Fat bikes are a great way to enjoy Mother Nature in the wintertime while minimizing the misery of sitting on a trainer in the basement. Opportunities for riding your fattie are growing, too. Land managers are planning trails with winter use in mind, plus an increasing number of trails around the country are being groomed for fat tire use.
“Where I live, weather is a factor and we have pretty long winters,” said Brian Dokter, a cyclist and PEARL iZUMi Crew member in Grand Rapids, MI. “Fat biking extends my singletrack riding season, and I love snow, I’m always trying to find ways to enjoy the snow. Fat biking was also attractive to me because I was looking for a way to keep my fitness going, and what better way to do that than on a bike.”
If you’re not familiar with them, fat bikes are designed with super-wide tires (between 3.5-5 inches wide) that are run at very low pressures in order to float on top of snow, sand and loose dirt. While many fat bikes are used only in the winter, it’s also not unusual to see them on trails year-round, since the stability of the big tires can be very appealing.
“Fat biking is very approachable for beginners,” Dokter said. “Wide tires forgive a lot of lack of technical skills, plus the bikes provide such a fun way to get out there. For more experienced riders, it’s a way to get outside in winter without being on a training plan, and just ride with your friends.”
The floatation factor makes the bikes extremely useful for deep snow, where the narrow tires of a regular mountain bike sink in and lose traction. That said, riding a fat bike still requires a more open-minded approach toward what sort of experience you’ll have. Your ride can vary widely based on snow conditions, making one day a flowing giggle-fest around your local trails, and the next an adventure involving snow-packing or bouncing over ruts formed from freeze/thaw.
“The perfect conditions are where it’s between 20-32 degrees for a sustained period of time. In those conditions, the snow can solidify and form a base,” Dokter said. This is where grooming machines can come in and transform the trails from snowdrifts into well-contoured singletrack. But when conditions go outside that range, snow variability is just a part of the winter landscape. “If the snow’s too light and fluffy, you can’t compact it. If it’s too warm, you get really wet snow and it just forms ruts. If there are big temperature swings like that, you can’t groom it properly. So our groomers go out between 9pm and midnight, so the trails can set up.”
Dokter has definitely seen an increase in grooming over the past few years. “When it comes to singletrack, our community has been doing more grooming, using snowmobiles with sleds behind them that they pull through the woods. We have some specific fat bike trails, but also multi-use trails where we share with snowshoers and cross-country skiers. When everyone’s packing those trails and a groomer goes on it, you get better conditions.”
He’s lucky to have 50 miles of groomed singletrack within an hour of his house, “And that number is growing quickly, too. We held the Fat Bike National Championships here three and four years ago, and it really kicked things off. And when new trail systems are getting built, they’re looking at winter grooming in their planning and fundraising.”
Michigan as a whole has really embraced fat biking and was quick to create those singletrack experiences to go beyond the ski area options where the sport first found access. “Marquette (in northern Michigan) has 100 miles of groomed singletrack and they support that intensely. It’s one of the best fat-bike systems in the country.”
Fat biking has something for everyone since it can run the gamut from full-fledged racing to a fun family activity. “For me, it’s the polar opposite of road biking and triathlon,” said fellow Crew member Phil Castello, referring to his summer focus. “When you’re road biking, you’re trying to hit a PR or KOM, but when you’re fat biking you can pull your kids in a trailer, and my 10-year-old has a fat bike too.” Castello can access 500 miles of paved paths and dirt trails from his door in Wauconda, IL, about 40 miles north of Chicago. “We bought our house here to be by the trail. I can go all the way into Wisconsin without getting on any roads.”
During the winter, he gets out often on solo rides as well, where he can get on singletrack, and he frequently uses his fat bike to commute to work at the Side Lot Brewery. The brewery hosts the Two Ton Hussy Fat Bike Festival (named after one of their beers) every December, where 20-30 participants get out on a fun ride that finishes at the brewery. “Like a lot of things, it’s fun with a group, since the pace is kinda slow and social.”
For people curious about getting into the sport, the next big question is what to wear. While it’s easy to get started by wearing your alpine ski gear or general winter coat and pants, that bulky clothing will be less desirable for longer rides or racing, where comfort and finer control over body temperature become more important.
“I have the AmFIB pants, and I put a full pair of bibs on,” Castello said. “The more layers the better, and I have a heavy winter jacket if it’s really cold. I wear the AmFIB Lobster Gloves, and for my feet, I just wear winter boots on flat pedals.”
Pedaling a fat bike can be taxing, so it’s easy to overdress and get too sweaty, which is always a bad idea in cold temps. “It’s all about temperature management. Most of the jackets have venting, so you can unzip under the armpit or on the sides somewhere, and let in some cool air. For the most part, you kind of dress like you’re going running. You might be uncomfortable for the first few minutes, but you’ll warm up. A lot of guys will also carry a frame bag and throw in an extra jacket or base layer.”
Dokter’s clothing choices are very similar, but he prefers clipless shoe options. In temps above 30 degrees, he wears the X-PROJECT Pro mountain bike shoe, covered by the P.R.O. Barrier WxB MTB Shoe Cover, paired with PEARL iZUMi wool socks. Below 30, he’s forced to turn to fat bike-specific gear such as the clipless Japanther boot made by 45NRTH. He also wears a ski helmet and goggles for warmth and eye protection.
Having to dress for the elements is totally worth it, in his eyes. “It’s the most fun biking I do. All the pressure is off, and it’s a different mentality. It’s getting out there and having fun when most people are complaining about the snow. I like being active all year, and I do as much of my riding on an actual bike as I can, and avoid the trainer like the plague.”
Castello adds, “If you’re looking to just get into it, it’s different from other forms of cycling where it’s not judge-y or cliquey, where you’re worried about having the right kit and how you look. It’s a no-stress way to just ride. You don’t care about how fast you’re going, you’re just playing. It’s the adult’s kids toy.”