Unseasonably warm weather greeted racers showing up for Frosty’s Fat Bike Race series stop in Jasper, Alta, this year. With the warm weather replacing deep-freeze temperatures of years past, the new challenge for racer became managing soft snow conditions.
“Last year the challenge was figuring out how to ride in the really cold temperatures, so this year, having much warmer, friendlier conditions was a treat,” says Emma Maaranen, the women’s winner for Frosty’s Endurance XC race. Balmy conditions brought their own obstacles, though. “The snow was really deep and soft on some of the singletrack, so that was pretty slow in sections, but that’s part of the challenge,” Maaranen added, “It was a really good opportunity to work on not fighting with the snow, but to work with it. Once I got my head around that it was really great and I moved a lot more quickly.”
Maaranen’s zen-like approach to the tough conditions certainly helped. After a steady start, knowing the day could be longer than riders were expecting, the Bend, Ore. rider worked her way through the field to claim the $1,500 prize purse, equal for men and women. Sarah Robbins followed in second, with Erin Woodrow in third.
Not everyone was having as easy a time with the snow. A five km section of variable, but mostly soft, snow had racers off and walking as much as they rode their bike as they hunted for traction. Despite the addition of more “type two fun” than many were expecting, fantastic views and clear blue skies helped revive flagging spirits until the course returned to firmer ground.
Back on well-worn trails, it was game on. “At the end of the race we got to rally down some really sweet singletrack,” said Maaranen. After the tough middle section, she added, “It was really fast and you really appreciated it.”
Emma Maaranen (1st) and Sarah Robbins (2nd) on the Women's Abominable (Elite) podium
Matt Staneland (3rd), Mitchell Thomas (1st) and Geoff Montegue (3rd), Frosty's Men's Abominable podium
Whitney Wild (3rd), Olivia Yuel (1st), Jaylene Kemp (2nd) on the Women's Bigfoot (B) podium
Mike Langford (3rd), Gary Chambers (1st) and Dallas Hall (2nd) on the Men's Bigfoot podium
Lindsay Hemingson (3rd), Tari Kelly (1st), Katherine Barg (2nd) on the Women's Chilly podium
Jeff Pennington (3rd), Jean-Francois Bisaillon (1st) and Terry Hanas (2nd) on the Men's Chilly podium
Snow strategy – a game of tire pressure
On the men’s side, tight, three-way battle played out. Edmonton’s Mitchell Thomas and Provo, Utah’s Geoff Montegue took very different strategies in the race. Montegue chose to dump pressure down to just a hair above 1 PSI to deal with the soft conditions. Thomas opted for better rolling speed on the faster sections, even if it meant struggling through the soft parts. Close behind, Matt Staneland was chasing hard on his rented Kona, keeping both riders honest.
“We had a really good battle today,” Mitchell said after the race, “[Montegue] would get me on the climbs – he had a really good set-up with his bike and he was able to keep pedaling and maintain his momentum – and I would catch him when we cam to a flatter section or a downhill.”
Using the lower pressure to his advantage, Montegue built up nearly a one minute advantage through the middle, slower section of course. With a long descent to the finish, though, it was Thomas’ strategy that ended up paying off. He rolled back to, and past the Utah rider to take the win, and $1,500 prize in the men’s race. Montegue held on for second, with Staneland finishing third.
“It was a very difficult day, conditions were challenging,” said Thomas of his winning ride. He might have had a little local’s knowledge on his side too. “I grew up in Hinton, so I’m familiar with the Jasper area, but I haven’t been back in about 10 years, so it was a really good experience.”
Surviving the soft
So what was the trick to surviving Jasper’s energy sapping soft snow? Whether you were at the front or just looking to make it to the finish, there was a common theme. A mix of strategy, decision-making, and attitude was the best way to make it through the day.
“If I would really slow down and focus on my balance, I could ride a lot of the soft snow,” Maaranen told me after the race, “But I had to let go of trying to go fast and just focus on moving on the pedals.”
When that wasn’t working, it was time to switch tactics, she continued. “If I could ride, it was faster than walking, but as soon as I know I was going to be getting on and off, the steady path of walking was the best.”
Eric from Cranbrook and Sheldon from Lloydminster had a similar approach. “I forced myself to try ride more sections, and learn how to deal with the snow,” Sheldon said, “and I started catching guys.” Riding wasn’t always easy, though. ‘You want to be barely holding onto the handlebars, just letting the bike take you,” Eric starts, with Sheldon jumping in “But instead you’re just fighting it, and you’re arm’s are all tense.”
Which brings us to attitude. “I flipped right over a bank,” Sheldon says, both laughing, “I knew I was going, so I unclipped and jumped and just picked a spot to land. I looked back up, and my bike was just sitting there at the top.” “Like it was just waiting for you,” Eric adds.
Near the end of a 5km stretch of soft, tractionless singletrack, racers popped out onto the edge of Pyramid Bench into this incredible view. Despite being several hours into the race, riders were all smiles
Earlier in the day, just entering the singletrack with Pyramid Mountain behind them as racers crossed a small lake
Finding the bright side of being forced to foot while fighting for a win isn’t always easy, but Maaranen was making the most of it. “When you’re walking, of course, you had the view to check out and you get to chat with other riders and we’d work through the snow together.”
“You can’t finish that race without a smile,” Eric agrees. “Regardless what you went through in the tougher parts, it was so sweet.”