There hasn’t been a more beautiful fat bike race Northern Michigan. Period. Under radiant sun and hard-packed trails, Beard of Zeus sends off the 2016 Series on the highest of notes. What might be the best race in Series history wound down with a microbrew festival buzzing with reflections on a fast, close race, new faces on the podium and familiar ones bringing home the FAT trophy.
Over 100 racers took the start at Timber Ridge, just as the first over over 1,200 revelers began the ambling saunter do the Suds’n’Snow festivities around noon. Front and center were all the main protagonists of the day, including the pair of riders vying for the Series win. Ryan Kennedy and Nick Wierzba amiably lined up side-by-side, sharing the front row with Steve Andriese, Rick Wetherald and Joel Polinsky. Paul Olson was lurking over shoulders, and the full compliment of Series regulars were in attendance. Liz Belt and Susan Vigland were in arears, while the field happily welcomed the return of former Series podium finishers Michele Howard and Beth Collins, plus newcomer Brian Barsheff.
The 1.4 mile course was tough, but it took a while to break up the main pack. A full group of 15 riders were in the peloton of favorites after two laps. Kennedy, just three points up on Wierzba, was present and correct, even as the group picked its way through lapped traffic. Wierzba had Olsen, Steve Andriese, and teammate in cause Keegan Myers, who was looking to put the lead pack under pressure and perhaps leapfrog into second if possible. Nothing looked like breaking things up, however, as the women’s race spread out.
With Susan Vigland going away and looking tough, Liz Belt finally leapt away from teammate Stephanie Baklarz after a few laps. Meanwhile, Cindy Duby was making headway in the Women’s Masters, though Series leader Birgit Yetter already had things under wraps last week. Scott Diment, Rob Goepfrich, Hal BeVier and a slew of other riders were in a flying chase group, though attentions turned to their own race rather than challenging for the overall.
Finally, it seemed, the lead men blew things to pieces on a massive acceleration from Joel Polinsky and Rick Weatherald went clear. Wierzba and Kennedy matched the move to start, but eventually ceded time, while the rest of the race disintegrated behind. Polinsky and Weatherald built a lead of a minute before a crash allowed the chasers to get close. They righted the ship and steadily built the lead they’d lost on the ground. Vigland was safe, Duby was clear, and Olsen passed a bonked Steve Andreise to be safely the winner of the Men’s Master’s, so the anticipation was for the podium order in the Men’s Open.
The winning sprint never materialized. With shades of Justin Morris crashing before the line at Vasa last year, Joel Polinsky must have already been excited with his $20 prime and crashed in the final corner, just 150 meters from the finish. Wetherald cruised home to an impressive victory and an emphatic debut at SBFBS. Polinsky rolled home a deserved second, and the faithful waited for the sprint for third. It was still all up in the air; Wierzba could tie on points and take the win on countback with third place, while Kennedy need to come by to keep his lead. In a long run to the line the pair threw bikes to the paint, and just like at Vasa three weeks ago, both looked at each other, unsure who’d taken it. It went to the camera, with Kennedy declared the longest by a tenth of a second. With it comes the Series title, and as Liz Belt rolled to the line, Einstein Racing-Short’s Brewing confirmed the Men’s Open, Women’s Open, Women’s Master’s with Birget Yetter, and with Keith Conway third in the Men’s Masters. Rob Goepfrich confirmed his Men’s Masters with a top 15 finish overall.
It was Kris Sands’ luckiest day, coming up with the magic #32 to win a Bearclaw Bicycle Co. Balthazar frameset post-race. Most of the competitors made short walk down to the beer tent to relieve the action, courtesy of Suds’n’Snow and wonderful Short’s Brewing Co. A big thanks to also to Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association, who made a highway out of the course over the past six days, with John Roe putting the final expert touches at 4am this morning.