Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in issue 208 of Dirt Rag Magazine. Like what you see? Subscribe now at dirtragmag.com/subscribe to catch issue 210, coming real soon.
By Carolyne Whelan, Scott Williams, Stephen Haynes and Eric McKeegan
I don’t remember how the idea came to pass officially, but we were around the kitchen table, the place where all great ideas are birthed. I’m sure it was raining, which caused one of us to look out the window with that special mix of whimsy and longing, like jumping out a window while someone is pushing you through the glass. “What about a triathlon? But, you know, a Dirt Rag triathlon,” was more or less how it went. What would a triathlon look like if organized by a group of people who have no interest in triathlons, and very little interest in racing, and have an unignorable urge to make fools of themselves? Apparently, singletrack mountain biking, fording a lake on a boat of one’s own making and then cooking for a panel of judges. Later, Stephen, our creative director, referred to it as “asinine” in trying to sell the idea to Jeff Simcoe at West Virginia’s Big Bear Lake Camplands — hey, we pride ourselves on honesty here — and the idea took off. Special thanks to Big Bear Lake Camplands, and to Simcoe and Mark Schooley, by the way, for hosting us and letting us have fun on your turf. — Carolyne Whelan
Contestants ride a mountain bike course, paddle a water course and cook a meal with identical mystery ingredients and a communal pantry.
-The contestants can use any bike they so desire.
-The contestants must construct a watercraft with a budget of $100, not including the bike and found materials.
-The bike and boat must travel with the contestant at all times.
Contender: Stephen Haynes
When we decided on the three events that would make up the Dirt Rag Asinine Triathlon, I was immediately cognizant of what I might do well in and what I would fall short on.
While I’m no slouch on the bike, I’m certainly not fast. On second thought, I may be a bit of a slouch on the bike. Anyway, my prowess, or lack thereof, was moot, given the fact that both Scott and Eric have something of a racing pedigree — or at least the ability to ride fast for sustained amounts of time — that I do not possess.
Given this knowledge, the bike event was a bit of a write-off for me. I decided I would use the bamboo singlespeed I built for Dirt Rag Issue No. 206, dubbed “Cosmic Schmutz,” as my race steed and set about making the best damned $100 boat I could.
The boat-building was, for me, the highlight of this whole endeavor. I’ve wanted to make a boat from scratch for years and was happy to be given the venue and a little cash to try to make something seaworthy.
I knew that I wanted to make a plywood stitch-and-glue boat of some sort (more about construction in a minute). To do this I would need a 4-by-8 sheet of 1/2-inch plywood, a gallon of epoxy resin and enough fiberglass to cover each corner joint inside and out.
I was pretty sure I’d be able to procure all the necessary elements from the big-box DIY center down the road, and sure enough, I walked out with everything I needed, having gone over budget by less than $5.
Before I jumped into full-on construction, I set about making to-scale paper models of my future boat and waterproofing them with packing tape. Once I had a model together I’d fill up the kitchen sink, put the paper boat in the water and load it with whatever produce I had handy to see how long it took to sink. I’m horrible at math, but I figured if a paper-boat model could displace a large apple or orange, the real thing would likely hold all 200 pounds of me, plus extra for my bike and trailer.
After a few so-so attempts resulting in more sinks than floats, my resolve floundered and I took to the internet for a simple boat I could build out of one sheet of plywood. The “Simbo,” or “Simple Boat,” was just the type of no-nonsense craft I’d been looking for. After studying some encouraging photos and a baffling array of displacement charts from its creator, I set about making my own.
Stitch-and-glue refers to a method of boat-building wherein you precut all the necessary pieces for your craft and temporarily bind them together with wire or zip ties, or (as I did) screw each corner joint to temporary 2×2 butt blocks.
Once your craft is “stitched” together temporarily, you set about filling each seam with thickened epoxy (regular epoxy with an additive like sawdust to attain a peanut-butter-like consistency). After the epoxy sets, you can remove the wire, zip ties or screws from the butt blocks and fill in every damned hole left behind with even more thickened epoxy.
After all that’s done, you simply need to cover each joint with non-thickened resin and fiberglass tape to reinforce each joint. Et voilà! You have a boat!
While my boat was no doubt fetching in its plywood finish, I felt it needed a bit of color, and also maybe some waterproofing. I had some old deck sealant lying around, as well as a ton of old paint, and after combining the two I had a winning finish.
It must be noted here that we could have decided to not do the race after all and I would have been perfectly happy to have simply built a boat.
The trailer dilemma
So now I had a bike and a boat, but no way to convey the latter. My plan from the beginning was to ignore the problem of the trailer until the very last second and work like mad to find a solution as time expired, and that’s exactly how it played out. After a failed attempt at a single-wheel design, I finished my trailer — consisting of borrowed cooler wheels, scraps of plywood and unused L brackets — the day before the event.
The genius of my design was that it was small and would fit easily with me and the Cosmic Schmutz in the boat. The downside was that it delivered roughly 3 inches of ground clearance and had primary contact patches consisting of plastic cooler wheels. What could go wrong?
I’ve been the primary cook for my family for the last 15 years, and while I’m as close to a Michelin-starred chef as I am an astronaut, I’m comfortable in the kitchen and can generally turn out something edible.
Contender: Eric McKeegan
“Junkyard Wars.” “Top Gear.” “Roadkill.” “Dirt Every Day.” I’m a fan of various motorsport shows that involve building stuff, then racing it, for no other reason than to see what happens. But until the plan for D.R.A.T. fell into place, I’d been at a loss for how to take the DNA of these shows and transfer it into a magazine about bicycles. It took only a decade or so, but here it is.
I knew immediately that I wanted to create an amphibious craft. I envisioned a fully capable off-road bike that would transform into a watercraft with a few hinges and pins.
Initial plans were to haul an abandoned aluminum rowboat out of the woods and create pontoons that would stow up against the bike, then pivot down into a wide-enough platform to prevent tipping.
After much research on buoyancy and things like “metacentric height,” I left for an extended media trip and returned with little time to unearth the donor boat and test my plans to rebuild it as pontoons with a grinder and aluminum brazing rods. That boat might see the water again, but not for this event.
That left me searching Craigslist for 55-gallon drums, with the idea that two of these would be able to easily float me and the bike. But as I searched for the barrels, I also researched buoyancy. Some math: 55 x 2 = 110 gallons. Each gallon displaces 8 pounds of water, so 880 pounds would be overkill. I didn’t want to figure out how to ride with two giant barrels on my bike anyway. Instead, I grabbed eight 5-gallon water jugs left over from Dirt Fest. 8 x 5 = 40, 40 x 8 = 320. That seemed more reasonable.
What wasn’t reasonable was figuring out a way to attach all those jugs to a bike. Even if the bike had a lot of built-in mounting points. Which my bike did. I’ve had an Xtracycle FreeRadical for almost 15 years, but it’s been in need of an overhaul for way too long. I needed a few tandem-length cables to get it going again, but everything else came out of various bins in my basement and Dirt Rag HQ.
Before I could figure out just how I was going to carry and then convert eight jugs into a boat, I stopped by a local discount store and discovered boogie boards for $5. Some quick searches on my pocket computer left me more confused than when I started about how to figure the buoyancy of foam, so some mental math of “one boogie board floats a kid, so four boogie boards should float a bike and an editorial commander” and I was out the door after throwing down $20.
Some conduit from an old Dirt Rag trade-show booth, scrap 2-by-4 from my never-ending home remodel, a lot of zip ties and I was ready to roll. Or float. Or sink. I didn’t actually have time to test the thing.
I like cooking. I planned to channel a lot of Gordon Ramsey and just a little bit of Jamie Oliver. I’m not much for meal plans; mostly I play it by ear with what is in the fridge or what’s ripe in the garden. I figured this experience would put me at an advantage when the oil hit the frying pan.
Contender: Scott Williams
When D.R.A.T was first proposed, it sounded fun, but it’s really challenging for me to be involved in editorial production as well as carry on my normal day-to-day job responsibilities. Not to mention that originally it was planned to take place two days after my vacation. Fearing I’d have too much on my plate, I tried to bow out, yet here I am.
Santa Cruz Highball test bike. Fast, light and not mine in case it fell in a lake.
In my carbon-repair feature (from Issue No. 206), I mentioned that I lack a few skill sets that would allow me to build my own boat. Throw in having to haul said boat through the trails at Big Bear in West Virginia and, without hesitation, I knew that buying some sort of inflatable device would be the easiest option.
Initially, I wanted to stay within budget, so I bought a floaty off Amazon for $20. Then I started thinking that an inflatable SUP board would be more stable and move through the water stage more quickly. I’ve wanted to buy one, so once again I scoured Amazon for a deal. I found one with good reviews, claimed to inflate/deflate within three minutes and packed nicely into a backpack. But it was well over budget. Like, almost triple the budget. Deciding cheating at something I never really volunteered for was perfectly acceptable to my moral code, I pulled out my personal credit card and called it a day. Time spent: 20 minutes, and I had myself potentially winning two stages.
I am very fortunate to have a fiancée who can whip together a delicious grown-up meal involving more than three ingredients. On the other hand, my cooking skills never graduated past the college level of combining whatever you find in the fridge and adding enough hot sauce to mask the flavors. Needless to say, when it’s my turn to cook dinner, I eagerly suggest going out for Thai or pizza, hoping that I am able to pique her interest.
For the cooking stage of D.R.A.T, my lack of preparation really came down to knowing that both Eric and Stephen are exceptional home cooks and far more culturally diverse in food than myself. Am I saying I gave up before I started? Not exactly. I am just realistic, so I simply applied my energy elsewhere, like going for a post-work mountain bike ride or sitting on the couch watching the World Cup on RedBull TV.
Race day dawned bright and clear, the never-ceasing rain of previous days and weeks thankfully absent. Toeing the line, I looked over at my fellow participants, my colleagues and coworkers, in their ultra-svelte carbon race machine and tank-like cargo hauler, respectively, and knew then and there that my fears of losing the mountain bike event were warranted, and that I’d likely have to cheat at some point.
The other two participants set off at what can be described only as much faster than me and were not seen for the duration of the bike event. I set about trying to ignore the horrible noise that my trailer’s plastic cooler wheels were making and ducked into the woods.
At once the trailer heaved to one side, having been upended by a wayward rock (of which there would be many). I counteracted this lateral tipping by grabbing the end of the boat closest to me and counter-pulling as it rocked. The move worked, but I quickly assessed that I’d have to ride the rest of the course one-handed. So be it!
I made it through the bulk of the large-ish singletrack, having been confounded by a few extra-large boulders and a decently sized mud bog. Still, my inherent sense of trail width was uncanny in informing my two builds, as I passed through most everything unscathed.
After absolutely not cheating in any way during the mountain bike race, I set my sights on the event I felt I had the best chance at doing well in: the water crossing.
While the passive observer might look at the smallish lake we had to navigate as an uninteresting little puddle, to those of us who needed to get across it in an untested craft of our own devising, that puddle was downright terrifying.
As the countdown sounded, grim determination took over. I disengaged my boat from its trailer and carried it down to the water’s edge, gingerly putting in to the relative calm of what might be my watery demise.
I was delighted to see my craft remain buoyant and quickly gathered my bike and trailer, putting them on and in the boat, respectively, leaving me just enough room to uncomfortably start paddling off. I tried yelling something like, “Eat my road, red liver lips!” but it came out as “IT FLOATS!” The joy I felt at not dying in that instant was surpassed only by the need to make haste, as I realized Scott was fast on his way to becoming amphibious himself.
The otherwise pleasurable paddle was cut short by the appearance of the far shore, so fast was my craft. I disembarked and set quickly to the task of re-engaging my boat and trailer to my bike. As I set off, one hand again firmly gripping the ever-bouncing boat, I caught sight of Scott, two-thirds through the water course.
Scott never caught me, but he was kind enough to pick up my paddle, which I’d left somewhere along the return course. We congratulated each other on not dying and sat down to watch Eric struggle to get his impressive contraption no more than 10 feet from the start-line shore.
As mentioned previously, I cook a lot, though I’m not prone to going off-script very often. So, as we stood behind our camp stoves and contemplated what may be lurking in the “blind bags” given to each of us, a tremor of doubt crossed my mind.
My suspicions of being confounded were confirmed as I pulled the star fruit, jicama, seaweed and zucchini out of the sealed bag. Realizing I’d worked with only half of them (zucchini and seaweed) before, I cut small portions off of the other two and gave them a taste test. While the star fruit delivered a mild citrus flavor, the jicama was more or less benign — a crunchy diversion that wouldn’t affect the taste of any dish in any significant way.
As I took a few more tastes of the jicama and star fruit, a plan began to take shape. I make rice dishes quite a bit at home, and I thought that could be a good solution here.
I grabbed some basmati rice, soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, an onion, garlic, ginger and tomato (maybe? Trying to remember) with the intent of making a savory topping that I could serve over a bed of rice.
In the end, I cooked up the rice and sautéed all the ingredients together. I then scooped out portions of rice and ladled spoonfuls of the chutney-like topping on, garnishing with thin-cut slices of star fruit and diced seaweed.
Stephen’s trailer was a joke for West Virginia trails. Scott’s sub-20-pound race bike probably weighed less than the wood and steel I used to construct the front flotation device for my contraption. I figured I should just take it easy, because unless I broke something or myself, I had second on lock for this event. I also had a feeling my water propulsion system might not work as I’d like, leaving me with a lot of work in the water in the near future.
Scott got the holeshot and I sprinted after him, hoping to get away from the sound of Stephen’s boat reverberating from the buzz of those tiny plastic wheels. It was the sound of death’s chariot and I didn’t want it to be anywhere near me.
I bottomed out my front tire on the first real rock in the trail, so I dialed it back a bit, but I still managed to keep Scott in sight after we left the first singletrack section. Riding a loaded cargo bike off-road is an odd experience. The long rear end makes it almost impossible to get the front wheel up, and standing up to climb on anything loose results in an instant loss of traction. But the huge wheelbase pays off with huge stability. Handicapped with old K-Rad tires, I still managed to dab only a couple of times in the singletrack.
Then I got lost, and while wandering around on a dirt road looking for my turn I heard the rumble of death in the distance. I eventually made my way back to the start and found both Stephen and Scott waiting. Eventually Stephen admitted to cutting the last part of the course, as there was no way that trailer was going to handle the much more technical singletrack on the second half.
Stephen was in the water in seconds, and Scott was only a few minutes behind. My assembly took perhaps five minutes, at which point Stephen was most of the way across the lake. But when my bike hit the water, it floated. It almost looked majestic. However, like an unbroken stallion, it threw me off each time I tried to clamber aboard.
I eventually managed to get on the saddle, but my boogie boards were barely keeping me up. Instead of pushing me forward as I pedaled, the coroplast I’d zip tied to my rear spokes to act as a paddle wheel just pulled the back of the bike underwater, tossing me into the drink again. I was told it created an impressive rooster tail of spray, so all that work wasn’t wasted. I shed the jumpsuit as I headed to the van to grab the pair of 5-gallon jugs I’d stashed there in case I needed more flotation. But even with the jugs shoved under the front and back of the bike, pedaling just took me under, not forward.
So I swam. And pushed that stupid bike. It took a long time. A really long time. Our safety kayak eventually offered me a tow after what felt like an hour in the water, but as I was looping the tow line around the fork, I realized I could touch bottom and walked my way out. It is hard to explain just how not fun this was.
I handicapped myself here, thinking my camp-kitchen container had my double-burner camp stove inside. It did not, so I was stuck with a borrowed single-burner ultralight stove. Not good.
Zucchini, star fruit, jicama, seaweed. I got some onions and garlic in the pan and sauteeing as I thought about various combos. Nothing here was unknown to me, but the jicama and star fruit weren’t settling into a plan. So I nibbled on each one as I dug around in the communal pantry. A pile of fresh basil, rice — a bit more digging unearthed curry paste and coconut milk. Who doesn’t like a good curry?
With a single burner, I knew I would be cutting it close getting both the vegetables properly cooked and the rice prepared in the 45 minutes we had to finish. The seaweed would make a fine garnish; the zucchini went in with the onions and garlic. Saute complete, coconut milk and curry paste
were added. I simmered the curry as I prepped the rice and started slicing up the star fruit and jicama.
The borrowed stove blasted the water and rice into submission in record time, and I plated the jicama and star fruit “sliders” as an appetizer for the main curry course. With a second burner I would have worked on a sweet soy glaze for the sliders, as they were admittedly on the bland side.
Race day. I had the SUP, floaty, paddle and battery pump stuffed in the backpack. It was heavy, but it looked a hell of a lot more convenient than what those two goobers constructed. Considering Stephen was trailering a boat, Eric was riding a cargo bike with bulky flotation devices and I was riding a standard bike with a large backpack, my adventure through the trails should have been fairly seamless. As we approached the entrance to the trails, I settled into the lead; within 25 yards of the trail, I opened the gap, and soon the sounds of laughter and what I thought was carnage fell into the distance. Continuing my charge through the course, I could not help but chuckle. Jeff created a challenging course with an abundant amount of root balls, boulders, tight, twisty corners and narrow sections between trails. As I juked and jived I laughed as I pictured Eric and Stephen trying to get their homemade contraptions through the course.
I was first to get back to the start/finish line and there was not a soul to be found. Assuming I had some time to kill, I headed over to the camp store to grab myself an ice-cream cone as I waited for my opponents.
My pack came off, the SUP was rolled out and as I got ready to inflate it, I realized I’d forgotten the adapter that allows air to enter the SUP. Crap! I looked over and Stephen was already in the water. Crap. Holy shit, the floaty! I would have been screwed without the floaty. I whipped out the floating unicorn and started pumping air into the chambers as quickly as I could — first the body, then the head, and you couldn’t forget the separate chamber for the mane. I tossed the floaty in the lake, grabbed my bike and the oar and somehow ended up on my back holding the bike in my lap. This was not going to work. I noticed that it was still shallow where I was, so I decided to jump off; somehow I was able to maneuver myself so that I was lying on the floaty with the bike on my back. I began rowing my heart out in hopes of catching Stephen. I was closing the gap, but he was still a ways ahead of me and my shoulders were reminding me that I have not been to the gym in years. He made landfall, but I knew he still had to get his boat back in trailer form. I found land just as he rolled out. I pulled the plugs on my magical floaty and saddled up on land in hopes of speeding up the deflation process. Realizing I didn’t have time for a full-on deflate, I threw Sparkles over my shoulders and got on the gas. I saw Stephen had opened a serious gap and I realized I likely wouldn’t catch him. As I contemplated what to do, I saw his oar lying in the gravel. I saw two choices: 1. continue to chase and argue the win because he lost equipment or 2. turn back and pick it up. Ah hell — I couldn’t catch him, so I’d snag the oar. I accepted that I lost this stage and I would let the judges determine if points were lost (or perhaps gained on my part for good sportsmanship). I met Stephen back at the finish line; we high fived and realized that Eric was no more than a few feet from the shoreline — as in a few feet from the starting shoreline. Good luck, buddy; we’ll be here waiting for you.
This stage could have gone far differently for me if it wasn’t for the last-minute decision. Rewind to the morning we loaded up the van: Initially, I was bringing only the SUP. It was not until talking with Stephen that we came up with an idea for me to be on the SUP board and have my bike on the magical floating unicorn in tow. Until that moment, the floaty was not even coming to West Virginia.
I opened my mystery bag and held the jicama in my hand. Even out of the bag, it remained a mystery to me. What was this? Whatever. I saw onions and zucchini on the table and I knew how to fry those up, so that’s exactly what I did. Alright, onion, zucchini … what else was there? Salt, pepper, cumin, couple cloves of garlic. I snagged them all and began to finely slice the garlic just the way I saw in the movie “The Departed.” OK, then what? I needed a starch. As I eyeballed to my right, I saw Eric looking like he should have been on “MasterChef” with the magic he was making with a single burner, but then I noticed the bag of noodles and tomato paste next to him. Ah, bingo.
I quickly threw some water in a pot on my second burner, got that rolling to a boil and lowered the heat on the onions to make sure they didn’t burn. At this point, I started cutting up the star fruit and decided to use it as my garnish and eat the rest while I waited for my noodles to cook. Now, what to do with the jicama? I sliced some up to see what it tasted like and it reminded me of a water chestnut — not a fan. I decided to toss it in the frying pan with the onions and zucchini. A judge shouted that we were down to 12 minutes. Screw it — it was good enough. The storm was rolling in and I would rather have gotten a head start on cleaning up my gear. Being that my camp gear was set up for two, I didn’t have enough plates or silverware, so I quickly dug out some cups and chopsticks and “plated” my camp pasta. Williams, done.
The designs were almost comically in line with each participant’s personality. I had broken my wrist a few weeks prior and “couldn’t do it.” Scott, our operations manager, threw money at the part he didn’t want to do, then rode his heart out on the singletrack and gave his all with the skills he had available in the kitchen challenge. Eric, our editor, had a grand idea that could have been inspired by “Howl’s Moving Castle.” There was a distinct Mark Twain vibe in the paddle-boat design, and the collapsible fins folded in neatly to make the boat trail-worthy (if not seaworthy). Stephen focused intently on his boat, somehow the most practical and impractical contraption. He made a real boat! And his natural kitchen skills came to life in the natural setting. While I was genuinely disappointed that I had chosen this of all injuries to take my healing seriously, it was a true joy to watch impartially as the three of them competed on what seemed to each as the best option for each challenge. Plus, who doesn’t want to sit back, take photos of her co-workers flopping around on an inflated unicorn and then judge them based on a set of arbitrary rules?
We had a lot of structure for judging — pages and pages of rules and bylaws. This was a closed course and the race was open only to staff members, but we still took safety into account. Everyone’s boat was securely strapped to their bike, or at least their trailer was, or else their boat was strapped to their back, or their boat was their bike. OK, there were some variables. Everyone wore a life jacket, I think. Points were obviously deducted for straight-up losing any leg of the race, or not finishing. Points also were lost or gained with originality and ingenuity.
Scott won the bike race but lost points for not making his own boat. He lost an additional point for forgetting the air pump to the inflatable SUP he bought, but I gave him a point for that being so sad. Eric got a lot of points for ingenuity and creativity, and additional points for his boat being so transportable on his bike, so he came in second in the race. Unfortunately, he lost a fair handful of points (in my mind, some of the points were Skittles, which I did not bring to the race) for his vessel floating but ultimately not moving in the water. Stephen’s boat was a bit wide for the windy, rocky, rooty singletrack of West Virginia, and it got dislodged from his trailer a handful of times, causing him to ride one-handed to hold onto the boat. I did see him cross a small creek with the boat remaining on the trailer, though, and absolutely did not see him cut any section of the trail. Plus, it should be noted that the boat worked! He made a boat and put it in the water, along with himself and his bike, and everything floated. Stephen came in first place for the boat, but last place for the bike.
Finally, there was the camp-kitchen challenge. To be honest, everyone’s dish was delicious. Scott is not a person who feels comfortable in the kitchen, so his effort was especially admirable. I was surprised by how he managed to make it taste so much like a dish from my childhood, American chop suey, considering the ingredients we’d selected. Also, his presentation was charming. Eric’s coconut curry was a warm treat on a gray afternoon that threatened more rain. Given the limited ingredients, the flavor was dynamic and delicious, and the jicama/star fruit hors d’oeuvres were a refreshing and surprising touch. Finally, Stephen made a star-fruit chutney to go with his savory rice dish with cooked jicama. This tasted like something I’d order at a restaurant where someone else was footing the bill. It was unique, fresh and inventive.
Here’s how the points broke down:
Scott: Half dozen donuts
Eric: Four donuts and a donut hole
Stephen: Three donuts
Stephen: 71 Skittles
Eric: 47 Skittles
Scott: 12 Skittles
Stephen: 115 Schnoodles
Eric: 102 Schnoodles
Scott: 97 Schnoodles
This was very scientific, with a lot of ins and outs. Jeff and Mark helped judge the food for taste, texture, presentation and heart. Ultimately Stephen pulled through with the win for his craftsmanship and pragmatic artistry, followed by Eric, who impressed us with divine creativity, with Scott in an admirable third place for being such a good sport and participating even though he has much better things to do, and for playing to his strengths.
Keep an eye out next year at Dirt Fest West Virginia, when we’ll open this up as an invitational event to see who else we can rope into our foolishness. — Carolyne Whelan