By: Cary Smith
I’m sure you’ve noticed the increase in numbers of fat bikes, both in summer and winter. More and more manufacturers are making them, which is great for the consumer because it offers choices in materials, components, fit, price, etc. Purchasing a new bike can be a daunting task, especially for something as foreign as a fat bike. Luckily, the local shops have demo programs to try before you buy. I want to share a few things I’ve learned while riding my fat bike during the last several Jackson winters that will hopefully help whether you’re heading out for your first demo, just bought a bike or are a seasoned veteran.
• Choose the proper bike. If you’re cruising groomed bike paths, you can get away with 4” tires with less aggressive tread. If you’re riding trails, use at least an 85mm rim with the widest tires that will fit in your frame/fork.
• If you use clipless pedals on your mtb, you will be happy with clipless on your fat bike. See below about footwear, however.
• Play with your tire pressure. I usually leave my house with my tires a little firm; 8-10psi. When your tires get cold, they will lose pressure. Also, I want to feel trail conditions and it’s easier to let air out than to pump it back in. Higher volume tires allow you to run slightly higher pressure and still maintain traction. If you’re getting bounced around or are spinning out, try dropping your pressure until you find the sweet spot. Use higher pressure with increased body weight and/or firm conditions.
• Studded tires are nice when it’s icy, but are not needed for hard-packed snow.
• I almost always use pogies-- handlebar covers that function like an overmitt. They allow me to use a lighter glove so I maintain dexterity yet keep warm hands.
• Don’t expect to run the same gearing that you do on your mtb. I drop about 4 teeth on my front chainring due to the higher resistance.
• Hydraulic brakes work in the cold, whether they use DOT or mineral fluid. They may be a little sluggish when it’s really cold, though, so learn what to expect.
• Don’t overdress. The speeds on snow are generally lower and you’re working harder so it’s easy to think you need a bunch of layers. Bring a pack on your first rides so you can experiment with different layers. I wear thermal tights, with a wind resistant overpant if it’s below about 15°F. On top, I wear a thin undershirt, long sleeve jersey, wind shell, and a light insulating layer if needed. I wear a skull cap under my helmet and the appropriate gloves.
• In my pack, I usually bring spare hat and gloves, Buff or neck warmer and a synthetic “puffy” if it’s cold.
• Warm feet can be the challenge. If it’s 20°F or warmer, a “transition season” cycling shoe is ideal. If it’s colder than that you will want to invest in some true winter cycling boots if you use clipless pedals. If you use flat pedals, you can get away with a warm pac boot or insulated hiking boot. Be aware, however, that these choices are not designed with cyclists in mind and are not an ideal option.
• If you ride in the dark, you won’t need as much light as in the summer due to the reflection off the snow. Plan on at least 500 lumens as a minimum, but more is always helpful. Bring a second light/spare battery just in case. It gets cold, dark and scary in a hurry if your light dies.
• Relax and look ahead. Although this is important in the summer, it’s critical in the winter if you’re riding singletrack. The trails are narrow and if you veer off the track, you will sink. The best way to avoid this is to relax your arms and hands, engage your core muscles and look as far ahead as possible.
• Keep your weight over the rear wheel when climbing so as not to lose traction. Try not to hunch. Roll your hips forward, arch your back, keep your head up and think about pushing your butt into your saddle.
• On hard packed snow, these bikes have incredible traction. Trust your tires and use your front brake. Just be ready to adjust for changing conditions such as ice or soft spots.
• Keep pedaling. If you spin out or drop off the side of the trail, don’t just give up. Quite often, if you look ahead, relax your arms and pedal smoothly but firmly you can get back on track and keep going.
• Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean the rules of the trail are forgotten. Only now it’s harder for everyone to just move to the side of the trail because of the deep snow. Slow down, make eye contact and quickly devise a plan to keep everyone safe, happy and enjoying their day.
• If you have to push your bike, walk next to the riding trail, rolling your bike in the track. Yes, you may have to post-hole but it’ll keep the trail pleasant for everyone else to ride.
• Try to fill in any major holes, divots or ruts you make if you careen off the trail or crash.
I hope this helps get you started. Your local bike shops are a wealth of information to fill in the gaps or answer any questions I didn’t address. See you on the trails!