For most bike racers, there’s a line that is walked between finishing a race and finishing fast. Light bikes, light tires, minimal repair gear all contribute to a faster finishing time if everything stays together. In most races, if things don’t stay together, the best-case scenario is that you lose a few minutes to fixing a flat, the worst case scenario generally is a DNF because of a catastrophically broken bike, or at least a bike that is unfixable with whatever tools are available.
It doesn’t really matter what race it is, the concept is the same, it just happens that certain races have more dire consequences in cases of disaster, and thus, the fine line of risk to reward needs to be shifted to a more conservative approach. For a XC race, most disasters will end in a long-ish walk home. For something like Tour Divide, a complete breakdown will result in either an extremely long walk to the next town or having to hitchhike backwards on the course, get whatever fixed, and then find a ride back onto the course. For something like the Iditabike, I’m envisioning a worst-case scenario of being holed up in an Alaskan snowstorm with blowing wind, -40 degree temperatures, feet soaked from overflow, and a broken bike. Yes, I have a very active imagination.
But what it comes down to is that while I can’t control everything, there is a lot I can control in terms of gear that I take along and gear that I have faith in. Faith that it will keep me warm in the worst of conditions and if it really does come down to having to weather out a storm in ridiculously cold temperatures, I’ll be able to do it. And there’s only one way to develop that faith in gear, and that is to test it.
This past weekend, I took what consisted of 90% of my Iditabike gear out for a test run in as harsh of a place as I could think of: The Continental Divide. More specifically, Rollins Pass outside of Winter Park, CO. I chose this location not only because I knew that the wind liked to howl up there, but also because local snowmobile guiding services groom the railroad grade road to very nearly the top of the pass, so I knew I’d be able to get high on the pass to camp, and also that if I woke up a 3 am, frozen, then I’d be able to don all of my clothes and be back down in civilization in a matter of an hour.
Luckily, this didn’t have to happen and I was able to ride up the pass in the late afternoon, find a fairly sheltered-from-the-wind spot, set up camp in the dark, enjoy a delightful freeze-dried dinner, stay relatively warm throughout the night, push my bike up to the top of the pass in the morning, and then descend a delightful 3,000 feet back down to civilization where a late breakfast of bacon and eggs awaited me.
So what did I learn throughout this ‘gear test’ or ‘training ride’? (Really, how cool is it that I get to learn winter camping skills with the excuse that I’m training for a bike race?)
Firstly, I learned the importance of really fat tires for soft snow conditions. My riding partner for the venture was running a set of tires that measured 4.8 inches wide mounted of 100 mm rims. I, on the other hand was running 3.8 tires on 80 mm rims. The decreased amount of floatation that I experienced was mindboggling, especially with a bike loaded with camping gear. Otherwise, the Fatback performed beautifully, carrying the load gracefully, or as gracefully as possible.
In terms of clothing, I found that with the proper pieces, I can get away with an amazingly few layers and still stay relatively comfortable throughout a wide temperature range. While the temperature never dropped below 0 for the foray, I also never had to ride with all my layers and still had a heavy down jacket tucked away for emergencies. Otherwise, I was able to ride with a combination of base layer, vapor barrier vest, softshell jacket, and medium weight down jacket anywhere from mid-20’s and calm to 0 with 30 mph winds, which produced windchills down to -25 degrees. On my head, I was able to get away with a simple hat and buff with glasses, though I can see how a pair of goggles could come in handy if the weather really deteriorated. On my legs, a simple baselayer and softshell pants, with a pair of down pants in reserve if life got really dire.
Feet and hands have always been the crux of being able to stay warm in the winter for me. On my feet, from the inside out, I had on a pair of compression socks, a pair of vapor barrier socks, a pair of wool socks, a pair of Sorel liners, and a pair of winter riding shoes. I’d like to report that I was immensely comfortable the entire time riding, if not a little too warm. On my hands, I again opted for vapor barrier technology because I have a terrible case of sweaty hands. A pair of nitrile gloves did the trick. Over my surgeon gloves, I alternated between a pair of liner gloves, lightweight nordic ski gloves, and relatively heavy duty mittens. This will probably be the exact setup that comes to Alaska with me.
And lastly, for my sleeping system I had a -20 degree sleeping pad, a lightweight sleeping bag cover that some people like to call a bivy, and a ¾ length foam sleeping pad. Everything about this setup was a hit, except for the sleeping pad, which made every ripple in the snow apparent and did nothing to disguise the fact that I was indeed sleeping on snow. During some of my tossing and turning throughout the night, when I was never really ‘cold’ even without my heaviest down jacket up, I wouldn’t have described myself as comfortable. I would wake up repeatedly with whatever body parts in contact with the sleeping pad chilled and I’d have to rotate my body somewhere between 90 and 180 degrees to allow that side to warm back up.
So this is where race strategy comes in. In theory, I should be able to make it from check point to check point in the race and be able to sleep inside, even if ‘inside’ is a canvas tent in the middle of nowhere. After my night out camping, I resolutely declared I needed a full length, warm sleeping pad. But that would weigh more, and if I could potentially sleep inside for the whole 350 miles across Alaska, that weight would be wasted. But, if I was forced to bivy out in a storm, how much would that full length, warm pad really mean to me?
Light tires or heavier ones? Light sleeping pad or heavy one? Maybe this Iditabike preparation really isn’t that different from any other race preparation. Risk versus reward. It’s all a game, just with some serious consequences.