When I moved to Crested Butte a few years ago, it didn’t take long for me to wrap my head around the idea of winter biking as a way to get around town. I put studded tires on my townie and pedaled carefully, quickly realizing that it was indeed safer than walking (I prefer to keep the stats to myself, but let’s just say I’ve fallen on-foot more than I’ve fallen off my townie).
But when I learned about other forms of winter biking, I didn’t get it. Snow blades on bike frames? Fat tires? I was shocked to learn that my home state of Minnesota even had a 135-mile fat bike race that made headlines, repeatedly. Why?
My skepticism should come as a surprise to no one. I’m a late adopter in most areas of life. I was one of the last of my friends to have an iPod, I didn’t see the need for an iPhone (until, of course, I finally got one), and when it comes to outdoor recreation… Well, before I moved to Colorado I proclaimed that I would stick to hiking, thanks. Maybe do some cross country skiing. That, of course, turned out to be a lie, but I held out the longest when it came to winter biking.
First off (and I apologize to the aficionados), there was the ridicule factor. Second, I didn’t understand what was what. I’d seen people riding around town on bikes with really fat tires, and I’d seen the pictures from the annual pond skim at Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR). You know the one—a singularly brave soul riding a bike made of snow blades straight toward the water. Again, I wondered, Why? But eventually, I grew tired of getting confused. Every time someone used the phrase “snow biking” I had no idea what they meant. Blades, or fat tires? It was time to get smart on the subject and see what the fuss was about.
First up: snow biking at CBMR
As far as I can tell, snow biking refers to the bikes with mini ski blades instead of tires—in other words, someone had the brilliant idea to resurrect the short-lived fad of snow blades and apply it to a new medium. At CBMR, the snow bikes come with four of them: two for the bike and one for each of your feet. Right off the bat, I’d like to set one thing straight: snow biking will make you laugh, but it isn’t a joke. If you’ve ever watched the spoofs online, where ride ‘em cowboys shoot down the slopes throwing lassos, or checked out the training course at CBMR, you might be ready to call my bluff. There’s something about the lack of an incline there and the way you have to shuffle your feet to move around that looks and feels goofy. But you are wrong.
Trust me, I had the same misconceptions. I expected to meet up with my partners in crime, take a couple of green runs like Houston, and call it a day. What else could you do on a snow bike? A lot, it turns out. After our first run down Houston, our instructor suggested that we take things to the next level with a run down Paradise Bowl.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I wanted to ask. I hadn’t quite mastered any feeling of control on the snow bike, the riding of which bears little resemblance to biking. The closest analogy came from our guide, who compared it to riding a switchback on a mountain bike, when the front wheel stays true and the back wheel skids out. On a snow bike, you more or less keep the front ski pointed downhill and shift the back blade side-to-side to turn. On an icy “steep” (snow bikes are only allowed on green and blue runs) it’s easy to feel like you’re on the edge of losing control.
But I could also sense the untapped potential of our steeds, so I kept quiet and we did it, pausing under Paradise Lift just long enough for its riders to hoot and holler at our awesome hill hogs (this happened everywhere we went—people just couldn’t help themselves). Then we zoomed down to East River, and lest you are still skeptical, let me tell you that you ain’t seen nothin’ till you’ve seen a snow bike go down the bumps on Black Eagle.
Here’s what I now know about snow bikes: they can do more than you think possible, and they are a riot. There’s something about weaving through bumps or flying along a bumpy cat track on a bike, practically bouncing out of your spring-loaded seat that makes you laugh. I smiled so much my teeth got cold. And sometimes? On the straightaways? I felt like I was riding one of those cruisers from Return of the Jedi, through the trees on the forest moon of Endor. (And yes, I know what this says about me, but I am a proud child of the 80s.)
Next up: A crash course in fat bike racing
Some people say you shouldn’t show your weaknesses, but here’s the truth: I was scared to ride in a fat bike race. I almost rented a bike and went down to Hartman Rocks so I could do it by myself. I wouldn’t have to worry if I wore funny clothes, spun out and tipped over, or finished last. But (and I admitted this to no one) I really wanted to do the Magic Meadows Fat Bike Race, a 10-mile course (give or take) on the Crested Butte Nordic trails. I love mountain biking, and I wanted to see how fat biking compared. Plus, I wanted to know if I could do it.
I hemmed and hawed until I scored a REEB bike demo from one of the race’s sponsors (yes, that’s beer spelled backward, and yes, they and Oskar Blues have been die-hard supporters of the local fat biking community). I’d been told that REEB bikes are fast and fun, handling a lot like mountain bikes. I figured I needed any leg up I could get, and at that point, I couldn’t say no. Originally, I had two goals: Finish, and don’t be last. On the day of the race, I came up with a third: show up. I had been advised by a certain, somewhat infamous local biker (Dave Ochs) to choose my foray into fat biking wisely. Say, a bluebird day, no freshies to slow me down, and a nice hard-packed trail out Kebler or the Slate River Valley.
“If you go on the wrong day, you’ll be like, ‘This is the dumbest sport ever,’” he said.
Naturally, on race day, it snowed all day. The Nordic trails had been groomed at 8 a.m., but by race time—2 p.m., late starts being a nice fat biking perk for late risers like myself—six inches of powder coated the trail. I wasn’t scared about hating fat biking so much as making a fool of myself. Luckily (or not, depending on how you look at it), my ride didn’t buy it when I said I had no business going out in conditions like that. He delivered me to the start with plenty of time to try out the bike before the race began: the True Temper Ox Platinum.
As fat bikes go, I’m pretty sure I rode a beauty. Once I figured out how to ride through the snow, it did handle like a mountain bike. The tires were as they sound—fat. At least three and a half inches wide, and on this day, about 5 psi. It feels dangerous to let the tires get that squishy, but it made the difference between staying afloat and punching through the snow—something I experienced on my first test run. I also skidded out and tipped over, after which I learned to stay away from the brakes and never steer with the headset.
By the time I got to the start, most of the things I’d feared had happened, including dressing funny. I wore mukluks (I’d brought bike shoes and sneakers but opted for warm feet). I could also do the math and figured that with about a dozen racers, there was a good chance I’d finish last. The good thing about having things go so wrong so fast is that by the time the race started, I’d gotten it all out of the way. And with nothing to do but stay afloat on a snow-covered trail, I fell into line and discovered one distinct advantage toward being in the back. The riders ahead of me created a trail, and when I could stick to that, it felt an awful lot like riding single track.
Which is to say that even though it was hard, I had fun. The bike handled well, and I even passed a couple of people and played leapfrog with someone else. For a brief moment, I entertained the notion that I might not finish last. And then I got a quarter of the way through the second of two laps, and my leapfrog friend pulled ahead so fast I couldn’t believe it. Snow filled the tracks, and more and more sections of the trail felt like sand traps. I couldn’t see any signs of the riders behind me, and even though I knew where I was, I started to wonder if I’d wandered off course or if they’d taken a shortcut (one I wished I could find).
And then? I was done. Soaked to the bone in sweat and dead last (a few riders opted out of the second lap, which I like to think works in my favor), but that infamous local racer was handing me a beer. My second split was only one minute longer than my first, and I was only 5 minutes or so behind the next rider. I had finished, and for the first time, I understood that being last can be an accomplishment.
So what did I learn about winter biking? First off, fat biking is not the dumbest sport ever and fat bike riders are badass. In snowy conditions, you’ve got to be nimble on your bike and ready to suck air because it is a workout (that said, you could also listen to the advice of those who’ve gone before and choose your first time wisely. Perhaps opt for that hard-pack snow and blue bird day).
And if you’re looking for a laugh instead of a workout, consider snow biking. I’m not sure I’m ready to ride one in the pond skim, but it’s the perfect way to goof around with your friends.
Want to try winter biking?
Snow biking: CBMR offers two-hour snow bike group lessons from 9 to 11 a.m. daily. The lesson is required in order to become certified to ride snow bikes on the mountain (snow bikers certified at another resort are not required to take the program). Snow bike licensing/group lessons are available as are full day snow bike rentals. Private lessons are also available. Reservations: 1-800-444-9236.
Fat biking: Fat biking is a do-it-yourself sport, with bike rentals available at a variety of local shops in Crested Butte and Gunnison. There are two more opportunities to jump in a fat bike race this winter: the Winter Growler at Hartman Rocks on Saturday, January 3, and the Alley Loop Fat Bike Race on February 6.