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!