“If you don’t come down now, the bus is leaving without you.” At 9.58, this was my introduction to Bill Merchant’s sense of humour. He was meeting us at 10.00 for his winter riding school. This is not British winter that we’re being schooled on, it’s Alaskan winter and we’re training for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. A 350 mile race across frozen lakes, rivers, and mountains with minimal support and maximum responsibility for the racers. The minimalist approach allows us to experience the total freedom of the wilderness. We can decide when and where to sleep, how much to carry, even where to go as long as we hit each of the checkpoints. All we need to do is be capable of looking after ourselves in temperatures that could reach -40°C, be ready to push for hundreds of miles (if that’s what the weather serves up), and be dumb enough to think the whole thing is a good idea in the first place.
I have a bit of background in endurance racing in the UK with solo 6, 8, 10, 12, and 24 hour races under my belt. Even so, this was an intimidating goal to aim for. Many seasoned endurance racers have come here and failed, beaten by the elements or by their own heads. So, I decided that I should test myself and my gear against the real conditions before I line up at the start. With Bill and Kathi (who rode the 1,100 mile version of the race this year) as teachers, I’d be bound to learn many valuable lessons.
The learning began from the second I got into Bill’s van. He has gathered so many stories from personal experience and from other racers out here that he has no need to sit down and tell you what to do. The stories come out and entertain, informing along the way and giving substance to the techniques. Different racers do things different ways and understanding their motivations can help you to figure what will work for you. For example, some people like to load their bike up evenly, some like it front-heavy. My mountain bike background made me favour the latter. For me, weight over the front means control and body-shifting can deal with rear wheel traction. We could talk about every little detail of set-up and test our decisions in the real world and against the experience of Bill and Kathi.
In this particular bit of the real world, getting the hang of riding on snow is fundamental. To imagine what it’s like, start off by assuming it’s a slippery layer of mud on top of a somewhat firm surface. That’s the good rideable snow. The deep stuff is like the deepest sloppiest mud you’ve ever seen (but cleaner). Riding a fat bike (with 4in wide, low pressure tyres) in snow makes the experience a lot of fun, though. If conditions are favourable, you can go pretty well. The massive tyres give you more control than you would otherwise have, allowing you to float on top, rather than sink into the snow. On good trails with packed-down snow from snowmobiles or skiers, you can make a whopping 10 km/h.
If the packed trail is singletrack wide, then things get interesting – a misplaced wheel will result in the front wheel washing out in the soft snow at the edges and a sudden stop. If the trail is steep down, you’re into squirming along it with a front brake that aches to be locked up at the slightest provocation. Climbing is also interesting on “marginal” snow that’s only just firm enough to ride on. The normal reaction to losing rear wheel traction may be to push your weight back, but in marginal snow losing traction can happen due to breaking through the surface layer, requiring less weight on the back to get more grip. Just playing in the snow was teaching me a lot about how to ride in these conditions. Fortunately, once you get used to snow’s quirks, the bike handling skills from UK mud translate fairly easily.
The race, though, is about more than just riding. The first prerequisite to having a good race is survival. With no solid ground to bang pegs into and weight being a major issue, open bivvies are the order of the day. The ferocious cold means that as soon as you stop riding, it’s time to get organised. This is where Bill and Kathi’s million little tips come in. Keep your lighter somewhere warm. Set your stove up next to your sleeping bag so you can make hot water bottles before sleep and breakfast after. Roll up the tops of your boots so they don’t get filled with snow. Sleep with your clothes on and modern wicking fabrics will actually transfer the moisture into ice on the outside of your bag during the night, drying you without external heat. The list goes on and on.
A typical day started by waking up in my bag and wondering where I was. When it’s -25°C outside, that’s some tribute to the warmth of a serious sleeping bag. Next, I find my head-torch stashed somewhere in the sleeping bag and then blink painfully as it reflects off the snow. Dehydration is a constant danger so the first real work is to melt snow for water. Compressed gas stoves don’t work in these conditions, so it’s the white gas routine of priming then lighting the stove whist being careful not to touch metal with bare hands. A little water in the pan before the snow allows it to melt properly (so never drink every last drop!). There is a spinach-like aspect to melting snow as large volumes instantly reduce to a little dribble in bottom of your pan. For me, as much as possible of the procedure must be done wearing mitts because my hands get cold very easily. Two minutes with warm hands is better than one minute without and then having to coax life back into them. For the same reason, if it’s really cold out then now’s the time to start chemical handwarmers so that they’re burning for the first part of the ride.
With freshly brewed water in hand, I could go over to the big tent Bill and Kathi had set up for us where a wood stove kept us warm enough to chat before the day’s ride. Every day would bring differing conditions with temperature swings of over 25° (that’s all the way up to around freezing). Both ends of the spectrum were challenging. When really cold, the moisture in my breath would freeze on the way out of my nostrils, an extended ride would result in a serious frosty beard, my camera would stop working, hot drinks would cool amazingly fast, greased bike parts would suddenly have lots of resistance. When conditions warm up, though, they get wet. The main advantage of the cold is that everything freezes and moisture can be shaken off as ice, keeping things dry and clean. Wet can be miserable and hard to escape from. Whatever the weather, though, we’d go off and “ride”.
In marginal or just unrideable snow, there would be a lot of pushing or exhausting jumps on and off the bike. When it was really cold or the snow machine trails were packed down then we would whizz along with time to take in our surroundings. Sometimes we’d be on snow-machine highways many metres wide and disappearing straight into the horizon where they met distant mountains. The light in Alaska is absolutely amazing – a piercing blue that you can lose yourself in as you ponder miles and miles of barren snow.
During each ride, we would practice setting up a bivvy. Getting the process as quick as possible now would make it far easier when it came after 20+ hours of continuous riding during the race. Each time we’d get better at making sure everything necessary was in reach of the sleeping bag and the minimum amount of time was spent losing heat between riding and getting wrapped up. With some off-trail snow pounded down to be firm (off-trail is important – Bill once collided with an ill-placed bivvy, snapping his forks and having to finish the race on foot), a sleeping pad and bag laid down and the stove set up we would melt more snow and have hot food. Practice time over, there would be more riding before returning to the main camp in darkness.
Riding in the dark is often a good time to travel the snowy trails. At this time of year there are only six hours of daylight anyway, but the major advantage is the lower temperature. Low temperature means firm snow and much faster riding. Combine that with the advantage of lights picking out all the ruts and surfaces of the trail and night-riding out here is an important skill. If you can pick out the track of a single ski from a snow machine this can provide an excellent low-resistance surface to speed along.
Each day would end back in the big, warmed tent with more stories and chat. Dinner was always laden with butter to up the calorie count. Every day during the race we could be expecting to burn in excess of 6,000 calories so finding the right ways to get that into yourself is an important skill. Fortunately, this wasn’t the race yet so out would come the rum, whiskey, port, cognac, and whatever else we could get our hands on. Laughing out the day we exchanged tales of adventure, biking, and biking adventure until finally retiring back to our bivvies.
The Iditarod trail is no walk in the park, but having spent a few days living and riding out there it doesn’t seem like a mercilessly hostile environment that should send you scurrying back to civilisation. It is a place of beauty that demands respect but can be worked with to have a enjoyable time. And hopefully, come March, 49 other racers and myself will have a good experience out there…