When I moved to Crested Butte last year, I had ambitions of getting back into ski mountaineering after a five-year hiatus, and also of making backcountry skiing a bigger part of my life again. I used to ski every chance I got. There is nothing like going into the mountains under your own power, with only the things you need on your back, and enjoying the beauty and solitude of the mountains under their quiet blanket of snow. Not to mention the thrilling adventure of climbing a steep ribbon of snow up a mountain face with cliff walls on either side, and flying through bottomless powder that at times makes it hard to breathe.
Last winter, two things happened: 1) I had shoulder surgery and couldn't use my left arm for much, for the majority of the winter and 2) I realized that access to the bigger mountains around Crested Butte can be long and difficult, as town happens to be literally at the end of the road in the winter, and a lot of the access involves a long road approach. I don't have a snowmobile and have no plans to get one, as I think they are noisy, stinky, expensive to maintain, a really big anchor (I prefer to keep life simple so I can pick up and go whenever I want) and bad for the environment. Now, I don't think badly of people who do use them- I am bad for the environment in many of my own ways. This is just not one of them.
So, seeing as how I am not going to be purchasing a snowmobile in the foreseeable future, I spent last winter scheming about how I could access the mountains while at the same time still maintaining the value I see in quiet travel, and maybe making it to my destination a little quicker than just walking. Fat biking seemed like a natural choice for me- I can access my winter playground while getting in some base miles in training for mountain bike season. Plus bikes are fun, and I love riding them. So... why not?
This winter I was lucky enough to land a sponsorship from Fatback Bikes, a company out of Alaska that is on the cutting edge of fat bike technology. This is ALL they do- and they do it well. They sent me a Corvus, their new full carbon fatbike. With a SRAM XO1 buildup and an upgrade in tires the bike weighs in at just under 28 lbs. The Corvus is an awesome bike- it handles really well in the snow, it's responsive, and it definitely can get me places that my regular 29er mountain bike cannot. I've had the bike for a couple of weeks now, and I've been learning a ton about how fat bikes work and what their capabilities are. As it turns out, it's a whole different animal than regular mountain biking!
Here are a few basic things about fat biking I learned through Ride #1, which happened to be the local Winter Growler race at Hartman Rocks in Gunnison:
1. Pogies are ESSENTIAL if you're living/riding in winter. It is regularly below zero here, and I've ridden in the thickest ski mittens I have and still frozen my hands off. A pair of these Dogwood Designs pogies did the trick nicely- now I can ride in the same gloves that I use for backcountry skinning. (Score one for using the same equipment for bike/ski). Check out this great article from Bikepackers Magazine on pogie options, as well as heaps of other great info about using bikes for long-distance travel in winter or summer.
2. I ride in heavy winter boots, and I like it that way. For one, I am not going to shell out $350 for winter cycling boots. Knowing my feet, they would still not be warm enough. I've been curious, but that would be a really expensive "test run." Also, I have learned that when you are fatbiking in a snowy place like the Gunnison Valley, chances are you are going to end up hiking and pushing your bike through some deep snow. Fat bikes float great over well packed and even moderately packed terrain, depending on tire size, but they are not skis. I've spent multiple rides already, while experimenting with what my bike can do, getting a little overambitious and ending up wallowing through deep snow. Because my winter boots come up to my knees, my feet stay dry and warm no matter what I'm riding or pushing through. They also stay warm when I'm riding in -20 degree temps. (Yes, that happens here- regularly.)
3. Tires make a HUGE difference! My bike came with a set of Maxxis tires that probably would have been great for snowy road riding, but again the snow is deep, soft, and plentiful here, and I could tell midway through the first lap during the Winter Growler race that they were not the right tool for the job. So I upgraded. I am running a 45Nrth Dilinger (5") in the front and a Surly Nate (3.8") in the rear. Both have great grip, and the Dilinger especially is very floaty. At some point I may put one in the rear... we'll see. Massive thanks to Rock n' Roll Sports for setting me up with these tires.
4. Riding a bike in the snow exposes your weaknesses, leaves little room for error, and makes you a much better rider. When you are riding off road and have a very narrow track on which to ride, you can't slip off the track or you'll end up buried in the deep snow. Then, getting back on is VERY difficult. On my first ride in the Winter Growler race there was maybe a 6" strip of snow that was packed enough to ride on, and I kept getting distracted and slipping off to the side, and then getting frustrated when I couldn't get back on and had to spend time postholing through the deep snow while pushing my bike along the track- especially when I saw other people riding it with no trouble! I was very glad I was wearing my tall snow boots. Since then, I have learned to really keep my focus on where I want to go (the trail ahead of me), not getting distracted, and at times moving slowly enough that my tires don't slip, like on steeper climbs. I'm also getting better at staying loose and letting the bike move around underneath me, especially on steep downhills where there is loose snow, maybe ruts from skis, variable conditions, and a narrow track. Just like on a mountain bike but even more so, it is really important to stay relaxed and balanced over the bike while it dances around underneath you, and staying calm if you feel the wheels start to slip or go off the track.
Yesterday, I did a trial run with my bike and current bag system plus my ski touring and mountaineering equipment. I headed up one of the roads heading north out of Crested Butte to access some ski terrain that most people take snowmobiles to. It was a super fun day, somewhat hilarious, and I learned heaps about what works well in my current system and what I need to change. Stay tuned for another post about the adventure of learning to travel in the winter by bike!
When I was twenty years old, I fulfilled a lifelong dream: I left my comfortable life behind and moved out of the country. I gave the middle finger to every single reason I shouldn't, or couldn't; all the nagging fears and doubts and thoughts of "what the hell are you doing moving halfway across the world by yourself," and I spent much of 2003 living in New Zealand. I lived mostly in my 1983 Holden Commodore station wagon with the steering wheel on the right, my kiddie crib mattress squished to one side of the behemoth-like land yacht and my skis and climbing gear on the other side.
This experience changed my life. When I returned to the US, I knew I wasn't done. The unknown was now the known, and my deep-seated desire to wander the world in search of adventure and experience was firmly cemented in the core of my being. Despite the junkshow misadventures I had that year that inevitably come with being a rookie traveler, I not only survived but thrived, and I was hooked on hurling myself outside my comfort zone, on testing my resourcefulness, creativity, and courage, and on the exhilaration I felt from being completely alone in a strange place.
I knew that travel would always be a part of my life. I made it a priority to put myself in situations where I could take off for long periods of time, alone or with a companion, and I had incredible experiences all over Europe, in Thailand, and in British Columbia. Every two years I would go on extended vacation, vagabonding across some far-off part of the globe that usually involved some sort of outdoor adventure, living in cars, eating, sharing deep belly laughs and intense conversations with strangers who were so different yet so similar to me, and random wandering through city streets and over high mountain passes, eyes wide with wonder and adoration for the incredible world we live in.
When I made the decision in early 2012 to put everything else in my life on the back burner to pursue professional bike racing, I knew that travel would have to be included in this. No more leaving a job or taking a sabbatical from life for weeks or months on end to become a vagabond. When I make up my mind to do something, I don't half-ass it. I'm all in. All of my extra time, energy, money, and other resources were going to be devoted to this pursuit.
In the back of my mind, my goal, though it seemed so far away, was to someday find a way to combine mountain bike racing and international travel- to find a way to combine my passion for wandering the world with my passion for racing bikes, and make it sustainable in a way that wouldn't find me scrimping and barely scraping by in life in order to go on a trip. I also wanted to do it in a way that wouldn't be for me alone, but that would inspire other people to find that thing, that secret passion that shows up in their dreams when they're not constrained by reality, that thing that makes their heart sing and their world set on fire, and go after it. (You know, that thing.)
And finally... three years after I shelved one passion for another, things have come full circle. I have finally worked myself into a position where I am lucky enough to combine the two. I just booked a flight to Guatemala (!!!!!!), and in less than two months, I will board a plane to fly over the big drink for the first time with my bike, for a race. Just like my first time over ten years ago, I will travel alone.
It's funny how my fears and doubts about stepping into the unknown as a thirty-something woman are so different than the ones that I had as a twenty-something girl. My five year hiatus from travel has taken a toll on my free-spirited nature; it has been interesting to observe the complicated dialogue in my brain happening now that was not there when travel was a consistent part of my life. My safety as a woman traveling alone is a concern. Entering a multi-day bike race where I have to perform at my best in a completely foreign situation is a concern. Logistics are a concern. "Will I succeed?" is a concern. There is an element of fear within me that has never been there before. I close my eyes and try to remember the feelings that I used to have, in my twenties when I would excitedly jump across the globe into the unknown at my first opportunity, without hesitation or even a second thought. Though the memories are faintly there, the feelings have faded.
Still, there is this: something I have always believed, something I have found to be true throughout my life. Something that has always inspired me to jump, even though I may not really know if I will land on solid ground:
"Until one is committed...
there is hesitancy...
the chance to draw back...
Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans...
That the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising on one's favor all manners of unforeseen incidents, meetings, and materials assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it: boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
So, once again, a little older and maybe wiser this time, I am heeding the words of Goethe. I have committed. All in, one hundred percent- the only way I know how. I am so excited to have my passions come full circle and to have my dreams of traveling abroad to race my bike become a reality. Though the road hasn't always been easy, I am finally accomplishing what I set out to do.
I am incredibly grateful to so many people for supporting me in this adventure, from the beginning stages to now. Especially Donny, who "met" me just as I was making this unconventional commitment in my life and has never held me back from pursuing this path. And Alison; without her influence in my life I wouldn't even be racing a bike, much less successfully. I am grateful for my few and true friends who stuck with me four years ago when I decided to uproot my comfortable life, get on the crazy bus and leave "normal" far behind- you know who you are. I am grateful for all those who told me "you can't, that's stupid, why would you do that, what are you thinking?" There is nothing that makes me more fiercely determined than telling me I can't. Guess what? You were wrong.
Finally, I am so grateful for my racing sponsors whose support is making it possible for me to go out on a limb, to take chances, to create, to fall in love over and over again with what I have the privilege to do, to live this life, and to share it with the world. Thank you, with all of my heart.
I leave for Guatemala in less than two months. I hope that this is only the beginning- the first of many experiences wandering through the world racing my bike. Thank you all for your support in following, and taking part in, my adventures. I can't wait to share it all with you!