After four editions of frigid, frosty racing at Crystal Mountain, balmy and soggy conditions offered up a new challenge from some old champions.
Jorden Wakeley entered the day as heavy favorite, having never lost at this race in four straight tries. Even in a strong field, the conditions and luck promised the toughest challenges, that of uncertainty. With riders running extremely low pressures, some as low as 1psi on the start line, mechanicals and mistakes were the fear opponents, in addition to a few ready challenges.
For Susan Vigland, it was a similar position; a former Series champion with big expectations, she made a point of rising to the occasion and displaying her prowess on the very first lap. With nearly 100 riders on hand for the fifth edition of Fat Chance! at Crystal Mountain, there was a lot of talent and effort on display. A week-long warm-up offered some hesitation to race by some, but the hardwork of the Crystal Mountain grounds crew gave fat bikers something to ride on, with the snow holding up incredibly well to even this morning's drizzle and 40 degree temps.
73 riders were in the paddock, with the noon start timing seeing clearing skies and even a spot of sunshine in the opening salvos of action. Jorden Wakeley took the hole shot ahead of Sean Kickbush, with the whole field looking to move as far forward as could be possible. The riders in the rear were choked and squeezed to a slow roll, while Wakeley made quick work of the lead pack and moved ahead solo through the soft snow. Kickbush put an equally large gap between himself and a frantically chasing 15 year old Alex Morton and NIck Wierzba. Kona's THE Dale Plant and Einstein Racing-Short's Brewing's Jon Throop were also in hot pursuit, but the threads stretched and snapped, with Wakeley moving steadily ahead, with Kickbush ceding ground but looking oh so handsome in second.
The women's race was a similar affair. Resplendent in his Hagerty blue, Susan Vigland plied out a minute lead per lap early, with a mid-race pit stop to let out more air her only slow lap. Behind, Erin Reicha rose to the occasion for Einstein Racing-Short's Brewing. The team's best hope to keep their streak of taking a SBFBS title a season, she was plowing a lonely furrow all afternoon, but riding with a metronomic consistency every circuit. Her face was a picture of focus, and she dug for every second on course. The committed, smiling chase of Vigland's teammate in third, the flying Velvet Battegier was perhaps the biggest podium threat late in the race, but Hagerty was forced to settle for separated spots on the box.
The Men's Masters race was a show in bike handling, with Kona's Dale Plant, yes, THE Dale Plant, deftly maneuvering through the deepening and changed ruts to put some distance into Hagerty's Hal BeVier. Dave Hoyt rode the race of his life, using his singletrack skills to storm the podium late and even put a few minutes into BeVier, slotting home second in a deep class. Tim Stroebe, Kevin Wright, Jason Stuart, Keith Conway and bad luck Rob Goepfrich all made the top ten, with Rob G riding most of the race with one clip broke off his shoe and his foot coming off the pedal constantly.
In the Women's Masters, Bonny Hall made the very best of her Short's Brewing Fat Bike Series debut with a big win, riding steady to hold off Birgit Yetter and Kami Wade. The trio will have little enough between them as the Series rolls on, and there will be no room for error if Hall hopes to hold onto the Series win.
For the Open classes, Wakeley's full points mean he's in the driver's seat, with Kickbush looking to be the closest challenger. With Alex Morton uncertain to finish the Series, the small gap back to Series regulars Nick Wierzba and Jon Throop could be an important one, with Throop looking back to teammates Luke Tjosvold and Wes Sovis for help as the season grinds on.
Under the microscope, Wakeley's win was typically demonstrative. His average lap time was 35 seconds faster than Kickbush, no small feat on a 1.5 mile course in sloshy conditions. They were the only two riders to get 11 laps in, with Morton on 10, and the next 7 riders on 9, going down to 11th place overall.
Vigland, now ensconced as Women's Open leader, is the heavy favorite, but Erin Reicha has confirmed she will be on hand for all four events, with Velvet, Katie Clayton, Chelsea Schlitt and Liz Belt all expected to score high the rest of the way. With small fields, every point is valuable, and with some diverse courses still to tackle, each rider's strengths may tell later on.
The full points picture will be confirmed by Sunday, January 22.
As always, thanks to Short's Brewing Co., Einstein Cycles, Beaclaw Bicycle Co., 45NRTH, Traverse City Wine and Beer Tours, and Breakaway Cafe for their support, and congrats to Ed Sherman and Scott Bury, the two riders who won FREE entries to Fat Bike Nationals next weekend in Grand Rapids, Michigan.