Cycling through beautiful valleys past greedily grazing elk, dwarfed by mountains — sounds like a sylvan summer scene. But with wider frames and new fat tires, mountain biking has become a year-round sport.
Just like on any downhill day, frigid temps require warm, windproof, and waterproof outerwear, substantial gloves, hat, facemask, helmet, and goggles as well as protective shoe wraps. But, with the latest fat bike technology, a winter ride is surprisingly steady on hard-packed snow, crud, and even ice — and supremely relaxing on the flats, exhilarating downhill, and a serious slog uphill.
Launched commercially since the invention of the Surly Pugsley in Alaska back in 2005, the winter biking trend is on the rise. “Everyone thought they were crazy back then, but it’s really catching on now,” says David Hunger of Teton Mountain Bike Tours in Jackson Hole, Wyo. The ski patroller and Nordic instructor turned to winter biking four years ago, leading customized sightseeing tours around the Elk National Refuge. “You need groomed or packed snow, but you can also change the pressure of the tires to suit the surface,” says Hunger. With prices nearing the $3,000 mark for an iconic Surly, he is anticipating year-round use for the pricey bikes. “It can actually be an alternative to a mountain bike. The best scenario would be to have a fat bike with a winter and summer tire. You can use them on sandy areas, too, beaches and desert, so they really are all-terrain bikes,” he says. While rim widths vary from 65mm to 100mm, Hunger recommends an 80mm as the equivalent to an all-mountain ski.
The winter biking bug is now spreading to ski resorts, which are setting up rentals and guided tours. In Canada, Panorama Mountain Resort launched fat biking last winter, incorporating snowy cycling scenes in its YouTube promo video. This season three RCR (Resorts of the Canadian Rockies) resorts — Fernie, Kimberley, and Kicking Horse in British Columbia — are offering fat biking experiences. “Monster tires and low gearing mean biking in snow is easy for both first-timers and seasoned cyclists,” says RCR’s Matt Mosteller. All three resorts provide instruction and guided tours. Kimberley has hundreds of miles of designated and groomed trails for varying levels of proficiency.
Bike stores in Banff and Canmore, Alberta, are stocking fat bikes, which are increasingly being bought for winter exercise as well as transportation to nearby ski hills. “Being close to town, you often see locals, who may be training for various events, hitting the Norquay road and heading up to the resort to sneak in a few extra runs during the day,” says Canmore resident Sarah Pearson. “Lake Louise locals are also using fat bikes for quick and easy access to the slopes without having to worry about shuttles or parking.”
Cross-country ski areas, such as Canmore’s Nordic Centre and Whistler Olympic Park are adding fat biking to their mountain menus. Whistler Sports Legacies communications specialist Silke Jeltsch says fat biking trails open this season around Nov. 26. “Tires must be 3¾ inches or wider with a tire pressure less than 10 PSI,” says Jeltsch. Midweek night biking is also offered from Dec. 9. There are a few rentals available, but most participants bring their own bikes.
Colorado was an early adopter of the fat biking trend. Copper Mountain’s WinterBike event has been running since 2011 with races for all ages. The cross-country mountain action takes place at night along with free demos and fun rides for kids. Equipment can be costly, so this is a good opportunity to try bikes out before splurging. This season, Breckenridge’s Gold Run Nordic Center will open up trails to fat bikes three days a week. Bikes can be rented on site and in town at Breck Bike Guides, which started its own fat bike tours in 2014.
The St. Regis Resort is touting fat biking as a trendy way to explore the serene scenery of Aspen. One package includes a guided lesson on high-end rentals — fueled by organic chocolate chip cookies. And the new Mountaintop Reboot experience involves fat biking in a three-night health and wellness program together with yoga and massage. Nearby, the Limelight Hotel offers free fat bikes to get around downtown Aspen and access the Rio Grande trail for a jaunt along the Roaring Fork River.
Crested Butte is both a ski and bike town with multiple options for winter fat biking, including drainage areas, groomed tracks, and snowmobile terrain. “Our goal is to get more ‘backcountry’ access and begin to groom fat-bike-specific single track in remote and iconic locations,” says Chamber of Commerce director Dave Ochs.
The inaugural Fat Bike World Championships, scheduled for Jan. 27-31, will encompass backcountry, town, and resort races, a vendor showcase, and demos as well as an industry conference focusing on the speedy growth of the fat bike phenomenon.
Last season, Powder Mountain Resort in Utah hosted the first-ever USA Cycling Fat Bike National Championships in February. “We had about 150 competitors including age-group racers and pros,” says Rich Koski, director of sales for the Ogden/Weber Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There were several hundred spectators who had the opportunity to demo fat bikes from local shops and directly from several fat bike manufacturers.”
The resort is renting out fat bikes this season for use on a groomed, multi-use trail. “Fat biking is a growing trend in the cycling industry,” Koski says. “You always see a smile on the face of a fat bike rider, whether they are riding recreationally or competitively.”
This season’s championship returns to Powder Mountain on Feb. 28 before moving to Grand Rapids, Mich., for a two-year stint.