Missing my warm-weather road riding (especially my fit cycling body, which has been hibernating since my last bike adventure in October), I was so stoked to try snow biking (a.k.a. fat biking) for the first time yesterday on the gorgeously-groomed Nordic trails of a semi-secluded golf course in Vail, CO.
While in town for Vail's second annual Winter Mountain Games presented by Eddie Bauer (February 8 to 10), I met with the co-founder of the new bike manufacturer Twenty2 Cycles, Ryan Van Ness (in the pic at left), who put me on this hot pink steel steed for a fun test ride. We couldn't have asked for better conditions: Snow had recently dumped on the valley and it was a surprisingly warm 29-degree, sunny, cloudless afternoon.
As Ryan adjusted my seat height, he casually mentioned how local pro mountain bike racer Gretchen Reeves will be riding this burly bike (appropriately named “Bully”) at the Winter Mountain Bike National Championships on Friday afternoon (today). Oh, that's cool, I thought. Then he added that she's the favorite to win. Oh wow, well, I guess I better not crash. No pressure.
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The good news—as I learned quickly—is that falling on fresh powder is like landing on a bed of pillows. As long as you steer clear of trees, cliffs, and randomly placed brick or concrete walls, it's actually very fun. Rather than feeling frustrated—as I often do when trying a new sport—I couldn't stop smiling in between gulping high-altitude air (I had just gone from sea level to 8,000 feet). And once I got the hang of it—the key thing is to pick a line where the snow is slightly more hard-packed—losing my balance wasn't an issue.
I'll admit, before trying this, I couldn't wrap my head around how the tires didn't sink and get stuck. Nor could I imagine how the brakes worked (wouldn't I just slide downhill uncontrollably to my tragic untimely death?). But within seconds of mounting the Bully, I noticed how the balloon-like tires just glided above the snow, like a snowmobile. Ryan explained how the wide, snow-ready tires' low pressure (meaning they're not filled with air to the max like road tires) helps maintain traction and smooth out what would otherwise be a bumpy ride.
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As for stopping, I had one of the most powerful and precise braking systems out there. Disc brakes built into the hub of the wheels are all the rage in the cycling world (they can be found on most mountain bikes and are slowly replacing rim brakes on all road bikes). Lightly feathering these brakes on the downhill was all I needed for complete control of my speed, which is the awesome reward we're all after when it comes to biking, and most winter sports, for the matter.
I was definitely happiest on the downhills—like most ski- or snowboarding-bums will tell you—especially after I earned 'em. Well, sort of. On one particular heart-pounding hill that wasn't steep, but definitely too long for my New Yorker lungs, I had to dismount and push Bully up. When I got off, my feet immediately sank in the snow. I was shocked how deep it was here and how easy it was for the fat tires to stay afloat. I couldn't wait to get back on the bike!
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I can't tell you how many calories I burned during the hour-long test ride (about 5 miles total), but I'm positive that I deserved the glass of Cabernet and lobster tacos I had at my hotel, The Sebastian, right after. It's guilt-free delicious rewards like this that I miss most about hard biking sessions in the spring and summer. I'm happy to know that now, with fat biking, I can keep up these hedonistic practices all-year round.
Hop in the saddle and give it a go yourself here in Vail, where you can rent a fat bike in Lionshead for $45 half day or $55 full day. Or head to one of these resorts and rental shops that are picking up on the fat bike trend: Wyoming’s Grand Targhee Resort and Washington's Methow Cycle and Sport.