Winter ultras are becoming more and more prevalent, and fat bikers are starting to reach endless distances on their bikes in winter months. The gear and components are important for a number of reasons, but maybe the most difficult element of these particular rides are variable conditions. Warm and soft conditions can get you down into a t-shirt with nearly 0 psi,  where cold and firm conditions will test your layering and tire choices. Last week I had the pleasure in taking part in the Fat Pursuit, the only winter ultra in the western United States, excluding Alaska. A week leading up to the race, things looked pretty good as far as conditions, at least much better than last year. A recent storm that dropped nearly 3 feet would clear out, temperatures were going to sit just below the 20’s, and there was little or no precipitation in the forecast. So I prepared for what I thought those conditions would be like. Living in Colorado, where the lows were dipping into the negatives every night was a good test. If I would have known that I would wake up on race day to temperatures as high as 25* at 5:30am, I would have changed my clothing and gear system out. Below are 3 things that worked almost to perfection, and 3 things that caused headaches.

3 things that worked

Stove: If the race was not challenging enough, Jay Petervary and crew wanted to see if you knew how to use your gear. Whether it was announced or not, there would be a mandatory stop where you had to boil water with the stove you carry. This was a great idea as it made me figure out what gasses worked well in cold weather. I purchased an MSR Whisperlite Universal, because I do plan on using it down the road, and I already owned a JetBoil Sol. My intent was to use the Whisperlite Universal for white gas and the Jet Boil for isobutane. Isobutane tends to have a difficult time in really cold conditions, while white gas does not. About a week before the race, I put my isobutane canister outside in around 5 degree weather. About 3 hours later I went for a ride to test it out. Fat Pursuit After riding a bit, I stopped, shook up the isobutane, and screwed it on the stove –  it lit up instantly. It took just over 5 minutes to bring the water to a boil, slower than it normally would, but I knew if it would work in these temperatures, it would work just fine in 20* temperatures in Idaho. Shoes: Maybe one of the most important piece of gear for me are my shoes. After testing a number of different systems out early last year, including vapor barriers and socks, I decided to purchase some 45NRTH Wolvhammer boots. I typically wear a size 11 (45) shoe, but went with a size 47 after taking advice from Pete Bassinger. Going with a bigger size shoe allowed me to layer up socks without creating too tight of a fit and losing circulation. Fat Pursuit I then customized a 40 Below over booty/gator by cutting out the bottoms to expose the Vibram soles of the Wolvhammers. I used silicone to seal the over booty to the side/sole of the boot for a perfect fit. During the race I rolled down the gator portion of the booty as it was very warm. If it had been cold those gators would act as another layer for the lower portion of my leg. One thing I think is important to mention is my bottom base layer. I make sure I do not tuck this layer into my socks or boot to ensure that my feet breath a bit more. Overall this system worked very well, I would have been prepared for -30* but was still comfortable in mid 30’s. Layering: It is extremely difficult to train in one climate and race in another, luckily for me Colorado and Idaho have similar climates and I was able to prepare for them. Knowing the warm temperatures ahead, my layering system would be pretty minimal.
DSC_6138
(Photo: Trent Bona – Courtesy of Mountain Flyer Magazine)
  Starting with base layers, both top and bottom, were the lightest and thinnest I had. I rocked some Craft Performance Cross Country pants that are also very light, and breathe extremely well. For the top I wore a Pearl Izumi thermal long sleeve jersey, and a PI vest. When I was climbing I would unzip both PI layers almost fully. On downhills I would zip them back up keeping me warm. I did the same with my Buff for my head. No need for a hat in these things, even in the Arrowhead 135 last year I was hot in my Buff. A few more… -Lights Ay-Up on bars and Black Diamond Storm headlamp -Camelback Octane lumbar hydration backpack with insulated hose. Planned on using the hydro heater, but temperatures did not permit. -Tailwind Nutrition, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Honey Stinger Gold Energy Gel, and Snickers…YUM!!! -Dogwood Design Pogies  

3 things that did NOT work

Tires and PSI: We arrived up in Island Park on Thursday night around 7pm. Every available second after that I was checking my psi to make sure my tires were holding air. The Tuesday before the race was the first time I setup my new Nextie Wild Dragon 90mm tubeless rims, and I was extremely nervous about it. I was having crazy pressure variations as I would bring the bike in from the cold, and back outside, 5 psi one minute, 13 the other. Luckily for me the psi would not be the issue during the race, but rather my tire selection. I ran a Husker DU rear and a Dillinger front, both of the 4 inch variety. I was riding these tires a few weeks prior to the race and they were working extremely well. Temperatures were cold in Colorado, and that is where I was fooled. DSC_1138The Dillinger up front worked as intended, I should have released more  pressure, but decided to sacrifice for those faster sections. The real issue was the Husker Du in the rear. The winner, Andrew Kulmatiski, was rocking a Vanhelga in the rear which is a wide spaced large knob tire that tracks extremely well in soft snow. Between the recent snow, warm conditions, and snowmobile activity, conditions were just that, soft. I started with 7 PSI up front and 8 in the rear, I would slowly take more and more pressure out all day. My Husker Du and tire pressure were off, and I was working much harder than I should have. In the future… I will be rocking Vanhelga or Dillingers front and rear for a race with conditions like these. Bags: My bikepacking bags worked very well, but my decision to load them up did not. Although I did not weigh my bike, it was heavy. I kept looking around at the start, seeing people without saddlebags thinking to myself  – how do they manage? One thing that was extremely heavy for me was my sleeping bag, I managed to stuff a -20 degree bag into a 20L Bike Bag Dude handlebar harness.
Bike Bag Dude
This bag worked great, whats in it is heavy! (review coming soon on this bag)
Others were my frame bag which was stuffed with things I did not use. Same with my saddle bag which contained extra layers. But in reality, this was a warm race, and having some of those items could have been extremely important if it were colder especially in a longer multi day race. In the end, being new to winter ultras, and this particular race, made me play it safe. In the future… If I do this particular race length again I will forego my saddle bag, and fit my layers in my frame bag. I may also consider a 0* sleeping bag. Gearing: After the race I was actually completely satisfied with my gearing. However, after a good night rest I had time to think on it more. I was running the new shimano 9000 11 speed drivetrain along with a raceface turbine crank. I was training on a 26 tooth chain ring, but decided a few weeks prior to the race that  I would be rocking a 28 tooth. Fat Pursuit With the combination of soft snow and some pretty steep climbs, I ended up walking quite a bit outside of West Yellowstone and up to the divide. I was blown away by how much Andrew was staying on his bike. His 2×10 drivetrain paired with his low pressure gave him a huge range for climbing and descending, much more than I had. In the future…I would consider a 2×10, but in reality I don’t believe I will ever go back to it. At the very least I will go back to a 26 for some of those steep climbs.  

There is always room for improvement in these things and athletes will continue to stretch the limits of gear. Like I said, I think it’s better to play it safe, especially if you are in some nasty conditions. All it takes is a broken bike or huge storm that leaves you stranded in the cold. Yes, I am still new to winter ultras, but I hope some of this information can help your next adventure or race. I’m hoping for a longer, multi-day race in the lower 48, I think this setup would work perfectly for that.

9 Comments

  1. Dillingers make for a damn good rear tire as well. As for the gearing, I have a hard time dropping the second chainring, especially as I seem to find the kind of extended climbs that challenge traction and fitness. But I love the idea and the aesthetic of 1x systems, and as a fat tire fanatic, it solves a lot of problems. Great finish in the Fat Pursuit!

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Yeah, or I may just rock Dillingers front and rear. Yeah, I’m loving the 1×11, I may just need another swift kick in the rear to realize its just not working out. I’m stubborn and the fact that its so nice on dirt keeps me on it.

  2. Great writeup, thanks for sharing lessons learned.

  3. Von Kruiser

    I’m running 1×11 and it works ok but not all the time. Long grinds w/ hours in the saddle is when I’m over it. Going back to 2 x front on my next build.

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Yeah,

      Contemplating that idea for next year, but I really dig the 1X. Like you said, it’s the long grinds, I’m totally fine with 20 miles or so, but when the legs are fatigued, its tough. Lots of testing to do.

  4. Jay Lewandowski

    Neil,
    I did the 60K. You flew past me your second time up the climb that was shared by the 60K and 200K folks.
    I watched you finish that evening. I did not know it was you as I listen and enjoy your pod cast and would have had more questions for you.
    I struggled with 4″ dillingers out there and don’t know how the 2ook riders with the extra gear manage. All that I say finish were running 4″ tires. The guys on my team finished 1,3,4,10 and on with in the 60K and were running 4.8 tires. Bill had Lou and Bud and he was first in the 60K.
    Your bike had a 190 rear, yet you chose the 4′ tire. Do you feel that much difference in the resistance enough to suffer with the traction in certain areas to make justify a 4 over a 5 on the rear?
    Great Result out there!

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Jay, Sorry for the late reply here. I rocked the 4′ tires because that was all I had at the time. I would now not rock anything under 4.6′. When conditions are firm, I will be rocking Dillinger 5’s and Dunder and Flow for softer conditions. Are you heading back up there for the 200k or did you race in the 60k again? Cheers, Neil

  5. Hi Neil,
    Thanks for the reply. I did not go back this year. The group I went with last year did not go. Work was hectic. Regardless I’m really enjoying riding fat and plan an individual over night pursuit of my own to test my equipment and self.
    Keep it up!
    Jay

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