Race Review: Fat & Skinny Tirefest 16

Highlight video by Mason Geiger Photography & Film, LLC

This year was the 16th annual Fat & Skinny Tirefest in Winona Lake, Indiana. Last year, for this event, I participated in the full road omnium, a multi-event competition involving a time trial, road circuit race, and criterium, in addition to the DINO mountain bike race that corresponds with the Fat & Skinny weekend. It was an insanely busy weekend, full of driving back and forth from Fort Wayne for family stuff, plus racing all the bikes in all the events. And I loved it.

This year, however, my upgrade to the expert category for mountain bike racing prohibited me from participating in the road circuit race due to a scheduling conflict, so I opted to forgo the omnium and do just the mountain bike race (my priority) and the criterium. Team Neighborlink typically puts up a good showing in the road events, and often has several riders racing mountain bikes as well, so it is a fun event for seeing teammates and other local riders on and off course.

Photo Credit: MoFlo Photography

Though the weekend’s kickoff ride was Friday evening, following the bike-to-work celebration on Friday morning, for me, the weekend started on Saturday morning for the DINO mountain bike race. It had rained the two evenings prior, so the course was damp–and even muddy in spots. After registering, I pre-rode about 1/3 of the course, noting the especially slick corners and making mental calculations on the best places to pass, push hard, and recover mid-course. Remembering the previous year’s near-disaster at the finish line where I had not appropriately scoped out the finish and nearly lost the race in the final meters as a result, I pre-rode the finish and made sure I was confident in picking a good line for entering the final u-turn to the finish corridor. I was happy with the conditions: sticky, wet enough to be challenging, and warming up quickly.

When the time came to start, I lined up with six other women, most of whom I had raced before at some point or another–and would consider friends. I struggled a little finding my pedal at the start, but recovered and managed to maneuver into the third position as we entered the singletrack. Less than five minutes later, the rider in second position called to pass the first place rider and I intended to come around with her. That plan went sideways (literally) when she slid on a root and fell across the entire trail, blocking the entire group from pursuit of the first rider. Fortunately, she was okay, recovered quickly, and set off in pursuit. Shortly afterwards, she and I passed the lead rider and began to pull away.

Photo Credit: ELMTB Racing

I have always struggled riding close behind other riders, especially on a mountain bike trail. I feel as if I can’t see the trail clearly enough to pick the best line (and don’t always trust the line choices of the lead riders). With the somewhat slick conditions, this was especially a concern, and I started looking for an opportunity to pass. Riding in second position is actually a pretty good position to be in, allowing a rider to potentially ease up and just follow the tempo of the lead rider, rather than always feeling like they are being chased and pushing to the very edge of one’s capacity (the danger of being in the lead position). Of course, this all depends on the fitness of both riders, but in this particular race, I was feeling good–and more concerned about falling due to a poor line choice than blowing up due to pushing myself too hard.

After a (very) sketchy first attempt to come around, which included me slipping on a wet root, both feet coming un-clipped from my pedals, balancing precariously on my bike, then somehow saving it and staying upright, I settled in and waited. My chance came about a mile or so into the course where the trail splits. On the left is the “A” line, which goes in a straighter line, but up and over a section of gnarly roots, and to the right is the “B” line, which, though a bit longer, is smoother. Even in dry conditions, I never ride the “A” line, believing that the ruggedness of the roots is slower; but in wet conditions, there is no way I would ever take that route. Regardless of my opinion, the lead rider chose to go left, up and over the roots, and I saw my shot. I pushed hard to accelerate into the “B” line, out and around the roots, sneaking past her as the trails converged again.

Finding myself in the lead, I dug deep, working to find a steady tempo pace, yet hoping to put some space between me and the next rider back (and whoever was behind her). This also meant passing as many of the guys riding ahead of me as possible, realizing that if I can pass them smoothly without much deceleration, there is always a chance that the rider behind me will not have as clean of a spot to pass on the singletrack, thus slowing them somewhat and increasing the gap. It also helped that a week earlier, I had the chance to pre-ride this portion of the course (albeit while dry), and I knew it well enough to be confident in my line selection as I pushed forward.

One of the things I felt I did really well in this particular race was my nutrition. I actually managed to drink nearly all of one bottle, which has always been very difficult for me to do while racing. I also, at the half-way mark, took my energy gel as planned. Towards the end of the second lap, I did have a moment where I thought it would be nice to have a second gel for the final push to the finish line, but that is just consideration for the next race (in just one week!).

For the last 4-5 miles of the second lap, one of the sport men I had passed chose to “hang on” and try to match my pacing for the remainder of the race. He did, and then coming into the finish line, attempted to sprint past me. Even though we weren’t technically racing each other at all, being in completely different divisions, I took up the challenge for an all-out sprint to the line. I threw my bike forward at the line, eking out the win, much to the celebration of everyone watching. If nothing else, we made it interesting for the spectators (because, lets be honest, mountain bike racing isn’t really very spectator-friendly for the most part).

Photo Credit: Jesse Smith

One of the parts of the Fat & Skinny Tirefest that I love is the chance to hang out and mingle with other cyclists in Winona Village before, during, and after races. I spent most of Saturday afternoon catching up with friends from all over Indiana who had come to town to race, enjoying the sunshine, and eating food truck tacos.

Saturday evening, I headed over to Hire Park BMX for the short track mountain bike race, only to find that I was the only person that showed up. I opted to take my refund and save my legs for Sunday’s race.

Sunday was the road criterium. A criterium or “crit” is a road race around a short circuit, usually in a downtown or urban area with a number of turns. This particular course is short, barely over .25 miles in length, and has two key turns. Turn one comes down over a bridge and veers left. It sharp, downhill, and off-camber, which means that if you pedal through the corner, there is a high chance of clipping a pedal on the pavement and wrecking. Turn two goes back up over the waterway, narrowing as the corner closes. The rest of the course is a smooth oval course, interrupted only by the (in this weekend’s case) high winds coming off the lake on the last stretch.

Photo Credit: Leverage Photography

I don’t race many crits, mostly because of schedule. My first bike race was actually a crit (the Parkview Spring Cycle Twilight Crit in downtown Fort Wayne–a fantastic race that I really wish someone would bring back), way back in 2013. I didn’t race again until two years ago, when some customers at Summit City Bicycles coerced me into trying my first mountain bike race. Little did they (or I) know how much I would love it.

The Fat & Skinny crit is my only crit this season, and my goal was simple: don’t wreck. I was also hoping for top ten, but, after considering my options with my coach earlier in the week, was not overly hopeful. Some good teams tend to attend this particular race and as a solo rider with no sprint (thanks to training exclusively for endurance events this year), it is hard to get a win. This year was wet, with showers off and on and a strong headwind on the back stretch, that reminded me of my acute disadvantage as a tall rider in a peloton of tiny females. I warmed up halfheartedly (trying to stay as dry and warm as possible), then lined up and waited for the chaos.

Photo Credit: Leverage Photography

I was pleasantly surprised at the skill and safety that everyone was riding with, as my prior experience with this race included a lot of unnecessary braking and some quite sketchy cornering. My race plan consisted primarily of tucking into the pack, which is exactly what I did. Then, with two laps to go, following my coach’s advice, I used the slight tailwind off the lake on the home stretch to my advantage and powered up to the front, making a small gap. My hope was that a solo run through corner 1 (potential to be sketchy) and some hesitation from the peloton might give me enough of a gap to be able to hold it for two full laps to the finish. It was a stretch, but worth trying. I held an ever-decreasing gap through to the very last corner of the second lap, when the coordinated teams passed my by and left my non-existing sprint to attempt a bit higher wind-up to maintain some semblance of respectability to the finish line. In the end, I came through in 10th place and was content with my result and my strategy, however ineffective.

Photo Credit: Leverage Photography

I spent the rest of the afternoon hunched under a friend’s umbrella, watching the higher-category races and trying to stay as warm and dry as possible. In the excitement, I completely forgot my invitation to be a guest on the Michiana Spoken podcast, but enjoyed watching riders much more skilled than myself zooming past on the wet pavement.

All in all, the Fat & Skinny Tirefest is a phenomenal bike weekend and one I can’t wait to participate in next year. Maybe I’ll go all-in again in 2020 and do all the bikes in all the races one more time. Or maybe I’ll just race mountain bikes. Only time will tell!

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