Swarms of bikers compete in the annual Black Fly Challenge
By Alan Wechsler
They call it the Black Fly Challenge, but that’s hyperbole. It’s not such a challenge to avoid the black flies. In fact, there’s one simple solution to make sure you’re never bit during this forty-mile mountain-bike race: Pedal fast.
And don’t stop. Of course, that’s not always an option. The BFC always has some folks who can’t keep in perpetual motion. Sometimes it’s a flat tire, sometimes it’s exhaustion, sometimes it’s a crash. People have finished the race without a seat.
They’ve ended with wheels as wavy as potato chips or with bikes so mangled that they hauled them across the finish line on their backs.
Some don’t finish at all and wind up in a hospital bed with an IV line (from heat exhaustion, not blood depletion, although I suppose that’s possible too, if you succumb to the aforementioned bugs). One overzealous and under-hydrated competitor is said to have passed out only a half-mile from the finish line. So it goes.
But don’t let this scare you away. The Black Fly is one of the few chances you’ll have to compete in a mountain-bike race in the Adirondacks, especially since the state Department of Environmental Conservation banned the festive 24 Hours of the Adirondacks race at Mount Van Hoevenberg (because state laws prohibit camping in parking lots).
The BFC started thirteen years ago as the brainchild of John Nemjo, owner of Mountain Man Outdoor Supply in Old Forge. Today, the race is run by the Central Adirondack Association, a sort of chamber of commerce for the area. It’s so popular that organizers don’t bother advertising anymore. “It’s grown into a huge event,” said Bruce Condie, executive director of the association. “It just gets bigger and bigger.”
The forty-mile route goes from Inlet to Indian Lake, or from Indian Lake to Inlet (they reverse directions every year), through the Moose River Plains. The plains are bisected by a dirt road, which winds, climbs, descends, and curves through deep woods, along lakeshores, over streams, and past a large cliff.
Did we mention the black flies? Imagine how hungry they must be, waiting all June to taste the exposed flesh of several hundred cyclists huffing and puffing through their lair.
I was among the two- and six-legged swarms on June 14 last year. I arrived at the Indian Lake High School in plenty of time to meet the shuttle—a school bus with half the seats removed—that would take us to the starting line in Inlet. For those who drove to Inlet, a shuttle would take them back at 4 p.m.
Inlet was abuzz with activity, mostly human. About 250 cyclists gathered with their metal steeds in front of the town hall. Most competitors were riding traditional mountain bikes, but some were on hybrids or cyclocross bikes—basically, road bikes with heavy-duty lugged tires. One husband-and-wife team had a tandem.
I recognized a few employees from the Garnet Hill Cross-Country Ski Center and some mountain bikers from the Albany region, where I live. But most of the competitors came from the Utica area (many of them from a cycling club).
Dan Aceti of New Hartford, a Utica suburb, was racing for his fifth time, though he was only sixteen. His first year he finished second to last, in about five hours. “It was definitely harder than I thought,” he said. The second year, equipped with a better bike (and a year older), he knocked an hour off his time. He’s been getting faster every year since. In 2008, he raced in basketball shoes and athletic shorts. I asked him how much he had trained this year. “I did a couple twenty-mile rides,” he said.
His father, Tom, was listening in. “It gets addictive,” he said.
Another racer, Dave Scranton, cautioned me about the ride: “There’s some soft spots on the downhill that are going to be tire eaters. If you’re not careful you can really hurt yourself.”
At the starting line, Condie warned about clouds of flies so thick that when he parked along the route to put up signs before the race, the bugs immediately blackened the window. “At Cedar River gate, I couldn’t breathe, there were so many,” he said. “It’s pretty much ground zero for black flies.”
It was inspiration to keep moving.
It was 10:15 a.m.—time to line up. Fifteen minutes later, we were off in a pack that filled the street. We cranked through Inlet, vying for position, some eager riders making for the sidewalks in order to get ahead.
In no time, we were out of town and headed south on a paved road to the western entrance to the plains. By the time the pavement turned to dirt, the front of the pack was way ahead of me. After an hour of riding, my legs and feet hurt and my butt was numb. I watched a racer stand up on the downhills, leaning his body forward for relief. I followed his lead. I felt instant, though temporary, relief, as blood drained into my leg, easing the lactic-acid agony.
A few minutes later, I found myself riding next to a man on a cyclocross bike. “You know how far we’ve come?” I asked, my first words in ninety minutes.
“I was going to ask you the same question,” he replied.
Apparently, the computer on his bike wasn’t calibrated correctly, but his estimate was that we had come about twenty miles.
Halfway. And my legs were killing me. How was I going to finish?
But something happened on an eight-hundred-foot ascent, the toughest climb of the race: I began to feel better. All my weeks of training, which included a few tough mountain ascents, were paying off. As I passed competitors walking their bikes uphill, I knew I would avoid the dreaded “DNF (did not finish).”
I forced a mushy protein bar down my throat and kept on pedaling.
Deep in the Moose River Plains, where the thick trees gave way to pretty ponds and stream crossings, a team of volunteers handed out bottles of water. They were all wearing bug nets over their heads.
Funny. I wasn’t aware of the black flies at all. A few had orbited around me, unable to land, and one or two hapless insects wound up trapped inside my helmet, but otherwise I was bug-free. Perhaps it was the flies that were challenged, teased by sweat-stained bodies but unable to keep up. I passed a rider changing a flat tire and wondered if he would suffer their biting wrath.
Suddenly, I was on blacktop again, with ten miles to go. Over my right shoulder were views of Snowy Mountain. I sped up and passed some racers. I was in the homestretch now. As the road merged with Route 30, I almost went in the wrong direction, following a cyclist heading west. Some ambulance volunteers yelled at me before it was too late. Apparently some front-runners had not only finished, but they had decided to bike back to Inlet on the highway. Show-offs.
Three miles to go. I passed a few more riders on their bikes, who were too tired to put up a fight. At the outskirts of Indian Lake, locals on their lawns waved me forward. A line of blaze-orange traffic cones marked the final few hundred yards. When I reached the high school, a crowd was cheering.
My race was over. The first thing I noticed was Dan Aceti sitting on the grass. I waved, and he waved back. That high-school kid—the one who finished almost last a few years ago—had beaten me. He finished 105th with a time of 2:46:49.
Nonetheless, I was happy with my performance. I came in 116th overall and fifteenth out of thirty in my age category (40-49), with a time of 2:49:26.
Matthew Dickinson finished in 1:56.49, the fastest time of the day. Not a record, but still pretty darn fast. The slowest time was just over 4 hours, 51 minutes. They know who they are.
In the parking lot, riders stripped off their sweaty clothes and broke open coolers of beer. In front of the school, a few people sprawled on the grass or relaxed on chairs under a tent. High-school kids sold barbecue food for $1, and I bolted a burger, a hot dog. and two cans of soda (and I still felt thirsty).
Inside the gym, organizers sat at a table going over the race results like Board of Elections officials. On the stage next to them, a middle-aged man about as thick as a pipe cleaner lay in a doze. When I snapped a photo, the flash failed to rouse him.
“Anyone know if he’s still alive?” someone quipped (he was—I saw his chest moving).
The awards were supposed to be given out at 3 p.m., but they weren’t. “When do the awards start?” I asked a man next to me.
“Twenty-two minutes ago,” he grumbled, annoyed that organizers were behind schedule. The shuttle bus to Inlet wouldn’t leave until all the prizes, including jerseys, tools, and hydration packs, were given away, so many racers had no choice but to wait.
Not me. I had a car, and to heck with the prizes. There was a swimming hole calling my name. I had had about as much fun and challenge as you can have on a mountain bike in the Adirondacks, but now I wanted to wash away the mud and sweat. And I knew there wouldn’t be any black flies under the water.