It’s inevitable. I planned a day off to go cross country skiing; the weather and conditions looked perfect. And, of course, the forecasters were wrong. Instead of staying cold, it suddenly shot up to 50 degrees the day before, then overnight dropped to 25 degrees with a howling wind. NOT the conditions I wanted; bulletproof snow, klister wax, and getting blown all over the place by wind in the fields.
OK, so I’d been wanting to try a fatbike for some time, and this seemed like it just might be the time. If you haven’t run into these beasts yet, you certainly will, as their popularity is on the rise on the roads as well as the trail. Basically, they’re rigid mountain bikes with oversized tires; the typical tire is around 4″ wide, or roughly twice the width of a normal mountain bike tire. With lots of girth and very little pressure, they allow you to ride in conditions that simply won’t allow a “normal” bike to work. On a day when trails are rock-hard, they SHOULD allow for more fun than clattering around on skis…but there’s only one way to find out!
A call to Stan and Dan Sports in North Conway found a fatbike rental available. I was probably lucky to get one; their website doesn’t even MENTION bikes, much less fatbike rentals. Don’t let their website fool you, though; they have a full service bike shop, selling bikes as well as renting. And, they do a rousing business; while I was there (on a Thursday!), two women from Texas came in to rent a pair of fatbikes. I was told that, on a typical weekend, they’ll be totally rented out. I’m glad their marketing efforts are just ramping up; otherwise, I’d probably have been out of luck.
I got lucky in more than one way; Patrick from the bike shop had his own fatbike on his car, and was heading out for a l-o-n-g lunch break. He offered to take me out and show me some backwoods trails. Perfect; I wanted to stay out of the wind, and these sounded great. He fitted me to a Framed Minnesota 2.0 fatbike, and we kitted up and headed out.
Patrick’s choice was the Pudding Pond area; lots of trails, densely wooded, perfect for a windy, cold day like this. However, we quickly learned that the weather hadn’t been kind to snow conditions; if you ventured off the narrow, firm center of the trail, your wheels broke through the crust, sunk into about 8″ of sugar snow, and you just STOPPED. Clearly, while fatbikes have traction advantages in loose conditions, they also have limitations. We left the narrowest side trails and onto the more heavily traveled main trails, and that problem went away. Given how hard the freeze was, our biggest issue was the holes where snowshoers and walkers had been when it was warm out; those holes were now deep and weren’t going to move for us. There’s where one of the huge advantages of the fatbikes became apparent; if we’d been on regular mountain bikes, it would have been almost unrideable, and certainly very unpleasant. Instead, it was bouncy but controlled, allowing us to bridge from smooth area to smooth area with little difficulty.
And it was in the smoother areas that the fatbikes really excelled. I’ve ridden mountain bikes in the winter for years, but mainly on snowmobile trails; the pretty much packed and groomed conditions mean great riding. But, there’s a price to pay, and that is, well, snowmobiles. It’s flat-out dangerous to ride those trails in daylight; modern snowmobiles are fast and quiet, and in a collision, you lose. So, we only ride at night, with headlights, which has its own joys and perils. Fatbikes, though, can get out onto lumpier, bumpier terrain that has been created by non-mechanized vehicles (sometimes called “humans”). They won’t help you if the surface is too loose and deep, but they’ll make pretty much anything else manageable.
Oh, and they also make a lot of things easier. I’m well known as a miserable mountain bike handler; all strength, no skill. Riding over downed trees and the like is always a challenge for me. We ran into one almost immediately…and the bike simply went up and over it. Effectively, the 4″ tire with 8 pounds of pressure squished over it, turning a 10″ log into about 6″ of rise; even for me, that’s easily doable.
One thing became very clear early on; fatbikes are simply about DOING. In other words, don’t plan on going out on them and “ripping it up;” sure, you can make them go faster if you want to, but I’d love to watch a couple of hammerheads trying to race each other…in slow motion. They’re simply not fast. Big and heavy, they’re about letting you get out and enjoy the scenery more than anything else. With my background in bike racing, there’s always a temptation to push too hard; it’s an ingrained trait at this point. But, on the Minnesota, even when I was getting a good workout I was going slowly enough that I could enjoy the views along the trail. In a world where we’re always bombarded with input and never doing as much as we think we should, this was a real respite; a couple of hours of just being, going what speed I could, seeing what there was to see, nothing more.
No doubt, I made the right decision. XC skiing would have been absolutely miserable in those conditions. If I’d wanted to XC ski, I’d have had to head for the wonderfully groomed trails at Jackson XC, Great Glen Trails or Bear Notch Ski Touring Center but fat biking in winter on ungroomed local trails was simply fun.
Hmmmm…could these things be the answer to the mud season mountain biking blues? That’s another question to be answered soon.
While I’m pretty sure my wife wouldn’t be thrilled to have another bike appear in the garage, there’s always the rental option! Time to do some research and see who else is renting them; I’m sure I can come up with excuses to go to a few different places that just happen to have fatbikes available. There’s probably one near you…give it a try!