Snow and Jake Wells both show who is boss at Winter Mountain Games
When twenty people do something that looks, well, odd, it starts to look kind of normal. So when twenty bikes with tires as wide as a bike racer’s thigh lined up on the snow covered Vail golf course with the Gore range soaring into blue sky behind them, an observer could think, okay, a bike race is about to go off. And he would be right.
At a pace that seemed like slow motion for bike racing, riders including Jake Wells (Stan’s NoTubes), Colin Cares (Kenda/Felt), Rebecca Gross (Tough Girl Cycling) and over thirty local cyclists pedaled off on Friday afternoon to tackle the 20K X-Country On-Snow Mountain Bike Race at this year’s Winter Mountain Games. Only one third of the entrants selected a mountain bike; the remainder rode fat-tire snow bikes.
Right out of the gate the snow showed who’s boss; the variable hard-pack and soft snow conditions both widened and narrowed the choices typically available to a rider on a dirt surface.
Gross, for example, found out early that snow provides a soft landing and safe haven from flying objects. She had fitted a pair of worn pedals onto her bike. On her first pedal stroke one foot unclicked. As others moved forward around her she dropped back. The field had already started to veer right and it pushed Gross in that direction and off the packed cross-country ski trail into soft snow.
As she flipped over the handlebars she could think about only one thing: the 35 pounds of metal and rubber that sought its rider. “There is nothing like knowing this thing is coming down on top of you,” she said after the race. “I just curled into a ball and fortunately I think I sunk into the snow so deep it didn’t even hit me.”
By the time she crawled out of the hole and set her bike straight, as Gross described it, “I was dead last after that crash so I was like, it’s just going to be fun. I might as well smile and wave at people. And I did. It was good.” She went on to tame her snow beast and finished on top of it.
Snow bikes are unusual enough that many of the riders entered the race with little experience on them. Wells, Cares, and Gross all competed on borrowed bikes.
The Friday event was Cares’ first outing ever on a snow bike. Cares led as he and Wells swung downhill at the end of the first of six undulating laps. In lap two Wells came around him and started to open up a gap. “I got on Jake’s wheel and I felt comfortable with the pace but I think he’s just a lot better at riding in the snow than I am,” Cares said, after completing the fifty minute effort. “I was just sliding around and kind of got off course a little bit into the powder. It was super-fun. It’s a bit of a learning curve with the snow bike that I haven’t quite gotten onto yet.”
The course design ensured Wells never really felt comfortable with his lead. A foot-wide section of single track, a hiking trail in summer, created a bottleneck. “I was a little nervous,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how big the gap was, but I thought, shoot I’m going to get behind lap traffic and then have to sit up.” And that’s where a trail on snow limited his choices.
“It wasn’t really that fair to ask [riders ahead of me], ‘Hey, can I get by?’ because there was really nowhere for them to pull over; they’d have to get off and into deep snow.” So Wells’ lead stretched out and contracted. Not until two laps remaining did Wells believe he had created a gap that might last.
Wells attributed his strong showing to carrying over fitness from the cyclo-cross season, and maybe even more so to his borrowed bike from a Vail-based custom bike maker, Twenty2 Cycles.
“These tires were absolutely ridiculous,” Wells said, referring to his snow bike. “You could just pressure the front end and it just hooked up and made the corner.” The 45NRTH Escalator tires gripped with square shaped knobs, chevrons in the middle, and pincer-like knobs on the shoulders that helped Wells gain time through technical sections.
Just like any “normal” bike race, one rider won: Wells held on to win the overall men’s field. Cares finished second, just 18 seconds behind. Didn’t it take a lot of guts to race and ride a snow bike for the first time in one go? “I don’t know,” Cares said, “it’s just like riding a bike, right?”
Full race results here.