Racing Winter Downhill on the Slopes of Oak Mountain

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The idea of attending a snow downhill race was first suggested to me back when snow had just started to fall in New York this winter. Back then it seemed like one of those races that I’d contemplate about doing, and then either totally forget, or talk myself out of going. However, this winter was long and harsh, and despite a lengthy trip out west, the Northeast was still frozen solid by the time I was back.

Not having a fat bike and with a desire to ride as strong as ever, the Oak Mountain snow DH crept back on my mind. Along with this desire came a lot of questions and uncertainty. Should I stud my tires? Should I install platform pedals in place of clipless? Will I freeze my ass off? Will I enjoy it at all? I’ve raced on snow before and done quite well, but none of those previous races were meant to be snow races. They were either too early or too late in the season and the weather conditions simply did not agree. An intentional snow race was something different. I really had no expectations for this event and with that in mind, decided to give it a try. Chris and Sean were also on board.

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The morning of the race was a mixture of excitement for the first race of the season, along with a heavy desire to stay in my warm bed and sleep for an extra four hours. Nonetheless, I gathered my gear and got on my way to pick up Chris. Nestled in the heart of the Adirondacks, Oak Mountain was a 3 hour drive, and a whole 10 degrees colder than Beacon, hovering right around the forecasted 34 degree mark.

The sky was gray and the ground in the parking lot was a field of ruts that had frozen solid. It was slippery to even walk on. As soon as we got out of the car, we started wondering why we came. After all, a 3 hour drive south would have yielded much warmer temperatures and clear trails. In the base lodge, we located Sean along with Ed – the owner of Otsego Bicycles in Oneonta, NY. The New York contingent of NAD was in full force. Unwillingly, we registered, changed into our riding gear and hit the lift.

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The course was laid out on a ski slope, with tape marking off a number of turns and chicanes. The first practice run was a casual one. Carefully feeling out the traction, it became evident that the straightaways were a no brake, go as fast as you can kind of deal and the corners were a “foot out-flat out” type of affair. The first right hander was very soft and would present trouble for a lot of the racers. Platform pedals would have been beneficial – studded tires, not at all.

At the bottom of the run, everyone was sporting a huge grin and any kind of uncertainty was replaced by excitement. Who needs warm temps and dirt when we have snow to slide around on! The subsequent practice runs were a matter of finding better lines into the corners and seeing how much speed you could get away with. Soon enough, we were feeling sufficiently cold and it was time for the racers meeting and heat selection. The race format was a typical 4X start: one open class, heats of four riders. The first two advance to the next round, the last two get eliminated.

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Knowing that the best lines would come from being up front, I knew I had to get the holeshot. The start line was on a bit of a flat spot and the snow here was deep and soft. This provided for very slow acceleration and it felt like I spun my pedals three times before the bike started moving. These seconds seemed to have slowed down to an eternity, as they often do for me at the start of mass start races. Soon enough, though, my efforts proved sufficient and I was in the front. Right away, I knew my 34×11 gearing was way too low for the occasion. It’s no wonder, as we were hitting speeds of up to 44mph on the bottom straightaway, according to one of the finalists’ GPS.

The remainder of the run was a matter of keeping the speed at the maximum and not letting myself get carried away in the corners. I followed this strategy throughout and before I knew it, I was in the final heat. I got a less than stellar start but was able to pick everyone off by the first corner. The conditions have gotten worse by this point and yet again, it was a matter of controlling the turns while going faster than any of my previous runs. After a couple of close calls in the chicane section, it was down to the last stretch and an intense pedal effort, spinning a high cadence and constantly spinning out of gears. I had crossed the finish line. Nobody passed me. I won.

Right behind me was Gian, who had a very strong showing throughout the entire race and coming in third was our own Sean Seary. The first race of the season was in the books and I was even more confident with racing on snow. The last order of business was a mass start run down the mountain with all the participants. This was a relaxed affair, with opportunity to throw in some style in places you’d be conserving speed during the race.

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A huge thanks goes out to Oak Mountain for hosting and Sam Dana and Eli Glesmann for putting on such a fun event. The vibe was great and I can only hope to see more unconventional events like this pop up in the near future. It was great to see fat bikes, XC bikes, and DH bikes all lumped into one race – an uncommon sight in our equipment specific sport. I am hooked and will definitely be back next year.

We got a chance to chat with Sam and Eli, the guys that make riding bikes at Oak Mountain a reality. Oak isn’t a place that springs to mind when you think lift assisted mountain biking in the northeast, but Sam and Eli are trying hard to change that. They have spent a tremendous amount of their time and effort in getting this small resort off the ground for bike use. A share of the proceeds from this race is going into trail development and equipment rentals for the coming riding season. NAD will be back in the summer to check out their DH trails and report back on our findings. A small operation at the moment, it’s our hope that more people discover this little gem in the area that doesn’t have much dedicated mountain bike trail infrastructure.