Snow’s snow right? Well, that’s what I thought before I started winter fatbiking, not just for fun, but a necessity as the only way to keep pedaling during the snowy winter months here in the mountains. The variation in conditions from ‘warm’ 4-5 degrees to persistent sub zero temperatures to wet, heavy snow make a real difference to whether it is going to be a fast ride or a bit of slog with plenty of hike-a-bike where even the slightest of gradients will have you off and walking. The holy grail of fatbiking conditions is just below zero where grip is optimal without the snowpack being too hard and icey.
With pockets of fatbikers across the Alpes, the Snow Bike Festival in Gstaad, nestled 1150m up in the Bernese Oberland area of the Swiss Alpes, is the ideal opportunity for riders to get together with a competitive element. An area with ‘rolling’ mountain peaks and plentiful snowfall, makes Gstaad a perfect spot for fatbiking. In its 4th year, the festival is run over 4 days with an 8km prologue on the Thursday and 3 stages of between 30-35km and 750-900m of climbing. The distances do seem paltry, but fatbiking is like riding in slow motion at threshold, with a tyre strapped the rear of the bike! Depending on the conditions, those 30km will feel more like 50 or 60! The Snow Bike Festival has also attained the accolade of a UCI cat 1 event, with numerous pros turning up to dual it out for some early season UCI points. All on 29ers. In last year’s sub -10 temperatures and hard packed trails, 29ers ruled, in this edition’s warmer conditions fat tyres seem to be king.
Fatbiking on deep snow requires a whole new technique. Turn the bars even slightly into a corner and you’re off! Touch the front break in anything other than a straight line and you’re off! With a different riding skill set and tyres that barely seem to have any pressure in them at all, around 4-5 psi. Snow fatbiking takes a little time to master!
18 nations are represented at this year’s 4th edition, some from as far as Namibia and Australia, riding snow for the first time. Rider bags contain some great take home goodies, a bottle of SA wine and a warm hat from the folks at DT. With the prologue starting at 12h30 on the Thursday, competitors with no previous experience of riding fatbikes on deep snow at least have a chance to learn, but quickly!
Riders went off at 1 minute intervals from the start ramp, conditions fairly compact under tyre. It was a fun wake up call for the legs, and out and back along the valley floor with a compact 186m climb and descent. Wet snow and an off camber descent presented challenges for staying upright, the bike drifting out of control, but keeping in a general downhill direction. Full kudos to the guys on the fat tandem, the stoker was off and running as the pilot was trying to control the bike as the rear end started to drift around. Once down they powered through to the finish. A brief 30 or so minutes later and it was back to the race village, a brief introduction for those not used to snow riding, with longer climbs and descents to come.
A hearty lunch awaits and dinner is also included. The race village tent is fully heated and warm, so there’s sitting around in the cold. Rider bags can be left at the finish with a change of clothes if needed.
Most of the climbing is gained in a single punchy climb for stage 1 followed by a 6km descent to the finish. Sounds fast, but it could be quite different depending on the overnight conditions!