Special Guest Feature: Winter Riding Advice & Reflections from Stamina Racing Collective's Erin Ayala
In Minnesota, many people choose not to ride their road bikes 12 months out of the year. I have the utmost respect for those who make it happen, but it isn't a feel good activity for my body, so I’ve gotten more creative over the past few years while living in our frozen tundra. My indoor trainer is certainly one option, but it is nothing compared to fat biking on freshly groomed single track now that I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. I started fat biking a few years ago. Learning how to ride outside on what felt like a monster truck of a bike came with quite the learning curve. Now that I’m in my 4th winter of riding, I feel like I have a decent handle on many of the things that initially tripped me up. The goal for this blog is to share many of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years, in part due to many wonderful Femme, Trans, and Women (FTW) riders in the fat biking community.
Make merino wool your best friend. Don’t over layer. During my first race, I probably had 5-6 layers on top and 2-3 layers on bottom. I was uncomfortable, I couldn’t move very well, and I overheated because I had no idea what my body needed. I’ve since learned that I don’t need as many layers as I think.
Now, I stick with a merino wool sport bra (seriously, this is a game changer), a merino wool base layer, a lightweight jacket, and a vest. I stick with 1 pair of merino wool socks with the little chemical foot warmers on top of my toes. Then I go with my 45NRTH cycling boots. If it’s really chilly, I’ll wear a puffy down skirt to keep my butt and hips warm. With quality layers, less is more because your fingers and toes have space to move around and get the circulation they need to stay warm.
To keep my fingers warm, use pogies for my handlebars. A friend donated an extra set to me a couple of years ago and they have been a complete game changer. I recently upgraded from those to the Wolf Tooth Singletrack Pogie, which has a really cool locking and unlocking mechanism to keep the pogies attached to the bar ends on my bike. It’s a sweet setup because you can roll the pogies up and down based on conditions and your needs as a rider, and the pogies themselves stay put. Thanks to my friend Amanda, I’ve also learned that they are the perfect storage system for snacks! Why use a pogie system? They allow the rider to wear a thinner glove while keeping their hands and fingers warm. In the past, I’ve worn thick ski gloves with hand warmers, but my fingers still manage to freeze and my fingers are restricted when braking and shifting. Lobster gloves and mittens have also been tough for me for similar reasons. I was initially hesitant to try pogies because I was afraid I would feel constricted or unable to release my hands from the handlebars when needed, but once you adjust to that feeling and realize you can remove your hands any time, you’re good to go.
Sometimes in cycling, people hesitate to provide a solid number for tire pressure. As a new rider to fat biking, this was really hard for me because I wanted a place to start. I was told that my tires should feel like a squishy orange, and that I would be able to tell if my tire pressure was too high. In all honesty, I struggled with this advice because 1) I don’t often handle squishy oranges; and 2) I never knew whether I was fishtailing or flailing around due to my new bike handling skills or my tire pressure being too high. That said, I’m going to break one of the weird unwritten rules in cycling and I’m going to give you some numbers.
Note that there are a few caveats here. Tire pressure will depend on your weight, your wheels/rims, whether you have a tubeless tire setup, and the course conditions. That said, I usually run anywhere from 3 psi to 7 psi. For most of my singletrack riding on a relatively hard packed trail, my sweet spot seems to be 5 psi. At the beginning of the season when trails still need help getting packed down, I go to about 3. For fast groomed courses (like the Fat Bike Birkie), I may be closer to 7. If you’re not sure where to start, ask the folks around you, or chat with your trusty bike shop.
There are a few other lessons I’ve learned--some of which have been easier to learn than others. First, I use a low pressure tire gauge before I start my ride, and I make sure I go on the high end of what I think I may need. It’s always easier to let air out than to put air in--especially when it’s 20 degrees or colder. Second, let your bike sit outside for a while before you actually set the pressure. Extreme temperature changes (from indoor temps to outdoor MN temps) affect pressure, so if you set your tire pressure indoors, your tires will be more squishy than expected when you get outside in zero degree weather. Third, take a look behind you on the trail. If you are creating any sort of rut, let air out or ride elsewhere. We are really fortunate to have volunteers who groom our trails for us here in MN, and we make things much more difficult for our groomers and our fellow riders when we’re riding with tire pressure that’s too high. If the trail is closed due to weather conditions, trust the advice of the volunteers, and ride elsewhere for the day.
Have fun with your bike
Bikes are extra enjoyable when you personalize them to your needs and style. This is where you can have a lot of fun! I got an Otso Voytek this past year, and I was so stoked about it that I began personalizing it right away. I went straight to Wolf Tooth’s colored accents. I started with Wolf Tooth’s Anodized Color Kit to add some gold flair to my stem. Then, I added a gold Seatpost Clamp. I finished it off with some matching Water Bottle Cage Bolts. I stuck with solid black Karv Handlebar Grips for this build, but I’m sure I’ll have some fun and switch to another color after I wear the current set out. Color is fun, and it’s even better when the function is top notch. I love the Karv Grips from Wolf Tooth because they have a tacky grip that works beautifully in snowy conditions. Whether it’s colored bottle cages, a fun frame bag, or different colored handlebar grips, put a personal twist on your bike to make it your own.
Don’t expect to be graceful
During one of my first mass start fat bike events, I crashed right under the starting banner and held up several riders behind me as I collected myself and my bruised ego. It was soft and powdery at the start and I was completely new to fat biking and bike handling, so I didn’t know how to react when my front tire got a mind of its own. As a result, I went down. You will also go down. It’s okay, because we all do it. Fat biking isn’t exactly a graceful activity, especially when getting started, so embrace the awkwardness and be patient with yourself. It gets better with time as long as you keep putting yourself out there.
Keep showing up
During many of the fat bike events I’ve done, FTW riders have taken up 10-12% of the field. Most events have a mass start, which means people essentially size each other up and seed themselves based on their expected pace in the field. This is hard to do as one of a few FTWs in the field, and even harder when you are still learning and growing or feeling unsure of yourself. After a very awkward fall during the start of the race I mentioned above, I started seeding myself in the back of the pack at events until I became more comfortable with my handling skills and my abilities--until I felt like I deserved to be there. But even now, after 4 years, there are moments where I’m reminded of being one of the only FTWs on the course. During one of my races 2 years ago when I was all bundled up, I pulled over to let a competitor pass me. The response was, “thanks, Man” because the assumption was that I was just another dude on the course. Last year, I got my first ever win in the FTW field, but it wasn’t recognized because the race organizers did not have a podium for FTW riders. Instead, I took my own photo with the other woman who gave me a run for my money and came in second. Sometimes it is really hard not to be seen--especially when you’re mentally and physically drained from the current effort. But we have to keep showing up to let others know that FTWs can also rally on singletrack.
Finally, don’t hesitate to ask other riders for advice or introduce yourself to other riders in the community. I have been saved, supported, and assisted by so many incredible people in our community. During an event in Lutsen a few years ago, another FTW rider helped me re-inflate my tires after I realized one of them had completely deflated right before the start of the race. Other times, riders have helped me dial in layers, or have provided encouragement while riding out on the course--even when competing against one another. We have an incredible community, and it continues to grow. Get out there, enjoy your body, enjoy your bike, and enjoy the snow.
About Stamina Racing Collective
Stamina Racing Collective is a cycling team based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The team’s goal is to strengthen and diversify the pipeline of FTW (Femme, Trans, Women) riders in competitive cycling through mentorship, community, development, and accessibility. Follow their adventures on instagram @stamina.racing.collective!