A lot has changed in a short time
Fat biking with Chris Schotz
Once upon a time, we rode the ragged fringe of extreme sports by blazing down a ski trail on two-inch tires in a Fat Tire Festival. A mullet spilled to my shoulders from a styrofoam lid when a fully rigid mountain bike was a gonzo piece of machinery, but back in ‘86 I never imagined that the years would change my definition of fat, as in tires, any more than I suspected that one day I would take a razor to my head to mask a receding hairline. Trail has progressed into the eclectic singletrack convolution that is ubiquitous across the Midwest, while my modest definition of fatness has swelled with each passing year since I hit 40.
That was the year I discovered the fat bike, a bouncy circus machine that cost a fortune and weighed a ton. They were fringe machines built around 3.8” tires that only came out in winter, but just five years later that paradigm has shifted to a point where fat bikes are for everybody. I finally realized that fat bikes had gone from backwater to mainstream when I saw a row of them for sale outside the Hayward WalMart. I may be too spoiled to endorse a big-box bike, but I can tell you that 2016 is the time to head to your local shop for a sweet deal on ride that is incredibly light relative to its massive girth.
Just a handful of years ago, fat bike pioneer Surly was the nearly-exclusive supplier of fat bike rims and tires. They pioneered the 4.8” tire that was unique to their Moonlander. Surly built their steel forks to accommodate a rear hub up front, which allowed a frozen rider to flip wheels in an emergency, while adding some odd offset to left hand turns. The 2016 machines from a multitude of makers now come with a standard front hub bolted to a symmetrical fork crafted from whatever material fits your budget. Tire and rim selections are numerous enough to geek out the gear heads you know, and overall fat bikes have lost pounds of rotating weight in just a few years, tubeless or tubed. Most fat bikes are now built to accommodate tires up 5”, which is a nice option to have in fresh powder and beach sand. Builders big and small have transferred mountain bike technology to fat bikes, so what once accelerated like a John Deere can now take off like a standard mountain bike.
Fat bikes still rumble in summer, but they rumble a lot faster, so some riders are using fat bikes as their year-round race bikes. They rave about the stability and predictable grip, and some are even calling them nimble. They would be the Veldhuizen brothers who started building custom bikes in steel and titanium as a hobby near Green Bay. Their goal is to create a fat bike that rides like a 29-inch race bike. Their formula was to raise the bottom bracket and steepen the head angle to 70 degrees, which knocked more than an inch off the wheelbase over the stable 68 degrees found on the cushy standard rides. The Veldhuizens were some of the first to tinker with fat bike suspensions when they chopped the crown off of a perfectly good lefty fork, so they could transplant the carbon leg to a custom-machined crown that was wide enough to clear the extra fat tires. The brothers have a full-suspension Enclave prototype in the works for next summer, but even they will admit that winter trails have gotten so plush that suspensions will be locked out until spring.
Winter trails are indeed progressing as fast as the bikes. Not long ago, we advocated for access to snowmobile and ski trails, but there are now so many groomed bike trails across the Midwest, I wouldn’t bother with a snowmobile trail anyway. Chances are that your local singletrack system has someone out there putting in some time to pack down the snow, but there is a strong chance you will hardly recognize the place. Winter singletrack flows over a white ribbon that buries the rocks and roots, and mastering fat bike single track will teach a rider a new set of skills that transfer to summer. Learn the balance it takes to drift through corners with a fluffy landing to cushion your inevitable fall.
Not many years ago, fat bikers experimented with household items to drag behind snowshoes to groom a trail. I reasoned that snowshoeing is a trudge anyway, so I might as well pull a truck tire or a sled full of corn. I did learn to give my sled brakes by running the tow rope through PVC, but maintaining the perfect riding surface still relied on traffic and an ideal set of conditions. It’s hard to pack down a heavy snow by hand, so I’m looking forward to pulling the welded aluminum prototype that Shane Veldhuizen gave me last year right before it quit snowing. His theory is that once a base is established it becomes more practical to push the snow off the trail than to keep packing it down. He’s pulled this plow and rake device around Baird Creek and noticed the same philosophy put into motorized application in the land of the lake effect.
Maintaining a trail by snowshoe with your buddies is great for a local area that is just too tight to accommodate a machine, but the fat bike revolution wouldn’t be happening without a serious amount of machine grooming. Dedicated improvisers have pulled homemade groomers behind snowmobiles from the beginning, but now all it really takes is money. The ski industry has gotten into the business with groomers built to singletrack scale. Denizen of the sandstone heights of Levis Mound, Steve Meurett has been using the locally-designed Crothers Roller with added weight on the front and the rear packing pan. The roller is loved on trail across the U.S. and Canada for it’s ability to pack down fresh snow over rocks and stumps.
As the base develops, Meurett hooks the Skandic utility snowmobile to the Yellowstone Track Systems compaction drag, that has teeth to churn and firm up an established base. While Meurett prefers the comfort and compaction of the Skandic for the 15 fat bike miles at Levis, a handful of clubs from CAMBA to Wausau have taken advantage of the tighter turning Rokon motorcycle.
Levis is a great day trip from anywhere in the Midwest, and a local rider could find a half dozen places to ride near Green Bay, from the machine-groomed Reforestation Camp to the more technical hand-groomed Baird Creek. Mr. Hugh Jass started a race series in that part of the state before the snow even flew this year. A critical mass of Twin Cities riders get out enough to keep several trails open, notably Elm Creek and roller-groomed Lebanon Hills. The diverse Wausau to Winman corridor now features ten fat bike trailheads that will keep a rider busy for a long weekend, especially Badger State weekend January 21-22. Weekenders will find plenty of progression over the 18 groomed miles at Cayuna Lakes and might want to look into Whiteout weekend February 4-5.
The Whiteout is part of the Great Lakes Fat Bike Series that takes riders on a tour of premier Midwest terrain including the Polar Roll from Ishpeming to Marquette, where they have overcome their over-abundance of snow to create a varied system that includes enduro downhill on Marquette Mountain. Spirit Mountain in Duluth has plans to add some fat bike downhill as conditions permit, and there is no shortage of groomed singletrack from the berms of Mission Creek to the Lester River overlooks. The season ends at the Fat Bike Birkie, but the Chequamegon area has a lot more to offer than one weekend on ski trail. Try an incredible 45 miles of fat bike singletrack groomed by the CAMBA crew.
Undoubtedly, that new fat bike will not sit idle. There are exciting trails popping up all over, and if it doesn’t snow, it doesn’t matter. Bikes don’t care. What has fallen by the wayside is my ambition to revive my ski racing legs. I have to warn the nords that despite my best intentions, my skis didn’t leave the barn last winter. Fat biking has just got me hooked, and it’s only getting better. Suddenly, there is no such thing as the off season. I want to get out and ride.
Advice from fat guys
Invest in your feet: Feet are the most vulnerable part of fat biker anatomy. Some have improvised overshoes or added neoprene covers to riding shoes, but shoe covers love to fill with snow if you have to walk through powder. There is nothing wrong with putting platform pedals on a fat bike so that you can wear your cozy winter boots, but for those that want the stability and performance of clipless pedals, there are a handful of options. They all come at a price. The good news is that the price of fat bikes in general has gone way down, so why not take all that money you saved on the bike and spend it on some worry-free boots? At least that’s the rationale you can use to explain your $300 shoes to your significant other. Money spent on a pair of Wölvhammers from Minnesota’s 45NRTH will offer far greater returns than an equal amount spent on your new ride (or jewelry for that significant other). Buy them big to allow for blood circulation and winter socks.
Bags: As long as you’re spoiling yourself, you might as well rationalize a luxurious frame bag from a maker like Minnesota’s Banjo Brothers or Alaska’s Revelate.
Layers: Have an arsenal of clothes for all weather and the means to carry that extra jacket once your back gets sweaty on the first big climb.
Hydration: Plan ahead for long adventures. Drinks freeze. Bottle valves and the tubes of hydration packs are especially vulnerable. A bottle in a jersey pocket kept under a jacket won’t freeze and just might keep your back from sweating.
Hands: Have a variety of gloves for all temperatures, or add a pair of Bar-Mitts hand warming sleeves to the bike. They can allow a rider to use summer gloves in winter, but come with a slight learning curve as a place called Collarbone Corner can attest.
Chain: Light oil, no wax.
Brakes: Hydraulic brakes have tighter tolerances and are more vulnerable to freezing up in snow dust than mechanicals, but that won’t matter much on groomed trails.
Thaw: It’s worth putting the bike on the porch so that the moisture in your drivetrain can dissipate before it freezes solid.
Suspension: A rigid bike is still rigid no matter how fat the tires, so you could spend $700 on a fork if you plan to ride fat in summer. Some say that a suspension should be rebuilt with lighter oil to function in subzero weather, while other have not had trouble with the RockShox Bluto and other forks in cold weather. Chances are the fork will be locked out anyway.
Salt: Avoid it. Fat bikes are easy to maintain and almost never require cleaning if they stay on snow, but road salt from commuting, garage storage, or bike rack transportation will destroy them in a hurry.
Try it: Find a rental, but don’t wait for a day in the 30’s. Trails deteriorate and can even be damaged in warm weather. Those 20-degree days are perfect. You will be amazed at how fun and stable riding on snow can be.
Thanks to Randy Lackman of Rib Mountain Cycles, Ivan Van Order of Bikes N Boards, Steve Meurett of Levis Mounds, Shane Veldhuizen of Enclave, and Angry Catfish for advice on getting fat.
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