Every serious rider knows what a bad day in the saddle feels like. Mountain biker, roadie or single speed racer, we’ve all been there.
I have suffered on all types of bike, but nothing compares to the pain I went through on my first fat bike race.
With the summer racing and gran fondo season in full swing in Australia’s heat, Iain Lygo travel to icy Canada to compete in a Frosty’s Fat Bike Race in Jasper. With a 50 degree temperature difference, it wasn’t the cold that caused the suffering.
With typical Canadian hospitality, Chris from Freewheel Cycle Jasper drops off my race bike at our accommodation the night before the event. That means my only fat bike experience is riding the kilometre to the start line, plus a couple of laps of the carpark. How different can it be to my road bike?
By the end of the race, I will have worked out that fat bike racing is like sex. No matter how much you read about it and study the intricate details, until you get some practical experience, you’re a complete amateur.
It’s -14 degrees and dark when the race director sends us off. The first kilometre is slightly uphill and everything is going well until the first aid station. It seems a crazy place to have an aid station. It’s still dark and the rider I’m following doesn’t stop so I push on too and don’t even realise the mistake I’ve just made. Despite temps well below freezing, not jettisoning my jacket will come back to haunt me 2.5 hours later.
Early in the race I’m not cold, and that is a bad sign. Not that I even knew it!! Two more kilometres of uphill and now I’m hot, way too hot. I’m so over-dressed I pull off the trail, let some riders through, and almost get to see my breakfast again. I rip off my neck warmer and open up my main jacket.
My camelback is filled with warm water and that just adds to the problem. I’m sweating heavily and the closest place to ditch the jacket is 7km away. By the time I reach the aid station again I’m soaked with sweat from head to toe, and losing the jacket is no longer an option. My inner layers would freeze solid and it’s a recipe for hypothermia.
I simply can’t get enough water into my system. I later hear that some of the riders that did drop their jackets early (or started with minimal layers) are also suffering from dehydration.
“The water in their camelback tubes has frozen.”
It’s a very fine line between being too hot and too cold, and it’s extremely difficult to warm up or cool down if you get it wrong. In this environment, things spiral out of control quickly.
The race involves 3 loops out in the remote national park. The loops get shorter and shorter before a spectacular single track back into Jasper.
Inexperience on a fat bike means I’m walking the steeper uphill sections. It also means I’m crashing on the steeper downhill bits. Pulling yourself out of the deep snow off the trail is energy sapping. The walk sections become longer and crashes more frequent as the route becomes more technical. Jet lag isn’t helping and I’m riding like a zombie for 10-15 minutes at a time. Looking up at the spectacular mountains snaps me out of the stupor.
Towards the end of Loop B, I’m riding with an Edmonton guy and finally showing some form. I descend a long technical section without crashing, find a rhythm on the flats, and start enjoying the spectacular views in the Canadian Rockies. My riding buddy even tells me “I’m riding like a local”.
“How cool is that, I’m riding like a local and all is well” I think to myself, then the early mistake catches up. My left quad starts talking. In 25 years of riding, that’s never happened before. I’ve cramped during races, but never there.
Clipping in to pedals isn’t an option in the snow, so my quads are working way harder than on a mountain or road bike. There’s no opportunities to shift the workload onto my calves so it’s a big problem.
At the aid station, I drink plenty of water and head up to the Loop C trailhead. Bang. My first big cramp. The quad is a big muscle and this cramp is putting your standard calf cramp to shame. I dismount to walk it out. As soon as I try to mount the bike again the cramp is back, bigger and nastier than before.
I was seriously think about abandoning. Loop C takes riders back into a very remote area. I’m soaked, have very little water left, it’s still way below freezing, and things could really go pear-shaped if I can’t shake this cramp.
Walking provides some relief, and I set off for an extended hike. Every time I jump back on the bike. BANG, the quad muscle starts screaming again. There’s only 5km to the finish but this could take over an hour if things don’t improve. The prospect of having a DNF next to my name pushes me on.
I walk ten meters and reward myself with a quick look at the scenery. Head down again for another 10. I imagine that this is what climbing in the Himalayas feels like. Every meter gained needs to be carved in stone.
Finally, the trail turns downward and I can get back on the bike and roll. Spinning the pedals without any resistance also improves my leg. I can now stay on the bike for the flat sections. A gradient of plus one degree still means walking.
The crest of the final hill can’t come soon enough. I re-mount for the final time and meet the race director halfway back to the aid station. We stop for a chat and a high five.
I’ve gone through race hell, and have lost a staggering 41 minutes to my Edmonton buddy in a mere 7km, but the final stretch of downhill single track to the finishing line is perhaps the best kilometre of riding I’ve experienced. Incredible views on a perfectly groomed trail with the finishing arch in sight. It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
“So would I ride a fat bike race again? Absolutely.”
Frosty’s delivers really great events in multiple North American destinations. These places are worth a visit in their own right, but participating in a fat bike race is an added bonus.
The best part of the fat bike scene is the people involved. Everyone is incredibly friendly, encouraging and helpful.
1. Train on a mountain bike with flat pedals. Sand is about the closest surface you can get to snow.
2. A 20km training ride in the snow will be incredibly helpful in terms of working out what is needed for clothing, water, and food management. Locals are keen to ride with visitors and provide great advice.
3. Practice using the seat riser. This is a button where a front derailleur controls are on a mountain or road bike. This device drops and raisers the seat allowing riders to get back on a bike more easily after a hike section.
4. Wear the most breathable clothing you have if it’s not snowing.
5. Wear a top with a full front zip that can be opened and closed with gloves on.
6. Put gels and salt in your camelback.
7. Study the gradients on the first 2km. You will heat up and cool down very quickly if it’s up or down.
8. Take some opportunities to enjoy the scenery. How many times are you going to get to race surrounded by 3000 meter high mountains?
Here’s some action from the first Fat Tyre Race of the year in Utah:
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