On the Trail (photo by Chris Gibbs – C5 Adventure Photography)
As someone with a middling level of experience in long-distance fatbike riding and racing, I’ve learned a lot from more experienced racers like Danielle Musto, who posted a great list of tips for better fat biking and Jay Petervary, who gave a great presentation on winter racing at the Winter Bike Expo in Minneapolis last fall, wrote up some of his ideas on the 45NRTH blog, and later posted on Salsa’s blog a great video on the bike and gear he is using (right this very second!) in the Iditarod Trail Invitational.
Along those lines, and keeping in mind that I am not a fast guy, I thought I would write up a few of my own lessons for successfully undertaking long-distance fatbike rides and races.
Forget drop bags.
Though I know many racers use drop bags to replenish their food and drink and to have good stuff to anticipate at the checkpoints, to me they’re been a complication, something to worry about before and during the race: what should I put in the bag? where and when do I drop off the bag? what will I do if I can’t find the bag?
A fatbike set up for a marathon or longer will have enough space on it to carry the stuff that could go in a drop bag, eliminating this complexity – and living up to the "you are responsible for you" ethos of fatbike racing.
Wear a hood!
Hats are great, especially if you need to shade your eyes, but hoods are, I think, superior as means to manage heat and moisture. Not only do hoods look awesome, but they’re easier to pull up or down than hats are to remove and stow or dig out and don. Good hoods, the kind that have high front zippers that cover the chin, also serve as good buffs, helping to bottle up heat inside a jacket or jersey.
To do well in a long race, you have to practice riding, of course, but an ultramarathon demands all kinds of other skills, often an in opportune times like in the middle of the night or after hours of fighting a frigid headwind. To be ready for those moments, practice finding and donning your extra clothing quickly, starting a fire, pushing your bike through deep snow, fixing a flat tire – all those eventualities that could mean the difference between comfort and suffering, between a finish and a DNF, or even between surviving and not.
I love regular coffee and Coke. Love them, and enjoy them whenever I can. But as good as they are, caffeinated drinks and foods are even better during arduous races. As such, I’ve started weaning myself from caffeine before big races, so that I am caffeine-free for the couple weeks leading up to the event. Not only does this help induce good sleep over that period, but this assures that when I do take caffeine during the race, it’s like rocket fuel. The effect can’t be overstated! Caffeinated gel and chews, Coke, coffee, Red Bull: it’s all magically potent.
Riding and racing is a lot easier and more fun when you stay relaxed and loose, whether by temperament or by habit – by consciously counteracting the tension that naturally builds in the body and mind. A loose body also stays warm better, I think!
But staying relaxed ahead of a race also matters to the race itself. Practically, I do this with by using checklists to be mindlessly sure I’m packing all the right stuff, by using drawings to plan the locations on my bike of all my gear, by packing race kit in one bag in my duffel and my post-race clothes in another…
Less practically, I stay relaxed by trying to follow as normal a routine as possible: my usual food, my usual clothes, my usual habits. I’ve found that a beer or two the night before a race helps keep me calmed down. Delicious. Normal.
Move like a sled dog.
From my friend and super-fast fatbike racer Kevin Breitenbach:
"I feel like i dont have a ton of relevant things to learn from guys at the Tour de France, just like they dont have much to learn from me. i have way more to learn from my dog. The more i move down the trail like my dog the better. i dont suggest anyone move down the trail like a roadie. you dont have to be a great cyclist to do well in winter races. you need to know that the most important thing is to move efficiently through every aspect of the race. a good musher, husky, wolf, coyote, or fox knows the same thing. find the sweet spot in the trail, keep your back steady and stride consistent, regulate your temperature easily and constantly, no wasted motions, rarely stop, stay on top of the snow, eat and drink quickly and deal with it in uncomfortably large portions then get rest in whatever form, no matter how brief, as often as possible. Mushers and dog teams do all that very well, and if things go well in a race so do winter endurance athletes."
"Unless you’re riding, always do two things at once."
This is one of JayP’s tips. Ride as much as possible, but when you can’t ride – and any fatbike ride of any distance will include hike-a-bike sections – make sure you’re doing something else while you push: drink water, down a gel, adjust clothing, pop some ibuprofen, move food from a frame bag pocket to a bar bag, open or close is jacket zippers… Make full use of the time before you can get back in the saddle and start making better time again.
This is another of JayP’s tips: do the thing you know you need to do as soon as possible. Tires washing out? Stop and air down. Thirsty but your bottle’s empty? Stop and find that full one in your seat bag. Getting sweaty at 0 degrees? Unzip the jacket (or lower your hood!). Craving some food that’s out of reach? Stop and dig it out. Take care of a little issue before it’s a big problem.