Training For a Frozen Epic
The season of Fat Bike racing is upon us and many folks are eagerly preparing for one of the winter ultra events such as the Arrowhead 135, the Susitna 100, or the “Big One”, The Iditarod Invitational. Training for a Frozen Epic is much different than training for the typical 100-mile endurance mountain bike race because there are far more variables involved. Your success will depend on your ability to deal with changing conditions while out on the trail. This article assumes that you have the necessary fitness to pedal your bike the required race distance and will focus on the less-obvious aspects of preparing to race your bike 100+ miles on the snow.
If you played high school football, you probably heard your coach say “practice like you play.” In other words, how do you expect to perform at 100% during the game if you lollygag your way through practice? Adopting the same philosophy while training for your frozen epic will prepare you for anything the race may throw at you. Let’s talk about three aspects of preparation unique to racing frozen epics; riding a loaded bike, pushing your bike in soft snow, and dealing with extreme cold.
Riding a Loaded Bike
In all three races mentioned above, racers will carry overnight gear, emergency clothing, possibly a stove, and extra calories for the duration of the race. A loaded fat bike will weigh 15 to 25 lbs more than that same bike in “everyday” mode. Obviously a 50+ lb. fat bike is going to handle much differently than a 30 lb. fat bike, and it’s important to get used to this before race day.
I personally prefer more weight on the front of my bike.
The cockpit can get crowded quickly when loading a fat bike.
In addition to simply getting used to the overall weight, training on your loaded fat bike will teach you how to distribute your load and whether you prefer more weight on the front or the rear of the bike. Here are a few things to consider when organizing your gear:
- Does your seat bag or rear rack allow you to get on and off the bike easily in soft snow?
- If you strap your sleeping system to your bars, do you still have room for your pogies, lights, and any other gadget you need?
- Will your load stay in place during a high speed descent on a bumpy trail or a crash?
- Can you access the most important items easily?
Ride your fat bike “fully loaded” as much as possible before your race, and tweak your packing system each time as you figure out your preferences.
Pushing Your Bike in Soft Snow
In a perfect world, snow bike races would take place on firm, groomed trails in 10F sunshine with no wind. The reality is conditions are different every time you head out on your fat bike, and often times they are not favorable for riding. Pushing your bike at some point during a frozen epic is almost a given. Being forced off the bike to push may be the result of wind, fresh snow, warming temps, a steep hill, or sugary snow that has been churned up by a herd of snowmobilers. Regardless, if you are mentally and physically prepared to push your bike, you will be at an advantage.
Head out immediately after a fresh snow to get some quality pushing practice
Here are a few suggestions for preparing to push, and for pushing your bike, during the race:
- Dedicate some pre-race training time to pushing your loaded bike and think about a few things such as:
- How is your posture? Can you maintain that posture for a long time?
- How are your feet? Will pushing for a long time result in blisters?
- Does any part of your clothing or boots rub on your bike or gear?
- What modifications can you make to your bike that would make pushing more efficient?
- Push with a purpose by taking long and efficient strides. The pushing is part of the race too so use it to your advantage. I am guilty of shuffling along with my head down and moving too slowly at times.
- Use the time pushing to catch up on hydration and calories.
- Never stop moving forward.
Dealing with Extreme Cold
Racers are likely to experience extreme cold at any of the winter ultra events. To keep things simple, let’s define extreme cold as 0 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. At these temps, typical tasks become a little more challenging. Experienced winter ultra racers will watch the weather for an arctic cold snap the way skiers watch for snow in the forecast. Nothing can prepare you for the extreme cold like being out in it.
By cutting a hole for my mouth, I can easily eat and drink while the Fog eVader funnels my breath away from my glasses.
Here are some basic yet important things to consider when preparing to race in extreme cold:
- Will you race with insulated water bottles or a hydration pack? If your hydration hose freezes, what will you do? Have you practiced thawing the hose out while on the bike? Consider using a combination of both systems so you have a backup option.
- If your balaclava or facemask totally covers your face, how will you eat and drink?
- Will your glasses fog up and then freeze? Can you race with goggles instead of glasses?
- Do your clothing layers breathe? At -20F, trapped sweat can freeze on your base layers and form an icy layer against your skin.
- Are you prepared to change a flat at -20F…at night? There is nothing fun about this task but flats do happen and often at the worst possible time. Consider carrying your pump on your body instead of in your frame bag so the pump seals are warm and work effectively. Add baby powder to your tires to reduce friction between the tire and tube. Lastly, check your valve stem’s lock ring and make sure it is snug but not overly tight.
- Choose your food wisely. For example, Original Clif Bars are delicious at room temperature but when frozen they are like chewing at hockey puck. In contrast, dark chocolate covered almonds are delicious and edible regardless of temperature.
Fitness is only part of the equation when racing a frozen epic. Load up your fat bike, pray for a cold snap, and get out there and practice!
XXC Magazine contributor Dave Byers lives and snow bikes in the Teton Valley, ID.