I can’t say that riding my fatbike 100 miles through Alaska’s frozen wilderness is something I had always dreamed of doing. I mean, until a couple of years ago I didn’t even know that was something you could. do. The larger question, I suppose, is why the idea of doing it crept into my psyche and took up permanent residence. It’s cold in Alaska – the temperatures in February can get down into the double-digit negatives. The riding conditions can vary wildly, from solid ice to slushy snow melt to fluffy powder. The gear is expensive and cumbersome – one studded tire for a fat bike costs over $200! So, what’s the deal? Is extreme winter fat biking fun or is it folly?
The process of deciding to sign up for the Susitna 100 was not unlike deciding to take on the Appalachian Trail or the Tour Divide. At first the idea seems preposterous, not something any sane person with a career and family would do. “Stuff like that is for the crazies.” But then, slowly, surprisingly, strangely, the idea turns from being preposterous to a possibility. What would it be like to challenge my body and mind in that way … to go as far as I can and then go a little farther? What would it be like to experience the highs and lows of human emotion in such a dramatic environment? What would it be like to encounter others and share the joys and fears of the journey? How does undertaking something like this change a person? How would it change me?
There is something “Shackelton-esque” about these adventures, I think. Fundamentally, they are opportunities to explore. I know that riding across a well-mapped portion of the tundra is not the same as attempting to map the way across Antarctica. Yet, it is still exploration – but more of the internal sort. Physical exploration seems to facilitate exploration of the self. The inner and outer journeys compliment and enhance one another. The farther I push myself down the trail, the farther I go internally and discover hidden resources I never imagined. True, there are many self-realized individuals who don’t camp in -20 degree weather, but I guess some of us need to experience the extremes to learn our life lessons.
Philosophical justifications aside, this is really supposed to be a gear post. Some fellow bikepackers asked me to describe the unique equipment that winter fatbiking involves. Let’s get to it.
I expect that most bikepackers would agree that their choice of gear-laden, wilderness riding over say, jogging around the neighborhood, is more than an alternative way of getting fit. Bikepacking is really a hobby. It’s an investment – kind of like brewing beer or building a DIY Heath Kit. Believe it or not, I can find just about as much joy puzzling out the way to load a bike properly as I can riding down the trail!
On the bike.
Tires and Rims. The debate about rim and tire width is passionate. I’ve read numerous apologies on the benefits of one particular size combination or another. For example, some say that a 4” tire on a 100mm rim is just right, while a 5” tire on that same rim can bog things down a bit in particular snow conditions. Others say that despite the added weight of that extra inch, the fattest combo is always best. I get the impression that the actual ride differences end up being subtle. I already have “hundies” (100mm rims) on my Surly Ice Cream Truck, so I’m going with 5” tires to compliment them. I honestly don’t know if fatter is better – but it’s definitely cooler. The winter-specific change I did make was to swap out my Surly Bud and Lou tires for studded 45Nrth Dillinger 5’s. Studs don’t really do much for you unless you run into icy conditions, but I might as well be prepared. A good portion of the Susitna 100 route is along the frozen Susitna river. Also, I’ve decided to run these things with tubes. I figure a tubeless set up would be near impossible to fix in freezing weather.
Pogies. These genius inventions are essentially permanent gloves, not only for your hands, but also for your handlebar grips, shifters, and brake levers. They go by lots of different names depending on the brand. Continuing with the 45Nrth theme, I bought a couple “Cobrafists,” and, man, they are excellent. I’ve ridden in single digit temps a few times this winter and my bare hands were toasty warm inside. You can even stash a few candy bars in the pogies to defrost them before eating. One thing to note, I did run into an install issue. I’m using a Jones Loop H-Bar instead of a regular straight handlebar and it took some trial and error to size the grips in order to fit the pogies where they needed to be.
Brakes. Yeah, I know DOT 5 fluid is not supposed to freeze, unlike mineral oil, but I did swap out my Sram hydraulic brakes for some trusty, mechanical BB7s. A friend at the bike shop (who notoriously hates BB7s!) had a spare set in his junk box so I took him up on his generous offer to donate them to the cause. I had some trouble with my Sram hydros anyway, and like my rationale for choosing to go with tubes in my tires, I figure having equipment I can maintenance in the field is wise. Plus, I’ve ridden with BB7s on my Salsa Fargo for lots of miles and have had great results.
Sleep System. In the off-chance that riders will have to bivouac out in the cold, three pieces of required gear for the Susitna 100 have to do with the sleep system. Each rider must have a sleeping bag rated to at least -20 degrees, a closed-cell foam pad (no inflatables), and a bivy sack or tent. My system consists of a -40 rated Marmot Cwm, a Ridgerest, and an OR Helium Bivy. The challenge is to organize them in such a way that set-up and take-down are as efficient as possible, as unpack/pack time can get cold fast. After a few iterations, I’m pretty pleased with the system I’m going to use. I put my sleeping bag, pad, and bivy sack together in a ready-to-use configuration (bag and pad inside of bivy), rolled it all up, cinched it tight with a velcro strap, and slid it all into a 55-liter dry bag. It is not the most compact solution, but it fits nicely on my rear rack strapped down with Surly Junk Straps. If I need to camp I should be able to unstrap, unroll, and crawl inside in just a couple of minutes.
Water. There are a couple of solutions out there for carrying water in below freezing conditions. The growing trend is to use a bladder and hose as one would while mountain biking in more temperate weather, however, they now make winter-specific versions that include a insulated hose to prevent freezing. I hear mixed reviews. The key to success, as with most of this equipment, is experimentation. Does one carry the bladder as a backpack under an outer layer? Does the hose snake up through the outer layer and emerge at the collar? Ask different riders and you’ll get different answers. In general, I prefer to use water bottles whenever possible. Fewer parts to worry about, and they’re carried on the bike rather than the body. I have Salsa Anything Cages mounted on both sides of my fork. Each will hold an OR Water Bottle Parka containing a 32-ounce Nalgene. I can easily slide a bottle out for a drink, but I do have to stop riding first – one drawback to this system. Also, a Water Bottle Parka containing a Nalgene is pretty easy to throw into a sleeping bag in order to keep it from freezing during an overnight bivouac. Regarding purification, filtering obviously won’t work in below freezing conditions, so melting and boiling snow is how it’s done. To compliment my trusty MSR WhisperLite stove I have a stainless 2-quart MSR pot – the same one I used on the Appalachian Trail.
On the body.
Boots. Winter cycling boots have come a long way in recent years. The pioneers of this sport used flat pedals and Sorels, and some riders still do. The new method is to wear specialty boots with a clipless system. Again, the company that dominates the market is 45Nrth. A pair of Wolfgars are expensive but pretty much bomb proof. They’re rated down to -25 and have a removable liner for faster drying. I’ve done a few long rides in mine and have been pleased. Not only are they comfortable for cycling, but they’re also sturdy for hike-a-bikes through powder or over ice. You can even put studs into the Vibram soles for extra traction.
Clothing. This category has probably been the trickiest to dial in. As with other outdoor high-energy activities, the guiding principle is to regulate body heat by adding or subtracting layers. You don’t want to wear too much because sweat can freeze, which can lead to hypothermia, and you don’t want to wear too little because, well, that can lead to hypothermia too. It’s a balancing act. Here’s what I came up with. The base layer for my torso will be a close fitting, long sleeve, wool shirt. Next I’ll wear a mid-weight wool jersey. A fleece pullover will go on top of that, and a water/wind resistant soft-shell will serve as an outer layer. The fleece layer is the one most likely to come on and off. On my legs I’ll wear padded bike shorts underneath cold-weather bike tights. And I have a soft-shell outer layer for my legs as well. Socks are wool. For headgear, I have a wool hat that I can fit under a 45Nrth Lung Cookie. I will also pack my puffy down coat and some heavy duty gloves. I’ve heard that cycling with a down coat is generally a bad idea because the excess sweat can sneak up on you, but it’s a necessity for extended stops. Last but not least, I’ll be wearing a beard to give ice crystals a place to form – ‘cause that’s what all rugged Alaskans do, right?
In the belly.
Food.Getting it right in this department is one of those experience things. I have some, but could always use more. These days I tend to literally count the calories I’m packing and make choices based on numbers rather than how I think I’ll be feeling. I may not think I can, or would want to down four Pop Tarts, four candy bars, a bag of chips, and a box of Velveeta Shells and Cheese in a day, but I know that doing so will give me roughly 3000, easily digestible calories. I’ll likely burn more than that in a day, but it’s difficult to equalize your intake-to-burn ratio. There is only so much your stomach can handle while maintaining high output on the bike. For a century ride such as this, with no overnight likely, I will probably eat between 2000 and 2500 calories while riding. Were I to spend the night I would fire up the stove and cook my Shells and Cheese for a 1000 calorie recharge while sleeping. The required gear list for the Susitna 100 specifies that a rider must have at least 3000 calories in reserve (an extra day’s worth of food) before they are cleared through the final checkpoint (mile 77). So, I’m planning on taking around 6000 with me but only consuming about half of that. If someone else can come up with a more efficient way of doing this please let me know! [If you want to know more of my thoughts on food, check out this post.]
I’ll close with a couple of great quotes. The first is from fellow bikepacker, Jill Homer, who has been on some incredible winter adventures, including the 1000-mile Iditarod Trial Invitational. She wrote a book, Into the North Wind, chronicling that journey.
While shopping at an outdoor retailer in Anchorage, I came across a brochure for a hundred-mile bike race on the Iditarod Trail, the Susitna 100. I had no experience with endurance sports and no idea that riding bikes on snow was even a thing, but I was captivated. I signed up for the event, trained through my first dark winter in Alaska, and finished the grueling slog in twenty-five hours — soaking wet, dehydrated, depleted, and exhausted. Everything about the experience should have been a deterrent. Winter endurance cycling is one of those activities that looks fun from a distance, but in practice, actually it is not — similar to heavy drinking. And yet, similar to heavy drinking it continues to draw people back, almost against their will. Is winter cycling an addiction? I’m inclined to say no, and yet I can’t deny that I was hooked.
And the second is a recruitment notice to become a crew member on the Endurance, Earnest Shackelton’s ship.
Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.
I’m proud to join the ranks of the “crazies.” We’ll see if that attitude holds when February 17 comes around.