MTB stage racing takes riders back to the roots of the sport. Expect big loops on the best trails in the area and be ready for an epic day on the bike! Self-support skills are mandatory: ability to fix a mechanical on the trail, route finding (courses are flagged, but they often get removed by […]
I’m home from Jasper, Alberta where Frosty’s Fat Bike XC and 50K races were held. With an Arctic flow consuming the Canadian Rockies I knew my week there would be spent in daytime negative digit temperatures. I will admit, I was daunted by this. In preparation for my trip I reached out to Karen Jarkow who won Fat Bike World Championships in 2017 in -25 Fahrenheit, my coach who has athletes in the Upper Peninsula and train outside year-round, and a friend who races JP’s Fat Bike Pursuit successfully every year. I spent the weeks leading up to my trip experimenting with apparel and gear (see my blog) and I arrived in a snow storm and -22 Fahrenheit temps (before wind chill). Game on!
I was hosted by Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge for the week, which let me fine tune my equipment, clothing and nutrition strategies before the three days of races and events began. I had several surprises and a steep learning curve but marked success by:
- Racing an XC in -18 Fahrenheit and not being cold at the finish
- Finishing the 50K race not regretting my clothing and (most) of my equipment choices
- Being one of the few not to leave with frostbite
“It’s all about the tires”
You hear this all the time from fat bikers, but how your bike engages with the snow is the difference between floating across terrain or sinking so deep your axels are at snow level. My “must have” tires for any snow condition are Kenda Tire Juggernaut 4.8’s. They always find traction, roll fast on hard pack, and have a sidewall that allows for even spreading of the tread across the snow. I spend the first few minutes of any ride adjusting my tire pressure. My start-point is generally 3PSI in the front and 3.5PSI in the rear.
Tubeless tires may fail in extreme cold. Alloy rims conduct heat well, meaning they quickly give any heat they have in them to the snow. Rubber contracts a little in very cold conditions. Sealant is water based which may freeze and expand. The increased space between your rim and tire may be too big a feat for your sealant to hold together and sealant that is normally sloshing around to fill the gap is a solid mass. If in doubt, a tubed heavy wheel is faster than potholing in snow with a 35Lb bike on your shoulder. I did this. Twice.
- If you adjust your PSI in a warm place, like
your condo, when you go outside in very cold temps the pressure will lower more. It’s easier to reduce pressure after you have been out for 20 minutes than to add it back, so head out with more pressure than you think you will want.
- Even if the snow is hard packed or groomed, very cold temperatures take the moisture out of snow and it starts to behave like sugar. As more people spin through the sugar bowl it starts to become bottomless. Run a low PSI as if you were in a little fresh powder.
Frostbite is not a love-bite
In extreme cold, frostbite can happen in just a few minutes, especially if the wind is blowing, if you are wet from sweat, or if skin is exposed even briefly as when taking a glove off to open a snack. A solid layering solution that prevents wind from getting in but allows moisture to escape is a must.
- Your face, especially around your nose and mouth are hard to keep covered when breathing hard. I coat my face in Joshua Tree’s Winter Stick balm. The beeswax base prevents moisture from direct contact to my skin, has SPF, will not easily rub off, and if you get some in your mouth it has not taste or strange chemicals like Dermatome does.
- Hands need to be bundled up, but not so
much that you can’t maneuver your levers to shift or brake. BarMitts are basically mandatory. I put heat packs in the BarMitts and turn them into an oven.
- Feet are notoriously hard to keep warm while cycling. I have had several pairs of winter riding boots, and I believe Lake Cycling MXZ303 is the best out there. They are warm, waterproof and windproof while being just breathable enough to prevent your feet from wading in a sweat bog. They adjust by a Boa system, so the fit will never put too circulation reducing pressure on any part of your foot and all sizes are available wide. Most the Canadians were wearing these too.
It is easy to think you will keep your feet warm with more socks. However, pressure on your foot from being squished under several socks will reduce foot circulation and cause your feet to cool down. I experimented one day in Jasper and wore a thin wool sock on one foot and two on the other and went for a ride. The double sock foot chilled a bit, and the single one was comfortable.
- I backed-up my warm feet strategy by rigging my ski boot heaters to my boots. I ended up only using them to prewarm my boots, my feet were toasty when riding without the added heat, but they worked quite well.
When it’s cold, you desire to eat and drink is meh’ at best. However, just keeping warm consumes a lot of calories. Not to mention you are exercising! Liquids freeze. Hydration and nutrition is a bit of a conundrum.
Put edibles in your BarMitt ovens. The heat packs will keep them from becoming solid, so you won’t break a tooth trying to gnaw on your Honey Stinger Waffle.
- Water bottles upside down in the bottle cage will work for the beginning of your outing.
- I found an Osprey hydration vest works best for me. I put it over my first base layer and under all others. The nozzle I run under my neck gator. My body heat keeps the liquids from freezing.
- When I’m done drinking, I make sure to blow some air into the tube so the bit that is exposed does not have liquid to freeze.
- If the nozzle does freeze, putting it in your mouth (like biting a stick) will melt it in a minute or two.
This trick came from my coach at CTS, but I put 1oz of liquor in 1.5L hydration bladder. This lowers the freezing point but is not enough to be impaired.
- I found putting my nutrition in my water was the best strategy to keep me fueled AND hydrated. I favorite blend was GQ-6 green apple Hydrate Base, a dash of cinnamon, and whiskey mixed into hot water. It tasted like hot apple cider.
- Increase your hourly calorie replacement by 100 Kcal or more. I weigh 125Lbs and consumed 400 Kcal/hr during the 50K race and was still ravenous for lunch. And then second lunch.
Odds and Ends
Your iPhone is good for 1-2 pictures before the battery is drained. I put heat packs in my internal pocket that held my phone and it would warm up enough to take another 1-2 pictures 30 min. later. Point is, ride with lots of friends and have one person take a picture at any stop and share your images and/or only take the amazing shots.
- My Shimano XT disk brakes worked better than I expected in the extreme cold. To keep the brake fluid viscous, I pumped my brakes a few times every 20 min. And remember, you are riding in snow. I scrub speed most of
the time by nudging my tires into the soft edges of the groomed trails, avoiding touching my brakes all together.
- My seat post clamp is alloy. As it became brittle, my carbon fiber seat post would lower in my downtube. I had to stop and raise it several times during the 50K. If I had refreshed the carbon fiber paste it would not have been a problem.
- Access to a hot tub or bath is essential. As soon as I got back to my condo I took a hot bath to restore my core temperature. It will gobble up all your energy trying to rewarm otherwise; leaving you a zombie at post ride festivities and not letting your body recover to head out the next day.
Now that you have all the tools to ride in extreme cold AND have fun, don’t gloat to your friends when they are suffering. Remember, misery loves company. Better yet, be a real friend and share these tips with them before you head out on a chilly adventure. Please share your new-found tricks with me too. I’m headed back to Frosty’s in Jasper next year!
The biggest challenge with winter fat biking is how to stay warm. No matter how beautiful the terrain or how great your partners are, if you are cold you will not have fun. Bulky winter clothing will make you feel like Stay Puff on a bike, making it futile to move your arms and legs. You will be exercising, and sweating. Wet clothing invites Jack Frost to nip at more than your nose. And you need to keep the snow out without becoming a mobile greenhouse. It’s no wonder this is a conundrum for most cyclists who want to bike in the snow!
Don’t give up on riding in the snow. I can help! I’ve been riding and racing fat bikes since fat tires were 3.2’s (but ride 4.8’s now). I’ve developed and fine-tuned a clothing strategy that gives me confidence when I head out for a fat bike ride in winter that I’ll return home happy, without frostbite, and boasting tales.
1.) Layers are key. Raid your alpine ski gear. I have found wool next to my skin is best to wick moisture away. Over that, synthetic materials are fine, but avoid cotton. Be able to add or remove layers as needed and have a way to carry them (jersey pockets fill up fast).
2.) Outer layers are chosen by the conditions. Wind-stopper material when it’s windy, Gore-Tex or rain gear if it’s wet, wind jacket/vest if it’s nice out.
3.) Use your head . You lose or retain a lot of heat here depending on what is covering your noggin. I bring a fleece headband, skull cap, and a fleece hat with me and adjust this layer before any other.
4.) Cold hands can’t break or shift gears. If there is too much bulk on your hands you won’t be able to do these things either. Investing in bar mitts is a must. These are neoprene pouches that attach to your handlebars, encase your cockpit and allow you to easily slide your hands inside wearing only a thin glove. When it’s really cold, I wear a thin glove liner with a winter riding glove or lobster claw glove over it. This way I can remove one or the other to prevent my hands from getting wet.
5.) Feet suffer reduced circulation when cycling. When you are cold, your body reduces blood flow to your extremities, and extra socks may squish your feet reducing circulation to your toes even more. I have found a good pair of winter riding boots are essential as they will keep the snow out and have insulation so you don’t have to cram six pairs of socks in. Booties and shoe covers are notorious for coming off when you have to hike your bike in the snow and filling up with snow that then melts in your shoe.
Apparel Strategies by Climate
1.) Cool Climate is where the temperature is in the 30’s factoring in wind chill. If it’s sunny, expect to take layers off. If there is precipitation or it’s overcast, bring extra layers for “Cold Climate” riding.
- Headband or thin beanie
- Wool base layer or long sleeve jersey or jersey with fleece lined arms
- Wind-stopper jacket with removable sleeves
- Thin gloves and bar mitts or thin and thick gloves
- Winter riding tights or bike shorts with fleece lined legs
- Winter riding boot with a thin wool sock
2.) Cold Climate is where the temperature is in the upper teens to 20’s with wind chill. This is the temperature zone most cyclists will fat bike in.
- Thin beanie or fleece lined hat
- Sunglasses or goggles if it’s windy
- Wool base layer AND a long sleeve jersey
- Winter riding jacket
- Winter riding gloves in bar mitts or thin gloves with ski gloves over them
- Fleece lined winter riding pants (or Nordic pants work well) over bike shorts
- Winter Riding boot with 2 thin wool socks
3.) Frigid Climate is where you must be smart about exposure. Temperatures with wind chill are in the single digits or lower teens. When I ride in these conditions I make sure I can get back to a warming hut in 30 minutes or less, just in case the conditions worsen or I have a mechanical that leaves me walking.
- Fleece lined hat, neck gaiter and nose cover
- Wool base layer and a thick thermal layer
- Winter riding jacket (and a Gore-Tex shell if it’s windy or there is accumulating snow)
- Glove liners, winter riding gloves and bar mitts.
- Winter riding tights AND heavy winter pants
- Winter riding boots with a thin wool sock AND a thick wool sock.
4.) Abominable Winter Climate is where mythological beasts roam and eat snowman snacks. I’m headed to Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies next week to partake in Frosty’s Fat Bike Festival. I’ve been strategizing how to ride in negative digit temperatures and will report back with my findings; stay tuned!
1.) Wind can make temperatures drop 20 degrees or more. It can literally suck the warmth right out of you.
- Add wind stopper outer layers on your hands, chest and front of legs. If possible find windproof layers for the front of your body but allow moisture to escape from your backside. Most Nordic and cycling specific apparel is made this way.
- Protect ANY exposed skin. A balaclava or two neck gators (one cut to 4” width) work well to let you breathe and cover most of your face. I cover the delicate skin around my nasal passages and mouth with Joshua Tree Skin Care Winter Stick but Dermatome works too.
2.) Snow is tricky because it may slow down your pace as it accumulates, and when it piles up on your shoulders it melts.
- If it’s so cold the snow won’t melt with body heat or is a very light snow, wind stopper outer layers are generally adequate.
- If it’s wet snow or quickly accumulating, you may need a rain or Gore-Tex jacket and possibly rain pants.
- Carry extra gloves and socks. If your extremities get wet, you will be miserable.
- Sweating is part of exercising, but making sure the moisture does not get trapped next to your skin can make all the difference from enjoying your ride or counting the seconds to get home.
- Adjust your layers as soon as you start sweating. Outer layers with pit-zips are great and half zip jerseys can fine tune your thermal zone.
- If your next-to-skin layer is saturated, take it off! Be able to carry extra layers and layers you may want to remove. An extra pair of socks, glove liners and base layer top are always in my pack.
4.) Long Rides present extra challenges. The conditions will shift while you are riding.
- Carry a variety of extra layers and outwear
- A down coat to put on while not riding is envy provoking
- Don’t ride solo.
- Carry “emergency” supplies such as extra food, extra layers, and a full tool kit.
Stay warm like you have Inuit smarts, but remember that fat biking is silly fun. Get out there and experiment! You’ll have loads to brag about when you get back from your snow cycling adventures. Maybe you’ll even get your friends to stop moping and get off their trainers!
Preparation is Key for Keeping it Fun in the Cold on a Snow Bike
Baby, it’s cold outside; but I want to ride. Those of us living in environments where the earth is white for several months and the pavement shoulder hides under sheets of ice and debris thank the bike gods for giving us fat bikes. You can now pedal in the snow. Fat biking is just biking, but there are some unique equipment considerations before you hit the trails.
What to wear to ride in the snow?
Getting sweaty in cold weather is a recipe for misery, so utilizing clothing layers while carrying additional layers is key. I take off and put on layers several times on a fat bike ride. I start out slightly overdressed on a ride and once I’m warmed up I peel off a layer. Even if it is sunny out, I carry a waterproof jacket and pants. You may find yourself hiking in deep snow or the snow may become slush and soak you. If I am going on an epic ride, over four hours, I carry an extra undershirt (and sports bra) to change into mid-ride if I get sweaty. I ride with a small pack to easily store layers as I need them.
For the coldest weather I layer:
- On top – a thermal top, fleece top, vest (down if it’s really cold), and waterproof jacket with pit zips.
- On bottom – bike tights (full length or bike shorts with leg warmers), calf height winter socks, long johns or fleece leggings, and waterproof bike pants.
- Extras – cap and neck gaiter or balaclava, warm gloves and bar mitts, and fat bike boots (see feet for more detail).
For warm winter days, I layer:
- On top – thermal shirt and a windproof vest.
- On bottom – winter bike pants (windproof on the front) or bike shorts with leg warmers (only on short rides in full sun and temps well above 32).
- Extras – headband, thin gloves, and fat bike boots
Protect Your Extremities
Hands will not be able to shift or brake if they are numb. If your gloves are too bulky you will have trouble feeling your shifters and levers. Bar mitts let you wear thin gloves. Lobster claw style gloves are also good for fat biking. I always carry a packet of Hot Hands (chemical packets that when opened deliver heat for 7 hours) and put them in my gloves over the top (non-palm) side of my hand where they warm the blood going to your fingers. Carrying an extra pair of gloves is a good idea if you are going for a long ride or getting wet is likely.
Feet will get colder than if you were riding on the road in the same temps. Your boots will brush through snow banks on the side of the trail, and post holing through the snow is inevitable. Flat pedals with traction nubs (free ride style, not the plastic ones that came on your kid’s bike) with good winter boots work well. Bike shoes with neoprene covers are okay but most fill full of snow when you hike. Yes, walking in the snow is a normal part of fat biking in the snow so plan for it. If you ride a fat bike regularly in the snow and want to use clipless pedals, investing in fat bike specific bike boots (I wear Bontrager OMW Winter Shoe) is a must. I also carry an extra packet of Hot Hands to put in my bike shoes if my feet get too cold. They warm your toes best under your socks/against your skin right behind the ball of your foot. Consider an extra pair of non-cotton socks for long rides or rides where you know you will get wet.
The head is where we lose the most heat, so find a fleece cap that fits under your helmet. If you are hot, this layer is the quickest to remove and cools you rapidly. I carry a headband if I think I’ll take my cap off so my ears stay warm. I also carry a neck gaiter for extra warmth if the wind or snow picks up.
Eyewear selection can greatly affect how much fun you have too. Ski goggles have lenses that enhance snow definition but can fog. If you fat bike with goggles make sure they vent well with your helmet; if they are made by the same manufacturer they typically will. Yellow lenses work well in the snow unless you will be biking in full sun conditions. For full sun, regular riding sun glasses work fine.
Preparing for a mechanical on a fat bike requires a few special items
To fix a flat on the fat bike’s extra large tires you will need a fat bike specific tube. Some bike shops will sell you a DH (downhill) tube and say it will work. It won’t. Your CO2 cartridge may fill your tire to only 2-3 psi, so carry several, or better yet, carry a hand pump. To have the most fun on your fat bike, adjust your tire pressure to maximize float on the particular snow density; it is nice to have a pump so you can play around with the psi that is right for you and not worry about running out of CO2 cartridges. Tire patch glue often freezes, so carry an extra tube. Tire levers also get brittle and break in the cold; I carry three just in case. Thankfully, flats are pretty rare in the snow.
You will flop your bike into deep snow often. These falls are silly and usually painless, but your derailleur hanger is particularly susceptible to bending. Carry an extra derailleur hanger and the tools to replace it.
Prevention of mechanicals is the best medicine for fat bikes, and that means put your bike away DRY AND LUBED. Components don’t like being wet. A bike put away wet is a rusty bike when you take it out next time (particularly if you ride in an area that salts the roadway).
It gets dark fast in winter; carry lights. I always have a headlamp in my pack in case the ride is longer than I expect. Snow conditions can change quickly, and your out-and-back ride may take twice as long on the return. A flashing front and rear light is great if you will be on trails used by snowmobilers, mushers, skiers, or may find yourself on roads shared with motor vehicles.
Plan your route wisely in winter conditions. If you have a mechanical or other problem, hiking out in the snow will take a whole lot longer than if you are on dirt or pavement. Bring extra clothes, food and lights just in case. Cell phone power is easily drained in cold temps so don’t expect your phone to work. If riding alone, make sure people know where you will be, when you are expected back, and what to do if you don’t return in reasonable time. Choose a ride that is busy, parallels roads, communities, or goes by several trailheads so you have options. If you are exploring remote areas, bring a well-equipped posse of friends.
Fuel your ride
When you are cold you don’t feel thirsty, but you need to drink like on any other ride. A well-hydrated body is better able to thermoregulate. The hose of your hydration pack or a water bottle in a cage may freeze in winter riding. I carry an insulated bottle with hot beverage. Hot tea with electrolytes is nice: green tea with citrus sports drink mix or ginger tea with apple electrolytes are my favorite. I also bring hot soup for long or cold rides. If it is warm out and a hot drink is not what I’m craving, I just add a little snow. In a pinch I have poured my hot drink on frozen components to get me home.
You burn a ton of calories just staying warm, so bring more food than you think you will want. Holiday cookies and leftover ham sandwiches (the meat will stay “refrigerated”) are great, but moist snacks (gels, blocks, bars, fruit, nut butters, etc.) freeze into rocks you won’t want to eat.
Have a hot recovery beverage waiting for you at the end of the ride. I’m a big fan of a Fluids Cinnamon Vanilla Recovery Mix made with hot almond milk to sip while I clean, dry and lube my bike at the trailhead before transporting it home. Hot cocoa is pretty great, too.
My Fat Bike Packing List:
- Small Backpack
- Flat kit: fat tire tube, 3 tire levers, mechanical hand pump with psi gauge
- Multi-tool, duct tape, derailleur hanger
- 2 Thermos (minimum), 300 calories/hr (minimum) snacks
- Hot Hands (3)
- Headlamp and bike lights
- Down coat if I’m going to take a lunch break in the snow
- Gore-Tex/ waterproof jacket and pants
- Extra base layer (top, long johns, sports bra)
- Extra socks
- Extra thin gloves or glove liners
- Neck gaiter or balaclava
- Zip-lock with my phone and map
With a little insight and preparation, you will have a fantastic adventure on a fat bike. I’m pretty sure you will be talking to your local bike shop about adding a fat bike to your bike stable in no time.
Recently I traveled to Poulsbo, WA to participate in an endurance mountain bike race. I have a lot to learn and dial in so I can “get it done” at BreckEpic, so in preparation I signed up for the Stottelmeyer 60 to practice the endurance race format. Years ago I raced a 50 mile mtb event and it was a spectacular disaster: I crashed, bonked, had mechanicals (3!), and mercifully DNF’ed with six miles and a huge climb to go. I will say I went to that race on a whim and thought it would be like the after-work races I did at the time (about 12 mile courses) but would take longer. ROOKIE!
There are many things different about endurance racing than the cross country (XC) racing I focus on. My biggest concern is fueling; if I don’t get enough calories in I will bonk or find myself walking off leg cramps, if I take in too many, to quickly or the “wrong type” I will get a sour and crampy stomach. All of these have plagued me as an athlete. In endurance races you have drop bags deposited along the course at aid stations full of snacks and supplies you hopefully will not need; like a rain jacket or extra CO2 carriages. There are no aid stations in XC races, you would never give up the seconds to stop to grab a snack, and a flat tire means you are cut at the end of the lap by falling off the leader pace. How I was going to embrace food, aid stations and intentionally stopping during the race left me feeling like I was headed for an exotic destination where no westerner had ever been before.
I traveled to the Olympic Peninsula with my friends Anne and Cary who are seasoned veterans of distance racing. They were gracious to share their tricks of the trade for fueling, how to move through aid stations efficiently, and what should be in my drop bag. They shared awesome details like putting a rubber band around the necks of water bottles to secure gels so at aid stations I can quickly resupply and that a Payday candy bar might be the race treat that gets me to the finish line. What I took away from our conversations is that fueling (as I feared) the factor that can make or break your success in an endurance race. On my long training rides I have been experimenting with foods and calories that work for me. I have learned that on longer rides I need to replace about 250 Kcal/hr consisting mostly of carbohydrates and I need to drink half a liter of water an hour in cool temps where every other bottle has electrolytes in it. My travel companions cautioned me that my caloric intake may be significantly higher during the race; and I would know if I started to cramp (not enough glycogen for my muscles), my bike handling was sluggish (not enough glucose to power my brain), or I had any stomach disgruntling. They were also worried about my food choices which were homemade rice cakes from the Skratch Labs cookbook and Perpetuim (a high calorie electrolyte beverage formulated for endurance athletes); so I threw out the adage of never experimenting on race day and followed their advice for a fuss-free but completely pre-packaged fueling strategy. Calories by gels, blocks and a high calorie (but protein free) electrolyte drink was the menu.
The Stottelmeyer 60 is a fifteen mile loop course twisting and turning through a very dense forest keeping the pace slow but requiring constant bike handling skills to get over roots and between tight trees. Opportunities to pass came in short fire road strait-aways, giggles were had on a new DH flow trail, and we passed through a lupine field where the flower stalks brushed my helmet. The weather had been unseasonably warm and dry but race day presented with a black sky and cool temps. The rain held off through the first half of the race, but by my last lap it was a downpour. As the rain came down, bike handling became more important as the trail became muddy, roots slick and visibility poor. My brain fogged in fatigue on the last lap too. My palms tenderized by miles; a switchback that was a fun swoop on previous laps became a terrain feature not to be taken lightly by the last pass.
Endurance race pace is slower than XC race pace. If I went too hard early, finishing would be a struggle; so I used my competitors as my mentors. Early in the race I posted-up with four other women in the pro division; two with solid endurance mtb racing resumes and two who were local girls that knew the trails like the back of their hands. Midway through our second lap I stopped at the aid station to resupply (I had just endured a minor muscle cramp episode and knew I would need to get a whole lot more calories in than I had planned – I calculated I averaged 375 Kcal/hr!) and those girls rode away. I did not doubt my need to stop and ensure I stayed fueled, especially so early in the race, but it was hard to lose the pack. But not to fear, back to riding I caught up with a group of men who were happy to sit on my wheel and chat me up for the next hour. The miles ticked off, I felt great, I was enjoying the terrain, and I was keeping a pace I was confident I could hold for the rest of the race. My train and I overtook the women I was earlier riding with (a moment of doubt for me) and I soon lost the chatty gentlemen. In my third lap I would catch up to riders, chat for a bit (crazy to be in the middle of a race and making friends, not gasping for air), then find myself catching the next rider. I developed a strategy for moving through aid stations: hand my bike to a volunteer, swap out water bottles, drop my gel wrappers, put two gels in my leg cuffs, grab a handful of blocks (like 7) and ride away chipmunk style. A stop took me less than a minute. My last aid station stop was bliss. I knew I was 9 miles from the finish, 9 miles from dry clothes, and 9 miles from a burger. I didn’t care if my stomach turned at this point so I ate a banana and an Oreo. That Oreo may be one of the best tasting things I’ve ever laid to my taste buds. I wished I had put Oreos in my leg cuffs not gels; soggy or not they would have been divine.
The finish line loomed. Anne and Cary were cheering me home despite the pouring rain. I did it! I successfully completed an endurance mountain bike race: I managed my pace, my fuel, aid stations, enjoyed (almost) all of the race, and I even won. My burger was fantastic. I can’t wait to do another of these!
So my test run for BreckEpic was a big confidence boost. Stottelmeyer 60 gave me insights on what I have to work on: recovery after a race so I can do it again the next day, increasing my mental stamina so I can safely descend technical terrain at the end of a day, tightening up the equipment I carry, and refining what I have in my drop bags. I learned the pace for an endurance race is still pretty fast (faster than a fast ride with friends), I will be constantly eating and drinking, aid stations are a place for support not a zone to fear, the race is long so trust yourself and don’t get seduced by doing what others are doing, endurance racing is a whole lot of fun not just suffering, and most important – I can do this!
I am a cross country mountain bike racer. My races are two hour sprints on trails. Strategy choices play out in minutes. A mechanical is a DNF. I don’t even slow to slurp down a gel mid-race. Fast, intense, then over just like that. I love them. However, I’ve listened to friends gush and groan about their longer race escapades. Tales of finishing a stage with a duct taped derailleur, eating Twinkies at mile 42, taking pictures at a vista and still landing on the podium. This is a world so foreign to me, so curious and seductive I have to give it a try. So I signed up to race the BreckEpic in August in blissful ignorance of what is involved to do an event like this one.
The BreckEpic is a six day, mountain bike stage race in the mountains around Breckenridge Colorado. Each day features a BIG ride of 30-50 miles of single track and climbs topping out over 13,000 ft. This is a very different mountain bike race than the Pro XC format I focus on where my race is 105 minutes of sprinting on a 5 KM loop. I’m nervous. I’m excited. I have a lot to learn to be successful. So come along for the ride. I’m going to share my learning curve, you can be my teammate, and maybe my antics will inspire you to do a stage race too!
Project Proposal: BreckEpic 2016
Goal: To race and complete the Breck Epic 2016 as a solo rider.
- 6 back to back days of hard mountain bike riding
- 30 – 60 mile days taking an average of 5 hours of pedaling
- Climbing an average of 6200 ft each day
Steps to Success:
- Self-support Supplies
- Drop Bags
- Back to back days
- Long days
- Big elevation gains
- Riding at serious elevation
- The Unknown (???)
Project Completion Date: August 14-19, 2016
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!