Biking in arctic winter

Lessons learned in arctic winter – getting my head around biking in cold

It´s been a cold January in central Finland. For the last two weeks the temperature has mostly been hovering below -20c dropping all the way down to -30c every now and then. Perfect weather to learn valuable lessons for Rovaniemi 150 fatbiking race that´s coming up in four weeks!

Cold day biking in Finland

When signing up for the 150k winter fatbiking race in Rovaniemi I really had no clue what I was up against. I was feeling confident on my training all the way through December but once the temperature plummeted early January, everything suddenly changed.

It was no longer about being fit enough to finish the long rides, it was about being able to survive in the cold.

It has required quite a bit of trial and error getting myself adjusted to the long rides in cold and dark and there´s still a lot of work to be done. Hopefully, the weather ends up being less extreme in the race, but I´m still preparing myself for the worst case scenario of spending more than 24 hours in sub -20c temperatures in the Lapland wildreness.

Crystal Snow on a cold winter day

Notes to self from the past few weeks:

  1. Protect the toes

Typically, the first reason turning me back from long rides was the unbearable coldness hitting my toes. I tried different types of socks, moving my toes while riding, and even pushed the bike every now and then to get some warm blood circulation going, but nothing seemed to help.

I invested in the best in class winter biking shoes and got myself a pair of 45NRTH Wölvhammers. They served me well until the temperature dropped below -15c and the toes ended up freezing again. My rides got shorter.

I already peered towards the pretty expensive alternative of buying a pair of battery heated socks, but even that option seemed useless for an effort lasting 24+ hours – I´d probably run out of battery way before hitting the finish line.

Finally, I ended up trying the cheapest and simplest option available and picked up a pair of chemical toe warmers (2,5eur) from the local sports store. I was very sceptical of solving the problem with something this cheap, but to my surprise the first 2h ride in -20c proved me wrong!

The warmers worked wonders and the effect should last up to 6 hours! They weight basically nothing so I´m planning to pack myself a good stack of them for Rovaniemi to keep the toes happy!

Traks on the snow

2. Water freezes in cold

*couch*…should have known this one.

The only viable solution I came up with for keeping the water from freezing was putting my Camelbac bladder under the winter jacket to keep it warm. I found out the hard way this wasn´t good enough.

After an hour of riding in -20c I decided to stop for a drink. I dug out the water tube hidden in the warmth of my jacket but nothing came out. The tube seemed to be completely frozen.

With 3 hours of riding to go I kinda needed something to drink. There was no other option but to take off my helmet, head torch and glasses, strip off my jacket and fleece in the freezing -20c wind, move the bladder beneath the fleece and put the clothes back on.

By the time I was done, my hands were numbed from the cold and I was unable to zip my jacket. While trying to get my fingers to function again by warming them in riding gloves the cold was creeping in through the front of the jacket flapping wide open in the wind.

I was seriously starting to get second thoughts about the whole Rovaniemi trip thinking “what if this had happened in Rovaniemi in the middle of nowhere“. Jacket open, hands frozen and nothing to drink. Even the thought of an hour´s ride back home seemed unbearable at the time.

Eventually, I got my hands warm enough to zip the jacket properly and get the helmet and glasses back on. Instead of sprinting back home I decided to give it a go and continued riding.

Lucky I did! The pedaling slowly brought back the warmth and even the water tube eventually melted allowing me some drinks along the way!

Two lessons learned on working with the water: 1) bladder under the fleece = good, bladder on top of the fleeze = useless and 2) the water tube won´t freeze if there´s no water in it (doh!) – blow all the water back to the bladder once done with drinking!

Winterday on a frozen lake

3. Get proper light

On more than one of my training rides during Christmas time I found myself riding back in complete darkness due to running out of battery on my head torch. The cold seemed to eat out the batteries faster than I was able to switch them with my cold-numbed hands and I was getting frustrated on the amount of batteries I´d need to carry with me through the race.

I turned to the good old Internet and after a good while of reading through reviews and experiences ended up ordering a Petzl NAO 2 with an extension cord to get the battery out of the cold to a warm pocket.

On my first training ride I was amazed! After all the long hours of training in the dark with a crappy headlamp showing barely 5 meters right ahead of me, I was honestly surprised what a difference a lamp can make! The reactive lightning technology adjusting the brightness along the way based on where you´re looking is really cool and the battery seems to be durable enough for a 5ish hour ride even with the less economic power settings. Certainly worth every buck!

Winter in the forest

Now, I feel the very basics have been sorted. I can ride in the dark while keeping myself warm and hydrated.

Next, I need to start thinking of fueling. The cold seems to add on the amount of energy needed to keep going. My typical solution for fueling in long distance races has been popping a gel every 30mins and adding an energy bar roughly every two hours. This doesn´t sound like a very viable option for an event lasting 24h or more – not easy on the stomach and…yup – the gels are useless when they´re frozen.

Another thing I need to test during the following weeks is my bivvy gear. For the unlikely event of having to spend a night in the wildreness of Rovaniemi, I purchased a winter sleeping bag Alpkit Arctic Dream 1400, bivvy bag, and a winter sleeping pad. I guess there´s an overnighter coming my way soon!

I´m slowly beginning to comprehend the task at hand and getting exited and terrified at the same time. Lucky there´s still a couple of weeks to get myself sorted!

Kendatires in the winter


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