Friday, January 20, 2017

Jeny and The Race: Happy hands.

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” 

-Aldo Leopold

I'm quite certain that Mr. Leopold wasn't thinking of Alaska winter racing when he wrote A Sand County Almanac way back when, but for the purpose of illustrating my point I think it apropos to co-opt that quote.

We've already discussed core temps and feets.  Hands are the last, most critical, and potentially most difficult.  The foot system previously described does well because it's set and forget, and because you don't have prehensile toes: You aren't taking your shoes off to do fine tasks with your feet.

Not so with hands -- you're using them constantly, and it's not possible to do every fine task (brushing teeth, changing a flat, replacing headlamp batteries, cinching straps -- to name but a few) with gloves or mittens on.  Sometimes you have to go barehanded, and if the wind is up or it's just plain cold, that means your hands are numb before the task is complete.

Often way before the task is complete: Pat Irwin and I learned this lesson repeatedly at -55* to -65* on the Yukon River, when our tubes kept cracking (not being cut, punctured, or pinched -- definitely cracking) from the cold and failing, and we kept having to stop to change them out.

Our solution was to take turns: One person would stop and drop, pulling the wheel out of the bike, then starting to work the bead loose from the rim.  By that time, because we were handling bare metal, our hands were already numb.  So you'd hand the wheel to the other guy, then *run* 100 yards up the trail, and back, to generate some heat.  By the time you'd returned *his* hands were numb.  Then we'd switch, over and over, until the deed was done and we could start to move forward and generate some lasting heat.

The problem was that even once moving again, we'd not really anticipated this problem, thus we had pogies on our bars but our grips were cold sinks: Pat had cheap kraton rubber grips.  I'd taken the time to wrap my rubber grips in cork tape, but out of fear that the cork would come undone in the cold had wrapped that in hockey tape.

Note to self: There is nothing warm, or insulative, or isolative, about kraton rubber *or* hockey tape. The hockey tape even developed a sheen of ice over the course of the trip, from when my infrequently warm hands perspired onto it.  Awesome.

After each extended break to fix a flat, our grip temps measured the same as the outside temp, and *nobody* has circulation good enough to push back -55* with just the blood that's making it to their hands.

When that trip ended I knew I had other, bigger fish to fry riding in cold places, and I knew I had to develop a better system to keep hands on-line in the worst an Alaskan winter could offer.  If I could keep my hands warm there, then I knew they'd be warm anywhere.

After too many complicated and prone to failure (battery powered heated grips, anyone?) fits and starts I realized that the solution had to be simple.  And what I came up with was, and is, simple:  Neoprene.

I've tried neoprene gloves and socks in both my riding and paddling career, and when used against my skin learned that they do two things simultaneously:

-they make my extremities sweat profusely, and
--they make my extremities colder than with almost any other material.

Learning that was liberating, as it removed one potential option from the pile.

But neoprene is such a good insulator, and when configured right (i.e the right kind of foam and backing) it doesn't absorb or transmit moisture.  So instead of using neoprene gloves that I'd have to take off to do fine work anyway, I sewed a few crude grip covers out of neoprene foam I found in the scrap bin at a fabric store:

Note that I even have a sleeve over the (cold!) rubber cover on my shifter.  Also note that my brake levers are carbon.  You don't use your brakes that often in the ITI, but when you *do* need them, if they're made out of metal, you'll emphatically notice how cold that metal is as your braking fingers go numb.

Carbon doesn't transmit the cold -- but carbon levers aren't always possible.  If you can't get carbon levers, then at least find a way to insulate them with neoprene.

To this day, that's what I use.  I used them on my self-supported trips in 2008 and 2010, and again on the South Route to Nome in 2013.  Those are my grips pictured above, but Jeny has sewn herself a similar set and I think I saw her installing them yesterday.

So that's what's *inside* my pogies.

On my hands I wear basic summer riding gloves down to about -10*f.  Below that I have a cheap ~$9 pair of gas station fleece gloves that keep my hands happy down to any temperature I've yet encountered in the Alaskan Interior in February.  So to say, -60*f or so.  Nothing else needed, as long as you have good pogies...

And the pogies themselves?  I was fortunate when I started down this rabbit hole that Eric @ Revelate was still a one-man show, interested in pushing the limits of human-powered travel, and not yet encumbered with explosive growth and a growing family too.  He was willing to indulge my fastidious, even pernickety suggestions in creating what came to be known as his Expedition Pogies.  Jeny has these on her bike.  Jeny wishes it was colder, longer, every winter, so that she could ride with these more.  I think she dreams about them on the first cold days of fall...

In truth the production pogies that Eric sells now are nicer, lighter, and more polished than my prototypes -- but they still retain the most important characteristics of being windproof, waterproof, closable (so that spindrift doesn't fill them while you sleep), and with pockets to keep emergency gear (warmer gloves, warmer hats, glasses and goggles) all at your fingertips for constantly variable conditions.

Last detail when it comes to insulation?  That frozen block of leather, plastic, pleather, and metal that you're sitting on.  If temps are forecast to be below zero I slip on a neoprene saddle insulator.

These are made for tri-geeks but they function at least as well to insulate us from that cold block of discomfort.  And while our nether regions are truly the last to get cold, if it's way below zero and you're fighting to keep warm blood moving to your extremities, it's nice to be able to sit on something that's not sucking yet more heat away.  These are most often found in the bargain bin at your LBS -- if you can't source one there go digging at a tri-geek website.

Don't hesitate with questions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Jeny and the Race: Happy feets.

To say that it is easy to equip one's self for the ITI these days is, from my perspective, a massive understatement.  That doesn't mean it's cheap, nor that work isn't required.

Swing by any decent bike shop on your lunch break and, if you've done even a middling amount of research, you can order a complete ready-to-ride fatbike shod with high volume/low pressure studded tires and complete with good lighting, pogies, a frame bag, gas tank, feedbags, under-bar bag, etc...  Plunk down your credit card and 4 or 5 days later voila -- your chariot hath arrived.

Likewise with clothing, food (gluten free and vegan freeze dried, anyone?), shelter and insulation -- options abound and if you've educated yourself on the basics and know yourself at all, then the most difficult thing about the process is getting past the analysis paralysis and pulling the trigger.

I'll spare you the 'kids these days don't know how easy they have it!' grumble and just say that it's a good time to be in the market for a fatbike and associated accoutrements.

Of particular interest in this conversation are shoes -- or boots if you will -- for February riding at 62* north latitude.  I wrote this a decade ago, after spending many years fiddling with different systems to achieve a warm, dry, clipless-ready setup for the ITI.

I've continually refined that setup and it's what I use today.  But you don't need to go to those sorts of lengths to set yourself up now -- you can (see above) simply swing by your LBS and have them order you something.

Specifically, Jeny will be riding a set of the 45N Wolfgar boots in the ITI.  We sourced them roughly 4 sizes too big for her feet, knowing that we were going to get medieval on them.  

Even though 45N has highly polished my decade-old idea with modern materials, thusly making these boots good enough out-of-the-box for 90% of lower 48 riders, they don't arrive quite ready for the ITI.  Why?  Moisture management.

In short, unless your feet are frozen they will be sweating, and that sweat has nowhere to go -- it just collects and saturates the felt liner.  For a day ride?  Pfft -- no biggie, just lean them on the heat register when you get home and they'll be ready to go tomorrow.

For the ITI, where the clock is ticking and the opportunities to hover over a heat source are basically nil, you have to do better.

Spend a few bucks at the local hardware on some contractor grade trash bags and a can of spray glue, then go get sticky fingers in your basement while effectively shrink wrapping your felt liners.

There are two benefits to this arrangement -- your perspiration is no longer a concern, and now, should you happen to slosh through overflow or have to wade through a creek, you haven't hosed your insulation.  In fact after you've waded Pass Creek and Dalzell Creek you simply remove your liner, pour out the water, slip your foot back in and head up the trail.

Sock choice still needs to be considered -- too thick and they hold too much moisture, and once your feet are cold you can't produce enough to re-heat that amount of thermal mass.  

Like many of the ITI crowd, Jeny has been steadfastly and incrementally preparing each part of her kit such that a slow building of confidence is happening imperceptibly as she sews, glues, researches, wrenches, and even sleeps every night.  Like adding bricks or blocks to a foundation, each one adds to the last and if you keep at it, eventually you stand up, stretch your back, and marvel at the totality of what you've built.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Jeny and The Race: The Golden Rule.

Jeny and I spent yesterday afternoon, evening, and a good chunk of today "out" riding in the snow.

And while it'd be easy to assume, given where she's going and what she has planned, that that meant we put in a large volume of hours or miles, that's not the case.  At all.  

Why not?

Because first and foremost, you have to survive the ITI.

Or, to put it in the words of perennial contender and Nome-record-holder Jeff Oatley, "It's not a bike race". 

For the folks whom choose to contend the event on foot or skis, they just slapped their collective foreheads, muttered "duh", and closed this tab.

Put simply, pedaling and pushing a bike is the easy part of the ITI, and anyone that's been vetted (it is an Invitational, after all) and accepted into the race has probably got that part figured out already.

The more challenging aspect of the event is taking care of one's self in the subarctic for a ~week, while trying to make reasonable progress every day.  Setting aside the 18+ hours of pedaling (and pushing) you're doing every day, you also have to take care of your feet, dry sweaty clothes (or learn to not wet them out in the first place), keep your bike functioning, and get a little R+R so that you can get up and go again tomorrow.

In short, it behooves one to learn to take care of themselves first.  Forward motion comes fairly easily if you've got that other part figured out.

To that end we spent a good chunk of our "out" time fiddling with layering.  Managing moisture is *difficult* when the temps are (relatively) warm, the snow is soft, your tire pressure is barely measurable, and you're manhandling a 70# bike.  It is work.  Some people would say it's impossible to NOT sweat in that situation.  I say those people are either lazy or inexperienced, and if they've finished the ITI without learning to NOT sweat, then they're also probably really lucky.

My golden rule for success at the ITI is simple:

You aren't allowed to sweat.

If you sweat out your layers mid-day, and then night comes, the temps drop below zero, and your clothes are still wet, you've dug yourself a pretty good hole.  Options include continuing to move until you can enter a warm building and dry out your gear, or stopping to build a fire to do the same.  The former assumes that buildings are handy when you need them: On this route they usually aren't.  The latter is more likely, but costs you time: It's difficult to go fast if you have to keep stopping to dry out layers.  It's much faster, big picture, to learn to layer and moderate your effort such that you aren't sweating to begin with.  Go slow to go fast.

Want to know the biggest secret to success in winter layering?

You don't need nearly as much as you think.  

Speeds are generally slow and effort is usually high.  The slow speeds keep evaporative cooling to a minimum.  The effort produces heat.

Now read that ^ again, because there isn't much more to it.

Want to vent excess heat?  Unzip your jacket and pit zips, maybe take off your hat.  Doing so dumps heat and replaces it with cold outside air -- and the cooling happens fast.

Getting cold, need to warm up?  Put your hat on, close your zippers.  Doing so removes wind from the equation, and allows your internal combustion engine to re-warm that micro-climate inside your outer shell.

Is it *just* that easy?  Of course not, but that's the basic premise, and there's not a whole lot of reason to complicate it.

Over this weekend Jeny experimented with many different weights, materials, and combinations in her layers: Wool vs. plastic, down vs. synthetic, water proof breathtables vs. water resistant softshells.

What has she decided on?  Positively nothing yet -- but she's learning to ask questions, draw conclusions, and formulate answers, all in the classroom of the real world.

Late in the ride today, with the sun already down, the wind coming up, and a big climb just behind us, she stopped, dropped, and fired up her stove to melt snow -- both to drink and to rehydrate a snack.  The end of the ride was close and we could have easily finished without this break.  But it is precisely this devotion to practicing these important rituals overandoverandover that builds a level of comfort and confidence -- in both yourself and your equipment -- that can make all the difference in a worst case scenario when deep into this event.

The time to make mistakes is *now*, so that you can learn from them, internalize the lessons, then practice again tomorrow.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Jeny and The Race.

Around about this time of year -- if you are of a certain mind -- it becomes impossible not to think about riding (or racing, depending) the Iditarod Trail Invitational in AK.  I participated in some variation on that event for almost 20 years, and that sort of addiction doesn't just go away without a 12 step program.  At minimum... ;)

I am neither racing nor riding this year.  Won't even be in AK.

But my lovely wife Jeny has been bitten by that bug, and is deeply immersed into her planning, prep, and training for the event.

She won't be racing, will emphatically be touring the route.  Even with all of the online info available (maps, gps tracks, trip write-ups, etc...) for a rookie it's very difficult to be competitive.  Add in work stress and commitments and it just isn't reasonable for Jeny to commit the time to training that she would need to really race.  She gets that, and she's OK with it.  In some ways, removing the pressure of racing makes the event more alluring, in that you know you won't be suffering, head down the whole time -- you give yourself permission to look around, sniff the roses as it were.

Laying the foundation: A schedule of ride days (and nights, after work), recovery days, and days devoted to gear prep.

All my years of racing I was so immersed in planning, prepping, and training, that I didn't have time to really share the process as it happened.  In some ways that's good -- it's not that exciting.

In other ways it's a bummer, because there are lots of opportunities to be creative as you ready yourself for the ITI.  Even though fatbikes and the associated accoutrements are a dime a dozen these days, the nitty gritty decisions that you need to make to arrive at Knik truly prepared for the route are anything but obvious unless you live there.  And we live a very, very long ways from there.

So, over the next ~month+ I'll be documenting, a little at a time, Jeny's path toward the ITI.  Not having done this before I'm not exactly sure how it's going to shake out.  Bear with me, and feel free to ask questions as we go -- or even in advance if there's something you really want to know more about.  I'll do my best to accommodate.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Third Flats / Windmill / Bangs Canyon Loop.

Jeny and I got out and embraced a snow ride on Saturday.  There is an ambitious bunch of local trail runners that get together to run a ~30k loop every January, on a set of trails that, most years, one wouldn't think of as being "in play" due to too much snow.

But the world is what you make of it, and rather than sit inside like most of the people I ride with in non-snow months, this crew gets out and gets it done.  Jeny and I gave them a ~4 hour head start -- not wanting to get in the way of even the stragglers -- and then headed out to attempt the loop.

In the first ~1/2 mile the conditions were slow -- soft, unconsolidated -- so much so that I thought to myself, "Wow, this is going to be hard".

Then 2 ATV's passed us, churning the trail into an unrecognizable and unrideable mess.  Yay team.

We plugged away at the route, slipping and sliding and occasionally falling in the twin trenches left by the throttle jockeys.  At one point Jeny waited for me to catch up and when I did we agreed that there was no way, if the ATV's were following the same route, that we were going to be able to do this -- so completely had they hosed the trail.

Fate intervened -- and I'm still not sure if that was a good thing -- and turned the ATV's off of our route after a few miles.  Once we were back to riding the packed footpath left by the runners, things became much more rideable and it was "only" hard work -- not survival riding the way it had been.

When I say "hard work", I mean that it was really, really hard riding, in that the snow had come down first as drizzle, so every rock, ledge, and root underneath had a shiny coating.  But then it had gotten cold, so there was 10 to 14" of 3% moisture 'cold smoke' on top.  Couldn't float on it, had to plow through it, and whenever you hit something underneath you would struggle to keep it upright.

The loop was 30k.  It took us almost 7 hours -- we started at noon thirty and finished up well after dark.

I was shelled, Jeny was still smiling -- which is more or less how most rides end around here...

Thanks to Kevin Koch for taking the initiative to mark (and unmark) the loop and motivate the group.  

Thanks to you for checkin' in.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A little more about fat tire pressures for snow riding.

Jeny and I got out for a great ride last night, surfing the leading edge of a storm that dropped anywhere from a foot to two feet across the region, and it's still coming down.

In the woods on this ride the trail was great -- packed by holiday skiers and snowshoers and as such it was shoulder width and with a consistent surface. Like a ribbon of white singletrack beckoning ever onward.

But where it left the trees and crossed meadows it was really, really wind affected. Wind affected snow has been tumbled and collided so many times in its descent that the snowflakes have no more arms -- inspect them closely and you'll see that they're closer to ball bearings. No way for them to stick together until melt-freeze season happens in a few months.

I bring this up because while in the trees we wanted low pressures (it was a 3 wrinkle kinda ride...) to float on the ephemeral crust. But out in the open there was *no* pressure that worked, as the packed trail surface was buried beneath ~6" of ball bearings. You couldn't float on the ball bearings, nor could you dig down deep enough to access the traction of the trail surface. Pushing was the only option, period.

I bring this up as a springboard to get people to think about the big picture of both the topography and prevailing wind direction on their rides, as these are the two main determinants of which sections of trail get scoured and which get drifted in. You can burn a lot of time and get really frustrated trying to adjust pressures up and down. Not to mention cold because you're not producing heat anymore.

Or, put more simply, you can't always buy (or ride, or deflate) your way out of a situation -- sometimes you just have to deal with it.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Farewell to Fang.

Doogan is gone.  Passed on a few days ago.

I've shared a few words and images here, as a means for coping with the emptiness and grief that I feel in his absence.

Do not click that link if you're a sentimental softie like me.