Race Repot: 2011 Black Fly Challenge, 40mi dirt road race in the Adirondacks

This year I raced my unicycle (geared 26”) in the Black Fly Challenge, a ~40mi mostly dirt road bicycle race between the towns of Indian Lake and Inlet in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Last year Steveyo was the first one to ever enter the race on a unicycle. Thus, his time of 3:58:41 was the course uni record, and my target today. I’ve taken a few other course records away from Steveyo in the past, so figured I would be able to beat his time today. I would need to average around 10mph up and down dirt hills for 3-4 hours, this is challenging on a uni. I’d ridden part of the course before (when dry), and trained on (dry) dirt roads in Albany, so I thought I knew what to expect. Only one problem, this was not going to be a dry race.

The race this year started in Indian Lake with about 10 miles of paved roads with rolling hills. I knew the bikers would outpace me on this section so I started the race at back of the pack, joking around in the rain with the other casual riders back there, unaware of what was yet to come. The pre-race speech warned of rougher than normal conditions from washouts due to the horribly wet spring they have had in the region (there is flooding elsewhere). This was going to be interesting.

Those first 10 miles on the pavement were fun, an easy cruise. The rain picked up and I had to ditch my glasses. I was riding fast but trying to pace myself for the long-run. I was geared-up for most of it and probably averaged around 12mph (unfortunately I left my GPS watch on all night and it was out of batteries for the race). All the serious bike racers were long-gone, but I did manage to hang on with some of the more casual riders through the pavement. The rain picked up more, and I started getting a chill. Then we hit the dirt.

The first 100 meters of the dirt road were a huge shock, and I immediately knew my chances of beating Steveyo’s course-record were very low. For the next 15 miles the dirt road alternated between either wet soft sand, or soft mud on top of hard dirt. The mud sections were 1-2 inches deep and riddled with tire tracks from the 100’s of bikers in front of me. We were riding in a steady rain, so it was only getting worse.

Shortly after the dirt road started, we hit the first muddy hill. All the bikers in view dismounted and were walking up. I stood on my pedals and mashed up the hill, passing 6 bikes in one go. I smiled through the grit that already covered me from head to toe. At the top of the second muddy hill an ad hoc group of recreational and older bicyclists were all off their bikes chatting, standing in the rain, looking a bit shocked by the whole thing. I zoomed by in low gear, happy to be passing more bicyclists, and smiling at their exclamations and kudos to my 1-wheeled effort.

I had to ride most of this section in low gear because of the mud. This wasn’t stick-to-your tire clay mud, it was ridable, but even slight down-hills were too hard to do geared-up. The steep downhills had their own challenges; frequently I would finally get up to speed in high gear only to hit a soft part that grabbed at my tire and shot me off the front of the uni. I had a number of downhill dismounts like this, but managed to avoid the full-on face plant. It was frustrating to ride this section so slowly, knowing my shot at Steveyo’s record was being squandered in the mud. However, passing so many bikers eased the pain, and I smiled through the mud and the rain as I worked my way back up through the pack of racers.

The Cedar River Gate marked the site where the quality of the road seriously deteriorated. There were dozens of places where this backcountry section of dirt road had washed out and not yet been repaired. This also marked the start of the largest climb, up to Wakely Mtn. I continued passing bikers up this hill, and had to walk my first hill at a steep muddy section near the top.

Somewhere in the next 5-10 miles the rain stopped. I was able to put back on my glasses, which helped me pick my line through the mud. The course continued to roll up and down hills, through the Moose River Plains. There were no water stations in this wilderness area, no houses with people cheering, no way out except forward through the mud, or on the back of an ATV (and that injured biker did not look happy). I felt strong, kept nibbling at cliff bars and drinking water, and trying to put some miles behind me. The road dried out a bit, and I was able to gear up and speed up a bit more. I had probably passed 100 bikers in the first part of the dirt, but from here-on I was roughly evenly paced with the other racers. I would see familiar muddy faces as I’d pass them up the hill and then they would pass me on the way back down.

I started getting pretty damn tired with 12 miles to go. Twelve miles is still a long way to go on dirt roads on a uni, so I just had to grit my teeth (which were full of sand grit by then) and push on. The next 10 miles seemed to take forever, but finally I emerged onto another paved section that marked the 2mile mark and I pushed in on to home. Up a big paved hill, down the other side, and into a final section of ‘single-track’. Actually, this was just some thick mud through the woods next to the finish line. I passed a few more bikers here since it was easier for me to carry my uni through this muck then it was for them to push their bikes.

Working through the woods you could hear the crowd cheering the finishers – what a great sound! They erupted when I zipped out of the woods, and the whoops and hollars from my Albany Biker friends brought a huge smile to my face as I crossed the finish line in 4:21:24, 20+ minutes slower than the unicycle record. As soon as I dismounted both my legs cramped, then someone handed me a beer.

Everyone entering the Black Fly Challenge knows its going to be a rough muddy time, and I found everyone to be remarkably happy about it. You don’t drive to the Adirondacks for a June bike race if you hate being wet and muddy. I got lots of positive vibes from everyone, 100% positive comments on the unicycle effort, with most people thinking I was “that same crazy guy from last year”.

Although this race is always muddy, this seemed to be one of the roughest courses yet. A friend of mine who rode last year too said 2011 was “Twice as hard, twice as fun”, which I think is an awesome Black Fly Challenge attitude. I ended up in 217th place, out of 344 finishers, so I beat roughly 1/3 of the bikers. Another 46 bikers started but DNF. The winning bicycle time was 2:15 and the last finisher was almost 2hrs after me at 6:16. Full results here.

I think my 26” guni with 125mm cranks was a good option for this race, a similar rig to the 29”gun with 137mm cranks Steveyo rode last year. A geared 36er with big cranks would probably be the fastest on a dry day, but I wasn’t wishing for it on this race. An ungeared 29” or 36” would get you through the race, but just slow you down on the paved section.

So Steveyo’s course record holds for another year. I encourage other uni riders to come take a shot at it in 2012, look for me at the back of the pack at the start, and be ready for the dirt!


[Below is one pict of me pre-race with my 26"er guni. I didn’t take any along the way but will post more if I find any]

Here’s a picture of the muddy course taken by a biker this year.

what fun, thanks for sharing. i love days like those, i bet that beer didnt last long.

Great writeup, Roland. Congratulations on finishing a tough race.

Great write-up, and incredible attitude! I was already pumped from my 3 miles tonight, and now I wanna go ride some more. (I don’t think my legs would let me, but I generally don’t listen to them much anyways!)

2012, you say… We’ll see. We’ll see about that.

Wow, Ro. Great write-up and fantastic effort. I know how much you wanted my record, and for you not to have broken it speaks volumes about the course difficulties this year. BFC 2010 was wet, but not nearly so bad. It would be interesting to see how the 26er guni fares against the 29er guni in decent conditions.

Sounds like so much fun! Brought back memories of my own muddy debacle. I’m itching for another long uni adventure! Well I’m going to be in a pretty good MUni playground in less than a month, Lake City, CO. Just have to survive the Badwater 135 first! :astonished:

Awesome ride, awesome report!

Regarding other good setups for this race, Total Gear Ratio (TGR) is a useful comparison.

According to this chart my 26guni with 125’s has a very similar TGR to your 29guni with 137 (3.96 vs ~4.0). For perspective, other options for this race might include an ungeared 36/125 (TGR=3.66), an ungeared 29/110 (TGR=3.35) or a geared 36/165 (TGR=4.16). I rode part of the course on a geared 36/165 when it was dry and found it a pretty good setup, I’m not sure if the mud would make it worse, or if the big fat 36tire would just cut through it.


Great adventure, great write-up! I remember crusing some of these roads back in HS, when the beer handed to me I wasn’t legal to accept. I’ve been a pure pavement guy for too many years now…got to get back on the muni and out in the mud.

Thanks for the motivation!

Great writeup Roland! You’re a beast.

Last night I raced at a local weeknight race series. It was my first ever race with mtb’ers… actually my first ever ride with any mtb’ers!

Several bikers at different times talked about the muni riders at Schenectady, and at least one guy mentioned your performance at this years Black Fly Challenge. They praised you well. And it felt good to be able to say, “Oh yeah… that was Roland!” Like, yeah, I know all the cool kids. :sunglasses:

My performance wasn’t nearly as epic, but I pushed myself hard. I hope this isn’t a threadjack, but you can read my race writeup on my blog.