How fat biking encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone.
Let me preface this with a simple fact: I am new to fat biking. What I have garnered about the sport stems from chasing around Graham Muir and Kellie Nelson for the last four weeks and asking lots (and lots) of questions. Watching Graham, Kellie and the other riders push their bodies and test their mental limits at Jay P’s Backyard Fat Pursuit was inspirational. Knowing how much blood, sweat and tears went into those 200 miles makes it hard to remain on the sidelines.
I hopped on a fat bike for the first time at Pond’s Lodge—the Fat Pursuit bike race headquarters in Island Park, ID on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park—and pedaled around the parking lot. On wonderfully firm snow, I rolled along with ease. For some reason, race organizers Tracey and Jay Petervary felt those 10 minutes warranted riding and camping with the crew at Winter Camp the following weekend, also in Island Park.
Winter Camp is a new opportunity for riders to qualify for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The Invitational follows the famous dog sled route. It’s 130 miles to Winterlake Lodge, 350 miles to McGrath or 1,000 miles to Nome via fat bike, skis or foot. More people will go up Everest this year than have ever finished the 1,000-mile journey to Nome in the Iditarod Trail Invitational’s 16-year history.
Winter Camp is where Kellie and Graham would continue their journey to increase their bikepacking knowledge and to improve their winter survival skills in preparation for the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska in February 2019.
This weighed heavy in my thoughts. Was I ready to join these experienced riders, fat bike several miles, and set-up a bivy in the snow? While I had tent camped in freezing, but dry weather, I had never bivvied. Every part of this would be new.
Learning from the Best
The combined experience of the Winter Camp guides is impressive, to say the least. Jay is a professional cyclist with 20 years of multi-day racing, 10 years of winter fat biking, and nine Iditarod Trail Invitationals under his belt.
Tracey has also spent two decades ultra-racing, with 10 years of winter ultra-cycling. She has done the Iditarod Trail Invitational five times.
Kathi Merchant is the Iditarod Trail Invitational organizer and promoter since 2003. She has participated in the race three times and in 2008, became the first woman to fat bike the 1,000 miles to Nome.
Aaron Gardner was the only rider to finish last year’s 200-mile Fat Pursuit in a negative 40-degree snowstorm to boot. He did something right.
These instructors deeply care about sharing their knowledge and getting others stoked on the sport—which was obvious when I rolled in with zero gear besides my ski socks, a couple base layers, lightweight gloves, a hat and a puffy jacket that I packed for covering the Fat Pursuit. Soon, I was set-up with more gear than I knew how to use.
Winter Camp is the first of its kind in the lower 48. While it serves as a qualifier for Alaska, I quickly learned that’s not what it’s all about. As our group went around and shared our hopes for camp, I discovered everyone came from diverse backgrounds and had different goals. The commonality was improving winter riding skills, and better understanding what gear is needed and how to use it. To my surprise some folks, like me, were new to fat biking. Some folks, like me, had never bivvied. I instantly felt relief. Perhaps I wouldn’t be a burden holding everyone back. Time to change my mindset.
After a thorough lesson on recommended gear and how to pack your bike—not only for Alaska, but for a mellow overnight ride on backyard trails—it was time to ride. I had been eyeing the falling snow all day. A big part of fat biking is not only pedaling, but getting off your bike and pushing. I was curious how much riding I would be able to do in these conditions.
We started out on a road and I focused on following the tire tracks of my comrades a few hundred yards ahead. It was hard not to smile as I navigated the feeling of riding through snow.
There’s a certain magic that occurs when you’re fat biking, with only the sound of your tires lightly crunching through the snow, while big, beautiful flakes drift down around you. Pine trees line your path, their long, extended branches supporting the weight of the piling snow. There’s a slowness to fat biking that allows you to fully take in your surroundings. It’s elemental. It’s simple. It’s like nothing else exists but you, your bike, and Mother Nature.
We returned to basecamp for dinner, headed out on a 4-mile ride in the dark and circled back to select our outside “beds” for the night. I thought I’d piggyback on Kellie’s experience (and stove, as it’s required to boil snow before bed), and together, we scouted out a prime spot under a tree. Now to stomp it out for a flat, smooth, firm surface to place my foam sleeping pad. I was pretty meticulous about it. I didn’t want my head to be lower than my feet and it needed to be wide enough, where if I tossed and turned, I wouldn’t bump into the tight walls of snow around me and cause a mini avalanche. Waking up buried in snow was something I wanted to avoid.
I can’t say I slept much my first night of bivvying. It was hard to regulate my temperate in my negative 20-degree bag. The low was only 20. Breathing inside the bivy sack was creating a ton of condensation on the outside of my sleeping bag, which then froze. My bivy sack kept sticking to my face. Everything felt wet. But, when morning arrived, snowfall tapered off, and patches of blue sky appeared. It was so serene to just be outside in the still, quiet morning sipping on a thermos of hot tea. I was beaming from my small adventurous feat.
While I only camped one night, the eleven Winter Campers were out for four consecutive nights. Graham and Kellie are used to catching a couple hours of Zzzz’s here and there during a race, but spending 8-10 hours in a bivy sack was foreign.
“There’s a huge difference with sleeping for a few hours and taking the whole night. What do you do when you get up in the morning, do you ride off?” Graham says with a laugh. “There’s this down time that we’re not used to having.”
Fat Bike Family
During events like these, you end up spending day and night around your fellow riders. A strong bond forms when you’re figuring things out together, and facing and conquering the same challenges.
“I don’t like saying goodbye to people, I don’t like things ending,” shares Kellie. “I like staying in those moments. It has been so intense and deep and fulfilling—with great people. It was all of these things that you want in your every day, that aren’t part of your normal every day. But there, it was every day. I could still be there, sleeping outside. I could transition to not really needing a home,” she laughs.
For Graham and Kellie, Winter Camp was full of these “aha” moments. They saw how others pack, what they eat, and how they prepare for these long-distance rides. With Alaska, it’s hard to pin down how much time will be spent on the course, it’s all so condition dependent.
“The fastest finish to McGrath was just under two days, but people have also pushed their bikes for four days straight,” shares Graham. “Five to six days is a more realistic goal with variable weather. That’s what the next 12 months are for, to figure out those sorts of things. The logistics of it won’t be simple.”
Graham admits they are a little gear shy for Alaska. Over the next year, they’ll be learning their gear inside and out, understanding the pieces and how it all works, and making sure they have the right apparel for the conditions they will face. It will be colder, longer, and darker than anything they have done before. But, there’s light ahead.
“The guides’ confidence in us was a huge step in preparation for Alaska,” says Kellie. “Knowing that they were confident that we would be successful or even okay, that was a big takeaway.”
If anyone is giving you the green light, these would be the people. And while a lot of preparation is in order, Graham and Kellie are still riding the high from Idaho.
“I think I’m still in Idaho,” says Kellie with a smile. “I haven’t quite closed that door yet, and I think when I close that door I’ll do the next steps. But I’m not ready to be done.”
Four Takeaways from Winter Camp:
1) Know your gear
Tire pressure can make or break your ride. In fresh, soft snow, let out air so that the tread of your tire spreads out, creating more surface area for it to grip and turn through the snow, rather than punch through. A little goes a long way. When we approached a narrow, ungroomed trail with 5 or 6 inches of fresh powder, not only was I sliding all over the place, I promptly popped a bead (the edge of a tire that sits on the wheel), on my back tire. There wasn’t enough pressure to keep the bead on the wheel, causing it to pop off.
2) Take care of yourself
You are an engine burning lots of fuel out there. Don’t forget to eat and hydrate. Opt for calories that aren’t prone to freezing, like nuts, chocolate, hard candy, and surprisingly, smoked salmon. You sleep cold if you don’t eat a warm meal before bed. Get calories and hot water in you (instant noodles are a favorite). Listen to your body and take breaks when you need them, and don’t forget to look around at all the natural beauty!
3) Expect the unexpected
There will, of course, be unforeseen obstacles ahead. One of my favorite Alaska stories that Jay shared was his encounter with a charging moose on the trail. He got out of the way in time, and placed a barrier (his bike) between him and the animal. Whatever happens during your journey, remain calm. Panic won’t get you very far, and it certainly won’t get you out of a sticky situation.
4) Attitude is everything
There were all different levels at Winter Camp. Some people had biked hundreds of miles in snow, some hadn’t. Some had bivvied many nights, some hadn’t. Don’t compare yourself to everyone else. Instead, challenge yourself. If you try it, you win.
About the Author:
Katie Onheiber hails from the Pacific Northwest, and feels most at home in the mountains. She is passionate about connecting people to the natural world and fostering an appreciation for its wonders. She believes there is no excuse to not go outside. When she’s not creating Smartwool stories, she can be found exploring her incredible Steamboat backyard, enjoying a craft beer, or pirouetting in the dance studio.