When I first heard about snow-biking, I was so excited. I love the powdery goodness of a fresh snowfall and of course, riding bikes. What's not to love?
When the Snow Bike Festival announced their 2017 dates, I knew it was something I needed to try. I'd never been on a fatbike and never had I ridden on snow before, so I was keen to tick these off my cycling bucket list. Having lived in Switzerland for a number of years, I was already familiar with the area of Gstaad and the stunning scenery, snow and wonderful atmosphere it was famed for. With fate guiding my hand, I signed up and registered.
As the months slipped into weeks and then days, my anticipation grew to bursting point as I arrived in Gstaad where the temperature was a very refreshing -13 degrees. I suddenly became overwhelmed by what lay ahead of me, and the negative whispers began pawing in my head: "You can't do this, Jessica".
Having collected my Scott Big Ed fatbike from the rental shop in town, I was ready to register at the sign-in tent and prepare for the prologue time trial event.
The Prologue event took place on Thursday afternoon. It allowed riders - especially newbies like me - to get a feel for their bike, and riding in the snow. The time trial event was a 2.5km circuit which was to be lapped 3 times. This circuit was relatively flat, however there was a significant change in snow texture. Deep thick powder gave way to hard compacted snow, which lead into icy bumpy sheets of terror.
As I stood on the starting line, my heart was pounding and quick flashes of thoughts were running through my mind. The most repeated reminder was telling myself I had conti-brakes on the Scott Big Ed (EU brakes are swapped over), so I mustn't pull on the left lever, or I'll go over the front.
As I rolled off to a start, I rounded the first corner on hard packed in snow, so far so good. The track then turned into a powder soup of chaos and I went down, softly because it's snow. What I quickly learnt is that riding a fatbike through powder is extremely difficult. Unlike slippery mud you can skid around in, the snow carried your front wheel in any which way it wanted.
Careful micro-adjustments are essential for handling the bike, and a lot more upper arm strength as well, which I was lacking in. For this reason, picking your lines in the snow is super important. You want to avoid the ruts, avoid powdery churned up snow and stick to the flatter, more compact areas.
With the prologue over, I was beginning to get a feel of how to ride in the snow, on a fatbike. Now I just needed to rest and prepare myself for stage one.
Snow Bike Festival: Stage one
An early rise on Friday for a good hearty breakfast was mandatory if I was going to make it through Stage one. The 7.5km prologue was a flat taster for what today would challenge me with.
Dressed up in winter cycling layers, I took out some pressure from my Big Ed tyres. Having spoken to a few other fatbike athletes, it seemed the approximate PSI should be around 6-10 for snow.
The event had two main rider categories: UCI athletes and amateurs. The pro point-hunters lined themselves up at the front of the starting line, with myself and fellow newbies taking up the rear of the peloton. There was such a wonderful buzz of excitement in the air as all 105 riders lined themselves up. The countdown begun and at 10:30 sharp, we were off.
The first 15km of the 30km route was fairly flat as we cycled through small villages, along the river and over groomed cross-country tracks. The Scott Big Ed is a heavy bike as it takes a lot to get the wheels rolling, but once you're on top of the gear, it's a smooth and comfortable ride.
The blue skies welcomed us and the sun was warm on our backs, but as soon as you hit the shade, it was like a ice curtain coming down on you. Instant cold seemed to chew its way in and my hair began to freeze, as did my wind-induced tears. Fortunately I had well wrapped and insulated my hands and feet, but my face was burning with cold.
With half of the course done, and maintaining a good pace, I felt tired but positive. It was as if every pedal stroke cost me double in effort and energy than it did back home. As we reached the 15km marker, it got tough... really tough.
As I began the gruelling climb, I was relieved to find it mostly on the zig-zagging fire road up the mountain. However, the shade was numbingly cold and my tyres were skipping on the ice. At every corner, I was hoping the climb would end, but it seemingly went on forever.
At 20km there was a much needed food station where the event's team served warm soup and broth. I can't tell you just how wonderful and warming this was. I stood in the sunlight, snacking on everything, and having a good chat with the lovely team there. Reluctant to carry on because the broth was so good, I picked up my heavy steed and pushed on.
And literally pushed. After that feed station the climb steepened and the powder was incredibly soft. It was like pushing up through treacle. I could only manage baby steps and I felt the cold really setting in.
At the top of the climb, I was rewarded with the most stunning panoramic views you could imagine. I really wanted to get my phone out for a few photos, but stopping meant cooling down and I could already feel the sweat on my back turn to ice.
I made my way down the winding descent of the mountain, through thick powdery snow and onto the final flat. Approaching the finish village and seeing the banners rise up before me gave me that final bit of energy to pedal over the finish line.
It was such an incredible feeling to complete stage one. Battling the sub-zero cold, to the roasting sun, a heavy bike and difficult riding, I felt elated.
Route: Gstaad - Rougemount - Saanen - Chalberhoni - Eggli - Gstaad
Stage One aftermath with Tracy Moseley
"It's been a while since I've done a climb like that, but it's great fun and I'm really enjoying it" - Tracy Moseley
Much to my fangirl excitement, I learnt that legendary mountain biker, Tracy Moseley, would also be taking part in the Snow Bike Festival.
I caught up with Tracy after stage one and we shared our experiences. Having never been on a fatbike, or on the snow herself, Tracy explained the difficulty she had in the handling of the bike and where best to distribute her weight: "I didn't know if it's best to have more weight up front to drive the bike, or lean back a little more. It's hard to get right."
On the final winding descent into the finishing village, Tracy took a tumble over the side of the piste after losing the front end in a skid. Fortunately, both Tracy and bike are fine which is a wonderful thing about falling in the snow.
With two more days left of the event, it's time for rest, recovery... and more rest.