Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fatbikes Rule at the 2014 Tour de Picayune


Right now in odd corners of the world, mountain bike races are starting to favor a whole new type of ride. Born simultaneously in the snows of Alaska and the deserts of Arizona, the Fatbike is a strange brew of rubber and bravado. Made primarily by independent fabricators, the frames tend to be works of art. The gearing tends more towards that found on a DH rig though most are set up with a single speed. The forks are usually rigid with the only suspension to be found in the tires themselves.

On the Fatbike, the wheels are where it's at. Boasting 3.7" inches or more they are the largest tires available on a non-motorized vehicle. The wide, low pattern treads allow for compression of soft elements like snow or deep sand which is why they came in droves to the 2014 Tour de Picayune.


My wife and I counted no less than 16 Fatbikes at registration which gathered in front of the forestry center around 9am. Riders traveled from all over the state, some were even visiting from others states. It was a laid back atmosphere with many people knowing each other from local riding or from the internet. Last years winner Joe Rose was in attendance but he wasn't competing due to a recent injury. Once everyone signed the waiver and paid the $25. fee, race director Wes Wilkins led the procession to the line where a slow rolling start began the race.

The Tour de Picayune is just that, a tour of the forest. The race is optioned out in 3 distances - 10, 25 or 50 miles which cover a wide variety of sections and terrains. It starts with a cruise down the main drag Miller Blvd then breaks left into a series of narrowly cut singletrack which is where the fun begins.


Since it is almost impossible to know what was happening all around the park, what I can do is tell you what I experienced as a first time racer. I began pedaling mid pack and followed the leaders into the tight singletrack. When I say tight, I mean you're shins are being scraped by every bush, leaf and vine. At one point a length of thorns wrapped itself in my cassette and derailleur. My fingerless gloves were not much help in pulling them free.

The corners are blind due to the high grass and each section starts and ends with either a dip or a sudden pitch. Eventually the trail crossed the road and entered another area of singletrack called Log World. This part was more open but contained some fallen trees as obstacles. For me, the first six miles might have been funnest part of the whole race. The course was well marked with orange arrows, tags and ties. With a little bit of work this singletrack system would be well worth a visit from anyone who loves to ride off road.


The singletrack emptied into the standard double track which circles and crosses the entire forest. It was here that I caught up with a couple riders who were cautious not to miss any markers. The ground was still firm and fast moving with a minimum of ruts. Over the next couple miles we rode over panther tracks and passed a swamp jeep that was careful to pull aside for oncoming cyclists.

The first major check mark was aid station #1. Just after refueling you would dive into the very first sand trap of the race. I had read a lot about their legendary sand traps on the website but still I didn't quite grasp the magnitude of what they were like. This was where the normal bikes got in trouble and the Fatbikes shined. While I was digging myself a pit of sorrow in the molasses like ruts of sugar sand, those with wider wheels slowly passed me by.


I escaped the first trap determined to make up lost time. A sprint down Rutty Roll brought me back out to Miller Blvd where I time trialed my way three blocks south to 92nd street and dove back into the Pine Flatwoods. It was moderate sandy double track until I reached the split and stayed left to continue the 28 mile loop. That's when it all went wrong for my skinny tires. The next several miles was a patchwork of sand traps, each more nefarious than the last. I was brought to a stand still and had to restart about fifty times. It sapped the strength from my legs. It was here that I decided the 50 mile loop was too much, I would have to settle for doing the 28 as fast as I could.

Several riders wished me well as they struggled by but eventually the deep sand ended and my desperation morphed into resolve. The woods gave way to open sky over a massive green grassy field with rolling tracks. I clicked back into the bigger gears and found my footing.


A couple more sand traps followed but by now I had resorted to picking up my bike and running through them. Once back on hardpack I buried the needle and made my way to aid station #2. I was reawakened by a couple sips of cold Gatorade and some smiling faces. When I heard there was only 5 miles left I scurried off at top speed.

Triple G Road was more than just hardpack, it was rockpack. Every one hundred feet was a thirty foot section of baseball sized rocks covering the road. I gingerly let the bike bounce while keeping true through the ruckus. The dirt road got a little softer but it was far more reasonable than I had gotten used to. Finally the road took a sharp right into a trail known as Super Log World.


In Super Log World you literally have to lift your bike over obstacles, some as high as your waist. This extremely tight, twisty singletrack was the final challenge for people like me who had wimped out on the longer trek. There were countless turns so tight you risked smacking into a tree or else loose your balance. At one point a stick jammed itself into my front spokes causing my bike to tip sideways as I crashed into the bushes. It was a minor stumble as I was back up and moving in seconds.

Despite the awkwardness of the design, Super Log World was my kind of riding. You never knew what was around the corner, be it a log hop, a black racer snake or a long wooden ramp. Here I got back into my groove and passed a few competitors. It was in this final mile that three photographers, including my wife, caught riders at their most determined or most awkward moments. Once again, this is the kind of trail that could become very popular with a little more refinement.


The finish line was a joy to see. I crossed it and looked at my stopwatch which gave a time of 3 hours and 18 minutes. I was the fourteenth person to reach the finish, though many turned just before the line in order to start the second lap of 22 miles to finish out the distance. I later saw on Strava that some of these iron men and one woman completed the full race in roughly 5 hours.

Under the tent I enjoyed a few snacks and some cold drinks while the race director pulled together some prizes for the big winners. Unfortunately Terri and I were exhausted so we didn't stay for the presentations or the nighttime party at the Snake Pit. There was certainly a lot more to enjoy at the Tour de Picayune than we had time or energy for.

Anyone interested in attending next years race can check their website for updates and details. You can see our race pictures at the link below. My only recommendation - bring your Fatbike.





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