Northern Michigan Fat-Tire Biker on Fire

Jorden Wakeley pedaled his Northern Michigan fat-tire bike out of the forest of Grayling and started winning races … a lot of them.

All photography: Andy Wakeman


He’s got the trophies from iconic races: a shovel, an arrowhead and a rooster. And he’s got the legwork: 9,000 mountain bike miles in the last year. And he’s got the race roster: showing up for 35 races last year and winning 23.

But it’s Jorden Wakeley’s bikes that are causing a buzz at the start line: They’re fat, as in bikes with fat tires.

Wakeley can be found riding one of two custom-built Quiring mountain bikes: His 29+ with 3-inch tires. Or a new prototype bike boasting tires over 5 inches wide—the fattest on the market.

He doesn’t look like anyone else at the start. And he doesn’t ride like them either.

Wakeley has put the kibosh on the fat bike’s reputation for being cumbersome and taken one first place finish after another in Michigan’s mountain bike races. “I was one of the first people to show up to a pro level race and put a fat bike to the test and do well,” he says. “The tires weigh a little more, but they make up for it when the going gets rough.”

So, who is the guy who shook up the race community?

Ask anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you he’s … quiet. Indeed, his mild manners and unassuming nature make him even more of a mystery at the start line. But Wakeley, 25, was born and raised in Grayling and is pretty close to the old saying, “what you see, is what you get.”

The guy, in a nutshell, is a beast. His strength isn’t built in the gym, but instead by lugging chainsaws and winches around the backwoods of Crawford County. In the summer, he works restoring trout habitat in places like the Au Sable River, and for the rest of the year he works providing tree services and firewood.

He calls his job “pretty physical” and sometimes it’s the only workout he needs. But most days he still finds his way to his bike, to the woods.

The combination is working. His most notable wins include: Minnesota’s Arrowhead Ultra 135, Traverse City’s X100 (three times) and four Michigan State Championships (most recently the Pro/Elite State Championship title last August).

The Training

Wakeley has only two bikes, both mountain bikes. Last year he often raced his 29+ bike. This is his “trout” bike, the one with a custom painted rainbow trout pattern on the fork. Its tires are 3 inches wide (an inch wider than a mountain bike tire and an inch narrower than a traditional fat bike tire).

“It’s a perfect setup for the sandy conditions we have here in Michigan,” Wakeley says. “It offers more grip and float, and, in some ways, more confidence when charging through rough terrain.”

In the summer, he rides at least six days a week, and his average training rides are an hour and a half. In the winter and spring, he clocks longer rides of four to six hours for base miles. “But I have a pretty short attention span and only do eight to 10 of those rides a year,” he says.

In 2015 alone he logged 9,000 miles. About half of those were on the road but all of them on his mountain bike. “It was the most miles I’ve ever ridden,” he says.

In peak race season (April thru November), Wakeley’s rides are either really hard or really easy; there’s not much in between. He’s tried using a coach before but always got burned out riding over 20 hours a week.

“Instead, I race by the motto, ‘Train like you race; race like you train,’” he says. “It’s been working pretty good for me.”

In the winter, Wakeley rides about five days a week and adds running, skiing and paddling into his routine for a break both mentally and physically. “But with the current explosion of fat bikes and winter racing,” he says, “I now have to train and ride 12 months out of the year.”

The Cold

Regardless of the weather, Wakeley puts in the miles.

“As long as you dress right, it’s not all that bad,” he says with a laugh. “I think after riding through the Michigan winter the last four years, I’ve adapted to the brutal cold.”

Cold training and cold racing—bitter cold, including temperatures at the 2012 Noque Snowbike World Championship in Marquette. The thermometer read 30 below at the start, and a blizzard was underway. Five inches of snow had fallen the night before, and Wakeley says there was stiff competition at the start line.

“I launched an attack right at the start and had a seven-minute lead at mile 15, the halfway point,” he says. “I was sweating so bad that my jacket had turned completely to ice, and I was starting to get very cold. My water bottle also froze at the start of the race so I had nothing to drink. I was just running on adrenaline.”

At the end of the 32-mile race, Wakeley’s 7 minute-lead had shrunk to 1 minute.

“If the race had been 20 minutes longer I wouldn’t have won,” he says. “I learned a lot about layering and how to dress for extremely cold races after that one.”

The Arrowhead

To get a sense of what Wakeley can do, consider the Arrowhead Ultra 135 race he won in 2015. The race runs 135 miles on a snowmobile trail through Minnesota … in January. The ultramarathon begins in what’s historically the coldest city in the lower 48 states, running from Frostbite Falls to Tower, Minnesota.

Going into the race, Wakeley had more than 20 100-mile races under his belt, but none in the dead of winter. He modeled his entire season around Arrowhead 2015 and it paid off.

“Winning Arrowhead was the biggest win of my cycling career so far,” Wakeley says. “I shocked a lot of people including myself with that win.”

It’s been dubbed one of “The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges” and has a less than 50 percent finish rate, and much lower for first-time racers. Wakeley went into it as a rookie against some of the best winter ultra endurance racers in the country, athletes who had won the Iditarod and the Tour Divide.

“Somehow I managed to stick with them for 15 hours and outsprint them at the end,” he says.

The 100-Milers

Wakeley races about four or five 100-mile races a year.

“Racing 100 miles on a mountain bike means at least 7 hours of riding, and sometimes as much as 12,” he says. “There’s always going to be a low point during the race where you feel like you might die and not finish.”

Fueling for a 100-mile race begins the week before the event. Wakeley says he eats everything he can get his hands on, knowing he will burn 7,000 to 10,000 calories in a race. During the race, he consumes primarily a liquid diet of HEED or Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition. “And a can of Coke at mile 80ish is about the best taste in the world,” he says with a laugh.

In 2015, Wakeley raced the X100 in Traverse City. Alex Vanias, a top Michigan racer, showed up to challenge Wakeley for the win. “Alex and I broke away from the rest of the pack early on and were beating on each other pretty hard,” Wakeley says. Then four hours into the race, Wakeley started having stomach issues from his drink mix and was forced to stop and use nature’s bathroom. “I watched as Alex rode away, and my shot at three straight X100 wins faded,” he says.

Wakeley almost called it quits, but decided to forge ahead. He gradually started feeling better and eventually caught Vanias 10 miles later. Then, 6.5 hours into the race, Vanias started having stomach issues from drinking the same brand of drink.

“Luckily for me, we were only an hour from the finish, and I was able to put the hammer down and coast in for the win,” Wakeley says. “Never quit. You never know what’s going to happen!”

Another tough race was last year’s Mohican 100 in Ohio. It was 90 degrees and humid at the start. Wakeley was riding with the lead pack for the first 20 miles but failed to hydrate properly. “I went from 4th to 15th,” he says. “I stopped at mile 50, thought about what I had gotten myself into and thought how mad I would be if I dropped.”

Wakeley decided to keep going.

“A finish is better than a DNF (Did Not Finish) any day of the week in my book,” he says. “I kept the pedals turning for the next 50 miles convincing myself I was going to drop at the next aid station over and over.”

He ended up finishing in just over 8 hours, an hour slower than his previous Mohican 100. “Weather is everything at cycling races,” he says. “It can either make it a very enjoyable experience or a long, slow mental battle.”

This Year

Wakely is eager to continue the battle. Big races for 2016 include a trip to the U.S. Marathon XC National Championships in Georgia in June along with a handful of 100-milers: X100, Marji Gesick 100, Lutsen 99er, and Mohican 100.

“For me, racing 100 miles in the woods is better therapy than I could ever get from anyone or anything else,” he says. “I’ll never stop racing 100 milers. I love the challenge and feeling of accomplishment after completing what many people think is impossible.”

Check out Jorden’s favorite Northern Michigan trails to ride in the April 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


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