The difference a fat bike can make
Looking back at my 2012 training log, I see I biked more miles in November and December than I did in July. Serious cyclists, I realize, wouldn't be impressed by my pedaling less than 200 miles in each of those months. But it wasn't until July that my monthly biking miles outnumbered my running miles. Funny what a difference a serious running injury - and a new bike - makes.
I won't invite you, dear reader, back to the pity party I threw for myself in this space in the December issue. Just know that the frustration I was feeling for not being able to run has been successfully sublimated. The trick was convincing my wife I needed a fat bike for Christmas.
It probably wasn't coincidence that soon after reading Lou Dzierzak's article "Wide tires on winter trails," which also appeared in the December issue, I found myself astride a Surly Pugsley. The bike, with tires 3.7-inches wide and an all steel frame, weighs in at 37.5 pounds. It feels as heavy as my first mountain bike, bought with paper route money at the age of 15. But like no bike I've bought since, riding the Pugsley makes me feel as if I'm 15 again.
I'm only a little smarter now than I was then, however. Case in point, I wasted no time racing the Pugsley. On December 15. At night.
Myself and 15 other fat bike riders gathered around a blazing campfire just moments before the 6 p.m. start of the inaugural Platty Fatty, the first race in the Wisconsin State Fat-Bike Racing Series (fat-bikeracing.com). Two days worth of rain forced a change of venue to the Hirsch farm, a few miles southwest of Platteville, and host to the annual Blockhouse Roll mountain bike race.
For the five miles of wooded double and singletrack, I started out at the back of the pack. I quickly realized my Black Diamond headlamp, so perfect for running overnight legs of the Ragnar Relay, cast not nearly enough light needed at bike speed. So long as I kept close to my competition, with their more powerful helmet-mounted spotlights, and fed off our combined wattage, I did alright. Things got sketchy when I found myself alone on the twisting course with lots of tight, fast and slippery corners that set my brakes honking loudly. The bike slid sideways out from under me once, but I stayed upright through both stream crossings.
One hill, representing a long terrifying downhill early on, was worse as the final climb. It was so steep most, if not all, of us had to walk up, trying to gain purchase with our mud caked bike shoes as we pushed our unusually heavy bikes and strained to catch our breath.
The race was a blast and over all too soon. It was sobering to see in the results my 12th-place finish out of 16 total riders (and placing not much better in the "40+" age group). I shrugged it off and promised myself that this would not be my first and last fat bike race.
It was less than a week later, in the December 20 blizzard, that I really discovered my limits and that of my monster truck of a bike. In the more than seven inches of heavy, wet snow that fell the night before, it took me nearly two and a half hours to push my snow-caked steed 14 miles. I've now gone more than twice that distance at least three times, riding solo the Military Ridge Trail from Verona to Mount Horeb and back and, on New Year's Day, a big loop of Madison's Capital City Trail.
Bar Mitts and bike shoe booties have saved my extremities and ensured repeat outings in sub-20-degree temperatures. I may need to invest in a pair of ski goggles and a less ventilated helmet next.
The question remains whether the biking will supplement the cross-country skiing or the other way round this winter. I don't care, really. I'm having too much fun not running.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports magazine.