You know how every new thing you try, especially outside, comes with an “I wish somebody would have told me x, y and z!” Let’s change that. Starting with fat biking.
I am pretty sure one of my purposes here on Earth is to bumble through things so others don’t feel as bad about starting out. Fat biking is one of those things. When I first started on a fat bike, I was a squiggling, falling-down, red-faced mess. I left a trail of zigzags, butt imprints and postholes through the forest unfortunate enough to host me.
Now, I’m less of a mess. For the amount of fat biking I’ve done, I should probably be a bit better balanced and more technically skilled. Yet … I’m not, and I’m OK with that. I’m forever going to be a blue-square downhill skier, and that’s how I feel about fat tire — and mountain — biking. I enjoy the kind of thrill that comes with minimal risk.
Here are the things I wish someone had told me from the outset about fat biking that may have made it less daunting:
You can rent them for a weekend. Bored with your partner or spouse? Aren’t we all (just kidding)? Try a new date idea and rent some fat bikes for the weekend. Or grab a friend and try them out. There are rentals aplenty through many bike shops — call first — and even through the universities.
Bike rentals are a great way to get a feel for a fat bike, because you have a professional outfitting you for size, and you know the bikes are up to snuff with their maintenance so there shouldn’t be issues out on the trail. Plus, many of them come with pogies, those giant handlebar-affixed hand warmers.
Speaking of pogies ... how did I go this long without them? Yes, there is some controversy — some say pogies make it difficult to quickly withdraw your hands in the event of a fall. But having both invested in and experienced a fall with pogies on recently, I think the benefits outweigh the risk.
My pogies have kept my hands warm in what are, objectively speaking, absurd temperatures in which to ride a bicycle. I’ve cruised around at minus 25 with just glove liners underneath my beautiful, new, Alaska-made pogies. And — the real selling point — I can stash snacks in my pogies to keep the food from freezing beyond being edible.
When in doubt, let it out. It’s a weirdly intimate thing when someone comes up to you on the trail and squeezes the front tire of your bicycle, but that’s exactly what happened to me one day while riding around in Bicentennial Far North park in Anchorage.
I was doing my squiggle, zigzag thing in a couple of inches of fresh snow on top of packed trail, wondering why I was having such a hard time getting purchase on the soft snow. This fellow paused before passing me on the trail, groped my front tire and offered the diagnosis: “When in doubt, let it out.” He meant air. From my tire. I let a bunch of air out.
If it had been my road bike, I would have called my tires flat. But they were just shy of flat — they held shape when my bike was upright, but when I was on the bike and riding, the deflation was enough to better float on the snow, offering me more traction. Now I squiggle no more! And no one gropes my bike tires, either.
It really is all about the cold-weather gear. Speaking of guys telling me what to do, I had this bizarre experience at a gear shop recently where a polite but confused fellow tried to talk me down from buying the most extreme Arctic boot they had for sale.
He pointed at a less burly — and, by the way, less expensive — boot made for women and told me that model should work just fine for fat tire biking. But at this point in my winter riding career, I wasn’t having anything less than the absolute warmest boot out there. I insisted on the boot I’d picked, and I learned the salesman is a skier, not a winter cyclist. Big difference! In skiing, you’re moving most parts of your body, including your feet. In biking, your feet are basically stationary, and your thighs, butt and even your knees are essentially exposed for hours to the bitter cold. Layers upon layers, the best and most extreme boots you can find, and yes, artificial hand and toe warmers are your best friend in temperatures lower than 20 degrees, and depending on how long you’re planning to be out there.
One thing that deserves its own category gear-wise is simple but critical: having at least one under layer long enough to tuck all the way into your pants. Plumber’s crack on a bike when it’s cold isn’t a good look, or a good feel.
Finally, fat biking is slow! Before I tried it, I had this dream that fat biking would feel kind of like a bike whizzing across the softest cloud of snow. I imagined, like I imagine most things, it would be effortless. Me, gliding away into my winter sunset.
It turns out all that tread that makes for flotation on a fat tire slows you down. The gearing on the bikes is absolutely amazing; you can click into some great low and slow gears for churning up hills. But it’s still work.
Fat bikes are the RVs of the bicycle world; skinny-tire road bikes are the race cars. Fat bikes are amazingly fun, relatively lightweight for what they do and they’ll get you into some amazing scenes, but they’re still ultimately made for pedaling across the snow. It can be a grind. I can hear the sound of the tires crunching across the snow from memory, that constant, deliberate forward noise that tells me I’m going somewhere cool.
You can go somewhere cool, too. My major takeaway is to not be afraid of fat biking. Gear up well, find some mellow trails nearby and take a fat bike for a spin. They are truly amazing Alaska winter toys that I would hate for anyone to miss out on.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.