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.

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