By Marc Peruzzi | Photographs Dave Cox
For most of us, a 100-mile mountain bike race is too much. You have to train pro-athlete hours to compete, and are you really having fun at hour seven? The counter is that for most cyclists over 35, a sub 20-mile XC is too short. Punchy efforts aren’t our thing. And all the logistics for an hour and a half of racing don’t seem worth it. The Goldilocks distance? For a true offroad race that incorporates as much single and doubletrack as possible, it’s the 50-miler. Like a rolling century on the road bike, pros can knock it off in sub-four hours, the enthusiast set in four and a half, and the happy-to-finish crowd in just over five.
Last year I signed up for the under-publicized Mountain Town Series of Colorado 50-milers including the Gunnison Half Growler, Breckenridge’s 16-year-old Firecracker 50, and the Steamboat Stinger. The races are all about six weeks apart and feature some of the best singletrack the towns have to offer, but really they share an incredibly positive vibe. At the finish of the Growler, organizers hand you 10 bucks in food money and an empty growler to fill. The Firecracker racers roll out of town to lead the 4th of July parade. And seemingly the entire town of Steamboat turns out to compete in, support, or applaud the Stinger.
“We hit on something with the Firecracker 50,” says cofounder and promoter Jeff Westcott. “We originally positioned it as a warmup for the Leadville 100. Almost by default, it was one of the first 50-miler races out there. But we’ve had 700 racers every year since. And now, most mountain states have their equivalent, like the Whiskey Off-Road in Prescott, Arizona. Besides the distance, all we did was take advantage of the nonreligious holiday and support the hell out of the riders.”
We’ve compiled an extensive list of off-road 50-milers for you here. And to see how to kit out your XC bike for a 50-miler, read on.
1. Tougher Tires
Two keys here: Protect your sidewalls and run fatter rubber. Your bike probably came with lighter weight tires for showroom floor heft appeal. The downside? Those thin sidewalls slice open in Rocky Mountain talus. Look for fast rolling tires with enhanced sidewall protection. And consider bumping up tire width when you do so. Today’s wider rims (see next entry) not only better accommodate 2.3- and 2.4-inch wide tires, but they almost demand them. On a wider rim, 2.1s and certain 2.2s can square off the tread pattern, diminishing cornering. Our tires of choice for Western distance racing? The Continental X-King ProTection 2.4 up front (the open tread helps braking), and a fast rolling Continental Race King Protection 2.2 in the rear. continental-tires.com/bicycle
As reported in these pages, carbon mountain bike wheels have proven themselves more durable, trail dampening, and lighter weight in a given rim width than aluminum. But that extra width offers the most dramatic benefit. Instead of pinching a fatter tire at the bead, resulting in an egg shaped profile in a cutaway, wider rims allow for a more vertical sidewall like you’d find on a moto. That, when paired with a stiff wheel, makes for a noticeable boost in edging pressure in a turn. It also lets you run lower tire pressure—increasing your contact patch with the earth. Many trail riders already get this advantage if their late-model longer travel bikes are equipped with (wider) Boost hubs and corresponding rims. For the XC crowd, you can get similar performance from Reynolds new hookless 29 TR wheels. What’s hookless? Because the rims are 25mm wide internally (30mm externally), when paired with an ETRTO certified tire like the Continental (above), the bead of the tire is under tension from the diameter of the rim instead of getting held in place by a hook. The key is the pairing of ETRTO tires, which meet finer specifications in terms of diameter. And again, thanks to the wider internal and hookless design, the tire is allowed to stand more vertically still. We feel you’re getting near Boost level performance in a lighter setup. reynoldscycling.com/wheels
3. Black Tape
At the pro level, endurance racers tape everything from spare derailleur hangers, CO2s, master chain links, and especially tubes, directly to their bikes.
4. Three, Two, One, Dropping
Dropper seat posts that dip between 35mm and 50mm are finally making inroads in World Cup XC racing. And if the benefit is worth it for pro elites in a sub-two-hour blitz, it’s clearly relevant for the 2,000-foot descents common in 50-milers. I love dropper posts on trail bikes, but like many an XC-minded recreational endurance racer, I was hesitant to add weight to my XC bike. Still, I replaced my rigid post with the Specialized Command Post XCP and ran it in three races so far this summer. My thoughts? Even with only 35mm of drop (I’d have gone with the 50mm if it fit on my bike) my descending has improved noticeably—especially in corners, where with the saddle out of the way you can lean the bike over easier, but also in steep descents where getting off the back of the saddle and lowering your center of gravity is so vital. I don’t think I was faster on my first few rides—XC types have to learn to stop steering the bike with the saddle—but I’m fairly certain I’m a faster descender now, if only because I’m not getting passed on downhills as often. And I actually like the limited 35mm drop. One thing many first-time dropper riders struggle with is feeling lost in space with the saddle slammed to the top tube. With only a small drop, you can pedal while seated on big ring descents. Kudos, also, to Specialized for an easy setup (no hydraulic remote). specialized.com
5. Pump Redundancy
It would seem impossible, but I’ve even had simple CO2 chucks fail me. Now I carry one in the saddlebag, and know that there’s a second on the Specialized Air Tool CO2 Mini Pump that mounts neatly beneath my water bottle cage. By your third flat, you’ll be pumping by hand anyway. specialized.com
6. Have Fork, Will Travel
It’s easy to be tempted to replace your 100mm fork with a 120mm version for backcountry racing, but before you do, tune your current fork so that you’re getting all the travel it offers in race conditions. That means sliding the rubber indicator ring down before your training ride and measuring how much it moved upon return. Most riders aren’t getting all their travel. The easy solution is to let out some air pressure. But if that’s all you do, you might feel the shock dive too much while braking into corners. My Scott Spark (shown here) came equipped with a three position remote lockout to compensate. I tend to open the suspension in straightaways and go to position two in switchbacks. Fox now offers remote lockouts for many of its race shocks. ridefox.com
From our High Summer 2016 issue.