I have always thought it would be cool to feel how (or how not) aerodynamic I am in a wind tunnel like Lindsey Vonn does. Be careful what you wish for! Held for the second year at Utah’s Powder Mountain, Fat Bike National Championships provided riders the opportunity to hone their streamline position with gale force gusts. However, the event was so much fun the wind was unable to blow smiles off participant’s faces.
Fat bike racing is a blend of cross country bike handling and road bike strategy where dialing in the bike for the terrain conditions can make or break your day. For this reason I budget a few hours for pre-riding the course the day before with a bike stand and full tool kit at the parking lot. I also check the weather report morning and night for the week leading up to the race to get a feel for what the conditions will be like. The most important detail to get right for fat bike performance is tire pressure. Fat bikes run really low pressure, usually 4-12 PSI tire pressure on snow depending on the snow conditions. Due to the large volume of fat bike tires, a 1 or 2 PSI change will make a noticeable difference in how the tires grip and float on snow. If the snow is deep or recrystallized “sugar snow” I typically run closer to 4 PSI (the zone where the side-walls wrinkle) so the tire oozes over the snow instead of sinking into it. If the snow is hard pack I will run closer to 12 PSI to reduce rolling resistance but aiming for the pressure zone where I’m on the verge of bouncing on frozen ruts. A firmer tire provides more speed and efficiency, too firm and the bike will buck. Pre-riding the Fat Bike Nats course I experimented with my tire pressure to find the sweet spot. I started with my tires at 8 PSI and adjusted from there. A digital pressure gauge and a hand pump are a must for a pre-ride. On race day I do carry a CO2 cartridge for that emergency flat fix, but a 20g cartridge will only inflate a fat tire to about 5 PSI. Though the course on the ski hill was groomed, the temps were turning the snow to slush in many spots so it took me a while to find the zone where I was floating on the slushy snow but still efficient on the climbs. On race day the winds and clouds set in keeping the snow more firm than the day before so I upped the PSI a bit.
Next is gearing. The Fat Bike Nats course was a six mile loop where the first three miles featured a steady descent with burmed turns and a wiggly single track through the aspens. The second half of the course featured a long climb back to the start with one headwall of slush that I ended up walking each lap no matter how I approached it during the race. Though the descent was fast, the climb called for a reasonable chain-ring. I chose a 30 T and I used EVERY gear. A 2X drivetrain was probably the best choice on this day; I was spun out on the descent when the wind gusts were merciful but climbed into the headwind at a steady 4 mph pace in my smallest gears.
I have a demon who loves to assault me with last minute derailleur problems at races and Fat Bike Nats was no exception. At the end of my pre-ride as the sun was approaching the horizon I shifted into my smallest gear and my chain jumped into my spokes and bent the derailleur hanger in the process. With the barrel adjuster I was able to get my shifting functioning in the middle of my cassette, but the hanger needed to be straightened to let me use my smallest gears again. Fortunately angels chase demons and as I headed to the parking lot to try and find an open bike shop to help me I ran into Bill Warburton who was working as crew for the event. Bill runs the Bend Endurance Academy and gets lots of opportunities to help out kiddo’s on the trail fixing all sorts of mechanicals. He did not pause to take the time in the snow and dropping temps to get my shifting back on track. The next morning I lucked out again and bike mechanic John from Bingham’s Bike Shop gave my derailleur a last minute touch up for that added boost of confidence. My drivetrain was as good as brand new!
And then there is personal equipment. The temps were in the 40’s, but so were the wind-speeds. My Bar-Mitts would catch the wind and spin my handlebars during warm-up so they had to be removed. It was hard not to put on a wind layer over my kit but I resisted being weary of getting too cold from excessive sweating in the wind. I did put a set of Hot Hands in my gloves to make sure my fingers would stay warm enough to engage with my brakes and shifter. No fashion mistakes today! (Okay, I did warm-up in “Granny” wind pants and a puffy jacket but there is no documentation of that.)
With my equipment sorted out, it was time to take the start line. The pro women field was not large, but the ladies were all quite accomplished racers. Off the start we jockeyed for the front of the pack as we tried to figure out our strategies. I was feeling frisky at the strait-away before the climb began on the first lap and stretched my legs. At the end of the first lap I had a modest gap on the field which I built on for the rest of the race. I effectively time trialed this race, keeping an eye on my heart rate. Being the break-away can be a head game but knowing what my body is capable of doing for a race of this length helped me stay steady in winds that blew me off the cat track and literally stopped me in my tracks a few times. It also gave me confidence that my early move off the front was not a mistake.
And yeah, being the Women Pro Fat Bike National Champion is pretty cool!