For those unfamiliar with the Black Fly Challenge, it is a point to point race that on alternating years begins and or finishes in Inlet and Indian Lake. To quote the race promoter "Over half the 40 mile course traverses the rugged Moose River Recreation Area on mountain roads composed of dirt, gravel, sand and exposed boulders with several steep elevation changes." Originally conceived as a mountain bike race, most of the faster racers use cyclocross bikes. Since Team Ommegang-Syracuse Bicycle is largely made up of mud, blood and belgian beer loving cyclocrossers, we attend this race in great numbers and talk about it throughout the year. This year we had ten Ommegangsters make the pilgrimage to "BF."
Going into the race, we all knew this year was going to be different than previous years. The Moose River roads, if you can call them that, had been decimated by a rough winter followed by spring floods. To say that sections of the road had been washed away would be something of an understatement. Pictures posted by the promoters illustrated the point. An already difficult race on a 'cross bike was going to be made more difficult as the importance of correct tire pressure and bike handling skills were going to be magnified. The race day weather further "enhanced" the experience with pouring rain that turned the course into a power sapping wet sand fest.
390 people signed up for the race. Unlike most road races, there is no on-line registration, and you need to mail in your race application or sign up the day of the race. This means that you don't really know who's racing, which I kind of like. Rumor had it that some local favorites were headed to the race, but when we got to the start line, most of them were missing. Scared by the weather, afraid to get sand in their . . . uh . . . drive chains? At the start line, I told my teammate Ray to keep racing no matter what happened. In a race like the Black Fly there are plenty of flats and crashes and there's always a chance of grabbing a few more places. You never know who's going to flat or if the past predicted the future, overcook a turn and fly off into the woods.
The race started in Indian Lake this year, which meant the first eight miles would be on the road. In previous years the race started slowly which meant everyone was bunched up and there was a lot of bumping and yelling. This year in a hard rain everyone went hard from the gun which immediately stretched out the field. By the time we hit the dirt it was every man for himself. The mud and sand were brutal and climbing hills required extra power, and descending them required pedaling as opposed to the typical coasting and braking. Racers weaved around looking for firm ground, but it seemed that whichever line you chose, it was simply soft. The whole race played out in a very painful super slow-mo. In reality the super slow-mo was probably for the best because many of the washouts required picking the right line in single file. Even in slow-mo it was fast enough that picking the wrong line could have dire consequences, particularly on a 'cross bike. Eight miles of the course were actually unreachable by car, so the DEC had a couple of 4 wheelers to keep an eye on everyone in case there was a bad crash or mechanical.
I won't bore you with the blow by blow events of the race. Actually, I spent a lot of it by myself toiling in the sand. I did spend some quality time riding with and then chasing my teammate Ray W. It was funny as we were climbing a hill I said "I see footprints, we're going to catch somebody!" On the next hill Ray saw more footprints and like a couple of starving hyena's chasing a wounded gazelle, we chased with new found enthusiasm. Unfortunately the footprints weren't from a wounded gazelle, it turned out to be our teammate Fred who was a Division 1 Cross Country runner. Ray and I were left hungry as Fred probably ran the hills as quickly, or slowly, as we were riding them. Sadly, Ray had an untimely flat. As I went by I yelled "take your time" or something like that. It occurred to me that Ray might take that as sarcasm, but luckily he took it in the spirit in which it was intended and slowed down for an efficient tire change. Ray got a second flat right before the finish and actually ran his bike over the finish line to much applause and cheering with a tube hanging around his neck.
As I reached the road coming into Inlet, I caught teammate Greg D. as he was putting his wheel back on after a flat. Greg quickly caught up and I rolled into the finish behind him. At the end of the day, all ten Ommegangsters finished with four guys in the top 10 and five in the top 15. Three of those guys had flats during the race, so results are all the more impressive. Tim O. came in second after getting a flat about half way through the race. He couldn't get his front brake closed and raced the rest of the race with only a rear brake. The Black Fly will certainly get you out of your comfort zone.
On a bad note, Tim's brother-in-law and team friend Steve had a very bad crash. Crash Report:
1 broken collar bone
3 broken ribs (one in a few places)
1 punctured lung
1 overnight in the Hospital
The Black Fly is an amazing race, and more than other races brings a new experience each year. Sadly racing is sometimes dangerous, but for most of us the rewards far outweigh the risks. Ride safe and enjoy the ride. Even, or especially, if its a sufferfest like The Black Fly Challenge!