As a bike racer, I’ve never done well with doing the ‘standard’ thing. Training for cross country racing never held any appeal as the training rides simply weren’t long enough, so I started racing ultra-endurance events, 100-milers and such. I figured those out, so I started racing multi-day events, the Colorado Trail Race, the Tour Divide. I figured those out so I started racing fat bikes in the snow, everything from the TEVA Mountain Games Snow Criterium to the Arrowhead 135 in Minnesota, in January. I figured out how to do those, so I made the (il)logical step: multiday snowbike racing. The Iditabike. 350 miles of snow along the Iditarod Dog Sled race route from Knik to McGrath, Alaska, at the end of February.
I have never been this scared in my life. But fear is good for something like this, fear keeps us alive, fear keeps us alert, and fear is making me prepare for this event like my life depends on it, because it does.
My approach to racing has always been about cracking codes: How much do I have to eat? What sort of gear works best? How much do I have to sleep to stay alert enough to function? What sort of fitness do I need to perform well? What do I need to know about the route? How much food do I need to carry? What do I do in the worst-case scenarios?
I’ll try to answer some of these questions over the next six weeks as I study, plot, and prepare to take on the Itidarod Trail Invitations that starts on February 24, 2013. And hopefully, as I work through the pieces of the puzzle, I’ll be able to lay some of my biggest fears to rest.
Fitness is the easiest piece of the puzzle for me. I’ve spent the past three years competing in multiday events and have gotten decidedly good at pacing myself for anything between three and nineteen day efforts. The training leading up to these events has been different each time but always includes a bit of speed work early season to raise lactate threshold levels, and then some longer blocks of training, generally including an overnighter or two to test gear and remember how to ride a loaded bike, followed by a little bit more speed work, and then a solid taper.
The timing of the Iditabike is unlike any other race I’ve done and I found myself doing threshold and VO2 intervals in December, a highly unheard of event for most bike racers who are used to the race season starting in April or later. That was followed by a bike binge in Arizona to get some quality miles in before the final six-week push to the event itself. Much of this work has been done on my snowbike, a Fatback, complete with 4-inch tires. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a huge abundance of snow on the front range of Colorado so I’ve had to make due riding the bike on mostly dry trails and dirt roads. Why ride the Fatback when I clearly have other bikes better suited to the conditions? Because, in this case especially, it’s good to ride what you race. Snowbikes have wider bottom brackets than normal bikes to accommodate the giant wheels and jumping directly onto one for a multiday race can lead to all sorts of joint issues. The geometry of the bike is also more upright, suited to handling well in snow as compared to my other bikes, so it’s good to allow the body to adjust to the different pedaling position.
As for remembering how to ride in snow, I’ve made a point of seeking out whatever snow I can find, which tends to reside on at least some north facing slopes. There’s definitely an art to riding in the snow and I’m hoping that the next storm that rolls through here will deposit enough fluff to do some damage. If not, I’m headed to the mountains. Riding fat bikes in the snow, especially fully loaded with survival gear, food, and water, requires a huge amount of upper body strength, which my bike-racer self has been working hard to cultivate through forms other than riding fully loaded fat bikes in the snow, such as yoga and time spent in the weight room. But in the end, there’s no excuse for experience and my February will be spent accumulating exactly that: Finding snow, packing up survival gear, and taking the Fatback out to play. Sometimes, training is rough.
And then there’s the pushing portion of training. Depending on the conditions, there can be anywhere from a lot to an extreme amount of bike pushing, or taking bikes for walks, in the Iditabike. The finishing times can range anywhere from a hair over three days for the top men on fast years to over six days for the same men on slow years. While it may seem that training to push a bike is silly, it’s vital for surviving something like the Iditabike. So, I’ve been swallowing my pride, and taking my Fatback for walks, generally up hills so I can at least bomb down them and have some fun in the process. Again, training for these events is rough, and definitely no fun.
Once I’ve got the easy training portion down, it’s time to think about gear. How am I going to survive in the interior of Alaska, in the middle of winter, with only gear that I can carry on my bike? Tune in to the next installment of the GO Blog to find out.