(Photos: Trent Bona – Courtesy of Mountain Flyer Magazine)

“I think there are more people here with bikepacking setups then there were in the whole world 10 years ago,” says Jefe Branham as we enter the Ponds Lodge for our pre race gear check for the 2nd annual Backyard Fat Pursuit.

The statement stood out to me, it reminded me how winter ultras and bikepacking in general have exploded in the past few years.  Winter and summer events that require you to strap bags to your bike so that you can carry your essential or required gear have become increasingly prevalent. With rising race numbers for this years Fat Pursuit, it seems that the interest is certainly there.

Not to mention the goofy but extremely capable bikes that we use to get from A to B. Companies large and small have been throwing their hats in the ring to get a piece of the fat bike market, another popular and fun submarket in the mountain bike industry.

Walking around the Ponds Lodge parking lot while watching people riding around, testing their rigs, and making new friends put a huge smile on my face. This group of cyclists was going to take on a 200k and 60k race tomorrow. The 200k route travels through some extremely beautiful landscape that Idaho and Montana have to offer. Groomed trail through forest, meadows, and 4 major climbs, including one that leaves you shaking your head in frustration.

Following the gear check was dinner and a quick rundown of the rules and logistics by race director and decorated bikepacker, Jay Petervary. Everyone was anticipating much faster conditions from last year, where the course received snow and lots of wind to slow the racers down to a crawl. The previous record was set by Andrew Kulmatiski who finished the route in 28 hours and change. With stiff competition and a lot of strong athletes partaking in the Fat Pursuit, it was sure to be a fun event to watch or participate in.

Finishers from last years race took to the front of the line awaiting the 7:00am countdown for the start of the 200k. It was much warmer than forecasted at around 25°F. Any rise in temperature would make for soft conditions. After a few parting high fives and good lucks we were quickly in pursuit of the trail ahead.

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First Check Point – Boiling Water

A group of 4 took the lead including Andrew Kulmatiski, Mike Barklow, Geoffrey Montague, and myself. After the first climb up Chick Creek, pain hit my legs and I was dragging. Keeping up with those guys was a challenge but we eventually reached the Black Canyon Trail together and the best descent of the whole course in my opinion. We quickly made it to the first checkpoint where we had to boil water with the stoves we were required to carry. I quickly boiled my water, fueled up and was off  – now ahead of the other 3 riders. 

I took to the Chick Creek climb again. Conditions were firm but it was still early.  As the sun rose, I could feel it getting warmer. One thing that we may have had going for us was the cloud cover, however, it was wasn’t enough to keep the trails firm all day as temperatures were hovering around 32°F by mid day. I reached the summit of the climb and turned off of the 60k route and onto the unknown on my way to West Yellowstone. 

Breaking trail, conditions were instantly too soft for my taste. Still with plenty of energy, I worked extremely hard to stay on my bike. Halfway or so up the climb Andrew joined me and I was not surprised. I felt like I punched up the previous climb pretty hard in hopes I could make it to West Yellowstone on my own, but that was not the case. We continued to climb the soft snow together, each small descent proved to be just as difficult as the climbing. Negotiating variable snow, ruts, and snow machines with operators who yelled choice words at me.

After some up’s and down’s we reached the final descent before West Yellowstone, this is where Andrew took off like a bat out of hell. He was running extremely low tire pressure, saying after the race that he even bottomed out a few times. On top of an ultra light setup, it appeared that the rig preformed well in the soft conditions. Experience matters, and it proved to payoff for Andrew. 

At this point in the race I determined two things;

One: This race was going to act more a like a 100 mile cross country race, at this rate we would be finished before morning. Rest during the night, and time off my bike would be non-existent.  Two: The effort it took was nearly two times of your standard mountain bike experience. Not only were the climbs tough, but I needed to put just as much concentration into the downhills to avoid falling, breaking my bike, or hurting myself. 
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Heading Towards West Yellowstone CP.

I arrived at the 2nd checkpoint when Andrew was ready to leave. I filled up on water, slammed a grilled cheese, and stuffed my pockets with snacks. Just as I was leaving Mike rolled up, followed by Rebecca Rusch. I knew at this point it was going to be a tight race, and I needed to hustle. 

With a full belly I tried hard to catch Andrew, staring at and following his line from each side of the track. It is definitely laugh worthy how much energy we expelled going back and fourth while trying to search for the firmest section of the trail. It was mid afternoon and all the snow machines did quite a number on the route. The center of the track was nearly impossible to ride. I was ready for the sun to set and things to firm up.

I knew the most difficult part of the race was ahead dubbed “the ridge.” Steep grades, soft snow, and fatigue all contributed to my lowest moment of the race. I remember asking some snowmobilers if I was anywhere near the top of  the climb – one of them shook his head sideways and grinned. Maybe I went out too hard at the beginning, maybe I made the wrong tire decision with my Husker Du, maybe I was just not in good enough shape. 

Possibly more degrading then anything was the fact that Andrews tire was not associated with foot prints. He was clearing almost every climb. I tried to follow his track, but was unsuccessful nearly every time. I was in a funk and wanted nothing more but to get to the top. Once I did, the sun was near set and the beauty was amazing. I was alone, it was snowing, and the pines were covered in white. But starting the descent I was even more disappointed with myself and the conditions, at times riding with one foot off of my bike, bracing for a fall. It was a sloppy mess, soup like, and I was ready to get to the flats. 

Between the snow settling and a small section of groomed track on the side of the trail, I finally made it to the Meadow Creek trail, the first open section where I could see lights behind me for the a while. I saw two lights behind me, nervous they were going to catch me, those lights acted as much needed motivation. I started to ride a harder gear in route to the Man Cave, the third and final checkpoint. I arrived, filled up on water and left 4 minutes later, crossing paths with Rebecca – as I was leaving, she was arriving.

At this point I had to push as hard as I could, I felt good, but knew there were 21 miles ahead. I was certain I could not catch Andrew, but pushed as hard as I could to keep 2nd in tact. To my surprise, the last section was the longest stretch of road, and the rest was nicely groomed. I kept looking over my shoulder, making sure no light was to be seen. I zoomed out on my GPS for the first time that day to see the “end point” on my track.

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Day after finishing. The Annual Noon Sunday Cheers.

 I pedaled the final 3 miles into the Ponds Lodge parking lot, greeted by 15 or so fat bike fanatics – awesome! I took 2nd place, in 15 hours and 53 minutes. 28 minutes after Andrew who came in at 15 hours and 25 minutes – 7 hours faster then last years time. Mike Barlow passed Rebecca in the last few miles to pull out 3rd place, coming in at 16 hours and 23 minutes, and Jefe Branham rounded out the top 5. 

After attempting the Arrowhead and failing last year, I learned a few tricks. Really, nothing could prepare me for this adventure. The temperatures, snow conditions, and climbing made for some frustrating moments. The town of Island Park, the Ponds Lodge, volunteers, Jay and Tracy made for a comfortable venue and I would recommend this race wether you are new or experience in these types of races. It is sure to make you sweat. 

12 Comments

  1. Michael Smith

    Neil great story and accounting of the event. Congrats on a spectacular debut in this one, and I was hoping for this story after reading your pre-race stuff. I always enjoy the posts on this website, and fat biking looks like a trend that is hear to stay. You mentioned a small bit about the tires, but I would like to hear more on your gear and bike set up evaluation no that you have put them through this test.
    Thanks again and all the best to you

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Michael, I am getting an article together about gear for this week/weekend stay tuned. Learned a lot, yet again!

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Cheers,

      Neil

  2. Congrats on the strong finish Neil and Jefe. Too bad the snowmachines wrecked the course. How do you think this format of race can evolve? What would make the ultimate snow bike race? What comes next for you?

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Thanks Cameron,

      Two things would have significantly improve course conditions this year.
      -Less snowmo traffic
      -Colder temperatures

      Two things that really can’t be controlled.

      The format was good, lots of climbing. I Know Jay has some things in store including a longer race. This intrigues me because it would make for more strategy. We carried gear that most of us never used, if it were longer it would force us to sleep and play the sleeping game. Similar to the ITI, I think this format will be much more difficult and real, I hope I can partake next year, otherwise I will be applying for the ITI. These things are extremely fun!

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  4. Great account! It’s fun to read about things at the front of the race. Back around 30th place, we found much better trail conditions. Though much of the climb up the Divide was unrideable, pretty much everything after that was hard and fast. Felt good to *race*!

  5. chris wildt

    Great article Neil. I rode the 60k and like you struggled with the soft conditions which in my case led to some very frustrating crashes. Still, it was amazing and inspiring to be out there with people such as yourself. Maybe in a few years I will consider doing the 200k… Looking forward to your gear review. Cheers!

  6. Nice review of th race. I remember going up two top trying to count the number of footprints to figure out who was riding the sections. Impressive to hear Andrew riding those steep sections.

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