Bryan Dillon, Jenny Smith repeat as champions
by Than Acuff
Apprehension, fear, concern for one’s own well-being—these are the emotions expressed by many Fat Tire 40 participants leading up to the race. Yet, those feelings soon disappear as they roll out on course and nerves are replaced with pain, suffering and, eventually, oxygen deprived full body fatigued bliss.
Race organizers ramped up the already tough Fat Tire 40 course for the eighth annual event on Saturday, June 25 making it just a little bit longer. The race gives even the strongest riders a serious challenge with more than 6,000 feet of climbing, most of it on singletrack, spread over 40 miles, give or take a mile or two.
“It’s a lot of climbing for 40 miles,” says seven-time racer and two-time winner Dillon. “It’s a climber’s course, you gotta be able to climb to survive the course.”
But, with $5,000 in cash shared between the top five men and women compliment of the Gunnison/Crested Butte Tourism Association, there’s a pretty fat carrot hanging on the end of the stick for racers. In the end, two local riders defended their 2015 titles as Stan’s Notubes Elite racing team member Jenny Smith and Team Ergon/Topeak athlete Bryan Dillon both repeated as champions.
Dillon has been on a frantic race pace this season winning the Original Growler 64-mile race and finishing fourth overall in the Epic Race Series which, due to its big cash prize purse, attracts the strongest riders from throughout the country to compete.
Dillon finished up the Epic series the week prior to the Fat Tire 40 and took it easy leading up to prepare for both the Fat Tire 40 and his first run at the Chainless World Championships.
“I needed to rest up for that one,” says Dillon of the Chainless. “That was the priority.”
And while he missed out on the Chainless podium, he more than made up for it the next day.
Seventy-two riders rolled out of town at 8 a.m. Saturday and after a parade lap through downtown Crested Butte and a leisurely neutral start pace up Gothic Road, it was game on when the course turned onto the Upper and Upper Upper Loop trails.
While those two trails are fairly benign when it comes to the climbs and descents, the ride is rife with rocks, leaving riders of all abilities to their wits in an effort to make it through. Zach Guy made the initial sprint to the Upper Loop but Brian Smith soon took over in front with Dillon keeping him in sight, all the while keeping himself in check.
“I always want to be cautious in there,” says Dillon. “I’ve crashed in there so I played it safe without letting Smithy get too far ahead.”
Dillon took the lead on the climb up Strand Hill building his initial gap on Smith there and carrying it into Deer Creek as the course enters the brutal single track climb up, including the hike-a-bike section dubbed “the Wall.”
It was during that climb that Smith managed to reel Dillon back in and when Dillon hopped off his bike to hike, he tweaked his seat. While taking a moment to fix it, Smith rolled right up on Dillon and they were back in a two-way battle.
The difference came during the Deer Creek downhill, which includes one little stinger climb in the middle. Smith suffered a brief mishap and Dillon used it to his advantage as he punched it up the climb and pointed it on the downhill, carrying a lead to the end of the Deer Creek trail section.
“I put in a hard effort up that little stinger in the middle,” says Dillon.
Dillon climbed up Gothic Road to the start of Meander and caught a quick glimpse of Smith as he started up for the final and toughest uphill of the race.
“If you go out and just ride Meander, it’s not that big a deal,” explains Dillon. “But where it is in the Fat Tire 40, it can make or break you. Everything else is fun and then you hit Meander. You’re happy if you make it up that without cramping.”
Dillon did make it up with no problems, headed over to the West Side Trail and then bombed down the 2,000-foot descent to the finish line to take the win and earn a $1,000 payday. Smith rolled in a little under three minutes later in second place with Guy taking third. Dave Wiens soon followed in fourth place with the locals’ sweep of the cash podium disrupted by Alex Pond.
Smith finished in a time of three hours, 58 minutes and 57 seconds for the win, 13 minutes ahead of her closest competition and three minutes faster than last year. Sparky Moir rolled across in second place, Sarah Stubbe placed third, Tina Kempin got a slice of the cash pie coming in fourth and Gale Levins rounded out the payout with a fifth-place finish.
Smith’s race season has been relatively relaxed compared to Dillon’s. She dropped out of the racing scene last year following the Fat Tire 40 due to injury and came into this year with a different mindset.
“Things have been going really good, I’ve just been pacing things really slowly,” says Smith. “My form has just been building.”
Smith had a great showing a week earlier at the Epic Race series event in Carson City and carried her momentum into the Fat Tire 40. And while her race was not nearly as hotly contested as Dillon’s, she did have a couple things in the back of her mind. For one, she knew Moir was a rising star on the racing circuit, having raced against her earlier in the season.
Second, while Smith won last year, she crashed during a section of the Upper Loop, heavily damaging her bike so she opted to run that section both times this year.
Smith’s race this year was smooth from start to finish, relishing in her choice to ride a full suspension bike again complete with a dropper post, which helped shave time off of her descents considerably.
“I’ve ridden a hard tail plenty on that course,” says Smith. “I switched to full suspension last year and then added the dropper post this year. It was super smooth.”
Smith also had little trouble with Meander toward the end of the race and actually enjoys the final climb.
“I really like Meander so that helps,” says Smith. “If you can just keep your rhythm going, it’s enjoyable.”
Smith made sure to keep the rubber side down on the final descent, running the one tricky Upper Loop section, taking the win and a $1,000 check for her effort.
While Dillon and Smith are both accomplished racers on the national circuit, they are always willing to line up for the local race.
“It’s one of the highlights of the summer,” says Dillon. “I like the course, it’s challenging but fun and it doesn’t hurt getting paid for the effort.”
“It’s a really awesome course and it’s hard to not do the race when it’s right here,” adds Smith.
But the race isn’t all rainbows and unicorns as riders continued to roll in throughout the day with the last ones pushing the seven-hour mark.
“The folks that finished seven hours in, those are the true hard people,” says race director Dave Ochs. “People that do it in three and a half hours are amazing but the people that double that are incredible. Lot of suffering out there but they still finished.”