Sanity! That’s my reason for winter riding. Minnesota has two major seasons: summer and winter. Sometimes we get a spring and fall, but they are very short. With shorter days and darkness setting in at 5pm, you have two choices: stay inside and go mad or get a fat bike and have a ton of fun.
In terms of weather, I definitely prefer riding on snow. Ideal snow for racing on a fat bike is hard packed. Even with four inch tires, you can sink in if the snow is too soft, and then you may need to walk. For training, my absolute ideal situation is a hard base with a half inch of fresh powder on top. You are traveling on what looks like a brand new surface and it is incredibly quiet. It is the best experience on a bike when the conditions are like that!
You can’t ride in every condition, though. Hypothermia is perhaps the biggest danger of winter riding. Crashing on ice is a close second. If commuting by bike, the roads get narrower due to snow on the sides, plus it is dark in the morning and at night, which increases risk. Bonking is something that will happen more often in the winter as you burn a lot more energy. I was riding home from a small town 30 miles north of my home in St. Paul, and it began snowing extremely hard, about two inches per hour. I was riding on a trail that was already soft and the ride became harder and harder as the snow fell. I ran out of food and completely bonked. It took me an hour to go the final five miles and I was completely spent when I finally got home.
To stay energized during a ride, I use real food. I’m a fan of Alan Lim, who wrote Feed Zone Cookbook. More important than what food to bring is how to store it. Don’t keep it in the outside layer pocket; keep it closer to your body. Liquid is often an issue, but my friend Adam Bergman, a fast cat on any bike, recommended kid sized Camelbaks. It holds the right amount of liquid for two to three hours of riding, and you wear it right on top of your first base layer. For longer events, insulated thermoses with warm liquid, like tea with honey, and larger hydration packs work great.
The best way to train for winter cycling? Ride in the snow! A lot! Riding in snow is a bit like climbing a hill or riding on the track. You can’t mash the pedals or you will just spin the rear wheel and dig into the snow. You really need a smooth and round pedal stroke. Do single leg drills in the summer, like pedaling with only one leg clipped in, and focus on the upstroke. Core exercise is really important, too. You use a lot of upper body strength to control a fat bike and your upper body is stabilized by your core. Spending 2-3 times a week doing 10-15 minutes of quality core workout goes a long way.
About the Bike
Good news for those that don’t have a fat bike and aren’t allowed to buy any more: Any bike can be used! Tires are the most important thing to consider, including tire pressure. There are plenty of studded tire options out there for all bikes. I suggest the largest volume possible so that you can run the lowest pressure possible for non-fat bikes. Outside of that, good winter bike shoes, winter boots on flat pedals, decent base layer, good gloves, lights, long sleeve jersey, jacket, and thermal tights are best. Plenty of people use regular winter jackets, ski helmets, cross country ski warm ups, and the like. Layering is key, so you can rummage through what you already have and fill in the blanks from there. There are lots of websites that talk about dressing for winter riding but ultimately it really is trial and error to see what works for you in a variety of conditions and temperatures.
The worst thing about winter riding is winter riding breakdowns. The worst thing about winter riding breakdowns is that you have to take off your gloves. The trick to avoid breakdowns is to clean and inspect your equipment very regularly. Even if I have limited time to completely clean my bike, I will at least clean the drive train. I’d rather shorten a training ride so that I can clean my drive train than wait a day. Lots of moisture leads to a rusted chain. A quick wipe down, a bit of Simple Green on the chain, and a shot of fresh lube goes a long way. But even with prevention, things can happen. Trail side repairs are sometimes necessary but typically body heat is high enough that exposing your hands for a short period of time isn’t a big deal. If there is a problem requiring more than a few minutes of exposed hands, it is likely an issue that won’t get fixed on the side of a trail. With fat bikes, flats are rare. I do strongly recommend getting tires set up as tubeless. If you do get a flat, chances are you can put in a CO2 cartridge with sealant, put your gloves back on, and be good to go again.
Who Are All the Fat Bikers?
If we look at fat biking as a whole, it is as incredibly diverse as cycling itself. In cycling, you have hard core racers in all ages and categories. You have those who only do gravel racing and others who don’t race, but ride across the country instead. Fat bikers are the same. There are those who train to race, those who just enjoy riding, and others who love the ultra-distances. The beauty is that there is something for everyone. A few years ago, purist roadies and cyclocross nuts would say that fat biking is a fad. Every year, more and more of those same people get a fat bike and get absolutely hooked. Fat biking is by far the fastest growing segment in the bike world to the point where shops can’t stock enough bikes, tires, and parts for fat bikes. Demographically, most people who purchase a fat bike are middle aged males with a strong affinity for beer! We are also seeing huge growth in female participation.
About the Fat Wednesday Fat Bike and Snowshoe Race series
This is a low key, weeknight race on a groomed course primarily on a lake. Everyone will finish! I am expecting around fifty participants at the first event, but every day I am hearing from more people regarding the local excitement for this four-race series. We will have many of the local shops and bike industry people bringing demo equipment as well, so I expect a fair amount of people will come out and try fat biking for the first time. We do not have pre-registration, so we’ll just see how many do come.
We will have local EMS based out of the start area. This is a multi-loop course of about four miles, which helps mitigate potential issues. I’ll have several volunteers based around the course and I will be patrolling on a snowmobile. We will have basic first aid and heated rest rooms. There are no rest stops, as the races are 45 or 90 minutes longs. Participants select which length they will ride. I am a huge proponent of women’s sports, so I will have the same value of swag prizes for female athletes.
I’ve scheduled this series for the first and third Wednesday in the months of January and February, so I have some wiggle room to reschedule if a cancellation is needed. Extremely cold weather, dangerous driving conditions to get to the race venue, or no snow on the lake would contribute to a race cancellation. I can go into early March and still have safe ice on the lake if need be.
The grass roots feel of the Fat Bike Wednesday Bike Race is what sets it apart from other winter cycling races. The intent of the race is to create community and invite others to give the sport a try. I expect huge diversity in terms of seriousness and ability. The fact that it is on a weeknight is very inviting to those who work on weekends, like bike shop employees who rarely get to race. We are also in the heart of the metro and very easy to access.
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Jeremy Sartain is the race director for the “Fat Wednesday Fat Bike and Snowshoe Race Series.” Winter bike races and snowshoe races take place the first and third Wednesday of the months of January and February, 2015 at Turtle Lake Regional Park, Shoreview, MN. Registration is $20 per event. For further information, please visit his website, http://jeremysartain.com/fatwednesday, or follow him on Facebook.