A pale sun pushes above the horizon as I ride east. A light breeze squeezes through leafless trees, chilling my face. I release one hand and then the other from the handlebars to adjust my neck gaiter.
I bounce past the burial sites of Indian Mounds Regional Park in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn. The mounds are believed to have originated approximately 1,500 to 2,000 years ago with the Hopewell Indians. Other cultures added their own mounds in succeeding centuries, and the site remains sacred to the Dakota people. I pause to pay my respects to these important elders of human civilization.
Back in my saddle, I listen to my tires crunching through layers of thawed-and-refrozen snow. A chorus of hee-hee, hee-hee, hee-hee fills the air. I scan the horizon and spy a pair of black-capped chickadees swiftly jumping branches. I marvel at how their black heads stand out against the whitened landscape before their buffy belly feathers make these tiny acrobats disappear the higher they go.
I pedal on, following the Mississippi River, and ponder how long it would take me at this slow speed to ride all 244 miles north to the frozen trickle of its headwaters.
When the weather grows cold, my bike tires turn fat. The hefty rubberized rings — 4 inches in width or greater — provide flotation, traction, and stability, which afford opportunities to roll across terrain I might otherwise avoid.
Skinny tires make quick work of climbing hills, but wide ones propel me over rocky trails, through squishy sand dunes, and over snowpacked roads. The stability they offer helps me tackle switchbacks along mountain ridges with confidence.
Whether I’m riding to work in January through streets scattered with chunks of plowed snow or pedaling atop a snow-covered frozen creek, my fat bike reintroduces me to my inner daredevil. I’m once again that plucky 6-year-old girl who’d charge down any hill as quickly as possible on her 1979 Schwinn Stingray, laughing all the way, rainbow streamers flowing from high-rise handlebars.
That same spirit of adventure inspired a group of mountain bikers in 1980s Alaska. Seeking an advantage in the then-200-mile “Iditabike” race, they welded several bike rims together — wider wheel, better traction — and their creation evolved into today’s go-anywhere, do-anything fat bike. (Customized fat-tire bikes have, however, been used since at least 1924.)
From Fad to Fab
“Hey, Mom, look at the tires on that bicycle!” “Whoa, those are really cool tires. Can I touch them?” “Cool bike! Is it hard to pedal?”
My fat-tire bike attracts attention. Although it’s still a novelty in the middle of the city, out in trail country, plenty of cyclists are stoked to boost their traction with low tire pressure, says Brian Bonham of the Missoula, Mont.–based Adventure Cycling Association.
“Of the 6,818 respondents to our annual survey, 7.6 percent indicated that they commonly ride a fat bike,” Bonham reports. This is up from 3.7 percent when the group started tracking fat-bike ridership among its members in 2014.
Fat-bike races are on the rise as well. There were 52 competitions in 17 states in 2016, including North America’s premier snow-bike event — the Fat Bike Birkie in Cable, Wis.
“People are doing it because it’s really fun,” says Scott Chambers, race director of the Great Lakes Fat Bike Series, which includes a series of mass-start events across three states.
More manufacturers have entered the fat-tire-bike market, too. Cannon-dale, Trek, and Specialized now have their own models to compete with forward-thinking manufacturers like Surly (which sold the first commercially available fat bike, the Pugsley, in 2005). The influx means there are more frame options (aluminum, carbon, and steel), fatter tires (upward of 5 inches!), and lower price points available.
Biking for Birds
Racing isn’t the only reason to ride a fat tire. It also allows riders to access difficult spaces.
In 2016 a wildfire ravaged northeastern Alberta in Canada, razing neighborhoods in Fort McMurray, -destroying nearly 10 percent of the city, and displacing tens of thousands of residents. The 600,000-hectare (most sports fields are 1 hectare in size) wildfire also threatened to derail vital ornithology research at the University of Alberta.
Ecologist Elly Knight, a PhD candidate at the university at the time, was studying the common nighthawk, a species once listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act and one still being carefully monitored.
Though she wasn’t concerned for the bird’s survival -— it thrives in post-burn boreal habitats — Knight couldn’t access her field sites in the burn area because of a ban on all-terrain vehicles, which pose a substantial fire risk because their exhaust systems can ignite blazes.
“Like any graduate student, I was hyperinvested in my PhD thesis and determined to collect data. In the spirit of ‘Alberta Strong,’ I buckled down for some creative contingency planning,” she explains. “Field ecology is a logistical nightmare on a good day, and this was one of the greatest logistical challenges I’d faced in my 10-plus years as a field ornithologist.”
Confirming the study by walking was out because birds can travel large distances quickly. An avid cyclist, Knight remembered that fat bikes were designed for the kind of tough, sandy terrain that characterized her field sites.
A local shop outfitted Knight and her team with fat bikes, which proved to be an effective way to get to and around the study areas. The two-wheelers also reduced the team’s carbon footprint and fire hazard while delivering a good workout.
The nighthawks were in fine feather, too. “These nocturnal creatures were back again in large numbers,” says Knight, “and we were able to carry out one of the most intensive studies of the species to date.”
These tips can help you enjoy the floating feeling that comes with rocking minimal tire-pressure PSI (pounds per square inch) in the scenic destinations described below.
- Understand PSI. While there’s no set formula for dialing in your PSI, the range for fat tires is typically from 5 PSI (for soft snow) to 14 PSI (for harder trail conditions). When in doubt, let the air out.
- Avoid riding in super-soft conditions, because it’s difficult to climb or descend well. A good way to judge? If you leave a rut, it’s too soft.
- Keep your wheels on trails, fire roads, or designated riding areas to minimize your impact on plants, animals, and soil.
Near Anchorage, Alaska
Explore one of the birthplaces of fat bikes with a true Alaskan experience — riding on a glacier. The guides at Arctic Cycles have been snow adventuring since 1996. A daylong trek includes gear rentals, fat-biking instruction, a snowmobile ride, and lunch served on the trail. $499 per person.
Grand Targhee Ski Resort
Cycling is a year-round activity at the first ski resort in the United States to open its Nordic trails to fat bikes. With access to nine miles of groomed Nordic track and seven miles of singletrack, there’s plenty to explore, including a nighttime headlamp-lit trek down the Jolly Green Giants trail to enjoy the twinkling valley lights.
Marquette Snow Bike Route (SBR)
North Marquette, Mich.
The masterminds behind the Noquemanon Trail Network are pioneers of snow-packing trails. The Marquette SBR North includes 25 miles of groomed singletrack just for bikers! There’s even a not-too-gnarly berm section (with banked corners) to test your snow-biking skills.
McDowell Sonoran Preserve
For those who prefer warmer climes, fat biking is the perfect way to encounter the wonders — like saguaro — of North America’s hottest desert. These long-lived cacti (up to 200 years) provide food and shelter for a surprising number of mammals, reptiles, and birds. A guided half-day tour includes gear rentals and snacks. $145 per person.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Mechanized transport is prohibited in the entire dune field and on most of the trails in this federally protected wilderness. While standard mountain bikes can travel the dirt section of the Medano Pass Primitive Road, fat bikes can take you past the literal Point of No Return into the sand, as well as over creek crossings and rocks.
This originally appeared as “Big Wheels” in the November 2019 issue of Experience Life.