Thinking of trying your first winter cycling ultra? Do it, you won’t regret it!
However, If you are serious about this— especially if you want to do the 200km ride— you need think seriously about what you are about to attempt: what does it take it to do an ultra? how fit do I have to be? what should I do to prepare? These are all very important questions to consider and you should take the time to think about them.
My first winter ultra was the Arrowhead 135 (220km) in 2012. When I signed up for that race I had a fairly good idea what I was getting myself into, because I talked to friends who had already participated in this event in 2010 and 2011. They gave me a ton of insight on what it took to be successful. I got a really good idea of what I needed to do when I went to the Arrowhead in 2011 to watch a friend compete— what I saw made me take my preparation for my first attempt at a winter ultra seriously.
Ride. Ride. Ride.
I saw that it was hard, much harder than any summer ride that I’d tried. So the first thing I did was ride— a lot. Even before my entry was accepted I ramped up my winter riding, I rode every chance I could. Whether it was only for a couple of hours or for a whole day, I was riding my bike. This did two things: it got me ready for the race physically, and it let me test my gear to see if it would work in the cold temperatures.
I learned that training was especially important in cold weather. You need to ride in the cold, in the wind, and in the snow to know the effort it takes to ride a long time and distance. I rode a 12 hour race in fall (End Tombed). I rode every weekend for a minimum of 4 hours and often longer, and I rode at least a couple of times during the week. I rode to my family Christmas gathering which was a 145km trek. All of these things helped me get physically ready for my first winter ultra.
Riding in the cold for long times and distances also let me see how my bike handled the cold weather. I found out that my bike did work in the cold. It shifted and braked properly, and those rides let me test to see if my freewheel would freeze open. This was important because it gave me the confidence that my bike would perform when it came time for the race, especially after having seen others who’s bikes failed them out in the cold.
Figuring out what to wear.
Riding in the cold also let me test my clothing. I got to know what combination of jackets, base layers, and footwear would keep me warm and comfortable. I had to make sure that I had the right clothing for the longer distance rides. The wrong combination of clothing means you get could get cold from either too little protection or from too much. Because if you overheat, you sweat too much and you’ll get cold from that. You need to figure this out. It’s important. I have seen more than enough cases of frostbitten hands, feet and faces— you definitely want to avoid frostbite. Thankfully I have not seen a case of hypothermia— very cold people, yes, but not full blown hypothermia. Don’t be the first one I’ve seen.
It is also important to test your hydration and feeding systems. You need to make sure to keep your water from freezing, you may not get as thirsty as you do on a summer ride but staying well hydrated in the cold helps you keep warm on your ride. You need to test your food and your ability to get at the food when you are out in the cold. Not only that but you need to be able find the right food that doesn’t freeze solid and become too difficult to eat.
Finally, practicing several possible scenarios that could happen during the race was also very important. I would do things like ride for a couple of hours, stop, let the air out of one of my tires, take the tube out put it back in and inflate it again, so I could continue riding (this was also a test of my pump to make sure that it too would work in the cold).This gave me the confidence that I could do this if I had to on a ride.
I also tested my ability to be able to get into my survival setup when it was extremely cold out. To do this I rode for 3 hours on an evening when it was -30. After riding for the 3 hours I stopped in my brother’s back yard to see if I could safely get into my sleeping bag (carrying a sleeping bag is a requirement for Arrowhead). I did this in a backyard because I wanted to make sure that I safe out in case things went wrong – they almost did. At first I felt warm and was not in too much of a hurry, I was surprised by how quickly that changed. It started when I could not get my sleeping bag out of the compression sack, the coldness made it difficult. By the time that I finally got everything out and set up (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and bivy) I was starting to shiver and my hands were getting really cold, by the time I got into the bag I could barely do up the zippers because my hands were so cold – I learned a lot from this experiment, especially what it takes to be safe.
All winter ultras are unique and difficult – the weather, distance, and the terrain you need to navigate make each winter ultra different. The most important thing you can do is to take time to prepare for event, make sure you are physically ready , that your equipment works, your gear is sound – take the time to ride and practice your skills and gear, doing this will make for a rewarding ride.