Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fat Bikes: Making Warm Snowless Winters Suck Less

It was about this time last year that I carving lines in deep untracked powder through the woods in the Blue Hills.   Those were the days- "were” being the operative word.

As if a look out the window wasn’t enough to nail home the sad state of the snowpack, this morning’s long term forecast is calling for temperatures in the 40’s for the foreseeable future.  While there's still plenty of winter left to fulfill our backcountry skiing plans, the next few weeks aren't looking so good.  But like anything in life, you can sit home and cry in your Cheerios or you can adapt, evolve, and find a silver lining.   If you’re a winter outdoor enthusiast, you may need a fat bike to mine that vein of silver.

My fat buddy.
This summer I made the leap and bought a secondhand fat bike, a Motobecane Boris.  Even if I had purchased brand new from BikesDirect.com, it still would have been a good deal.  Mine came with some aftermarket carbon additions including a fork and handlebar which brings the weight down a little from the 35 pound starting point.

In the months since I bought it, I’ve taken it out on a number of rides in all sorts of conditions and have gotten a feel for the character of the bike and have some observations to make.  If you’ve been on the fence about jumping onto the fat bike bandwagon, let me tell you what I’ve found.

Oh the places you will go.
The first thing you’ll notice is that this isn’t Granna’s carbon race bike.  It is heavy.  If you’re a weight weenie you’re just going to need to let that go.  Throw in the fact that you’re going to be carrying or wearing an additional five pounds of clothes and gear.  But speed and winning KOM’s is not why you buy a fat bike. You buy a fat bike so you can get out of your sweaty basement and out into the great outdoors on a gorgeous winter day.  Fat bikes don’t need to be light, they need to be reliable.  There’s nothing worse than having a mechanical on a twenty mile ride- except maybe having a mechanical when it is ten degrees outside and you’re a five mile walk from the nearest island of warmth.

Ahh, the warm days of December.  December?!!  Wtf?
The next thing you’ll notice is how stable it feels.  This sure footed-ness means that those off-camber roots and slippery rocks have a harder time of turning your front wheel and throwing you off your line.  It also translates to better traction on gravely uphill climbs.  Even in summer, I found the fat bike to be really useful on primitive trails.  It sails over deep grass or spongy leaf cover.  It is perfect for exploring snowmobile trails, or logging roads.  Even though my bike is a 26er, the larger volume tires make it feel like I’m riding over obstacles on a 29er.  The big tires are not without their limitations, however.  Fast runs on bumpy trails, like the root covered Tophet Loop at Great Brook Farm, can be an exercise in vibration tolerance.   But it is a rigid hardtail—so it should probably feel like one.

All tracked out the day after the storm.
When the snow starts falling is when things really get fun.  Fat biking in the snow is mostly like biking, but with some sledding thrown in to make the corners and downhills interesting.  I lowered the pressure from where it was during my other riding, and also have been running studded tires.  It has also helped to stay seated while climbing to get the best traction.  I tried one ride in the snow without studs, and found that I didn’t get anywhere near the same traction. If the studded tires are a little too pricey, you can make your own. The bike I bought came with a pair of homemade studded tires that have worked great.

Studs or no studs, things get especially slippery when you’re trying to ride on unconsolidated powder snow or corn snow that is loose.  Where the bike really shines is when the snow has been packed down and hardened overnight.  While this requires a groomer or army of snowshoers in some places, the Boston burbs are blessed with enough traffic so that all the local trails have been packed by the day after a storm.

As far as I can tell, the real weather “sweet spot” for riding is temperatures in the 20’s, sunny and calm winds.  Even on days when the temperatures are going to hit 40F or (gasp) 50F, it is usually below freezing in the early morning.   That is when you want to be out riding.  Frozen dirt or snow is perfect for fat biking, while mud and slush are pretty miserable.  So get out early on those days.
I carry a water bottle that I fill with hot Gatorade before my rides.  My bottle is insulated like this one so it stays relatively warm and has yet to freeze even on long rides.

Wear a helmet, kids.
I’ve been riding flats, versus my usual clipless pedals, and this allows me to use my trusty hiking boots.  While these have worked well, I fear that anything below 20 degrees will be too cold. I’m looking into buying a pair of boot covers like these, to keep things toasty when it gets colder.

For my legs, I wear my Ibex wool "El Fito" bike tights, and these EMS Northshield pants.   They’ve worked really nicely and seem like they would be warm enough to wear down to at least 10 degrees.  Any colder and I would likely add a layer of insulation.

For gloves, I’ve been wearing windstopper gloves, which work down to about 20 degrees as well.  Any colder and I would need to add insulation and mittens.

Sunny skies and firm snow.  What more do I need?
On top, I wear a thick wicking layer, a medium insulation layer like this Eddie Bauer Hangfire Pro Hooded Jacket, and an outer wind shell layer like this Sandstone Soft Shell Hooded Jacket.  This has been perfect for temps down to 20 degrees.  I also throw my Eddie Bauer Microtherm StormDown vest in my pack just in case.

One absolutely essential piece of equipment is a buff, like this multiclava from Eddie Bauer or this one from EMS.  These are handy to keep your face from freezing up like one of those White Walkers from Game of Thrones.

All in all, I've been pretty comfortable on the bike and have loved the combination of biking and sledding.  Even the local trails feel brand new and exciting.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about riding a fat bike that I’ve found is the fact that people talk to me all the time while I’m out riding—and not just to say “nice lycra fatty!”  I’m not sure what it is about fat tires that invites conversation, but maybe it has to do with the big smile on my face when I’m out riding it around on a brilliant winter day.

Icy bridges are less terrifying.

1 comment:

  1. Gotta be the first time i've ever seen GBF/Tophet ever mentioned in an article lol
    i'll be there Sunday...
    tho not on a fat bike :-( its on the list!