Riding Into The Dangerzone: My Salsa Beargrease X100 Experience

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Einstein Cycles' very own fit master, inventory hero and nutritionalist Jason Whittaker was given the honor of racing an early released, carbon Salsa Beargrease. This is his story. 

One man. One carbon fat bike. One hundred miles. Most of one day. Bring out the aircraft carrier and unfurl the banner: Mission Accomplished. 

Getting the carbon Salsa Beargrease was, needless to say, a big freakin’ deal. Our handsome pal John Ammond brought the bike back down from Ore2Shore two weeks back, and everyone at the shop was tickled pink at the thought of having a chance to ride the most talked about bike of the year. I instructed Ammond to take his sweet, sweet time getting it to the shop, which he did dutifully.

It was a day or two until the bike made it into the shop, and I made my first observations while doing hot laps around the parking lot. Like most bikes, you feel the weight. On this bike, the lack of weight it insane. I’ve ridden my aluminum Beargrease a few hundred miles after jumping from a steel fat bike, and the difference in feel is actually pretty similar. There’s more snap, more response, and a lot more speed for less effort, similar to that steel-to-aluminum jump. It also has a much more aggressive position on the bike. It feels like a mountain bike, rides like a mountain bike, and handles like a mountain bike. Except that on this guy, you can sprint through the sand or race through snow.

The whole point of bringing in the bike was for the X100, a brand-new race in Traverse City for this summer. I’ve done some big endurance events before, including an ultra marathon trail run, an Ironman, a few 100 mile mountain bike races, and some pretty massive road rides. Taking on this new race on a fat bike seemed like a great way to test the bike over some tough, twisty and bumpy singletrack for the better part of a day.

We tossed it on the scale, and the bike weighed just shy of 26 pounds with pedals. The bottle cage and copious amounts of sand probably added a few grams, as did a bit of water from Cody’s dropping it in the bay during a photoshoot. In any case, it’s about three pounds lighter than the stock aluminum Beargrease. We went through it to see where we could cut the weight, and we’re pretty sure we could have it at 22 pounds fairly quick. The XX1 set-up is a nice touch, and I was surprised how well the 28t felt.

As a sort of a dry run, I took it out to our weekly Speed of Light ride. This ride is about as opposite a test to the X100 that you could think of, but I wanted to see how the bike did at high speed, too. This is a 12 mile, balls to the wall sprint with some of the fastest guys around in attendance. While 29ers are probably the best choice, I’ve put down my best times on my Beargrease, and admittedly harbored dreams of a new PR.

The bike did great. Really great. It climbed very well, both stiff like a mountain bike but with even more traction. It turned even the steepest gradients into short sprints, and I was keeping pace with the leaders much longer than usual. I felt like I needed a 32t up front once or twice, but that’s a pretty quick switch for when my own carbon Beargrease shows up. The 28t in the winter will be absolutely perfect, and would be a great fit for people in hillier areas. Even after a forty-minute drag race on the VASA 25km, I felt really fresh because the bike was so responsive and forgiving.

There’s no better way to prepare for a 100 mile mountain bike race than to ride twice in the two weeks leading up to it. That’s just who I am, and that’s what I believe in. Of course I’d have liked to have more miles in, but I went into the X100 ready to just keep rolling along. It was an early 7am start, with the sun just coming up and the chill taking a while to burn off into late morning. The preferred starters tore off before we started a few minutes later, that exciting click of a few dozens cleats going into a few dozen pedals. We were off, for better or for worse.

Word on the street was that this X100 was going to be rough, in a literal, topographical sense. Miles of freshly cut singletrack and tight, twisting trails had persuaded more than a few riders onto full suspension bikes. I thought myself well-prepared on the plush carbon frame and my tires at about 9psi. And for about thirty miles, I felt great. Especially in the tight stuff, the fit of the bike was a huge help. The geometry is so much closer to that of a mountain bike that I was just as quick as some great bike handlers. Even as the leaders pulled away, me and my merry band of pedalers were making good time. We were both looking and feeling good, which is a great thing.

The miles did, however, start to wear on me. The trail was so tight that you never got up to speed, and because of the slower pace, you felt every root, bump, stick and blade of grass for the entire 100 miles. The grind went from being heroic to mind-numbing. For a guy whose ideal mountain bike race is a series of 500 meter climbs on fast, smooth, wide, straight trail, it was like hell rose to earth.

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I paired up with Ammond, who was battling bravely against cramps and general frustration. Any moment, I expected to see his 29er thrown over my head and a blood-curling, primal yell rip through the trees around us. We worked together, tried to stay positive, until disaster struck. After passing the 50 mile marker, Ammond and I kept plowing on, rationing our water to make it to the next aid station at Kalkaska. We went on for what seemed like forever, and my Garmin ticked close to the 65 mile mark, just short of the next aid station. Like an embattled fortress, we’d carefully rationed our food and water to last just long enough to ride into help. We saw a sign, thinking it was the final arrow before our turn to salvation. Nope. It read “Mile 60” and broke our hearts.

We found out later that the race organization had just sort of forgot about five miles of the course. The mile markers were, therefore, off by that much in this part of the woods. We weren’t limping into the aid station, as we’d hoped, but still a solid forty minutes from salvation. For the sake of moral, I think, I tried not to say anything. That effort failed, and admittedly, things were said, much of them profane. But we kept on, now steeled with the strength of men with literally nothing left to lose, not even an Erg! bar.

The Super Aid Station came just in time, and we ate like men just returned from the wars. It was quiet. The Boy Scouts working the spot filled up our bottles, handed us snacks and the like, but aside from the polite Thank you we didn’t have much to offer in the way of polite conversation. By now, the bumps and roots had taken their toll. My hands were the most painful, though the spider’s crawl of pain through my back had spread and sunk deep. Still, we had survived the worst, and I was feeling a bit more prepared than most heading into what was rumored to be miles and miles of sand.

By this time, no one was racing. The competitive edge that makes races nerved up and testy had been physically beaten out of as if by a sock loaded with batteries. My original underlying currents of thought-drink, be smooth, eat, stay positive-had long since deteriorated into something non-verbal, some deep, vibrating feeling to keep moving that sat in my chest, though uncomfortably. My own issues were paling next to Ammond’s constant cramping and slightly less frequent death threats to the race promoter. Note the ‘slightly’ less frequent.

Then, it happened. The trail turned into a gravel road and wound back toward the west. It was slightly easier, and we hit the Mile 99 sign with a bit of relief, though that turned briefly into despair as our odometers went over the 105 mile mark (remember, we did an ‘extra’ 5 miles out there) and I nearly exploded in a fit of frustration. The rage settled within me when we saw the gravel turn to pavement, and the pavement curl up toward a few arrows that led us to the finish line. Finally. Donezo.The masses of fans line across the finish rose like the roar of Rome greeting a conquering Caesar. No, it wasn’t. In fact, we received a smattering of applause and a few cries of recognition, but it could not have mattered less. We were done. It was a few buckets of water and pint of beer before I even started to think. At all. Beside me, the Beargrease sat at my elbow, faithfully. My new friend and I had made it.

All in all, it was really tough. The Beargrease was a huge help, and I think there were a lot of places that the big tires made all the difference. The XX1 performed perfectly. Salsa made the right call putting a nicer drive train on such a great frame, and the more serious riders are really going to appreciate it. I’m already losing sleep with excitement whilst I await my X9 version.