Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Slow snow

Date: Jan. 15
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 355.3
Hours: 3:00
Temperature upon departure: 32
Precipitation: .48"/3.5" snow

Holy cow, I had a tough ride today. It wouldn't appear that way on paper. I rode to the end of the North Douglas Highway and back.

That’s right. A 25-mile road ride with a mere 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The ride I know by heart. The ride I’ve done in as little as 1:20 on several occasions, mostly windless days in July. The ride I could barely recognize today through windblasted daggers of icicle snow as I bumped and bounced over a heavily plowed-in shoulder. The ride that kicked me endlessly sideways with wind gusts that stopped me in my tracks and constant effort that left me wheezing up the smallest of hills. And when I sat down to lunch after three hours of tough riding, I really believed I earned it.

I brought my GPS to play with the new electronic map I just received in the mail. I had a ton of fun watching the contour lines roll beside my virtual dot. I rattled off my stats as Geoff was leaving for work. “Wow, my top speed was 20.6 mph!” I told him. And then, “Wow, my average speed was 8.3 mph.”

Geoff just frowned. “That’s like running speed,” he said.

And just like that, three hours of tough riding were quantified. I felt deflated, and little bit cheated.

There’s a few truths in snowbiking that I think most would find frustrating: The truth that you will never be fairly reimbursed for your efforts, and you will never ride the same "trail" twice. I find that aspect of snowbiking intriguing, but I think that much uncertainty turns some people off. How could I be happy with 8.3 mph? On pavement? (Well, if a deep and slippery slurry strewn with hidden blocks of ice counts as pavement) Especially when I know I got so much more worked over and pedaled so much harder than I ever did during any and every time I averaged 19 mph along the same route? In a society that values speed as an absolute measure of quality, I, the snow biker, have truly failed.

And yet here I am, happy. Go figure.

On a gear-related note: When I posted about my food ideas, I received some good suggestions. So I thought I’d run this plan by the InterWeb and hope for similarly good advice. Basically, it’s a lot of clothing in a big handlebar bag. I ran through my list of potential Ultrasport clothing and packed all but my most basic layer in a random stuff sack. Then I lashed it to the handlebars and rode with it today. I was surprised to discover that all that extra bulk up front didn’t seem to affect the bike’s handling at all. There was plenty of clearance everywhere (brake area is a little tight once the pogies are on, but still perfectly workable.) Plus, that particular stuff sack was packed pretty loosely. I envision even more capacity in a compression sack, and weight doesn’t seem to be an issue (I'm not sure how much this bag weighs. Maybe six pounds?). I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts, whether or not it’s a bad idea to put that much stuff on the handlebars. Most people use front racks. I don’t think I need one, and I’d rather not buy one, but I don’t want a simple handlebar bag to become a fatal decision, either.

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the stuff I had in the handlebar bag: Down coat, heavyweight fleece pullover, base-layer polypro tights, base-layer polypro shirt, lightweight polyester longjohns, heavyweight polyester pants, liner socks, 2 pair Smartwool socks, heavy wool socks, extra liner gloves, lightweight polyester balaclava, heavyweight fleece balaclava, fleece hat, neoprene face mask, earband, underwear, big mittens.

Another interesting tidbit: I don’t use chamois. I basically haven’t for more than two years. I still own a couple pairs of ancient bike shorts that are technically padded, but the weather only allows me to wear those maybe 10 or 15 times a year. The rest of the time, I just wear whatever I want. I like the versatility. And I’ve never had any issues with the nether region. I have been thinking about a chamois for the Ultrasport, if only because the event is so, so long. But I’m almost more inclined to just stick with the stuff I know works for me. A chamois on a well-calloused butt may only cause misery.


  1. On the handle bar bag - you can't carry as much but I much prefer them cos front racks make the bike handle like a pig. I think it is the weight right up front combined with the distance they have to move when you turn. I prefer a light bike and the weight on me so my multiday setup is a handlebar bag, seat bag, poles and stuff strapped along the frame and heavy dense stuff in a daysac. Nothing ruins a good ride faster than panniers. Other people swear by a yak trailer if your going to be a few weeks off road or have to carry heaps of water but I've never used one.

    On the chamois - I'd have to agree. I've also gone years with and other times years without. Both seem to work fine if you are used to it and have a well fitting seat. If it all gets a bit sore you can try a strategically placed fleece neck warmer or beanie or whatever. My girlfriend does it from time to time and swears by it.

    That's my two cents for what its worth.

  2. the snow biker never fails!!!!! :)

  3. I think you mentioned in an earlier post that you hoped to average what Geoff was able to do. You just proved during a tough ride that you were able to do just that. Sound like you're on track to me. Keep it up!

  4. And if Geoff was running that same road on that same day, what would he have averaged anyway?

  5. Speed is over rated, quality is under rated. Biking in snow = great quality.


  6. Hey again Jill,

    I don't know much about biking long distance, but I think a handlebar bag makes a lot more sense than a front rack. For starters, it puts the weight in the front, so you could say your "technically" pushing it, not pulling it. Physics people will kill me for saying that, but I'm looking at this psycologically...

    Anyway, I think it also puts the weight very near to your center of gravity, which would be best.

    Like I said I don't know much about biking long distance, but it sounds right to me.

    I'd also say to have a backpack, but I'm sure you don't want back-sweat freezing on your back the entire route, so maybe that's not such a great idea.

    Speaking of which, how sweaty do you get when you go for your rides. In all those layers, I'm assuming your body temp goes up.

    Wishing you the best,

  7. All I use is chamios and clipless pedals, but I am not near alaska. Stick with what you have been doing.

  8. Hi Jill,

    I did a 250 mile overnighter with a
    fair chunk of it off pavement. I had
    a sleeping bag, bivy sack, and a huge
    tarp strapped to the handlebars---I
    think it must have been about six
    pounds. Other than slow access,
    (ok for sleeping gear) it worked out
    really well; the handling was fine
    and I liked being able to see that it
    was still lashed to the bike. I much
    preferred it to the trunk rack I also
    used. Here is a pic or two.


  9. Do you carry any "emergency" gear in this pack such as a space blanket?

  10. Hi Jill,

    I've been following your blog for a few months now, with much respect and some envy. I can't claim to be an extreme cyclist, but I'm a year-round bicycle commuter in a place where it gets kinda cold, and sometimes a bit icy. In fact, I was a bit proud to see that it was colder here in St Louis last week (when I rode one morning it was 8 degrees) than it was where you ride (you were in the 30s that day, I think). However the scenery here sucks. Instead of glaciers, frozen lakes and mountains, I ride through a monument to 19th-century industrial decay.

    Anyways, here are two thoughts relevant to your post. First, I think handlebar bags are one of the best ways to carry things. If you put your front and back wheels on separate scales, and climbed on the bike, you'll probably find that most of your weight is on the back tire. If you use a rear rack, the rear tire gets even more overloaded. If you put your gear on a front rack over the front tire, the steering torque feels funny, because there's a big lever arm between the load (over the front hub) and the pivot (the head tube). But if you strap to the handlebar, the load is distributed fairly well front-to-back, and your steering response doesn't get that screwed up. However the load is fairly high above the hubs, so it might be more of a challenge to balance on slick surfaces. Anyways, depending on which bike I choose for my commute (a whopping 15 miles per day).

    Regarding what you take with you, I want to share a recent find with you. For a long time I was a complete believer in polypro base layers, but recently I tried 'organic wool', like here ( ). I find that the merino wool baselayer, helmet liner, balaclava, glove liners, etc., outperform my polypro stuff in weather below 20 degrees. I have no stake in this, I'm not a sales guy, I'm just thrilled to wear wool.

    Keep it up, Jill, we're all rooting for you. I really wish I could trade places with you for a day or so.


  11. Hi Jill
    Despite thinking you must of rode the susitna 100 without chamois and fared well i think you might want to reconsider for Ultrasport.Twice ive arrived in Mcgrath raw and bleeding in the nether regions.Riding along frozen buffalo tracks one year felt like someone was sticking needles in me.
    I even wore 2 pairs of shorts when i left Mcgrath in 05.Your preperation is inspiring but please ponder packing a pair of shorts.

  12. Hey Jill-
    A really cool thing about the Ultrasport is that everybody has got to figure out how to do this thing on their own terms. What works well for one person might not make any sense at all to the next person. And doing something differently (for the race) than you've been doing for years, and are doing in training, is generally a very bad idea.

    That said, I agree 100% with Carl on the bike shorts issue. The trail can be absolutely brutal on your rear. Most likely you're gonna spend something in the neighborhood of 100 hours riding and pushing your bike, with very little rest and no recovery whatsoever. Its pretty hard to similuate what that does to your body in training.

    If you don't want to wear chamois shorts don't. But I'd have some with me and hope I didn't wait too long to put them on. Because riding with saddle sores really sucks a lot.

    If you get into the race, say to Bison Camp, and still don't think you'll need them they'll make okay fire starter.

  13. Jill, race with what you train! I think you're onto a good thing and are the best judge. Stick with your intuition and let your kit evolve. You are on the right track.

  14. Jill,

    First, on using a front rack or not using one, if you need it for carrying gear and supplies then it is essential. I am not sure that bike handling is the most important consideration as long as you are able to ride without causing excessive fatigue in your upper extremities and torso. However, it might be getting late in the game for this event to trained for that change.

    I am able to compensate for the extra load up front with a shorter stem. When I take the load off, the front end is real dicey until I readjust. However, I would never propose that is the solution for anyone else, because it depends on your bike's geometry and on how your body fits on that bike. You do not want to mess with a good fit.

    More on the negative side is the fact that racks break. Even "good" racks break. That has been demonstrated in the Great Divide Race (GDR) more than once. Apparently even some of the top brands are being made in places where the skill level of the welders is a little short of the "expert" category. The warrantee is not worth much in a race, or if your life is depending on it functioning flawlessly.

    A handlebar bag is a good way to go. If you carry some appropriate straps and/or cord you could make a "burrito" bag with your gear rolled up inside. It depends on how often you need to get into it.

    I would have some way of making an emergency "burrito" bag in case your main handlebar bag or hanger fails (or rack). In a real pinch you could sling a longer "burrito" roll diagonally across your back like in the pictures of Civil War soldiers carrying their bedding.

    However, the most important suggestion would be to memorize where every single piece of gear is located. Practice packing and unpacking with your eyes closed. Be totally consistent where you keep everything.

    Memorize the count of the number of pieces of gear. That way if you become extremely exhausted, dehydrated or malnourished, and your brain is not in top form, then you have one more way to test yourself. Every now and then try to do some simple arithmetic or recite a poem that you know well. If you find that you cannot even remember the count, recite the list, or the poem, then stop and do what needs to be done to restore yourself. Eat, drink, and get warm, or whatever it takes to prevent bad decisions.

    I have always carried a small tarp that I use in a lot of different ways. Every morning I lay all my gear on the tarp (or ground sheet or whatever) in a very specific orientation. That way, no matter how tired or sick I might be, I know whether something is missing before I leave camp. Of course I learned this strategy the hard way. It is hell when the thing you forgot hanging on the tree limb or on the log or rock is still sitting back at your last campsite a hard days ride ago.

    In your case if you forget even a small item, it could be critical. Memorize the location of everything so that you can run on autopilot. Even in a blizzard you know the drill. Everything is in its place and there is a place for everything.

    If you do end up carrying anything on your back it will add extra pressure on your seat. As you know, the key factor is friction. That is how we get those calluses over our ischial tuberosities. As long as you have a way to greatly reduce the friction then life is relatively good.

    There is a good short article on saddle sores by a dermatologist at . My personal physician is an avid (gram weenie) cyclist. He does not mind discussing strategies to keep my butt calluses under control. He has even gone to the extent of drawing "modern art" sketches of my butt on the paper exam table sheet as part of his explanation. (I can only imagine what the nurse thinks we have been discussing.) My dermatologist, on the other hand, is not nearly so interested in addressing the issue. In fact when I asked him about it he told me with great disgust, "Those are calluses!" In any case, the key is to eliminate as much friction as possible. Whether that means going commando style or buttering up the chamois, the goal is to eliminate as much friction as possible. I do both. It just depends on how my calluses are doing.

    Have you heard of (I am not kidding) Anti Monkey Butt Powder? I use it in the desert heat. Google it, because I know they have a web site. It is at least good for chuckles. I get mine from Duluth Trading Company . It works well, but would be a bit much to carry.

    When all is said and done, to paraphrase Francis Tapon in his book "Hike Your Own Hike", you must Ride Your Own Ride! Incidentally, I highly recommend Francis's book for motivational purposes. His insights are very helpful and they apply to all aspects of our lives as well. Check him out at . He has hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail and just completed a yo-yo of the Continental Divide Trail. Together (even without the yo-yo) hiking these three trails is called the "Triple Crown." He is an interesting fellow and I really enjoy reading and rereading his book.

    Again, when all is said and done, just take the best and burn the rest.

  15. Do not change your position, your shoes or anything between your butt and the saddle from training to a race. No matter what anyone says on the internets, do not. It will only bring trouble.

    Although I too think it odd that a long distance biker does not wear chamois, it is still more important not to go changing critical decisions too late. You might want to have a pair of padded shorts with you, but not on you, like Joatley says.

    Carrying load on the front of the bike tends to slow down the steering, but in my experience the steering on a Pugsley is so slow anyway, that this is not too much trouble. Make sure your attachment does not fail, though. If your stuff sack drops on the front tyre, it will be thrown immediately in front of you, after which you will proceed to ride over it, your chainring eating up everything in your sack.

  16. Jill,
    I have been using a CETMA rack on the front of my old Diamondback steel-frame for a year now. Terrific design and construction.
    While in Juneau and staying in Douglas I carried about thirty five pounds on that rack. I grew so used to the weight and handling that when I was riding without it I was oversteering like crazy for the first mile or so.
    I like the fact that the load is in front where I can keep an eye on it. Too often I've lost (or nearly) items from the back rack when they worked loose or vibrated out from under the tiedowns.
    CETMAracks make my trips much easier. Lance has a webpage and is based out of Eugene.

  17. Thank you everyone. Good advice, all. Thanks especially to Carl and Jeff. It's been really great to hear from veterans. I read all the old race reports like gospel. Seriously.

    Yeah ... chamois. I think I could buy a new pair of shorts, wear them from the start, and be fine. I have a few older pairs that are more than a little worn down, but I wear them from time to time with no adverse effects. The main reason I stopped wearing chamois is because I so often ride in wet conditions. Soggy shammies are really unpleasent ... like riding in a dirty diaper. Then I just got used to no chamois. And I liked that could start wearing pajama bottoms and only doing my laundry every few weeks. I've never been one for fashion.

    Thinking more and more about liking the weight up front. I may even try to stick the sleeping bag up there and see how it steers. The Pugsley handles (and turns) like a bus anyway, regardless of what's on the handlebars so I don't have any really worries about heavy steering.

  18. Jill,

    Another interesting post from you, I only wish I had some expertise with which to advise you.

    I'm very much a novice cyclist, here, but am really interested in the discussion about inserts in shorts.I'm afraid I've been having problems in that area, even with my comparatively tiny mileage, and very gentle climate.I'll be checking out bikerbob's suggestions.

    Good luck.


Feedback is always appreciated!