Brrr! What a cold week we’ve had in London. We’ve had snow flurries all week, lows well into the minuses, and only the hardiest among us have continued to brave the cycle-commute.
Of course, while northern Europe is freezing under a Siberian blast of cold air, our -3°C low is positively balmy compared to the average lows in some parts of the world. The Siberian tundra itself regularly experiences winter averages of -50°C and those living in northeastern China and central Canada regularly dip into the mid -20°Cs.
All this talk of snow and ice and frosty temperatures got us wondering...what would it be like to go for a bike ride in the really, really, body-shaking, teeth-chattering cold?
We imagined that Beeliner Bartosz Skowronski, who has completed the epic Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile ride in Alaska, might know a thing or two about that. 60 to 80 incredible adventurers prove the strength of the human spirit along the route each year (this year's event is taking place as we write), and in 2016 and 2017 Bartosz was one of them. We got in touch to find out more.
The man, the myth, the legend
First things first, a little introduction. Bartosz is a Londoner, originally from Poland, who came along with his partner Jola to our Christmas Lights Ride 2017. The two of them won an award for the fantastic decorations on their Fat Bikes but most memorable of all was the fact that Bartosz did the whole ride - and three hours outside on a chilly December night - in just shorts and a t-shirt! We didn’t even know about his crazy adventuring at that point but we knew that this guy was made of tough stuff.
The Iditarod Trail is a cluster of trails in the west of Alaska. Originally used by native Alaskan people, the trail had its heyday in the early 20th century when it was followed by thousands of treasure hunters during the gold rush. Nowadays it is largely known as the host of the incredible test of mental and physical endurance that is the Iditarod Trail Invitational. In the winter, temperatures on the trail can drop below -50°C.
Bartosz first read about the Iditarod Invitational in a Polish cycling magazine back in 2011 or 2012. Having cycled a fair amount on snow during harsh winters in Poland, Iditarod captured Bartosz’s imagination and he set the wheels in motion on a plan to eventually ride it himself.
To even qualify to sign up for Iditarod’s shortest ‘entry-level’ event (130 miles) you need to have completed at least one 100 mile + winter ultra race or ‘have significant cold weather experience’. For the 350 and 1000 milers you need completions of the shorter events, and even more 'significant cold weather experience'.
Bartosz embarked on several years of preparation including Finland’s Rovaniemi 150 mile Arctic Winter Race and an Iditarod training camp in 2015.
The Iditarod Trail Invitational organisers, supporters and volunteers do a fair bit of preparation themselves. Immediately before the race each year, the trail is driven over by snowmobiles, and marked by wooden sticks with orange paint. Once this has happened, riders cross their fingers for no snow in the intervening days before they hit the trail so that the trail remains packed and relatively easier to cycle on. There are checkpoints every 50 miles or so.
Sometimes private homes, sometimes tents with snow beds, the checkpoints give the riders the opportunity to replenish their supplies with 2.5kg bags of dehydrated food, fuel and batteries at each stop. Private homes might even have a fire to grab forty winks next to, and hot drinks and soup for warmth. Being a checkpoint host is no small undertaking: for two weeks riders will arrive at your house at any time day or night, in any number, and stay for as long as they like. In between checkpoints, the riders are alone and may sleep for a few hours at a time in bivvy bags on mats under the stars.
In February 2016, Bartosz flew over to Anchorage with his fat bike, carefully selected and tested cold weather gear, Polish freeze-dried food, and piles of specially built ‘cold-weather’ batteries to power his head torch and bike lights. The total weight of the bike he was to pedal 350 miles of frozen road on? 36 kilograms.
After one final check of equipment, participants were transported to the start line at Knik Lake. And at 2pm on a Sunday in early March 2016, they were off.
The start of the race was reasonably ‘warm’ with temperatures hovering just above 0 C (later dropping into the negative teens), and there was a thin layer of water on top of the frozen lake. The riders (alongside skiers and runners) set off together with 130 miles, 350 miles, or 1000 miles ahead of them. After 59 miles of pedalling on packed snow and ice, Bartosz arrived at the first checkpoint and rested, ate some hot soup, and drank some juice.
Freshly fuelled up, he got back on the trail and continued into the night - stopping only for a few hours sleep somewhere along the river. With no tent to block the view, and a northerly enough location to see the Aurora Borealis, he took in the “most beautiful night sky”. The peace is incredible too: Bartosz described stars that feel so close that you could reach out and touch them and air that is clear and so quiet. The only audible sounds are those that you yourself make: the breath that escapes from your lungs, the rustle of your sleeping bag, the low hum of your head torch, the rumble of a hungry belly.
The moon illuminated the sky but Bartosz was soon aware of another bright light - the headlight of another participant. Bartosz got up and the two cycled onwards to the next checkpoint, Skwenta Roundhouse at 90 miles. Stopping only for the time it took to sign the obligatory register (failure to sign a checkpoint’s register results in disqualification from the race) and eat a cookie, Bartosz forged onwards for several miles until exhaustion overcame him and he stopped to sleep. He boiled four bottles worth of snow: one for hot chocolate, two to warm his sleeping bag, and one more to pour into a food sachet.
Each participant needs to consume 8,000 to 12,000 calories a day so eating is a near constant action; peanuts, peanut butter, cheese, chocolate, hot chocolate, rehydrated food bags. After a restorative few hours’ sleep, Bartosz set off again with the morning light and reached Winterlake Lodge checkpoint, marking 130 miles from the start. By this point, Bartosz says, sleep deprivation and exhaustion are setting in and time becomes irrelevant. Sleeping at ‘normal’ times becomes an impossibility and the dead of night is removed as an option because "3am to 6am is when you can’t really sleep because it is too cold”. You just have to keep moving, and to survive you must adopt a Forrest Gump mentality: “when I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went”.
The sense of camaraderie on the trail is also so strong. Nominally, the ride is a ‘race’ but “it’s only against yourself”. Having set off together, the riders gradually separate and may not see anyone else for one or two days. “After a few days alone, your mind is going crazy” and isolation coupled with empty batteries can lead to some interesting experiences. In 2016 Bartosz was sure that he was cycling towards a big, warm hotel only to arrive to find nothing. He heard tales of a rider on a similar race who had arrived at a checkpoint claiming to have just waved goodbye to the Pope after sharing a hot chocolate with him.
So everyone looks out for each other. The thing about the cold is that you might not even feel it and, with focus on weary legs or bruised elbows, a warm and sweaty feeling nose might be succumbing to frostbite. For this reason the riders are encouraged to look out for each other. “We don't have mirrors we ask each other if we look ok, if someone looks like they’re sleeping we wake them up to check that they’re alright”.
The Puntilla Lake/Rainy Pass Lodge was a welcome sight after 165 miles and another opportunity for some warming drinks. 30 minutes of rest and Bartosz was on his way again only to realise, a short time later, that he had forgotten to sign the checklist. Back round he went. Rainy Pass, he soon found, was not rainy but a pass nonetheless...and ‘pass’ generally means mountains. Bartosz was headed into the Alaska Range which was at once spectacular and a spectacular challenge. It was nearly impossible to climb the 3000ft peak by bike so Bartosz had to push for five hours. If that was not enough, he found a fast-flowing thigh-high river that he needed to cross waiting for him part way up.
Bartosz had waterproof trousers but they didn’t extend beyond his knee; his boots stopped mid-calf. He had a big gap and, with a very real threat of frostbite if he were to get wet, an apparent dead end. Fortunately, he also had a guardian angel in Leah, a fellow cyclist who appeared with waders. The pair found a crossing point and seemed to be on track to make it across home and dry when disaster stuck: the waders slipped out of Bartosz's boots and allowed freezing water to flood into it. A wet foot and sodden shoe put him at risk and, once on the other side of the stream, Bartosz hurried to change his socks, squeeze out his shoe and activate heat pads in an attempt to stave it off. Another 30 minutes later he did the same and continued onwards with nothing more than a good story. The sense of relief was palpable.
The struggle to get there was tough but the view from the top of the pass was one of the best of the ride and a just reward for the trial and tribulation of getting up there. Downhill sections are usually the ultimate thrill for any cyclist, particularly after a slog up, but a very icy downhill saw Bartosz leave his saddle and take several spills into the deep snow that lined the trail. A few new scrapes and bruises, and a period of being lost, later it was a huge relief to arrive at the 200 mile Rohn checkpoint. Being just a tent, this checkpoint was perhaps one of the wildest but had “very comfortable beds”: snow moulded into an 80cm high mattress and pine straw on top. The perfect place for a quick kip.
The next 100 miles to the 300 mile Nikolai checkpoint were a “rollercoaster” of small hills and Bartosz got into a routine: push the bike up, ride the bike down. One final warming drink and he blasted onwards through the final 50 miles to arrive at the McGrath finish point by mid-afternoon on Thursday, crossing the line in a swift four days, one hour and 21 minutes. Exhausted but elated, he gobbled up a stack of 2-inch thick pancakes with maple syrup and “slept for a whole night"!
With a hugely successful 350-miler under his belt, Bartosz returned to Alaska for the 1000 mile event last year. Greeted with lows of -50°C, and a wind chill below that, the 2017 event was a different beast and after four days Bartosz was forced to retire from the race, losing two toes and half of a finger to frostbite. The hot chocolate that had frozen solid in his flask took three days to defrost. Mother Nature can be brutal and unforgiving and unravel even the best preparations but Bartosz is undeterred. He will return in 2019 with “a few upgrades!”, namely different boots and shoes, and we can’t wait to follow his progress then.
Watch his whole video here: