Photo by Josh Spice
We first talked with Kevin Breitenbach back in February after he won the Arrowhead 135. Our paths crossed again at Interbike where I got the chance to get to know this rising star of Ultra Endurance Racing. Kevin is really down to earth and laid back. He shared some great insights about race strategy that day in the desert, so we set up this interview to share with all of our readers. I look forward to the next time that Kevin and I get to have a beer together! Maybe that’ll be a victory toast at this year’s Arrowhead!
Gomez ~ Congratulations on your impressive race season last year! How have you been preparing for the upcoming season?
Kevin ~ I’ve mostly been praying for more snow and warmer temperatures. We had a mighty cold November here in Fairbanks with a solid two week stretch with an average temp of 24 below zero. Earlier this week we got dumped on with 15″ of snow. but now 2 days later (as I write this) it’s 35 below (you can imagine the trails are in great shape!) So mostly I’ve been dealing with winter in Fairbanks. I honestly believe that anyone that has gone through a number of winters here is an endurance athlete. A lot of days consist of shoveling snow, splitting firewood, hauling water…now, lather-rinse-repeat. If you can squeeze in some pleasurable -30 below bike rides around it great! But I like to think of it as a great, poor mans workout. There’s no ceiling to floor mirrors with guys lifting weights twice as much as you weigh….but hey its kinda like the gym. As far as real riding is concerned, I usually shoot for 15 hours a week, with one ride a week in the 5 hour realm. Other than that I’m also trying to test out as much gear as I can for the Iditarod Trail Invitation coming up in late February. With that looming on the horizon I’ve been pretty focused on avoiding death . 350 miles through Alaska back country is something I have far too little experience with, to feel any real level of comfort. This winter has been very effective at pushing me out of my comfort zone though, whether it be a 4 hour ride at -40 or 5 hours of pushing through a foot and a half of fresh snow. I’m fortunate enough to experience a lot of uncomfortable gear miscues and failures in mundane surroundings, which can really be priceless.
Photo by Josh Spice
Gomez ~ Would you fill our readers in on the rather amazing race pedigree of your third hand Fatback Race Bike.
Kevin ~ The TI Fatback that I’ve been fortunate enough to ride had a lot of races under its belt before I saddled up on it. Alaska racer, Jeff Oatley, owned it for a number of years…He rode the bike to victory in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, White Mountains 100, Sheep Mountain 150, and the Arrowhead 135 (twice!). I bought it directly from Greg Matyas (owner of Speedway Cycles in Anchorage and Fatback) So when I get a chance to race it in the Arrowhead 135 this year the bike will be the three time, defending champ. Along with the wins it has a number of impressive finishes several being the ITI…I think you’d be hard pressed to find a fatbike with more miles on it than this thing.
Gomez ~ Do you have a name for this ‘magic’ bike?
Kevin ~ No name for the bike, but I’d like to think it could stack up to any Sledgehammer out there. shocks…pegs…LUCKY
Gomez ~ Would you sell your race bike for 100K?
Kevin ~ Sold! For an extra 5k I’ll make out with you too.
Kevin and Tim Berntson at the White Mountains 100 – photo by Lance Parrish
Gomez ~ Share the story that you told me about the tactics involved during the final check-points between you and Tim Berntson during last year’s Arrowhead 135?
Kevin ~ Much of the day I spent piggy backing Tim’s racing knowledge. He knew when to sit back and wait, he knew when to attack, and he knew when to push the pace. About 100 miles into the race it was just three of us (Tim, Jay Petervary, and myself.) and I needed a break. A good chance to re-organize gear, guzzle that flat coke I had in my vest pocket and find my headlamp. I thought we would all stop but they kept riding (really did’nt think I’d seem them again). The two or three minute rest really freshened me up for the last 35 miles of the race. Several miles down the trail I caught back up with Tim and Jay and within a few miles we cruised into the last check point. In all honesty, that was a victory in itself. I put up with a pretty vicious pace set by two of the most relentless riders that I know of. If I passed out and shat my pants, right there I wouldn’t have cared…I knew I kept up with them for 110 miles and was pretty proud of it. When we saw the lights of the last checkpoint I was planning my departure. If the first two checkpoints of the race were a preview of this one, I knew Jay wouldn’t stop for more than a minute or two. I needed water and needed to piss… then I would be gone. The checkpoint volunteer asked us if we wanted a hot coco or coffee. “Nah, just water” I said. then I over heard Jay accept a drink. If he was staying so was I. It was the first sign of weakness I saw from him and I really wanted to take advantage of it. I guzzled a hot drink and took off. I was the first one gone (stoked!). Tim quickly caught up to me and we made a plan. We would take turns pulling for 2 minutes at a time. That was the absolute max iI had in me to hold a pace of 10 mph – 14 hours into the day. We just wanted to create separation between us and any other racers and we definitely did. We agreed that as long as an Alaskan riding a Fatback won, we didn’t really care who it would be. I think I was able to hold that pace for an hour. When my time came to pull again I declined. I just had nothing in me. I’m not sure, but I don’t think either of us were strong enough to pull away. Two minutes never allowed me to calm my heart rate and breathing enough to take a drink of water or eat any food. This masochistic pace got us within a couple miles of the finish and at the end of a long straight stretch we both stopped to piss. There was nobody within at least a mile of us. I think we both knew it would come down to the finish. Previous to the race Jeff Oatley told us both, everything he knew about the course, and the finish is what he assured us would determine the race. Months before – he told me that it was going to come down to a sprint finish between Tim, Jay, and myself. He wanted us to know that the finish line sneaks up on you, but when you actually see it… its going to be farther away than you think – and up hill. So he said “let someone take off, cause it’ll be too early and you can slingshot around them at the end. Just be confident in your sprint.” We saw some lights and fencing, but were not too sure it was the end until we came around the last corner and saw the finish line. I told Tim “well if you want to win, you better go.” So he stood up and took off. All I remember is getting on his rear wheel to slingshot around him. I think I tried to box him out a little bit. I couldn’t hold the speed for long and just before the line Tim had another surge. If the race was 10 meters longer he would have won. (that shit was close!) After the race was over we congratulated each other and I remember Tim saying something like “damn… I listened to you… and you listened to Oately.” it was an awesome way to end a really hard day.
Gomez ~ What did you do the day after you won the Arrowhead?
Kevin ~ I guess I spent the first hours of the day drinking. First thing I had before water or food was a gin and tonic, then moved onto some IPA. Sometimes its just easier to drink your calories. Aside from getting mildly tanked. I spent much of the time resting. I had some significant vision issues. I blew out the blood vessels in my right eye from the finishing sprint. I can never really sleep after these races. My legs cramp and so does my mind. So I spent much of the over night and morning waiting for some friends to come through the last check point. Two days later I had an endurance event to match the race; driving from Minneapolis to Northern Vermont. 31 hours of driving in two days with my three year old Daughter June (she’s awesome).
The start of the Susitna 100 – photo by Tim Bernston
Gomez ~ Last year in the White Mountains 100 you finished second to Tim, how do you think he turned the tables on you?
Kevin ~ The White Mountains 100 is held in the White Mountains National Rec. Area north of Fairbanks and is arguably the best winter ultra marathon around. It’s extremely well organized. The WM100 features epic surroundings and takes place at a great time of year (and i swear I’m not evening being bias). Tim just rode stronger and more importantly smarter all day long. I think I went into that day too comfortable with my relationship with the course. I know the trails really well up there; each hill, every creek crossing, all the overflow, the cold drainages and the windy ridge-lines. I really thought I could dictate the pace right from the start. There’s about 4,000 ft of climbing in the first 30 or so miles and I really wanted to hit’em hard and try to drop the field, but Tim is way too good to let that happen. 45 miles out I fell back about 100 meters and let him break trail through 3-4 inches of fresh snow while we headed up the Cache Mountain Divide. I hoped to burn him out a bit, but no luck. Tim did a great job riding his race, and racing that day’s conditions just right. Every winter endurance race is different. The conditions are never the same or even similar. So I think of each race as different problem to solve. If you go in with the audacity to think you’ve got if figured before you’re at the start line, you’ll swiftly get your ass handed to you. It can be relatively easy to race in the summer with a rock solid plan. In the winter you need to be willing to ditch your goals and race with what the weather gives you and Tim proved to do that very well.
Gomez ~ What’s in your snack-pack on race day?
Kevin ~ Really whatever I feel like eating that day…I’m certainly no vegan, gluten free, organic, no preservatives, all natural, zero sugar, calorie counting roadie (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If I have any cycling background its long distance bike touring. In 2004 I rode from AK to Boston and 2006 from AK to Milwaukee. I generally ate whatever afforded me the most calories for the fewest dollars. I was(am) very fond of cinnamon rolls, but I wouldn’t shy away from day old bagels smothered with peanut butter, past ripe bananas and half priced cream cheese frosting. Winter temps dictate a lot. I don’t have much luck with things like Gu, chomps,blocks, or energy bars. They’re just too difficult to eat. If you look in my food bag, you’ll find a lot of Reese’s peanut butter cups, cashews, skittles, 3 musketeers, brownies, bacon (tons!) and corn nuts. If the temps will agree a bottle of flat Coca Cola and the dietary supplement like Ensure (those are like 300 calories and you can drink it in seconds!). Endurance races are just what they say they are. They’re not bike races or ski races they’re endurance races. Whoever can endure the most amount of shit and still ride at a good clip is going to win. Having a solid stomach that will digest anything, can go a very long way.
Kevin ~ I ride SPD in the winter, in the form of a pair of Lake winter boots with some sort of rigged up, over-boot. This year may change some. The singular pair of Lakes I have probably should have seen their last ride a couple years ago. But a little shoe goo and duct tape can go pretty far. With the Iditarod Trail Invitational coming up in a couple of months I’ve been trying platform pedals out. Riding in Mukluks is a great option for a few hours especially up here, where its awfully cold and dry. but after pedal mashing for some time, my feet get worn out from the soft sole. Lately I’ve had a lot of success with some old Keen winter boot…I can’t remember the name them. But I know they really F’d it up this year! Making the upper too stiff and incorporating a lot of rubber over the toe box, kind of a glorified sporty looking Sorel. YOU HEAR THAT KEEN…NOW FIX IT! (better yet, make your old winter boot and toss the SPD sole from your clipless sandals on there). In a shorter 100 mile race I prefer a clipless set up. There’s really no company that makes a clipless riding shoe/boot that is warmer enough to comfortably ride for extended periods under 10 below zero. Fairbanks riders have become quite adept at winterizing their footwear, everyone has a different solution and none of them are perfect. 45N has tried this year with their Wölvehammer, but the construction of it really limits your options on making it into a warmer boot, since they have already incorporated an over-boot into the design. I think that an arctic style riding boot is one of the last gear challenges to winter racing… and if anyone wants some suggestions on how to do it, just swing by Fairbanks. There are dozens of riders here to give you their two cents.
Gomez ~ Which or the new tires have you curious or are you testing any new tires?
Kevin ~ I’ve had a lot of success with the 45N Husker Du. For what I do and where I ride I cant imagine a much better design. The micro knob seems perfect for a dry and packed snow. Maybe one day there will be a 5.0 option. The tire options that Surly and 45n have come out with this year have really broadened the spectrum of tire selection. The Dillinger from 45N seems like the best studded tire on the bike market today period. It rolls very well and the tread design is aggressive but not overkill. There are often pieces of gear that attempt to do several things well, but more often than not they just suck at everything (combi skis for example). The Dillinger is a rare exception to that rule.
Gomez ~ Have you ever tried blubber or eaten a bear?
Kevin ~ I have had bear… but not like I wrestled the bear down, ripped off its leg and cooked it over an open fire… that would be very Chuck Norris of me.