As love stories go, Karen Jarchow’s first encounter with competitive mountain biking wasn’t the head-over-heels courtship one might expect, but more of a head-over-handlebars type of affair.
After blasting through the uphill portion of the first lap of her first race with Vail Recreation District’s annual summer mountain bike-racing series in 2011, Jarchow hit a snag on the downhill. “My technical ability still wasn’t very good, but I was really fast at climbing for a beginner, so I’d pass everyone on the uphill, and then I would get really nervous because I was holding them all up on the descent,” she recalls. “So on the second lap, I thought, ‘Whatever. I’m just not going to use my brakes.’” The tactic sent her careening off course and into a sage bush, which still grows with a cartoonish split down the middle, where her front wheel chopped right through it. “I flew over the handlebars and landed on my head and got knocked out,” she adds. “I made sure my first ride back was on that same trail so I could get over it right away and move on. I took that experience, and it catapulted into me figuring out how to mountain bike.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. Since that first ill-fated introduction to the peculiar sport of cross-country bike racing (also known as XC cycling, an Olympic sport since 1996 that sends a pack of riders over rugged terrain in races lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours), Eagle’s 33-year-old XC wunderkind has rocketed from the ranks of unknown beginners to the top of the pack on the pro circuit. Specializing in XC marathons (off-road cycling races covering 50 miles or more), Jarchow has racked up a trophy case of titles, including the 2016 National Ultra Endurance Marathon Champion, 2017 Colorado State XC Champion (which she won on her home dirt in Eagle), and most unlikely, 2017 Fat Bike World Champion (on a lark, she entered her first fat-bike competition—an XC course on snow that’s raced with balloon-tired mountain bikes—in Crested Butte last January and ended up winning the international event).
Jarchow has been just as successful with bike-related pursuits off the race circuit. She’s on the payroll of one of her longtime sponsors, Ergon Bike, as an assistant marketing director (her husband, Jeff Kerkove, a fellow singletrack junkie, also works for Ergon), and also is a program director at the Vail Valley Alternative Sports Academy, overseeing a summer mountain bike camp for 120 kids (ages 6-14) that she took ownership of in 2017. “My hope with starting this kids’ camp is to focus on the stewardship of the sport, and how to treat each other on the trails,” she says, adding that her goal with the program is to mint new riders, not racers. “I try not to talk about racing at all with the kids—most probably have no clue that I race professionally, and I like it that way…. I had this one kid come up to me last year who was probably eight, and he said, ‘You’re not going to make us do intervals, are you?’ And I was like, ‘No, go do a wheelie!’”
After winning a world championship on snow last winter, Jarchow upped the ante last summer by entering the Epic Rides Off-Road Series, a grueling multi-month race circuit with stops around the country that draws one of the sport’s largest and deepest talent pools of professional XC cyclists competing for a $160,000 purse. Her initiation to the event was almost as humbling as the head-over-handlebar tumble that launched her career: accustomed to standing on the podium, she fought her way back from a stretch of disappointing finishes early in the series before rebounding in the last three races (culminating with a top-ten finish in the final race), finishing 21st overall.
“The Epic Rides series in general is really the top tier of mountain biking in the US, and last summer was much more of a learning year than I thought it was going to be,” she says. “I think I was prepared to have great results physically, but mentally I don’t think I was quite there yet. Making that next step was so much more of a mental game than I was aware of.”
Which explains why mindfulness—in the form of yoga and meditation—has become a critical component of her training plan. Jarchow works with Lynda Wallenfels, a mountain biking coach out of St. George, Utah, who meticulously plans her workouts week-by-week (often totaling 15-18 hours) so her strength and endurance peak over the course of an eight-month race season. Twice-weekly high-intensity interval training sessions at Edwards’ GOAT gym have been key to adding muscle mass to her slim frame, while yoga at Eagle’s Yoga Off Broadway (four or more sessions a week) gives her some much-needed time to stretch, and focus herself mentally. Fat biking in Eagle’s Boneyard and Yeoman Park satiates her lust for singletrack during the valley’s long winters. Still, her love affair (and success) with fat biking didn’t translate into a need to defend her title at the Borealis Fat Bike World Championships at the end of January. At press time earlier that month, Jarchow said she was planning to take a break from racing before heading into another summer of Epic Rides.
In other words, for a professional mountain bike racer, sometimes a heated romance with your sport requires a period of cooling off.
Athlete: Karen Jarchow
Sport: Professional mountain bike racer
Weight: 110 lbs
Events: Cross Country (15-50K off-road endurance cycling race), Cross-Country Marathon (65-100K off-road cycling race), Ultra-Endurance Marathon (160+K off-road cycling race), Fat Bike (racing over snow on balloon-tired bicycles), Enduro (a mountain bike race where downhills are timed but uphills are not)
Titles: 2016 National Ultra-Endurance Marathon Champion, 2017 Colorado State XC Champion, 2017 Fat Bike World Champion
Coach: Lynda Wallenfels, lwcoaching.com
Gym: GOAT, goattraining.com
Yoga Studio: Yoga Off Broadway, yogaoffbroadway.com