Justin Ratzlaff, a student at Luther, finished 21st overall. (Photo by Greg Smith)
Justin Ratzlaff, a student at Luther, finished 21st overall. (Photo by Greg Smith)
Seven of the top 15 places at the second annual Pugsley World Championship Fat Bike/Mountain Bike race were held by Decorah residents.

The race, which featured 30 riders taking on the challenging 22-mile course, was held in Decorah Saturday, Feb. 25.

What is the Pugsley race?

"Fat Bikes" are among the newest innovations in mountain biking. With "freakishly large" tires more reminiscent of what one might find on a motorcycle, fat bikes are cycling's answer to the all-terrain vehicle. With wider rims, fatter tires, lower air pressure and more ground contact, the bikes offer superior traction and some "floatation," allowing them to navigate much more easily in snow, mud, sand and loose hardscrabble conditions than a conventional mountain bike.

Surly Bikes' "Pugsley" is probably the most recognized model as it is a Twin Cities' brand and has been around the longest, but there are other manufacturers making "fat bikes." The list includes Milwaukee's Schlick Cycles' "Northpaw" (which is custom-built in West Branch by well-known frame builder and mountain biking pioneer, Tom Teesdale); and Salsa's "Mukluk," also a Twin Cities' brand. Other manufacturers have models with names like "Fatback," "Crawler," and "9:Zero:7," and Surly's latest creation called "Moonlander," an even bigger and fatter variation on their popular Pugsley.

The Decorah race

Decorah's Pugsley World Championships are a celebration of the fat bike phenomenon, and while the event is open to anyone on a bike, only those riding a fat bike are eligible to win the race and over $1,500 in cash and prizes offered to the top race finishers.

Race Director Jesse Reyerson from Platteville, Wis. (formerly of Decorah), has a humorous take on the event. "If Vikings rode bikes, they would have ridden Pugsleys," he said. "Even though it is a competitive field with a large purse at stake, we try to make it fun, and at the end of the day everyone felt good about the course, the race and their competition.

"There is camaraderie among mountain bikers, and Saturday there were stories of a few racers who got lost on the course and other competitors who helped them back on track to the finish. A couple of the cash winners even split their purse winnings with those who helped them to the end."

The course

With more than 30 participants in this year's event, the race field had riders from five states and from as far away as Omaha, Neb., to the west, and Chicago to the east. The pre-race meeting was held at Cooper's Pub at The Oaks at 10:15 a.m., with a race start at the base of an abandoned section of "Old Highway 52" on what will become the final paved section of the Trout Run Trail later this year.

It was a bumpy start. At the top of the first climb where the abandoned highway turns into "trail under construction," the frozen ruts and uneven terrain created by heavy equipment tracks made for some bone-jarring bicycle racing. The course wound back into Decorah past the eagle's nest and the Fish Hatchery along the TRT, with most of the paved trail still snow-covered from the week's earlier snowfall and some of the higher sections still clogged with older, drifted snow.

The racers crossed Twin Bridges and took on the challenging singletrack trails in Palisades and Van Peenen parks.

"Some of the trail sections were a little dicey," said one rider. "You really had to pay attention and stay off the smooth ice in the turns. "

As the day wore on, some south-facing trail sections became muddy and difficult to ride, even with the fat tires. Chad Wilson from Milwaukee commented, "Under the conditions, I did not think they could possibly top last year's race course from Cresco to Decorah... but they did it. It was awesome."

Lead pack

The lead pack of a half dozen racers was established early on the first climb, and the group stayed together until mid-race when they hit the snow and ice-covered singletrack in Palisades and Van Peenen. The eventual winner, Maciej Nowack, age 34, from Waukesha, Wis., emerged from the woods just ahead of second-place finisher, Trevor Olson, 38, from Rochester, Minn., and Tim Norrie, 37, from Minneapolis. Nowack, Olson and Norrie were awarded $500, $250 and $150 respectively.

The top local finisher was Marc Folkedahl in fourth place, followed by Ben Shockey in fifth, Jeff Freidhof in eighth, Taylor Mansfield in ninth, Justin Ratzlaff in 10th, Ward Budweg in 11th, Benji Nichols in 12th and Kirk Johnson in 17th. The top female finishers, Kate Heil, 34, from Waukesha, Wis., and Laurie Stensland, 36, from Madison, Wis., took home $100 and $50 respectively.

Sponsors for the event included Cooper's Pub, Surly Bikes, New Belgium Brewing Co., Fat-Bike.com, Bar Mitts, Doug and Diane Osborn, Jeff Freidhof, Eric Clement, Decorah Human Powered Trails and Decorah Parks and Rec. The event generated $650 for trail maintenance in Decorah's parks.