A few weeks back we hit the snowmobile trails for a day in the backwoods.
The trip included a stop at Giants Ridge.
As we were zipping along the spur that leads from the Laurentian Trail to the resort we came across the strangest sight – a bicycle sitting off to the side of the trail.
But this was no ordinary bicycle it was one of those new fangled fat bikes.
For an old Iron Ranger like me who is stuck in his ways, the idea of riding a bike through snow – in the woods no less – conjures up visions of bearded late term millennials with backpacks full of energy bars and strawberry flavored craft beers, wandering through the pines and birch trees of northern Minnesota whistling Imagine Dragons tunes and cursing out everybody who drives by on a Polaris.
But in reality fat biking is a popular winter sport that is attracting outdoors enthusiasts of all shapes, sizes, sexes and ages across the Midwest.
It’s really just another way to see the world we live in from another perspective than we are used to – sort of like snowmobiling but a lot more quiet and a lot harder physically.
A fat bike is essentially a mountain bike with large, low-pressure tires designed for travel over snow or sandy soil.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the wide tires – in some cases more than 3.5 inches wide – feature tire pressures below 10 PSI which allows enough flotation so that a rider can travel over snow without leaving a rut deeper than one inch.
That set-up also provides enough traction to be able to safely control a bike and ride in a straight line.
Giant’s Ridge has been offering fat tire bike rental ($75 for 24-hours and $40 for four hours or less) and space to ride (60km of Nordic trails) for a few years now.
But the resort and ski hill isn’t the only spot to ride. According to the DNR winter riding is allowed on trails that are signed and identified on DNR maps as open to the sport including:
State forest roads or trails that are identified as allowing bicycling, unless they are groomed and tracked for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling only.
State park and state recreation area trails designated for bicycling, including some non-motorized multi-use trails that may be shared with skiers, walkers, or snowshoers, unless they are groomed and tracked for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling only.
State park roads where motor vehicles are allowed, except those posted as closed for biking.
State trails, exceptthose groomed and tracked for cross-country skiing or snowmobiling only.
Interestingly, the DNR suggests bikers avoid snowmobile trails based on safety issues.
Fat bikes are also not allowed on most groomed and tracked cross-country ski trails, which are for skiing only.
And any trail that is not specifically identified as open for bicycling, including hiking or snowshoeing trails in state parks or state recreation areas.
Now I don’t see myself getting on one of these things anytime soon, but there is one aspect of it that makes it a tad bit tempting as I watch my waistline slowly expand – you can burn up to 1,500 calories an hour in soft conditions, and, according to fitness experts, you’ll recover faster than if you went on an hour-long run.
If you’re thinking about trying out fat bikes, the following are some tips for handling different winter conditions from the web site bendtrails.org.
Adjusting tire pressure is the most important factor for gaining traction in the snow with the exception of studded tires. This rule is also in effect with bikes in the winter: You will get roughly 50% better traction if you decrease your pressure by about 50%. You won’t need to worry about a blown tube, as the speeds you will be travelling at are low and a layer of snow pads everything that could pop a tire.
For most riding conditions the author of the piece suggests riding with flat pedals, staying seated and steady revolutions instead of hammering leg motions.
It’s also important to remember that sliding is normal and staying hydrated is key.
After a storm, you apparently only have a few days of riding in fresh powder, which has fallen on hard ground or over a packed surface. The author of the story says get used to a grinding at 3-5 mph if you typically ride at 10 mph. It’s more work. Fat bikes are technically better at riding in snow, but the work to go through powder can actually be tougher than with a skinny bike. You are moving more snow out of you way with fatter tires.
Riding on packed snow. Packed snow riding is pretty straight forward, according to bendtrails.org. Think snowmobile trail. Snowshoe trails and hiking trails can work as well. Again, tire pressure is very important. Riding on packed snow is the most similar to riding in dirt, but it’s still slippery.
Riding in clumpy or slushy snow. Fat bikes are best for this stuff, but if you aren’t in powder or packed snow, it’s a challenge even on a fat bike. You can ride any bike through four inches or so of muck, but it’s going to be very slow and quite slippery. The faster you can go through muck, the better you are going to fair.
Riding on ice. Studded tires are suggested for riding on ice because it is a dangerous proposition with or without traction. Slow and steady is key and the author suggests avoiding a lot of ups and downs.
Crusty snow. While sometimes you might get lucky and be able to ride on top of crusty snow, more often than not the author says you’ll be riding through some top crust. That won’t be too much of a problem if your bike doesn’t sink too far. But if you sink two to four inches it becomes a little more difficult. According to the experts you will be riding at 2-3 mph in granny gear as if you were riding up a steep hill. This is all about maintaining momentum. If you stop at all you can’t start again as the crust is too hard to break. You will have to back up a couple feet in your track get momentum from there.