Obsessions with the weather can get out of control before the Iditarod Trail Invitational. You can’t change the weather, but you can do your best to be prepared for whatever it might throw up.
Yesterday, it was -27C in McGrath. For the race start tomorrow, it’s due to be around 0C in Anchorage. It might seem like that’s all somewhere within the range of “cold”, so it’s not too significant. But it is still 30 degrees. You have to picture the difference between a sunny day at 20C and an “extreme” English winter when it hits -10C. Imagine packing for that kind of variation.
At one end, +1C means mushy snow, slippery partially-melted ice, open water, possible rain, and sweating into the clothing that you need for when it gets colder. At the other extreme, you can get a nice fast trail, but it will be cold enough for the breath to freeze on the way out of your body; too cold to breath the air directly when exercising; the grease on the bike will thicken and drag; metal will burn you on contact; compressed gas stoves won’t light as the gas won’t vapourise. And the old trick of throwing water into the air will cause it to freeze before it hits the ground
With this year looking tricky, I’ve brought along waders for river-crossings, and ice cleats for my shoes in case I need to walk on slick ice. Studded tyres are preying on my mind, but I don’t have the money to pitch at them and there don’t seem to be any left in Anchorage anyway.
So this is what the kitted out bike looks like:
A Singular Puffin (production instead of my old prototype). It handles great without the luggage (I’ve been riding it lots around Devon!), and surprisingly well with it. Lots of tyre clearance gives me space for 100mm rims built into wheels by Just Riding Along:
Luggage from Wildcat Gear: First, the new super-sized rear “Tiger” harness, in which I pack an expedition down jacket, waders, a spare tube and some stove fuel. Goggles and ice cleats are attached on the outside.
Next, a flared “Snow Leopard” frame-bag. Just a couple of rarely use tools, and the rest is all food. The gate-style opening on the non-drive sides means I can get every last crumb of food out of it. The thin pocket on the other side is great for stuffing wrappers etc. into without littering the trail. A hand-sized gap is left on the top-tube near the seat-tube to aid carrying. Double-wraps of velcro over the top allow you to fine-tune the tension across the frame bag and make sure can easily open the zips with one hand.
Up front, is a new super-sized “Mountain Lion” harness holding a canoe-sized drybag. With 4 straps across it, and an extended wrap going underneath the drybag, it’s stable and protected from the tyre in case of slippage. In the drybag is a -40C rated sleeping bag, silk liner, thermarest, stove, lighter, pot, fuel, synthetic down trousers, waterproof trousers, spare socks, a couple of those tiny camping towels (to stuff into my boots when drying them out), and big mitts.
Bars are USE Carbon Atoms. In a stiff wind they suck noticeably less heat from your hands than metal parts.
Dogwood Designs pogies are very warm indeed. Too warm for the conditions we’re setting out in, but having used them in Yukon-winds, they’re a solid piece of gear.
Nalgenes in bottle jackets keep the water situation simple.
And a Garmin Dakota 20 has the waypoints along the route programmed into it, so I will be able to get a vague idea where I’m going. The worst of the navigation is near the start where there are many snow-mobile trails going in all kinds of directions. Once you get out into the wilderness, there is often only one trail.
The front pouch is not a standard Wildcat thing, but I asked them for it because quick access to key items is really important in cold conditions. So, it contains more frequently used tools, pump, buffs, sunglasses, paperwork, iron supplements (there’s not a lot of broccoli on the trail), caffeine pills (not for regular use), and a toothbrush (it’s all to easy to neglect looking after yourself like that – keep the toothbrush handy, then you have no excuse to skip brushing).
Middleburn’s relatively new fat cranks provide the drive. Infinitely better looking than Surly, and much simpler to fit. I don’t have the weights, but they felt a lot lighter than the Surlys while fitting. I’m going with a 32:22 ratio that is a tiny bit longer than what I had last time to Nome.
General riding kit will be
- Muck Boot Arctic Sport boots – 100% waterproof and warm. The only slight worry is drying them out from sweat – hence the little towels mentioned above
- Gore Xenon 2.0 Windstopper tights
- Ground Effect mixed merino/synthetic base layer
- Gore Oxygen softshell
- Swapping in/out a thin fleece mid-layer, and liner gloves as required
So that’s it, the food is posted out along the trail, the bike is packed, there’s nothing to do but ride. Even riding around the parks in Anchorage has been a joy. I’ve been drinking in the big skies and mountains. The light feels so long and the air so crisp, that just being in Alaska is great.
Re-acquainting myself with folks at the Speedway Cycles pre-race party was fun as ever – and the usual question is who will you end up seeing more of on the trail? It’s a bumper crop of riders Nomeward bound, and I have no idea who is going to be where. All I can do is keep a level head and go for it!