The Fat is Out of the BagFriends Events Sports Cycling Bicycles Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling Urban Cycling
New York City. The Capital of the World. A great financial and cultural dynamo hub illuminating the rest of America and beyond. Birthplace of the skyscraper, hip hip, and the "New York minute," which is just a regular minute with extra cheese.
When it comes to cycling, however, one could argue our heyday is well behind us. Madison Square Garden was a Mecca of six-day racing...like a hundred years ago. New York City's bike messengers were once iconic...though the style's been appropriated worldwide, and "Quicksilver" to "Premium Rush" represents a precipitous decline. Alas, we used to set the pace, but now it comes to "bike culture" we're playing catch-up.
Consider the whole fat bike thing. They've been riding fat bikes for years out there in "Fargo" country, but New York City's first-ever fat bike race wasn't until January 23rd, 2016 in Cunningham Park, Queens:
And even then, it was cancelled due to...snow:
I know what you're thinking: "Isn't canceling a fat bike race due to snow like canceling an alleycat due to weed?" Well, sure, but this was no ordinary snowstorm. This was Winter Storm Jonas:
And unlike previous overhyped storms this one delivered. In fact by the day of the race it was snowing so ferociously that the governor had declared a travel ban, which meant even if they hadn't canceled the race you would have gotten arrested for trying to get there.
So instead the organizers, 718 Cyclery, rescheduled the race for the following weekend, and I resolved to partake for the following reasons:
1) I'm very fond of Cunningham Park;
2) This would supposedly be the first-ever fat bike race in New York City and I wanted to be part of a historical footnote so in ten years I could say "I was there!" to people who couldn't care less;
3) I'm currently "testing" a bike called the Marin Pine Mountain 1, which while not a full-on fat bike is certainly fat-ish, so as a semi-professional bike blogger I'd be remiss if I didn't try it in a fat-biking application.
So I signed up.
As I mentioned, Cunningham Park is in Queens. Specifically, it's in eastern Queens, where the city bleeds out into Long Island. Cleft in twain by the Clearview Expressway and packed with singletrack, it looks like a pair of lungs:
The trails are maintained by C.L.I.M.B., who have done an amazing job within the confines of a city park. While there's nothing to overwhelm the rider looking to do battle with forbidding terrain it more than lives up to its billing as a place where everyone from novices to experts can fully enjoy themselves--and the fact that you're still within the New York City limits makes it even sweeter.
On the morning of the race I had three options for getting from my home to Cunningham:
1) A 20-plus mile three-borough slog on three-inch knobby tires through the densest parts of the city and the worst of Queens's eastern sprawl that would take me a good three hours;
2) Schlepping an almost-fat bike onto public transit;
3) Taking the car.
The first option was the heroic one, the second option was in keeping with the novelty of a fat bike race within the five boroughs, and the third option was just a cop-out.
I went with Option 3:
(Gas: so cheap right now!)
When I lived in Brooklyn I rode at Cunningham all the time, but now that I have to cross a bridge to get there I instead tend to seek out the more convenient (to me) and abundant mountain bike trails north of the city. However, I remain extremely fond of it, and it was good to be back after a longish absence:
I'd gotten there early and there weren't very many riders there yet, but I could see the registration table beyond the trailhead, and so I trudged towards it:
Then, clutching my race number, I trudged back to my car and civilization (to the extent suburban Queens qualifies as "civilization"), where the food truck was fueling up for a long day of feeding hungry fat bikers:
And where someone rolled up on some kind of e-bike:
Which was towing a fat bike on a trailer, along with a folding card table and what may have been the kitchen sink:
The sheer smugness of it all was breathtaking, and I obscured my face with my number as I slinked back to my fossil fuel burner in which I'd driven to the bike race alone.
Once I'd hoisted my bike from the roof rack and completed my pre-race ablutions I headed back into the park for a quick pre-ride:
I'd registered in the "advanced" category--not because I consider myself advanced, but because it was the first race of the day and I liked the idea of being the last-placed finisher in the first field of the first-ever fat bike race in New York City.
It seemed like a pretty attainable distinction.
This was the advanced course:
Which, as it turned out, the organizers had since halved owing to all that snow. See, the western lung of the park is the "technical" side, whereas the east lung is the "easy" side. (Pssst: they're both easy.) We'd be doing the whole race on the easy side, so I figured a lap would take all of ten minutes--until I started riding:
You'd be forgiven for assuming that fat bikes simply let you ride effortlessly through snow, but you'd also be wrong. See, in order to ride a fat bike on snow the trail still needs to be "groomed" by means of a snowmobile or snowshoes or something that can pack down all that snow and make it firm and rideable--and while humans had trudged through in order to tape off sections of the course, it would be a considerable stretch to call this "groomed:"
What it was was a slog, and with all the starting and stopping my quick little pre-ride ended up taking me like a half hour, which meant that by the time I got back to the starting area there were a lot more people and the race was starting in like five minutes:
There was also the latest in carbon Fat Bike Fred technology on display:
As well as foot retention (or lack thereof) and sundry other products and components:
Alas, there was nothing from Brooks, but that's only because they're biding their time before entering this burgeoning market. See, the Brooks fat bike line needs to reflect the company's proud heritage, which means everything needs to be made of leather--but in order to do that they first need fatter cows.
Once the herd is large enough you can expect to see lots of exciting new fat bike-specific Brooks products, and they've even authorized me to share this spy photo of a prototype saddle:
(The B17 Fat)
I realize it doesn't look particularly elegant, but that's only because it hasn't been chamfered yet.
And of course there were lots and lots of fat bikes:
Which made the "plus"-sized tires on my own bike seem diminutive in comparison:
Indeed, between my unanticipatedly "epic" pre-ride and my "skinny" tires I was already feeling profoundly inadequate, and now the pre-race chatter wasn't helping. See, at any off-road bicycle race the conversation at the start line always centers around the question of #whatpressureyourunning. Sometimes it's sincere, as in: "What pressure are you running? I haven't pre-ridden yet and would appreciate your advice." Other times it's an attempt to psych you out by making you feel underprepared, like when you answer and they say: "Really, isn't that a little high? I took a soil sample and decided to air down." And still other times it can be downright confrontational, as in: "58psi?!? Are you insane?!? You're gonna die out there, bro!"
At the fat bike race however the conversation was downright surreal, since it was basically a contest to see who was running the lowest pressure. "I'm at 5psi." "Well, I'm at 3." "Oh yeah? I'm actually running negative pressure, and my tire is a vacuum:"
As for me, I honestly had no idea what pressure I was running, but I was fairly certain that as soon as they found my frozen corpse they'd check and use it as my epitaph:
Once everyone had established #whatpressureyourunning to some degree of satisfaction, we left our bikes lying in the snow and a person with a megaphone marched us into the woods for the Le Mans start:
The march seemed interminable. When we finally stopped we were a good two hundred yards from the nearest split-level ranch, and it occurred to me that maybe this whole fat bike race thing was a trap and they were going to shoot us:
"This fat bike thing ends here!" would be the last thing we heard.
But instead they ordered us to run, which we did, for our very lives:
I remained at the back, and once we got to the bikes I made sure everyone entered the singletrack before me:
This was carefully planned on my part. For one thing, as I mentioned earlier, my goal was to finish last. For another, we were doing two laps, and I figured if I let everyone go ahead of me on their fat bikes they'd pack the snow down for me. This way, should I decide to stop concealing my cycling greatness, it would give me the option of abandoning "Operation DFL" on the second lap and making my move.
Unfortunately, the plan backfired. See, instead of packing the trail down for me, what happened was when the people ahead of me were forced to dismount they just left more of a mess for me to deal with:
It was like being the last person at the all-you-can-eat buffet.
I was also wearing stupid shoes for riding in the snow:
I'd briefly considered switching to platforms and hiking boots before the race, but naively assumed that even with the snow I'd have no reason to dismount in a park as tame as Cunningham, so I didn't bother. However, what ended up happening was that whenever I hit a bunch of powder and was forced to clip out, my foot would plunge into a foot of snow which would then actually open the Velcro straps of my shoe on the way down:
And to top it all off I didn't even finish last, because somehow at some point I still managed to pass somebody despite my incompetence. This meant that instead of finishing DFL I would up finishing DFP, or "Dead F-ing Penultimate," which carries absolutely no bragging rights of any kind, sincere or ironic.
Anyway, it took me long enough to finish that by the time I rolled in they were getting ready to announce the first three finishers:
And here they are:
I don't know if there were any doping controls, but I did see someone in a blazer walking around the area scooping up yellow snow and putting it in a cooler.
After the race I was curious to know if I'd have fared any better on a true fat bike, so I borrowed this Salsa Mukluk and headed out for another lap:
I had a lot more traction which meant I was able to easily ride some spots I'd been forced to walk, and on the packed-in sections like this one I felt like I was riding on tires with suction cups:
All of which is to say I probably wouldn't have finished any faster, but I might have finished with warmer feet.
Then I visited the food truck:
After which I crouched down like a real photographer:
And took some race photos:
Of course this was a fat bike race so the speeds weren't much higher than the tire pressures, but there was a dramatic moment when someone burped a tire right off the rim and it was oozing sealant:
Plus at any moment I was liable to get crushed by a fat bike:
"What pressure you running?," I asked as it rolled over my face.