SEATTLE — When it comes to moving through a snowy landscape, some like it fast — the kick and glide of skate skiing — and some like it slow, like the gentle plod of snowshoeing.
If you’re looking to cruise through winter with a snow sport that lands somewhere in between, fat biking might be just your speed — especially if you’re looking to continue your biking regimen year-round.
Here’s what you need to know about the winterized take on cycling that’s growing in popularity in Western Washington and beyond.
Where and how to fat bike
A fat bike is a bicycle with really wide tires, somewhere in the 3.8- to 5-inch range, which can be twice the width of a mountain bike tire. But that burly rubber allows fat bikes to make their way over typically un-bike-friendly surfaces like sand, mud and, crucially, snow.
Bountiful early-season snowfall lured my family to the Methow Valley for Thanksgiving. Winthrop resident Dave Acheson, a volunteer with the Methow Fatbike club, offered a demo at Pearrygin Lake State Park, where his club helps maintain a 20-mile trail network. You can saddle up on a rental from Methow Cycle & Sport ($40 for four hours, $60 for an all-day pass, $70 for 24 hours), which is riding distance from 8 miles of shared snowshoe and fat bike trails on the Methow Trails network. Dedicated fat bike trails can also be found at the Leavenworth Ski Hill via Leavenworth Winter Sports Club and at White Pass Nordic Center.
Acheson likens fat biking to “riding a big, slow mountain bike.” But as I pointed the ultrawide tire down the snowy trail and trundled along, I felt more like I was commanding an M1 Abrams tank than riding a mountain bike. Read on for some tips gleaned from the trail.
Notes from the trail
First things first — stick to the trail.
“Fat biking definitely requires a firm, groomed surface,” Acheson said. “You’re riding on a packed ribbon of snow about 30 inches wide. It’s a compact layer over the soft snow.”
Veer off-piste into the soft snow, and you’ll come to a dead stop. And if you do need to step off the bike, avoid walking in the center of the track.
For cyclists with a need for speed, fat bikes are a serious change of tempo.
“You’re not going to get a long ways trying to manhandle the bike or pedal forcefully,” Acheson said. “It’s a finesse sport.”
He likened the learning curve to “driving a car in slippery conditions — you want to be gentle on the gas, brakes and corners until you get the hang of it.”
Keep the bike in the middle of the track where the trail is firmest, which can be tricky when you pick up momentum heading downhill into a corner. On uphill stretches, try riding a gear higher than you normally would. Slower pedaling keeps you from bouncing as much, which can sink your tire into the trail.
Ruts degrade a fat bike trail and require extensive groomer work. Avoid them by setting your tire pressure low, never more than 5 psi.
“You’re trying to have the tire spread out to maintain flotation on the platform and not punch through it,” Acheson said. “You want to see a tire track no deeper than an inch that’s just slightly curved or flat. If you find you’re sinking in, then let a little bit of air out until you can achieve that flat track.”
Despite the tank tread of a tire, you might find fat bikes even more temperamental about conditions than skis are.
“We don’t want temps above freezing, or at least temps that stay well below freezing at night. Otherwise, the platform breaks down,” Acheson explained.
If you are on a trip predominantly dedicated to cross-country skiing, like my family was, a fat bike session need not conflict with a prime ski day.
“When Nordic skiing is frozen boilerplate, that makes for great fat biking — the fastest, grippiest conditions,” Acheson said.
Odds and ends
Dress for a fat bike day like you would for cross-country skiing. Follow the mantra “be bold, start cold,” and you’ll warm up once you start moving.
Different from skiing, however, are your extremities.
“Hands and feet are the things on a fat bike that are going to get cold the most because they’re not doing much,” Acheson said. Insulated handlebar covers that look like oven mitts, known as pogies, are popular. They allow the rider to wear thinner gloves that provide more manual dexterity to work the brake levers and gear shifters.
Finally, fat biking with a bright headlight shines as a reliable evening sport during Washington’s long winter nights.
“You’re dealing with this huge carpet of white that reflects a lot of light, so it’s a much brighter environment and easier to see where you’re going,” said Acheson, whose club meets for weekly rides.
Acheson himself keeps a close eye on the lunar calendar: “One of the absolutely most fabulous things to do is to go fat biking under a full moon.”
Whether or not you wait for the stars to align, fat biking is worth a try for snow lovers this winter.