This week I was extremely honoured to speak to Steve Bate MBE, two time gold medal winning Paralympic cyclist, fresh(ish) from his winning trip to Rovaniemi. A real coup for both Fatbiking Europe Magazine and me personally, especially given we managed to sneak in ahead of the BBC!
Here’s how it went:
Hi Steve. Thanks for taking the time to speak to Fatbiking Europe Magazine. How are you feeling?
Hey no worries man, I’m still feeling pretty tired mate, my legs and back feel fine, it’s just a general tiredness. And I haven’t been able to stop eating, which is never a bad thing. The only bummer is, I’m not drinking at the moment and would love a nice porter!
For those readers who are unfamiliar with you, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Okay simply put, I’m an average dude who suffers from an eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, meaning I’m visual impaired and as it’s a degenerative condition I’ll go blind at some point in the future, there is currently no cure. I have no peripheral vision, so its pretty much like looking through straws the whole time. Oh, and my night vision sucks, I’m pretty blind in the dark. I was diagnosed in June 2011, lost my driver’s licence and struggled mentally for a while. But I’m back and living life to the full now, regardless of this little issue I have with my sight. I use to climb loads, but now I race my bike for a job…….A bit like Deliveroo, but for my country :)
But those readers who do know you, will be aware that you’ve just won the Rovaniemi 150 Winter Ultra Marathon on a Fatbike. That’s an amazing achievement. Is this the first winter ultra marathon you’ve entered?
Yeah cheers man, it’s pretty funny to turn up to an event like that as a novice and win. People told me you have to suffer a few times and learn how to ride these races before you have a chance of winning them. I did loads of research with my sight guide over the past year and saw what everyone else was doing and how they were riding, and just though they were carrying too much stuff and stopping too often at the mandatory check points. We decided to go light and non stop regardless of the weather, just keep riding or pushing no matter how bad it gets.
Did you ride the Strathpuffer during your training?
No I didn’t ride it, but Ibrahim my guide did. He said it was really good conditions and he learnt a lot from that race to take to Finland. I was keen to ride it, but it just didn’t work out this time. Bit of a bummer really, it’s a bad ass race.
How did you decide upon the Rovaniemi?
I’m super keen to try to ride across the Greenland Ice Cap on my fat bike. I know it’s been done before but I’d love to have a massive adventure in the Arctic. I came across Rov while I was google searching about the Ice Cap. I figured it would be a good little steeping stone to see how well I could function in those conditions, but with the added stress of a little race pressure. Now I’m thinking about taking our light fast approach and seeing if we can do the ROV300 in that non stop style.
And how did you train and prepare yourself for such harsh conditions?
We’ve had a pretty good winter here in Yorkshire. It sounds funny to say that, but we have had quite a lot of snow that has hung around. I tried to make the most of that when I could, but the day job of riding around a velodrome got in the way sometimes. I think the key was riding a loaded bike beforehand. I’ve pretty much been riding with the race kit (sleeping bag, sleeping mat, spare gloves, tubes, jackets etc) since I got back from Ride Across Britain (which I did on my fat bike, on the road in 9 days!) in September. So I’d had months of riding a heavy bike around. I guess dealing with the cold, I’ve got a background in Scottish winter climbing so this wasn’t going to be much different.
We know that your tremendous effort was supported by your sight guide, Ibrahim. Did you exclusively train together for this event and how does that work in practice?
We never rode together before the event. We have ridden together in the past, we did a 5 day bike packing trip in March last year, two days after I got my fat bike. But for this, we did our own thing. We needed to work on different things, but I knew he would be fine come race day. He’s one hell of an athlete in his own right.
Can you tell us a bit about how having a sight guide works. Other than the obvious, what does having Ibrahim alongside mean to you?
For me to ride a bike on my own is super stressful. Because of my narrow visual field, if I’m looking down at the trail, I can’t see things at head height in front of me, or vice versa. I spent most of my time racing a tandem which is loads of fun. I can’t race on the road by myself, it’s just too dangerous if I’m riding in a bunch. However on big races like the Rov, the field is so spread out this is less of a problem and it comes back to watching where to go. Ibrahim knows me really well and is great at taking on that guiding responsibility, when it’s wide open he is on my wheel hanging on for dear life, and when its twisty single track stuff he is up the trail to warn me about anything I might miss, like low branches or big holes in the snow, stuff like that.
You raced on a Sonder Vir Fortis, tell us about that? Was it factory standard or did Neil at Alpkit, spec it out for you? Was there anything that worked particularly well or anything, in hindsight, that you would change?
Yeah mate, that bike is bad ass! I went to Sonder a year ago and told them I wanted to do this race and wanted their support. The guys were super cool and keen to help, I guess having a couple of Paralympic gold medals worked in my favour. I was also lucky that Alex Rafferty from SRAM got in touch and sent me some pretty sick stuff; XX1 Eagle, Level brakes and Desendant carbon bars. It was like Christmas when the box arrived! It was a case of right place right time I think. So I sent the box to Neil and the team built it up for me. For the race I changed the standard love mud wheels to their Hellabaloo carbon rims and had a Son28 dynamo front hub laced in. This was so I could run an Exposure Revo, dynamo light during the race, so I always had light and didn’t have to rely on batteries. Because of the condition I chose to run flats and used 45Nrth pedals.
Can you tell us about the other kit you carried?
The race organiser have a mandatory gear list. A sleeping bag rated to -30, and sleeping mat and a set of light and reflectors. I took those, a spare light weight Alpkit shell jacket, spare gloves, a sweet Alpkit Phantac down jacket, a spare tube, small tool kit and pump, my dirty dog mutant 2.0 goggles, a buff, and food, oh and a small first aid kit, just in case. I left my phone at home so I had no option to call for help, it’s a bit more motivating to finish, when you don’t have the option. A Garmin 820 (these are great because they have a battery save mode and last’s 24+ hours) An Exposure Revo light, a diablo and a joystick for a back up. I think that’s pretty much it?
What was the one piece of kit you couldn’t have finished without? (bike aside, obviously)
Haha, yeah the bike helped for sure. I think it would be the jacket I was wearing. I went to Lusso Clothing based in Manchester. I had met John the owner just after Rio and liked him. He’s been in the business of making cycling clothing since like 1982 or something like that so he knows his stuff. It was hard to know what to wear in those cold conditions, but I wanted something light weight, totally wind proof, yet breathable! John came up with the perfect jacket and it worked really well. I only wore 3 layers. A base layer John made me, the windproof jacket, and a gilet on top.
What was the most challenging aspect of the race?
Tyre pressure! I punctured in the first 2kms and watched everyone else ride off, while I replaced my tube. I only carried one spare so I couldn’t afford to run it at low pressure incase I punctured again and had to try to use glue to patch it. So I rode pretty much all the race with about 8 PSI in the rear, which as you all know, on soft snow sucks really bad. It wasn’t until we were about 125 kms into the race, when I knew we had a big lead that I let it down to about 6 and took the risk, the difference was unbelievable! Surprise, surprise! I said to Ibrahim, I should have done that 16 hours ago! I was running them both at 4 psi, but after the puncture I just could risk it. It made the race a lot harder than it should have been.
Did you have a game plan? If so, what was it and did you stick to it?
Our game plan was to ride in the wheels until about two-thirds in (100km), then there was a long road section, so we were going to hit everyone then. But because of the puncture, I rode really hard to try to get back to the front of the race and we had caught everyone by 50kms, so we pretty much lead from there. Not ideal but our non stop, light approach kept gaining us time through check points and while pushing. We never once stopped to rest, the only reason we stopped was to sign in and out of check points, refill water or take a piss. We were pretty relentless on ourselves.
How did you fuel the ride?
I carried three bags of food, two a mixture of sweet and savoury, like nuts, jerky, m&m’s, jelly babies, malt loaf ripped into little bits. It was a big mistake really! I’m laughing about it now, but it was such I random section of favours when you just filled your hand and shoved it in your mouth. I didn’t open the last bag which was just all savoury. I also took about 8 gels and a couple of energy bars. I took a 500ml bottle to drink out of, carried in a Alpkit stem cell attached to the front of my seat post between my legs. It froze up a few times but worked pretty well. I used a mix of SIS electrolyte tablets and carb drink. I think the most important thing is to have a big mix of favours and not just too much of the same thing.
How does your condition specifically affect your cycling? And what challenges did it present in the Rovaniemi? We are guessing the night riding was particularly troublesome?
I think it was better in the dark to be honest. I thought the darkness would be really bad, but to be honest the flat light during the day made it really hard for me to read the snow. I bit like snow boarding in Scotland, when you struggle to see the definition. Other than that, just the usual stress of riding by myself, constantly scanning around and riding into low branches, and falling off.
A well documented side effect of Fatbiking is a permanent, stupid grin whilst riding. Did you smile at any point during the race?
Yeah for sure. Don’t get me wrong, at points it was horrific, but when you are riding your fat bike, in a beautiful place with your best mate, it doesn’t really get any better. We laughed a lot at each other falling off.
So there are parts of the race which you could say, hand on heart, that you actually enjoyed?
Oh hell yeah! I think I’m wired a bit differently to most people. I’m a huge fan of type 2 fun. I seem to have a switch in my head when it gets really horrible, this switch goes, and I start embracing the suffering. The harder it gets the more I love it. I like learning about myself in those really hard situations. Even when I punctured at the start, I was pretty chilled and enjoyed the process of fixing it. Ibrahim was freaking out watching everyone ride off. I told him to chill out, it was a long way to go.
At what point, if ever, did you think “I’m going to win this”
Coming back down the river with about 5kms to go. I asked Ibrahim to stop, we looked back up the river and it was just black. Not a light in sight. It’s the only time we stopped for no real reason. I just wanted to enjoy the moment with Ibrahim and take in what we had just done. I knew we wouldn’t have a chance to take it in after crossing the finish line, you never do; everyone wants to talk to you. It was a nice moment. We ended up finishing 58 minutes ahead of second place.
Impress us with your race stats.
Distance: 150km, Time: 17hrs 35mins, Avg Speed: 8.5kph, Max Speed: 33.5kph, Calories burnt: 9926, Height Gain: 1432m, Average Heart Rate: 137bph, Max Heart Rate: 178bph.
Was the Vir Fortis the first fatbike you have ridden or were you a fatbike convert previously?
No I’d ridden a Surly Moonlander a couple of years back, then a Pugsley. But the Sonder Vir Fortis is certainly a step up in terms of a bike for racing on. It’s incredible, just the weight and the responsive feel to it. It’s the most fun I’ve had on two wheels. I also have a Krampus, but I have only ridden this once since getting the Sonder! I’d happily sell it if anyone is interested :)
Does this foray into competitive off-road riding signal a change in tack for you as a cyclist?
I think if I could earn a living from racing my fat bike around the world then I would bin off Paralympic Track and Road Cycling, but we all have bills to pay! I’ve got a contract with British Cycling until the 2020 Tokyo Games, so that has to be my main focus. But I’d love to head back to Finland and give the Rovaniemi 300 a go, and the Iditarod Invitational is on my radar too. I guess the biggest adventure that I’m dreaming up at the moment is riding across the Greenland Ice Cap. I know it’s been done before but that would be an amazing adventure I think. I’d be interested to see if any of your readers have any info on this? I’ve love to be able to do more adventure riding or bike packing.
And dare we ask, do you have a preference between road, track and off-road? What do you like most and least about each discipline?
I love adventurous riding, covering long distances and seeing new things and cultures most. However, I do like pursuiting on the track, it’s so intensive; there’s nothing like it. It’s both amazing and horrible all at the same time. Time trailing is something I enjoy also, but I’m not a fan of riding road races. They are too unpredictable, I guess I like known efforts when I’m racing. I’d ride off-road given the choice, and on my fat bike :)
What’s next for you? Any more epic adventures in the pipeline?
I’ll be back on the road bike for summer and work (boooo!), but there are a couple of endurance challenges that I’d like to do this year on the road. I have a 300km in a day ride around London that I’m doing and the big one; riding the length of Scotland in a day! 325 miles in 24hrs which should be pretty cool or really horrible! I guess the Rov300 next year would be an option, but the Greenland Ice Cap would be the biggest thing I’m starting to look into. I’d love to give the Tour Divide a bash one year too.
And finally, as a fellow heavily bearded man, it would be remiss of me not to mention your fine specimen. Was is grown specifically for Rovaniemi? And other than the obvious benefits of making a man look cool, weathered and interesting, did the beard play any part in your winning result? Intimidation of fellow competitors, food storage or just added warmth for example?
Haha! Mate, everyone was loving the ice beard! It was pretty funny, I had these massive danglers hanging off my top lip for most of the race! The dude filming the race Chris, from Dark Sky Media was loving it. I grew it for the race and it worked really well. To be honest I shaved as soon as I got back home. I don’t think I’m cool enough to rock a beard. I think everyone else let me win, so I didn’t lose my shit and go all viking on their arse’s!
You mention being filmed, so can we expect an epic movie in the near future?
Yes mate. Dark Sky Media are making a film about my story which is based around the race. It’s due to be entered into the Banff Adventure Film Festival later this year, so keep an eye out for that. To follow more of my adventures check me out on social media platforms –
and my website is www.stevebatembe.com
Mate, its been a pleasure talking to you. Many thanks again for taking the time out to speak with me. We’ll certainly be following your exploits with interest and wish you every success in the future.
Thanks, and don’t mention it, its my pleasure.