Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Winter Finale, Pioneer Valley

As winter exits (s-l-o-w-l-y) we few-but-proud fat bikers in the Pioneer Valley are left with trails that are neither fish nor fowl. Not dry enough for trad mountain bike wheels, but not enough snow for generic fat biking. This hasn't kept some of us crazies from venturing out, though.

The arrival in town last week of mutual friend, former owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, and fellow fat biker Chris, prompted an email from my pal Will, curent owner of the Exchange. I was invited for a bit of fun on the telephone-pole trails up in Shutesbury. A Mukluk reunion? A fat frenzy? How could I refuse?

And so, early Friday found us out in the forested hills on a frosty morn. The trails were pretty much edge-to-edge with ice of varying texture. I'm not a mountain biker by pedigree, so fat biking on the snow has been a great learning opportunity for me. I've been boning up on drop-offs, stream crossings, and twisty descents, all with the reassuring softness of a mat of white stuff to break any falls. As it turned out, there were almost none to catch this season; the Mukluk is a wonderfully stable bike.

Friday changed all that. Each of us was taken to school -- Ice Handling 101. Chris proved himself quite nimble, wending his way up and bombing his way down  most of what gave me and Will a bit more pause. I personally counted about four falls. Despite a few bruises, I'm learning to fall a lot more fluidly, and that might be as valuable a skill as any for a newbie. They do say that, if you mountain bike, you will crash.

I was wiped out at end of the hour-and-a-half ride, and it took me a couple days to fully recover. A lot of my energy was spent wrestling the (rather burly) bike over icy ruts and turbocharging it up slippery slopes. I'm thinking that, with a little more skill, I'll be able to finesse it a bit more and finish up less winded.

Despite the challenges -- probably because of them -- the good runs were extra rewarding. We were chatting away at the cars after we were done, dashing down a part of the trail we hadn't tried, not quite wanting to be finished… It was a good morning.

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

How to Survive Late Winter

Even the squirrels and sparrows -- stalwarts of the New England outdoor scene -- are muttering that it's been a long, long winter.

Folks around here are prone to complaining about the weather even when it's nice ("It won't last.")  Myself, I've been cheerier about winter than ever this year, because when it first snows, I can cross-country ski, and when it gets icy and packed, it's perfect for fat biking. I'm set. And... even I'm ready for temps in the 30s.

Still, Will and I got out for a crazy-good ride early Monday morning, taking the twin Mukluks into a trail network right in my 'hood. I scouted them out over the last few years with my Vaya, but bouncing around on them on a dirt-road touring bike isn't nearly as fun as this was. We started with a long, twisty, downhill thrill ride on snow and ice and then were shot out at the bottom onto fast-moving snowmo tracks across a farm field. Exhilirating, especially in 10-degree weather. We then poked around down by the Connecticut River on sled trails. I'm finally finding my legs on that beastly-heavy thing; I was able to scoot up some seriously steep, icy ramps. "Take that, 50!" I cried out, having turned half a century just last week, and look: I'm climbing stupid, slippery steeps. Ha!

Also fueling the inner late-winter stove is the process of planning a 50th birthday celebration this summer: A boys' bike camp in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. Should be a blast; road rides with killer alpine views, and Mukluk jaunts in the famed Kingdom Trails, 100 miles (you read that right) of curvy, giggle-inducing singletrack way out back of beyond. Combine that with camping out on a lake where we can hear the shivery call of the loons as we sit around the fire recounting our bravery and stupidity, and you have the perfect cocktail for March daydreams.

There's still winter fun to be had, but breathing through damp wool and losing feeling in my fingertips is losing its charm. Maybe I should order a pair of fat bike fenders for mud season, just to rev myself up a it?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Fat Bikes, Snowmobile Trails, Access Issues

Personal and professional life continue to wash liberally over the gunwalls of my bike life, and that has left me only sneaking out here and there for fat bike rides in this record-making cold and snowy winter. Those rides, however, have kept me balanced in a whirlwind time.

Fat biking has been a revelation. Some outings have been long slogs through unsuitably deep or choppy snow (stay off hiking trails, it ain't worth it) and some have been pure fun and terrific winter fitness boosters. I'm thinking especially of a couple of rides with my friend Will, owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange (local fat bike purveyors and source of my Salsa Mukluk 3). We have blasted away on local snowmobile trails he found (bless you, Skilly Willy!). They're right in our neighborhood, but I never knew it until I had reason to use them.

Snowmo trails are the most reliable fat riding in the winter; packed snow is about ideal for these bikes, with lots of float and slide and liberal amounts of plow- and sled-created "features." They wend all over the place, and can even be useful, connecting to places you need to go. They really are the mainstay.

Being a biker, it's easy to assume that our presence on the trails is low-profile and utterly unobjectionable. After all, snowmobiles make crazy noise, and chew up the snow, so who would care if a couple crazy guys bundled up on silent little bicycles uses them?

It's easy to forget (or just not know) that these trails were built painstakingly by folks who worked closely with landowners, often over many years, to create these long, interconnecting paths. But think about it: The same could be said about the pioneering mountain bike trail builders in the '80s and '90s. 

Think how much work NEMBA and the like have put into advocacy for our quiet little bikes, and then imagine how hard it must have been for those noisy, smoke-belching snowmobilers. The hard truth is, fat bikers are profiting from their investments of money, time, and outreach. (Except those who ride on state trails and the like -- a different issue.) 

They weren't thinking of bikers, trust me; there was no reason to. They love their sleds like we love our bikes.

Fat bikes in the winter are often a surprise to non-bikers on trails they expect to be used by other hikers, skiers, or sledders -- folks just like them. In the short time I've owned it, my Mukluk has aroused anxiety at times. It wouldn't take a lot of proactive work to prevent us new kids on the trails from creating ill will. 

And don't forget that snowmo paths run across private lands more than any other kind of trail; landowners didn't sign on for bikers on their crop land, and might not understand how low-impact we are. Four-inch tires are very new, and they've often had mountain bikers tearing up their soil -- their bread and butter. They hate that, and frankly, so would I.

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Should we, like the MTBers of the 80s and 90s, advocate and build relationships with landowners and trail users? 

Whenever someone comments on my bike when I'm out on it -- and that's often, these things attract attention -- I come to a full stop and engage them in conversation, explaining the bike, its uses and joys, and sometimes reassuring folks explicitly that I'm careful on "their" trails, and I care about the land.

I also wrote the largest Massachusetts snowmo organization to ask who I should speak to about access issues. I might end up joining a local club and get a sticker to put on my bike. There's a lot of talk in other states about building alliances, and many have stickered bikes as a good compromise. Don't forget: The clubs have the trail maps, which are impossible to find online (trust me, I looked hard) and only members get them. So, there's another perk, if you need one.

In the meantime, here are some links on the subject to provoke thought. Sorry I have no time to actually link them or explain them, but each has something unique to add:

  1. http://ridefatbikes.com/trails/imba-fatbike-best-practices/
  2. http://ridefatbikes.com/trails/
  3. http://forums.mtbr.com/fat-bikes/fatbiking-snowmobile-trails-831810.html
  4. http://host.madison.com/news/local/fat-bikes-ski-bikes-a-concern-on-state-trails-in/article_1ba487d3-adab-505f-8e10-b32afa17fd35.html
  5. http://fatbikesummit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/shared-use-nps-update.pdf

Meantime, get out there: The snow won't last forever. The cardinals are already singing their spring songs.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep

Here are some things I've recently seen. On a bicycle. In January and February.

Fort Hill, Amherst

Fort Hill

Fort Hill

Fort Hill

Puffer's Pond dam, Amherst

On Puffer's Pond, Amherst

Ice fisherman, Puffer's Pond, Amherst

North Amherst

North Amherst tracks

North Amherst 

I've been so busy, I haven't had time to turn around, much less sit down and detail my wonderful experiences with my new Salsa Mukluk. So, let this suffice: If you like to explore, and you want to do it in winter as much as summer, and not just on cross-country skis, get yourself a fat bike. You'll like it a lot.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fat Bikes: Why Rip When You Can Roam?

One week into fat bike ownership, and the obsession grows. It's clear why folks who scoff when they first lay eyes on these freakish things end up falling in five minutes after climbing on one.

So far, I've taken my Salsa Mukluk over local singletrack, up hidden urban trails, along the riverside, and even over the road -- but only when necessary (riding it on paved surfaces requires a Zen-like acceptance of its limitations). Here are some things I've learned:
  1. Fat bikes were originally created to ride on snow, but that doesn't mean that any old snow will do. Many of the flashy videos you'll see on the Web of fat-tired jockeys zipping through frosted forests and pulling advanced singletracky moves were filmed on specially groomed trails. The more homemade vids by folks like me are obvious; they feature riders poking happily along at five miles per hour, spinning away and enjoying the scenery. It seems like it takes very specific snow conditions to create fun-to-ride powder. Research so far indicates that the most reliably enjoyable powder here in New England, where the temps change so quickly these days, is a modest coating of up to an inch, creating some scary-fun float on sharp turns and just enough challenge overall -- rather than a slow, draining grind on deep, crusty, re-frozen stuff. Ain't nobody floatin' on that, don't care how fat your tires.
  2. I've read the debates about whether fat bikes can climb, which usually bring the predictable response: "They can if you can." As far as climbing goes, I'm more stubborn than talented, and a pair of painful old knees doesn't help. Add to that a bike weighing a chunky 35 pounds without pedals, and climbing becomes a real problem. My first couple times out, I climbed way up high so's I could enjoy the crazy-fun descents on snowy singletrack. Worth it? Not in the long-term. Tonight, I'm nursing an all-too-familiar case of chondromalacia in both knees.
  3. Knowing all the above, you won't be surprised to learn that many of the fat bike owners and retailers on the Web live in the upper midwestern United States, where steep hills are not a big problem, and 300 fluffy inches of frigid snow is the norm. Many of the rest live on islands or near lakes, both of which commonly feature lots of flat-to-rolling trail. Conclusion? Unless you're real strong and have stainless steel joints, fat biking is best suited to moderate topography. The long, steep climb out the back of Earl's Trails in Amherst, on the way up the sides of the Holyoke range, was simply too much up for this old fellow.
So yesterday, I decided to give my aching hinges a break and make my ride a photo safari. I've previously investigated a nearby waterside trail along the Connecticut River on my Salsa Vaya, and I thought to re-visit it with a bike more suited to the chunky, rutted terrain. This time, taking a left where I usually go right, I was delighted to discover that the trail stretches on and on in that direction. Bend after bend produced yet more doubletrack (thank you, farmers and your tractors!). I feasted on the severe ice-scapes. Below, some of the results.

For the nonce -- and despite the daredevils out there flicking fat bikes around like they were featherweight 26ers in July -- I'm  sticking with the laid-back faction who claim that floaty bikes are the best-ever vehicle for exploring where you ordinarily wouldn't even think to ride. That sounds about perfect to me.