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

 

Advertisements

How to Equip to Ride a Fat Bike in the Snow

sj-fatbikePreparation 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

70
Fat biking the half pipe at Mt Bachelor on a warmer day. Photo courtesy of Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort.

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.

 

52
Heading down the ski slope next to the lift. Photo courtesy of Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort.

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.

fat-bike-back-pack-contents-4
Basic Warm Day/ Short Fat Bike Ride Pack Contents: 1. Extra Socks 2. Extra Gloves 3. Headband 4. Headlamp 5. Neck Gaiter 6. Mechanical Pump 7. Zip-Lock for Phone and Map 8. Back Pack 9. Hot Hands 10. Tire Levers (3) 11. Duct Tape 12. Hydroflasks for Hot Liquids 13. Squirt Cold Temp Chain Lube 14. Derailleur Hanger 15. Multi Tool 16. Fat Bike Tube

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
  • Headband
  • 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.

fat-bike-national-championships-at-powder-mountain-2-27-2016-img_2629
Hammering to the win at the 2016 US National Fat Bike Championship for the Pro Women.

This post was originally published on the Wenzel Coaching website.