I awoke a little too soon after I’d gone to bed, to the sound of Dunk banging on the windows of the Subaru to ask Evan where the water was to make coffee. I extracted my arm from the warm down of my sleeping bag to reach for my phone and check the time. 7 am. I needed to be ready to ride 20+ miles of snowy, rocky singletrack in about an hour. Guess I better get myself in gear. We crawled reluctantly out into to cold world and stood, tired-eyed, around the fire as the rest of camp slowly stirred, emerging from snow-covered tents and donning layer after layer of cycling gear.
This was Frozen Fat, PA’s fat-bike festival, which draws a small but elite (and possibly insane) crowd for a weekend of primitive winter camping, craft beer, stories and shenanigans around the campfire, and of course, mountain biking. The big event is Saturday’s race, of which there were two options—the 20-ish-mile (which I was riding) and the 40-ish-mile (they really turned out to be about 25 and 50). Some people come to race, some come to just ride. I was somewhere in between—I wasn’t planning on being very competitive, but I wanted to push myself hard. And no matter what the mindset is going into it, Saturday’s event is sure to be a challenge for everyone. Sunday is a lighter-hearted, “fun” ride day full of costumes, silliness, and various somewhat nontraditional bike competitions.
It all began the night before, with a mob of about twenty bikes and riders caravanning to McMurtries Tavern, lights cutting through the cold and darkness and the wind drowning out the steady whomping of 4-inch tires on pavement. After several hours of eating, drinking, camaraderie, and the ever-exciting unveiling of the course map, we leisurely headed back to Camp Seguin, where the party had just begun. The beer and whiskey flowed freely as giant snowflakes began to fall, a snowball fight was instigated, the pallets on the fire were stacked high, and Tony played DJ on the record player. The fun festivities and good conversation overrode my sleepiness until about 1 am, when I knew I needed to crawl into my sleeping bag and get some rest for what I knew would be a grueling Saturday.
The snow that had fallen overnight, the sun peeking out from the horizon, and temps in the low 20s made for a perfect, though cold, winter morning. After downing coffee, choking down some sustenance, and making sure the appropriate gear was packed for the day, we loaded bikes onto a trailer and hopped aboard a yellow school bus for the ride up to the start at Alan Seeger.
The ride began with the 20-milers and 40-milers starting off in opposite directions. The 40-milers would be doing a different loop before ending up back in Alan Seeger and then hooking up with the 20-mile loop to the finish. I reminded myself not to go hard right off the bat—my body tends to warm up slowly, but sometimes being in a group of sprinting riders causes my competitive side to take over and I forget what works for me. So I hung back, taking up the rear of the pack, along with John Rader, Steve and Tammy Mongold, and their friend Jim Stewart. The rest of the group ended up taking a wrong turn almost immediately, so the five of us found ourselves breaking through fresh powder on Alan Seeger Road as the sun shone through the rhododendrons, snow glistening under the bright rays. The day was truly gorgeous—a perfect day to be on a bike in the woods.
At the beginning of the singletrack, my companions stopped for a quick break, but I wanted to continue warming up. I took off alone up the winding trail, through more rhododendrons, along a small stream, pedaling casually, still taking it easy. Jim caught me shortly before crossing the road on Brush Ridge Trail, and we waited for the others in our little group as I stripped off a layer and took a swing of my already-freezing water. I didn’t put enough whiskey in it, I guessed. Or maybe it was just that cold out.
Together again, the five of us continued up the trail, up the slow, rocky climb that would lead us to the top of the first ridge we’d be climbing today. We separated once again. The climb up Brush Ridge was a tough one, a dance of alternating between pedaling and pushing, on the bike and off. At the top, someone from the group that got lost finally passed me, and another guy caught up and rode behind me for a while until we hit Indian Trail. We chatted a bit before he stopped to wait for his buddy at the trail intersection, and I made my way down the ridge.
One more climb, up Conklin Road, and I was at the first checkpoint. But there were still many miles to go, so after only a brief stop, I took off down Beautiful Trail, which follows the ridgetop for several miles. I noticed that the tire pressure in my rear felt pretty low, and I debated stopping to add air, but decided against it, knowing it would make my hands cold and it would be tough to get going again. I just hoped I wouldn’t pinch flat on the rocky trail.
Luckily, I didn’t, and I made it to Deer Tick Trail and a smoother, winding downhill that popped out at an intersection that was littered with fat-tire tracks going every which way. Even though I’d been here several times before, I made a wrong turn, but quickly realized it and was soon back on track, with Jamie, another one of the four female riders, right behind me.
We had been warned about the icy road between Deer Tick and Sass-xx Trail, but all the warnings in the world couldn’t stop my tires from sliding uncontrollably and slamming me to the ground on the slick surface as I tried to make the right-hand turn. The short climb at the beginning on Sass-xx wasn’t any better, the leafy doubletrack turned into a sliding board of ice that was impossible to ride up. I fell a few more times while hike-a-biking, but finally made it to the top and was able to pedal once again.
It was then that I began to feel the exhaustion setting in. My legs felt like they had nothing left. I felt flustered, knowing there was a long way and some tough climbs left to go. For the first time that day, I didn’t feel my best, and I doubted my ability to put in a strong showing to the finish.
You got this, H. Just keep moving.
So I did.
As I climbed up Flat Road Trail and Barrville Road to the second checkpoint, my climbing legs came back. I stopped only long enough to finally air up my rear before taking off again down the unfamiliar Stone Mountain Trail.
The descent was sketchy—a washed-out, rutted path, littered with debris that hid the occasional patch of ice. I hit one of these patches and my bike and I went flying, both of us landing hard enough that I had to take a minute to catch my breath again after standing up on my bruised hip. But just like the other icy crashes earlier in the day, I shook it off and kept going. The trail dropped into a drainage ditch and then back out onto Barrville Road.
“We go left here,” I said to the small group that was standing at the intersection, opening maps and studying cue sheets. Three guys, including Jim, who I’d been leapfrogging with the entire ride, followed me down the hard road into Greenwood Furnace State Park and made the unmarked left onto Turkey Hill Road. The three guys and I pedaled together for a bit as we began the grueling 5-mile climb. I couldn’t believe where I was—at the front of the ride at Frozen Fat, leading this group of dudes. It felt awesome. One guy dropped back, another charged ahead, and Jim and I once again found ourselves together, talking a little, trying to keep our minds off how much elevation was yet to be gained, how long we’d be sitting here, spinning uphill. As we passed a powerline cut and a spectacular view of the valley below, I was tempted to stop for a minute, but I knew that if I did, I wouldn’t want to get back on the bike.
Finally, we began heading downhill, and came to the intersection of Allensville Road. It appeared that the guy who had been ahead of Jim and I on the climb had made a right. We almost did the same, but something told me we weren’t quite done climbing for the day. Together, we consulted the map quickly, and my suspicions were confirmed. We needed to go left, which was indeed up another small hill. I didn’t know if my legs could handle it, but there was no stopping now. I was going to go hard until I reached the finish.
I lost Jim on that last small climb, and found myself all alone on the last several miles of mostly downhill back to Camp Seguin. The windchill made my face feel like it was going to freeze off. My eyes burned from the cold. I hoped that I wouldn’t slip on some ice and crash again. My nose felt raw from the snot that had been continuous dripping from it all day. But it was also a wonderfully surreal feeling—I was on the home stretch of an incredibly brutal but fun and beautiful ride, and somehow, I was going to finish first in the 20-mile race.
I rolled into camp to Tony, Houck, and Dunk standing around a smoldering pile of wood, trying to get a fire going. It was a good while until we actually saw flames, and my frozen, exhausted body finally began to warm up. One by one, riders finished, all obviously spent, but also all very stoked.
Some scenes from the 40-mile (Evan took my camera for the ride):
I’d heard stories of the crazy antics that generally ensue on Saturday night, but this year, everyone was pretty tame. Both rides had tested even the strongest and heartiest of riders, and it was obvious that everyone was too tired to do much beyond eat, drink, and sit by the fire. It ended up being an early night for all. I sat by the warm flames all evening with the company of some really great people, sipping beer and bourbon in an elated daze.
But FRZNFT wasn’t over yet. There was still another day of two-wheeled, fat-tired fun to be had.