Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Camp notes.

Newbies to the ITI might be surprised to learn that it is possible to complete the entire Knik to McGrath route without sleeping outside.  There are private homes, BLM cabins, and commercial lodges spaced intermittently along the route, such that if your pace is good and your luck holds, you'd never need to deploy your bivy gear at all.

Think about that for a moment and you might start to wonder why you'd carry the extra ~7+ pounds of gear if you didn't have to.

In a word, safety is why you carry it.  There is never any guarantee that the conditions will be good enough to get from one lodge to the next cabin, or the next, in any reasonable amount of time.  The trail isn't groomed and weather is unpredictable: Plan to sleep in a lodge, carry no bivy gear, then a ground blizzard blows the trail in or a snowstorm buries it, and your pace and plans just went out the window.  What then?  Cuddle up in spruce boughs?  It has happened and it will continue to happen to those that are willing to gamble with their personal safety.  Hopefully the end result will be nothing more than entertaining stories shared by those who've been humbled.  I have a few of my own -- for another time...

Out of respect for the place and desire for their own safety, most people carry a puffy jacket to wear when they stop moving, and a sleeping bag and pad so that they can get some meaningful rest.  How big of a jacket, pad and bag are up to you to determine, based on how long you think you'll need to sleep, what the temps are, and what kind of sleeper you are.  Volumes have been written (and will continue to be regurgitated) on the subject of sleeping comfort -- handily distilled down to inflatable pad vs. closed cell foam pad, and down vs. synthetic insulation in your jacket and bag.  If you arrive at the ITI start you should be able to intelligently discuss at least some of these theories and explain why you went the route you did.  Most importantly, you should have at least a few nights of experience camping in the gear you plan to take.  

Jeny has been busy this month, and especially on the weekends, getting out and riding alpine snow all day on Saturday, camping that night with the gear she's carrying, then waking Sunday, cooking a meal and melting snow to refill her bottles, then closing the loop back to the start.  She understands that there is no better way to learn than to make mistakes, and the more mistakes she makes now, the fewer she'll make in the ITI when the stakes are higher.

The lodges and cabins along the way are spartan in luxury but often seem heaven-sent despite that, largely because when your life is distilled down to what can be dragged in a sled or fit onto a bike rack, the simplest things like food and heat are most appreciated.  Stumble exhausted out of a -30* night into a warm building and that alone is enough: anything beyond that -- like a $5 can of Coke or a $20 cheeseburger -- is just gravy.  Because of this allure, and because there are ~70 people participating in the ITI, the lodges are *busy*.  Think a little more about this and you'll realize that it is very difficult to get meaningful rest inside any of these buildings because people are constantly coming and going, packing and repacking, excitedly talking to friends when they arrive, rummaging through food and trash bags, burping, farting, clomping around in boots, and just generally doing anything other than being quiet.  The person that can sleep regardless of external stimuli will do well here.  If you need anything resembling uninterrupted quiet to sleep, you should plan to sleep out.

Jeny is planning to sleep out.

Just because you ditch the chaos of indoors does not guarantee that all is well.  There are a handful of things that you need to do, and to understand, in order to ensure solid rest.

First, the event is only a ~week long.  Getting 8 hours of sleep a night isn't needed.  I *like* seeing some of these landscapes (both inside and outside of my head) through the filter of darkness tinted with a teeny bit of sleep deprivation.  The experiences are much richer, the stories more compelling.

Maybe that's just me?  Quantity aside, when I do settle in I want the sleep to be short but of quality.  I shoot for at least an hour, and never (intentionally) more than 4.  90 minutes seems to be the magic number for me -- less than that and I'm still groggy and grumpy.  More than that and, after the initial moment or two of rumminess wears off, I feel rejuvenated and ready to move.

It goes without saying that if you're only going to sleep for 90 minutes, you don't want to waste another 90 setting up and breaking down camp.  You want to be fast, efficient -- not just so that you can maintain your forward mojo, but also because breaking camp in the cold is *cold*: You haven't been moving to generate any heat, and until you pack up and move you aren't going to.  Learn to be quick by thinking proactively about how and where to pack your gear.  If you have to think about where something is your toes just went numb.  If you unzip a zipper or peel back some velcro and find that what you sought is indeed somewhere else, your fingers are now numb too.  You'll be surprised at the speed with which your extremities begin to chill straight out of the bag in the morning.  

Over the last ~month Jeny has refined her camp setup routine to where she needs only to remove the bag from her rear rack and she has her entire "camp" within: Bag, pad, puffy, cookpot, food, and stove.  Fuel is kept separate for many reasons, but is handy in a bottle cage on the bike so that once she's setup and in her bag, she can reach from the comfort of her bag to grab that bottle and start melting snow.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

First, you need to pick a good spot, and "good" is both different and relative every time out.  My goal is always to find shelter first and foremost.  We don't carry a tent, mid, or tarp on the ITI because the weight, bulk, and time spent setting up and tearing down aren't offset by the meager protection they offer.  It's no warmer inside of a tent than out, but it can be quite a bit wetter due to condensation from exhalations.  I'll never use a bivy sack in winter again after experimenting and learning how much moisture they trap next to and inside of your sleeping bag, thusly degrading the insulation.

We sleep out.  And that means we need to be protected from wind and falling snow.  Trees offer good shelter, although if you set up camp in a grove of cottonwoods and it snows overnight you might wonder about the truth of that statement.  When I say trees I mean conifers, where the needles can catch any snow that might otherwise land on (and melt on) you.  

So the very first step is to find a spot that's quiet, and that means getting off of and away from the trail.  Stomp a path out into the trees, far enough so that other nocturnal travelers don't even notice you're there.  Jeny had an anxious moment a few weeks ago when a midnight trail groomer saw her camp and came to check on her -- but never got out of his snowcat to do it.  There was never any danger but as the cat approached her location it was hard to convince herself that she wasn't about to be tilled into corduroy.  Once the driver saw that she was safely ensconced in her bag he flipped it and left her to sleep.  His intentions were admirable but her adrenaline hit couldn't subside quickly enough.  She'd never have woken had she been better hidden.

The trick to sleeping under conifers, as any To Build a Fire fan will tell you, is to remove any snow that might fall on you before you set anything up.  How?  Put on your jacket, pull the hood over your head, close all zippers, bow your head, and then kick the snot out of the trunk until the last bombs have whumped to the ground around you.  Good?  Good.

Next. stomp a trench out next to a big tree.  Why big?  Bigger circumference of protection, plus (hopefully) a healthy trunk to lean against while melting snow.  The trench is necessary because the snow is deep and soft -- stomping it out packs it into a ~level surface to sleep on.  Make the trench big enough that you can't inadvertently touch the edges and knock loose snow down onto yourself.  There is an art to finding the right size: I'm not here to tell you how to do that, I'm here to encourage you to go out and find out!  An added bonus is that the stomping warms you a bit before you shut down the turbines for the night.

Above is Jeny's campsite from last Wednesday, after she'd placed her bike and stomped the trench but before she'd laid out her bag and pad to start cooking.

Our camptime habits include walking the last ~1/4 mile to "cool down" and cook any residual moisture out of our layers, eating a few hundred calories while walking so that the fire is stoked before we get into our bags, changing into dry socks as soon as we get into the bag, and rehydrating a hot meal to give our bellies fuel for both recovery and heat production through the night.  If we're tired enough we'll often pass out before brushing teeth, but the feeling of fur on teeth is usually the second task I take care of when I wake.  The first being the need to pee, which is almost always what wakes me and signifies that it's time to move again.

Clearly there is nothing exhaustive about what I've shared here.  I intend it as a springboard to get people to think about camping not in the abstract -- but to go out and do it and learn to be good at it.

No time like the present.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Jeny and the Race: Tired.

Quality fat tire options are incredible these days, to the point where analysis paralysis could be a legitimate concern for your average ITI participant.

Even removing all of the tires smaller than ~4" from the equation still leaves one with a healthy pile of rubber to choose from.

Having been on the ITI route through a wide variety of conditions gives me some depth of experience to draw from when considering options.  I know that unless someone is holding a gun to my head I'd never willingly choose a smaller tire when a bigger one is available.  I also know that the decrease in rolling resistance from running tubeless is substantial, and again I'd never choose to start with tubes if the choice was mine to make.

Bigger.  And reliable tubeless.  That's a good start, but there's so much more: Tread pattern, thread count, rubber composition, and the ability to (easily and reliably) run studs all have to be factored in, too.

Because we have a backyard mountain that's received over 300" of snow already this season, and because that snow is deep, cold, dry, and with limited traffic to pack things down, it is not a stretch to say that we have an ideal place to test tires.  And we've been doing just that -- literally for years.

The snow is so deep up there that we can't get down to bare ice to test, but we have ice in the valleys and we can test ice performance down here.

The one thing our testing grounds rarely produce is real, strong cold: The kind you can expect in the Alaskan Interior in a "normal" winter.  That last bit -- the "normal" part -- is the elephant in the room, because winters just aren't what they used to be in Alaska.  -30's during the ITI used to be a given, with -40's common and, if you were truly blessed, you'd be gifted some precious time out at -50 and into the -60's.

In recent years the deep snow that was a constant companion on the ITI from the late '90's onward has twice been replaced by a veritable sidewalk of ice: Not hardpack, but ice so firm that studded tires were absolutely mandatory.  Conditions like that are the rare instance when bigger isn't better for tires.

Because the ITI is still several weeks away there's no way to say what the weather is going to be.  Thus the challenge becomes to test as many tires as possible in the conditions you think you might get, and to know which tires do well in which conditions, so that in the days leading up the event you can nerd-out on weather across the state, make some educated guesses, then install the tires that make the most sense.

With all of that as preamble, Jeny and I have already narrowed her tire choices down to three.  Pictured left to right are the 45NRTH Dillinger 5, Vee Snowshoe XL PSC, and Surly Bud.

There are lots of other tires that are similar in size to the range represented here.  Schwalbe Jumbo Jim, Maxxis FBF, FBR, and Colossus, Surly Knard, Surly Lou, Vee 2XL, and Bontrager Barbegazi to name a few.  These are all quality tires without question, but each had some characteristic that rendered it undesirable for Jeny for the ITI.  We're not going to go into detail on those -- instead we're going to focus on the finalists.

Of these final 3, the Dillinger 5 is probably the most popular tire among ITI participants over the last few years.  I attribute this to the oddball weather that has twice produced the icy sidewalk stretching from Knik to McGrath (and beyond), and for which the studded version of the D5 was a great tire.  I'll take it a step further and posit that had the "ice years" never happened, the D5 would never have found favor at the ITI.  And that's quite simply because in unstudded form it's a mediocre tire at best, and significantly undersized relative to the 2 other finalists pictured above.  45N labels it a 4.8" tire but it comes nowhere close to that size even on a 100mm rim.

If the conditions morph over the next few weeks to where the route is ice, ice, and more ice, and a small-volume studded tire seems to be called for, the D5 will be it.

That leaves 2: Vee Snowshoe XL and Surly Bud.  Worth mentioning that both of these tires use 120tpi casings and measure very close to 4.8" wide.

Pictured in the middle above is a visually distinct tire made by Vee, called the Snowshoe XL.  Vee calls the creme-colored compound "Pure Silica".  Once you remove the marketing geekspeak what that means is that the rubber has a slightly softer durometer that is less affected by cold temps.  This is worth mentioning because anyone that's tried any black-compound Vee fat tire on snow, and particularly in cold temps, has thought to themselves "Jesus, did someone throw out an anchor?! as they looked around and tried to determine why they were working so hard to go so slow.  Vee's normal black Silica tires are known to be very slow rolling, and that only gets worse as the temps drop.

The creme colored PSC compound rolls well in the cold, and this particular tire has a true 4.8" casing, on par size-wise with the Surly Bud tire sitting at right in the pic above.  If course conditions look to have a mix of soft snow, hardpack, and any significant quantity (defined as more than ~30 miles, total) of hard ice, Jeny will ride these Vee tires fully studded en route to McGrath.

So that leaves Surly's venerable Bud tire, which is hands-down Jeny's all time favorite fat tire.  I've ridden it to Nome and many, many others have ridden it to McGrath.  It is a known quantity, and while it is definitely not the fastest rolling tire, nor the best for rear-specific digging, it is the best overall "one tire" compromise that we've found to date.  It is a true 4.8" thus it has huge air volume for running at super low pressures when the snow is soft.  But it also has big, blocky, siped and directional knobs that give steering control and confidence in every snow condition imaginable.  Bud is unlike almost every other tire in that it works well in such a wide range of conditions, and yet somehow doesn't feel too slow when the trail is firm and the going is easy.

If Bud has a drawback it is that once you've gotten used to the confidence he gives, it's hard to seriously consider any other tire.  If the ITI shapes up with "normal" snow conditions this year, which means little to no ice, Jeny will leave Knik Lake running Bud front and rear.

Without question there will be many that disagree with the direction our testing, thinking, and conclusions have gone.  And some of them will have valid points for their disagreement.  We're open to hearing these opinions, provided they are backed up with detail on how you arrived at them.  In short, provide enough background so that we might all discuss and learn.

Thanks for checking in.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Grub for thought.

The question of how to fuel one's self on the ITI route has been asked ad infinitum and will never be completely answered.  The correct answer will always be some variation of "It depends", and the variables are you, your gut, your mental baggage, the ambient temps, what your goals are for the event, as well as relative windspeed when cross referenced with the angle of the dangle.


The correct response could be mistaken for the answer to the Omnivore's Dilemma: Eat food, not too much.  But even that says nothing because we all define food differently and too much for me is a starvation diet for almost anyone else.

We all know someone, probably many someones, that swear by some variation of astronaut gels with barely pronounceable marketing-based names that taste like ass and eventually make you feel similarly.  The people that eat this stuff swear that it gives them consistent energy for as long as they consume it.

And that right there is the catch: You have to eat whatever it is that you decide on for a long time -- maybe 3 days, maybe 7.  Today is Sunday -- let's do a little mental exercise where we think back to what we had for breakfast last Tuesday.  Was it a gel-based substance?  Probably not, but even if it was, you didn't eat it for every meal of the last 6 days.  Yet some athletes would have you believe this is the way.  More power to them, I say, but I think life's too short for that.

So what should you eat?

My answer has been different every year that I've participated in this event, and would undoubtedly have morphed were I to line up again this year.  

A not-atypical selection.

Here's how I do it:

First, I start with a clean slate, making no assumptions about what I might or mightn't want 3 days into the ITI.  I know only that it has to be edible when frozen, needs to sit in a box in a warm post office (or en route) without spoiling for a ~week, and needs to be something my body can process when I'm working.  

Then I go out for a long, hard weekend ride: something like 10 hours on the bike, usually finishing in the dark and well after dinnertime.  I'll take not quite enough of whatever random snacks fall to hand, eat them as needed while riding, then on the way home, hungry enough to eat roadkill, I'll stop at a grocery store.  Just my neighborhood grocery store.  There I'll stroll the aisles and grab anything that looks remotely palatable and everything that my tired, depleted body is craving.  When I do this exercise I usually plan to spend at least $100 and maybe twice that, never knowing for sure which delicacies will shake out in the end.

While shopping it's important to keep the three food groups in mind: Sweet, salt, and substance, reminding yourself to keep the proportions roughly equal as your cart begins to fill.  

Basic examples that have made the list at various times through the years and that you'll always see being consumed during the race include pop tarts, cookies, crackers, chips, beef jerky, summer sausage, licorice, gummies, Cheez Whiz, cake frosting, cookie dough, chocolate bars, energy bars, M&M's, and sammiches of all sorts. 

I'll sample casually from everything in the bag on the way home, as I put the bike away, while showering, after showering, right up til bedtime.  The idea being to simulate what your body wants when depleted, then to wake up the next morning and see what still looks appetizing enough to eat.  I'll continue grazing on any/all of it through that day and into the next, at which point I already have a pretty good idea of what my "tastes" are going to be.  

One year I rode to McGrath eating PB&J burritos and not much else.  Temps being what they were, the jelly had frozen and within it there were ice crystals that I was convinced were helping to keep me hydrated, in addition to the bonus caloric density of the peanut butter and tortillas.

The next year I took burritos but this time they were filled with Velveeta and bacon.  A lot of bacon.  15 pounds of bacon.  My house still smelled of bacon when I got back a month later.  And I still get a quasi gag reflex thinking of the Velveeta.  But that's what looked good in the store that night, and what continually tasted good in the weeks leading up to the ITI.  And that was all that mattered.

Leaning in a very different direction, one year I ate four and a half pounds of Mike & Ike's en route to Nome, and stopped at a convenience store on the outskirts of that coastal village to grab another 8oz on the run in to the finish.  I couldn't get enough of them, and felt invincible as long as I could hear them rattling around in a water bottle on my fork leg.

I've never worried too much about vitamins or supplements during the event, knowing that a balanced diet before and after will iron out any inconsistencies introduced during the speedbump that is the ~week of the race.

After drilling down to identify the things your body wants, you repeat the process on an overnight ride a ~week later, taking your finalists along to eat while riding, while bivying, and while riding some more the next day.  The idea here is to test them and filter out the duds that looked appealing in the store -- like Sour Patch Kids or Crunch Berries -- but that weren't ideal because they shredded the inside of your mouth and left you with little interest in eating anything.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you can never be sure what your body is going to want when out there.  John Stamstad used to quip that (for a 24 hour race) he'd need something like $25 worth of food, but he never knew *which* $25, so he'd buy $100 and pick from it as needed.  Taking someone else's list will almost never work, which is why I never supply lists.  Experimenting on yourself in the weeks leading up to shipping your food drops is critical, and that's what Jeny's out doing right now.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Soft snow strategies.

We've all seen winter pictures of Alaska featuring sunshine, big mountains, clean white snow, a hardpacked trail, maybe an apex predator or two somewhere in the frame.  Kinda like this:

Clearly that Alaska exists, but it isn't necessarily the Alaska Jeny is going to get to see.  At least not all the time, and possibly not much of the time.  

Part of that is because she'll travel several hours of every day at night, by headlamp.  With only a ~week of vacation to burn, she needs to make the miles when she can, and the days simply aren't long enough that time of year to ride only in daylight.

The other reason that she's not likely to see the postcard Alaska is that the Alaska Range forms the heart of the route she's traversing, and the Range creates it's own weather.  Fresh snow and wind are the two most likely causes of an 'other than' hardpacked trail.

Don't get me wrong: Maybe she -- and the rest of the ITI racers -- will get a hardpacked sidewalk from Knik to McGrath, always riding in taller gears, laughing, singing, hauling ass uphill and down.  It can happen.  It *has* happened.

But banking on it probably isn't wise.

Fatbike rims and tires have evolved tremendously in the past ~5 years, becoming wider, lighter, and more varied in design and intent, to the point that we can choose from many different sizes (essentially "big", "bigger", and "silly"), and many different tread patterns.  Usually we can also opt to spend more on a higher thread count casing, which makes the tires both lighter and more supple, which decreases rolling resistance at any given pressure.  Less rolling resistance means more speed, which is always sought after in a multi-day event like this.

I'll talk more about tire and rim specifics in a later post.  For now I want to talk about what Jeny's going to need to do with them: Ride soft snow.

To the end of acclimating her body and mind to that sort of thing, we seek out miles of soft singletrack at least one day a week all winter.  That was easy this week after a storm dumped a fresh foot on top.  Skiers and snowshoers had been out in some numbers, so the trail was broken in and visible, and at times you could even say there was a base underneath.  But not much more, and often much less.  We earned every inch of progress today, immediately dropping air pressure into the low single digits (I'd guess we never had more than 1.5psi all day) and leaving it there for the duration.

Almost everyone knows that low pressures in fat tires allow a rider to "float" atop the snow.  That's the easy part.  But snow is inconsistent -- and so is terrain.  Passing through a thick stand of trees there would have been little evidence of wind, so the trail would seem firmer, more rideable for a few moments.  

Basically until you entered a meadow.

Out in the open the trail had been affected by wind from many directions, such that it was both scoured and drifted, never firm, never predictable, never consistent, often (due to low contrast and spindrift) not visible.

What then?

Sometimes you could still ride, usually by braille -- by literally feeling where the trail was with your tires, and by slowly, delicately proceeding along where that hint of traction and float existed.  Often it would vanish and you'd be left floundering thigh deep in cold smoke, then struggling to get your bike back up onto the platform of the trail -- wherever it had gone.

Walking is just a part of riding in snow.  Accepting it is mandatory, embracing it is recommended.

Eventually we'd feel the surface beneath our feet getting firm enough to attempt riding again.  

Every mountain biker knows the delicate balance required to remount and get going on a steep climb on dirt.  This is similar, with the added difficulty that the trail is so narrow, and the snow so soft beyond the margins of the trail, that remounting the bike while standing *only* beneath the bike is the only way: Any wider and your feet are off the narrow track and sinking.


We find that a dropper post greatly aids in remounting the bike in these conditions.  And by "greatly" I mean that they are invaluable.  Jeny is still debating whether to gamble (with durability) on taking one to the ITI.  I'm not sure I'd go there again without one.

Anyhoo -- let's assume that you've managed to get back on the bike and get moving.  A huge assumption, but there you are.  Just because you've performed that minor miracle (in these conditions) doesn't mean all that much, because the trail is every bit as narrow, soft, and inconsistent going forward.  

Any tiny, tiny, seemingly unnoticeable nudge of the bars in either direction usually means that your front tire just left the packed track, which means it also immediately buried itself to the hub, stopping your momentum.  If you were lucky or very good at predicting this you might have managed to step off the bike on the trail side.  If not, now you're back up to your knees in fluff, and have to start all over again.

It probably seems as though I'm laying it on thick here, because no way, no how could anyone do this over and over, much less *enjoy* doing it over and over.

I'm not exaggerating: We did this, each of us, dozens of times today.  Perhaps you live somewhere with less snow, or more moist snow, or groomers?

Sure -- it's easier to ride in those places.  But this is what we have, and my experience is that these conditions will happen some of every day in Alaska.  Maybe not *quite* this bad.  Maybe not *quite* as often.  But it will happen.  See above about accepting and embracing.

So there you are, on and off the bike, increasingly frustrated with your inability to ride for long.  Maybe you're even doing the math on saving energy by just walking a mile or two, until you're *sure* you can ride.  Nothing wrong with that -- lots of country to see while you're walking, too.

The only problem with that is that you might (in certain years with really bad conditions) end up walking a few hundred miles.  It'd be smarter to leave the bike at home and just *walk*.

Let's not get too drastic here -- there's still time before race day to learn a few tricks.

First, whatever pressure you've figured out for your rear tire -- to provide that optimal blend of float + traction -- your front tire should be a bit softer.  Conventional wisdom says the opposite, and you can stick with that or you can dump some air and ride some more.  Why?  Because lowering your front tire pressure slows down steering inputs, and (unwanted) steering inputs are what keep taking you off the edge of the trail repeatedly.  Try it -- I'm not kidding.

What else can you do?

You can learn the subtle art of steering with your belly button.  Not literally, of course, but rather *unlearning* using your hands and arms to make steering corrections, which are almost always too much when the trail is really unpredictable.  I like to rest my palms lightly on my grips, but not curl my fingers around the grips themselves.  Thus I can't pull on the bars, can only push, and even then I'm careful to do it gently.  The other half of this equation is tightening your core and literally using your core to do the steering.  Think more in terms of leaning than steering.  The goal is to keep the bike going as straight as possible, and to use tiny, tiny, tiny bits of body english to correct the course. It's easier than it sounds, but it also takes conscious effort to keep doing it when these conditions go on for miles.

OK, cool.  But what else can you do?

Well, since you still have a few weeks til race start, you can start to think about how you're going to pack your gear on the bike.  Given the above knowledge that having a light touch on the bars matters, do what you can to keep the front end of the bike light.  Clearly this is an exercise in compromise because all of that insulation, food, stove, and other crap has to go somewhere.  And piling it all in your pack or on a rear rack is going to have other deleterious effects.  

My goal is always to minimize the swing weight on the bars -- which is to say I keep the load narrow foremost, and then as light as I can manage.  You simply have to experiment with this.

It bears mentioning here, since we're pretty far down the rabbit hole already, that the recommendations I'm making here are for soft snow.  If you've got Anchorage or Minneapolis hardpack you can get away with almost any packing setup -- it just doesn't matter.

Anything else worth mentioning?

Yes, actually: Gearing.  We've all been hit over the head many times with the moral imperative of spinning a high, light cadence on the bike, essentially using the gearing on the bike to do the work, and in so doing saving our legs (for later?!).  I subscribe to this theory on dirt and especially for long days out, and I think it's smart.  When groveling over and through soft snow and barely able to stay on the bike, it helps to shift into a harder gear, maybe even two, and grind.

Yep, I said it: Grind.  A lower cadence keeps your upper body quiet, and at the same time it minimizes the likelihood of rear tire slippage.  Again, and as always -- don't take my word for this, go out and experiment.

Last point: technology.

When referring to sub-optimal course conditions, perennial Idita-champ Jeff Oatley likes to say that "You cannot buy your way out of this".  He's referring to the human, nay American tendency to believe that a trip to REI and a quantity of dollars spent can solve any problem you might encounter out there.  Every year at the ITI many people have tens of pounds of needless, useless crap strapped to their bikes in the belief that it will help them meet or defeat a certain on-course eventuality.

I almost always agree with Jeff's take -- you cannot buy your way out.

There is one exception:

Pictured above is a Hopey steering damper

It essentially slows steering movements away from center, to whatever degree you tell it to, with free return. So, depending on size and speed, a hidden rut or wind-drift is either less likely or completely unable to knock you off line.

Think about that for a minute.

And if you do, you might wonder what it does to the feel of your steering -- do things get weird when steering is damped?!


Since rider inputs are coming through a ~28" wide lever, and wheel inputs are only coming through a 5" wide lever, rider inputs are far less affected.  On soft snow days I ride with my Hopey cranked to the tightest (most damping) setting I can get, and I always wish for *more* damping.  Then, invariably, when we get back to firm trail or finish our ride on pavement, I can't believe I could ride with so much damping -- because it is essentially impossible to do so on a firm surface.

I keep it turned off most of the time, but with a quick twist of the dial on top it can be activated for uber-soft snow. If you ride groomed singletrack you don't need this. If you spend more time on ungroomed and especially wind-affected snow, you won't believe how much of an effect this little unit has in keeping the front end quiet so that you can stay on the bike longer. Easy to test, too -- ride a mile with it on, then twist the dial to turn it off and be amazed at what a drunken sailor you've suddenly become WRT holding a line.

I know this sounds like a sales pitch, but I swear it isn't -- I don't benefit one iota from this and I'm not even positive if Tim Hopey still answers his phone or email.  

Lots of info crammed in above. Took me more than a decade to learn all of that, to understand it, and to embrace it. If you often have soft snow to ride, and want to get better at it, enjoy it more, or just get from A->B faster, read it again, then think about and practice some small part of it on each of your next few rides.

Good luck.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Happy hands.

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” 

-Aldo Leopold

I'm quite certain that Mr. Leopold wasn't thinking of Alaska winter racing when he wrote A Sand County Almanac way back when, but for the purpose of illustrating my point I think it apropos to co-opt that quote.

We've already discussed core temps and feets.  Hands are the last, most critical, and potentially most difficult.  The foot system previously described does well because it's set and forget, and because you don't have prehensile toes: You aren't taking your shoes off to do fine tasks with your feet.

Not so with hands -- you're using them constantly, and it's not possible to do every fine task (brushing teeth, changing a flat, replacing headlamp batteries, cinching straps -- to name but a few) with gloves or mittens on.  Sometimes you have to go barehanded, and if the wind is up or it's just plain cold, that means your hands are numb before the task is complete.

Often way before the task is complete: Pat Irwin and I learned this lesson repeatedly at -55* to -65* on the Yukon River, when our tubes kept cracking (not being cut, punctured, or pinched -- definitely cracking) from the cold and failing, and we kept having to stop to change them out.

Our solution was to take turns: One person would stop and drop, pulling the wheel out of the bike, then starting to work the bead loose from the rim.  By that time, because we were handling bare metal, our hands were already numb.  So you'd hand the wheel to the other guy, then *run* 100 yards up the trail, and back, to generate some heat.  By the time you'd returned *his* hands were numb.  Then we'd switch, over and over, until the deed was done and we could start to move forward and generate some lasting heat.

The problem was that even once moving again, we'd not really anticipated this problem, thus we had pogies on our bars but our grips were cold sinks: Pat had cheap kraton rubber grips.  I'd taken the time to wrap my rubber grips in cork tape, but out of fear that the cork would come undone in the cold had wrapped that in hockey tape.

Note to self: There is nothing warm, or insulative, or isolative, about kraton rubber *or* hockey tape. The hockey tape even developed a sheen of ice over the course of the trip, from when my infrequently warm hands perspired onto it.  Awesome.

After each extended break to fix a flat, our grip temps measured the same as the outside temp, and *nobody* has circulation good enough to push back -55* with just the blood that's making it to their hands.

When that trip ended I knew I had other, bigger fish to fry riding in cold places, and I knew I had to develop a better system to keep hands on-line in the worst an Alaskan winter could offer.  If I could keep my hands warm there, then I knew they'd be warm anywhere.

After too many complicated and prone to failure (battery powered heated grips, anyone?) fits and starts I realized that the solution had to be simple.  And what I came up with was, and is, simple:  Neoprene.

I've tried neoprene gloves and socks in both my riding and paddling career, and when used against my skin learned that they do two things simultaneously:

-they make my extremities sweat profusely, and
--they make my extremities colder than with almost any other material.

Learning that was liberating, as it removed one potential option from the pile.

But neoprene is such a good insulator, and when configured right (i.e the right kind of foam and backing) it doesn't absorb or transmit moisture.  So instead of using neoprene gloves that I'd have to take off to do fine work anyway, I sewed a few crude grip covers out of neoprene foam I found in the scrap bin at a fabric store:

Note that I even have a sleeve over the (cold!) rubber cover on my shifter.  Also note that my brake levers are carbon.  You don't use your brakes that often in the ITI, but when you *do* need them, if they're made out of metal, you'll emphatically notice how cold that metal is as your braking fingers go numb.

Carbon doesn't transmit the cold -- but carbon levers aren't always possible.  If you can't get carbon levers, then at least find a way to insulate them with neoprene.

To this day, that's what I use.  I used them on my self-supported trips in 2008 and 2010, and again on the South Route to Nome in 2013.  Those are my grips pictured above, but Jeny has sewn herself a similar set and I think I saw her installing them yesterday.

So that's what's *inside* my pogies.

On my hands I wear basic summer riding gloves down to about -10*f.  Below that I have a cheap ~$9 pair of gas station fleece gloves that keep my hands happy down to any temperature I've yet encountered in the Alaskan Interior in February.  So to say, -60*f or so.  Nothing else needed, as long as you have good pogies...

And the pogies themselves?  I was fortunate when I started down this rabbit hole that Eric @ Revelate was still a one-man show, interested in pushing the limits of human-powered travel, and not yet encumbered with explosive growth and a growing family too.  He was willing to indulge my fastidious, even pernickety suggestions in creating what came to be known as his Expedition Pogies.  Jeny has these on her bike.  Jeny wishes it was colder, longer, every winter, so that she could ride with these more.  I think she dreams about them on the first cold days of fall...

In truth the production pogies that Eric sells now are nicer, lighter, and more polished than my prototypes -- but they still retain the most important characteristics of being windproof, waterproof, closable (so that spindrift doesn't fill them while you sleep), and with pockets to keep emergency gear (warmer gloves, warmer hats, glasses and goggles) all at your fingertips for constantly variable conditions.

Last detail when it comes to insulation?  That frozen block of leather, plastic, pleather, and metal that you're sitting on.  If temps are forecast to be below zero I slip on a neoprene saddle insulator.

These are made for tri-geeks but they function at least as well to insulate us from that cold block of discomfort.  And while our nether regions are truly the last to get cold, if it's way below zero and you're fighting to keep warm blood moving to your extremities, it's nice to be able to sit on something that's not sucking yet more heat away.  These are most often found in the bargain bin at your LBS -- if you can't source one there go digging at a tri-geek website.

Don't hesitate with questions.