RGJ Outdoors' Benjamin Spillman takes his first fat bike ride on snow. It's an increasingly popular activity. And it has its own set of challenges. Benjamin Spillman/RGJ
In years past winter was when Sierra Nevada backcountry cyclists were forced to pack away their bike gear and wait for the snow to melt.
The proliferation of fat tire mountain bikes in recent years is getting more bicyclists than ever into the mountains despite a healthy snow pack.
Fat bikes, generally defined as mountain bikes with tires with a width of at least 3.5 inches, have been around more than a decade but their popularity has surged in recent years.
That means winter backcountry travelers who are used to snowshoers, skiers and snowmobiles are seeing more bicyclists on the trails.
“We’re totally converted to riding nothing but fat bikes now,” said Jeff Shippen of Nevada City, Calif. “You’re able to ride year round now, you don’t have to store your bike and not ride in the winter.”
Shippen was one of nine riders on a 2015 group ride on a groomed snowmobile route near Brockway Summit.
The group, with permission from the snowmobile tour operators who were using the route, set out into the forest for about three hours of riding and views of Lake Tahoe.
Even with fat tires to help the bikes float on the snow surface riding in winter still has its own set of challenges.
For starters, it doesn’t take much warming for the snow to soften and make pedaling a challenge, particularly for beginners who aren’t used to lowering tire pressure for extra traction. And stopping in deep snow can come with another problem. If the snow is soft it’s easy to posthole a leg which can result in a tumble.
Snow riding also means riding in cold weather which necessitates layers of clothes. And once the rider gets moving he or she needs to manage the outerwear to avoid overheating which can lead to sweat soaked clothes and a sudden chill.
Still, for people who love riding the opportunity to experience the backcountry in winter without leaving their bike at home is a welcome change of pace.
“It has been the only bike I’ve been wanting to ride the whole year, my other bike hasn’t gotten much use,” said Jeff Moser of Carson City, who was on the ride with his son, Charlie, 15. “Riding on the packed snow trails is probably more fun than a lot of stuff this time of year.”
Numbers quantifying the surge in fat bike riding weren’t available from the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. But Surly, the manufacturer whose Pugsley model helped bring fat bikes to the masses, now produces more models of fat bikes than it does standard width models.
Christina Julian, marketing manager for Surly, said the bikes started as a niche market product but that’s changed recently.
“It has really blown up in the past two years, absolutely,” Julian said.
According to the Adventure Cycling Association snow riding, and fat bikes, emerged as an offshoot from mountain biking in the late 1980s with a boost from the first Iditabike event in 1987 in Alaska, in which riders followed snowmobile and dog sled tracks.
In subsequent years riders seeking more float for snow in Alaska, and sand dunes in the southwest, configured their own modifications, often by welding multiple front and rear rims together.
Eventually custom builders got into the act with wider rims and frames to accommodate them.
In 2003 Dave Gray, an industrial designer at Surly, designed a frameset to accommodate the Large Marge rim, an early fat bike wheel.
The Pugsley frame, first shown at Interbike in Las Vegas in 2004, went on the market in 2005.
The early versions accommodated the large tires in part by using an offset frame in order to keep the rear hub inline with the chain while using standard bike parts.
“One of the biggest design hurdles has been getting the chain past the big tire,” Julian said. “We wanted to make sure we were able to use as many standard parts as were available.”
Eventually Surly and other manufacturers adapted to wider hubs and other fat-specific parts. And Surly has added several more fat models to its lineup, including the Wednesday, Ice Cream Truck and Moonlander models, with the latter two able to accommodate 4.8 inch wide tires.
The fat bike surge isn’t limited to casual riders.
Elite competitors are also expanding their horizons to include snow riding and even snow-based events.
Blake Bockius of Truckee recently finished third in the 200-kilometer Fat Pursuit race in Island Park, Idaho, near Yellowstone National Park.
In order to participate riders had to carry a sleeping bag rated to be effective in zero degree or colder temperatures and, during the race, had to stop to boil water on camp stoves to prove to organizers they were capable of doing so in an emergency.
Bockius, who won the approximately 550-mile Comstock Epic race across Nevada in 2015, is in his third season of winter riding and said he’s grateful for the opportunity to log more miles on two wheels.
“It just gives me the opportunity to ride my bike year round where,” he said.
“The fat bike has kind of filled a void in the winter.”
One of the main thing aspiring winter riders need to remember, he said, is safety.
There are risks inherent to backcountry travel in any season. But mountain bikers attempting to head out in the winter need to be especially prepared for the conditions.
In general, not only is there less daylight and higher cold weather risks, there tend to be fewer people in the backcountry in the winter which increases the isolation factor.
“You’re just more exposed, you are out on your own,” Bockius said. “You are in the wilderness and far away from safety.”
Here are some places to try winter riding
Location: 15275 Alder Creek Road, Truckee, Calif., 96161
Location: South of Interstate 80 off California Highway 267
Contact: (530) 562-3270