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Fat Bike,  Gear,  Racing

How to Crush Your First Winter Fat Bike Race!

It’s cold, it’s icy, there’s snow on the ground, and everyone is dressed in winter clothing. Not exactly what most of us think when it comes to bike racing, but this may be starting to change. As the popularity of fat biking has grown, so has the lure of fat bike racing. And it’s likely to grow even further as riders are always looking for ways to push their limits and test themselves. In many ways, fat bike racing is similar to mountain bike racing, but there are some important differences that set a winter fat bike race apart from its summer equivalent.

Winter conditions mean changing how I deal with important aspects of my race preparation such as nutrition, clothing and trail conditions.

These differences can be intimidating for the first-time fat bike racer. They certainly were for me. I’ve raced mountain bikes at the amateur level for many years and I have done all kinds of different races. From XC races to multi-day stage races, I’ve honed my race prep and execution. But winter weather adds another dimension to the mix. So when I signed up for my first-ever fat bike race this winter, I had the unfamiliar feeling of going into race day with more questions than answers. Winter conditions mean changing how I deal with important aspects of my race preparation such as nutrition, clothing and trail conditions.

In the end, I survived the race and learned a lot along the way! So here are some tips and tricks I picked up to help you crush your first fat bike race. 

The condensed version

Things to consider if you want to crush your first winter fat bike race (more detail below):

    • Start your race cold to avoid overheating
    • Dress in layers so you can keep up with changing conditions
    • Be prepared-sweat will chill you very quickly once the action stops
    • Carry warm water in cold temperatures
    • Keep food from freezing by keeping it close to your body
    • Use studded tires if you’re unsure of the course conditions
    • Be aware-riding a rigid fat bike may take a toll on your body
    • Consider the course conditions-narrower tires roll faster but wider ones excel in a wider range of conditions
    • Don’t expect large numbers of spectators

Dress for success

What should I wear for the race? This question, above all others, had me preoccupied in the leadup to my first winter fat bike race. Up to this point, I had done my fair share of fat biking in all kinds of conditions and I had experience dressing to suit those conditions. But a race is different than a ride, so I had to put some thought into how I was going to dress for success.

Start cold

Or maybe I should say start your race cool. Overheating can be a huge performance limiter. Fortunately, colder winter temperatures mean that our bodies can dissipate heat more quickly than in summer and are limited only by the clothes we wear. Potential overheating can be avoided by dressing light. And this means starting out cool. If you do, you’ll be more comfortable and less likely to overheat once you hit your race pace. 

racers line up at the start of a fat bike race
Racers line up at the 2020 edition of the Grizzly Fat Bike Marathon & Relay in Canmore, Alberta. Dressing so you are cool, or even a bit cold, at the start line means you’re less likely to overheat once you’re riding at race pace. (Heather Marshall/RideSphere)

It’s also worth noting that a racer’s core will generally heat up faster and to a higher degree than their extremities. I would suggest wearing gloves and footwear that are slightly warmer than the rest of your race kit to ensure your hands and feet stay warm during the race.

Dress in layers

Our quest to avoid overheating leads us to another important point: dressing in layers. This isn’t a new concept, but it is important. There is a very fine line between being too hot or too cold in a winter race, and conditions can change quickly. Dressing in layers means that you’ll be able to fine-tune your race kit once your body reaches racing temperature and as weather conditions change. Layers also help to wick moisture (sweat) away from your skin so that it can evaporate more quickly.

Don’t sweat it

Even the most effective layering system is unlikely to stop you from sweating during the course of a race. Sweat is something every racer will have to contend with no matter how cold it is outside.

When the weather is warm, sweat is a welcome way to help your body cool down, but especially when temperatures are very cold, it can do more harm than good. When you stop, or ride from relative shelter into wind, sweat will turn very cold, very quickly. So depending on the type and length of your race it is a good idea to carry a light extra layer with you in case of an emergency.

The frozen food section

Another important factor to consider when preparing for your winter fat bike race is how to keep your solid food, gels, and sports drink/water from freezing. If your race consists of a number of laps of the same course and a feed zone that you pass through regularly, keep your food and drinks in a cooler. Coolers aren’t just to keep cold from escaping; they can keep the cold out as well. But how do you keep your fuel from freezing out on the trail? Here are a few ideas.

You can’t drink frozen water!

Keeping your drinks from freezing is probably the most important (and the most difficult) feat to accomplish during a winter fat bike race. Of course the difficulty will vary with how cold it is outside. But between using water bottles and/or a hydration backpack (or hip pack) you should be able to keep the liquid flowing in most temperatures.

If the temperature is around freezing or above, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. Whether you prefer to use a water bottle or hydration pack, or a combination of both, you should be free from things freezing up. Just to be safe, if the temp is near freezing try to drink often to keep the mouthpieces on packs or water bottles from collecting ice and clogging things up.

On the other hand, if the temperature is below freezing it can be a little harder to keep the liquid flowing. But it isn’t impossible. In this case I would suggest doing away with water bottles altogether and opting for a hydration backpack (or hip pack). To keep them from freezing up, fill them with warm water and drink often. If you sip from your hose regularly it will keep the warm water circulating and avoid any freezing. If the temperature is very cold, you may want to consider looking for an insulating tube that goes over the hose. It won’t keep the liquid in the hose from freezing indefinitely, but it can buy you some time between sips.

Food and body heat: a winning combination

Keeping your food from freezing is a bit more straightforward. But it is just as important. Nobody wants to be biting into a frozen energy bar or gel while trying to keep pace with other racers. Even above-freezing temperatures don’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to food. 

stopping for a quick gel during a fat bike race
Cold or frozen food can be annoying, if not impossible to eat, during a winter fat bike race. (Heather Marshall/RideSphere)

Gels will probably stay soft enough in these temperatures, but things like energy bars may not. Temperatures near freezing or above can turn bars very hard and in some cases inedible. I would simply suggest keeping any food in a pocket next to your body where it will stay warm. If you keep it in a pack there’s a good chance it will freeze. 

Some thoughts on gear selection

When it comes to racing fat bikes in the winter there are a few things worth considering when it comes to gear. My gear tips below all have to do with deciding how to configure your fat bike for race day. Let’s look at tire studs, tire size, and suspension. 

Not sure about the conditions? Go studded

Studs in tires add weight. There’s no getting around that fact. In racing, any added weight can mean the difference between winning and losing; but so can staying upright and on your bike. And this is something studs can help you achieve.

Conditions on a winter fat bike racecourse can vary widely. As a result, it’s possible you’ll encounter everything from soft snowdrifts to ice and everything in between. So unless you’re 100 percent sure the course is free of ice, I would suggest using studded tires

If you’re able to pre-ride the course before the race and are comfortable that it will be ice-free on race day, save the weight and go studless. In any other circumstances, the added weight of the studs will be offset by the added confidence that you will be able to keep the rubber side down when it really counts!

Prepare for a rough ride

At the time of this writing, I ride a fully rigid fat bike. There are many reasons a rigid bike makes sense: less maintenance, lower cost, etc. And on top of that, I only ride my fat bike in the winter. Snow tends to flatten trails out and provide some cushion so suspension isn’t needed, right? 

Not so fast. During my race was one of the few times I was wishing I had suspension. The race I competed in was long, and much of the course was rough. If for no other reason, suspension would have been nice to take some of the strain off of my upper body. Soft snow and large bouncy fat bike tires can only do so much and I found that over the course of the race, being on a rigid bike sapped some of my energy.

Get skinny, go fast

Whether you plan on using studs for your race or not, tire size should also be a consideration. And like studs, the course conditions will come into play when deciding what size of tire to use. 

There are generally two sizes of fat bike tires to choose from: 4-inch and 5-inch. It’s likely that in a fat bike race, there will be a minimum size requirement of just under four inches, so four will be about as low as you can go. Smaller tires will reduce weight and rolling resistance, while larger tires will increase float and tracking in soft snow. As with studs, the size you choose will depend on conditions.

If you’re unsure of conditions and this is your first winter fat bike race, I would suggest using larger 5-inch tires. They will be the most versatile and confidence-inspiring in a wider range of conditions.

The cold as crowd control

One interesting take away from my first fat bike race was the size of the crowd: it was small. This isn’t surprising considering the cooler temperatures when compared to summer races. But it does leave me with two parting thoughts.

First, it may be harder to find a support crew to help you out during a winter fat bike race. There are few people who want to stand out in the cold all day. Depending on the race duration and type, this may or may not have an effect on your race.

Second, if a festival-type atmosphere is something that draws you to races, you may find a winter fat bike race to be a bit disappointing. Not every race will seem like a ghost town, but if the weather is less than ideal, there may be only a few people willing to hang out on the sidelines and cheer on the racers.

the start/finish gate at the Grizzly Fat Bike Marathon
Don’t expect huge crowds of spectators at your first fat bike race, especially if the weather is cold. This shouldn’t deter you; they are still a lot of fun! (Luke Marshall/RideSphere)

At the end of the day, don’t let these factors dissuade you from trying your first fat bike race. I found mine to be a lot of fun and a great learning experience. And there is nothing like the pressure of racing to help improve your fitness and technical abilities. If there’s a fat bike race near you, use these tips and give it a shot. You won’t regret it!

I’d love to hear from you

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comments section below, or you can contact me directly from our Contact page.

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