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!