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.
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.