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Luverne native succeeding as professional mountain bike racer

Karen Jarchow, a native of Luverne, has managed to climb to the top of the world in the sports of mountain bike and fat bike racing. (Special to the Daily Globe)1 / 3
Karen Jarchow won the 2016 National Ultra Endurance Series, which "involves marathon races of anywhere from 50 to 70 miles on mountain bikes." The races took place in Utah, South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming. (Special to the Daily Globe)2 / 3
Karen Jarchow takes in her win in the Jan. 27 Fat Bike World Championship. On race day, the temperature was 26 degrees below zero when Jarchow woke up. (Special to the Daily Globe)3 / 3

WORTHINGTON — Perhaps it’s not surprising that a woman who grew up near the quartzite cliffs of Blue Mounds State Park would eventually crave the natural thrills of mountain peaks.  

But Karen Jarchow, who primarily played softball throughout high school and never tackled endurance sports of any kind until her college years, has managed to climb to the top of the world in the sports of mountain bike and fat bike racing.

Jarchow, a 2003 Luverne High School graduate and the daughter of John and Kathy Jarchow, Luverne, won the 2016 National Ultra Endurance Mountain Bike Race Series Championship.

More recently, she claimed the women’s title in the Fat Bike World Championships on Jan. 27 at Crested Butte, Colo.

How did Jarchow, a native of southwest Minnesota’s prairie lands, become an elite cyclist by age 32? And what drove her to make the Rocky Mountains her adult home?

From Luverne to Mankato

Following high school, Jarchow, who has two older brothers, attended Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she earned a degree in athletic training (with an emphasis in psychology and corporate and community fitness) in 2007.

First it was the notable hills arising out of the Mankato river valley that challenged Jarchow.

“I had a pretty heavy academic schedule, but I took a swim class, ran and got my first road bike then,” said Jarchow of her college years.

“I used to ride my bike to get groceries or run errands, and I remember there was always a big hill to climb on the way home. Countless times, people pulled over to ask if I needed a ride,” she laughed.

Having been diagnosed with scoliosis as a child, Jarchow cited the condition as a catalyst of sorts.

“That motivated me to be more proactive about my health, because it was even more important to be active and grow strong and flexible in all the right places,” Jarchow said.

Colorado was on Jarchow’s radar since she was 8 years old. At that time, an aunt, Ellen, moved there, and the family began visiting her regularly in the Centennial State.

“I also had done some job shadowing at a hospital out there, and when I graduated from college, I got a job as a physical therapy assistant at a hospital in the Vail area,” Jarchow said.

“I loved the mountains.”

Colorado to California and back again

Jarchow had intended to begin studies toward a physician’s assistant degree after a couple of years.

“I even had a school picked out in Denver,” she said.

Instead, Jarchow tried mountain biking in 2010 and her focus changed.

“I quit my job at the hospital and jumped on the mountain town routine of having multiple jobs to earn enough money to enjoy where you’re living,” she explained. “I played that game for a while, but then I moved out to California for a cycling job.”

In California, Jarchow managed a women’s bike shop boutique. Fortuitously, her work put her in email contact with a man, Jeff Kerkove, who happened to live in Colorado. It was clear they had much in common, even with hundreds of miles between them.

“Then I moved back to Colorado — I missed it so much — and one thing leads to another,” said Jarchow.

In September 2016, Jarchow and Kerkove were married in a forest park near Vail, with many friends and family members present to witness their nuptials.

“The funny thing is, Jeff grew up in Algona, Iowa, and has a grandma who lives in Pipestone,” said Jarchow. “We figured out that he had driven by my family’s farm for 18 years whenever his family was visiting his grandma.”

Ready, set, mountain bike!

Jarchow laughs about it today, but her early efforts at mountain biking were…up and down.

“Technically, in my first season of racing, I went from beginner to pro level over the course of a summer,” related Jarchow, who has now been competing at a national professional level for four years.

Not long into her first racing season, she had a dangerous crash, hitting a stand of sagebrush and hurtling headfirst off her bike.

“I nearly broke my neck and I had a serious concussion,” reported Jarchow. “Racing-wise, that was it for the season, but I was back riding as soon as I was allowed to; I just loved it, and that incident made me extremely motivated to figure out the whole bike-handling thing.”

Mountain bike racing isn’t for the faint of heart; by Jarchow’s tally, she’s suffered “three or four” concussions over time (“The first was the most serious,” she pointed out), and bruises and scrapes just “come with the territory.”

Jarchow’s Luverne upbringing has aided her along the way. Her father, an able mechanic who works in animal nutrition, made sure Jarchow and her brothers possessed certain basic skills.

“You have to be very self-sufficient on a bike, and your first goal is always to finish a race,” Jarchow said. “So you have to be able to fix a flat tire or broken chain if that happens during a race, and my dad taught me how to take care of my stuff.”

Training for the win

To stay in tip-top condition — Jarchow is 5’4 and aims to maintain her weight between 108 and 112 pounds — she chooses to eat “very clean, all whole foods, no dairy, no gluten, a good whole-seed, plant-based diet for the most part,” she reported.

“When you’re racing, you can be on the bike for three to five hours, eating sugar the whole time for energy, so I don’t make processed foods or sugar a part of my regular diet,” she noted.

She’s calculated a need for 250 calories per hour during races, which she consumes in the form of GU Roctane Energy Gel alternated with water and energy chews.

“They’re basically electrolyte-filled gummy bears,” she said of the energy chews.

“Before a race, there’s usually time to scope out the trail and course, so I have it in my head when I can grab food from a pocket or take a drink from a bottle, depending on the course’s difficulty. Then, on the fly, if there’s a break in the trail and I can take a hand off the bar safely, I do it.”

Usually, Jarchow trains from 10 to 20 hours per week, incorporating a combination of bike, yoga and gym routines.

“I take a month or two off each year to do whatever I want, but I’m always still on the bike,” she said.

With evidence pointing to the fact that women don’t peak until age 35 in endurance sports, Jarchow feels she is finally coming into her own.

“Last year was my break-through season, when I won the National Ultra Endurance Series,” she shared. “That involves marathon races of anywhere from 50 to 70 miles on mountain bikes, and the races took place in Utah, South Dakota, Colorado and Wyoming.”

Fat biking is “not as recognized, but it’s starting to gain momentum,” she observed. “Mountain biking is what I focus on, and fat biking allows me to stay outside on a bike in the winter months.”

Jarchow not only stayed on the fat bike — she conquered the field at the Jan. 27 Fat Bike World Championships, at which 300 racers competed. She was the female champion, clocking two hours and four minutes on the 27-mile course, and the eighth overall finisher.

“My time was 13 minutes ahead of the next woman racer, and she was last year’s female champion,” reported Jarchow.

On race day, the temperature was 26 degrees below zero when Jarchow and Kerkove woke up. When she started the fat bike course, the temperature had moderated — to eight below zero.

“Honestly, I was worried about the cold, but Jeff had done an extremely long fat bike race earlier in the winter that was also very cold, so I had all the little tips from him to keep my fingers, toes and face warm and frostbite-free,” she confided.

“By the second lap I was able to take off my outer jacket.”

Living the dream

Typically, Jarchow says she might face 10 to 15 female competitors in mountain bike competition, depending on the race.

“It’s not like being a professional football player; there’s not really a lot of money in mountain bike racing, but we have sponsors who cover some of the costs and the prize money is a nice perk, but it’s definitely not something to rely on,” she assured.

Jarchow exclusively rides Canyon bikes.

“Canyon is a German-based company, but they’re coming to the U.S. by the end of the summer,” she said.

Jarchow and Kerkove are both members of the U.S. Team Topeak-Ergon.

“Jeff works in customer service and marketing for Ergon, one of our title sponsors, and my full-time job is doing PR for Ergon and a handful of other cycling brands,” she said.

Jarchow shares her love of mountain biking with a younger generation. A few years ago, she co-founded Vail Valley Alternative Sports Academy, a mountain biking camp for kids ages seven to 13.

“Each session is a month long, during June and July, for two days a week,” she listed. “We work with 60 kids at a time.

“What we really wanted was to create a program that promoted stewardship of trails, and that emphasizes the fun of the sport versus just the competitive side. It’s been a great success, and we sell out every summer.”

Jarchow and Kerkove make their home in Eagle, located about 30 miles west of Vail and 30 miles east of Glenwood Springs.

“It’s a great place for kids to learn mountain biking because they can progress from rolling terrain to big mountain loops, and they can learn to ride safely and correctly,” she stressed.

Now that Jarchow is established in Colorado and making a living that stems from her love of mountain biking, she thinks her parents are okay with the path her life has taken.

“At first, they were very concerned because they didn’t understand what I was doing,” she revealed. “Now they’ve seen how I’m integrated into this community and winning races, but it has to be scary for a parent to see a kid go into an area they don’t know anything about.

“It can be dangerous, too, and at one point my mom told me to stop telling her what I was doing.”

That included other extreme sports, such as rock climbing, skiing, snowshoeing and dirt bike riding.

Among area supporters who admire Jarchow’s success and determination are a few of Jarchow’s aunts and uncles and their families: Tim and Kayla Jarchow and Mike and Wanda Jarchow, all of Luverne, and Gina and Rob Newman of Wilmont.

Gina Newman, Jarchow’s aunt, says her triplet daughters (Worthington High School juniors Brianna, Jamie and Kelly Newman) think their older cousin is pretty cool.

“We’re very proud of her accomplishments,” said Newman. “She definitely didn’t choose a traditional course. I still picture her as a little girl visiting me in my college dorm, but she’s really accomplished a lot and done so well with it.”

Jarchow, in turn, looks up to Canadian mountain biking champion Catharine Pendrel.

“Catharine is not only a strong competitor but also humble, kind and approachable,” recommended Jarchow. “She’s very inviting and supportive of other women in the sport, and that’s always something to strive for.”

As Jarchow anticipates the coming season, she says she’s “feeling stronger every year,” even as she knows that competing at her current level isn’t something she can do for decades.

“But it’s important to always have something to be driving for,” emphasized Jarchow. “I’d like to be in the top five in the Epic Ride Series this year.

“I’m always looking at the next goal; I never really settle.”