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Outdoors/Adventure

Intro to fat biking: Tires churning, legs burning, miles away from my comfort zone

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: January 5, 2018
  • Published January 4, 2018

Sam Friedman, left, and Suzanna Caldwell are all smiles Monday on our way back to the trailhead after a night at a cabin on Red Shirt Lake in the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area near Willow. (Vicky Ho / ADN)

This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

I've never been so frustrated with snow before.

Not when I've had to shovel it from our driveway. Not when I've had to dig out camping gear from an overnight snowstorm. Not when I've had to ski heavy, wet, mashed-potato snow or surprise moguls runs at a resort. Not even when my legs punched through to the void as I crossed snow-covered boulders in the dark.

No. What killed me over the weekend was the soft snow on a gently rolling trail to a cabin at Red Shirt Lake, in the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area near Willow. The instrument of my demise: a fat-tire bike.

Daisy Tada! outside a public-use cabin at Red Shirt Lake on Sunday. (Vicky Ho / ADN)

Close readers of this column know I have a poor track record with bikes. I've been banned from buddies' bikes before. Which is why I was very grateful, and nervous, for the brave souls willing to lend me a fat bike and a sled for our New Year's trip.

My friend Suzanna Caldwell, the recycling coordinator for the city of Anchorage (and a former ADN reporter), and I drove to the trailhead Sunday to meet up with Sam Friedman, the outdoors editor at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. He was on skis, and we were on bikes. I planned to tow my gear and firewood in the sled for a 7-mile ride to the cabin.

That was my first failure. I could barely get onto the bike and start pedaling while dragging the sled. A snowmachiner in the parking lot even came over and held my bike steady while I climbed on, like a kid learning how to ride without training wheels. I managed to ride for all of 2 feet before bailing.

We shuffled gear among the three of us for the first couple of miles trying to find the right balance. I ended up riding while wearing Sam's backpack, and he — aided by retired sled dog Daisy Tada! — pulled my much-heavier sled. (He still smoked me on the trail.)

We ate our weight in cheese once we reached the cabin and stoked the fire in the wood stove until we started sweating. Beer and whiskey soothed our muscles. The Sunday crossword and long reflections on the past year kept us occupied until just before midnight, when we walked onto Red Shirt Lake and heard the boom of fireworks in the Valley. The moon illuminated the snow around us, and though Daisy wan't a fan of the pyrotechnics, I can already tell that moment will be one of my favorites of 2018.

One of the public-use cabins at Red Shirt Lake on Sunday. (Vicky Ho / ADN)

Now, let's talk about the biking.

Fat bikes thrive on trails with hard-packed snow. You'll get the traction you need, and the riding is fast when you don't have to worry about spinning out a tire or, in my case, wiping out entirely.

But soft snow will dial up the difficulty on an otherwise easy trail. It takes more work to maintain traction, even on a well-traveled path. Imagine churning a bike through deep mud or punchy sand. These were the conditions for most of our ride — and that's how I found myself fishtailing, slipping and sliding all over the trail.

It was one hell of an introduction to riding a fat bike.

Suzanna gave me excellent tips: Lower the tire pressure. Keep your weight toward the back of the bike to help maintain traction. Stay in a low gear. Relax your upper body (she could probably tell I was white-knuckling the handlebars). Go slow and steady.

Before this trip, someone joked with me that riding a fat bike was just like riding a bike. Already for me, that foretold doom. But I'd say riding a fat bike in soft snow is much harder.

Vicky Ho dances to help ease the pain of riding a fat-tire bike as a novice on a trip to a cabin at Red Shirt Lake on Sunday. (Suzanna Caldwell)

It didn't help that every time I bailed off my bike, which was often, I had trouble getting back on. I'd biked with an overnight pack on my back before, but never on a fat bike, and never in snow.

On this trip, I had about a 30 percent success rate of mounting my bike on the first try. And the technique wasn't pretty, either: I looked like a top-heavy turtle doing its best impression of a dog approaching a fire hydrant, with one leg raised.

When my quad muscles — unaccustomed to the motions of biking — started cramping and screaming, I walked the bike for a stretch. Then I took a deep breath and got back on.

What else could I do? I had to keep going. At that point, my friends were ahead of me, and so was the cabin. Humming along to part of Frank Sinatra's version of "That's Life" helped: "Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race."

My New Year's resolution is the same, year to year: Do more. Do better. Be a kinder human. Get out of my comfort zone.

If what I believe is true — that how I ring in the new year sets the tone for the next 365 days — then I've got that last part covered, especially in the company of friends who inspire and push me on every adventure.

And even if there's some struggling along the way, that's all right. That's life.

If you go

Want to hear more cautionary tales in person? I'm presenting a talk from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 10, at the Anchorage REI, 1200 W. Northern Lights Blvd. RSVP for free here — there are still spots available, and I'd love to see you there.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at the Anchorage Daily News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@adn.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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