The Snow Bike Festival is the the first UCI S1 mountain bike stage race of the year, and also the only UCI race that is held on snow (although professional road racers might disagree some years when Paris-Nice gets hit hard by the weather!).
With a home in the Swiss resort town of Gstaad, the Snow Bike Festival draws riders from around the world. There are plenty of curious amateurs and of course, a select group of professional riders who use the 4 day race to hone their form in winter.
I’m here to experience it all, bereft of a UCI licence as I don’t see the need, instead I’m joining in the amateur category were I fit much better. My history of riding and racing in cold weather is far from good. But I love travel, I love riding bikes, and I love racing. And most of all, I really love riding my bike and travelling in Switzerland. So when enough things aligned to make the trip here, I jumped on it.
Arriving on Tuesday, I got off the train in Gstaad with my feet on solid ground, and patchy snow around town, with drizzle falling from the sky. That didn’t bode well. But after settling into the very comfortable Huus hotel, snow started to fall, and fell overnight and through Wednesday, when I finally ventured out on my newly acquired Norco Bigfoot fatbike.
I rode slowly on the flat, laughed, took selfies, didn’t lift my hear rate much, and plodded around – before indulging in a trip to the Coop supermarket for curiously flavoured yoghurts and chocolate. This fatbiking on snow will be easy!
Enter the prologue
Alas, reality was to arrive all too soon. More snow fell overnight, which is great – but the temperature also rose from about -2 degrees to 2 degrees, meaning the snow would melt on landing. Be that on you, your gloves, or whatever. So you’re cold and wet, at about the coldest possible temperature to get wet from precipitation, compared to yesterday where the snow fell as fluffy powder balls which bounced off you. I’ve heard from almost-local Scott Cornish that the constant changes in weather have created very unstable snow, and the avalanche risk is currently at 4, out of 5. That explains all the blasts I heard this morning.
I’ve got a good selection of gear lined up, and knowing my feet and hands really suffer in cold weather that is where I aimed to make the most improvements. Some Fizik Artica X5 MTB shoes have so far been amazing, but gloves still have me stumped.
Still, with only about 8km for the Prologue, what could go wrong?
I rolled down to the race village tent, which is near the base of the Eggli ski lift. There’s the usual fanfare associated with a European stage race, not limited to kids with cow bells, a big tent with tables, cars from event sponsor Land Rover parked everywhere, lots of fit looking people, and people just there to watch and buy the food competitors get thanks to their wrist band.
My biggest concern was how wet I had got on the way to the race start. My Gore gloves had soaked through, and the Ground Effect Hoodwink hoodie I had on over my meagre winter team kit was a bit moist. There wasn’t a whole lot I could do before my prologue so I put some spare gloves in my pocket, took off a windproof base layer, subbed out my winter cap for half a buff and went to the start area, dodging the wet snow as it fell.
Finally, my name came up, the countdown was on, and I was away! I picked up speed off the snow start ramp, quickly washed a lot off for the rutted corner, then did my best to pick up speed again. Then I stuffed up the next corner, moved offline into soft snow and flailed.
This continued for close to 30 minutes. Racing with a lot of water over my glasses made for depth perception that was based on calculated guesses, and when you could finally pick up speed, I’m not sure I ever really go over 20km/h. And then there were two 60m climbs too, which felt like mini alpine passes pushing a 28t chain ring and 46t cassette up them, legs akimbo as I pedalled the super wide bottom bracket of a fat bike.
Riders on the other course had similar experiences. We laughed, we chatted, we focused on the task at hand. Riders in front reverted to a tripod for the first off camber descent and I did the same until I remembered (as I plowed headfirst into snow) that it’s a stupid manoeuvre. The next descent was taken way off the back of the saddle and the result was greatly improved – I didn’t fall off.
But I was having a ball, spotting the course in the snow as a mix of arrows on posts and arrows in the snow, watching riders coming back along the course and wondering if I could catch them, and if someone was catching me. And at every single turn, I was learning more about riding a fat bike in snow. Do less, keep the cadence high, sit upright so it’s easier to react. Drink some water!
I didn’t crash again but I made plenty of dabs, and came in hot, sweaty, wet and happy, in just under 30 minutes.
Grabbing my camera I walked back out on course saw other riders battling the course in good spirits. Falling off on the first descent and sliding, losing a wheel around a corner, or even crashing in the final metres. But there were no tantrums, no outcries – just a lot of happy mountain bikers in the event village.
I did get too wet, and too hot, which resulted in way too cold on the ride home afterwards. So I do need to have a good think about what I race in tomorrow, and whether I’ll take my Camelbak MULE with a couple of spare layers – just in case.
The elite parade at the Snow Bike Festival
After a considerable break, the UCI riders took off. But the weather wasn’t kind. With the temperature sitting close to 3 degrees the snow fell wet, soft and turned to slush. Riders were running their bikes in the heavy conditions, and those starting later had the worst of it.
Esther Suess was the fastest woman in the Snow Bike Festival prologue, almost 2 minutes clear of Hielke Elferink who was just ahead of Katrin Leumann. In the men, David List was the fastest with Fabio Spena 21 seconds back and Hannes Jeker another 2 seconds behind. Last years winner Nicholas Rohrbach did make mention that tomorrow’s longer stage will likely see someone new in the leader’s jersey!
You can find the Snow Bike Festival prologue results online.
Tomorrow we start at 9:30am and we’ll tackle about 750m of climbing. Although this is likely to be smooth, the descent is said to be steep and likely very loose with the rain today. Given it is currently 3 degrees, and might drop to 0 about 10am conditions are unlikely to improve tomorrow, but the weekend looks to be colder!
Bikes at the Snow Bike Festival
So far these are a real mix! From standard 29ers, to fat bikes, plus bikes, bikes that sort of fit between the two, using 27.5″x3.8″ tyres. 29ers with plus wheels in with 2.6″ tyres – and even more variants. But people are making it work for them so they can be involved. Gstaad have opened up all their winter walking trails to bikes so if you have the right bike, you can ride the winter trails. And that’s exactly what we’re doing over the next three days.