Never before and never again will you hear the words, “400 W for ten minutes” sound so “matter of fact”!
In the words of DIRT Chris “Wattsberg” Ostberg, himself!
So, a recap of 2021? Where to begin? Well, you really can’t summarize the 2021 season without rhapsodizing about the 2020 season, or lack thereof. We all know what happened, so that I won’t dwell on the details; the world went into quarantine, and the sport of outdoor bike racing went right along with it.
By the time 2021 rolled around, I, along with all my peers in Michigan, was chomping at the bit to get back outside and race our bikes. That was the plan anyway, but as we know from last year, things don’t always go as planned.
Setbacks, But Not Excuses
I faced some setbacks in early 2021, including a grueling bout with pneumonia (in hindsight, possibly Covid-19) and an unexpected knee injury resulting in arthroscopic surgery. Each incident put me several weeks behind in my Zwift focused early season training. As a result, I never reached the fitness level in 2021 that I did in 2019 or 2020.
Now that the excuses are out of the way, I’ll get into how not developing the legs, lungs, or watts I wanted this year was actually a blessing in disguise. I’d like to consider myself a tactical racer. I love to dive into the data and strategy, and whether it’s Zwift, Training Peaks, Strava, ZwiftPower.com, it doesn’t matter.
Going into races while not being confident in my fitness forced me to put a more considerable emphasis on tactics. This outdoor skillset translates VERY well to the Zwift platform (in either direction). Techniques like sag climbing, effort, and energy management, sizing up your competitors, and carefully evaluating finish scenarios are arrows in your quiver, which are just as effective in Watopia as they are at your local crit, gravel, or MTB race.
Catching Up on Fitness, Sharpening the Racecraft
I feel like I could sharpen my racecraft in 2021 and put myself into finishing positions I probably didn’t deserve, and Zwift training plays no small part in getting me there. As a jack-of-all-trades, master of none style biker (like a lot of us DIRT dads who have real responsibilities outside of biking!), I like to dabble in several disciplines.
Over the winter, I do a bit of snow fat bike racing, but this was interrupted by my early season medical setbacks. Next on the agenda comes gravel racing. It suits my big watts/big weight/poor aero style rather well. I planned to race the short course races (typically 30-40 miles) in the MGRS (Michigan Gravel Racing Series), which offer a variety of points events building up to the biggest gravel race in the world, the Barry Roubaix.
I also love mountain biking, so I intended to do a few local MTB series races with an emphasis on three large Midwest races; Ore to Shore Epic in Marquette, the Marji Gesick in Marquette, and the Catalina Freakin’ Wine Mixer of MTB races, the Iceman Cometh Challenge in Traverse City.
Chris and DIRT Dad Wesley Stocker at 2021 Lowell Gravel Race
The Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic
The 48-mile Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic was the first on the agenda in early August of the big events. It is a mass start 700+ competitor drag race, which favors heavy watts with many fast doubletrack/ORV trail sections and little technical singletrack.
My top 50 finish in 2019 earned me a preferred start position for this year’s race, meaning I did not have to fret about arriving ridiculously early to stake my claim in the start chute. Did you know there are preferred starts in Zwift races too?
Just transport yourself to the event as early as possible (30 minutes before the event start) and quit your ride immediately. Discard this ride and go about your warmup usually. Rejoin as late as you wish, and you’ll be on the front row. You’re welcome.
The start of O2S is grueling. Not right away, though. We roll out on pavement about 3 miles to the first dirt, but things go absolutely bonkers right after that. After a few punchy climbs, we climb straight up a steep luge hill, with pitches well over 20%.
Did I mention I’m a 210 lbs/95+kg Clydesdale? I always suffer here and spend the rest of the race making up for my shortfalls in climbing while lamenting my poor dietary choices over the last 12 months. It took an opening effort of 400w for 8+ minutes to get me to the top of Lucy Hill, and to be honest, I wasn’t feeling great at this point.
It’s a lot like the climb out of the Watopia flats to the Jungle circuit. It’s not long, but you need to go seriously into the red to avoid getting dropped. Maybe I should stop avoiding the courses that hurt me so I could get better at them.
Luckily my body settled into a comfortable push after about an hour. At this point, I was averaging just over 320 watts and feeling fresh. During a steady road climb section, I got impatient with the 8-man group I was riding with and turned things up to about 350 watts for the next 6 minutes.
I’m able to leave the group and catch another rider up the road. It worked out well on the slower road climb, but as soon as we hit the faster sections, the rider (being a single speeder) fell off the pace simply due to not having enough gear. I had to fend for myself until the last 10 miles, where I was caught by a fast-moving group nearly a dozen strong.
We worked together, and in the final few miles, three of us battled it out to a sprint finish. Starting the 3rd wheel on the last corner (see below), I took one in the final sprint, but I needed a little more real estate to hunt down the other.
The end result was a slight improvement over my 2019 time and a decent 51st out of 693 finish earning me 3rd place on my age group (40-44) podium. I was mostly happy with the metrics – 294 watts average, 363 watts normalized over nearly 3 hours.
The Marji Gesick 50
Next on the calendar was the Marji Gesick 50 in September. Zwift could not prepare me for this one. It’s 50 miles (actually 66.6 this year, lol) of some of the gnarliest, roughest, steepest, and most un-bikeable terrain the Midwest has to offer. It’s designed to punish you.
Over 20% DNF and this is the “easier” distance. It starts with a deceptively calm tour along the paved Lake Superior bike paths. Much like the tale of the Edmund Fitzgerald, things go from okay, to miserable, to “it’s been good to know ya.”
The inflection point of this madness is a mile climb up Mt. Marquette, where I needed to burn a 400+ watt match for 10 minutes to maintain a top 10 position. That’s a tough pill to swallow in an 8-hour race. Things settle down a bit as you make your way (generally uphill) towards the mining town of Ishpeming by trading speed for technical difficulty.
When you hit the RAMBA Epic loop, all hell breaks loose. An endurance race of this magnitude is new territory to me, and admittedly I did not nail my pacing and nutritional needs. Remember that 400w effort?
In hindsight, that was probably a poor life choice, and as a result, I started to fade past the 40-mile point, dropping out of the top 10 goal I had set for myself. The last 10 miles were miserable. I was off the bike quite a bit to handle the most demanding terrain (meaning that effort wasn’t even counted by my power meter!?!?).
I had a complete bonk which made me stop entirely to eat as I was getting too lightheaded and cramped to continue. There’s definitely a learning curve to these endurance events. I really should have tried that Uber Pretzel route on Zwift a few times to get a handle on how many calories I need for that kind of effort.
In the end, my top 10 goal went out the window, and I was simply happy to finish in one piece. After eight and a half hours, I rolled in at 19th place overall out of nearly 400 riders.
The 177-watt average may not seem like much, but this includes more time off the bike than I’d like to admit. Normalized power was still 271 watts, which is unsurprising given the 8,000 feet of elevation navigated and 5000+ calories burned.
Chris and teammate Hank talking strategy before the 2021 Marji Gesick start
The Barry Roubaix
Now we’re on to the Barry Roubaix. It is the largest gravel road race globally (usually held in spring but delayed this year due to Covid-19) with nearly 4,000 racers. Since I’m competing in the overall points for the short course series, I entered the 36-mile men’s “Open” category.
This year it was a ripper. Riders set course records all over the place. Our large group absolutely flew over the rolling Michigan gravel averaging 24 mph over the opening half. I’m comfortably hanging out in the lead group of roughly 30 riders when we hit the infamous Sager Road technical section.
Sure, it’s a road – but it’s a really rough one with soft sand and rough rocks all over. Unfortunately, it also has slower traffic from other race distances. The slower traffic quickly broke our 30 strong group apart, and sadly, I was on the wrong end of the split. It happens.
I spent the rest of the race trying to (unsuccessfully) claw my way back to a group. Overall it’s hard to complain about 15th in a field this large, but I’m already deep in thought on how I can make it through Sager Road next year without getting pinched from the group. This one stings a bit.
Cresting the “Three Sisters” Climbs at 2021 Barry Roubaix
The Big Dance - The Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge
If you’re still with me here, I’ve saved the best for last. The big dance. The largest single-day point-to-point mountain bike race in the US with close to 4,000 participants. It’s the Bell’s Iceman Cometh Challenge.
It’s really a party in the woods surrounding Traverse City with 10,000 of your friends that happens to have a bike race leading up to it. The build-up to this event is incredible. What wave will I be seeded in? How will the weather and course conditions be on that particular day?
For me, it’s also an opportunity to see some of my close DIRT friends like Carl Copenhaver, Brad Hochstetler, and the official ambassador or real-life DIRT meetups – Troy Eddy. Being local, Carl provides a precious intel stream of information regarding course conditions, race rumors, and overall funny dad jokes. The guy is hilarious.
Chris and DIRT dad Carl at Iceman Cometh Challenge 2021
Chris and wife Becky at Iceman Cometh Challenge 2021
It’s an unwritten rule at Iceman that you should throw your helmet into the ring for the Pro wave once you win your age group. The 3,500+ amateurs race in the morning while the roughly 100 participant Pro wave departs in the afternoon with a HUGE crowd to cheer them into the finish.
I knew I was in over my head. I knew I didn’t belong in a race with former World Tour hotshots, Olympians, and currently paid professionals half my size. Browsing the Pro entry list, I saw some familiar names from the Zwift world – former US National Champ Adam Zimmerman and local A+ racers Dan Yankus and Alex TenElshof.
This year promised a flatter, faster course, which is in my favor (to at least hang on). This event is more like a Zwift team time trial than a mountain bike race. It’s a full gas, full blast 30-mile effort where if you’re not in a pack working together, you are losing time to those that are.
The weather and vibe couldn’t be better on race day. The temperature was 50’s. The course was fast. I sent off friends and my wife in earlier waves in the morning. It sure beats the 30’s and snow/mud the last time this race was held in 2019.
Having never done the Pro wave before, my two friends Dan Smith, Dan Bakshi, and myself, decided we’d hang out near the back row to start and see how the race shakes out. To the surprise of no one, the pace was nuclear from the gun. The first 5 minutes averaged close to 22 mph and demanded 370+ watts from me to stay with the train.
Once we hit the first loose sandy sections, things started to mix up and thin out. Using my power to push through the soft sections, I made my way forward, eventually gathering a few riders to work with. We tried to work together at times, but fast doubletrack sections interrupted by tighter singletrack did separate us periodically. We never gathered enough riders together to make an efficient paceline, so catching up to larger groups ahead wasn’t in the cards.
Pro/Cat1 Start Iceman Cometh Challenge 2021
The last 3 miles of Iceman is an experience that you cannot describe. You have 10,000 spectators and morning racers who have been drinking all afternoon just waiting to scream their lungs out when the pros finally arrive in Traverse City. Just over 10 minutes off the pace of the winners, I finally start hearing the cowbells and commotion ahead.
My friends and teammates usually cheer on Icebreaker Hill’s final climb, a punchy 1-minute final effort before stringing out into the finishing chutes. When I reached the base of Icebreaker, my legs were toast already. I’d been averaging about 330 watts for the last 100 minutes, and my heart rate was north of 170 bpm.
Then I saw and heard my teammates cheering, and I lost my mind. I had to empty the tank. I had to burn every watt I had left. It’s go time!
Somehow I managed to put out about 650 watts for the next minute with a peak of 1,125 watts. It was the move of my race. I managed to pass four riders over the segment while putting on a good show for my teammates.
They were seeing this buffalo-bodied DIRT dad crest Icebreaker nearly as quickly as the pro leaders. It was probably quite a spectacle. As I approached the top, I saw my wife screaming, ordering me to do unmentionable things to the competitors around me, rendering them completely infertile.
Then the lights went out, my HR passed 185 bpm, and my breathing teetered on the edge of asthmatic wheezing. Somehow I navigated the remaining half mile of the finish chute to reach the finish line, but to be honest, I can’t remember that part.
I was DONE. But I was happy. Yes, I finished mid-pack at 66th place. Far off the leaders’ pace, but I closed out a season that made me proud.
A Look Back and Forward
In retrospect, I didn’t do as well this season as I wanted – but it went well, all things considered. I’m about 1,500 miles behind where I planned to be. I eeked out a close 2nd overall in the Michigan Gravel short course points series. I finished Marji and did the Pro Wave at Iceman.
My stoke and motivation are fueled to drop weight this winter, hit Zwift hard, and improve for 2022. And after writing this article, I feel awkward talking this much about myself. Many others I respect and look up to had significant years in 2021.
I feel obligated to call out a few other DIRT dads in no particular order:
Mike Reeves – a single DIRT dad selflessly making the right choices. Every ride/race you’ve bailed on to dedicate time to your daughter makes me respect you, even more, buddy. Congrats on the sub 2 hour Iceman.
Brandon Munson – Bro, you stepped it up so much this year. Not just your late-season speed, but you and your family are a regular at the races. You guys model how to do this sport as a family. Always smiling, constantly pushing it.
Carl Copenhaver – Thanks again for the support and intel. You and the TC crew are beyond hospitable. I’ve permanently subscribed to your newsletter.
Brad Hochstetler – Sorry I did not get to see you this year at Iceman. You made the right call attending your son’s state Cross Country meet instead. Congrats to him and his D1 16th place All-State finish.
Troy Eddy – The OFFICIAL ambassador of the DIRT IRL meetup. Troy won his age group! In a field of 3,000+ riders! While I waited for my afternoon race to start, I had nothing better to do but to check the results of my friends. When I texted him, he was in disbelief. You earned it, buddy!
Wesley Stocker – Wes is a DIRT regular who used his Zwift experience to take his outdoor game to the next level. He was a regular near the front of the gravel races. He did a few outdoor crit races with respectable finishes. Keep it up, Wes!
Great Stuff Chris., Thank You!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!