“Urgh, you idiot” – There I was, about to cycle out of my depth again. I found myself standing over a mass of cycling kit, travel bottles, pants and rogue clumps of Gomez fur and cursing my own name under my breath. The cold prickle of panic quaked up through the back of my neck, and I realised that I’d stopped breathing… What had I gotten myself into?
Last year I found out about the Snow Bike Festival, which was taking place in the stunning mountain resort of Gstaad, Switzerland. A number of things about it jumped out at me: Snow. Bike. Festival and Switzerland. Having lived in Switzerland for a number of years, I’m familiar with the area of Gstaad, and given how much I love the snow, riding bikes and celebrating all of the above, I let fate – and my inner child – guide my hand to the registration form.
It was only after I had signed up, and the weeks slipped down into days leading up to the event that I began to consider what I was really in for A three-stage cross-country race covering 30km per day, in the snow, on fat bikes… in sub-zero temperatures. What was I thinking? I’d never ridden in the snow, or on a fatbike, or in sub-zero temperatures.
When I had the impossible task of packing way too much stuff into too small of a case I realised, I realised that I had once again let my inner child make an impulsive decision for me. It felt like the harrowing 100 milers all over again…
Day 1: Tracy Moseley found it hard, and that made me feel good
Given the Snow Bike Festival is UCI credited, and locals to snowy parts of the world would totally thrash me, I wasn’t in it to win. I was in it to experience something new, have fun and hopefully meet some new faces to add to my international biking family.
Cars, planes and trains later, I arrived in Gstaad on Wednesday where the ever so fresh – 13-degree temperature greeted me upon exiting the train. I made my way to the hotel, tired and cold to the core.
On Thursday morning, I headed down to the rental shop to pick up my ride. The Scott Big Ed was certainly big and heavy. Stunning to look at, and fun to ride, I placed a lot of faith in my new steed to see me through to the end of the event.
Uh oh, Conti-brakes. Being a lover of my brakes, I had to really drum it in my head that the brakes were on the wrong way round. Hands off the left lever!
As I rolled over to the event site, I was welcomed with smiling excited staff who helped me register, get my goody bag and prepare for the prologue event: a time trial. The aim of this was to give everyone a feel for riding in the snow and get used to their bikes. Three laps of a 2.5km course, the prologue was certainly an eye-opener.
It was during this time trial that I quickly learnt how not to ride in the snow. As I rolled off to a start, I rounded the first corner on hard packed snow, before the track turned into a powder web of chaos and I went down. What I quickly learnt is that riding a fatbike through powder is extremely difficult. The snow carries your front wheel in any which way it wants, so it takes a lot of upper body strength (of which I have none) to keep the bike upright.
Before coming out to Gstaad, I found out that legendary downhill and enduro rider, Tracy Moseley, would be taking part in the Snow Bike Festival as well. So naturally, I panicked and began to mentally train myself to keep my cool when I met her.
“It’s great fun and I’m really enjoying figuring things out at the moment.” – Tracy Moseley
After my time trial was over, Tracy took to the starting mound for hers. As I watched her ride, a little gremlin in me was pleased to see her battle against the same powdery snow as I had. If T-Mo had difficulty, then it wasn’t just me being a terrible rider.
Seeing her place 3rd in the Women’s UCI category was inspiring. Having never been on a fatbike, or on the snow before, Tracy and I were in the same boat. Well, she was in a way fitter, more experienced and faster boat, but we shared the same new experience nonetheless. After her time trial, she told me: “It’s a lot harder than I thought. The snow carries the bike all over the place, and I’m unsure where to place my weight. It’s great fun and I’m really enjoying figuring things out at the moment.”
Prior to the event, I read some helpful guides online about how to dress for snow, and how to dress for snow-biking. The most common theme to emerge from the research was LAYERING. Merino wool base-layers to wick away moisture, thermal jerseys and gilets all to keep your core warm. Feet, hands and head were the next things to take care of. For this, I bought a variety of socks, gloves and caps to help find the right combination.
Day 2: What the actual f*ck is snow-biking?
Up early for breakfast and I made sure I got a “balanced” meal of hot chocolate, brioche and bacon. So much yum, that each day I suffered heartache leaving the breakfast bar and all its treats. That hot chocolate though, oh my!
Layered up to my eyes, I was feeling nervous as my stomach danced around beneath. I headed over to the starting line where 100 other UCI and amateur riders were buzzing with race excitement. Feeling like a fish out of water, I took my place at the back of the peloton with the other newbies and unranked locals.
As the countdown reached zero, the pack were off and we made our way out for Stage One of the Snow Bike Festival. Cycling through the promenade of Gstaad was wonderful, the crowds were out, and the sun was shining. I felt OK.
Picking my lines carefully, avoiding the puffy powder areas and keeping my head down was almost impossible when riding through such incredible landscape. I almost wished I wasn’t racing, so I could stop, fanny around and take photos, because it was so truly magical that I was a songbird away from being a full blown Disney princess.
I was a little worried about my undercarriage. I always am when riding a new bike, or when I’m covering long distances, or when (like this time) I forget to bring my own saddle! The Scott Big Ed came equipped with what can only be described as a non-female-friendly pain in the ass. At first, I was relieved it was so cold that my foof was numb within 10 mins, but then the familiar dull ache began to radiate from my sit bones causing the “free-wheel butt dancing” to commence.
After the first 15km of the 30km route, we began to climb. At first, it was a slog of an icy fire-road which wound its way around the mountainside. At every corner, I prayed for it to end, but it carried on and with every turn, my heart sank further down as my legs were screaming from the cold push.
Like a beacon of hope and revitalisation, the feed station came into view on the horizon. I was able to gorge my way through gummy bears and bananas whilst chugging down warm broth and lemonade. A much-needed boost of energy helped me get going again, even though I could have happily stayed at that feed station all day.
The climb got tougher as the snow became softer and more powdery. The massive fatbike tyres spun and skipped until I had to admit defeat and push. This difficult climb was made worse for its deep set in the valley of two mountains, this meant shade, and shade meant freezing. Like a heavy curtain, the sun was hidden and the darkness engulfed me a Big “bastard” Ed. It pierced through my layers, and the protective buff I used for warmth, began to freeze… as did my hair. With no shelter or warmth, I was forced to trudge through the powder making baby-steps as I shook with cold.
It was around this point that I wanted to cry if my face hadn’t been so frozen. My feet were screaming at me, and the deafening quiet of the valley made the situation feel even more overwhelming and totally suffocating. Were those negative head whispers right this whole time? Was I out of my depth? Could I not do this?
The hellish climb was rewarded with the most stunning panoramic view of the mountains I’ve ever seen. However, stopping to admire such a view caused my body to cool too fast and the sweat beads on my back began to freeze. Not just that, but by the time I managed to get my phone out from the layers, I had about 20 seconds before it would shut off due to the cold. I had to push on and make it down the other side of the mountain.
The descents weren’t much easier either, as they required the utmost concentration in order to avoid the soft snow. Catching a rut with the front wheel sent you off in any direction and recovering from a skid cost too much energy from my already depleted body. The final descent was a cautious ride as the side of the piste fell away, and a panic slide would certainly send me over the edge. The final straight into the finish line was flat, and the relief washed over me in a hot excitement.
Route: Gstaad – Rougemount – Saanen – Chalberhoni – Eggli – Gstaad
Each evening the event hosted a dinner for all riders and crew in a huge sports hall. Now, this isn’t like a normal race where there’s a burger van or half heated pasta tray that’s been getting chewier under a hot lamp, oh no no. This food was amazing. Salad, fresh bread, water, then a hot meal of awesome followed by a scrummy dessert.
Catching up with Tracy Moseley after dinner she shared her feelings about the first stage: “It’s been a long time since I’ve done a climb like that“…”I spent most of the stage on my own, I must have been in the middle of two packs, but for a long time I thought I was right at the back“…”It’s great fun though, I’m really enjoying myself“.
After food, the stage presentations were announced up at front. Much to my complete surprise, I had managed to squeeze into 3rd place of the women’s amateur category. Stoked! My first podium and I was over the moon. What a way to end the day.
Day 3: Failure to launch
On the morning of stage two, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. A snapped chain, a rattling chesty cough and infected blisters on my ankles oozed alarming colours. With the swelling and throbbing pain in my feet, I needed to find a pharmacist and a bike store to get things sorted. Feeling utterly gutted, I had to sit out this stage.
As I hobbled to the pharmacist, I managed to watch the start of Stage 2 as I stood with the cheering fans to see the peloton get off to a flying start. With my quick-links, gauze, antiseptic spray and cough sweets in hand, I made my way back to the hotel to sort myself out before heading to the finish line to watch the riders come back in.
Feeling disappointed in myself for not riding the second stage, I knew it was the right thing to do given my bike and my body needed my attention. Well rested, fed with good food and fluids, I periodically checked and cleaned my wounds with the intention of riding the third and final stage the following day.
Day 4: I got this… I think
I woke up on the final day feeling groggy, but determined. My left ankle was less weepy but still puffy and sore. Sheepishly making my way to breakfast, I loaded up on delicious hot chocolate and fuel foods as I planned to suck it up and take part in the final stage of the Snow Bike Festival.
Double wrapping my ankles, and choking down some sweets, I layered up and rolled out to the start line where I met Tracy who was getting warmed up. Despite having chatted with the legendary rider on a number of occasions throughout the event, I still found it hard to not let the word-vomit explode from my mouth in a very cringy fan-girl fashion. Feeling a little tired herself, Tracy’s enthusiasm for the event and for racing was infectious. I suddenly couldn’t wait to start riding and see the event through to the end.
Having only briefly looked over the route map, I knew there would be less climbing than on the first stage, but there would be an additional 5km in overall distance. However, the sun was shining, blue skies warmed the peloton for the final start and at 10:30 sharp, we were on our way.
Although the race began with a pretty long stretch of climbing, it was a lot more gradual than what we had covered a few days earlier. That, and the ground was a lot firmer so it was more manageable. Starting off with a climb rose my core temperature hot enough that I needed to undo the zips of my gilet and jersey.
Unlike stage one where the shade shrouded you in a bone-chilling cold, the final stage was almost entirely in the sunlight. It was warming, almost too much so but I was grateful to still feel my hands and feet throughout the stage.
The course was a lot more cross-country in nature than stage one. Undulating, flowy and so much fun that I nearly forgot about my hacking cough and throbbing ankles. It’s a surreal feeling, racing a bike down a ski piste alongside snowboarders and skiers, but it was so cool. Despite feathering the brakes, it was like riding down a slip n’ slide having very little control over the bike whatsoever. You find yourself drifting around, but once you relaxed your body, let the bike lead and accept your fate, it was awesome.
As I reached the finish line, the crowds were cheering on and the event staff were waiting to shower you with high-five’s and hugs. It was an awesome feeling to have completed the final stage, and to beat my previous stage time by 25 minutes. Once the adrenaline subsided, I knew I needed to shower and relax my sore feet and numb bum!
Route: Gstaad – Turbach – Lauenen – Lauenensee – Lauenen – Gstaad
A week on from the Snow Bike Festival, my ankles are well and truly on the mend, as is the rest of my body. While the event was tough, cold and totally out of my comfort zone, I sit here and think that I would do it all again. If not race, then I would definitely consider snow-biking as a great winter sport, one where I have time to fanny around and take more photos, and enjoy the Disney vibe with friends.
Having barely survived the Snow Bike Festival 2017, I have learnt a few things:
- Layers are vital for cold weather riding. More thin and breathable layers, the better
- Keeping your head, hands and feet warm and dry will be your saviour
- When renting a bike, bring your own saddle (and pedals, and whatever other personal preferences you have)
- Try not to word vomit, or get tongue-tied when talking to your idols
- Get a lot fitter before you let your inner child make rash decisions for you
- Thank your inner child for making rash decisions for you