Like many Chainlink members, I continue to commute by bike through the winter months. But beyond that, my cold weather pedaling is largely limited to stationary trainers...and my dreams of springtime.
To help combat the cabin fever, I've recently taken up snowboarding and occasionally cross country skiing. While I definitely find these activities enjoyable, they don't seem to move me (in the figurative and literal sense) the way a bicycle can.
Despite this, I've resisted the fat bike trend we've seen in recent years. Sure, I've always recognized fat bikes as necessary tools in snowy climates like those you'd find in Alaska and perhaps Minnesota. I've also recognized them as ideal steeds for extreme adventure cycling...the type where you might, for example, need to cross an entire African desert or ride for miles and miles on muddy roads during monsoon season.
But for the majority of riders, I mostly viewed fat bikes as a fad and somewhat of a gimmick or toy. I mean, do we really need yet another highly focused, special-purpose bicycle in our collection? And can't we just put our bikes away for three months each year and do something else?
Well, thanks to a demo bike graciously provided to The Chainlink by a Colorado-based fat bike company called Borealis, I've changed my opinion of fat bikes for the better.
A full review of the Borealis Flume is forthcoming. But for now, I can confidently say that it has been a bit of a game changer in terms of how I feel about winter riding, and winter in general.
If you're on the fence about fat tire bikes, I'd encourage you to give one a look. Why?
During the work week, a fat bike lets you casually (dare I say effortlessly) ride to the office in icy and/or blizzard-like conditions that would require full concentration on your skinny tire commuter.
And on the weekends? You can let that stationary trainer collect dust while you bulldoze un-plowed bike paths, or experience your favorite mountain bike trails in a totally different light.
Bear in mind, I'm just learning the ropes here, but in a very short span of time, the trusty Flume and I have experienced (and enjoyed) a fairly wide range of winter riding conditions. Here are some examples:
Groomed Mountain Bike Trails
Well, it turns out people are grooming snow for fatbikes now too. In short, a snowmobile or ATV pulls a device that smooths out and compacts the snow. The end result is so much more fun than I ever imagined.
For starters, the thousands of roots and rocks that typically rattle out your fillings are buried under a velvety blanket of goodness. This transforms a rough trail into a veritable magic carpet ride.
Nicely compacted snow like this is the winter equivalent of "hero dirt." The tires float on top and grip surprisingly well in the turns.
The fat bike's tires glide effortlessly on top of the snow. Traction is better than expected too, marked by a very gradual and predictable "drift" in the corners...a bit like riding on sand.
Correct body positioning seems a touch more important, however. This seems particularly true in sweeping turns, or on steep inclines where you need plenty of weight on the rear tire so it hooks up. I'd say this is a positive thing in that riding on snow can teach good habits that can carry over into the summer.
Best of all, it's easy to stay warm on a groomed trail, thanks to the tree coverage and relatively slow speeds as compared to road riding. In other words, wind chill is not a factor.
I've had such a positive experience that now I'm in no hurry at all for winter to end. To the contrary, I'm compulsively looking at the weather forecast hoping for more snow.
Non-Groomed Mountain Bike Trails
Based on my experience so far, this isn't nearly as fun, but it's a fantastic workout as well as a lesson in proper body positioning.
For a bit of context, a local mountain bike loop that takes me under 20 minutes in the summer required more than 40 minutes to complete when riding on what I would describe as crusty, icy snow. Too much weight on the front wheel and the tire poked through the crust and bogged down. Poor body positioning on a steep, off-camber switchback and the bike immediately started to slide out on the icy surface. Every bad habit of mine was suddenly put under a microscope.
Non-groomed, non-compacted snow isn't as much fun, but you get a killer workout. It took every ounce of energy I had to get up this incline.
At the end of my ride, I was pretty cooked and more than ready to roll on some solid ground, but I feel I improved as a rider from this experience, and can't wait to try it again.
Well, imagine being able to pedal happily for mile after mile with the only "traffic" you might encounter is an ice fishing shelter.
If you don't mind being a little different, a fat bike is great for frozen lakes too.
Believe it or not, the fat bike felt more stable riding on ice than I did when walking on the ice. Throw on some studded tires and you can explore frozen lakes like this for miles.
On this particular day, I was riding on straight up ice. Typically, there'd be a layer of snow on top to provide some traction. Even so, the bike seemed incredibly stable and amazingly planted. In fact, I felt more secure on the bike than when I stepped off to take a photo.
Before you think I'm a weirdo, I'd like to point out that people like this guy and these guys ride fatties on ice. That said, if lots of ice riding is in your future, you might consider mounting up some studded fat bike tires.
That said, a decent fat bike represents a considerable investment. If you'd like to try before you buy, you'll be happy to know there are a growing number of places that rent fat bikes, often located conveniently near groomed trails. After a bit of research, I'm also noticing ski resorts are starting to add fat bike rentals and groomed trails to their list of attractions.
If you want to give fatties a try, here are some resources to help get you started:
About the author:
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.