Oh, where do I begin? The 2016 906 Polar Roll fat bike race was a knock down, all out brawl and slugfest of Fat Bikes, die hard bikers, mother nature and trail conditions. I was watching the weather reports come in a couple weeks before the race, that were reporting a warm up. When I say warm, I mean above freezing. Anything approaching above freezing temperatures in February is considered warm and bad weather by the Fat Bike community. The warning e-mails would come out from the 906 Adventure Team of the potential weather impact to trail conditions and the challenge was on.
I packed up my family and headed for Marquette, Michigan on Friday morning. I couldn’t wait to get there. I have family in Marquette and my kids were super excited to hang with their cousins. I arrived in plenty of time to check in Friday night and pick up my race number. I really enjoy destination races. Destination races for me are races that are not local and we make a weekend out of the event. I enjoy riding new trails and even though I have ridden Marquette trails a couple times, I had never ridden them in the snow and had never ridden the Neguanee Trails.
I woke up early Saturday morning for my pre-race breakfast and headed to the start line with my wife. She would watch the start of the race in Ispeming and then pick me up at the finish line in Marquette. I was ready to go, but struggling to find a tire pressure that made sense. My tires are plenty wide at 4.6 inches, but they are fairly knobby. They seem more like a summer all mountain / trail tire and they really start to walk all over the place when I drop the tire pressure. The 906 Adventure Team was warning about the soft trail and recommending 3 to 4 psi in your tires with the weather being in the 30s for the race. I actually never checked my tire pressure, but I let out enough air for the side knobs to roll on the pavement and my front tire to walk all over the place before calling it good.
The 906 Polar Roll Fat Bike Race
906 Polar Roll Race Start
I lined up at the start line about 3 or 4 rows back and felt pretty comfortable with my starting position. The Red Bull truck led us out of the start line and the race was on as we headed down the water puddle filled street, before making our left turn onto the snowmobile trail. When we hit the trail, there was a bit of carnage as people jockeyed to find a packed line on the trail. I made it through without crashing, but soon realized we were in for an unpredictable treat of trail conditions over the next 35 miles of racing.
There turned out to be a single line right down the middle of the trail that was ridable. At one moment, I really wanted to pass, but every time I pulled out of the packed tire line, I would start to sink while my pedal effort would sky rocket and I couldn’t make it around. I eventually just sat in until we got to the single track. When we hit the first single track, there were immediately signs of people already walking and tearing up the trail. The game plan became simple… stay in the middle of the trail, stay steady and if you wanted to pass, just wait for somebody to make a mistake in front of you.
The Neguanee Singletrack included plenty of “hike-a-bike” sections and as you stepped off your bike, you would sink up to your knees. There were sections of trail that were already trashed with the remnants of Fat Bikes and Fat Bikers flipping and crashing down the trail. I left plenty of those remnants myself. The group of 5 or 6 racers that I would race with through the Neguanee Trail would change lead positions as we took turns sticking front tires, catapulting ourselves over the handlebars.
I did not like crashing, but these crashes into 4 foot of snow were certainly much easier on the body than slamming down on the Minnesota frozen ground and ice the previous weekend at the Fat Bike Frozen Forty Race. I was reminded of being body slammed onto the ice at one point as we popped out of the trail to ride the edge of a road for a 100yards and my bike flipped out from underneath me on the icey edge of the road.
We finished the single track in Negaunee and were out on the snowmobile trail that would connect us to the South Marquette Trail System. The trail was soft and rutted, but you were able to stay on top of it versus punching through it like the first section of trail. I made good time up the trail riding mostly solo. I did have one other rider that was with me for a couple miles of the trail. I had not ridden snowmobile trails before and this was a main snowmobile trail route.
I have to admit, I was concerned about riding the trails and assumed that snowmobilers probably followed speed limit signs like fat bikers followed tire pressure recommendations… That being said, the snowmobilers were great at sharing the trail and some even pulled over to watch the race go by. Hats off to the snowmobile community for sharing the trail for the 906 Polar Roll and keeping things safe for the fat bike racers!
I thought I made good time on the snowmobile trail averaging 13 to 14 mph for most of it and even running 16 to 18 mph a few times. I had to stay focused on the ride though, as you could get your front tire in a rut quick, losing the front end. It was still difficult to feed as I had to keep both hands on the bar most of the time to keep the bike headed strait as I was fighting ruts.
I made it to the end of the snowmobile trail in less than 2 hours to make a right hand turn on an ice rink covered road. It was crazy and would get worse, the further I made it up the road. It went from having a little lane that you could get some rough ice to ride on to a completely glazed over road with a few curves, uphills and downhills. I really don’t understand how I was able to keep the bike upright, other than I tried to ride on the bottom edge of the snowbanks piled along the roadside.
I finally made it off the ice road to hit the Marquette single track. This was tough and it would include some hills and even flat sections that were down right unridable, covered in traces of previous racers also having to hike. I unknowingly missed a turn at one point and found myself on a section of trail that was very familiar. I started questioning myself, but didn’t recall seeing a turn off arrow sign and remembered following some flags and was still convinced I was going the right way. Everything kind of looked the same anyways in the snow. Finally, I came to a “hike-a-bike” section that really looked familiar. My GPS showed almost 25 miles and another rider that I had come up on said he was at 23. I knew for sure I was now repeating a section of trail.
It dawned on me that the flags I rode through along the trail were red and now I remembered that the trail had also forked off to the right just before those flags. I had also passed by a “Long Race Only” sign for the second time a little ways back, that I now realized was the same sign I had seen a couple miles earlier and not a second one. I could either back track or keep moving forward and repeat the loop, knowing I would return to the missed turn. I figured I was at the half way point of my mistake by now and I was safer to just continue repeating this loop and look for the turn that I had missed the first time. I was afraid of back tracking and accidentally cutting the course or really getting lost by trying to find the missed turn from the wrong direction.
I eventually came to the red flags again and saw my turn to the right just before the flags. My head was down the first time through and I missed the right arrow up the fork in the trail. I had a bit of a duh moment as the flags I rode thru were obvious red flags to let me know I was going the wrong way. Live and learn I guess, but I was really frustrated with myself as I was having a really good race up to missing the turn and repeating a loop of the trail that included plenty of “hike-a-bike”. I was tired from the “hike-a-bike” and I was off my mental game now.
At any rate, back to racing. I could see that I had definitely lost some positions now as the trail seemed to be more tore up than it had been prior to me repeating the previous loop. The leaders from the short race had now come thru and I had lost spots to racers in my own race. The rest of the South Marquette Trails were very tore up and I did a lot of hiking. Even the downhills were becoming unridable. I was no longer having fun crashing as my ankles, shins and knees were becoming banged up from repeatedly being slammed by my frame and pedals every time I washed out and / or stuck a front tire, flipping me and my bike down the trail.
At one point, I did have a crash that I did have to stop and laugh about though. Partially, I had to stop and laugh because I had no choice as I was buried head first in a snow bank with legs sticking out, straight up in the air. I was coming to a bridge over a creek crossing and stuck a front tire on the edge of the trail. I went straight over the handle bars, head first into a huge snow drift. My right arm and head was straight into it and I actually went deep enough for my head to partially poke out the side of it to the creek. I could see just a little bit of daylight out of my left eye as my head started to poke out the side of the drift to the creek. My legs were dangling up in the air and I had to use my left arm to dig myself out. I could have imagined the entire thing looking like some kind of cartoon that you would see on TV as a kid.
I was getting close to the downhill section that would lead us out of the South Marquette Trail system down to the bike path to the finish line. I was so looking forward to this as I thought I would have a nice coast downhill. This was no easy downhill riding. It was one foot on the pedal and another foot hanging off, while riding brakes to avoid more crashes. My upper body took the brunt of this as my arms and shoulders seemed to take the weight of me on the handlebars of the bike. I never thought I would say this on a fully rigid bike, but I really wish that I would have had a dropper post for this so I could have sat on the saddle for more of it.
There were 2 downhill sections. The first, coming off of the top of the main trail system and the other after crossing under the road. I only bring this up because there was an aid station before a little section of single track, prior to crossing under the road to the second section of downhill trail. I have to mention this aid station, because somebody knows how to cook some bacon. I was hungry and the bacon hit the spot. The 906 Adventure Team knows how to cook some bacon and set up an aid station!
I finally arrived at the bike path to find a slushy and rutted up ride. I actually soft pedaled some of the first part and then slowly picked up the pace. I had fell off the racer in front of me, but was able to reel him back in when we hit the cleared asphalt headed to the finish line. I tried to make a move to pass before the finish, but couldn’t make it around him. It was a fun finish and I enjoyed being able to have a little bit of a sprint finish, even though I couldn’t make the pass. I ended up finishing in 32nd place in 4 hours and 22 minutes.
906 Polar Roll Fat Bike Race Final Thoughts
I felt really great about my finish, considering the trail conditions and repeating a loop of the trail after missing a turn. The 906 Polar Roll Fat Bike Race is a total legit race and was made extremely tough with the warm weather. I am looking forward to the Marji Gesick and returning to the Polar Roll for next year. I love point to point races and the mix of single track and snowmobile trail made for an interesting race.
I am definitely still learning my way around fat bike racing and mountain bike racing in general, but feel like I am making improvements. I enjoy the challenge and the community around the sport and can’t wait for the next race to arrive. The Fat Bike Birkie is coming up in a a week and I will probably just enjoy it as a fast paced group ride. I’ll be racing True Grit the following weekend and my fitness is not at a level yet that I can go race these back to back weekends and stay fresh.
I hope you enjoy reading these race reports as much as I enjoy racing and writing them.
Start Line Rollout Video