Sunday, March 29, 2015

50 Miles on a Singlespeed Fat Bike


The word Epic gets overused a lot these days. Much like the word Awesome, we tend to label things as Epic that don't even come close to the definition or even the spirit from whence it came. Epic refers to that which is heroic, grand or monumental. It usually involves a gripping adventure, a powerful expression of willpower and an unforgettable outcome. With this firmly in mind I think it is safe to say that the Tour de Picayune has become one of Florida's Epic races.

The Tour takes place in Picayune Strand State Forrest, an area made up of 78,000 acres of former swampland. The history of this area is fascinating. Starting in the 1940's it was logged for cypress trees. When the trees were gone they filled in the land to make pastures. In the 1960's the Gulf American Land Corporation purchased 57,000 acres to build "Golden Gate Estates," which was to be the largest subdivision in America. Here is where it all went sour. Golden Gate Estates turned out to be nothing more than a land scam. The roads and canals were built but they never constructed a single home. The property flooded each summer making residential housing nearly impossible. The project was abandoned. Years later some of the neglected roads were used as landing strips for drug planes coming in from South America.


In 1985 the "Save our Everglades" program acquired funds from the federal government to purchase acreage from the 17,000 owners. By 2006 the program was completed and the reclaimed land became Picayune Strand State Forrest. The race itself is only a few years old with new sections of trail being built each season. The winner's prize is called the "Durrwalker" cup which is named after Senior Forester Sonja Durrwachter whose tireless efforts in land acquisition made it possible for this enormous tract of land to eventually be opened for recreational use.

I had attempted this event in 2014, fully intending to complete the full 50 mile version. Under an unforgiving sun and stuck in unforgiving sand, I underestimated the difficulty of the task. I had the wrong tires, the wrong fuel and not nearly enough patience. The Tour de Picayune is deceptively arduous requiring a combination of technical riding skills, endurance and brute force leg power. If you don't have a good bit of everything on the big day, it will break you down. My first attempt ended in failure. I only completed the 28 mile lap while suffering from heat exhaustion. Learning from many mistakes, this time I was determined to redeem myself.


The first mistake was my ride. I needed to something that could handle sugar sand. Luckily the Everglades Edge ECO Tours company rents bikes inside the park. I was told to visit the Edge headquarters, an outdoor lovers dream hangout. This oversized swamp shack has a wide roof, electricity, a full mechanics room and a collection of boats and bikes. I was told to pick a bike that fit me and get to the starting line.

My steed was to be a large Surly Pugsley. This dark grey, fully rigid fat bike came complete with intimidating bar ends and a thudbuster seat post. It was a little long for me as I had to reach for those handlebars but with 4 inch wide tires and a high bottom bracket it was built for the job. Having never ridden a fat bike before, especially a single speed, I knew I was in for a grand occasion. This was going to be an Epic redemption or an Epic fail. Either way, I was going for broke.


The weather was perfect. Wispy clouds and a cool breeze relaxed the throng of riders who had gathered on Miller Road at the start line. Everyone signed their entry forms, paid the fee and got a map of the route. The map included color coded trails and emergency numbers. After a quick bit of instructions from organizers Chris and Janneke, riders took their positions and started the race. Far less than a sprint, they knew that there was a long way to go so the pace was nominal. One unlucky girl dropped her chain on the starting line. She quickly fixed it and caught up with the pack.

The singletrack was labeled with colors - green, yellow, orange and red. The markings included small circle signs on select pinewoods to keep riders on course and large painted arrows on the ground to indicate meaningful turns. You did have to keep your eyes both on the tricky tracks and the tagged trees or you might miss a step. Last year I had to use the map many times to make sure I was going the right way but this year's markings were vastly superior. If you got lost this year, it was your own damn fault.


The green singletrack came first. While it started slow, snaking a long chain of riders who were pedaling tire to tire, it stretched out the moment we hit the first dirt crossroad. It was there I heard a whisper behind me. Two men were teasing about my chosen ride, "Well, at least we're not stuck on a fully rigid, single speed fat bike. That would suck." I turned as they nodded playfully. One guy smiled and said, "No offense, I love my gears." They pulled ahead on the dirt road but once into the next section of Green singletrack I caught back up to them and noticed that the long grass was getting tangled in those gears they love so much. When we reached the next dirt road they had to pull off to fix their bikes while I sped on by.


Barreling through the singletrack was quite fun. The paths were narrow, passing through fields of grass in between palm trees and palmetto bushes. The occasional sharp turn would send a careless rider off course. Thanks to the fat bikes ability to plow through any obstacle, I caught up to another trio of riders. I talked to them for a half mile or so but felt the need for speed and eventually buzzed on. Racing the Pugsley was like steering a rocket truck through a stock car track. The smaller bikes were more nimble where as I just broke through the lines like an unstoppable force. During the first 10 miles of singletrack I passed nine people with a big smile on my face.

For part of that stretch I had been pacing back and forth with another rider. We kept each other in check and maintained a steady rate until it was time to eat. Last year I skipped by the SAG stops merely relying on what I had brought with me, big mistake. The first aid station was a welcome rest as it came 15 miles into the first lap. Just knowing that you were more than halfway through the big loop felt like progress.


Refreshed from the rest we sped down abandoned roads and into the first section of sugar sand. Again the Pugsley got to shine. The wide tires and low gearing allowed me to pedal right down the middle of the road whereas skinnier tires had to find a harder bank to keep moving. The guy I was riding with said that spinning in this sand was like climbing hills, it sucked away your energy.

From there we turned to more singletrack but this one was distinctly different from any other. Most of Picayune is what I call "Dead Everglades," meaning that during the winter it looks dried up, like a land that lost its soul. However, there are places where you can see, smell and feel the old Everglades. Places where you rolled atop black mud while breathing cool, musty air. These sections of trail twisted and turned through deep green tunnels of thick woods that felt more like jungle. They breathed forth a promise that man's sins against nature would be remedied in time. A promise that the old Everglades would return.


The second aid station was manned by the man himself, race director Wes Wilkins. Myself and two others riders talked with him as we enjoyed grapes, bananas, Gatorade and water then set off for the final stretch of the first loop. Leaving the aid station there is a sign that reads "Snake Pit, 5 miles or so..." Signs like this were strategically placed on course to give a sense of hope, you might be far from the finish but it was coming, eventually.

After a half dozen more miles of gravel roads, sugar sand and singletrack I made it back to the Snake Pit. This was where you either finished the race or started your second lap. To give you an idea of how hard this year's race was, two former 50 mile finishers had already dropped out. They might have been smart to do so because this year the second lap was built on a mountain of hardship. It would be a monstrous challenge. After eating a cookie and downing a fizzy drink it was time to face the killer sands.


I plodded down the Panther path (Yellow trail) and really started to struggle. A rider named Andrew had decided to do a second lap, the music blaring from his backpack gave me a good idea of where he was. He was kind enough to give me a bottle of water when my triceps started to cramp up. Between my tricep cramps and the now regular stops to stretch I was facing the full pains of this journey. At one point Andrew looked at his cyclo-computer and assured me that we were at mile 35, there were only 15 to go. If I had to stop every mile in order to make it through, I would do it.

In 2014 riders were subjected to the killer sands on the first lap. In my opinion, that was the easier burden. This year hitting the endless grit on the second lap was far harder. Bereft of strength, lacking stamina and facing a stubborn headwind left me with nothing. I was a plodding, gasping fool desperate to move inches at a time. If you have ever had a nightmare where quicksand was taking you down and nothing you did mattered, that was the Picayune curse. That is what made this race far more difficult than any other I have ever faced. My only respite were the fat tires of the Pugsley. It allowed me to sit atop those granules and slowly spin my way out of hell.


The end for me came 7 hours after it had begun. I was vindicated by completing the 50 mile course even managing a 9th place finish. Not bad when you consider the truckload of talent that came in before me. Bill Quinsey, last years winner, had managed to retain his title. A feat that has never been done before. Andrew Holland established himself as a top contender, no doubt we'll be seeing his skills again.

The Snake Pit campground was the perfect ending for an amazing day. Beer was on tap, food cooking on the grill and a gathering of finishers applauding anyone who was courageous enough to tackle this challenge. The Tour de Picayune is truly an Epic race. There are many people who can ride 50 miles but not like this, not when the earth itself tries to swallow your will. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life and I will never forget it.

The most telling quote came from a new rider who was finishing his first lap. He got off his bike to limp under a tree branch and then asked my wife how far it was to the finish. She said it's just around the corner. He replied, "Thank god! I have no idea how people can do two laps of this."





If you enjoyed this article be sure to get my book of mountain bike stories, Twisted Trails.

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