Fat Bike Tech Tips for REALLY Cold Temperatures

morning

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:

  1. Racing an XC in -18 Fahrenheit and not being cold at the finish
  2. Finishing the 50K race not regretting my clothing and (most) of my equipment choices
  3. 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.

  • Tire Sealant
    Sealant Malfunction Clean-Up

    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
    IMG_6487
    PSI Adjustment

    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.

  • frost face (2)
    I’m Comfy and Frost Bite Free Racing the XC Event in -18 Temps

    See my article on layering to ride in the cold for elaboration.

  • 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
    Amy in Malign
    Amys fingers and fig bars are avoiding the freeze in her BarMitts

    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.
  • IMG_6524
    If you are not an Abominable Snowman, you had better use these boots!

    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.

Comfort Food

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.

 

  • Hydration magic (2)
    Mixing up my race fuel

    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.
  • Lunch #2
    First Lunch After the 50K

    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

  • photo photo
    You only get one shot

    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
    hot tub
    Post ride warm-up at Fairmont Jasper National Park Lodge.     Photo by @vamospraonde

    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!

Malign Canyon Friends
Happy fat bike friends after riding in Malign Canyon for the “Ride with the Pro’s” event

 

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Park City Point to Point: Do, or Do Not, but Do Not Try 

 

Suffering
“Oomph!  How much further to the summit?” – my tired legs

The guys at aid station #3 said I only had two more miles of climbing until the final 8-mile descent to the finish line.  I’m still climbing at snail’s pace, and it’s been over five miles since I left their false promises.  This has been a long day.  The Point to Point boasts over 15,000 ft. of climbing in the Wasatch mountains over the course of 76 miles, and I have been in misery since mile 25.  I am trying not to let the well-intentioned misinformation from the volunteers at aid #3 dim my spirits.  Just keep pedaling.

The Back-Story to This Moment

I lined up to race this morning with some amazing women I was thrilled to chase.  Not having raced this distance or elevation profile before, I knew this race would be a learning experience for me.  I had abandoned my warm-up routine when my hands, feet and nose were numb in the (very) early morning chill, and opted to regain feeling in my extremities huddled with several other racers in the heated women’s bathroom.  Park City has heated public bathrooms at trailheads; fancy!  No longer shivering, I rolled to the start line. An air cannon shot cereal into the air, beginning my Park City Point to Point escapade.

The Pro Women did not begin with a social pace that winds up to race pace over the first 20 minutes of racing allowing riders to warm-up in the actual race as is typical for ultra-endurance distances.  Normally ultra-endurance races begin at a social pace that slowly builds to race pace over the first 20 minutes of a race, which allows riders to warm up. But not today. Instead, we tore from the line sprinting in short-course fashion.  I love to jockey for a spot in the lead pack, so I gave chase but regretted not properly warming up.  We ripped through Round Valley, and I was in heaven nailing the loose switchbacks on the descents.  The lead pack broke up as we crossed into Deer Crest.  I slowed on this climb realizing I had gone hard off the start and needed to settle into my pace.  Typically, I am a diesel engine distance rider: I slowly build to pace and hold it for the duration.  This puts me behind the pack in the early part of the race, and I slowly pass up through the field to the finish. Today, however, I was a hot rod. I decided I would go fast off the start and hope to put enough distance between myself and the chasing women to hold my position.  This was new.

Bike Demo Pic (2)
A (brief) moment of descending. Photo: Park City Bike Demos

Having fun with elbow-bumping racing, opportunities to eat were few, and the cool early morning temps distracted me from my need to hydrate. By 10am and just 30 miles in to a 76-mile race, I discovered I had bonked.* Using my normal race strategy, I am a metronome for pace, hydration and nutrition, which keeps me from entering this sad, miserable state.  This was unchartered territory.  I replaced my hydration bladder, which was only half empty (bad!) but did not need to restock my gels because I had not taken a single one (very bad!).  I knew I needed to get some sugar smacks  running through my system ASAP if I was going to overcome the bonk.  I went to the feed station, and nothing looked good.  There were tasty options, but when you are that depleted nothing looks appetizing.  I was in serious trouble!  I tried to eat a cookie as I rolled away from the first aid station and was nauseous.  I am sorry to admit I fed most of it to the squirrels.  *See footnote at end of article for a definition of “bonked.”

Climbing Park City Mountain Resort was pure drudgery.  I was getting passed.  And passed some more.  It was heartbreaking, but I knew my current situation was my own doing.  Then finally, halleluiah! I reached John’s  99 trail, and the technical descent, a non-energy consuming strength of mine, restored my spirits.  I felt like I deserved the “pro grease”  number on my calf again until the next climb where my legs cramped and the men I passed on the previous descent enjoyed zipping past.  My mantra kept me going, “Drink. Eat.  Ride the efficient line. Keep pedaling. You’ve got this.”

At the bottom of Crescent Mine Grade, the second aid station greeted me.  I told myself that if I was not having fun I could call it quits here.  Cheering friends brought sanity back to my thoughts.  I was suffering, but I was not in danger of injuring myself.  I was not going to be on the podium today, but that is not why I race.  I had made a series of tactical mistakes, but this would be a point to improve upon moving forward in my career.  So, I left aid station #2 to climb Armstrong and knew I would see this through.  No excuses.

Rolling Home
Finally, the finish line is in sight!

Back to Now

With cheeks packed with potato chips from the third and final aid station (I was hoping they would dissolve and enter my bloodstream without my body realizing I was eating), I finally hit the descent from The Canyons to the Utah Olympic Park where the finish line mercifully received me.  Done. I got this done.  It was not pretty.  It was not a race to brag about.  I am proud to be a professional cyclist, but today was humbling.   With TUNA coach Chris holding my bike so I could dismount on wobbly legs, my sister eagerly embracing me despite a sweat-soaked kit and a thick coating of dust, my DH skills coach Brandon spraying me down car-wash style, and Summit Bike Team director Lori  enticing me to the ice cream parlor, I realized there was no embarrassment for me to hold on to.  Racing is an adventure, and if everything went perfectly it would be mundane.  Victory is not dictated by a number or the approval of others, it is marked by reaching beyond what feels possible.  Today I won by overcoming fear of perceived failure.  My podium was learning how mentally strong I am amidst physical meltdown. My award was the love lavished nonjudgmentally on me by my cycling community.   Define your own success.

Sister finish Love
My sister greeting me at the finish.  Love her.

*Definition of Bonking While Mountain Biking

  1. Going hard and getting passed by a rider I expect to finish ahead of. I’m convinced they are riding above their abilities and will blow up.  In reality, I’m crawling.  I have run out of fuel and my muscles can barely fire. 
  2. Cursing the rocks for being in my way, forcing me to maneuver my bike and put some heat into my pedal stroke so my bike doesn’t topple over. My adrenaline is spiking in a last-ditch effort of survival because my brain knows the end is near.
  3. Realizing I’m calorie depleted and trying to take in a gel, but it tastes like soggy socks instead of bacon. My ego no longer cares if I stop to look in my pockets for something edible.
  4. Tears. I’m understanding this mess is my own doing.  (Yes, I just admitted that.)
  5. Acceptance. Keep going.  Do damage control.

All photos unless otherwise noted are from Angie Harker at Selective Vision.