An Average Racer’s View of the Fat Tire 40

McDowell Sonoran Challenge, examiner.com, phoenix mountain bike examiner
I’m just your Average Joe rider … among GloboGym racers!

It’s better to challenge yourself and come in last than it is to sandbag your way to victory. That said, I didn’t come in last in the Fat Tire 40 at McDowell Mountain.

But I was definitely bringing up the rear.

This event, put on by Swiss American Racing, brought a fast crowd of folks. Lots of people with lots of leg and lung power, for sure. Some had sketchy handling skills, especially at the Tech Loop drop-off and the T-Bone Hill climb. But most made up for it by motoring in the flatter sections. Me? Decent in the tricky climbs, good in the downhills, a lazy sod in the false flats.

As I mentioned in my earlier recap of the race, though, I had a tremendous time. And I hit a bit of a turning point.

Here’s the deal: So far in 2011, I’ve done four mountain races. Among them was a solo 12-hour effort and 24-hour race as part of a duo. My results have been unspectacular.

But I’m getting out there, and it’s paying off.

I finally achieved something that sent me home from a race feeling good: At about 25 miles into the race, I caught up with a guy. He was riding a shiny Santa Cruz Tallboy that made my 6-year-old Gary Fisher look like Fred Sanford’s jalopy. Which it pretty much is with its chainsuck-battered chainstays and leaky rear shock.

I passed him and thought I’d seen the last of him.

But he caught me about five miles later at a feed zone. I stopped to refill my bottles. He jettisoned his empty and grabbed a new one. I didn’t have time to drop an electrolyte tablet into my bottles without letting him get too far away. Instead, I wolfed down a banana one of the volunteers offered me.

So I chased his fancy-bike-riding butt. I caught him at The Ledge as he was pushing his bike over the obstacle. I went around him and got slightly tangled in a palo verde tree, but I kept going. I was feeling good, good enough to laugh and yell "no, don’t crash into the palo verde!" He panted a reply I couldn’t understand.

I thought for sure I’d left him behind. I was soon up on the South Ridge and putting on some distance. This was about three miles past the feed zone.

That’s when I hit The Wall – that horrible place where the easy becomes epic and your body no longer obeys your commands.

I had trouble steering in a straight line, much less breezing over obstacles like I had for the past 35 miles. I could feel heat building in my quadriceps. Oh, salt and potassium, how I needed thee! But there was just no time to fish a Nuun tablet out of my pack, unscrew a water bottle lid, screw it back on, wait for the tablet to dissolve and start guzzling.

It was just five miles to the finish.

I just had to hold this persistent, rising-from-the-grave jerk at bay for five miles (why won’t he give up and let me enjoy the rest of the race, already?!). I had the advantage. I’d already passed him twice. He was panting like a dog both times. He was in worse shape, right?

So I kept pedaling, kept descending.

Then my bike made a horrible noise. It reverberated through the frame. It sounded like the stable platform valve in the rear shock finally giving way. I still haven’t figured it out. But it made me more tentative in every descent.

But I kept riding. Sometimes, I heard my nemesis scratching along the ground behind me.

Finally, I got to the start/finish area. That meant I just had three miles left to go. Riding the Sport Loop backward was all that stood in my way.

Just a few hundred feet from the start of the Sport Loop, I looked behind me. He couldn’t have been 10 feet back.

I kept pedaling. Straight into the twisty singletrack. Climb a little, descend a little. Just focus on every little stretch of trail. The heat was building in my legs again. Keep in the low gears, just keep spinning the pedals. High RPMs. Ride smart.

But damn, my legs hurt. I just wanted to take a few seconds to stretch. But I kept hearing him. No. Just keep going as long as I can. If I blow up, I blow up.

Finally. Finally. Finally. I reached the bit where I could count on some easy descending. Keep spinning the pedals.

But wait. There were two hills on-tap. On every Sport Loop, they come moments from the start as two steep drops. Riding backward, that means my hammered legs had to go UP them! I reached the first and scaled my way up.

I got to the second. I got halfway up, hop off the bike and push us both up. I crest the hill as the other rider gets to the bottom.

I’m back on my bike in a flash. I spun the pedals like a madman. I tried to be smooth, controlled, confident. It’s all downhill from here.

I crossed the line. It takes more than a minute for my former antagonist to cross the line. That’s a gap I opened in less than a mile. I can live with that.

That guy made me suffer. He worked me like a dog.

And I’m glad he was there. He made me ride better than I could without him. He gave me some motivation. I’d like to think I did the same for him. I believe we made each other better, that we wrung the absolute best out of each other.

We weren’t the fast guys in this race. Both of us probably eat way too much cheese and chocolate to be as fast as the others.

But we rolled up to the line with the fast people anyway. And we both gave it everything we had to give on that Sunday.

The Iceland Epic – Day 8 (Reykjavik – Akureyri – Myvatn)

dimmuborgir wandering justin
Wandering Justin gets all black metal at Dimmuborgir.

Can a cloud of flies lift a person off the ground? I am about to find out on the south shore of Myvatn (Mee-VAH-ten).

That name, by the way, means business. Vatn is Icelandic for "water." What’s "my?" Midge. As in those pesky flies that are threatening to carry me off. They’re everywhere. This means we are in a place that means "Fly Water." Myvatn is a shallow lake ringed by some spectacular scenery: more pseudocraters, and one of the most bizarre mountains ever. More on that later.

As for the flies, some folks at a convenience store sold Sarah and me a lovely matched set of insect nets for our heads and faces. Problem abated. Somewhat.

Suzuki Jimney
Our rented Suzuki Jimney

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flight to Iceland’s Northern Big City

To get here, we started with an early Flug Island (or Air Iceland, the domestic arm of IcelandAir) flight from Reykjavik’s domestic airport. We walked from our guesthouse right to the terminal. Our fellow passengers were mostly English, and they were dressed from some horse-riding fun.

We landed in Akureyri, the main city of northern Iceland. We rented a Suzuki Jimny and rattled off to the west. We had some epic mountain scenery, and we enjoyed a brief stop at a waterfall. We made another brief stop to get our anti-fly nets – and had a nice lunch of soup and trout that had been smoked over sheep dung. Regardless of the fuel source, it was delicious.

waterfall iceland
One of Iceland's many waterfalls.

We followed that up with a 45-minute hike around the pseudocraters.

And then for a major centerpiece of my Iceland experience: We headed for Dimmuborgir.

But before we got near Dimmuborgir, I noticed something strange: One single mountain that seemed illuminated. It was an overcast day, and it was like one single ray of sunshine penetrated the clouds and fixed on this mountain. This is the Hverir thermal area. It stands out from all the surrounding terrain. We plan to make a thorough visit tomorrow.

This is also the name of well-known black metal band, and it means "Dark Castle." This region gets this name from the massive expanse of hardened lava that froze in all sorts of interesting shapes. It sprawls for quite a distance. There are massive spires, tiny lava tubes, holes -- it’s too unearthly to really describe well. It’s stark and scorched, and completely engrossing.

Hverfjall: As Cool as it Sounds

If you’re up for a long hike, you can follow a trail and climb to the top of Hverfjall explosion crater. Sarah and I circled the base, climbed from the (easier) northern trail, fully circled the rim, and descended the south trail before heading back to Dimmuborgir. Total distance is a little more than 6 miles.

pseudocrater
Part of the pseudocrater field near Myvatn

Relaxation, Trout and Stout

By this point, we were a little peckish. We’d heard about the Cowshed Cafe, so we stopped. It’s a working dairy in addition to a restaurant. You can eat while watching cows get milked.

As we were eating more trout, a salad and some fresh geysir bread, one of the cafe staff made the rounds to all the tables to pass out little cups. They were filled with fresh, unpasteurized milk straight out of the teat of the cow getting milked.

Warm, creamy, frothy -- but not as heavy as I expected. A clean finish!

Our next step was a little relaxation at the town pool (we were in ReykjahliÄ‘). Despite this being a town of 300, the pool facilities are superior to what you’ll find in my city of some 1.4 million people. Hot tubs, weight rooms, lap lanes -- nice!

From there, we headed to the Vogar campgrounds. We put our tent up on the northern shore of Myvatn. Here on the north side, the midges are considerably less active. Once we had the tent up, we wandered the main street a bit and met some of the local horses.

Hverfjall Iceland
Looking toward the huge crater of Hverfjall

We also wrapped up the day’s gustation with a nice chocolate cake and a shared bottle of Lava. This is an imperial-style stout brewed in the south of Iceland. It was the only good beer we found in Iceland, and it was the equal of just about any microbrew from the United States. I’d say it is on par with the Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy of Longmont, Colo.

Snoozing by Myvatn

After all this buzzing around, we were pretty tired. Though the sun only peaked below the horizon for a few hours and the sky never fully darkened, we got a great night of sleep on the soft grass of the Vogar.

dimmuborgir iceland wandering justin
Lava formations at Dimmuborgir.
wandering justin hverfjall iceland
Atop Hverfjall
dimmuborgir iceland wandering justin
Looking south to Dimmuborgir
myvatn wandering justin
Looking toward Myvatn.
wandering justin myvatn iceland
Our tent is right on the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

Fat Tire 40 MTB Race: Great Fun, Lots of Challenge

fat tire 40
The pack is getting antsy to start.

The course for the Fat Tire 40 at McDowell Mountain is clearly the work of a leather-clad masochistic dungeon master who moonlights as a dentist. The last three mile are the proof.

That doesn’t mean the event, put on by Swiss American Bicycles in Glendale, Ariz., isn’t a ton of well-run fun. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a novel spin on the typical mountain bike races run at McDowell Mountain Regional Park near Fountain Hills, Ariz. It took riders along trails seldom ridden.

For instance, there’s that last three miles I mentioned. Riders actually got to ride the Sport Loop section of the Competitive Track backward. That was an unprecedented opportunity, and a surprise organizers sprang on riders during the pre-race meeting. It was also a hard finish to a hard race.

Promoters Offer Classy Swag

fat tire 40
It’s rare that the Scenic Trail gets used for racing. But it’s rocky, challenging fun.

Each rider got a quality, very cool-looking t-shirt and a water bottle. And the bag wasn’t crammed full of useless coupons. Finishers also got a slick pint glass etched with the event logo. Excellent, useful, memorable swag for a $75 entry fee.

Course Offers Plenty of Fun and Challenge

The race started off with riders doing a Lemans-style running start. Then it was on to most of a Sport Loop before branching onto the Tech Loop. From there, it was onto a portion of the Long Loop that connected to a service road. Riders took the service road to the Pemberton Trail, where they made a counter-clockwise turn before riding to the turn-off to the Scenic Trail. This not-often-ridden-by-cyclists bit was in prime shape. It was not nearly as sandy as some riders might recall, and the contour leading to climb resulted in some high speed.

fat tire 40
People often bring their dogs to races. But this baby goat ran away with the cutest pet award.

The climb was still rocky, as was the descent leading back to the Pemberton. From there, riders continued counterclockwise with a quick stop at a feed zone mostly populated by geuinely enthusiastic and helpful kids in their early teens. Riders then continued up the Pemberton to the Coachwhip Trail, where they turned right. From there, they climbed a ridge, met the Dixie Mine Trail and rode it until connecting again with the Pemberton. Riders then hooked up with service road, descended to a feed zone, reconnected with and finished the Long Loop and then road the Sport Loop in reverse.

That last bit was extra-challenging. Braking bumps, washouts and a few steep climbs made those last three miles extra-tough.

fat tire 40
A juicy bit of downhill fun.

All the turns are very well-marked, so your odds of getting lost are super-slim. Most turns were also staffed by people ready to set you right. I also noticed a lot of red "Wrong Way Fat Tire 40" signs on trails that weren’t part of the course. Nice work!

An Idea for Next Year

I have only one suggestion for the organizers: Have some electrolyte drinks at the rest stops. You can bring your own mix, of course, but you’ll lose time. Water is great, but a course like this demands salt, potassium and carbohydrates to stave off cramps.

Despite that caveat, I have to rate this race highly. I’ll do it again next year. It’s a fast bunch of riders, so they’ll challenge you just as much the terrain. I was pretty pleased to win a 15-mile battle with another rider,

fat tire 40
One of many funky beetles spotted on the Scenic Trail

putting more than a minute on him over the last few miles. The rest of the pack pretty much handed our shorts to us, but you sometimes have to revel in the small victories.

Phoenix Councilman Again Shows Contempt for City Employees

I just got an ominous e-mail from Sal DiCiccio, the councilman for District 6 in Phoenix. Its subject line: "This will shock you." The title is "What do you get?". 

Councilman DiCiccio says this: "A first-year city of Phoenix clerk gets 40 and a half days off [scary bold text Sal’s], including vacation, holidays and sick time. That’s two months off — and an afternoon — in the first year of employment. And the days off keep going up as the years go by."

Wow, Councilman. That sounds like the benefits packages enjoyed by most of the civilized world save the United States, where we pride ourselves on working people into a stupor. I interpret this information as the city doing something right for its employees – giving them time to improve themselves through travel. To indulge their curiosity. To refresh themselves. Congrats! Yay, city of Phoenix for doing the right thing!

But wait! That’s not what Councilman DiCiccio is saying. He thinks it’s a bad thing to allow workers time to be more than wage slaves. I mean, what if they travel and create some great memories with the bounty of their time off? What if they go abroad and see that other First World countries have universal health care and copious amounts of vacation time? Oh, the horror. I also love cooking the statistics to include sick time.

"If employees don’t use all their time off, they get to cash in the remaining days like casino chips," Councilman DiCiccio intones, "and guess who the bank is? You and your family." [again, scary bold text Sal’s]

Gasp! You mean my Little Timmy (note: Wandering Justin has no offspring named Timmy. This is sarcasm.) is paying for those bums to go on vacation? Do you hear my howls of indignation and my weeping and gnashing of teeth? I’d also like verifiable proof that employees get to "cash in" their sick time. Remember, we know Sal "lacks specific details and numbers." And how many state and federal holidays are included in that 40.5 days?

Councilman, this is exactly the way things should work in a productive, prosperous, industrialized society. (And yes, dammit – we’re prosperous when every college kid has an iPhone.) I’m perfectly fine with my tax dollar being used to treat city employees like real people with real lives, interests and aspirations instead of worker bee drones.

Councilman DiCiccio, you have it back-asswards. You should be crusading against business owners who do the bare minimum for their employees. Laud your city’s paid time off policies. Hold them up as what decent business owners should aspire to do for their employees. Show them that fair amounts of vacation time are beneficial to people’s health, sanity and productivity.

But you’re afraid to do that, aren’t you? Because I’ll bet those same business owners will stuff your campaign coffers when you run for mayor (keep in mind – I don’t live in Sal DiCiccio’s district. So why does he send me these e-mails? To start his campaign for mayor. As I’ve mentioned before, I never even signed up for his newsletter.). If you fail to toe the line, you’ll see fewer campaign contributions.

No. It’s easier for you to throw truly hard-working and deserving people under the steamroller.

Leader? No. Politician? To the very core.

Gear Review: Switch Sunglasses

Switch sunglasses
The Switch “Stoke” sunglasses survive their first off-road test handily.

Last year, I bought sunglasses with interchangeable lenses. But actually changing the lenses is a pain even under the best of circumstances. They’d drive me crazy if I had to change lenses out on the trail at dusk in the middle of a race. I managed to put the clear lenses in, and I left them in. I used one pair of old glasses for daytime riding, and the "interchangeable" pair for night riding.

That paved the way for Switch Vision to offer a pair of its sunglasses for my depraved dungeon of product testing.

All the items in the Switch sunglasses line have a magnetic system (Magnetic Interchange Lens System, in the parlance of Switch) that holds lenses in place. When I first read about it, it sounded like a great theory.

Switch sunglasses
This is a look I call Blue Steel.

Switch delivered a pair of its Stoke glasses in a tortoiseshell finish to my door.

Forget reading the manual – what about this magnetic deal? Well, the lenses slid right out with a gentle tug. There are metal bits embedded into the top edges of the lenses – I’m not sure if those are the magnets, or if the other metal bits in the frames are the magnets. Either way, I was eager to see how they get back in. With my other glasses, this would cue twisting, pushing and profanity.

Not this time. I got the lens in the vicinity, and the magnets sucked the lenses into place. Impressive! I tried it a few more times with the same result.

I drove around wearing the Stoke glasses for a few days. Then I hit the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, one of the rockier beasts in the area.

Hitting the Trail

First, the optics are super-crisp. I have the Switch "Glare Kit" of lenses, which includes the Polarized True Color Gray and Rose Amber lenses, along with a plastic lens pod. The True Gray turn even the brightest light into something your eyes can live with. (I tried the Rose Amber a few days later on a cloudy day – they allowed a bit more light in while keeping the harshness out.)

The Stoke is not a lightweight pair of sunglasses. But they never dented the side of my nose. They didn’t slide down my pointy beak despite being lubricated by sweat. The rock-and-rolling of well-rubbled off-road trails was not a factor.

Even without magnetic lenses, Switch gives you some very sharp optics and a comfortable fit. Add the cool lenses, and you have a standout product.

I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just giddy over cool factor, so I showed them to a few buddies. The magnetic retention amazed them all. A few were extra-impressed by the availability of prescription lenses. After the oohs and aahs, they asked "Where can I get a pair?"

Here in Phoenix, the answer so far is that you can find Switch sunglasses at selected local eye clinics. I hope that expands in the future to bike shops and other sports suppliers. For now, it looks like you can also find Switch sunglasses online at REI. I saw the Stoke advertised at other websites from $169. The new Switch model, the Boreal (the company’s first full-frame model), will range from $119-$189.

What’s Missing?

One thing I didn’t notice in the lineup of Switch sunglasses is an all-clear lens for middle-of-the-night mountain biking. That’s an easy fix, though.

Bottom Line

Someone at Switch thinks like an outdoor enthusiast: Dealing with small, finicky bits while your heart is pounding, while you’re getting dehydrated, while you’re started to cramp -- is absolutely no fun. So they made sunglasses that take at least one gadget-related worry of your mind.

What’s Next?

A long-term flogging. The Switch Stoke sunglasses have impressed me. They’re a lot pricier than my usual glasses, but I see what Switch is offering for the extra scrilla.

I’ll update this post in a few months with new observations and thoughts – the kind that only come from lots of hard-core flogging and use. Stand by!

In the meantime, Switch sunglasses deserve some props.

You can find more by following Switch on Twitter at @InsanelyFast. You can also see far prettier pictures of the full line of Switch sunglasses at Switchvision.com.

The Iceland Viking Festival and Reykjavik Wanderings

Icelandic kids battle it out at the Viking Festival

This would so never happen in America, I thought. Nope, I just can’t see anywhere in my country where pre-adolescent boys would be allowed to gleefully flail at each other with wooden swords and shields – all while parents smiled and took videos.

That’s the Viking Festival in Iceland for you, though. Every summer, the festival runs just south of Reykjavik in Hafnarfjordur. There, you can eat a freshly roasted sheep. Try your hand at throwing axes. Watch Viking battle re-enactments. Stay at the Viking Hotel (one of the funkiest hotels in Iceland)

Believe it or not, all the kids emerged unscathed from the Viking Festival. They all wore huge grins after their designated mock combat. I had as much fun watching them as they did swinging wooden swords and axes.

Volcanic ash hangs in the air.

Our day started in Vik, several hours southeast (read about the previous day in Vik).

 

Volcanoes and Viking Kitsch

Wandering Justin hurls an axe at a target

During the bus ride to Reykjavik, we passed the volcano that put Iceland in the news – and hemmed in air travel to and from Europe. Unfortunately, we could see little of Eyjafjallajökull. Mostly, we could see the lower slopes of a mountain and dingy air. The bus driver didn’t even stop, though we saw other people snapping photos.

A few hours later, we were in Reykjavik. Our first stop was checking into a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. We liked it so much we made it our base for every night we’d me in Reykjavik.

From there, we navigated the bus system to Hafnarfjordur – and the Viking Festival. It was our first major experience with greater Reykjavik’s bus system. Impressions? Clean and punctual.

Tending a roasting sheep.

Once we’d gotten our fill of Viking kitsch, we wandered the streets a bit. That’s how we discovered Kaffihus Suffistin and probably the best chocolate-coconut cake you’ll ever eat. We also spent some time wandering the nearby neighborhoods – one city park was built on a an ancient lava flow, with giant volcanic cinders forming a mazelike system of nooks and crannies.

Iceland’s Fish is For-Real

By the time we finishes walking and headed back downtown, we were hungry. We found Icelandic Fish & Chips in all the guidebooks. And for good reason. The restaurant gets fresh fish daily. You can get it prepared a few different ways, with a number of different sides and toppings. The toppings are made from skyr, the Icelandic dairy product most people think is yogurt. But really, it’s closer to cheese. It’s nearly fat-free and full of protein

Sarah meets the modern-day Vikings

If you go looking for skyr at a grocery store in the U.S., I hate to inform you – it doesn’t taste like the stuff in Iceland, and it’s about triple the price. The Icelandic variety has no trace of sourness. Anyway, this is not only a popular snack, but the base for the sauces that come with the fish.

Here’s how it works: You come in, select a table and get a menu. When you’re ready, you go to the counter and order. The staff brings your food out a bit later, and you chow down on some wonderfully fresh, non-greasy fish. The batter is made from spelt and barley, and the chips are oven-roasted potatoes.

Watching the World Cup in a Soccer Nation

A lava flow/park near the Viking Festival

After a nice feed, we walked more. Though we’d passed Cafe Rot during our first day, we never dropped in. This time we did, seeking refuge from the rain along with a hot drink. I soon discovered a passage to a basement where the World Cup match was about to start. Sarah and I enjoyed the match, along with the company of people from England and various Middle Eastern countries. Germany’s Mesut Ozil was having his breakout performance. And the other guys were determined to make me a believer in Iceland’s popular malt soda, Maltextrakt. It might not be bad with some hops added to it and a few months of fermentation time!

That was pretty much it, except for a bit of souvenir shopping.

Coming tomorrow: A flight over the Iceland’s interior to Akureyri and Myvatn.

A few of more than 50 kids slugging it out. And peep that mullet on the far right!