The mountain bikers churned slowly through the hard snow, their tires emitting crunching sounds as the riders made their way toward the Deschutes River Trail from Bend’s Farewell Bend Park.
They expressed their thoughts with laughter and some words of bewilderment.
Most bikers avoid snow and ice as much as they can, riding in it only when they come across unexpected white patches during a ride.
But come Feb. 9, many athletes will be mountain biking through snow on purpose during the Winter Triathlon National Championship at Mount Bachelor.
The event includes a 6-kilometer run, a 10K mountain bike ride, and an 8-kilometer cross-country ski (distances approximate), all on snow on Bachelor’s groomed nordic ski trails.
Many triathletes have run through ice or snow, and cross-country skiing is nothing unusual. But mountain biking in snow is foreign to most athletes.
Matt Lieto, a professional triathlete from Bend; Marshall Greene, an elite nordic skier from Bend who has won the last two Pole Pedal Paddle multisport races; and Ben Thompson and James Williams, two elite mountain bikers from Bend, were testing their mettle while biking through the snow on Wednesday.
Thompson pointed to the sheet of ice that covered portions of the Deschutes River Trail.
“This is death,” he pronounced. “We stay away from anything that’s doing the melt-freeze cycle. The canal roads are pretty good out at Smith Rock. Anything out east is pretty dry.”
So ice, understandably, is avoided. But do some mountain bikers ever actually seek out snow?
“No; however, we live in Bend and we ride bikes,” Thompson explained. “A ’cross (cyclocross) bike is usually what we ride in the winter — you can go off road and on road. The colder the better, if you have to ride in the snow. There’s no melt-freeze ice, and it’s lighter snow. It just blows up and moves out of your way, just like skiing.”
Unfortunately, competitors in the winter triathlon cannot choose their snow conditions. Greene said that firm, groomed snow would be optimal for bike riding — a fresh dump would cause some havoc.
“For the technical part, you just have to spend time on the snow,” Greene suggested. “Get out at least two or three times so you can have different snow conditions, because that can make a big difference. There’s a decent chance it could be really soft if we get a lot of snow leading up to (the triathlon).”
No matter what the conditions, Lieto and Greene — employees at Bend Bike ’N Sport who both plan to compete in the winter triathlon — recommend running tires at lower air pressure. Most of the top winter triathletes keep their bike tires at about 20 pounds per square inch (PSI) for races, which is considered extremely low.
“If you did that (kept tires at 20 PSI) on concrete, you’d get a flat, because you’d pinch the tire,” Greene said.
Mountain bike tires are typically set at about 40 PSI. But lower air pressure allows more of the tire to come in contact with the ground, making for better traction, according to Lieto.
Many bike shops sell studded tires, but they are typically useful only in extremely icy conditions, Greene said.
Both Lieto and Greene recommend using 29-inch wheels, larger than the standard 26-inch size. The bigger wheels create more contact with the snow, improving traction.
While riding in snow, keeping the bike in a higher (easier to pedal) gear gives the riders more control as the tires spin through the snow at a faster pace, Lieto explained. Clipless pedals are necessary to stay in control and maintain rhythm — without them, the tires could spin out.
Lieto added that “soft hands” are a key to riding in snow.
“It sounds weird, but if you’re stiff, you’ll crash,” Lieto said. “Let the front tire go a little bit — like riding in sand in the middle of summer.”
For the running stage of the triathlon, competitors usually wear track spikes or attach screws to the bottoms of their trail-running shoes.
For clothing, Greene said that an outfit similar to what a person would wear nordic skiing is best for the triathlon, such as Lycra tights with possibly a cycling chamois. A skullcap worn under a cycling helmet is also helpful in cold weather.
The sport of winter triathlon, popular in Europe, is still gaining a foothold in the United States. It has a following in Colorado, where the Winter Triathlon National Championship has been staged since 2001.
Getting athletes to bike and run in the snow may not be easy, but Central Oregon figures to have quite a few competitors who are up for the challenge, including endurance sports enthusiasts like Lieto and Greene.
“We do stupid stuff already,” Lieto said. “We’re used to it.”
WINTER TRIATHLON NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
6-kilometer run, 10K mountain bike ride, and 8-kilometer cross-country ski (distances approximate). Elite race and an age-group race.
Saturday, Feb. 9.
Mt. Bachelor nordic trails.
Contact: Register at usatriathlon.org or www.mtbachelor.com. Cost is $67 before Feb. 1 and $77 thereafter.
Article by Mark Morical, The Bend Bulletin, January 18, 2008