Fat bikes need not be a winter-only thing

  • Fat-tire mountain bikes can handle any kind of soft or uneven surface, and they’re growing in popularity for all-season riding throughout the Upper Valley.

Special to the Valley News
Saturday, April 27, 2019

Winter is making a quick getaway, and many local people are changing out their fat bikes for something a bit skinnier, waiting patiently for the trails to open.

You may have heard about or seen fat bikes, but what are they and where did they come from?

A fat bike is like a regular mountain bike but with much wider tires — 4-5 inches, approximately twice as wide as normal. These tires are run at low air pressures and allow the rider to traverse easily over very soft and otherwise unrideable terrain such as sand or, more commonly in this area, snow. The tires may also have metal studs, which change icy conditions from hazardous to exhilarating. Some of the fastest rides happen in the winter.

While fat biking has become more common everywhere in the last five years, it’s had an incredible growth spurt in the Upper Valley due to consistently excellent grooming on local trail networks. The more winter trails are ridden, the better they get. On any given weekend morning, the local trailhead has upwards of 30 cars with fat bikers sharing information and greetings.

Fat bikes have been around since the early 2000s, but it was not until sometime after 2010 that they started entering the minds of all riders, save the tinkerers and one-off adventurers. Early adopters were bike shop nerds; sensible folks wondered, “Why would I get another bike? Isn’t winter mountain biking off season?”

Are the ski conditions crappy? Do you need some real exercise outside? Do you want to be in the woods? Maybe you don’t like rocks and roots? Fat biking is the answer.

Jason Ouellette, owner of Mason Racing Cycles in downtown Lebanon, has had a front-row seat to the growth of fat biking. While most of the other bike shops in the area also sell fat bikes, Mason prioritizes them.

A friend repeatedly leaned on Jason to start carrying them at Mason around the winter of 2011-2012. Jason was dubious, but winters are slow in a bike shop, and his friend’s enthusiasm wouldn’t be tamped. The first winter they were an unprofitable curiosity. Fast-forward a couple years, and Mason Racing was pre-ordering 100 fat bikes at the peak, with more people waiting on special orders.

Rob Walker, owner of the Claremont Cycle Depot, experienced a similar trajectory. He was unimpressed by some of the early fat bikes and had no interest in either riding year-round or events like the Alaskan Iditaride (the bike version of the iconic dog-sledding race). Now he sees fat biking bringing back some riders who had retired from mountain biking due to wear and tear on their bodies or fleeting confidence.

While Rob points to Jason as the impetus behind the incredible growth of fat biking in the Upper Valley, Ouellette attributes the growth to grooming.

“The grooming is improving each year exponentially,” he said. “The explosion of users is directly related to grooming quality. In the early years, we were just riding it in.”

Grooming has massively improved with the Upper Valley Mountain Biking Association’s purchase of a Snowdog two years ago. It is a motorized groomer with a weighted drag built especially for single-track. Fat bikers ride many of the same trails that are ridden in the summer, but they diligently groom them via crowd-sourced snowshoeing or using the Snowdog. When the skiing and snowboarding are good, the fat biking usually isn’t.

One challenge for winter trails is post holing. Post holes are indentations left by walkers and runners when the snow is soft, which freeze into the trail in colder conditions and create a choppy and unpleasant surface for all trail users for many weeks to come. UVMBA welcomes non-biking users on the trails it maintains in the Landmark tract and elsewhere but asks all users to respect trail closures and advisories, which are posted both at popular trailheads and on the UVMBA website and facebook page.

With the right equipment, fat biking is an unexpected gift in hard and icy conditions. Unlike skiing, it improves with more trail traffic. Thus, fat biking is the perfect sport for imperfect and unpredictable New England winters.

Rocks, ice, snow: fat biking handles it all, and frequently in the same ride.

Gretchen Stokes is a member of the Upper Valley Mountain Bike Association board of directors. Visit www.uvmba.org for more information.