12 Days of Christmas: Day 3 – Snow Mental

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No, we haven’t lost the plot, that title is right. On Boxing Day 2016 the valley where we’re based was hit by devastating floods. This weekend will be 6 months since they hit, and businesses and families up and down the valley are still recovering. As part of the drive to boost the recovery of the area, and as a general spirit raiser, this weekend sees Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd celebrate their ‘Alternative Christmas’. So, in support of all those whose Christmas was washed away, we’re bringing you our 12 Days of Christmas Big Reads again.

We’re bringing you some inspiring and beautiful features from our archives. For those of you that are back at work today, we hope this softens the blow. For those of you who are still at home surrounded by relatives, we hope this softens the blow. From issue 75: Just how tough do you have to be to cross a thousand miles of wilderness with, but not necessarily riding, your bike? John ‘Shaggy’ Ross gives us an insight into the mind of the ultra racer.

Adventuring – Snow Mental

Words by John Ross, pictures by John and Simon Toplak

Singletrack Magazine Snow Shaggy

The skier approached through the snow kicked up by the gale that engulfed the frozen lake. His progress looked effortless as he slid towards us. Elias and I trudged on following the snowmobile tracks that headed into the wall of white in front of us. To say our progress was laboured, is an understatement. We were both physically fine, despite more than a day on the move, but deep snow never makes for easy progress with a bike.

Soon the skier caught us up, towering over us as he floated on the surface of the snow and we sat sunk to our waists. We exchanged pleasantries and he cut to the chase:
“It’s really not safe out here, you should go back and use the road.”
“We can’t, we’re in a race” replied Elias.
“It’s really not a good idea…”
“It’s in the rules, we can’t use it” I replied. “And we’ve been through worse.”
You could tell he wasn’t convinced. He wanted to ask ‘why do you think this is a good idea?’ He would have had a point.

Stockholm, Alaska
Mountain bike racing in winter is not a good idea. It’s hard. You get cold. A lot of the time it is really unpleasant. But I love it. After a decade of dreaming and a solid year of preparation, in 2009 I completed the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska. At the time I thought this would be a once-in-a-lifetime event for me, but despite the hardship and difficulties, something had captured my imagination and I knew that I would be back. Can a bike race give you Stockholm syndrome?

Singletrack Magazine Snow Shaggy

The snow bug
When I first got interested in mountain biking in the early ‘90s, the sport was very different. People routinely raced downhill, cross-country and did trials all on the same weekend, and on the same bike. Freeride didn’t really exist, and certainly hadn’t been copyrighted. Mountain bike hotspots would have been considered places like Llanwrtyd Wells rather than Whistler – the sport was simply too young to support the resorts we have today.

The temperature went down to below -40° Celsius (and in fact, Fahrenheit – forty below is where the two scales converge)

Magazines of the time, of course, reflected this. Most of the trips were much more like an expedition to some remote corner of the world – Tibet, Africa, the Australian outback… As an impressionable youth, I marvelled at these features and was shocked by the places you could get on a bicycle. My mind went into overdrive when I first heard about Iditabike. I think the first mention I saw was a tiny snippet in the racing section of MBUK, ‘Zoom’. After pages of coverage of the traditional formats it was almost an ‘and finally..’ article. This was a bike race along a frozen dogsled trail. Riders covered hundreds of miles through the snow of an Alaskan winter. It seemed crazier than all the expeditions, and yet there was the added competitive element. People could really do stuff like that? It seemed so.

Without the internet, it took years for me to glean information about the race. The more I heard, the more exciting it sounded. The temperature went down to below -40° Celsius (and in fact, Fahrenheit – forty below is where the two scales converge). People got attacked by moose. They built crazy wheels with three rims side by side in an attempt to float on the snow, yet sometimes they would still have to push their bikes for hours on end. They ate Pop-Tarts and anchovies, because they are light and have a lot of calories. They had great beards. The event’s motto was “cowards won’t show and the weak will die”. It all sounded hellishly tough, but the concept and the photos were amazing.

Then there was John Stamstad. He’s a legend of Iditabike. The interviews were telling, the level of commitment he showed was quite incredible and only matched by his ability to push himself onwards. His training was famously tough and unconventional: running up tower block stairwells and turbo training facing a brick wall for hours on end. It sounded horrible, but it would work. He would ride through the night and push himself to delirium. But then he would win. In all, he collected eight consecutive titles. Later he would ‘invent’ 24-hour solo racing and be the first person to time-trial the length of America off road, initiating the Divide racing that goes on today. While I’m sure there are plenty of equally dedicated athletes out there, his focus on such tough events, and ones with little chance of providing fame and fortune seemed even more incredible. The idea got under my skin and it was only a matter of time before I would make the trip.

Singletrack Magazine Snow Shaggy

The original Iditabike and Iditasport races are now long defunct but the Iditarod Trail Invitational, or ITI, has taken up the mantle of bike racing on the famous dog sled trail. The races have grown in length and experienced racers now have the option to race the full 1,000 miles of the route to the town of Nome, on the edge of the Bering Sea. There is no prize money, just a free entry for the following year if you win. While the ITI remains the blue ribbon of winter racing, many other events have sprung up around the world. Most are in the USA, however more are appearing elsewhere. This year events were organised in Finnish Lapland (where I found myself in the aforementioned blizzard) and along the length of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

One popular event, the Arrowhead Ultra, a 135-mile event in Northern Minnesota has typical temperatures which drop below -40°. The organisers claim these are the coldest temperatures of any bike race. While others may argue with the accuracy of this, it highlights a major difference in attitude to traditional solo sports. The normal emphasis on records leads competitors to look for perfect conditions and locations. Track bike racers look for venues at high altitudes to give them the edge on the hour record. Road runners look for the flat courses and good weather to aid them in their attempt to improve on their PB. But winter races, like other ‘ultra’ events, have moved in the opposite direction. They have grown increasingly hard as people push to discover the worst conditions and hardest course they can endure. Of course, some still push for the win, or records, but for most the goal is seeing what you can achieve against nature and yourself, rather than just a need to compete against others or indeed the clock.

One foot after the other
A prime example of the challenges faced by winter ultra racers is deep snow. Modern fat bikes are capable of riding over plenty of terrain that would halt a normal mountain bike, but there comes a stage when even they get out of their depth. Then you have to get off and push. Due to its larger tyre footprint and lighter weight, the bike floats higher in the snow than you do. The deeper you get, the more the snow whips up and bites at any exposed skin. If the snow starts approaching waist height you have to start ‘post-holing’. Essentially you take a step forward, which is no easy task in itself, then push or throw your bike as far forward as you can. You take a few steps to catch up with the bike and then repeat the process.

People have spent days post-holing, just to cover a few miles. Afterwards it makes pushing through a muddy field seem quite tame.

It sounds simple enough, but every movement is laboured, the snow pulls on your legs and pivoting with a heavy bike puts lots of strain on your back and shoulders. Sometimes it is easier to climb up over the bike, and off the other side, than to fight through a couple of laborious steps. Managing three repetitions before needing a rest would be good progress. If there is a group together you can take turns at the front, making it easier for those following, but even then progress is painfully slow. I remember less than 200m taking me one exhausting hour. In the past people have spent days post-holing, just to cover a few miles. Afterwards it makes pushing through a muddy field seem quite tame.

At the contrasting end of the experience are the cold, clear days. It seems logical to assume that as the mercury drops, it makes everything tougher. While this can be true it isn’t always the case. Hopefully, if you have sorted your clothing out correctly, staying warm should be quite manageable. As long as you keep moving your body puts out a lot of heat, so you have to try to retain that. The positive side of the low temperatures is that they freeze the settled snow into a crust of lumpy ice. This makes for fast riding. Consequently it is often quicker to move late at night rather than during the day, when the sun makes the trail increasingly slushy. Riding alone through the night, with only a small patch of light from your head torch keeping you company between the silhouettes of massive mountains, is a sure-fire way to make you feel small.

Just sometimes, when the trail gods are looking down on you, the low temperature coincides with a blue sky. If this happens the riding is a joy. The trail, which was once so brutal, mellows and allows you to enjoy the now serene surroundings. Being in the wilderness at any time can be amazing but it seems even more special to be riding your bike through such a hostile area and seemingly, for the time being at least, getting the better of it.

Singletrack Magazine Snow Shaggy

The mental and physical attributes required to finish long rides in any season are pretty similar, it just seems the importance shifts as the weather gets more hospitable. Surviving in the summer is easier; for example the consequences of inadequate or inappropriate clothing become less severe. You can carry less equipment and consequently can move faster and cover greater distances. Certainly for me, this makes summer racing less mentally exhausting and shifts more emphasis towards your physical fitness.

Last year I rode in the seminal Colorado Trail Race – 500 miles and 65,000ft of climbing through the Rocky Mountains. It certainly is an extreme challenge, but it was almost too pleasant. My bike was light, so even the hike-a-bike wasn’t that hard. And the real thing is that, with hundreds of miles of fun singletrack, my spirits were high the whole time. It took a bout of sickness to make me feel like I was really pushing myself through highs and lows. It was a really big mountain bike ride rather than a winter race, which feels like a Boys’ Own adventure in comparison.

A screw loose?
To the average person on the street, the idea of riding 100 miles or more sounds pretty crazy. Move that ride to winter environs and the idea does not even compute. To hardened cyclists, the distances may seem slightly more achievable. While of course a certain level of fitness is required, far more important is the mindset.

In situations where it gets tough, all too often, it would be easy to quit. Many people do. I’m no psychologist but it is clear that different racers handle the extreme highs and lows of racing in different ways. Some racers’ moods fluctuate with the conditions – one moment they talk about quitting, next they want to blast through a checkpoint without stopping and race on in the night. Others stay relatively passive the whole time. They don’t show much emotion, and appear lost in their own thoughts – quiet and almost meditative. The rarest group are those I call the Excitable Puppies, the racers who are overly excitable about everything, and often very chatty, no matter how bad the conditions get. The ‘Puppies’ can be good to have around. Their excitement can be infectious, which can help to lift your spirits through the tough times. Conversely they can also make you feel worse, as they always seem to be having an easier time than you.

Singletrack Magazine Snow Shaggy

While the temperaments differ the common thread in all groups is a will to push on through whatever Mother Nature, or the event, throw at you. This shared thread seems to bind winter racers together. They understand the struggles and the joys, but mostly they understand the need to make it to the finish. What stands out in the mentality of the quickest racers is their efficiency. Every move and every thought seems considered and methodical. It is not the crazy people who cope well in these conditions. Even when deeply fatigued, the thought processes of the best seem logical. While I’m sure this avoids accidents, what is most noticeable is their disciplined behaviour. At checkpoints they have a routine and move in a calm, measured manner avoiding mistakes. It is impressive to watch, especially when compared to the mild panic of some other racers.

While summer ultra-racers have a similar mindset, winter racers have the added complication of lots of specialist skills and equipment required to take part in events in such extreme conditions. This can become an obsession – and is especially challenging if you live somewhere relatively temperate where you will have few chances for testing. Purchasing warm enough clothing is not too difficult, but finding out if it is optimised for the conditions you are going to face is enough to lead you to distraction. Then scenarios run through your head: How do I get water to drink? If this fails, what do I do? Is my navigation good enough? What do I do if I fall into open water? When it comes down to it, you practise the best you can and ask a lot of questions. Then you hope for the best and try to stop thinking about disastrous situations. Of course, in the act of taking part in these events you learn and refine your technique, tactics and equipment. While that helps with the basics for next time, it also pushes the desire to refine everything further. The urge is always there to do it better, go faster or race something harder.

How far next?
Colorado wheel builder and Iditarod addict, Mike Curiak holds the record for completing the 1,000-mile route to Nome in just over 15 days but in 2010 he raised the bar when he completed an unprecedented trip.

In 21 days he rode his Moots snow bike, laden with around 140lb of kit, the full thousand miles of the Iditarod trail completely unsupported. Traditionally people use cabins to shelter in and organise food drops along the trail. Curiak took a small tent and carried all his food. During the trip over the Alaska Range and through the interior to the Bering Sea pack ice, he never entered a building and never supplemented the food and equipment he started with. It was really quite an incredible ride and makes you wonder what else is possible.

Singletrack Magazine Snow Shaggy

Thankfully, we may not have to wait long to find out. Later this year Curiak and renowned adventurer Roman Dial are setting out on an unsupported 40 day trip, riding and packrafting along the Northwest Passage (essentially around the top of Canada). That’s 40 days in the Arctic, carrying boats and everything they will need to survive. Amazing. I can’t wait to see how it goes and dream about what I can do next.

If I’m suffering through a dank British ride, fighting against shivering with the rain dripping off my nose, I often think about winter racing. Sometimes I think about the times I struggled to move my bike forwards through the dark. More often I think about what came next: being alone in a snow-covered expanse on a crystal clear day. A perfect view of the sunlight sparkling off mountains framed by the, seemingly endless, forest either side. It makes me smile and remember what is possible. I’ll be back again one day and it will be tougher than this. So I’d better keep going, then…

John would like to thank:

  • Alpkit
  • On-One bikes
  • Endura clothing
  • Exposure lights
  • Morvélo
  • Mule Bar
  • Scott Cornish physiotherapy
  • U.S.E.
  • And most of all, his wife Amelia, for putting up with all this nonsense.

Features like this are available in every issue of our magazine, and subscribers can access the entire digital archive whenever they like. If you’d like access to more of this kind of thing, head over to our subscriptions page, where digital-only subscriptions start at just £1.49.

Hannah Dobson

Hannah came to Singletrack having decided there must be more to life than meetings. Having worked in policy and project management roles at the Scottish Parliament and in local government, Hannah had organisational skills that SIngletrack needed. She also likes bikes, and likes to write.

Hannah likes all bikes, but especially unusual ones. If it’s a bit odd, or a bit niche, or made of metal, she’s probably going to get excited. If it gets her down some steep stuff, all the better. She’ll give most things a go once, she tries not to say no to anything on a bike, unless she really thinks it’s going to hurt. She’s pretty good with steri-strips.

More than bikes, Hannah likes what bikes do. She thinks that they link people and places; that cycling creates a connection between us and our environment; bikes create communities; deliver freedom; bring joy; and improve fitness. They're environmentally friendly and create friendly environments.

Hannah tries to write about all these things in the hope that others might discover the joy of bikes too.

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