20 January 2016

That Time I Did a Fat Bike Race

I hadn't planned on doing any fat bike races this season, but it popped up somewhere online: night race at Targhee. I'm a sucker for novelty, and a night race meant I could still ski all day. It was cheap, there was some cool swag, and a quick browse of the pre-reg showed enough friends to make it worthwhile. Done. Oops.

It was already dumping on the day I registered, and the Tetons proceeded to get another two or so feet that weekend. The race was sounding less appealing on Friday when I and just about everyone I know charged the Ghee all day. But Derrick, the new owner of Fitzgerald's and a strident fat bike evangelist, had already kindly promised me a bike. The gauntlet had been thrown, the smack had been talked. All the bar-fly fat bikers were going to give me hell if I bailed. 

On Saturday we went out for a tour with friend and long-time local Billy. He showed us around a new zone and the snow was phenomenal so we took another run, and another, and another, despite protesting limbs and encroaching deadlines. Afterwards I picked up the Farley from Fitzy's and rode it home, overheating in my ski clothes, groaning from tired legs, and freaking out because I was late and hadn't even charged my night light yet. I ran around the house in a toxic cloud, trying to eat, get my stuff together, figure out when the race started, and breathe through the stress. It didn't help that it was snowing heavily and I was scared of the treacherous drive. 

Only picture I took of our tour...forever ascending
Our relationship survived my unpleasantness somehow and we made it up with plenty of time to spare. The crew at the Ghee was also scrambling to deal: the heavy snowfall stymied attempts to groom the intended singletrack loop and even the shortened two mile course required attention. I figured out attire (shell jacket over t-shirt, wind pants over thermal bibs, balaklava, safety glasses, and Sorels, an outfit not approved by the bike nerds but which suited me just fine) and joined the other racers in trying to practice the tough initial climb and descent. The soft snow was extremely challenging and unpredictable. At the bottom everyone milled around squeezing each others' tires and letting air out in their own. "Is three PSI too much or too little?" "Anyone have a pressure gauge?" My tires were plenty big and squishy and I was really starting to enjoy the shit show. 

We lined up and started, and carnage ensued. On the first descent people flopped around like spawning salmon and I fishtailed all over but stayed upright somehow. Commuting every day and messing around in the neighborhood have given me a better idea for what snow will and won't (mostly won't) permit. If you ever brake, or lose focus, or tense up, or shift your center of gravity the wrong way, you will IMMEDIATELY be punished. Over the four mile race I came off the bike and slogged a lot but never wrecked, which I attribute to 50% good body English and line choice and 50% luck. 

The start, before the fast people completely smoked us
Race pics courtesy of Grand Targhee 
The relentless snowflakes sparkled in my headlamp and I lost track of where I was on the course, wrapped in a bubble of light and quiet and warmth, focused completely on the tire tracks in front of me. Tyler heckled me just as I've taught him: "Go faster! Stop walking!" and Sophie yelped as I pedaled (or trudged) by. 
Trying to maintain a straight line
Four miles took almost an hour but I was pleased as punch at the end. We all hung out at the fire with beers in hand, rehashing the brief ordeal and waiting for the long race to end. A couple people, Derrick included, reported flat tires, which I'd thought was the one thing you didn't have to worry about on a fat bike, but I guess when you're running tubeless at 3 PSI and the tire burps...well. We talked about how ridiculous the skiing would be the next day considering the current rate of precipitation. Awards were announced and I won (the short race). 

I was shellacked the next day when I tried to charge more powder, but I was glad I didn't bail on the slog fest. The borrowed bike performed flawlessly (thanks to Fitzgerald's) and the race was great despite the conditions (thanks to a heroic effort by Andy Williams and crew). 

11 January 2016

In Which I Use a Funeral as an Excuse for a Ski Trip

Tyler and I drive the empty roads across southeast Idaho. We've done this drive probably a dozen times but these are unusual circumstances. The normally sagebrush-gray landscape is softened by snow. The expansive lava formations of Craters of the Moon look less like a suburb of Mordor than usual. Unless it snows in Mordor, I guess.

We enter a thick fog in the Wood River Valley that turns to precipitation as we near Ketchum. There's a lot of snow hemming in the narrow streets. North of town we locate the grand vacation home of Tyler's brother's friend. This is the new base of operations, since Tyler's grandparents' home (which he calls the Palace) is no longer available. 

Thanks to the Mountain Collective pass, i.e. the best deal in the West, a couple days at Sun Valley costs zero dollars instead of hundreds, so we go skiing. Warm snow falls and the visibility is soupy. Tyler says this is completely unlike Sun Valley, land of sunshine, groomed runs, and no snow. 

We retire for burritos, beer, and a scenic hot tub buttressed by snow banks. Sophie chases snowballs across the yard. 

Thursday is a stunning bluebird powder day so we ski the resort again, where the tree glades, of perfect density and gradient, are almost untouched. It is very enjoyable until I exit onto a cat track at high speed and slam knee to mouth. No teeth are knocked out, just duck lips and abrasions. I quit. 

Turns out Sun Valley is a fun resort when it snows
We're back at the house on schedule. The rest of Tyler's little clan has arrived: his two brothers, his mom, and her boyfriend. Everyone dons Nice Clothes and we go to the Episcopalian church for the memorial service for Tyler's grandfather. I see other attendants' grief and tear up thinking abstractly about losing a parent or grandparent. My brain shies away from specifics because I don't to want sob audibly at the funeral of a man I barely knew. Afterwards I flit around the reception eating cured meat and trying to avoid talking to relatives I don't know. 

Our crew retreats to the house to debrief on all the politics and power plays happening. I feel grateful for the simplicity of my family. 

Just another beautiful day in big mountains
Tyler, Ben, and I have a window the next morning to go for a backcountry tour before the interment of Charles's ashes. After studying some topo maps we have a potential objective, but driving down the canyon yields disappointing options, so on the way back we pick a National Forest access point at random and are greatly rewarded with an easy climb in the sunshine and pristine powder through perfect trees on the descent. This never happens. 

We go to the cemetery. The priest extols the beauty of our surroundings and I warm inside, but it is hard to the reconcile the sweet sadness of the ceremony with the uneven family dynamics, the permanency of death, the shadow cast by money.

My loves on the summit 
Tyler and I drive to Boise the next day but not before a repeat of the successful tour, to tire the dog out and get another taste of powder. 

We have dinner with some of Tyler's oldest friends, kind and funny and charismatic and fiercely loyal to him. The intensity and longevity of Tyler's friendships, I think, are a testament to his character. 

On Sunday a bunch of us ski the local hill, Bogus Basin. Boise down low is shrouded in a chilly gray but the road to the resort climbs out of the haze into bright sunshine. The group splinters because of different ability levels (or one could say lifestyle choices: occasional skiers vs. habitual snow sliders) but we regroup regularly for beer and pictures. 
The gang and me at Bogus
Too soon we have to say goodbye and drive the long interstate back to the Tetons. Temperature variations cause impenetrable fog and we're both tense, half-listening to Serial while peering into the abyss. 

It is bitter cold and clear in the Valley. We try to organize the detritus of our trip and then pass out. Today it is back to work, back to real life, back to a place where everyone counts their wealth not in dollars, but in days spent outside.