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.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Salsa Mukluk 3: First Impressions

Regular readers know how many decades of dyed-in-the-wool-jersey road riding it took before I discovered the joy of putting bike wheels on dirt and exploring the forest. It was only a few years ago, when I bought a Salsa Vaya, that I started tentatively checking out local fire roads, beginner's trails, and, eventually, more traditional singletrack, gaining confidence as I went (and suffering some grievous falls). Starting trail riding on a touring bike with road gearing and only 35 mm-wide tires certainly inhibited my progress, but I  was content to poke around until the difficulties turned me back toward the road.

As the years sneaked by, skills quietly crept up on me, until I recently realized that the bike was holding me back more than I was. It was at this point that I did what I promised my long-suffering wife I would never do: I started contemplating owning a real mountain bike.

I test-rode a couple of lovely hardtail numbers in the parking lot of my wonderful local bike shop, Hampshire Bicycle Exchange (where I bought my Vaya). I liked them, and considered buying them. My fiftieth birthday is next month, and it seemed like a fitting present to myself.

Then fortune stepped in.

Will, the owner of HBE and a riding buddy, texted me a couple weeks ago, to the effect of, "Want to test-ride a couple of Mukluks with me?" Now, I knew about Salsa's Mukluk, and about all the furor in the cycling world over fat bikes. Given that I found buying a traditional mountain bike an intoxicatingly naughty idea, I certainly wasn't thinking, "Hm, maybe I'll end up buying a Muk!" It just sounded like a really interesting ride, and Will is great company, so I responded, "You bet!"

This is what greeted me when I pulled up to his house a week later:

Without much delay, we hit Earl's Trails, a well-known patch of flowy singletrack not far from us, some of which I have covered with my Vaya in the past.

Will takes a turn in a blur

Fat, indeed

The patchy ice on the trails didn't give our 3.8" tires any trouble

Yours truly, acting like a mountain biker
Sometime soon, I will record here my many thoughts and impressions from my first fat bike ride, one of the more unique experiences I've had on two wheels.  The essence was this: I had a blast. 

I mean, I was whooping and giggling like an eight-year-old kid. Everything good you hear about fat bikes is true. (How often does that happen?) I rode over any- and everything in my way. I railed turns I would have previously wobbled over. The skills from all those experimental rides on the barely-suited Vaya flourished like mad on this bike built to take away the fear of riding weird, slippery, rooty, rocky, wet places. 

By the time we were racking up the bikes on Will's car at the trailhead, I was asking how much the bike cost. A few days of obsessive Internet browsing later, I emailed Will and said, "I'll take it." 

Literally the minute I pulled in to pick it up today, it started snowing. Nice…. very nice.

After dumping the reflectors and adding a bottle cage, I took it back to Earl's Trails, and spent an hour and forty hauling its heavy carcass up vertical trails for the absurd pleasure of flying back down. Descending on the curvy, lightly-coated trails was beyond fun. 

I'm hooked.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Ways to Enjoy Winter

The bitter chill of winter, and the attendant white stuff, has piled on like a second-string linebacker here in the Northeast. Has it stopped me being outside? Ha! I laugh in the face of the bitter chill and attendant white stuff!

A couple years ago, Mrs. V and I invested in cross-country skis, and it's really made it possible for me to enjoy winter and do a little less biking for a while, returning fresh and eager in late February. These days, I look forward to dumps like we're supposed to have this weekend: 6-12 inches, yesirree!

This is one of my skiing spots, with miles of gradual grades and deep woods:

In-between snows, when good ol' global warming brings temps back up to the 40s, I've been pushing the edges of the envelope for the Salsa Vaya, on frozen trails and a bit of singletrack:

Even if you're not lucky enough to live in the beautiful Pioneer Valley of Western Mass, we still wish you a Happy New Year. May you spend most of it outdoors!