Wildflowers and winging it: Crested Butte Fat Tire 40

The temperatures on the Western Slope have been in the high 90s for a few weeks now. The rocks and pavement absorb the warmth throughout the day, and by the time I leave my air-conditioned office, jonesing for a ride, it’s truly too hot to do much more than head to the pool or lay in front of the swamp cooler, ice cream in hand. It’s the kind of heat that leaves you feeling lethargic, and I’ve had little energy to do much more than plan my next escape to the mountains. 

I have no shame in admitting that my decision to sign up for the Crested Butte Fat Tire 40 this past weekend stemmed less from my urge to race than to escape the crazy desert heat and head to one of my favorite mountain destinations. I’m pretty sure every mountain biker will agree that Crested Butte is a truly special place. Endless singletrack, otherworldly views, and abundant wildflowers surround the unpretentious mountain town, which is home to a plethora of delicious restaurants, fun shops, and beautiful galleries. Crested Butte Bike Week was going off, and between the Chainless World Championships, multiple races, and the Bridges of the Butte Townie Tour, the town was full of bikers pedaling an array of bikes, outfitted in every costume imaginable. 

Needless to say, I knew that a weekend spent in the Butte would be a blast, but I had no idea how much I would enjoy the Fat Tire 40 race itself.

 40 miles of riding through this landscape? Where do I sign up for next year?

40 miles of riding through this landscape? Where do I sign up for next year?

Apart from a mile or two at the resort, I hadn’t ridden any of the trails that made up the race, and while I’d usually spend some time reading about and familiarizing myself with the pace and terrain, a hectic week precluded me from doing this usual pre-race planning and preparation. I’d heard the Fat Tire 40 was tough, and, with nearly 6,000 feet of climbing at altitude, I knew to expect some tired legs, but otherwise I was going into the event totally blind. While it would have been nice to not just “wing it,” I also felt relaxed about the entire event and knew that I’d enjoy a beautiful ride in a special place regardless of how I placed.

I headed up with my sister and some friends Friday after work, arriving in time for a quick dinner at my favorite Teocalli Tamale, followed by ice cream and an early-ish bedtime.  The next morning dawned sunny and early and I made my way to the race hosted out of the Chamber of Commerce. The chill vibe at the venue reflected my own calm mood; I was happy to be racing in the mountains and experienced no start-line jitters despite not knowing what was to come on the course. Men and women started together and we pedaled up to the base of the mountain in a neutral group.

I made my first mistake here – rather than jumping in front of some of the guys, I let them lead into the first section of singletrack, unaware that the dirt portion of the race would start out on such a tight and fairly rocky trail. The group I was with kept bottlenecking as we curved through trees and bobbed over technical sections and I was chomping at the bit to push it a little harder. A few climbs in the trees helped thin out the bunch of racers, and by the time we were a few miles into the event, I’d passed enough people to be riding with a group of quick and technically proficient guys. 

I relaxed into my pace here, and allowed myself to thoroughly enjoy the terrain: tacky dirt, Aspen trees, shoulder high wildflowers and stunning mountain views made up the entire 40 miles. The air was fresh and the sunshine strong, but multiple creek crossings and lush forest kept you from overheating. By the time we emerged onto the Deer Creek portion of the race, I was comfortably in 2nd place and feeling very strong. A long climb, with a long hike-a-bike in the middle, is what Deer Creek seems to be known for, but my lack of course recon made me uncertain as to whether the hill was what one lady had told me was the “Deer Creek Wall;” i.e., the toughest part of the course.

 While beautiful, the wildflowers were so high that it was often difficult to see the trail. You had to stay on your game and keep looking ahead to avoid tumbling into them.

While beautiful, the wildflowers were so high that it was often difficult to see the trail. You had to stay on your game and keep looking ahead to avoid tumbling into them.

Rather than worry about what was to come, I stayed calm and happy, peeking down at my Garmin periodically to ensure that I was on pace for a 4-ish hour finish, but mostly keeping my eyes on the trail ahead. While stunning, the tall wildflowers made it difficult to see the trail, and keeping your gaze lifted and focused on the descents was imperative to avoid barreling down a lupine-covered mountainside. I leapfrogged back and forth on the Deer Creek singletrack with a group of guys, letting some pass and scooting around others on the uphills – I’m used to being a strong descender and was surprised that my climbing ability was on point this weekend even at such a high elevation. I cruised through the second aid station and was reassured to hear the volunteers confirm I was the second lady to roll by. By this point, I knew I could maintain my place barring any mechanicals or crashes, and was determined to ride the remainder of the course strong but smart.

A road descent led racers down to the start of Meander, which winds up the back of the mountain and pops you out at the top of Crested Butte Resort. I’d genuinely enjoyed every inch of the course thus far, but started to lag a little bit on Meander. The ground felt soft, and the climb was deceptive: while it looked easy, the gradual ascent offered little time to recover and it seemed to take forever to reach the top. I was sweating, and hungry, and my back started to ache a little bit, but an energy bar and pep-talk encouraged me to keep grinding and by the time I crested to Westside, I was feeling like myself again and attacked the rocky descent with as much energy as I had reserved.

While cruising down, however, I forgot to keep my eyes peeled and ended up taking a wrong turn. At a fork in the trail, two course markers pointed in different directions, and uncertain which way to go, I turned right. By the time I’d descended for a minute or two, some spark of intuition convinced me I’d chosen incorrectly, and I chose to push my bike back to the intersection and jump on the other trail. With only a few miles to go, I was sweating. Had I given up my podium spot because I was unfamiliar with the trails? Had I gone the wrong way? My fears were laid to rest within a minute, however, when I came upon some friendly hikers. They cheered for me and said I was on the right path, and with that reassurance I pedaled my heart out to the finish in downtown Crested Butte, snagging 2nd in the Pro Women’s category, behind fast lady Jennifer Smith.

 Thrilled to be on that podium with these strong ladies. Thanks to Pivot Cycles, MRP, Ergon and Enve for helping me build the perfect bike for this race.

Thrilled to be on that podium with these strong ladies. Thanks to Pivot Cycles, MRP, Ergon and Enve for helping me build the perfect bike for this race.

Following the race, I was able to catch up with friends, chow down on a veggie burger, and head to Camp 4 for an iced beverage before making my way back to the podium ceremony. The entire vibe of the race was so chill – everyone, despite being burnt by a hard morning on the bike, was happy and it was wonderful to hear stories from the course and to congratulate friends on their finishes.

I thought it would be hard to top my 2nd place podium spot, but the rest of the weekend carried on in the same wonderful fashion. A joy ride with friends on the incredibly beautiful Snodgrass and Lupine trails preceded a delicious dinner at Ginger Café and the next day was spent doing a lap at the resort before riding the endlessly fun Doctor’s Park. The Crested Butte Farmer’s Market, trips to Third Bowl Ice Cream, river dips, and a windows-down-sing-along drive over Kebler Pass rounded out a truly fantastic mountain weekend.

While I made some mistakes in the race, I feel confident that next year I’ll come back better-prepared and ready to step up the pace even more. Beyond that, I’m thrilled that after four years on the bike and three years racing, I have the confidence to show up for a race of which I have no course knowledge, genuinely enjoy the ride, and emerge a strong competitor. It's also confidence-inspiring being on such amazing equipment. My Pivot Cycles 429 SL, outfitted with Enve wheels, MRP fork, and Ergon accoutrement, performed flawlessly once again and proved an absolute blast to ride on Crested Butte's alpine terrain. 

 Colorado summers and wildflowers can't be beat. 

Colorado summers and wildflowers can't be beat. 

 After riding such a sick course, a trip to the Doctor was definitely needed!

After riding such a sick course, a trip to the Doctor was definitely needed!

After such a wonderful weekend, it was tough to return to the desert heat and to buckle down for another busy work week, but in just a few days Noah and I will be packing up our new Pivot Switchblades and heading north for the inaugural Trans BC Enduro. Six days of racing throughout Kelowna, Penticton, Rossland and Nelson. Yet again, I’m not sure what to expect, but I know I’ll love the ride. Cheers!

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