Last year, Aidan Harding asked us to provide bikepacking gear for his upcoming Iditarod race.
Here, he has written down his experiences of the kit (including our bags) during the 1000 mile extreme-condition race.
In February 2014, I set off on the Iditarod Trail Invitational. 1000 miles of racing across Alaska with unknowns in every mile. There was bound to be cold, snow, ice, and emptiness. As for anything else the trail might throw up, I'd just have to figure that out when I got there.
It was my second time in the 1000 mile race and third time racing in Alaska overall. With the right preparation and gear, winning the race seemed like a genuine possibility. I was determined to get everything that I could lined up. I trained hard through the wettest winter in 250 years (www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/archive/2014/early-winter-stats) and refined my equipment more than ever before.
The kit has changed a lot since I first went out there in 2009. The rims are over 50% wider, the bikes handle better, and the vast majority of riders choose soft bikepacking bags over panniers. In some areas, I felt like I had the experience to make the right choices straight away. In others, it wasn't so clear.
In previous races, I had watched people ride away from me in soft snow, while I was left punching through their tyre tracks. Moving to big 100mm rims was a easy choice. I had terrible knee pain one year where I had been unable to train on my Pugsley. At the time, the only bottom-brackets available were DH ones that lasted just days in winter XC riding. More than that, it was not a fun bike to ride. So I had not been inclined to ride it at home and adapt to the wider stance on the cranks. This year, the Singular Puffin gave me something fun to pedal, and modern Middleburn cranks meant that I could fit a decent bottom-bracket. Well adjusted knees and good times!
Boots are something that are still an open question. I used arctic-rated Muck Boots (essentially, lined wellies) to make sure that I could deal with any overflow (water forced up from rivers or the sea, onto the ice). They were prone to causing sweaty feet, but otherwise warm. Not something I would use again, but even talking to Fairbanks locals, there doesn't seem to be a boot that works at -40C, but doesn't sweat at 0C. All I think you can do is take close care of your feet: dry them when you can, notice if they start to get cold in a bad way, and start chemical warmers early if you need them.
I had had great experiences with Wildcat bags during the Grenzstein Trophy, Cairngorms Loop, Highland Trail, and EWE so using their gear for Alaska was another one of the easy choices. When you come right down to it, a lot of what's required for winter bikepacking is the same as for UK summer bikepacking, but bigger. And the same counts for the bags.
Beth and Ian came up with a giant-sized version of the Mountain Lion to hold my sleeping bag up-front. It puts a lot of the weight over the front wheel, where I like it – and keeps things tight enough that I didn't need a rack to keep the load away from the front wheel. As I'd found with the summer version, it took one adjustment when I first fitted the harness to get things tightened up. Then, on the morning routine of getting that sleeping bag back on the bike, there was no need for more tightening. It worked so well that I ended up piling more and more of my night-time kit into it.
Similarly, the Tiger rear-harness was enlarged to hold my 13L dry-bag. This was where I kept my expedition down jacket and a few other bits. The jacket was mainly for making/breaking camp, and for walking when the weather got really bad but I couldn't stop. It's very important that this type of bag doesn't rub your inner thighs (or anywhere else) when you're riding in extreme cold. I have had that happen with a previous bag and it caused a painful cold patch where it was touching (somewhat down to bad packing but, when you're cold and exhausted, your packing will never be ideal). I had discussed this with Wildcat as they worked on the bag, and they produced something that does the job tremendously – no contact, and minimal wagging. This was also subjected to (and survived) extra stress as I wrapped my goggles around the dry-bag when they weren't needed, and hung my ice cleats from the straps.
A small front-pouch of a bag (now the Lioness) was not something that Wildcat had been making at the time. But it was something that I had found invaluable on previous trips and convinced them to produce. It strapped on to the front of my front dry-bag, with a simple zipper for access. On the sea ice of Norton Sound, I was grateful for this little pouch when I made a battery change to my head-torch entirely by feel. All those little important things (spoon, batteries, notes) were right where I needed them and easy to find.
I always like to pack the main triangle with food. It keeps the weight strapped firmly to the frame and is easy to access on the move. For this trip, Wildcat made a Snow Leopard: a fatter frame bag to take on more food. For the Iditarod, you need to be able to carry 3 days worth of food between villages. The widest part of the bag is at the front, so that it doesn't interfere with seated pedalling or the short bursts of standing power that are sometimes required. I was (embarrassingly) excited about having a gate-fold opening – zips along the horizontal and vertical edges so that I could get every scrap of food out. Large toggles on the zips made them easy to use with gloved hands.
The overall result was a lightweight system which performed really well. It was a low-snow year in the race, so bouncing over rough, frozen round was a frequent occurrence. Falls were commonplace, but my gear stayed where it ought to. I carried a couple of webbing straps and some velcro with me, but never had to use them to fix up the Wildcat Gear. I did use the velcro to fix my ice cleats to my boots more securely, but those webbing straps were one of the few things I never used on the trip. Visually, the setup looked so good that an Inupiat Eskimo kid in Golovin took the camo-print to mean that I must be in the marines.
For a lengthy description of the race, see http://www.sidetracked.com/iditarod-trailinvitational/