Learn to love cycling really, really long distances in the snow

The winter ultra racing community has never been very large, and probably never will be, but for the people who challenge themselves to cover long distances in potentially bitterly cold conditions, being an integral part of the small community is a huge draw.

Since the early 2000s, I have followed the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) with fascination as participants on bike, foot and ski traverse 350 or 1000 miles across Alaska on the famous Iditarod Trail. I could never see myself participating in such an event, but it sure was impressive to hear stories of riders striving through the depths of winter for days on end, regardless of the conditions.

Gradually, more winter ultras began to appear in the higher latitudes of North America – Arrowhead 135 in northern Minnesota, Tuscobia Winter Ultra in Wisconsin, Fat Pursuit in Idaho, Montane Yukon Ultra in Canada and more.

Over the years that the winter ultra scene has expanded, my own fascination with mountain bike ultra-endurance and bike pack challenges has become deeply entrenched. I managed to win quite a few events, learned a remarkable amount and fell in love with long-distance cycling, both in racing and touring modes.

But still, I watched the seemingly crazy winter-loving people in the winter events with a mixture of awe and admiration. There seemed to be an increasing number of cyclists, runners and skiers who are completely in love with the winter ultra scene. Some of these folks were focused on going fast and placing well, but most were in it for the personal challenge and satisfaction of thriving (or striving to thrive) in the snow and cold.

Suddenly, my own place to watch from the sidelines of the winter ultra world changed a few years ago when my teammate and longtime friend Kait Boyle was in a bad car wreck in Idaho on Christmas Eve. I drove north from my home in the much warmer state of Arizona to help in the aftermath of the accident.

When she arrived at Kait’s room in the ICU, the first thing she asked me was if I wanted to stick with Fat Pursuit. I didn’t even know when the event was, I hadn’t ridden a fat bike in years, and I hadn’t packed much winter gear or clothing.

Turns out the Fat Pursuit was only a week away and Teton Valley fat bike enthusiasts banded together to convince me to join the fun, got me on a borrowed Pivot Les Fat bike, and race organizer Jay Petervary invited me over to his house to equip me with everything else I need. Winter riding poured in from friends new and old, and that whirlwind of generosity swept me right down to the start line of a 200km winter ultra with a bunch of other giggling, nervous crazies.

It was 2018. Fast forward to January 2022, and I unexpectedly found myself back on the Fat Pursuit starting line for the third time – kind of peculiar for a guy from Arizona, right?

Jay called the event the “Fat Pursuit” because in his eyes it’s not a race. He did not set out to create a competition, but rather an opportunity. A pursuit is a passion and something you work on getting better at. I pursued my own newfound and somewhat confusing love of this kind of winter adventure to Alaska in 2020, won the ITI350 race and then toured the Iditarod Trail for another five days before the Covid pandemic found its way to the far interior.

This year I made a pretty last minute decision to go back to Fat Pursuit in large part because of how many friends would be there. I hadn’t seen some since Alaska, and other friends’ endless enthusiasm for this event was a strong draw to return. I have not felt the strong and welcoming sense of community in many other places in the cycling world, and it is something very special.

At this year’s edition of the event, I spent a lot of time looking around trying to figure out what exactly creates that sense of community. However, there is no single source, nor does it come from just one or two people – it is countless small contributions from so many different people.

That’s the emphasis you part of the pursuit. It’s the volunteer groomers who drive snow machines around all night long to make the track as firm as they can; these people are all former participants. It’s the incredible checkpoint volunteers who do everything they can to help the participants move forward. The volunteers are ready to pick up a stranded participant if things go south. It is Jay and Tracey Petervary who organize “Fat Camps” before the event to help people learn more about winter travel and safety to build confidence and skills. It’s all the contestants, as well as Jay and Tracey, hanging out at the finish line to cheer everyone on. It is the professional and amateur athletes who learn and struggle and find success, side by side. It is seeing participants, like myself, come back year after year to build on the experiences of previous editions of the event.

And it’s all the people out on the course who end up working together to move through the conditions that the trail and sky deliver on that particular weekend.

The highlight of the year for me was being at the finish line as fellow Arizonans Jennifer and Jason Hanson crossed the finish line of the 200km event. Lovers of the hot Sonoran desert, this pair of seasoned bikepackers are not what you’d expect to see in a winter ultra. Last winter, Jason attended one of the Fat Camps, finished the Fat Pursuit and went on to finish the ITI350 in Alaska, all in his first few months riding on snow.

This winter, Jennifer follows the exact same progression and the pair completed Fat Pursuit together, laughing and as proud as can be. The conditions on the trail had been some of the slowest and most challenging I have experienced. At the end, Jennifer thanked Jay for telling her to stop after a checkpoint, bivy for a few hours, then push on; she had been ready to throw in the towel, but Jay’s insistence that she just stop for a short rest was all she needed to continue to the end.

To me, the beauty of events like these is that they help people discover what they are capable of in an encouraging and supportive atmosphere. The warmth of this winter ultra-community is especially powerful as everyone roots for everyone else.

Photos courtesy of the author.

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