Words and Photos by Bob Allen
We live in an age in which there is a plethora of seasonal recreational opportunities that challenge our wallets and available free time. If we are lucky, we get to choose the activity du jour for any given weather condition. When the ski season is in full swing, my cycling activities usually play second fiddle to pursuing lift-served face shots or a quick, nordic skate ski on the local, groomed system. Winter biking usually means putting studded tires on my town bike so I don't crack my coconut whilst commuting on the glazed streets.
Over the years I've done enough frosty rides to confidently ride traditional bikes with studded tires over all kinds of slippery terrain when I need an off-season pedaling fix. But this set up doesn't work so well when exploring routes over punchy, less compacted snow surfaces - this is where the low pressure, big footprint fat bikes have opened the door to a whole new world of riding.
The media this winter has depicted an explosion of all things fat bike. I've seen photos of riders zipping over frozen lakes, ripping down solid undulating river rapids and touring the Great Lake shore ice. Writers have waxed poetic about tropical Mexican beach rides while racers shattered records in the mind-numbing Alaskan Iditabike psycho-epic using the latest in fat bike technology. Even some of the usually pedantic and protective nordic ski centers have opened their groomed trails to fat bikes; and a well attended Fat Bike Summit was held in January to shape the future of fat bike access. This diversity is a testament to the utility and exploding popularity of these bikes.
To the uninitiated, the big-tired bikes may appear to be just the next dorky fad for bored bicycle geeks or winter-challenged non-skiers - but to those who have had the opportunity to ride one in conditions where they excel, they quickly become the next must-have addition to one's outdoor gear quiver. There's a reason fat bikes are the fastest growing segment in the industry – they make you smile.
In choosing the right tool for the job, there is a fine line between having fun and just foolishly suffering for the principle that you've invested in the gear (and by God you're going to use it!) Snow biking is no exception - there are conditions where these bikes rip - and there are other times where I felt like the world's biggest dumb ass for embarking on another post-holing, hike-a-bike adventure to nowhere when I should be skiing instead.
This winter I had access to a Salsa Mukluk, and its badass racing cousin, the Beargrease, and I made a concerted effort to use them to define the optimal riding conditions where a fat bike was THE recreational tool of choice. You can cover some ground while getting a great aerobic cycling workout when the conditions are right – but the linear nature of mostly flat, wide-open trails left me wanting a more flowing, technical riding experience. What I craved was some good old-fashioned backcountry singletrack - and I set out to get some of the albino kind.
Mid-winter, when it was cold with regular snow accumulation, the local backcountry trails didn't receive enough heavy foot, ski or snowmobile traffic to compress the unconsolidated snow adequately to support riding without punching a trench too deep for affective pedaling, fun riding or keeping the peace with the nordic skiers. It wasn't until later in the spring that I found that the missing component was a thaw- and-freeze cycle combined with heavy traffic to consolidate the surface into a pavement-like tread. The weather fluctuation that left the ski hill in bulletproof conditions prompted the adage: when the skiing sucks, fat biking rocks!
By using the local avalanche website, I was able to track real time temperatures on a nearby Snowtel site to anticipate when a popular backcountry ski and ice climbing access trail would be hardened to frozen perfection. On a recent day I parked where I often start my summer mountain bike rides and linked together a groomed Nordic trail, a plowed section of road and a 3.5-mile singletrack climb into the alpine head of the canyon for a quality 20-mile round trip ride.
On the singletrack climb I derived twisted pleasure from overtaking skinning skiers at summer speeds with a ding, ding ring of my bell. A big shout out goes to QBP for investing in their new game changing 45Nrth tires - I was able to ride up pitches that were too slippery to walk. I climbed until the trail became too punchy from lack of traffic before I turned around.
All the rocks and roots that make this trail a technical summer ride had been buried and beat into a smooth, cupped and bermed luge run. All I can say about the 1,000-foot descent back to the trailhead is that by the time I hit the trailhead parking lot I had to stop to massage the grin-induced cramps out of my cheeks. In the subsequent days I chased the weather sweet spot to explore other favorite summer backcountry singletrack rides that were wearing their winter coats. You can snicker all you want at fat bikes, but you can also consider me a convert.