So, you signed up for a MTB stage race; now what? Lucky you! These events showcase a community’s best trails, local cuisine, and hospitality, all while bringing cyclists together from near and far to embark on an adventure in a festival atmosphere. It is no wonder MTB stage racing is growing! You should be excited, […]
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:
Flat kit: fat tire tube, 3 tire levers, mechanical hand pump with psi gauge
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 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.
Lightning and thunder (fortunately I was in the valley between the two big climbs)
Ear to ear grin downhills
Walking my bike for about a quarter mile because it was too steep (even Todd Wells walked)
Technical descending in a downpour (all the skills sessions I’ve been leading this year really came in handy here, I passed so many people who were walking and I was giggling with glee)
Views! The climbing was so slow I had lots of time to look around.
Skittle hand-ups on the summit
Today’s course was the Queens stage, a climber’s day. I fancy myself a climber so I was excited about riding my bike over the big passes that would have me pedaling at an altitude I’ve not been on a bike at. Three days into this race and the field is friendly; passing is made simple, if you are off your bike everyone will slow to offer assistance, veterans will give you beta on what is up ahead, and several men gave me a little push uphill as I passed them while they were walking. I tried a new hydration/ fueling strategy that worked better for me than previous days and the aid stations were stocked with bananas and Gu’s waffles that were a welcome treat to gels (ingesting gel #15 today still required anti-gagging tactics). And I have found my inner bike Buddha and no longer care what other riders ahead or behind me are doing; I ride my race, trust my training and listen to my body.
My legs definitely did not have the oomph in them I was hoping for, so today I listened to them and backed off when the burn started to be ignited. My bike is sporting a new rear shock and rear tire today so I attacked the descents, which were first class fun-fests. I came across the finish line third in my division, but was elated. (I’m still second overall.) My Mom was volunteering at the finish line and her friendly cheer made me feel like a celebrity. I had the most excellent day on the bike. Though tired, as one would be after riding 44 miles and climbing 6400 ft, I felt great! This monster of a day is one I’m proud of putting in my personal record book, and feel tomorrow I will be even stronger. Look out top of the podium!
I was so excited for another day of this race that I didn’t sleep. All night I fretted about my rebuilt shock, how much extra stuff to carry for endless flats, and how to refine my strategy. Since I wasn’t sleeping I looked over my bike again, ate a monster breakfast three hours before the race start and was at the start line (to make sure I was not 200 deep) before the race officials even showed up. Nerves. Mom took a picture of me heading out that I am sharing so you can laugh. She also said I, “looked scary” meaning it as a compliment (she also thought the gel packets hidden under my kit leg cuffs were my bulging muscles).
I survived the mountain bike peloton up the road for the first three miles, this must be the same as riding in the crash-four group as a road racer, and was relieved to hit the dirt and get spread out on Heinous Hill climb. I was surprised at how strong I felt early in the race, but that was not to last. Mile 16 to 19 we climbed over 2000 feet to top out at 11200 and I was the turtle not the hare. I did put some good distance on Amy (race leader) but on the descent she passed me never to be seen again. My pace was sustainable, I was taking in calories like a metronome but still had minor cramp twinges at mile 28 reinforcing my attitude to have patience with the race and ride my race.
I am a power house and (not to brag) can drop just about anyone on a climb if I want to. In a stage race doing this will gobble up your glycogen (what fuels your muscles) and it takes days to replenish so your legs are cooked for the rest of the race. It is taking Yoda whispering in my ear to keep me from powering up to drop a rider just because I can. Who knew I had so much ego! Fortunately the sage Emma gets to chat with other riders on climbs, take in the views and get some air on the flow trails as we descend back into town.
I finished the day moving into second place overall, but lost a few minutes to Amy. Tomorrow is the Queen Stage featuring a climb over 12,000 ft, biking through snow, climbing over 12,000 ft again, descending through bear territory, a wall (but it’s short? What is short 38 miles in and having climbed 6800 ft already?), and then my Mom will be at the finish line volunteering for the race. Epic.
Stage racing is the real deal; no wonder the road scenes crown jewels are the grand tours. We lined up is a grand mess with no regard to category for a neutral start with a police escort up the pavement until we hit the trails. This should have spread the race out a bit, but there were a lot of nerves urging many people to sprint. After a flowy descent (stuck behind a team of guys who insisted on zipping ahead of me as we approached the trail but didn’t have the descending skills to match their enthusiasm) the real climbing began on two track and the field finally spread out.
My plan for day one was to stay in the middle of the open women, to copy their pace and learn how they managed aid stations and working with other riders. However, with a mass start I didn’t even know how many women were in my category, let alone know who they were; so I relied on an even pace I knew I could sustain all day (which had me walk a few loose hills I could have ridden but my legs would have been on fire) and forcing myself to consume 100 calories every 20 minutes and electrolytes on the hour. I took my time at the aid stations to restock my supplies and devour a banana.
I felt strong and was breathing with ease as I crested the last big climb and had been informed at the last aid station I was the first female! I was STOKED, the day could be mine. And then I flatted on a relatively smooth fire road. My tire had a double puncture. A nail? Who knows. I took my time and put a tube in after sealing the inside of my tire with a Gu packet. The race is long, it is better to do things right instead of making a flustered mistake and getting another flat down the road. (But I did realize my rookie mistake of not having a back-up tube and CO2 cartridge in my drop bags – I will remedy this for tomorrow.) But as I was putting my tire back on I heard a whoosh. Oh no! I was confident I repaired my rear tire correctly. It was not my tire but my rear shock decided right there to loose it’s seal and release all of it’s fluid. No rear suspension – just a fully squished shock. Nothing I could do about this but ride gently the remaining eleven miles to the finish, which was mostly downhill. I rode smart: a bit slower and more conservative than I would have liked but I got to the finish without a hitch.
Somehow I finished in third place today! I’m thrilled to be on the podium, and think not having the pressure of the leaders jersey will be an advantage tomorrow. SRAM generously spent the afternoon “fixing” my shock (fingers crossed) and fortunately I ride for Rolf Prima so I have a back-up set of wheels to ride tomorrow. I now know I have what it takes to do well in a stage race, and success will come from being patient and sticking to my own plan. Can’t wait for stage 2.
My nerves are so active I can hardly get my GU into my jersey pocket; I’m suiting up for my first International Cycling Union (UCI) XC mountain bike race at the Missoula Pro XC. I’ve been racing mountain bikes for a few years now and can only laugh at feeling like more of a rookie than I did at my very first race. This is my first year racing USA Cycling sanctioned mountain bike races. I’ve worked my way through the categories this spring to obtain my pro license. I want to race with the best women mountain bikers and see how I stack up. UCI races draw the biggest names in racing and the largest fields. I’m realizing my dream; I’m here where the “big girls” converge to test themselves. I understood the UCI XC race format is different, and planned on my first UCI race to be a dress rehearsal for future races, but I had no idea how much I would learn. Now that I have my first race at this level under my belt, I will be ready to “act like a pro” in the future.
I hit the road on Wednesday morning for the ten hour drive to Missoula. Over a tasty lunch in Spokane, WA I looked at my e-mail and had a personal message from Don Russel, the USAC official for the race.
Don: “Emma; You need to purchase your international license to unpend your Pro license.”
Emma: “I’m so new to this, I had no idea! How do I get one?”
Don: “Emma, are you a Pro MTB racer or is that an error?”
That unseated my confidence! And yes, I am a card carrying pro rider. Don was fantastic when I met him Wednesday night. He walked me through the process of getting my International License and ensured that I would be able to race on Saturday.
Thursday and Friday went smoothly. I pre-rode the 5km course. It was a tough loop up a ski hill with tight, steep and loose switchbacks up and a fast descent full of off-camber turns, water bars, a gap jump on the “A” line with a landing between pad-wrapped trees (there is a “B” line to avoid the big air, but the UCI official called it the “chicken line” at the Elite/Manager meeting so I was a little embarrassed that I had planned on riding the “B” line), a crowd pleasing ramp jump near the finish, and plenty of powdery dirt to degrade as the race day wears on. The course is the real deal, you have to be fit and strong to make the technical climb and have guts backed by strong bike handling skills to descend without losing too much time. After four practice laps I felt ready to attack the course on Saturday. I spectated some of the pro’s race in the downtown eliminator, refreshed in the Clark Fork River, and camped at the venue with junior the coaches and junior racers of Summit MTB team.
Races started at 9am on Saturday, but the UCI Pro Womens race start was 4:30pm. I had all day to try and manage my nerves. I watched some of the Cat 3 and junior races but seeing bloody riders and a junior toss her breakfast after just one lap did not help keep me calm. Walking through the team tents, I overheard conversations about the course degrading and gearing choices. This only had me second guessing my preparations. I hydrated, I tried to eat, meditated, visualized perfect flow down the course, reviewed my goals for my race. Joe gave me a great pep talk on the phone that calmed me down enough to eat some cookies for lunch, but when it was finally time to kit up I was relieved to have a job at hand.
Finally my warm-up: 20 minutes to slowly raise my heart rate, run through some cornering drills, and a few quick accelerations. I did my best not to fall off my bike as I star-gazed at the women I would be racing with, women I recognized from bike magazines and videos! Then a final stop by the port-a-potty in route to the start corral. Yes, start corral! This level of race has a designated start order where they introduce you to the crowd as you roll up to your spot on the start-line. In the corral I was warmly greeted by Evelyn Dong and Sarah Kauffman who I know from UT which made me feel less out of place and met two other racers making their UCI race debut too. As I was called to the line, the Missoula crowd cheered for me and my nerves finally steadied. I am ready, let’s go!
I don’t even remember if the start was a gun or a whistle, but in a storm of dust I found my spot in the pack for the first climb. UCI XC races are on short loop courses where the field does enough laps to last 90 minutes plus one lap. We were assigned five laps to race. The first lap was blistering fast (18 minutes). I hovered in the middle for the first climb to get a feel for the pace, FAST. On the descent I was on a strait away setting up for a particularly loose and technical corner and dropped my front wheel into a blown out edge of the trail and cartwheeled down the hillside. Scraped up, but not hurt I retrieved my bike and hiked back up to the course. I regained my confidence after another lap and rode my third lap really well. I was no longer with the lead pack but knew I was still in the race. I conserved my effort on the fourth lap so I could give my all for the last, but did not earn the opportunity. In UCI XC racing if you fall twenty percent off the pace estimated from the leader’s first lap time you get pulled from the race. I missed the cut off by one minute and one second! I was devastated. Time to spin the legs then plunge into the creek to wash the dust and sweat from racing ninety minutes in blistering temps.
Watching the Pro Men’s race I got the opportunity to talk to the other pro women and process what I had just experienced. It turns out that not making all the laps is just a part of the race; about half the field does not get to race all their laps. It does not mean you are a DNF (Did Not Finish), but your placing is the order of being cut after the racers who get all laps done. I was the first woman cut after four laps, several were pulled after three. In a field of twenty two women I placed 13th! My strategy to conserve my energy on the fourth lap was poor. In the future I need to go all out for each lap to make the last lap cut-off. The teams have someone at the support zone calculating the cut-off times and let racers know if they are on pace or falling off of it. If I had known I was on the bubble starting my fourth lap I may have been able to make up the time (probably not, but it would have been nice to have tried).
My first UCI race was an amazing experience. The style of racing requires a distinct strategy compared to regular XC racing; now that I know what game I am playing I will be able to really race at the next one. The race director, officials, competitors and volunteers welcomed and ushered me through my awkward first race phase. I’m so grateful for the cycling community. Racing at this level is tough, and I’m counting down the days until I get to do it again!