Monday, February 11, 2013

Vermont's Catamount Trail on a Fat Bike

I'm not much for point-to-point anything in the outdoors. These kinds of trips require a dedication to planning and logistics that, thanks to my undiagnosed hyper-thyroid and ADHD, I just don't have the time or patience for. This attitude excludes me from a number of fine outdoor sports that others seem to thoroughly enjoy. Sea kayaking (barf), canoeing (great when done from a dock with a beer in hand), pub crawling (inherent danger of never knowing where you might end up, or with whom), and most of all long distance hiking.

Point-to-point sporting enthusiasts have put a lot of work into the trails they've created, and there's no shortage of epic treks to be had here in New England. Vermont's has it's own version of the Appalachian Trail in the 272 mile Long Trail. For epic paddles you can float the Roger's Rangers route up the Richelieu from Lake Champlain to the St. Laurence River. Epic road riding? There's the Harpoon Point-to-Point, or, for the truly insane, the 1200 km Boston-Montreal-Boston Randonee. And with plenty of great through-routes in the Whites, it's not exactly slim pickings for skiers either.

Mountain bikers, on the other hand, have a long day at Kingdom Trails and... the Catamount Trail?

While it's not exactly dedicated single track riding, Vermont's Catamount Trail fits all the other important qualifiers of an epic backcountry experience. It's long. It's remote. And given the right conditions, a point-to-point ride from Massachusetts to Canada would be one epic breeze.

Marty, Balki, and John
A little history on the Catamount Trail. A few years back, three GIS ski geeks from UVM, Marty Stouffer, Balki Bartokomous, and John Lennon's Ghost, came up with the idea of creating a winter-use alternative to the Long Trail. The trail they designed is the Catamount Trail, and now runs uninterrupted from Harrington Reservoir to the Canadian border, covering 300 miles of remote and not-so-remote backwoods Vermont. Like the Long Trail, the Catamount Trail hits almost all of Vermont's best geographic features, from Lincoln Gap to the Mad River Valley, Camel's Hump, Craftsbury, and Hazens Notch to Jay Peak.

Yes, I know the Catamount Trail is a cross country ski trail. But I've scoured CTA's legal documents and determined that, as a winter-use trail built in the spirit of muscle powdered travel, mountain bikes could fit right in. There are already specific allowances for skiers and snowshoers, and the trail network takes advantage of large segments of the VAST snowmobile system - if only someone could invent a winter-friendly mountain bike...

Yes, that fat
Thankfully, when it comes to winter, there's as many kinds of sporting equipment for a specific type of condition than Eskimos have words for snow. It's not hard to build up a deep arsenal of DH, BC, and XC ski gear. Then there's nordic skating, nordic walking, skate skiing, speed skating, ice hockey, curling, sledding, ski jumping, nordic combined, biathlon, winter triathlon, snowshoeing, ice fishing, snow mobiling... the list goes on and on and on. Until finally we add one more: Winter biking.

Maybe it's my prejudice against fat people, but I've always thought fat biking was a niche sport for lazy and/or obese bike junkies. Like cyclocross, fat bikes seemed another specialty bike that would get limited use and only serve to infuriate the wife. Wives are no fools - it would be hard to miss a new 60 pound iron pony bedding down in the stalls.

Seems to me that lately the pressure to get on the fat wave has been rising. And, with Mother Nature increasingly unpredictable when it comes to snowfall, there's also more reason than ever to ride a winter rig. Those fat tires and low pressure allow a rider to travel safely over packed snow and ice, and can turn your favorite long-lost summer single track into a slippery mountain biking playground. Once broken in with snowshoes, fat bikes can cruise easily along at skinny bike-like speeds.

Here at NoreasterBC we've been talking a lot about how winter biking could enhance the sport of skiing, allowing us access to locations and conditions that would otherwise be out of range at certain times of year. For instance, we could have easily riden the snowmobile leg of our recent tour to Magalloway. With that realization, the mind began to race, thinking of other BC dream skiing could we get at with a fat bike, long after skin-access tracks had melted away.

Then we started to think about all the backcountry skiing we could hit up along 300 miles of remote Vermont single track. Lincoln Gap. Hazen Notch. Bolton to Trapp's. All you'd need is a modified ski pulk hooked to your seat post, and some of Vermont's best BC goods would be yours for the taking.

Although thoroughly documented in recent Banff Film Festivals, winter biking is still a recent offshoot of a new niche sport, and thus not well understood by the skiing or biking communities. Here's what I know about what I don't know about the sport, as they relate to a possible end to end journey along the Catmount Trail.

Big tires, big air
  1. Fat bikes are heavy and I've heard they can go lots of places my skinny bike can't.
  2. I've never riden a fat bike so I don't really know if #1 is true.
  3. Because of #2, I don't really know how many miles can be covered in a day, or if fat bikes can climb anything steeper than a handicap access ramp.
  4. Since I don't own a fat bike, I really can't get answers to 1, 2, or 3.

Here's what I do know though. I know that 30 years ago when those three GIS geeks invented the Catamount Trail they probably never dreamed anyone would even ever consider tackling it on a bike. But it used to snow a whole lot more 30 years ago, so there really wasn't really a need was there? A bad snow year with ample thaw and freeze cycles makes for terrible XC and BC. And could make for incredible winter biking.

Ok, so it's pretty obvious I started
writing this last week
So here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to try a fat bike out to see if this thing is really possible. If it is, I'm going to get myself one of them without getting served divorce papers. Then I'm going to find a friend with a fat bike and together we're going to make next year's Banff Film Festival fan favorite - Foul-mouthed elitist Vermonter and Co. take on Vermont's best backcountry riding. With maybe a little bit of skiing along the way too.

While conditions refuse to stay right for bikes and bad for skis long enough to decide if this would actually be a good idea, I'm going to go against my genes and put a plan together anyway. So next time we're all sitting around bitching about how MN skunked us in the latest weather cycle, I'll be ready to put some serious miles in on a winter bike.

If you've always wondered where the rest of New England's best backcountry mountain biking is, all you need to do is pick up a copy of Mountain Bike Steve's Wilderness Treks in New Hampshire's Remote Northern Territory at your local LL Cote. You'll be one of 6 people in the know.

Photo credit: Kristopher Henry, frame maker and owner of 44 Bikes


  1. Very creative and a fun read. As someone quite close to the Catamount Trail Association, I feel it is my duty to comment (and perhaps state the obvious) that daydreaming about a fat bike ride on the CT is one thing, and doing it is quite another. Over 150 landowners have agreed to host skiers and snowshoers on their land, on the Catamount Trail, in winter months only. The CTA has not asked them about bikes using the trail, in summer or winter, nor does it plan to. And the CTA would be really be bummed if a landowner decided they were closing the trail to skiers because they'd seen bikes on the trail, a user group they had not explicitly authorized. Nothing against biking, daydreaming, or story spinning, but please don't bike on the Catamount Trail. Call the CTA office if you'd like to discuss in further detail, and they can fill you in.

    1. Thanks for the heads-up. We certainly don't want to go causing trouble for the CTA.

  2. Yeah, as stated above you will run into issues on the Catamount on bikes. The Catamount uses the Vast network a fair bit and also relies greatly on groomed nordic centers as well. AT this point I believe Kingdom Trails is the only nordic center that encourages fatbikes on their trails, but they are not on the CT. It's kind of funny to imagine you trying to bike the CT from Bolton to Trapps after a snow storm. You would be wishing for your skis.

    1. The idea for the ride started, of course, during our numerous January thaws. I'd never been out on a bike in January before and trails that had been snowshoed were totally iced over and just PERFECT for studded tires. Got me thinking about how bad xc skiing can be under similar circumstances - You could have banged out 50 mile days on the Cat trail last week without leaving a single tire rut or crushing any ski tracks.

      I think there's some value to pursuing the idea. Next steps, I'll talk to the folks at Kingdom Trails and see where they're coming from trying to grow the KT network for fat bikes. Maybe they know something that could convince the folks at CTA to consider other winter uses for the Cat trail.