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Life as a bike jockey: Ride it wide

... and let it slide

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Before jumping back into the official race season, it’s always good to get at least one practice race in. For one, it’s to get friendly again with that ‘ol familiar hypoxic feeling, But its also to get back in the racing groove. It seems after some time away from the races, my Hammer Gelling and number pinning get kinda rusty and half my racing gear has migrated to the Land of Missing Socks.

February bike races in Colorado, however, are slim pickings. So the opportunity to hop in the Teva Games Snow Bike Crit in Vail, Colorado was a welcome event.

The bike

I went to a shop the night before that rented small snow bikes. My goal was to get a ride to meet the 3.7″ tire criteria for the snow bike crit payout… $750 for first place. Yaaah buddy. The Teva Games has repeatedly put up solid cash prizes in their bike races with equal pay to guys and gals. Not too shabby.

As we set up the bike, the guys at the shop gave me the low-down on how to ride this behemoth. Don’t brake in the corners. Spray Pam cooking spray on your cleats and pedals to stop the snow from building up…because you will be running. Oh, and once you get on the snow, dump some air. The lower the PSI, the better. And off to Vail I went.

Timing is everything

I usually get to a race venue at least two hours early for the prerace ritual; warm-up and warrior yoga moves to intimidate the competition. But because of seriously underestimating the time needed to navigate resort parking, registration and deal with the cold on Saturday, I was way behind schedule by the time I got out of the car.

Staging out of a car is handy, but in 30-degree temperatures, it’s an interpretive dance of freezing early-humans making fire by rubbing Lycra shorts together. Still, I forged on, pulled it together, Pammed the hell out of my shoes and pedals and scooted to the course.

Oohs and ahs

As I made my way to over, I realized how much people react to snow bikes. Cruising through the sea of skiers, there was a fair amount of gawking and “Now THOSE are tires.” With the big tires on a small frame and 5’2″ jockey, I was getting all the attention of circus bear on a bike. One enthusiast knew the game though, and when he saw me coming, let out a loud “Whooowee! Ride it wide and let ‘em slide!” Hee Haw would have been proud.

Getting low

I got to the course on the side of Vail Mountain. There was about 45 minutes before the start and the course was still being marked so I hit the road to warm up. As I could have almost predicted, I went out too long and returned just in time for first call-ups. Crapwagons. I hustled to the start line where half the crowd was dropping tire PSI like criminals readying for an FBI raid on air.

The only break in the panic came when I saw my fella, Tom, walking toward me. Tom’s been recovering from shoulder surgery with an arm in a sling, so the plan was he’d stay at home versus chancing a fall on the ice. It was a very cool surprise. I think everyone knows how awesome it is to have support.

No time for sweetness though…any sound of tweeting birds quickly reverted to Speed Metal as Tom and his one free hand were drafted right to work. We dumped out loads of air in both tires. But when a helpful seasoned snow biker came over and gave me my tires a squeeze, it was back to the valves. We brought the tires down to about 3 PSI each. And that was just in time to cruise over to the start line and wait for the gun.

On your marks

As is the style of the Teva Games, a pretty good crowd rallied round the course. The race was capped at 50 riders and all four categories — open snow bike and open mountain bike for both men and women — started at once. The snow bike women’s field was small, however with adventure racing Gretchen Reeves and 2011 Colorado Trail Race winner, Eszter Horanyi, the field was plenty packed.

How do you ride this thing?

Standing at the start line, it hit me that I hadn’t actually gotten this thing on snow. And then the gun went off. Riding the sluggish big tires with the bike’s wider pedal stance, I thought I was pedaling a Shetland pony. I decided just to keep my eyes out for pointers.

Like a lemming, I followed riders to the most packed down lines as we snaked up the ski hill. After leaning over a little too far to make a turn, I realized why people were tipping over left and right on the climb. You got to keep the bike as upright as possible or the front wheel comes out from under you. If you don’t, then just like that, you are running at 8,100 feet and seeing if the Pam idea really works. (It did by the way.)

What goes up…

Then we got to the top of the descent, or really into the controlled chaos. Riding on snow makes traction difficult, or at times impossible, but still the bike was surprisingly maneuverable. Albeit a change from my weight weenie druthers, the bike turned out to be 35ish pounds of snow biking fun.

Once we got to the top, outrigger legs popped out almost automatically to manage the bike. Sometimes it worked just as well to get way back and move the rear wheel with your weight. I did crash but the snow was pretty forgiving, which is more than I could say about some of the rocks and dirt I’ve met before. But after a couple times down the descent, I started to understand what that guy was squealing about. Ride it wide and let it slide! Thanks crazy Hee Haw dude.

After about 36 minutes , six laps and 1,000 feet of climbing, it all came to an end. I stood at the finish wide-eyed from the mix of adrenaline and cold that took over. Gretchen and I had gone back and forth for the lead but I managed to pull off my first win of the season, (which was good because I still had to pay for the snowbike rental).

With kooky big tires and payout to match, it wasn’t a typical race, but it was definitely good for a warm up.

Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. She was nominated to the Olympic Long Team as a potential rider at the 2012 London Olympics. Freeman races for the Crankbrothers Race Club. Team sponsors for 2012 include Ibis Bicycles, X-Fusion suspension, Formula braking, SRAM shifting, Crankbrother components, Pactimo clothing, Fi’zi:k saddles, Continental tires, Rocky Mounts racks, Pearl Izumi footwear and Hammer Nutrition. Join her for her monthly column on called “Life as a Bike Jockey.”