If the US Cyclocross National Championships were a bit of a snooze fest, don’t worry. The sequel is going to be way, way better. And also fatter.
The US Fat Bike National Championship is on deck, and instead of dealing with several feet of snow or subzero temperatures, talk of the race sounds more like riders deciding between mud or file tread tires. A freakishly warm January has left most of Michigan almost without snow, and there isn’t a sniff of it in Grand Rapids. That’s just the luck of the draw in the Mitten State, where it just as easily could have been -7 degrees with two feet of snow for Saturday’s race.
The race has garnered some unfair criticism due to the lack of snow, and while it’s certainly disappointing that the weather hasn’t cooperated, there isn’t much to be done aside form put together an exciting, challenging course that will hold up no matter. Race promoter Nate Phelps has used the current set-up for the Winter Rush Series for multiple years now, and racers agree the lap and the racers themselves can do plenty to make it hard, even if they end up spending the bulk of the race on grass.
At the very least, it’s going to make it an awesome race to watch, and an especially strong field will be on hand to contest the next wear of the Stars’n’Bars. The biggest name of the day will be James Driscoll, fresh off a podium finish as CX Nats. He may have faced more snow in Hartford than Michigan, but his strong ride confirms the form he’s on this season. He turned down a selection to the Cyclocross World Championships, also taking place this weekend, to stay closer to family and a fresh baby.
Driscoll is just one of a half dozen imported riders taking part, and the hit list is frankly impressive. Rob Price (Pennsylvania), Thomas Scolz and James Hopson (both Iowa), Justin Piotek, Cole House and Corey Stelljes (Wisconsin) all reflect the popularity of fat biking in the Midwest bubble, while the sport’s birthplace, Alaska, will be represented by Elkin Arteaga and and Will Ross.
Michigan’s hopes rest on the shoulders of two riders, Jorden Wakeley and Sean Kickbush. The pair were a convincing first and second last weekend at the Short’s Brewing Fat Bike Series opener, Fat Chance! at Crystal Mountain, with the rest of the 20+ man field off the lead lap. Wakeley’s realigned ambitions have him skipping the Arrowhead 135 this weekend, with a focus on a national championship gaining preference. Rick Wetherald is the third option for the home state representatives, making a start at Nationals before doubling up Sunday for States, also being held on the Indian Trails course.
Einstein Racing-Short’s Brewing will send their top ten finisher from Fat Chance!, Jon Throop, into action at Nationals, with an option to race Sunday as well. Cody Sovis will make his 2017 debut for the squad on Saturday, and is already confirmed to race Sunday at States.
On the women’s side, last year’s runner-up Rebecca Blatt will be on hand all the way from Colorado. Kyla Anderson, Susan Falvey, Kristina Navarro and Ami Stuart are the imports, with seven of the ten racers in the field coming from out of state. The hometown hero has to be Freewheeler’s Maddy Frank, making the fifteen minute drive from Walker to challenge as the youngest racer in the Elite fields with a racing age of 17. Hagery Cycling’s Susan Vigland will represent Traverse City on the women’s side, coming off a demonstrative win at Fat Chance!, and by all accounts the National Championship course will suit her much better.
It may be a matter of cyclocross experience, something that suits riders that have had a few consistent efforts in the mud and over shorter races. For many of the locals, most of whom haven’t raced since Iceman in November, a tune-up event like Fat Chance! or Winter Rush was an important test of fitness.
Expect a picturesque dusting of snow by the weekend, which might work out for great racing conditions. A fast, predictable and muddy course under enough white stuff to make the photos look timely, it will at least be a treat for spectators. Riders will have nothing stopping them from a full and committed effort from start to finish over four laps of 4.5 miles of rolling terrain.
The Elite races start at 11am on Saturday at Indian Trails Golf Course in Grand Rapids, Michigan.