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Dashing through the snow
Mar 17, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer
Winter mountain bikers race the soft trails of Togwotee
Before the sixth annual Togwotee Winter Classic, many of the competitors talked excitedly about the trail conditions. Recent grooming, frigid overnight temperatures, and a day forecast to stay below freezing portended fast times in the grueling snow bike race.
"It looks like we have really good conditions today," race organizer Dave Byers said before the race. "On a day like today, we should out in the teens and get up into the 20s, hopefully not too much higher."
Cold is better
Warm temperatures melts snow, and soft snow means slow cycling.
Byers thought the race would be fast, and, with the number of entrants, it was the largest Togwotee Winter Classic ye.
In the end, the early prognostications proved to be warranted as winners set new course records and finished hours faster than they did in 2012.
Starting from Togwotee Mountain Lodge, about halfway between Dubois and Jackson on U.S. Highway 26, 44 cyclists from five states were racing "fat tire" bicycles over dozens of miles snow-covered snowmobile trails. Entrants had a choice of a 25- or 35-mile loop.
Hub Cycling Team's Ben Audferheide, of Jackson, set a new record for the 35-mile course finishing in 3 hours 27 minutes. Crossing the line in 4:01, Katie Bergart of Jackson, racing for Team Jackson Hole, set the women's record for the longer route.
Audferheide's finish also knocked 42 percent off last year's best time of 5:59. Similarly, the first-place 25-mile time in 2012 was 4:12, and this year's was 40 percent quicker at 2:30.
Looking at another measure, all 44 competitors finished this year's race, but about a third of the riders abandoned it in 2012.
The unique fat-tire bikes are like mountain bikes built to run tires four to five inches wide so they can ride over, rather than through, snow, mud and other soft terrain. Cyclists said snow biking is similar to regular mountain biking.
"It's definitely slower (than mountain biking)," Mo Mislivets said. "You definitely have to roll with it, and conditions are so important.
"Knowing when to increase pressure or let pressure out is a skill to have."
The Missoula, Mont., woman said lower pressure is better in softer snow, but higher helps you go faster on harder trails.
"How different? It's colder," Mike Barklow, of Midvale, Utah, said.
He elaborated, "Going up hill, if the conditions are right, isn't any different. Going down hill ... it's almost like surfing."
The challenge is staying balanced and on the center of the bike, he added.
Elevation, plus hills
Though riders finished in record time, the race still was daunting.
The shorter route included more than 2,800 feet of climbing, all between 8,100 and 9,500 feet of elevation. Nearly 4,000 feet of hills complicated the longer loop within similar elevations.
Before the race, Byers hoped for cold temperatures to keep the snow hard so his tires would not sink in as they had done the year before.
"It was brutal," cyclist Adam Leiferman said, recalling the 2012 race. "I turned at the 25 mile option. This year we'll try the 35."
The difficulty is part of the attraction, along with having fun and the opportunity to be outside in the winter.
Leiferman said he came back this year for the challenge and because it is a fun race with fun people.
"It's a good way to get that feeling in the wintertime of cruising down a trail," Barklow said.
Mislivets gave similar reasons for racing in the snow.
"Just for fun; just to be outside," she said. "It's beautiful out here."
Christian Williams was in good spirits as he warmed up for the race, but he could not verify the joy of winter biking. His brother, Andy, was making him do the race, he joked.
"This will be my second ride," he said laughing. "Hopefully, it'll be fun."
Though not the only distinction from typical cycling, the cold does make a difference.
To compensate for the weather, Byers said he wore two pairs of socks, winter-weight cycling tights, winter bike shoes and shin warmers, a heavy base layer, a wool sweater and a vest.
Others had similar kits, and many wore "bar mitts." Such gloves are thick, conical sleeves open at the wide end that attach to either handle bar.
Riders, typically wearing additional gloves, can slide their hands into the bar mitts while still being able to manipulate the brakes and shifters.
After the race, Byers said, top finishers received trophies fashioned from old bicycle chain rings, and many of the riders gathered for a meal at the Togwotee Mountain Lodge.