The US Fat Bike Open recently took place on Feb 11 in Green, Bay WI which was the final race of the 4-event Snow Crown Series. Casey Hildebrandt and Leah Vanevenhoven won 1st place in the Men's and Women's categories that included $1,000 prize from Wren Sports in both categories. Here we chat we them about leading up to the race and the most challenging moments of the day.
The Snow Crown Series is a 4-race series taking place around Green Bay, Wisconsin. To learn more about the series, visit their website.
Interview with Leah Vanevenhoven and Casey Hildebrandt.
Have you done the Snow Crown events before and what are they like?
Actually, this was my first Snow Crown series event! I've always wanted to do the series, or at least one event in the winter, but by the time my cyclocross season winds down in December or January, I'm pretty spent and just want to be home and spend time with family and friends.
I've done a few fat bike races in the last decade or so, like the Badger State Games and the Fat Bike Birkie, but the U.S. Fat Bike Open is by far the most professional and best atmosphere. Shoutout to Sarah and George Kaptiz along with all of the volunteers and venues that make this series pretty rad!
Yes! This is my third season doing the Snow Crown series. I bought a fat bike from George at Broken Spoke when I moved back to the USA in 2020 and he gently nudged me to race. Three years in, the Snow Crown races are some of my favorites of the year.
It's the dead of winter, often terribly cold conditions and yet everyone is bundled up and in good spirits to have some fun in the snow! George and Sarah do a fantastic job hosting the series, it's a very uplifting environment and the positive energy is quite contagious.
How did you feel going into race day morning?
I felt great. I've tried extra hard to simply enjoy the Snow Crown races this winter because my schedule hasn't been allowing me to train as much as I'd like. I'm not much of an early riser so the 1pm races suit me well. I did pre-ride the course because last year I flopped at this race; dropping my chain and having a hard time maintaining power. With minimal snow, the course had more of a MTB feel to it this year; this style of racing is within my wheelhouse.
I wake up most race mornings wishing I would have slept better or gotten more sleep - I was tired, but I think the drive over to Green Bay made me feel a bit more tired than I actually was. Once I arrived, checked it, and got on course I was ready to roll. I finished off my cyclocross season in the U.S. with a top ten finish at the National Championships in Hartford, Connecticut and then came back home for two weeks before heading over to Europe for the Kerstperiode - three weeks of the most legendary cross races in the world all within a couple hours of each other. I raced seven UCI races in 12 days, capping it off with two races in the United Kingdom before heading back home and was absolutely spent mentally and physically.
I took three weeks off the bike, had a week of easy riding, and then did some baseline testing with my coach the week of this race. I knew I was in pretty good shape after how I felt during my power check, but was still a bit nervous how my body would respond to a race after a nice off season.
What was the toughest moment of the race for you?
Whew - this is a good question! I slotted in the lead right off the start line and into the neutral start. I stayed on the front all the way to the climb up to the 14th hole. No one came around me the entire first lap and my plan was to race smart and make a move when the time felt right. Once we hit the icy climb, I hit the gas a bit and after a minute of climbing I crested the top with Caden Budd a few seconds back and no one else close. Caden, along with Corey Stelljes, were the two guys I was concerned about, so when Corey was no where to be seen and Caden got on my wheel, we hit the gas and stayed away all race.
To answer the original question, the toughest moment was when Caden pulled through halfway or closer to the end of lap one and just laid down the power. He was pulling through like a freight train and I had to really focus and talk myself through hanging on until we settled in. Corey put in a good chase and closed the gap down to 15-20 seconds on lap two, but once we recovered a bit from the initial effort to get away, Caden and I worked really well together and blew the gap wide open.
The first lap, I got passed by Leia. She held first place for 4 out of the 5 laps. I wouldn't let her out of my sight, thinking I wouldn't catch her but knew I could keep the consistent pace I was holding to stay within her reach. These moments were tough to work through. She climbed faster than me on the big hill climb and had a strong cadence at the top that would propel her through the next section of the course. At the end of the 4th lap, I found myself creeping in on her and the group she was with. It's all a daze of passing her on a hill, speeding down the hill, and pedaling as fast as I could for a few minutes refusing to turn around to see if she was behind me. When I finally looked back halfway through lap 5, I was alone.
A great race tip I once received was to look forward, not back. Knowing she wasn't within sight, I focused on finishing strong. According to my race results, the 5th lap was my fastest. Coming around the last corner, the crowd didn't know who'd be in first. The eruption was electric from the spectators and the cheering was something I've never experienced; I threw my arms up in victory.
What did you ride and do you have any favorite pieces of gear you want to mention?
I'm part of the Specialized family for all my bikes and raced with a Specialized Fatboy. Because it has been a mild winter, I like to race wearing the 45NRTH Ragnarok cycling shoes. They're lighter and have a better power distribution than my 45NRTH Wolvhammers I typically wear for cold conditions. I recently upgraded my helmet to the Kask Protone Icon and it's extra comfy (and light) on my noggin!
I don't actually currently have a fat bike of my own, but George Kapitz invited me to come do this race and graciously gave me his custom, next level Salsa Beargrease to race on. That thing is decked out with the nicest equipment and is by far the nicest bike I've ever ridden! Sram Eagle AXS, HED Big Deal carbon wheels with Berd Spokes, Wren carbon bars, and even the CeramicSpeed oversized pulley on the rear derailleur. I certainly could not have asked for a nicer bike from a nicer dude! I picked it up two weeks ago and my first ride back from the off season was some winter singletrack! I was able to dial everything in one more time on my home trails at Jack Lake the following weekend and felt comfortable enough to let it rip on race day.
During the pre-ride and warm-up, I dressed pretty warm with two sets of shoe covers, a long sleeve base layer, short sleeve jersey, long sleeve jersey, vest, thick gloves, and a cycling hat under my helmet. I quickly realized I was way overdressed and went back to the car to take off one set of shoe covers, change out the long sleeve base layer to a short sleeve one, and took off my cycling hat. At the start line, still feeling a bit warm, I took off the shoe covers and went with my normal shoes and even ended up taking off my gloves on the last lap finishing the race with bare hands.
Thank you to George for pushing me to get to the race and providing me with such a nice bike - it was great to represent Broken Spoke and bring home the win, but even better to have my teammate Leah Vanevenhoven win the Pro Women's field! I also want to give a big shout out to Caden Budd - at just 16 years old, he made it a great race and put up one hell of a fight in that sprint finish. It's great to go to battle with someone so strong and young who also happens to be a teammate! He has a bright future ahead of him in this sport and I'm excited to see what he accomplishes. He reminded me why you always spring through the line if it's close!