Winter training can be tough. Every day I open my Instagram feed to a stream of people sweating it out on trainers in their ‘pain cave’, or scroll through Strava uploads, wondering just how superhuman you have to be to spin through 3 hours of Zwift (for the record, I don’t have Zwift but I reckon three hours on a trainer is beyond me under any conditions). Others seem to give up bikes entirely, option for running, hiking, skiing, and other winter sports. Some just keep riding, -7C be damned!
Honestly, I shouldn’t complain. After weeks of seriously freezing temps, even I braved the elements and went for a spin at -4C. And it wasn’t so bad.
Still, there are better ways to enjoy the Alps in winter that don’t involve hours hunched over the home trainer, sweat dripping, eyes blurring, hatred for the bike growing with ever minute. Sure, nothing beats the interval training you get from riding indoors but why not complement it with fat biking in the snow, CX and MTB in the mud, or Nordic skiing if you’re close to the slopes. Or even hitting the track if you’re near a velodrome.
For the record, next year I reckon a gravel bike or cyclocross setup is going to seriously help me enjoy the slushy days and frosty temps, while also giving my bike handing skills a boost. But for this year, I tried my hand at e-fat biking (never again) and skate skiing (a serious work in progress).
E-fat biking sounds like fun. Motors make slogging up the slopes a breeze, and then you’ll be churning through the powder having a blast. Right? Unless you’re me. We’d picked a fairly easy hill to climb with a stunning view over the Alps from the summit, followed by taking the chairlift up to the top of another slope for a descent… My limited (virtually non-existent) mountain biking skills were apparent before we’d even left the carpark but still it was fairly easy heading up the road … and while riding on the snow was a bit of an odd sensation at first, the joy of spinning at 100+RPM while winding up the hill was fun. Even I’ll admit that. And then things quickly fell apart. The slope ramped up and the snow got soft. On the edges there wasn’t much snow at all, and in other areas it was so soft, the bikes got bogged, and it was virtually impossible to restart.
My companion yelled at me, encouraging me to keep going as I feebly pushed the enormous bike up the hill, cursing the entire day.
Every time I found a flatter section, I turned the pedals and tried to get another start. Sometimes I’d get a few meters, other times I’d just spin into the drift and get stuck again. The pedals were set much wider apart than I was used to on a road bike and I kept banging my inner knee when spinning them around, trying to restart. Large bruises were starting to form and I was feeling pretty defeated. We pushed on for a while but it became clear that it was a hopeless cause. Between the snow conditions and my incompetence, we decided to turn around.
The descent wasn’t much better – it was terrifyingly steep and again my lack of off-road skills was letting me down The idea of using only the back brake and letting the wheel slide out felt unnatural and unnerving. The drop off the right hand side of the track didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. I basically skidded down each slope, taking one tumble around the hairpin bend, and another over the front of the bike further down. Once the gradient eased up, I felt a little more confident but it was clear that there was no way I’d be attempting a descent down a ski slope. I decided to sit it out, feeling dejected and defeated. I doubt anyone will ever invite me to go fat biking again, which is probably best for all involved (!).
But for everyone else out there – don’t let my experience deter you. Grab a fat bike and have a go yourself! Make sure the conditions are good, the snow is hard packed enough to get traction if it’s steep, or just practice your burnouts on the plateau. There is definitely fun to be had, I just wasn’t up to the task.
My other foray into winter activities was Nordic skiing – skate skiing to be exact. It looks great, is supposed to be a phenomenal all-body workout, with a cardio intensity that rivals cycling. Not to mention the joy of skating at near-cycling speeds across a high Alpine plateau, snow-capped peaks on either side or descending through the pine trees in your own private winter wonderland. As someone who loves the snow (though my previous experience essentially comprises snow-shoeing and some downhill skiing about 20 years ago), I couldn’t resist. I wasn’t about to let my complete lack of coordination so apparent in all team sports hold me back.
Perseverance in the face of (my own) overwhelming incompetence is my new motto.
But it wasn’t as bad as all that – it’s a tough sport for the coordination-challenged but a few classes and a fair bit of practice and you start to see what people are talking about, even as they still whizz past you. It works the quads and glutes like cycling, plus the core, and upper body (something my spaghetti arms don’t get much of).
Plus, once you get the hang of it, all that aerobic fitness, strength, and power you have on the bike will transfer to your skiing and you’ll be screaming up the hills and along the flats. At least, that’s what they tell me… I’ll report back on that part after a bit more practice.
There are obviously other sports you can also do in the winter but I’m focusing on those that make the best of everything the Alps have to offer. Snowshoeing is also good for keep those legs and glutes active, as well as maintaining endurance, and also doing some weight-bearing, which is what cyclists often neglect and is particularly important for preventing osteoporosis in women. Really, the most important thing is to stay active, get out there and enjoy the mountains.