Thursday, July 18, 2019
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photo by Lydia Stern

Chainless Wonders

A highlight of Crested Butte Bike Week

by Dawne Belloise

Crested Butte Bike Week is upon us and it rightly boasts that it’s the oldest mountain bike festival in the world. Originally dubbed Fat Tire Bike Week before its name change a couple of years ago, it highlights Crested Butte as the legendary home of mountain biking, combining skill and competition with the proper amount of craziness.

Perhaps the most insane and anticipated race is the notorious Chainless World Championship Bike Race, from the top of Kebler Pass down seven miles of dirt and minimal pavement to the heart of town. The chainless race began about 35 years ago when a gaggle of locals decided to pedal their klunkers up Kebler Pass Road, disconnect their chains and fly down the pass to see what would happen.

Dave Ochs, president of the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce explains, “If you go with a coaster brake bike you don’t have brakes when you take the chain off. In the old days, they were ballsy, using only their feet, they’d wear heavy boots to brake. We use zip ties to tie up the chains now—you can’t pedal but you can use your brakes.”

Ochs says, “We want to bring the race back to its roots, a true celebration of the townie klunker bike, although all bikes are welcome—the handmade bikes, the art bikes, all the crafty sculptures that people take up there.”

He notes that the Chainless was a townie race originally and you should be on the right bike if you’re going for the big win, but again, all bikes are welcome and the spectators go wild over all the fabulous creations of those racers just wanting to show up with their artful klunkers and have an amazingly fun time.

Unlike the old days, you won’t have to pedal your contraption up Kebler because there are bike transports all the way to the top of the pass. Keep in mind though, as the website states, they are piled onto flatbed trailers and strapped down, so the chances of your bike getting scratched is somewhere between 50 percent and guaranteed.

It’s a junker race so find a sturdy one then drop off your bike between 10 a.m. and noon behind the Chamber of Commerce, then go play. The participant shuttle leaves from Elk Avenue and 6th Avenue, next to the Chamber parking lot from 2 to 3 p.m. to haul your bad self up to your bike on the pass. The race starts at 4:20 p.m., of course, and finishes at 1st and Elk.

Ochs says more than 100 chainless racers have registered but not too many locals, who tend to wait until the last moment to log in, but he also warns that they cap the participants at 300, “and it could sell out. We don’t want to turn any locals away so we encourage all of you to sign up now,” Ochs urges.

The race start is pure madness, and Ochs says it’s antsy at the start line, elbows being thrown, bravado being spoken.

“That run is pretty amazing, it’s like playing hopscotch on crack. It’s impossible to find your bike sometimes and you have to jump around everyone’s bikes and wheel frames to find your bike and then get it out.”

photo by Lydia Stern
photo by Lydia Stern

He explains that the racers have to run to their wheeled steeds entangled in a knot of 300 bikes when the gun goes off. He also notes that not all 300 racers are vying to win—most are there for the fun, although it’s definitely a competition, and there are discussions of what’s authentic, what’s the right bike, who should be allowed to win—like, should a tandem be able to win?

Most Crested Butte competitions and events involve costuming up and Buttians take their costume creating seriously. “That’s the best,” Ochs says. “What you see in the Chainless Race is nothing shy of Crested Butte’s finest. Over the years the costumes have gotten even better, like last year’s boat bike and the gorilla suits and chicken suits are so perfect.”

Then there are the mechanical feats like Mike Arbaney’s front end, loose pivot point bike named the Gambler that can bend itself in two. And there’s the prestige and the glory and Ochs says, “For the one vying for the victory, it’s absolutely prestigious.”

In fact, Ochs himself covets that fame but the honor eludes him every year. He’s come in second and third multiple times, but never first. “All I want in the world is to win,” he grins and swears he’s going to gain 50 pounds for mass to help gravity accelerate his projectile speed down that mountain road so he can take the title one year.

There are prizes, of course, for the best bike, best costume and an assortment of other funky awards in addition to the more tough first, second and third arriving at the bottom in one piece.

New this year is that all the prizes are donated from Soma Wellness. Ochs says they’re also hoping to bring back the highly desired Green Jacket that went to the first-place winner.

“Whoever won the Chainless got to keep the jacket for a year, but the jacket’s been lost for eight or nine years now,” Ochs says. He says the coat of honor is similar to the one from the Masters Golf Tournament. “It was super cool. You wanted the jacket.”

The no guts-no glory race is, of course, famous for its daring carnage as racers descend the final hill trying to avoid the side-slide turn onto Elk Avenue from old Kebler Road to screaming throngs of fans. Kebler Pass Road will be closed to traffic during the race, making the descent a somewhat safer ride for the death-defying racers.

Just because you aren’t crazy enough to drop the vertical Kebler Road doesn’t mean you don’t get to party. Everyone is welcome to the after-party, where there’ll be music and beer. One of the Crested Butte Bike Week’s sponsors, Oskar Blues Brewery, is onboard with their recipe of “Ride bikes. Drink beer. Repeat.” It’s practically a Crested Butte chant. Ochs says the chamber is “keeping the chainless love going because it’s the best bike race on the planet.”

Registration and a full schedule of events online at Also check out the full schedule and details of all the weekend’s events on page 27.

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