say something nice…” but I couldn’t remember the rest, so I said nothing.
I got to my feet and stood for a moment before remounting. I kept thinking of what Aaron Rodgers looks like on the sideline when he’s going through concussion protocol. There’s a lot of yawning. I was yawning, too.
“I think they put that rope up for crossing the river in the spring. We were calling out a warning; sorry, you must not have heard.”
That was good to hear. I had started to wonder with suspicion how everyone else had managed to avoid the obstacle. If a video exists, I want to see it! I resolved not to lag so far behind.
Well, it can only get better, I thought.
Surprisingly, it did!
So much of the training we silent sport athletes do is on the same six or seven miles of trail. You do loops in the morning, loops in the afternoon, and loops after dark under manmade lights. But they’re all the same loops, and after a while the brain starts to yearn for a distraction. I’ve taken to listening to podcasts and audio books while doing my Birkie training.
But the river was different, radically different. The trail meandered, and there were new and interesting obstacles to navigate. Sometimes, we hit bad patches and we had to portage our bicycles around. Other times, we’d break through and get an elbow or ankle wet. But, hey, it was an adventure.
“We’re riding floatation devices,” our friend Brad said.
“We’re riding somewhere few people ever have,” Frank replied.
How often can you say that?
The day wasn’t something you could easily classify in your training diary as anything other than adventure. This was the kind of activity that helped bring back memories of the first time riding, when you did so out of a joy of exploration, rather than a fundamental fear of not doing enough preparation to finish the Birkie or whatever major event scares you.
“What are you going to put in your write-up?” Steve asked during one of the rest stops.
“I don’t know. At this point, I’m just trying to regain cognitive function after getting my bell rung.”
Our rests were brief because Frank was concerned we might not make it back in before dark. After an hour and a half, just about everyone had a wet arm, leg or hand.
“Is there a shortcut back?” I asked.
“Are you sure?” Frank replied, “A lot of the remainder of the journey is on the road.”
“Well, I kind of feel like when you play a video game and you get to the boss at the end of a level, and you have just a sliver of life left on your meter. Do you know what I mean?”
“I mean I can’t take another hit.”
We discussed it as a group, and everyone elected to go back to the cabin for lunch and dry clothing.
The mood was light as we navigated a couple miles of low-traffic roads on the way back.
“That was a course in fatbike immersion,” Frank said, “in more sense than one.”
“Yeah, what are you supposed to do if you break through the ice?” somebody asked.
“You perform a one-inch punch like in ‘Kill Bill,’” I said, “then explode straight upwards through the ice like Azog the Defiler did in the final Hobbit movie! You land in a triumphant shower of water and ice shards, growl and ask, ‘Is my bike okay?’”
This comment was a lot funnier when told riding on asphalt, rather than ice, which was constantly cracking and groaning under your weight.
After lunch, the others headed out for another loop, more excited after taking an hour or two to process their first experience on ice. Frank says that conditions vary radically. Sometimes, you’re riding through deep, deep snow.
Other times, water is pooling up in the tracks behind you.
“In other words: never ride over deep water, never get too far from dry clothing and always have somebody with you.”
“Absolutely!” Frank said.
As I got in my car to drive home, I still couldn’t decide if the activity was fun or decidedly too reckless. But then I remembered some of those insane descents on the Birkie trail, or how perilously close some cars come by you when you’re riding on the road. Danger is relative, and sometimes an activity can come across as an extreme risk just because it’s new. All that being said, whenever you ride on ice, exercise maximum caution.
Oh, and if anyone comes across a video of me getting clotheslined taken from a hidden tree camera, please share!
I think I can laugh about it now, and “He who laughs last, … ,“what’s the rest?