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Snow-Bike Races: The Long and Short of It

From beginner races to ultra-endurance, snow-bike races are taking off with a flurry.

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Like their summertime counterparts, there are many different types of snow-bike races around the country, each with its unique character and style and catering to all riders, from the snow-bike beginner to the hardcore enthusiast. There are short cross country length races, which can be completed by most any mountain biker on a regular mountain bike with extra-wide tires, and then there’s the Iditarod Trail Invitational, also known as Iditabike, that runs either 350 miles from Knik to McGrath, AK., or 1,100 miles to Nome, following the Iditarod Trail used by the Iditarod dog sled teams.

2011 Iditarod Trail Invitational winner, Jay Petervary, on the Iditarod Trail in 2011. Courtesy photo (file)

Most, if not all, the races are run on groomed snowmobile or Nordic ski trails. Still, even with the snow packing and grooming, snow conditions are variable, making some courses fast even on non-fat-bikes while other courses reduce all riders, regardless of bike, to walking.

Because of the variable conditions that can be found among events, or even within a single event, training for snow-bike racing has to include training for forward movement on fast snow, slow snow, and deep snow. This means intentionally finding snow that is impassable without walking, and practicing pushing. The other aspect of training for snow-bike racing is learning to stay warm and regulate temperature, as a misstep in this department will have far more serious consequences than over- or under-dressing during a summertime race.

Cross Country Length Classics

There are several race series around the country that cater to the recreational snow-biker, as well as dozens of free-standing events, including a self-proclaimed Snow Bike World Championships held in Michigan. These races are generally low-key and cater to the rider looking to keep pedaling through the winter and to rally around in the snow with like-minded individuals. Training for them is similar to training for any cross country race, with some bike pushing thrown in for good measure.

Leadville Series

The Leadville series is a 4-race series at venues around Leadville, CO., hosted by the Cloud City Wheelers. The races are approximately 12 miles long with the proceeds benefiting local bicycle advocacy groups around the Leadville area.

These races are short enough and in a sufficiently controlled environment that they serve as an excellent introduction to snow-bike racing for riders of all fitness and skill levels, and many racers opt to use regular mountain bikes on the well-packed courses.

More details can be found at the Cloud City Wheelers website.
Jan. 15th – Copper en Fuego, Copper Mountain, CO. 5:30 pm start.
Feb. 4th – Tennessee Pass Night Jam, Ski Cooper, CO. 7 pm start
March 3rd – Mineral Belt Mayhem, Leadville, CO. 7pm start.
April 7th – East Side Epic, Leadville, CO. 10 am start.

Teva Snow Criterium

While most snow-bike races are grass-roots events, the Teva Mountain Games in Vail, CO., have upped the ante this year by adding a snow criterium to their Winter Mountain Games. Held February 11th, the criterium will have a traditional, short-lap, spectator-friendly format and will be held on a fast, snow-covered course. With a $4,000 payout, expect this field to be stacked with all the local mountain bike pros in the area hoping to transfer their dirt riding skills over to the snow.

With registration open to everyone, anyone can jump in on the fun and standard mountain bikes will most likely be the bike of choice for this style of racing.

Details can be found here.

Snow Bike World Championships

This year, the Noquemanon Ski Marathon, held near Marquette, Michigan on January 28th, has added a snow-bike category and declared the event the Snow Bike World Championships. The Noquemanon Trail Network recently opened up a section of their Nordic trails to snow-bikes and are looking to showcase this new user group through the event. The race is held alongside Nordic ski races, snowshoe races, and a skijor race as part of a three-day winter festival.

The 25K race is open to fat-bikes and mountain bikes, and the short distance will make it an enjoyable event for any mountain biker.

Details can be found here.

Togwotee Winter Classic

Held just north of Jackson Hole, WY., on March 3rd, the Togwotee Winter Classic embraces the grassroots nature of snow-bike racing. Organized by Dave Byers, a snow-bike fanatic based out of Victor, ID., the race offers a 25-mile and 35-mile option.

There is no entry fee and the field limit is 50 racers. While the event is sure to be competitive on the snow, all racers congregate at the Togwotee Lodge bar after the event to share stories from the race.

The Winter Classic is longer than many of the cross country length races and can be used as a good stepping stone between the shorter races and the 100-milers which are emerging on the snow-bike ultra-endurance scene.

Details for this event can be found here.

100-Milers

As the ultra-endurance scene is exploding in summer mountain bike racing, the snow-bike scene is experiencing similar growth. There are at least a dozen 100+ mile snow-bike races that pit riders against the elements and each other. Most of these events require that riders carry a complete set of survival gear, including -20-degree sleeping bags. Some of these races walk the line between long single-day races and multi-day adventure races. They should only be undertaken by those prepared to survive sub-zero temperatures overnight in addition to being able to pedal 100 miles on snow. While there are many 100-milers out there, some take on legendary status among racers for their locations, beauty, and sheer cold.

Susitna 100

The Susitna 100 is one of the classic ultra-endurance snow-bike races. Held outside of Anchorage, AK., bikes race alongside runners and skiers on February 18th.

The race often has temperature swings of 40 to 50 degrees F between day and night, with warm years seeing temperatures above freezing, and other years, temperatures that never break 0 degrees F. Thus, race organizers are strict about mandatory gear and ‘recommended gear.’ So strict, in fact, that in addition to the mandatory gear list, which includes a sleeping bag and a closed cell sleeping pad, each racer must carry an additional 15 pounds of survival gear.

While the race is only for the seasoned snow-bike racer, the experience of riding in the Susitna Valley is second to none.

More information can be found here.

Arrowhead 135

Riders in the Arrowhead 135. Courtesy photo (file)

Like many of the ultra-endurance snow bike races, an entry fee check must be accompanied by a race resume, highlighting not only that a rider can pedal 135 miles, but also that they can survive riding in -40 degree temperatures. Held in International Falls, MN., on January 30, the Arrowhead is considered one of the hardest snow-bike races in the lower 48.

International Falls, known as the Icebox of the Nation, generally has some of the coldest temperatures in the country around the Jaanuary 30th start date. Racers follow the 135-mile Arrowhead State snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower.

Race information can be found here.

Iditarod Trail Invitational

If a single event could be called the granddaddy of all snow-bike events, the top honor would be given to the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Following the same route as the famous Iditarod sled dog race, the course takes racers through the interior of Alaska from Knik to McGrath, starting February 26th. While there are checkpoints along the way to offer racers respite, food drops and shelter, each racer is required to carry full survival gear for spending the night out in the middle of the Alaskan winter.

Many racers are content to stop in McGrath, but a select few choose to continue all the way to Nome, the final terminus of the Iditarod Trail, 1,100 miles away from the start in Knik. For some perspective, only 36 individuals have completed the race to Nome since the inaugural year in 2000. The time cut-off to arrive in McGrath is 10 days and the time cut-off or those continuing to Nome is 30 days.

To qualify to race the Iditabike, racers must prove themselves, which can be done by finishing either the Arrowhead 135, the Susinta 100, White Mountain 100, or the Sheep Mountain 100, all brutally long and hard snow-bike races in their own right. With the race limited to 50 participants, including those wishing to ski or run the route, entry into the race is competitive. Qualification for the race to Nome requires having already completed the 350 mile race to McGrath and first-timers post a $750.00 refundable deposit, should they require assistance from checkpoints or Iditarod sled dog crews and will be banned from entering in the future.

Interested riders can also attend a winter riding training camp hosted by race organizers Bill and Kathi Merchant before the race. While most would consider Iditabike racers completely out of their mind for their desire to ride the route, one can only assume that they get to experience beauty out on the trail that most could never imagine.

Race information can be found here.

Find out more about how to prepare for snow-bike races. 


Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO.  She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi day self supported racing in the more recent past.  She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. All articles by Eszter.