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How to Prepare for a Fat Tire Bike Race
Tips for those brave enough to face winter race conditions on their fat bikes.
Meet Josh. He's one of the software developers here at Saris and to say that he loves to bike would be an understatement. Josh commutes to work every. single. day – no matter the conditions. He's a two-time Ironman finisher, competitive road racer and bicycle enthusiast.
Last winter Josh added fat bike racing to his calendar of competitive events, and with the uptick in fat bike popularity, we asked him to share a few words of wisdom to help others prepare for a race in the snow.
Know Thy Bike
The first rule of fat bike racing is you must ride your fat bike more than one time before the race. Do not underestimate the need to sit and put some miles, hours or however else you measure time in the saddle before you toe the line. Your fat bike fit needs to be as dialed as your everyday ride. Based on that day's conditions, your fat tired bike will accelerate corner and just generally feel different. The more you ride, the better prepared you'll be.
Transitioning from summer-style riding to winter, it can be easy to quickly over-exert yourself by accelerating too quickly and too hard. Remember, the top-end speed on a fat bike will be lower than your road riding. I've seen people wilt in the first 15 minutes of a race because they were completely unprepared for how much effort it would take to keep a fat bike moving through snow at a good clip.
And speaking of moving through snow, a sub rule of "know thy bike" is "know thy tires." A benefit of riding your fat bike often is that you are given ample opportunity to try out more tire pressure combinations. Tire pressure is huge for fat bike racing.If the tires are too inflated, you'll notice a rough ride, bounce everywhere and your tires will feel squirrely going through fluffy snow. Too low, and your tires will hold you back as speed is being bled or worse - you get a pinch flat. Getting tire pressure just right requires constantly playing around with settings and seeing what works for you, your handling, and your terrain.
Know Thy Clothing
Aside from yourself and your bike, the biggest differentiator between people who show up to fat bike races are the choices in clothing. Without the right layers, no amount of physical strength is going to overcome the heat building up underneath the wrong layers. I've seen people show up to bike races in snow mobile outfits expecting to stay freezing throughout the race, only to withdraw from heat exhaustion.
Start with a wicking layer that will get your sweat off your skin. Build up warmth with an intermediate layer, possibly made out of the same fabric but in a thicker model. Top it off with wind-proofing layer, and you have the makings of a very flexible system to accommodate a wide variety of conditions.As the temperature drops, add thin layers between the base and warming layer.As crazy as it sounds, you want to be cold standing around before the race and for the first five minutes of the race. Why? Because if you are comfortable before racing, you will be too warm during the event.
To give you an example, I raced the Spear the Fatty fat bike race in 2015.The air temperature was -13F with wind chills around -35F.I started with typical merino wool base layers, added my warmth layer, and then topped it off with a wind-proof bike jersey.I got out of the car, did a few ramp-ups to get a feel for what was missing and headed back to the car.I could tell the pant layers (Castelli Nano flex tights and Pearl Izumi elite pants) were just fine, but the chest area was still receiving too much air. The sensation wasn't a cold sensation; it was a burning sensation. So I tossed on a short sleeved Under Armour Cold Gear shirt and went back out. Just right. Except I still had one area of gear to figure out: face and eye covering.
Facial and eye gearing is some of the toughest to figure out in cold temps. In the event that you aren't moving fast enough, and you are wearing a balaclava, the exhaust from your breath is typically is pushed into your sunglasses and you fog up, rendering your vision useless. For this race, I opted for a hybrid approach. I would wear the mask standing around and pull it down during the race. But exposed skin at -30F tends to burn quickly and is at high risk for frostbite. My fix for this scenario was to rub Vaseline (Dermatone also works well) all over the exposed skin areas. They would get cold, but they wouldn't burn nearly as quickly. This system worked great as the extra effort of racing in extreme conditions caused me to breathe much harder and had I not pulled my mask down, I would have fogged up.
Know thy Post-Race Plans
The last bit of advice for a fat bike race preparation would be about your post-race plans. If you plan to stick around for the awards, you are probably going to be covered in wet layers of clothing. If the race takes place during the colder months, you'll want to get into something warm and dry quickly. Don't be the guy or gal shaking uncontrollably because your body temperature is dropping too low. A little planning and a packing list the night before goes a long way in post-race comfort.
All of the preceding tips can be surmised in one sentence: ride in every condition and figure out what works. I didn't arrive at the start line knowing what I was going to wear. But I knew I was going to bring some sort of combination that would work because I had been through everything winter can throw at me. The layering, the tires, the amount of exertion it takes to pass someone going through a snow bank.I had experienced it all because I rode in it all.
Ready to give fat bike racing a try? Visit the Event Calendar on fat-bike.com to find a race near you. For more chat on fat biking in general, I recommend checking out the MTBR Fat Bike Forum. Once you've signed up for an event, stop by your local bike shop for a pre-race check appointment to ensure your bike is in working order because salt, sand and road grime can do a lot of damage if not treated.
Now that you're signed up, geared up and ready – don't forget to figure out how to get your bike to the race start. Fat bikes and their beefy tires can be an awkward object to fit in vehicles, and some can be so heavy that they're difficult to load to a roof rack. Find a car rack that best fits the needs of you, your vehicle and your bike. Examples within our own product line include both the Freedom EX and the SuperClamp EX hitch racks, which can be equipped with fat tire wheel holders for fatties with up to 5 inch wheels, while the Bones car rack can transport a fat bike that weighs up to 35 lbs – no problem.
And most importantly: Go out. Have fun. Ride bikes. Repeat.