I’m headed to Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada in a few weeks for Frosty’s Fat Bike Festival again, and I couldn’t be more stoked! The event features two races: a crit style XC and a 50K, fat bike demos, skills clinics (with fat bike instructors, including me), a “Ride with the Pros” event in Maligne Canyon, dinners, beer tasting at Jasper Brewing Company, discussions on fat bike-related topics, and mostly a whole lot of fun. PS, it’s not too late to sign up! The snow is stacking up in the Canadian Rockies and temperatures are tracking in the 20’s Fahrenheit so conditions will be perfect. Last year an Arctic flow consumed the region during the event and I fine-tuned my fat biking essentials to ensure I had fun no matter the weather. The lessons I learned have made fat biking even more fun and taken away my anxieties about getting cold. They can help you too!
It’s All About the Tires
You hear this all the time from fat bikers, but how your bike engages with the snow is the difference between floating across terrain or sinking so deep your axles are at snow level. My “must have” tires for any snow condition are Kenda Juggernaut 4.8’s. They always find traction, roll fast on hard pack, and have a sidewall that allows for even spreading of the tread across the snow. I spend the first few minutes of any ride adjusting my tire pressure. My start-point is generally 3PSI in the front and 3.5PSI in the rear.
If you adjust your PSI in a warm place, like in your house, when you go outside in cold temps the pressure will lower. It’s easier to reduce pressure after you have been out for 20 minutes than to add it back, so head out with more pressure than you think you will want.
In hardpack conditions I run more air pressure, between 5-8 PSI. If it is extremely cold, the moisture will be sucked out of hardpack snow and it starts to behave like sugar. As more people spin through the sugar bowl it starts to become bottomless. Run a low PSI as if you were in a little fresh powder
In fresh, fluffy snow you will want to spread out your time footprint as much as possible to stay on top. I run as little as 2.5 PSI.
In soft, moist snow or deep fresh snow it is just about impossible not to bury your tires. If you are leaving a tire impression that is more than 1” deep and your PSI is as low as you can make it, this is not the day to ride. The trough you leave and the subsequent post holes from hiking out will destroy the trails for others until a groomer is able to repair the damage or a big snowfall covers it up.
If it’s going to be really cold, top off your sealant and carry a tube. Tubeless tires may fail in extreme cold. Alloy rims conduct heat well, meaning they quickly give any heat they have in them to the snow. Rubber contracts a little when it contacts cold conditions too. Sealant is water based which may freeze and expand. The increased space between your rim and tire may be too big a feat for your sealant to hold together and sealant that is normally sloshing around to fill the gap may be an icy mass. I’ve only had this happen to me when the temperature is below -15 Fahrenheit, but it was a long and cold hike home. Always carry a tube and tools to fix a flat.
Frostbite is not a love-bite
Frostbite can happen in just a few minutes if the wind is blowing, you are wet from sweat or snow, or if skin is exposed even briefly to extreme cold as when taking a glove off to open a snack. A solid layering solution that prevents wind from getting in but allows moisture to escape is a must.
Hands need to be bundled up, but not so much that you can’t maneuver your levers to shift or brake. BarMitts are basically mandatory. I put heat packs in the BarMitts and turn them into an oven.
Your face, especially around your nose and mouth, are hard to keep covered when breathing hard. I use Aeemelia Every Day Skin and Lip Oil my face to make a waterproof barrier between my skin and the elements. The oil has a natural SPF, but I will apply a higher power sunscreen over the oil if the sun is out in full force.
Feet are notoriously hard to keep warm while cycling. I have had several pairs of winter riding boots, and I believe Lake Cycling MXZ303 is the best out there. They are warm, waterproof and windproof while being just breathable enough to prevent your feet from wading in a sweat bog. They adjust by a Boa system, so the fit will never put circulation reducing pressure on any part of your foot and all sizes are available wide. Most of the Canadians were wearing these too!
It is easy to think you will keep your feet warm with more socks. However, pressure on your feet from being squished under several socks will reduce circulation and cause them to cool down. I experimented one day in Jasper and wore a thin wool sock on one foot and two on the other and went for a ride. The double sock foot chilled a bit while the single one was comfortable.
For crazy cold rides, I back-up my warm feet strategy by rigging my ski boot heaters to my cycling boots.
When it’s cold, your desire to eat and drink is “Meh” at best. However, just keeping warm consumes a lot of calories. Not to mention, you are exercising! Liquids freeze. Hydration and nutrition is a bit of a conundrum.
Put edibles in your BarMitt ovens. The heat packs will keep them from becoming solid, so you won’t break a tooth trying to gnaw on your GU Energy Stroopwafel.
If using a water bottle, put it upside down in the bottle cage to keep the nozzle from freezing up. If it much below freezing, this will only work for the beginning of your outing.
I found an Osprey hydration vest works best for me. I put it over my first base layer and under all others. The nozzle I run under my neck gaiter. My body heat keeps the liquids from freezing.
When I’m done drinking, I make sure to blow some air into the tube so the bit that is exposed does not have liquid in it to freeze.
If the nozzle does freeze, putting it in your mouth (like biting a stick) will melt it in a minute or two.
This trick came from my coach Mike Durner at Mind Right Endurance: put 1 oz of liquor in 1.5L hydration bladder. This lowers the freezing point but is not enough to make me impaired.
I found putting my nutrition in my water was the best strategy to keep me fueled AND hydrated. My favorite blend is Blueberry Pomegranate GU Roctane Hydration Mix, a dash of cinnamon, and whiskey mixed into hot water. It tastes like mulled cider.
I increase my hourly calorie replacement by 100 Kcal or more. I weigh 125 lbs and consume 300 Kcal/hr during hard rides lasting more than 1.5 hours and am still ravenous for lunch.
Odds and Ends
Your iPhone is good for 1-2 pictures before the battery is drained in the cold. I put heat packs in my internal pocket to hold my phone and it will warm up enough to take another 1-2 pictures 30 minutes later. Better yet, ride with lots of friends and have one person take a picture at any stop and share your images and/or only take the amazing shots.
I get asked over and over if hydraulic brakes work in cold temperatures. My Shimano brakes have not let me down. To keep the brake fluid viscous, I pump my brakes a few times every 20 minutes. When riding in fresh snow, I scrub speed most of the time by nudging my tires into the soft edges of the groomed trails, avoiding touching my brakes all together.
Access to a hot tub or bath is essential. As soon as I get back from a chilly ride, I take a hot soak to restore my core temperature. I gobble up all my energy reserves trying to rewarm otherwise; leaving me a zombie at post ride festivities. This also lets my body recover to head out the next day.