Cape Town - There is still time to add an activity to your 2016 New Year's resolution, and I urge you to make it cycling in the snow on a fat wheel bike.
You might have seen these bikes making their mark on the cycling scene, or perhaps even talked to your riding buddies about them, either way, most are probably wondering whether they are actually worth the attention they so boldly command next to any other anorexic looking, normal tyre bikes.
Ryan Scott jumped on the first Swiss International Air Lines flight out of Johannesburg to head to the Toblerone chocolate bar looking snow covered mountains of Gstaad in Switzerland to test out this exciting new way of riding a bike, and returns with all bones intact, a slightly dreamy faraway look in his eye, and his adventure to share:
Last year my buddy Oli Munnik road the first Snow Epic in Engelberg and his pictures were insane! I asked him to tell me more, and after an excitable explanation I decided to check out the 2016 event which had renamed itself the Snow Bike Festival and relocated to the magnificence of Gstaad - a super luxurious resort spread over a relatively low lying valley in the Swiss Alps. The Snow Bike Festival drew a cosmopolitan bunch of entrants of all levels, but even for a total novice like myself (had never ridden a fat wheel bike before day 1 of the event), the adventure is totally accessible to anyone who rides bikes. I hired a bike through the event and collected at the expo while ogling all the others on show.
Day 1 started at a leisurely 09:30 and immediately as we left the tricky iced over streets of Gstaad and snaked our way into an avenue of snow laden trees down a lane next the an icy river, I realised this was no normal ride. The air was crystal clear and alive. Heat vapour escaping from the riders all around me was crisp as it met with the cold air around it that I thought the crunching ice sound I could hear was the tendrils cracking as the warm air was dominated by the -10°C alpine freeze. Of course that sound was coming from the hugely oversized tyres rolling their way over the snowed over path like the tanks in a WW2 winters campaign. Aside from that crunch, which I would get very used to over the next three days campaigning on my bike BIXS fat bike, there was very little surrounding sounds to take in. Maybe that was a good thing as it dedicated more resources to my sense of site which devoured this winter wonderland of snow, mountains, trees, rivers, frozen lakes and small villages which we passed surreally through each day.
It was not all blissful cruising though. There were skinny professionals up front leading the field up some very challenging climbing too. On the first and second stages we climbed over 1 000m in short distances resulting in tough gradients and incredible views at the top of the mountain peaks. To get to the top we used cat tracks, to get to the bottom, thanks to some fantastic race organisation and cooperation with Gstaad tourism, we got to head straight down the mountain next to, and sometimes right amongst, the bewildered skiers.
Stage two was particularly gnarly with an off-camber red run of about 3km straight from the top of Eggli peak to the foot of the ski lifts. Brand new technical biking skills are called for here, as a controlled sideways slide of the back wheel is the most efficient, and fun, way to chaotically sync with gravity and snow to get to the bottom of the mountain. The fun levels are off the charts! The odd tumble is inevitable, but there were no serious accidents nor injuries over the whole race and I was quickly addicted to a gentle tug of the back breaks, pressure on the outer peddle, un-clipped inner foot and getting sideways on these large bikes which seem built for, rather than adapted to, the snow.
The Snow Bike Festival is run by South Africans with a lot of event experience and it showed. Herman Coertze and his team have got everything covered, from race village efficiency to road marshaling and route markers. From the unmistakable voice of Dan Nicholl on the mic, to the generous portions of food, and all over camaraderie and fun for the riders at every turn.
It made for an incredible experience that I could never have dreamed of before crossing the start line this year, but will now dream of for the months to come before the surreal snowy bliss of the 2017 event - which has quickly become my number one adventure to do again next year.
For more details visit www.snowbikefestival.com
How to get there: Ryan Scott flew to Zurich with Swiss International Air Lines on the daily flight from Johannesburg to Zurich, leaving in the evening, arriving in the morning, additionally EDELWEISS, flies twice a week from Cape Town to Zurich in the South African summer months (Oct – April)
Stage 1 video below with thanks to quattro media