Fat is in

Fat bikes, that is! Enthusiasts say they can extend the cycling season


Reid Wright of Cortez, Colo., tries out a fat bike for the first time near Durango. He said the experience was “crazy fun.” The large tires of fat bikes allow users to ride atop snow. Coursey of Reid Wright

Mountain-bike lovers have typically mourned the day snow covers their favorite trail, doomed to wait until the weather warms and the trail emerges from the ice.

But, a growing number of mountain bikers have jumped on a new trend – fat bikes.

These bikes make typical mountain-bike tires look anemic. Most fat-bike tires have a width between four and five inches, making them appear more like a motorcycle tire than a bicycle.

But the big tires are making the local mountain- biking scene a year-round one and causing local public land agencies to take a hard look at this new form of winter recreation.

Three years ago, Bob Wright, 68, of Durango, bought his first fat bike and has loved the big tires ever since. He recently completed a snow ride above Durango.

“It’s harder work than mountain-biking, but less work than you would think,” he said. Wright said the trail has to be somewhat packed. “You can’t ride on fresh snow,” he said. “Breaking new trail is nearly impossible.”

But when you can find a packed trail, Wright said, the fat bikes can take you gliding over the snow at about the same speed as cross-country skiing.

Wright says he sticks to hiking trails and riding the tracks of snowmobiles.

Christ Bouton, trails manager with the San Juan National Forest Service, has been watching this new winter sport closely. Bikers have never ventured out in the snow before, leaving Bouton and others public-lands officials worrying over potential conflicts.

“It is kind of a large issue that has popped up recently across the west,” Bouton said. “I wouldn’t say there is a conflict, but it is a new thing.” The biggest concern, Bouton said, is that bikes will tear up some of the groomed cross-country ski trails. These trails, such as Chicken Creek near Mancos, are maintained by hard-working volunteers, and the fat bikes could tear up freshly groomed trails.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association discourages fat-bike users from using groomed cross-country ski areas, unless they specifically say they are allowed.

And locally, that is not the case.

“Right now, we are trying to discourage people from using the Chicken Creek area mostly out of respect for the volunteers who groom,” Bouton said.

Bouton thinks a better place for fat-bike users is hiking trails and trails used by snowmobiles. “It doesn’t impact [snowmobilers’] use. They aren’t looking for the smooth, clean surface skate skiers are looking for.”

Bouton said the Forest Service has also been working with local bike clubs and exploring the possibility of grooming an area near Boggy Draw just for fat bikes.

“You can groom with different equipment for fat bikes,” he said.

The track would be much narrower than that of a cross-country ski path.

But so far, fat-bike use in the winter hasn’t been officially addressed in any local publiclands management plans. States to the north such as Alaska, Wyoming and Montana saw the popularity of fat bikes long before this area did.

“It is just one of those new issues. Fat bikes are definitely increasing in popularity,” Bouton said.

For Wright, the fat bike holds a special place. He has found that not only are the bikes good over snow, but for riding in sandy canyons and just dealing with rocky terrain.

“You can ride at night,” he said. “You crash easier on a mountain bike because of the skinny tires. But a fat bike is much more sure-footed because of the fat tires.”

He enjoys the snow as often as he can.

“The most fun I’ve had on it is night riding on the snow during a full moon,” he said.

Commonly accepted fat-bike etiquette

The International Mountain Bicycling Association has issued the following guidelines for riding fat bikes:

Have wide tires — deep snow coverage may require tires wider than 3.5 inches. Tire pressure will often be less than 10 PSI.

You should have enough flotation that you can travel over snow without leaving a rut deeper than one inch, and sufficient traction that you are able to safely control your bike and ride in a straight line.

On groomed Nordic trails

• Only ride at ski areas that allow and encourage biking.

• Yield to all other users when riding. Skiers don’t have brakes, but you do!

• Ride on the firmest part of the track.

• Do not ride on or in the classic tracks.

• Leave room for skiers to pass (don’t ride side-by-side with all of your buddies blocking the full trail).

• Allow the track time to set up after grooming and before riding.

• Respect alternate-use days for bikers and skiers.

• Some areas require riding only a purpose- built fat bike, not any old mountain bike. There may be a minimum tire width.

• Be an ambassador for the sport: stay polite, educate other riders, discourage bad behavior and follow the rules.

• Help out by joining your local Nordic club. Consider donating money for trail grooming.

On snowmobile trails

• Use a front white blinker and rear red blinker at all times. Wear reflective material on both the front and rear of your body.

• Stay to the far right of the trail and yield to snowmobiles.

• Know and obey the rules of your local land manager. Understand that some trails may be on private property and might not be open to alternative uses.

• Be prepared. Winter travel in the backcountry requires carrying proper gear and dressing properly. Be self-sufficient!

• Use extreme caution when riding at night. Be visible and use the brightest lights you can find.

• Be friendly!

• Help out by supporting your local snowmobile club. Consider donating to trail grooming and maintenance efforts.

On natural terrain and in the backcountry

A fat bike can be the ultimate winter backcountry travel tool. Frozen conditions and minimal snow coverage (1-5 inches) mean access to areas that are impassable during warmer months. But just because you can ride somewhere doesn’t mean you should.

• Do not trespass! Obey ALL land-manager rules. Some parcels are closed to bikes whether you are riding on a trail or not.

• Do not ride through sensitive wildlife habitats. or disturb wildlife. Many species survive on minimal diets during winter. Stressors or the need to move quickly can deplete their energy stores.

• Learn safe ice travel. Riding on frozen water can be extremely dangerous. Is the ice thick enough? Take ice-fishing picks and rope when riding on lakes and rivers.

• Understand changing conditions. New snowfall or warming temperatures can make the return trip much more difficult. Tire tracks can be covered; hard snow can turn to slush, rivers can start to melt. Always know the forecast and be aware of how changing conditions might alter the safe passage of your route.

• Be prepared. Carry provisions.

• Make sure someone else knows where you are going and when you will return.

• Learn to share. Your tracks might attract others. “Your” route might not stay a secret for long.

From January 2014.