Biking the Fat-Tire Way
Ten essentials to keep you safe and comfortable on the trail.
By Serine Halverson
Here in Alaska, when someone thinks of fat-tire biking, they're likely to conjure images of bundled-up cyclists cruising down a snow-packed trail in a winter wonderland. That's why it surprises most people to find out fat-tire biking originated in Arizona and New Mexico in the 1980s, when Ray Molina created a mountain bike with extra-large tires, giving him the ability to bike on sand dunes. Thus, sand biking was invented. At the same time, ultra-endurance events, like the Iditasport, were starting in Alaska. People biking in these events learned that biking on snow was just as much of a challenge as biking on sand because the tires kept punching through the surface of even well-packed trails. Competitors, as a result, began modifying their bicycles to accommodate extra-large tires. Wide tires behave like snowshoes, giving bikes better flotation on snow. Fat-tire biking went mainstream in 2005 when Surly Bikes came out with its Pugsley, mass producing the first fat-tire bike. Soon after, Alaskans Bill Fleming and his partner, James Stull, launched their own line of fat-tire bike, the 9:ZERO:7. Fleming co-owns Chain Reaction Cycles in Anchorage, competes in winter races and loves fat-tire biking. "First off, it's just a complete blast, and if you haven't done it before, you can't quite appreciate just how much fun it is," he said. "I've never seen anyone take one of these bikes out and not come back with like a total cheeser grin on their face." He gave a little insight about what it takes to be comfortable and safe behind the handlebars of a fat-tire bike during an Alaska winter.
What is the first thing our parents told us about riding a bike? "Always wear your helmet!" The same applies to fat-tire biking. A good piece of headgear that fits underneath a helmet and keeps your head warm is a balaclava, a thin face mask with a oval-shaped hole around the eyes. Wear ski goggles to cover the remaining exposed skin and keep your eyes protected from the elements.
Find a Trail
Fleming says a lot of his clients think fat-tire biking allows them to go anywhere—even through deep snow—and he's quick to correct them. "You actually do have to ride on some sort of packed trail," Fleming said. "It could be a snowmachine trail, or a running trail, something like that. You can't just take off into the snow. "I think a lot of the hills that we have on the Hillside, they're more fun in the wintertime than they are in the summertime, because there's no bugs, there's no animals, there's all these little rooty single-track trails that get filled in with snow and you have this little tight ribbon of trail running through the trees. It's just really, really beautiful."
"It's amazing how little you have to wear on your core to stay warm and it's amazing how much you have to wear on your extremities to keep them warm," Fleming said. For the lower half of the body, he suggests padded bike shorts and fleece pants for anything above zero degrees. If it gets colder, add a pair of wind pants. "The more breathable you can get, the better," Fleming said. On the top half of the body, he suggests a thin base as the inner layer, covered by a jersey because jerseys have pockets that can be used to store food or batteries that need to stay warm. He wears expedition-weight long underwear for the outer layer, and adds a soft-shell jacket for cold temperatures. For what Fleming calls "nuclear-winter cold days," bring a down sweater.
Warm Hands, Warm Feet
"There's not very many absolutely essential accessories, but the one that you have to have is a pair of pogies," Fleming said. Pogies are large insulated covers that go over the handlebars and the riders' hands. They stay attached to the bicycle instead of the hands, so it's important to wear a thin pair of gloves as well. It is also essential to keep the feet warm on a winter ride. Fleming suggests a platform pedal, quality mukluk, and a set of gaiters to keep feet warm and dry in the snow. Feet should have a liner sock, a vapor-barrier liner, and a thick outer layer. Because riders wear so many layers of thick socks, they may have to buy boots two to three sizes larger then their usual shoe size.
Food and Water
One unique challenge of any winter sport is keeping food and water thawed out. Fleming suggests a CamelBak hydration system. Wear the CamelBak between the first and second layer of clothing, and always make sure the hose is tucked in and blown clear of water so it doesn't freeze. A water bottle works for shorter rides, ranging from 30 to 45 minutes. Fleming says to mount the bottle upside down because water freezes from top to bottom. He suggests bringing easy-access food that doesn't require fiddling with a backpack or taking off gloves. For example, fill a water bottle with trail mix, cut a hole for dispensing, and put it in the bicycle's water-bottle mount.
There are two major differences in summer mountain-bike maintenance and winter fat-tire bike maintenance: air pressure and lubricant. In winter, bikes require a thinner lube than in summer, depending on conditions, because a thicker lube will gum up in cold weather. Air pressure in a regular mountain bike in the summer should be around 25 to 35 psi. On a fat-tire bike, the air pressure should be significantly lower, because the tires are so much bigger. Five pounds per square inch is a good pressure for soft snow conditions and 10 to 15 psi for hard-packed snow. A general winter-biking rule of thumb is, don't go out farther than you can walk back unless you've packed the necessary survival equipment. "The consequences are kind of steep, so if you get stuck out there, and it's really, really cold," Fleming said, "you need to be prepared to walk out."
"We're in Alaska. There's not a lot of light (in the winter), so you have to figure out a lighting system for your bike," Fleming said. "You don't need this real powerful lighting system on snow because the snow reflects the light, so even a pretty modest light system will work just because you don't need a whole lot to illuminate the trail." This is true for many wilderness trails, but keep in mind that some cities—including Anchorage—have specific lighting requirements, so do a little research to make sure your bike is legal. Fleming also stresses the importance of a headlamp. "The best is to have something on your handlebar and something on your head," he said. A headlamp allows you to see wherever your head is facing. This will help you spot anything near the trail that you want to avoid, like a moose. It will also allow you to see anything on your bike if you have a mechanical problem.
Fat-tire biking allows riders to visit some really beautiful locations, so bring a camera and tuck it into a pocket where it is most likely to stay warm and dry.
Buying a fat-tire bike can cost $1,500 on the low end, so borrow a fat-tire bike from a friend, or rent one from a local outfitter to try it out before making the financial commitment. Fleming says most of his fat-tire bike customers are experienced cyclists. "By the time they get around to buying a fat-tire bike, it's usually, like, their second or third bike," he said. "The funny thing is, the snow bike is the only bike you can actually ride year-round, so if you look at it from that point of view it's actually a bike you could get quite a bit more use out of than your other bikes." "It really opens up a lot of fascinating terrain," Fleming said. "It's really pretty amazing what you can do with it in the summertime." The fat-tire bike is great for riding on sandy coastal areas as well as tundra—both are types of terrain not accessible with a regular mountain bike.
"It's usually not a good idea to just take off by yourself," Fleming said. "You usually want to ride with somebody else." Fortunately for Alaskans, and visitors to Alaska, there is a large and welcoming community of winter riders. To get involved, "friend" Chain Reaction Cycles on Facebook to join one of its weekly winter rides on the Campbell Creek and Hillside trails in Anchorage. In the Mat-Su area, Valley Mountain Bikers and Hikers organizes outings for fat-tire bike enthusiasts, providing opportunities for people to rent bikes beforehand.
About the Author: Serine Halverson is former associate editor of Alaska magazine. She lives in Anchorage, where she enjoys commuting on her beach cruiser year-round.