by : John Lackey
About three weeks before my fiancé, Kara, and I were going to set out to Finland to tackle the Rovaniemi 150 race I was having bad back pain, but we started on what was supposed to be an 8 hour training ride on Saturday anyway. After about 5 minutes, I couldn’t possibly continue due to the pain in my back and shooting down my leg. I turned around a bit dejected and quite disappointed and made an appointment on Monday with the doc. She sent me over to get an MRI and the result was that I have a torn disc and can’t ride for 6 months. So not only was I out of the Rovaniemi 150 which I had been training for since I finished the ITI last year, but the Homer Epic, Talkeekeetna Trio (organized by friend and sponsor Greg Matyas from Fatback), and the White mountains 100 were all out the window and replaced by months of physical therapy. At that point we had plane tickets and paid the entry fees, so I quickly became race support for Kara.
Your fearless race report commentator with a reindeer at Santa’s village.
We arrived in Rovaniemi to find that northern Finland actually has snow unlike Alaska this year, which was a welcome development. We had heard that Finland was a bit of a wasteland for beer, but ventured to the local Alko shop anyway to procure the proper supplies for me to assemble her bike which was completely broken down and in 2 separate boxes that we had lugged across the Atlantic. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the beer selection, so we grabbed one of each of the local brews that looked interesting and made our way back to our apartment.
Beer from Finland. Not bad.
First things first, I poured myself an IPA and then started in on the bike. The IPA wasn’t bad at all and by some miracle of god the TSA hadn’t bent, broken or lost anything in either of the boxes, so after about 3-1/2 hours and 3 additional beers, Kara’s Fatback was assembled and in working order. This particular bike has been on the fat-bike.com reader’s rides before, http://fat-bike.com/2013/11/readers-rides-alaskan-fatback-for-a-lady/, but, for this race I made some modifications. I replaced the SS belt drive with a 1×10 setup using SRAM XO and X9 bits. Also, after seeing the conditions we replaced the tires with a custom set of Surly Bud and Lou tires. Since the frame only has a 170mm rear hub, there isn’t enough clearance for a standard Lou in the rear, so deep in the archives at Fatback headquarters we dug up a Lou that has all of the side knobs cut off, making it just narrow enough to clear the chain and seat stays.
The next day we went to scope the course, which meant that I drove the rental car around to find all of the various sections where the race crosses or uses a passable road, and Kara scoped out the 12 km start/finish section of the race. There is about 40 km of cleared road in the race, and I found a good portion of it while Kara found that the wider tires were definitely the correct choice on the soft and mashed up trail conditions on the river. After our course recon, it was time for the equipment check and pre-race meeting, so we made our way to the hotel. Álex, the race director, did the standard pre-race speech and everyone checked out each other’s gear before dispersing (for all you North Americans out there that might only know cave man Spanish from your high school foreign language classes as a second language, the meeting and everything else was in English, so that was quite nice.)
Race Day Part 1:
Everyone gathered at the start before the race and seemed to be in a good mood since the conditions were warm, 30 degrees F, so there wasn’t the fear of a bitter cold -30 F slog that seemed possible the week before. Álex counted down and they were off. You know the scene, the bikers race off at a completely unsustainable pace followed by the runners and then the smart ones that plod by with sleds in tow. Kara was a bit nervous before the race, but looked great once they started pedaling and rode off with the lead group until I lost sight of them.
Before the start.
5… 4… 3… 2… 1…
The river was faster than expected and the first group of racers came to checkpoint 1 (Porohovi) in just under 40 minutes. Conditions along the river were packed in by the snow machine tours that run through there and although it hadn’t frozen the night before, the track was hard packed and completely rideable. About a mile after the first check point the racers turned off the river onto a short section of road, where I saw the first riders looking great. It had spread out just a little, but gaps were small and the top 15 or so riders were all within 3 minutes of each other. Kara was doing great so far and keeping pace with the leaders.
The first section of road.
Next came some trees that required about 500 meters of pushing, then checkpoint 2 (Sinettäjärvi) and then onto Sinettäjärvi and Lehtojärvi lakes. After the lakes the racers hit the road again for about 5 km before diving back into the forest where the rolling hills start. I arrived at the far end of Lehtojärvi lake and found that Álex was there on his snow machine making sure that the course was all marked before the racers came through, he pointed me to a public shelter on the lake shore that I could use to watch the race. Apparently there are a lot of these around the countryside in Finland. I wasn’t alone at this spot, a whole group of spectators came shortly after I talked with Álex and started a camp fire and waited to cheer on the racers.
The shelter with spectators.
After a half hour of waiting I saw riders in the distance, and it looked like a lot of them. As they approached I saw that there were six out front, and then three stragglers followed by a large gap. The first 6 guys cruised by, then another and one more, and then Kara riding in 9th place, looking great. She reported that the woods before the lake were unridable for a short stretch, but once they hit the lake, there was another established snow machine trail, and it was all rideable and fast all the way up the lake.
Leaders riding across Lehtojärvi lake with Marco out front.
Kara exiting Lehtojärvi lake.
I followed along the short road section and watched as the riders hit a steep hill directly off the road and pushed their bikes up and out of sight. The next time they would cross a road was after about 10 km of riding through the woods. So I made my way to the next spot and waited. This section was a bit slower than the last and there were some hills and some softer conditions, with more technical riding. When the riders appeared this time the gaps were starting to open a bit. Toni, René, Martijn, Marco and Joe had started to establish themselves in the front, while the next riders came through within around 6 minutes with Kara still generally keeping pace and riding in 9th place. She hit the road and cruised for about 2 km to the next spot where the trail diverged from the road. This section was more of the same, some rolling hills and softer snow, but the wide tires made it so Kara could ride almost everything except a few short steep sections that were too loose to get traction.
Editor’s Note: Tune in on Saturday Morning to read Part 2 of John Lackey’s Rovaniemi 150 Report!