Fat biking 101

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  • Meredith Goss travels a snow-covered mountain trail on a fat bike. (Photos by ANDREA NAGEL)

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  • Meredith Goss travels a snow-covered mountain trail on a fat bike. (Photos by ANDREA NAGEL)

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There is a trend gaining momentum in the bike world. For several years now, fat bikes have been growing in popularity and extending the riding season for bike enthusiasts everywhere.

“Fat bikes were conceived and designed for riding on snow, but as we like to point out at the shop, with the right skills you can ride any bike anywhere,” Meredith Goss, Coeur d’Alene Bike Co. manager, said. “I have seen fat bikes in Moab in early fall when there’s no snow in sight, and I’ve been smoked by a guy on a fat bike grinding up the road at Canfield in the middle of summer. If you could only have one bike and you wanted to ride trail year round in northern areas, a fat bike would be a good choice because they’re so versatile.”

What’s not to love? The giant tires provide extra stability and easily navigate over roots, rocks, mud, and rough trail. While riders may need to alter their riding style based on the type of terrain they are riding over, fat bikes are equipped to tackle it all. Not to mention, if biking is your thing, it can be hard to find a replacement once the snow flies. When paired with the appropriate gear and expectations, fat biking is a great way to get outside in the off season.

“There are a few disadvantages to fat bikes,” Goss said. “Fat tires cost a pretty penny, as do the replacement tubes, and tend to be a little more challenging when it comes to fixing a flat. They also sometimes require specific kinds of racks for transportation by car. On the plus side, the huge contact patch that you get with fat tires means a lot more stability. The squishiness of the tires precludes the need for suspension, which brings down price tag and maintenance costs. The larger surface area allows you can ride in muddy conditions without tearing up the trails with ruts, and they’re a hoot!”

If you’re thinking about trying fat biking for the first time, consider Meredith’s do’s and don’ts before hitting the trail.

Meredith’s Guide to Fat Biking and Fun

Do dress appropriately. Remember that fat biking is a winter sport like skiing or snowshoeing. Layers are key. Keep in mind, you’ll be warm on the way up as you climb and cold on the way down. Warm, waterproof, or weather-resistant gloves are essential. If you don’t want to shell out $200 for a pair of dedicated cold-weather bike shoes, then good quality waterproof winter boots with stiff soles will do just fine.

Don’t go fat biking for your first trail riding experience. Unless you’re riding wide, flat, perfectly groomed cross-country ski trails, piloting a fat bike requires some skills that come only from a basic knowledge of mountain biking. Balance, slow-speed maneuvering and proper braking technique spring to mind, but there are myriad other, less tangible skills that may be required when the going gets rough. Like knowing how to bail - or shotgun a beer.

Don’t take your significant other fat biking for their first trail riding experience. See above. The attempt will end in tears and walking the bike back to the car, and maybe an attorney.

Do be ready to fall over. Like, a lot. But snow is soft, so it’s okay! Feel free to wear some light elbow pads so you don’t have to throw out a hand and risk an injury. Go ahead and laugh at yourself and make a snow angel while you’re down there. This is why you wore all that winter gear!

Don’t expect it to be like regular mountain biking. Dirt and snow behave very differently, and snow has many more personalities than dirt. You could encounter slush, powder, crunchy ice, black ice, and hardpack on a single ride, and you have to be ready to adapt. Also, despite the forgiving gear ratios that you find on most fat bikes, the uphills will seem much steeper than they would normally. The rules of weight shifting on climbs and descents have to be bent a little as well. Let physics be your guide!

Do take the opportunity to level up on your bike skills. So you’ve got the bike and you’re the first one at the trailhead. While you’re waiting for everybody else to get ready and stop complaining about the cold, teach yourself how to do a wheelie! Fat bikes are the ultimate learning tools because of how ridiculously stable those big tires make them. Watch a video tutorial or two first, and then get after it. Once you’ve figured out the wheelie, tackle the trackstand, which is an indispensable trail skill.

Do try before you buy. Bike shops offer rentals for a good reason, and the staff are always happy to share advice and trail beta. In fact, they’re happy to talk about anything bike-related for breathtaking amounts of time, so make them your first stop when you’ve got a question.

Do take your pup (as long as trail regulations allow it, of course). Fat biking is almost always slower-paced than regular mountain biking, so it’s easier for them to keep up. You don’t have to worry as much about them overheating or getting enough water, and it will probably be even more fun for you, since your BFF is getting exercise and having a blast.

Last but not least:

Don’t take it too seriously. Leave the Strava and the heart rate monitor at home. When it comes to any kind of mountain biking, remember above all else that we’re just a bunch of dorks in silly clothing riding around in the woods. If an intelligent alien race came for a visit and saw what we were up to, they would write our species off as hopelessly daft. It is a sublimely absurd pursuit, and should only be approached with a goal of having maximum fun.

P.S. Don’t take this guide too seriously either. Do what works for you, just get out there and have fun!

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