I’ve heard that brevity is the essence of wit. This 3 hour conversation does not bode well for me.
Bike specific clothing is often not suitable for all types of bikepacking. After 4 days of riding, padded shorts lose their appeal as they gain in olfactory impact. I like to wear fairly normal clothes, but they don’t always hold up to the biking or to the cold.
I find when riding bikes in the winter, the fronts of my legs get colder than the backs. There have been commercial tights that address this for cross country skiing, but they often lack the taper cuffs that work best for bikes. I also find that most tights fall down when I am riding bikes. I made my tights from windproof fleece in front, and a stretch fleece in the rear. I had initially planned an elastic waist, but decided I would be much better off with suspenders. The suspenders keep my tights from falling down and thus prevent the fabric from snagging on the seat and causing hilarious crashes.
Winter cycling jackets are similar in that a windproof front and breathable back is ideal. Jackets are not as easy to sew as some of the other items, but they are still within reach of most people’s skills. Fiona has what I think is a nearly ideal bike jacket in that the front panel is windproof fleece, while the arms and back are a breathable fleece. This keeps the vital organs warm while airflow to keep dry and not overheat. For cycling, I always cut jackets a little longer in the back and put longer arms on them than on a standard jacket to compensate for the cycling position.
“Don’t forget to mention your mom”
My mom loves to knit. A few years ago, she knit me a pair of socks. She wasn’t sure I would like them, and she was pretty sure that they weren’t as good as the commercial socks that I buy.
It turned out that the socks my mom knits are warmer, fit better, and last longer than any socks I have purchased. So if you knit, or know someone who is kind enough to knit you some socks from Merino wool. (lately my favourites are a Merino/Silk blend) I strongly endorse home made socks.
I have several store-bough hats that do most of what I want. I am fully happy with them as my day time headwear. For sleeping though, I want something to replicate the hood on my mummy bag when I use the quilt, or even just to supplement the mummy bag hood.
The Planned Group
Jeremy and I had not gotten out for a bikepacking overnight since the weather turned winter. I planned to take my family, and invited Jeremy and some other friends to add to the fun.
The Actual Group
By the time Saturday rolled around, it was Jeremy and I and a daugher each. Jeremy’s daughter had been with us before on rides, but this would be her first bikepacking ride on snow. We hoped for a firm or firmish trail.
My family are equipped with fatbikes and winter camping gear. Jeremy’s daughter is still on the small side for a 26″ wheeled mountain bike, so she was on her 24plus bike, she weighs little enough that the tire pressures can be run at roughly what an adult fatbike can. Jeremy is a fatbikepacking veteran, so he has more than adequate gear. He brought his own -32ºC Western Mountaineering sleeping bag for his daughter to ensure that she would be warm while they slept. Their tent was pretty much filled with down insulating products.
The only gear that wasn’t quite up to the task were a pair of Bogs boots. These boots really should come with a warning label. There is way too much thermal mass in a Bogs boot to consider it a viable boot for any kind of long-duration winter activity. There were tears Sunday morning as the frozen boots sucked the life from a young girl’s feet. Thankfully, the sun eventually came over the top of the mountain, and we put the boots in the sun to warm. My new official policy on Bogs is that they should be restricted to the wet season, as they are truly great for keeping feet warm in cold (liquid) wet conditions.
As dads, our job is to help our girls to prepare for life. A bit of challenge and a lot of fun meant that this trip helped the girls get a little extra empowerment, and some of the bragging rights that come from doing something a little beyond what the average kid has a chance to.
The trail was firm enough to ride, but soft enough for a bit of challenge for the snow-bike rookie. Fires are permitted at the SP6 campground, so our burritos were roasted and yummy. The temperature dipped down to something below -18•C at night, so we were glad we brought appropriate sleeping gear. The stars were bright, and we all slept well. The dads did not get their fair share of chips, which was my fault since I neglected to bring a bag of my own like I usually do.
The girls agreed that they were glad they had come, and that’s really what counts.
Many of these photos were courtesy of Jeremy, thanks for helping me get outside.
I have been lamenting the lack of a winter ultra race in the Calgary area for many years. We have a great location for it, all we lack are enough connected winter trails that together could make an exceedingly difficult race. One where if things weren’t ideal, walkers and skiiers would keep up to or pass the folks on bikes. One where some years no one would finish. I also wanted something scenic that most people would not otherwise experience, something that would be a rewarding tour.
Pick a Route, Any Route
I decided to put together a route, any route, where I had ridden most of it in the past. My prime criteria were: it had to pass mostly through areas where random camping is permitted. It had to be difficult to complete in 3 days, and bikes needed to be permitted on the trails.
Once I had something mapped, I thought I’d do a weekend test ride on as much of it as I could possibly do. I was pretty certain adding the Highwood Pass section of closed highway would be too much for me, but I did want it to be difficult.
Winter ultra races like the ITI have always discouraged comparisons between years as invalid since conditions have so much effect on a race. Often, a lead racer will be caught by the rest of the racers when a storm holds them up. Sometimes, an hour’s worth of snow accumulation means the lead racer can open an hour’s lead to days. Some years, a route is impossible.
A 3 Day Tour
I left Friday morning, to start a 3 day full-speed tour. I knew conditions were to be cold. That can be a good thing, so I wasn’t worried. I was concerned about the snow, but I had hopes that someone would have snowshoe packed the first bit of trails, and that snowmobiles would have passed on some more of the trails, and that I could push through the rest.
The “Short Loop” of Prairie Creek and Powderface Creek is one that I’ve done dozens of times, it sees consistent snowshoe traffic and so is generally pretty good. Indeed it started reasonably, having been snowshoed by at least a few people. It was mostly rideable, if a little soft and slow. The trouble started when I turned up the trail to Powderface Ridge. It had only one set of touring ski tracks, and they were not hard enough to ride on, nor to walk on. On top of that, some wild horses had used the trail to move between grazing areas leaving some sections of trail pocked with deep footprints. My progress slowed. I was moving at about 1km/2hr, this was the kind of challenge I dreaded and wanted.
With a race roster, the second through last racers get the benefit of trail breaking by the lead racer, in my case, there was only me. I’m pretty fine with pain and suffering though, so I continued on at a ridiculously slow pace. I moved my gear to a sled that I brought to pull the bike in, the depth of the trail meant the bike dragged on the trail sides, so it was just the gear. Still, the lighter bike was easier to manage.
Then Things Got Worse
As the sunset approached, I started feeling a little chilly. First I had to put on a sweater. At this level of output, it is rare indeed to need much in the way of torso clothing. I checked my thermometer and saw that it was indeed below -30ºC. I was well prepared though, so I didn’t really worry.
The trail didn’t get any better, but there were some more substantial uphill bits, which slowed my progress even further.
As the temperature dropped further, I decided to sleep before I was out of the trees on the exposed side of the trail. My estimating from the bottom of the thermometer scale to the line on the thermometer put the temperature somewhere near -38ºC. That’s into the realm of cold, even for me. Frostbite from touching metal is within seconds, so everything has to be done with mittens on. Even lighting my stove was a challenge, as the white gas fuel needs a flame to it for a couple seconds before igniting.
A Good Night’s Sleep Always Helps
I wasn’t racing, but I was tired from the effort. I slept soundly from about 10:30 until 7AM. When I woke up, it was near enough -40º. Making coffee was tricky, everything wanted to freeze, I don’t think the makers of Aeropress intended it to be used at -40º. I had to use my hot water to thaw it to open it, then I used more hot water to warm it, then I had to quickly make the coffee before it froze again, and yet, my coffee was very satisfying.
Now, the logical choice when faced with such an obstacle as this trail, is to turn around and go the way that you know will be easier. For some, this would be the fun way. Instead, I wanted to stay on my intended route. There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from doing something hard.
Packing up is never my strong suite, but packing gear in -40º is a real challenge. Taking mittens off for even a few seconds is uncomfortable, not just while they are off, but because when they go back on, they have cooled enough to be painful to touch. Either way, I got myself packed and underway.
And Then Things Went South.
I knew by this point I wasn’t making it the full distance. I was fine with that, because I was in the backcountry, in the cold, and well away from my comfort zone.
The 2.5 hours for the remaining km to the saddle at the top of this section of trail was not that onerous. I was feeling good after a nice night’s sleep, and I was in a good frame of mind (though a horrid song was stuck in my head). I reached the top and decided to send Tania a reassuring message about not worrying that I was so slow, when I discovered my InReach Mini was missing. I ordinarily have it mounted on my bars with a carabiner to secure it to something in case it falls or breaks off the mount. But, the InReach Mini is only rated to -20ºC at which point it starts to turn itself off, so in the cold I had to put it in my pocket. One of the times that I put it in the pocket, I must have failed to zipper it in (it was -35º, I was wearing mittens).
The InReach Mini is an amazing piece of technology. It allows me to reassure my family that I am okay, it lets me call for help in an emergency, in short, it is a great communication device for the backcountry. It is also very small, and pretty much impossible to find when it’s dropped in the snow. I had no choice but to stop my trip, go home where I could retrieve the last position the InReach sent, and to go back to try to find it another day. I was devastated. I had not had a solo winter trip in years, and here it was cut short by my carelessness.
The Consolation Prize
When I got home, I looked up the track from the InReach and it had sent a final location. Fortunately I had had tracking turned on. After driving back and skiing up to the place where my GPS showed the device should be, I started raking the snow with my ski pole. Less than a minute later, a little orange device popped out from under the snow on the trail. I was thrilled, both at not having to replace it, and that it was so accurate that I could locate it within a ski-pole’s length.
- I was prepared for comfort at -40º
- Tether the indispensable electronic device (if you have to move it from its correct spot)
- I don’t mind when things are tough, but I don’t like when I mess things up myself.
- My previous philosophy of no sled with the bike was mostly correct.
- Count calories: I know how much food I can eat, and I brought too much of it.
- In the end, you’ve got no one but yourself to blame.
- km travelled: 13 of 178
- Hours moving: 12
- Hours sleeping: 10
- Hours searching for device: 3, with a 5 hour trip the following day
The Gear That Worked:
My sleep system as always was a -10ºC down sleeping bag with a home-made -10ºC synthetic quilt over it. My sleep system is a Thermarest Ridge-Rest with a Neo-Air Xtherm over top. I was comfy at -40º, my only complaint was that it was hard to see the stars with my sleeping hood done up. I brought my tarp but did not use it.
My bike is my usual Salsa Mukluk Ti with a Rohloff hub. I was pleasantly surprised that the Rohloff shifted well at -35ºC.
My bike luggage was my usual Porcelain Rocket bags with a custom spacer for the bar bag from Tadhg.
Pogies were my own design, they were warm enough but I really should have insulated my brake levers as I have done on my kids’ bikes.
As I read this I realize that I have not put the most positive spin on it. While this was not a successful trip, it was a trip, and I didn’t see anyone else out there, so that’s something. Also, while I did mess up my weekend, I can honestly say that I lived it, rather than wasted it.
How it started
Back in the 90s I started riding my bike to work after a hiatus of a few years. My coworkers would regularly ask me if I was going to be like Tom, a notoriously all-weather rider. As winter came on, I realized what most people who cycle in the winter do, it isn’t as hard as it looks. It can, however, be cold. With the internet in its infancy, it wasn’t easy to find quality information on how to stay warm in winter, but I knew at the time that my airways were a weak point in that I couldn’t really insulate them from the cold air that passed over them. Then I read about a product called LungPlus and my obsession began.
The Untold Story
The human body is remarkably good at keeping itself heated. The circulatory system will gradually move blood flow away from the surface and away from extremities to keep its vital organs warm. Activity, including shivering, will help by generating heat. But in order to do any sort of activity, one needs to breathe, and in the cold, that means breathing cold air.
The air passages are designed to warm up air as it enters the body so that the blood can pick up oxygen from it. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same as wind chill. On top of that, the airways are damp, which means they are subject to evaporative cooling just the same as if a person was to go outside still damp after a shower. Except that the lungs have approximately 5 times the surface area of skin, and they are always naked.
Well, What the Heck am I Supposed to do About it?
If you stop breathing you will die.
The simplest form of heat retention is the extended hood that Northern peoples have used for millennia. It creates a pocket of warm air around the person’s face, and helps take the edge off breathing in extremely cold air. In turn, this pocket of warm air requires less warming by the airways and lungs and so is pulling less heat from the body.
The next low-tech solution is the scarf, Buff, mask, or bandana across the face. These do capture some heat from the outgoing breath to warm the incoming air, but their primary purpose is to warm the face itself. They are great for preventing frostbite on the face, but they do relatively little to prevent heat loss through breathing.
The next technological step is to use a heat retention or heat exchange device to capture the heat from outgoing air and return it to the incoming air, and that is what this article is about.
Yes, 6 Heat Exchanger Masks.
What follows is a brief description and mini-review of the 6 heat exchanger devices that I personally own. Yes, I could have gotten away without buying more of them, but in my efforts to optimize, I have continued to purchase more.
This device is the only one on this list that does not have a mask with it. It was the first one that I used back in ’99 or ’00. The device is a bit like the mouthpiece of a snorkel with a heat exchanger built in to it. It isn’t fashionable, or really even dignified, but it does work.
- It helps keep glasses unfogged by routing breath away from the eyes.
- It is an effective heat exchanger and helps to keep the body warm
- it routes the captured water away from my chin and reduces beardcicles.
- Looks like a science fiction device worn by Venutians to breathe the earth’s poisonous oxygen.
- It routes air through the mouth and I find it sometimes makes my teeth cooler
- droolcicles at the end
Oh yeah, this device lets you breath warmer-than-room temperature air. Oh damn, when I exercise it is like breathing through a straw. This is the best device for waiting for the bus.
This device is great, if they still made them, I’d have bought more.
- great heat exchanger
- close fit to the face
- low profile balaclava works well with other hats
- very free breathing and the air path does not ice up
- the exchanger sits close to the lips and can contribute to chapped lips
- the exchanger forms a shelf that can collect snot
- they were bought by another company and were discontinued
This unit is a little more sophisticated than a long hood on a parka, but not much.
- Simple, never clogs
- keeps the mouth and nose clear so skin stays un-chapped.
- no real heat exchange, only a pocket of exhaled breath at the mouth
- some (Tadhg) find it restricts breathing
I bought this one based on a review from a friend with more cold weather experience than me (yes, those people exist).
- Very effective heat exchanger
- good airflow for high-output activity
- keeps wet parts off the face
- the “Darth Vader” look
- great balaclava
- does eventually get somewhat wet
- the “Darth Vader” look
- the great balaclava is a bit tight on my enormous head
This and the Ergodyne are my go-to masks for cooler days. Back to back testing today gives the edge to the AirTrim for warmth.
- doesn’t restrict breathing
- away from the mouth and nose for reduced chapping
- doesn’t put pressure on the nose – less runny nose
- is available with a selection of exchangers with greater flow, or warmer air depending on activity
- Recently, a grade 2 kid said it looked like a pig nose
- it does not cover the upper cheeks – risk of frostbite
- if you neglect to blow the water out of it the water can drip on clothing
Finally a recommendation
On the bike, and this is at least partly a blog about bikes, the Ergodydne has the edge because of its coverage of the cheeks. However, if you have or can get a face mask that covers the cheeks and leaves the mouth and nose free, the AirTrim’s superior performance will win out. All this week, I was outside in temperatures as low as -29ºC with the AirTrim on, and I dressed exactly the same as I would have for -12ºC without the AirTrim (yes, it is that good). I don’t get a commission, though if the good folks at AirTrim were to send me 3 more for the rest of my family, I’d be mighty grateful (hint, hint). I bought my AirTrim from skiwax.ca
If anyone thinks I am exagerating the benefit to these masks, they should head on over to https://thismombikes.net/ to ask he how inadequately she has seen me dressed in this cold snap. Below -25ºC roughly 90% of a body’s heat is lost through respiration. if you could reduce even 15% of that it would be equivalent to doubling your clothes. When you keep your core warmer, it signals the brain to send more blood to your extremities, so in a way, the heat exchanger mask is a handwarmer too.
What About Medical Benefits?
We’ve all heard about the dangers to lungs and airways of breathing extremely cold air. I am not a physician, nor do I play one on TV. I am way too lazy to do the research as to what medical benefits these masks may give to users. Even if it were no medical benefit, I would still use one for comfort and for warmth. Airtrim and Lungplus have some medical articles on their sites that I have not read.
Lungplus sent me free product in about 2000 with no conditions attached. I have purchased all the other products myself with my money. At the time I am writing this, I derive no benefit from sales of any of these devices. I have received no money for this review, but I won’t turn down offers of free product.
Previously, I had written about making your own bike pogies. Now, I’ve made a video. It isn’t winning any awards, but it may help you to make your own bike pogies.
[Editor's note, I know this is technically the first published, but I wrote it as the 4th in the series. Read them in any order and they should still make sense. Also, I get asked a lot of questions about my tarp.]
MYOG Sleep Systems, introduction
Canada can get cold. The Canadian Rockies can get even colder. I like to sleep comfortably and warm, but I’m lazy and I don’t like to carry a lot of weight. My current system of a tarp and quilt is what I consider a great compromise between weight and warmth.
When I started out, I used a commercial down sleeping bag, and a backpacking tent. These can be great, and modern tents have come a long way in the last decade. 10 years ago, 5 pounds was considered light for a 2-person tent. Now, I have a commercial 4-person tent that weighs 3 pounds with a pole and mosquito net insert. Weight is no longer really the savings when making your own gear.
Most of my backcountry trips seem to involve rain or snow (except if I bring my friend Jeremy, who also does not mind adverse weather). A few years back, I did some experimentation to see what would happen to my sleeping bag after a few days of sleeping out. I was surprised to find that my sleeping bag took on several hundred grams of moisture the first night of sleeping in a tent. Even with draping my bag out in the sun to dry, by the third night I was sleeping in a less effective, and heavier system.
But Why a Tarp?
This is part of how I came to be sleeping under a tarp. Sleeping outside greatly reduced the amount of condensation in my sleeping bag, but if it rained, the rain would get in. My bivy sack had the same problem as the tent. The tarp would keep the rain off me, but trapped far less condensation in my bag than the tent. I used a commercial rectangular tarp for a few years, but found it was hard to pitch so that it consistently kept out the rain. In other words, I wanted a custom tarp. The other half of the tarp origin story is that we “allowed” Fiona to sleep out under a tarp with me one night and she awoke in the morning and said, “I only sleep under tarps now, no more tents.”
There are about 7 million tarp designs available on the internet, and I took ideas from a few of them. I wanted it to shed wind and water better than a rectangular tarp, so I made it with a catenary cut ridge line and front. I also wanted not to adjust in the middle of the night, so I chose silpoly as the material for minimal stretching. I also wanted light weight but enough durability to hold up in a substantial wind.
The holy grail of bikepacking tarps is one where your bike fits inside, or can be used to support the tarp. I also hike and ski, so though I think bike-supported are extremely cool, I opted to use bike supports only for treeless bikepacking situations and use hiking/ski poles as primary supports where trees are not available. The tarp weighs in at 300g, so it ended up being on the lighter end of the shelter scale.
The silpoly does not stretch in the rain and doesn’t need to be re-tensioned when it rains. I do not recommend it as an easy fabric to sew, it is like sewing live squirrels to each other.
Not Exactly a Bed Quilt
Since I’m foolish enough to think that winter is the primary bikepacking season, I wanted to have some versatility to my sleeping bag system. I wanted lighter weight in summer, I wanted synthetic material for the outer since down performs so poorly in wet conditions. I wanted light weight since my daughter would be carrying one.
In the 80s, I used a dual bag system of a sleeping bag with an overbag. I really liked it, but I had also been interested in quilts as an alternative to sleeping bags. I talked up the concept of a down bag with a synthetic quilt over it for cold, with the quilt on its own for more moderate temperatures (well, moderate for the Canadian rockies). Camping quilts are not exactly like a bed quilt, they are usually shaped in some way, and many (like mine) have a footbox like a mummy bag and a drawstring closure at the top.
The home made portion of the combo ended up as the quilt – down sleeping bags are relatively available, and affordable. I used Climashield Apex as my insulation layer and the lightest nylon I could find, Membrane from RSBTR. The sleeping quilts have simple ribbon loops to attach them to a sleeping mat, so they can tuck under the sleeper at the sides, and they work well down to about -10ºC.
The quilts being about 800g each puts them as competitive weight wise with the commercial versions, but they were about half the price to make as the commercial equivalent. In winter, adding a -10ºC sleeping bag yields a combination that is comfortable below -30ºC, theoretically to -40ºC, but we have not been out that cold since I made them.
No Hood, No Problem
A big problem for me with traditional mummy bags has been that the hood can end up in the wrong spot when i roll over, and then the hood fabric gets wet from breath condensation. With the quilt, this doesn’t happen since the quilt lacks a hood. To deal with the lack of hood, I made sleeping hats from the same material as the quilts themselves. the hat acts like a hood, but turns with the sleeper allowing them to not get wet from breath.
Mid March, my friend Katrina organized a very fun overnight bikepack to Lake Minnewanka. The original plan was to get up early on Saturday, bike from Goat Creek trailhead through Banff (town) and then ride up to the Lake Minnewanka trailhead and proceed to the LM8 campground.
The year previous, this is exactly what an intrepid group had done. Of course winter fatbikepacking is a task requiring either time, flexibility or both, it pays to be adaptable. In this case, we were out for Saturday overnight, some of us hadn’t had the experience of pushing a bike for a full day, and the group consensus was that it might not be the most fun to have on a weekend.
Katrina and Mike were celebrating a 21-year anniversary, Tadhg and I would probably have gone bikepacking anyway, I asked Jeremy to come along (because he is fun), and Guy was there for fun and to test out some new equipment. Ultimately, it was all spurred on by Ryan Correy who started the Bikepack Canada organization. Though Ryan is battling cancer, he continues to passionately promote bikepacking in Canada.*
Since we started a little later than expected, the trail was softening in the sun as we rode. The benefit of weighing a mere 100 pounds and having lots of fatbike experience showed with Tadhg being able to ride almost everything. I was able to ride about 90% of what I ride in summer thanks to my Bud and Lou tires on 100mm rims, and my willingness to ride with less air than most people think is necessary. I think it’s important to note that there is no substitute for experience, and I’ve been bikepacking on snow since the 1990’s and I’ve owned a real fatbike to do it since 2004.
The others did more pushing, but there was still a reasonable amount of riding, I’ve certainly done trips where the bike was just an awkward cart for my stuff, or worse, a hard-to carry piece of luggage in snow above the wheels.
At the campsite, we all set up our tents and such, Tadhg had relented to the use of the tarp when I explained that he would be carrying any tents that we were going to use. My tarp is 430g with pegs, so it really does offer a significant weight advantage, even if it isn’t as luxurious nor as wind-protected as our HMG Ultamid.
I’m fascinated by other people’s techniques for winter camping. Guy had a vapour barrier liner that he was experimenting with. In the morning, he deemed it a success. I’ve had good experience with vapour barrier liners in terms of them keeping me warmer, and keeping my sleeping bag insulation very dry. The dry insulation is a significant benefit on trips over 3 days since sleeping bags and quilts lose insulating value as they accumulate moisture over consecutive nights. The vapour barriers do have the disadvantage that they can get moist and clammy on the inside. In my experience, my body tends to sweat less if I use the vapour barrier, but the inside still feels more damp than the sleeping bag. The vapour barrier is definitely something I’ll consider on longer trips and it seems like Guy is planning using it for all trips.
Our ride out was earlier in the day than our ride in, so we had the benefit of a frozen trail. Tadhg rode everything but the hill that he usually walks, I was pretty close to him as far as riding to pushing ratio, and I think all of us were much happier to be mostly riding.
A big thanks to Guy for taking us all out for lunch, it wrapped up our weekend nicely.
*Since I wrote this, Ryan has succumbed to cancer. I’m grateful for his efforts to bring us all together. His Bikepack Canada organization has done a lot to share skills, experience, and advocacy to the community. He will be missed.
I get asked, like most winter cyclists, “why?” The situation varies between riding with my kids a couple of blocks, to riding in extreme cold, to riding and pushing through snow to go sleep outside somewhere. The implication is that it’s too hard to be worth it.
Some of the questioning comes from a mistaken assumption that it is inherently unpleasant. This is almost invariably from people who haven’t tried it. There is seldom a ride where I feel uncomfortable during the ride. I generally dress reasonably for the temperatures and weather conditions. I often end up shedding a layer while riding, but seldom feel the need to put a layer on. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so I avoid it. I sleep well outside.
Many people assume from my hobbies and appearance that I’m some sort of hardcore leathery mountain man who pits himself against the odds to see if he can. Again, that is rooted in a lack of knowledge. I love to see the beauty of the mountains. I love the freedom of outdoor life. I love a challenge, but I’m quite cautious by nature. My 10-year-old daughter is way more of a daredevil than I am.
I do get a rush from the exertion of pushing myself a little. I sometimes enjoy the thrill that comes from not holding back. Sometimes I like to suffer a bit, to feel my lungs burning, or to fight falling asleep on the bike as I put off stopping for the night.
Mostly though, I like being outside, moving. I was not built to sit idly by as life passes. Past experience tells me that if I get out and move, I feel good. It’s as simple as wanting to feel good. Some might call it an addiction, but if it is, it’s one without consequences and one I feel comfortable sharing with friends and family.
This winter has, for some people, dragged on. For me, It has been fun. I’ve been out camping on skis, my feet, my bike, and most importantly, I’ve done it with my family and friends. I feel good that I haven’t wasted my winter watching TV. I feel great that I’m fit. I mostly feel great because I’ve spent my time outside. Even the most mundane grocery run is more fun when you do it by bike.
Life is short. At the end, I anticipate regrets, but I don’t expect to regret a single minute of riding my bike, in the cold or not.
[This is a story of my ITI 2002 experience. I wrote it just after the race, in 2002. It contains some unflattering comments about other racers with film crews, but I decided to leave it mostly as it originated. Keep in mind that I had never seen a fatbike until the start of the race, hence my commentary about sand bikes. Pictures were taken with disposable cameras at a time before I became truly interested in photography. My prejudices about racers coming in 140 pound skinny packages was formed by reading too many mountain bike magazines.]
Before the race:
I had built a substantial base of fitness over the past few years of bike commuting so I knew that the people who were questioning my level of fitness were underestimating me. I also knew that there was a big difference between commuting 21km twice a day and covering 560km of wilderness in a week on a fully laden bike. I continued my daily commuting but added a little science to it. Monday mornings I extended my commute to 90km by making a circuit of the city on my way to work. Twice a week I did intervals on my way home. I also added some weekend training rides of longer distances. In November I had the good fortune to have my workweek cut back by a day to four days per week which allowed me to do some long training rides and walks on Fridays. I practiced riding the bike loaded as well as pushing it through the snow. I also ran 3 to 9 km at lunch times at work. I did day long rides out to the mountains, I did overnight rides. I slept out in –25 in the back yard.
By mid February, I felt prepared for the race and fitter than I had been in over a decade.
The bike and equipment
In order to get lots of flotation on the snow, wider tires are better than narrow ones. The most common method is to use snow cat rims which are 44mm wide and allow a rather large footprint on the snow. They also have the advantage that they fit (mostly) into a standard mountain bike frame. I ordered some Snow Cats twice from Simon at All Weather Sports in Fairbanks but they never showed up. I ended up ordering some rims of the same dimensions from Avro in Dorval. After some hassling, the rims arrived. I had them built on a pair of DT Swiss Hugi 240 hubs that use a star ratchet freehub assembly that can be field serviced without tools and engages in the coldest of weather.
A Rocky Mountain steel hardtail coupled with a Surly rigid front fork gave a reasonably light and durable package. Also I already owned the bike so I did not have to make yet another purchase.
I used a Specialized big hit 2.5 tire in the front and a WTB Weirwolf 2.5 tire in the rear. In retrospect, the Specialized tire in 3.0 inch would have been a better choice in front.
I used an extra thick downhill tube in the rear tire to avoid flats. This turned out to be overkill and was a great deal more rotating weight than necessary. Had I been less lazy, I would have swapped it out early in the race. Since I would be running very low pressure in the tires during the race, I glued one side of the tire to the rim to avoid having it slip and shear off the valve stem. I found some brakes in my box of spare parts with long curved arms that cleared the extra wide tires.
To keep my hands warm, pogies (large handlebar covers that act somewhat like mittens) were a necessity. I designed these myself to get all of the features that I wanted into them. I made them large enough to carry snacks in. In fact they were large enough to use them as booties to warm my feet in emergency situations. The bright yellow colour gave them high visibility and ripstop polyester covering over thick windstoper fleece and blue closed cell foam made them very warm.
I did not want panniers hanging down to drag in the snow so I mounted an aero bar in the front of my bike to use as a front rack. A seatpost rack in the rear held my stove and clothing while food was stored in a frame bag in the main triangle of the bike.
I was fairly conservative when it came to sleeping equipment and clothing. I did not want to be cold or get any cold related injuries so I paid a significant weight penalty.
In addition to a –20 C rated sleeping bag with a vapour barrier liner, I carried a yellow ensolite pad and bivouac sack. I brought a down sweater and fleece pants for times when it was cold and I was stopped to bivy out or to fix my bike. I also planned to use the sweater and pants for sleeping on extra cold nights.
For cooking or making water, I carried a Coleman single burner stove that we have used for several years and has proven reliable. It is a little heavier than some other available stoves but again I decided against the extra purchase.
For riding in the dark I brought a headlamp with a remote battery pack that I could put inside my jacket to keep the batteries warm. I also brought an LED headlamp as a backup or to save batteries when the larger light was not needed.
Arrival in Anchorage
I was a little apprehensive about meeting the other racers, I half expected a bunch of prima donnas with big egos. After all, there were some real racers here. I was a bike commuter.
I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere at Earth B&B was supportive and friendly.
I arrived in Anchorage only to find out that my bike had not. The lady at the lost luggage counter assured me that it would be delivered to me later that night as soon as it got in.
I spent the afternoon at Earth B&B with the other racers. Margriet (the owner) introduced me to everyone in sight. Many of the people that I had seen in the ‘Thin White Line’ video were there. Elliot McAllister, Andy Headings and I went off to the local bike store “Ready To Race” to get some parts for Elliot’s bike. It turned out that Elliot was an engineer at Christini, a company who make two wheel drive mountain bikes. The store was an amazing place, tucked into the back of the owner’s house, the vestibule housed several customer bikes and a wide assortment of parts. My favourite kind of bike store, the owner rides bikes himself and is obviously keen on more than pumping through the inventory. I hear later that he is particularly fond of wheel building and builds the type of wheels that never need to be trued and last forever.
The morning of the second day, my bike arrived. I started assembly but put off completing it in order to make a trip to REI. REI is the American version of Mountain Equipment Coop and is quite similar in many ways but perhaps a little downscale as far as quality goes. I walked there with Eric, one of my roommates at the B&B and of course we met several other racers there. Apparently, there is a yearly ritual of making many trips to REI to make sure that one has all of the same equipment as the other racers. Usually, the extra equipment ends up getting left behind since everyone already had a plan about what to bring on the race.
Fortunately, I had a list of equipment that I was bringing with me and another list of equipment to purchase in Anchorage so I minimized my impulse buys at the REI.
Back at the Earth B&B garage, I proceeded to put the rest of my bike together. I discovered that I had forgotten my pedals and I managed to break the quick release skewer on my rear hub. With borrowed pedals and skewer (thanks to Bill Merchant), I went off to the bike store to get replacements.
The traffic in Anchorage is positively bike hostile. I have never been in a city where less consideration is shown towards cyclists than Anchorage. I ended up abandoning my bike store quest in order to get off the horrible streets, they were simply not safe. I ended up splitting a cab with Elliot the next day to go to get pedals.
Elliot seemed to have the most to do. He had constructed a sled for himself and seemed to have left it entirely untested. It seemed a little late to be thinking about using questionable equipment.
I did a shakedown run on my bike on the local multi use path. I got to see some of the famous Anchorage urban moose and the scenic parts of town. I felt good, The bike felt good. I was more or less ready.
The pre-race meeting featured a slide show by Mike Curiak, the holder of the record Knik to Nome time of 15 days. It was better than slide shows tend to be as Mike is a very good speaker and had some great slides showing the various parts of the race.
A film crew member interrupted the slide show by filming the audience with a really bright light – while making voice commentary. Mike simply stopped, said “that is really annoying” and waited for him to turn off the spotlight.
After the pre-race meeting was a party with all the racers and volunteers and a keg of beer. Most of the racers limited themselves to only a glass or two of the very delicious microbrewed beer.
That night, I loaded my bike into the van that was to take it to the race start.
Waiting for the race start is a time for self doubt. Here I am waiting to start a race alongside a bunch of real mountain bike racers. I have said again and again that I am in no danger of winning the race, in fact all I want to do is finish with all of my digits intact. Still, I have a feeling of being out of my league, a bike commuter amongst successful racers. I am not scared, just a little uncomfortable. Finally, the race begins, I carefully take my place near the rear of the rush of bikes leaving the start line. I don’t want to be in anyone’s way.
About 200m from the start, at the end of the lake, the trail goes up a hill and enters the woods and becomes a single file track through rolling hills. Elliot McAlister, from Pennsylvania, breaks his sled on the hill. I feel sorry for him, less than a minute into the race, I tell him to get a backpack, but I know that he will probably scratch.
I end up just behind Maurizio and Eris, the Italian cyclists on their way to Nome. I feel really good, the pace feels like I can maintain it forever. A few people have told me that if I feel like I am going at a good pace, I should slow down. Maurizio’s chain falls off his bike. I catch up to his partner Eris and tell him. Eris turns back to help. Perhaps they are sharing tools?
For a good part of the afternoon I end up trading places back and forth with David Barker-Milne from the UK and Dario Valsesia from Italy. I can see that Dario lacks experience riding on the snow, his tires are pumped to about 60 psi and he is reluctant to let air out of them. He is also carrying way too much stuff. His food supplies include canned chili and stew – probably four pounds with those alone. He is also the only other cyclist I have seen who is in the same weight range as I am. He is also wearing way too many clothes for the warm temperature. He is using much too much energy for the slow speed that we are going.
The weather is warm, hovering around 0 C and I end up riding wearing a capilene shirt and a vest with a wind proof front. I had been hoping for some colder weather to cut down on the sweating and to allow me to wear clothes instead of carrying them strapped to the bike.
Several Iditarod junior racers are going by in the opposite direction. I should really stop and take some pictures of the dogsleds. Maybe I will later.
The trail is mostly rideable on the downhill and level sections but we are walking up the uphill stuff. The occasional ravine provides good opportunity to crash, which I do several times. On one of the crashes, I lose my glasses. I had brought one pair of glasses with clear, yellow and dark lenses. I have therefore lost my sun, overcast and night glasses all at once. At least I still have my goggles.
There is an opportunity to stop for water and a nap at Flathorn Lake but I have lots of water and elect to bypass it on the hopefully better Iditarod Junior trail that I am already on. Eris and Maurizio have by now caught up and they are riding just behind me. The trail eventually opens up onto the large Susitna river and then follows it upstream to the Yentna river.
To my left is the sleeping lady mountain, somehow it really does look like a sleeping lady. The sun very slowly sets as I ride past.
About a mile up the Susitna river, I stop for a break and meet up with Steve and Janice Tower from Anchorage. I have heard of Janice, she is the record holder for the 130 mile race and has consistently been the fastest woman in the shorter races. The Towers turn out to be a very agreeable couple. They are from Anchorage and so were not staying at the B&B.
It turns out that Steve is substantially bigger than any of the other cyclists, including myself. He is pulling a sled to help keep weight off of the bike. Several people have poked fun at this system but it seems logical, soft snow would mean that every ounce off of the bike would make the difference between riding and pushing.
Steve had intended to ride a super wide sand bike up until the night before the race when he discovered that the bottom bracket was destroyed. He ended up staying up until 3 AM to put together the regular bike, snowcats and sled combination that he was riding. Janice and Steve were already running a sleep deficit by the time that they started the race.
We soon catch up to the Italians who nearly double their speed when they realize that a woman is passing them. Steve and I get a good chuckle out of this. We soon make it to Yentna station slightly behind the Italians.
Yentna Station is a comfortable house and is serving grilled cheese sandwiches. I wolf down one of these and quickly dry some clothes before pressing on. The Italians are trying to catch a nap but the owner wants to charge them to sleep and though they are willing to pay, they do not want to get up to go sleep in one of the beds as designated for sleeping. As we leave, Maurizio and Eris are gathering their clothes to leave.
Steve and Janice have a friend with a cabin a short way up the Yentna river. I intend to continue on past, but, in a moment of weakness I accept their hospitality. It proves to be a wise decision. I sleep at the back of the cabin in relative cool and get a very refreshing two-hour nap.
Back on the river, we ride in at 11:45 for brunch at the Skwentna roadhouse. Eggs, potatoes and toast really hit the spot and we are back on the road by 1pm. After a slight detour in the wrong direction, we are soon on the trail to Shell Lake. Unfortunately, shortly after Skwentna, the trail turns to soft moguls that are impossible to ride. The moguls are left over from the iron dog snowmobile race a week earlier and are as unpopular with us as they are with the locals. The locals get beaten by the moguls when they ride around for work and to reach neighbours on their own snowmobiles. We dislike them because they mean walking or very harsh riding instead of smooth rideable trail.
This section is where we first witness Steve’s “transformer” routine. He carries a pair of skis in his sled and when the going gets tough on the bike, Steve becomes a skier towing a bike.
The temperature warms up to near freezing and the trail softens even further. Even the flat spots are unrideable now.
We roll in to Shell Lake lodge around 8 PM, Zoe, the owner is serving a choice of burgers or grilled cheese. The bread is homemade, the cheese is plentiful, one of the best grilled-cheese sandwiches I have ever inhaled. We try to rent a cabin to sleep in but Zoe says that since we will only be sleeping for a few hours, we should crash on the floor on cushions. She tapes the cushions together so they don’t separate and comes around with pillows and blankets for everyone.
Round midnight, Roberto Ghidoni, the larger than life Italian walker comes in. He is suffering a bad case of chafing on his butt and needs some cream to soothe it. I do not have any cream until the Finger Lake drop bag, so I wake Steve who has some Bag Balm(tm) and we go back to sleep.
The clock on the wall at Shell Lake dings a great deal (1 for quarter after, 2 for half past, 4 plus the time on the hour). Pierre Ostor and Steve are world class snorers and yet by 4 am I feel refreshed enough to get back on the trail. We head out by the light of our headlamps and leave behind a tip for our wonderful hostess.
The trail has hardened a bunch but is still mostly a pushing trail. We catch up to the Italian bikers and their film crew entourage about halfway along. It appears as though they had a rough night out. One of the film crew guys mentions that I look really fresh. I reply that I feel fresh, and in fact I do, I have had more than enough sleep and the pace has been somewhat slow.
As I pass the film crew, the trail becomes rideable again. This makes me wonder if in fact the film crew snow machines have something to do with the inability to ride. My suspicions are confirmed when I am passed again and the trail turns to sugar. This could become annoying.
At Finger Lake lodge I eat some fine quesadillas and rice. I also break into my drop bags for some food replenishment. I have sent way too much food and some of it looks downright unappealing. Fortunately, everyone else seems to have sent too much as well and I raid the leftovers box for some cheese and other goodies.
Roberto has been at Shell Lake for an hour or so and is getting ready to leave as we get in. He is barefoot and I mention to him that his feet look blister free, to which he replies “feet good, ass fire!” Apparently, last year he got some frostbite on his penis and this year his windproof underwear are rubbing. Everyone is donating his or her favourite salve to help him out. Roberto is a bit of a legend in these races, he tows a tiny child’s sled borrowed from his granddaughter which only highlights his stature and mammoth stride. His feet are massive and yet he has managed to find a pair of runners big enough for several layers of socks. He walks at 4.5 miles per hour for 20 hours per day, a one-eyed force of nature.
From what we have heard, the trail between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake (Rainy Pass Lodge) is never rideable and this year is no exception. I take the left side pedal off my bike to make pushing easier and plan for a long push.
I make an interesting discovery this afternoon. I am much better at pushing the bike than I am at riding it. I stride along all afternoon, thoroughly enjoying the rolling hills and the sparse northern forest. On the few rideable patches, my knees hurt from pedaling, so it is just as well that there are few pedaling sections. Just before sunset I stop to talk to some passing snow machiners on their way to Rohn. One of them gives me some delicious birch candies. They are camping for the night at the top of the Happy River valley with the dire prediction that it will be really cold at the bottom. The descent to the river is a series of steep drops (the dreaded happy river steps) interspersed with flat traverses. I manage the descent without incident and travel for a ways along the happy river and then up some equally steep hills to another ridge. I am still feeling good as darkness descends and I walk on into the night. I am catching up to the Italians and I can see their headlamps occasionally in the distance. This section of trail is ultra hilly and drops off and on to a ridge, crossing a couple of lakes. I begin to wonder how far it is to the checkpoint. The temperature drops to a cool –20C and I wonder how effective my jacket, wet from the earlier wet snow, is going to be. [I did have a backup jacket, not sure why I wrote in the drama here]
I come to a site flooded with light… Bright as a TV studio… I assume that this must be the most brightly lit checkpoint in the race. Funny, I hadn’t expected it to be so soon, I also didn’t expect it to be hidden in the forest. I am not tired enough for hallucinating – I think.
Fortunately, it turns out to be the film crew camped for the night. Maurizio and Eris have just arrived, they are being filmed under bright lights. Eric, the film crew’s guide, makes me some Kraft dinner. He also tells me what turns out to be an outrageous lie, the checkpoint is only 5 more miles. My estimates and my trail notes put it somewhere closer to 15 miles. The 15 mile figure turns out to be correct. While Eris and Maurizio sleep, I head up the trail another 7 miles or so before biviying. My plan is to sleep till 6, get up, make the checkpoint early morning and head into the pass by day – I can push my bike all day, sleep and descend the Dalzell Gorge in the morning.
I awake around 9 to a camera in my face. I have overslept. Nothing to worry about. I doze ‘till close to 10 when Steve Tower comes by, I better get going. I just wish these boots weren’t frozen so I could get them on my feet. Oh well, they should thaw as I walk to the checkpoint. I squeeze my feet into the boots and head off to Puntilla lake checkpoint. A quick 4 hour walk gets me to the checkpoint before 2 pm at the same time as Steve Tower. My early morning plan is blown but I can still make some progress toward the pass itself in the daylight.
I feel really well rested. Janice mentions to me how peaceful I looked sleeping. I have a substantial blister from walking in frozen boots but fortunately I have a plentiful supply of blister pads. My ring finger and little finger on either hand have gone numb from the battering of my handlebars.
On the other hand, Jim Jager is still at the checkpoint. He has been out toward the pass zand encountered whiteout conditions. He has decided to scratch and is waiting for a plane. There are six other racers in an emergency shack six miles ahead. We are six miles out of second place. I think about heading out on my own but I have planned all along to be safe, which precludes getting lost in mountain passes during a blizzard. I decide to wait with Janice and Steve to let the blizzard pass.
Ray Molino has been at the checkpoint for a few days. He is essentially a tourist, traveling the same route as the race. He is riding his sandbike, a fat tire bike that some other racers are also using. With the huge contact patch of his 4 inch plus tires, Ray can ride what we can only wish to ride. He is carrying an incredible amount of stuff with him. He has a video camera, a walkman with a large collection of cassettes, a spare tire (his front tire is home made), a big slab of bacon, and a host of other goodies that he is carrying on home made racks on his home made bike. Ray is a real character, he practically invented the sport of sandbiking and frequently hosts guided sandbiking trips in the Mexican Dunes near his home in the state of New Mexico.
As the afternoon passes, Jim decides that waiting for a plane is going to take too long and cost too much so he heads out, back in the race. Cullen Barker comes in accompanied by skier Andy Stearns.
[I was very much not that interested in hanging out at the checkpoint for so long. The Italians ended up stuck in the pass, so however bored I was, they had it worse]
Our intended departure time rolls around and the snow is falling thicker than ever. We finally leave in the morning under full daylight. There are five of us: Janice, Steve, Cullen and Andy along with myself travelling as a loosely knit group. Steve and Andy are skiing and the rest of us are walking. Some stretches are hard enough for Janice to ride.
After a few miles, Ray Molino catches up to us. He is able to ride the marginal stretches of trail and is making good time. When he is walking, he makes great time by jogging the better packed stretches. He stops from time to time to take video footage. He is singing along to his walkman.
I, meanwhile, am floundering. I am postholling up to my thighs where my lightweight companions are walking. There is essentially no trail since the snowmobile traffic through here has taken a variety of routes the past few days and none of them are packed hard enough for walking. Snowshoes would be a great asset here.
Even at a snail’s pace, we are making progress. We make it to the summit of the pass just after nightfall. It is downhill and flat from here to Rohn. Just as we enter the Dalzell Gorge, the moon comes up behind us. The night is clear enough to see without the need for a headlamp. I turn mine off as I descend through the Gorge, the scene around me is surreal, like something from an El Greco painting. Icefalls on either side, dropping into the gorge, snow covered trees, the river down the center, all bathed in the glow of the moon and reflected light from the rest of the scene. My plan for riding the Gorge in the day would have missed all of this. I would still like to see it by day sometime but I would not wish to have missed it by moonlight.
As I get toward the bottom of the Gorge, I pass by Ray Molino again. He has a huge bonfire going and is getting ready to bivy for the night. He has flatted a couple of tires and has to stop and patch some tubes. His wide tires require two tubes each and he is only carrying one spare.
The remainder of the way to Rohn is mostly windswept ice. My first fall is enough to make me want to be really careful. In the city, I would have the luxury of studded tires and the traction that they provide but the soft wide knobbies that I am using for the race provide no grip whatsoever. I try to stay relaxed and not to make sudden moves. I manage to only fall twice – no injuries.
Rohn is a welcome sight. Maurizio and Eris are there as well as my companions from today. Eris has a wet sleeping bag again and is shivering in the tent trying to dry it. I bed out outside to avoid sleeping with the snoring symphony in the wildly swinging temperatures of the checkpoint tent. Andy Headings –last year’s Nome race winner, is surprisingly also still here, he has broken his bike’s bottom bracket and is resigned to flying to McGrath to fix his bike and continue on to Nome. He is waiting for his plane to arrive.
Claudia Werner is the checker at Rohn and is making sure that everyone is comfortable and taken care of. Hopefully, she took some time out to enjoy skating on the giant sized rink just a short walk away. While I am in Rohn (population 2, for 1 month of the year, otherwise 0), she is constantly looking for ways to help out.
Our second drop bags are in Rohn, time to stock up on food and drink. I once again have way too much. I cannot imagine how I thought I could possibly choke down so many Balance(tm) bars. The Fudgeos are a welcome treat. Somehow I get confused and failed to fill my drink bladder with the pineapple juice I had so cleverly sent and so carefully thawed. I sure wish I had packed some snickers bars, or at least more chocolate. Some more cheese would be good too.
I leave with the Towers at around 10:00 – being somehow stuck in slow motion packing my bike makes me late starting out.
After Rohn, the trail starts flat for a short while with some sections of open overflow and then, a series of nasty hills. At the top of the first such hill, the Italian film crew is filming us pushing our bikes up the hill. At the top, they have left their snowmobiles in the middle of the trail. This sets the scene for the rest of the day. As soon as we are in front of the film crew, the trail becomes rideable. As long as we were behind them, the trail was unrideable.
Unfortunately for me, I have to stop to fix a flat and take a restroom break and so get passed by the crew. Meanwhile, Steve and Janice manage to stay ahead of them for quite a while. I eventually catch up to the film crew and hear that they had been given a thorough chewing out by another racer who honestly believed that they were sabotaging us to put the Italian riders in better position. It is certainly what it looks like. Why are they not harassing the Italian riders? Had the Italian riders wanted to be rid of them? Either way, they are stopped on the trail, in the middle of the trail, in a narrow part of the trail where it is impossible to pass them without wading through deep snow, and they are waiting for the racer to “cool down” before attempting to pass again.
I make a supreme effort at politeness and mention that it is really annoying to be pushing a bike when the only reason you can’t ride is that there is a film crew in front of you. Especially when the stars of the film get to be ahead of the crew, making time on the good trail. Especially when the stars of the film have been observed to dislike riding behind women and amateurs.
Being in front of the crew is wonderful. The trail that I had been hiking for hours is suddenly rideable. I am thrilled. I lose some time climbing the “glacier”, a treacherous ice flow that does not want to be climbed. At the top, I am greeted by a meadow covered in dirt! Fast, hard, wonderful frozen dirt. I put some air into my tires and started hammering. I am obsessed with staying ahead of the film crew. There is a fellow stopped on the side of the trail in a pop-up tent atop a sled and I don’t even stop to talk to him. I only want to stay ahead of the evil ones. The trail turns to snow again, I let air out of the tires and continued my punishing pace. I come to a stretch of ice, I speed across it, heedless to the danger of fast riding on ice. My saddle sores are getting really painful; I hammer on. On a later stretch of ice, A gust of wind catches me by surprise. I fall, hard; the wind is knocked out of me; I hear crunching. I lay there for a while cursing myself for not being more careful, for making it this far and now having to scratch. Gradually, I take stock. My hip hurts. My shoulder hurts. My back or back ribs hurt. I am lying on ice in a single layer of clothing in winter. I better get up. I extricate myself from the bike and stand up. At least I can stand. My hip is definitely not broken. I can rotate the shoulder. The back hurts but seems to be just a muscle problem. I am back in the race. The film crew goes by.
Unfortunately, the fall has destroyed my confidence and the brutal pace has worn me down. I shuffle like a senior citizen with bad hips and knees across the remaining ice. The next several miles feature wooded steep hills interspersed with lakes – windswept ice covered lakes. I alternate between the shuffle and a slow walk through the woods. I console myself that at least the burn will be flat. At the top of the next hill, I see the evil film crew. They are filming me pushing my bike up a particularily steep hill. They are at the top of the hill because both of the crew have whacked trees with their snowmobiles. A little further on, when I meet up with Eric, their guide, he estimates that the snowmobile crash will leave them at a standstill for two days at least. Hurrah!
The next lake, I see at least a half a dozen snowmobiles tearing around. I think, “Oh well, at least they are non-partisan”. There is an assortment of buffalo (bison) hunters around this area. There is a large herd of bison somewhere in the vicinity of the Farewell Burn. I don’t imagine that I will see much of them other than the profusion of frozen buffalo dung that threaten to launch the unwary biker off the bike.
As I shuffle across one of the many lakes, I see a dog coming out of the woods. Then, I see a second dog. Both dogs are wearing collars so they are clearly domestic. I assume that someone has taken their dogs buffalo hunting but then I see a couple who do not resemble hunters come out of the woods just behind the dogs. It turns out that they are the winter caretakers at a nearby lodge and they are out walking their dogs. It strikes me as amusing to encounter people walking their dogs out in the middle of nowhere.
On one of the following lakes, I run into Andy Stearns as I knock the accumulated pounds of ice from my wheels. He has been gaining a lot of ground on me as I shuffle across lakes. He passes me and I become inspired to ride my bike instead of shuffling. I find that I am going at more or less an even pace with Andy as I ride along. I am faster on ice, he is faster on level snow, I am faster on uphills, he on downhills. We talk as we pass back and forth and it softens the effect of the solitude.
I have to make a mile or so detour around some open water with a collapsed ice bridge. I end up crossing on a small tree that fallen across the water.
After what seems like an eternity, I reach the Farewell Burn. This site of a 1970’s forest fire has a lot of tree skeletons and a lot of 3 foot tall trees. Apparently things don’t grow real fast out here. After the first two or three really steep hills, I begin to question the flatness of the burn. I wait for Andy to catch up and he confirms that in fact, the burn is a series of brutal hills, followed by a relatively flat stretch. This completely demoralizes me. All day, I had been looking forward to the flat burn, the one I had seen in the video with the riders riding quickly across rolling flat trail, the one where the riders blew past the walkers and where the trail would magically levitate my bike along at breakneck speed. I drop back from Andy to whine to myself for a while. I give myself a bit of a pep talk. I try to convince myself that my problems are not that significant. My back hurts but not enough to be serious. I have experienced hand numbness before and it has always healed. I am not that tired. I have plenty of food and water. Maybe I should be enjoying myself instead of whining.
Darkness falls and I convince myself to ride as much as possible. As I catch up to Andy, I enjoy the huge pool of light generated by his musher’s headlamp.
After several hours of up and down in the dark, I come down a hill and see a frozen wolf that someone has propped up on the side of the trail. I have no idea why I didn’t think it was alive but for whatever reason, my brain simply tells me “there’s a frozen wolf.” It has been artfully placed so that the head of the wolf and the front of the body protrude into the trail. I had been hoping to see a wolf, I guess I should have specified alive.
After such a frustrating day, it is in a weak-willed state that I arrive at Buffalo Camp. I had intended to ride straight through to Nikolai, but when Andy and I are offered space on the spruce bough covered floor of John and Marty’s (Buffalo camp owners) tent for the night, I cannot refuse. I sleep very well, the smell of spruce lifting my spirits for the following day. Even the shooting pains in my arms are not enough to make me sleep poorly.
John wakes me just before sunrise. I have to get up so that I am out of the way of the cooks and the hunting guests. I get up and take Marty up on her offer of breakfast. I notice that I am not the only one adding butter to my oatmeal. Some of the family who are here as hunting guides apparently need lots of energy too. Marty gives me a chocolate muffin on my way out of the camp – fantastic generosity.
The buffalo camp marks the beginning of the last big hill in the Farewell Burn. I push my way to the top and begin riding. My saddle sores have become tremendously painful so I alternate a lot between riding and pushing through the sparse scenery of the burn. I try to lower my seat to reduce the rubbing on my sores but this only makes my knees hurt more. It also makes me realize that my seat post is bent. I have read stories of other racers who have broken seat posts from the extra weight of the seat post rack as well as the strain placed on the seatpost by a rider traveling the near constant snowmobile moguls. I resolve to be very gentle on my seatpost until the end of the race.
The last part of the Farewell burn is mostly rolling hills. The straight trail and the lack of obstacles mean that the moguls are kept to a minimum. Some years the Burn is completely devoid of snow cover but this year it is covered to a substantial depth. I see a huge number of body shaped indentations in the snow and I am glad to note that I am not the only one falling off my bike from time to time.
I see Andy every hour or so throughout the day. I talk to him each time he passes or I pass him. When I am riding, I ride much faster than he does. When I walk, he is the quick one. I am making slow progress but I am now sure that I can easily make it to the end. I am in tourist mode, enjoying the scenery, watching for wildlife, stopping for long periods to talk to the local family that are heading out to Buffalo camp on their snowmobile. They are not making a lot better progress than I am. They have taken 4 hours to go 24 miles.
The end of the burn comes and the trail turns to alternating wooded and open swamp. There is an open river that Andy has told me about with a bridge over it. I started the day with a full load of 2.5L of water and 2.5L of sport drink so I do not stop for river water. There are several smaller creeks before the bridge with sections of open water large enough to make crossing with a 65-pound bike interesting. The local family had warned me about this, they had apparently broken through since there was a large, snowmobile shaped hole in the partial ice bridge over the creek.
About 15 miles later, I come to the first permanent building I have seen since Rohn. According to my trail notes, it is some sort of fishing camp. It marks the start of some very good trail. I manage to ride for the next five miles or so until the telltale sound of a snowmobile convoy marks an approaching break from riding. This is most unfortunate since the cream I have been applying seems to be making my sores much more tolerable. Of course, the convoy turns out to be my good buddies from Italy and their guide Eric. It is hard to hate Eric, he is very good-natured; he seems genuinely regretful that he is sabotaging my riding and he did make me that Kraft dinner.
I only have to walk for about an hour until the trail hardens enough that I can ride again. This time it is really hardened and I make good time the rest of the way to Nikolai.
Nikolai is a small fishing town on a river and its’ most striking features are it’s Russian Orthodox church and cemetery. I roll in to town as light is fading and ask a local for directions to Nick and Olene Petruska’s house. A man on a 4-wheeler has me follow him the entire way. The streets are well packed and I can almost keep up. I am thrilled to be able to use (without pushing myself like yesterday) the fourth gear on my middle chainring – the lowest gear that I ever use commuting to work.
Outside of Nick’s house, I see a number of bikes parked. Cullen, Pierre, Steve and Janice, Eris and Maurizio and Ray Molina all have their bikes parked outside. As I get inside though, I see Andy Heading. Apparently, Ray lent Andy his bike in Rohn and walked back over the pass to Puntilla Lake. Andy is planning to ride Ray’s bike to McGrath, pick up his own bike, fix it and continue on.
It seems that everyone else is getting ready to leave any second. I momentarily debate leaving with them, I feel strong but my hands are very numb and my knees hurt quite a bit. I decide that I am going to have a bit of sleep and leave around midnight. The Italian film crew is heading to McGrath right away so the trail should be set up by the time I leave. Eric promises that this is the very last time that we will see him before McGrath.
After eating, I lay down on one of the beds and fall asleep. I fail to set any type of alarm and end up sleeping until just before sunrise. Apparently the other racers didn’t leave until well after midnight – I could have gone with them. Nick prepares some breakfast for Andy Stearns and I and then I hit the road. My boots are dry, I have had almost 12 hours of sleep, my knees don’t hurt too much, I have 5 Snickers Bars from the box that Nick has provided and I have a full stomach as I set out on what should be the last leg of the race. I make some mental calculations and decide that even if I have to walk the entire way, I can make it to McGrath by 4 in the morning. I have a sense of completion that I know that I will not lose and I am confident that this will be a good day.
The trail to McGrath is mostly flat with river, swamp and lake sections interspersed with wooded sections between them. There are only a couple of hills and only one of them is reputed to be any difficulty at all.
I ride out of town on the road past the church, the dump to the end of the road and back on the trail.
I head out on to the first river section and find it to be marginally rideable. Since I have two spare tubes and no fear of walking, I let enough air out of my tire that I can feel the rim hit the sidewalls on the slightest of bumps. This is way less air than is prudent and any earlier in the race I would have been worried about destroying the tire sidewalls or getting a pinch flat. My tire abuse works and I am able to ride the sugary trail. I take a picture of myself to document my good spirits.
I discover that taking a picture of oneself while riding a loaded bike on snow is harder than it sounds. I stop and take another less dynamic but hopefully better picture. [selfies weren’t really a thing in 2002, not that I invented them]
The wooded sections are infested with my nemesis the moguls and so to avoid further damaging my hands, I chose to walk the woods and ride the rivers, swamps and lakes whenever conditions, my butt and my knees will let me. I have ceased to care about my bent seatpost, it will need to be replaced anyway and I am close enough to the end to get there without it if it breaks.
The trail is well used by locals and they come by at a rate of about one an hour. I stop to talk to them if they are so inclined and they tell me of the other racers ahead of me and of Andy behind me. Around noon, I see Eric, the film crew guide going the other way up the trail. One of the snowmobiles’ engines died the night before and he is on his way with a trailer to tow it to McGrath. Since the trail has so much traffic, I don’t care too much about Eric passing me again and it does nothing to dampen my spirits.
I continue on, riding and pushing for the whole day. Just before sunset (or during the 2 hour sunset), I am alert enough to spot the shortcut that Nick was discussing with the other riders the night before. I take it and the trail leads me toward a light which I have heard is a short way from town. I finally get to the fabled section: three miles of plowed road leading into town. I stop to pump up my tires and the first car I have seen in seven days stops to ask me if I need help. I smile and cheerfully explain that I am just putting some air in my tires to be able to ride better on the plowed road. They tell me that it is 3 miles to town.
With air in my tires, I fly along the road. I could even use some of the gears on my big chainring if I hadn’t bent the teeth on a frozen buffalo dropping. I use the biggest gear on my middle ring and ride my way into town. I am going so fast that I almost crash as I stop for the finish line sign that leads into Peter’s driveway. I pull up to the house and find a place to park my bike. Pat Irwin is here and is congratulating me heavily. Pat also tries to fend off the Italian film crew who want to film me coming inside. I insist that I am all right and that I can probably stand to be filmed this one last time. They film me coming in and I accept the congratulations of the people inside. Eric has promised to have cold beer at the finish and he has come through. I polish off a beer and some mashed potatoes with butter. I also eat some vegetables and some salad – the salad is especially satisfying after a week of eating almost exclusively fat and sugar, certainly nothing with so few calories per mouthful. The night at Peter’s house ends up being the second coldest night of the trip with the temperature in the unheated wing of the house getting down to –20 C. This suits me fine as I don’t have to worry about swings between sweating and freezing.
The next morning, those of us who were not continuing to Nome are off to the airport to catch a flight back to Anchorage. The flight is cancelled which leaves us waiting until evening to catch a flight. We get back to Anchorage and I get a ride back to the B&B with Tony Allen, who’s Affordable Car Rentals are sponsors of the race. Tony’s family has perhaps the world’s greatest tradition of bringing beer to anyone that they pick up at the airport. Cullen Barker and I dismantle and box our bikes for the trip home in the B&B garage while Tony chats with us. Cullen packs his bike in about ten minutes, as he has to get back to the airport right away to catch his flight. Tony then drives Cullen back to the airport for his late night departure home.
The next morning I fly home.
Returning to reality is a bit of a chore. I have a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and yet I cannot help but think of the things I could have done differently. I entered the race as a challenge to finish and I have finished. My training has been very effective and I was in no way out of my league. My hands will take some time for the feeling to return and the bruise is already started fading by the Tuesday following the race.
If I were to do it again, I would have the advantage of having been on the course and knowing where I was going. There is no substitute for that kind of knowledge and I cannot help but think that I would have needed much less caution if I had known exactly what to expect on the various parts of the trail.
I would bring more chocolate bars, more cheese, more butter and less balance bars. Food that tastes good and doesn’t suck all the moisture out of your mouth is so much better than dry bars like Balance.
The bike performed well but definitely needed some changes to make it optimum. The handlebars need to be higher and bar-ends are a must. Obviously, the seatpost lacked strength. The seat and chain stays lack clearance for the ideal 3 inch tire. Single speed might be a good weight and mechanical complexity saving option. At the very least, a single front chainring would make sense.
Saving some pounds off the bike might be a nice thing to do. The rear rack could have been replaced with a really large seat bag. At the very least, the pound-and-a-half rack bag could definitely have been something lighter. The clothing that I had with me was intended to keep me warm in any of the conditions that I might encounter. The fact that I did not encounter temperatures below –35C did not mean that I brought the wrong clothes.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience. I saw parts of the Alaskan wilderness that few people get to see and met the personal challenge I had set out to meet.