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Fatbiking 101: Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow…

November 14, 2016
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We live in Canada. For cyclists, that means 4 or 5 months under a blanket of snow, on our butts eating shortbreads and roast beast, and off our bikes.

But thanks to fatbikes (you know, 4 inch wide tires, huge chainstays, and what can only be called clown forks…) I’m going to hit the trails again this winter.

I only started winter fatbiking last year. Really, between a busy family, and an already full winter of tobogganing with my kids, riding in the warm confines of Joyride 150, and packing on winter weight, I had no desire to jam my fingers and toes into layers of protective neoprene, Gore Tex, and polar fleece. But a friend said he’d loan me his fatbike, and there I found myself, on January 27th, at the first race in the 45HRTH Ontario Fatbike Series.

I figured I’d get on my newly acquired clown bike and book it. I was wrong, so epically wrong. The race started and within the time it takes to say “Hey Team Colin, you’re a moron” I realized I was about to get schooled in the way of the fatbike–quickly.

Trial by snowflake.

I learned a lot that day, I didn’t get good, but I learned a bunch of lessons, and since it was the first of four races, I had plenty of opportunity for more learning.

And here, in no particular order, is what I learned about fatbiking last year.

Welcome to Team Colin’s Fatbike School!

It. Is. Fun.

Prepare yourself, because riding a fatbike in the snow is a blast. Everything on a bike is more fun, and fatbiking in the snow is no exception. However, see the next point.

It Ain’t MTB

Plainly put, fatbiking is different. While riding a fatbike in the spring, summer, and fall, is at least similar to riding a mountain bike, when it snows, it’s even differenter. The 45NRTH race, Fat Bracebridge, was a particular wealth of experience, and I almost swore off the sport. This year, I’m embracing the differences. Aww, fatbike hug. And seriously, how could I ever turn my back on my bike.

Traction

Surprisingly, traction in the snow is waaaaay better than I thought. The techie riders use tire studs, and while I’m sure they’re great, I’ve been riding without them, and I just don’t feel the need to shell our a few hundred bucks for a few sets (because one set isn’t ever enough). Besides, Team Colin is enough stud for one bike. See what I did there (…because I’m the stud…oh, forget it)? Honestly, try riding studs, and, if you want better performance, put them on. Just remember, get 2 or 3 sets.

Race Face

Racing a fatbike is different from riding a fatbike. When you ride a fatbike in the snow, it’s fun. When you race a fatbike in the snow, it’s still fun, but you have to work a lot harder, and when you get cold, or encrusted in ice, you can’t stop. Really, there are two types of fatbike riders. I’m the other type. It’s fun, and I want to keep it that way.

Clip In

Clipless pedals or platforms? Clip in. When your pedals become encased in ice, they are no longer considered pedals. Wear booties or cycling boots, and you won’t slip off your pedals. Take my advice and clip in. For newbies, welcome to cycling! Now, get a pair of Shimanos, some cycling shoes (or boots), and clip in. All the fears that new riders have about clipping in (EVERYBODY else had them too) won’t actually happen: when you fall, your shoes will unclip; and if you lose your balance and want to unclip quickly, one whip of your foot and you’re out.

The Fat on Skinny

The general riding skill required to ride a fatbike in the snow can be pretty demanding: in bad conditions, trying to stay on the trail is like riding a long skinny feature; in good conditions, it’s a bit easier, but still a struggle to find a line; and in perfect conditions, well, perfect conditions are perfectly impossible to anticipate, create, or plan for. Snow melts, snow becomes ice, snow melts and then becomes ice within minutes. So I don’t even try to anticipate the conditions, but I prepare to adapt because they will—probably several times throughout a race. Like any great love, sometimes the snow will love me, sometimes it won’t. I can live with that.

It Snot Warm

See what I did there. You’re riding in the winter and It’s going to be cold. Better than good gloves, and maybe even a set of pogies will do the trick. A helmet liner, ear mufflers, and a neck wrap are also necessary. I’d like to get a pair of 45NRTH boots (although I can’t seem to find my size) but my neoprene booties have served me just fine. I’ve also seen many racers just wear cycling shoes, and they seem to survive. While it’s always cool to have a reason to buy new bike stuff, crushing my pocket book will not only reduce my kid’s RESP fund, it’ll take away some of the fun.

It Snot Cold

Well, it’s cold outside, but underneath your clothes, your body will be hot. My glasses and goggles steam up, my back becomes a swamp, my neck becomes a wetter swamp, and in locations where my neck or back met the cold air, ice formed. Yay. Ditto for my beard. Ice encrusted on anything is kind of a drag, and it’s a constant battle between the two extremes, but it’s manageable. The key is to layer clothes, not cool down too much when you’re too far from your car or the trailhead, and be prepared.

Snot

Snot management is key. There’s lots of it. Sorry, you’ll have to figure this one out on your own.

Icedration

Listen to your Grade Six Science teacher. Water freezes below zero. And in the winter, temperatures are typically below zero, so your water bottle is going to freeze. You’re lucky if you have a camelback, because it won’t freeze, but the supply lines will. Even an insulated water bottle will freeze, but it will take a bit longer. Also, drinking cold water when you’re freezing, trying to stay warm, and sweating through your clothes—all at the same time—is weird. Bring a thermos of warmth for after the race. Nothing like a hot cup of cocoa with my fatbike bae. I wonder if it likes marshmallows…

Passing

When you want to pass, do like the Lady Said In Frozen–let it go. In some conditions, unless you’re in the lead, passing probably won’t happen easily unless the rider ahead of you veers off course. Everybody struggles with the narrow single track, and everybody wants to pick up time on the very limited double track—which is also pretty narrow. Be patient, because your time will come, but it likely won’t be on the single track. And if you’re riding behind Team Colin, ease up on him. He’s an awful fatbike rider and deserves your pity, not your scorn.

Under Pressure

Tire pressure and PSI. Whatever I think my tire pressure should be. It should always be lower. When I think it’s too low, it should probably still be lower. On a side note, the above PSI recommendation is for riding a fatbike in the snow. In the other three seasons, your tire pressure is still wrong, but it’s either too low or too high.

Fatbike Maintenance

When you love your fatbike the way I do, you’re going to need some lube. Wait, did that sound weird? Snow takes time to melt, and while it does, the water stays on the bike for longer. Water turns to rust. Rust turns to “Damnit, why is my drivetrain so rusty…”. Team Colin promises to brush the snow off his fatbike after a ride, dry his fatbike when he gets home, and keep the chain lubed. Finish Line Wet Lube (for Extreme Weather Conditions) is good, but it’s gloopy, and shifting is a touch slower. Which reminds me, I have to degrease my chain.

Choo Choo

Train. When it’s too cold, or dark, or icy, or whatever (because that’s what Canadian winters are), spending time on a bike will keep us fit, happy, and ready to ride some more. I go to Joyride 150 for some sweet training rips as often as I can. When I’m there, I ride the skinnies, so that when the trails are slush, and I have to keep my wheels in long rut, it’ll be easier.

Gear It Up

This is the best part of fatbiking: It’s a great excuse to buy some new gear. Going to a bike shop is always the best. You need new things in order to fatbike. New gear, new clothes, new stuff.

But you don’t have to. At the end of the day, you have to be comfortable with any purchases that you make. If you over spend, it’s not fun, and if it’s not fun, you won’t do it. Fatbiking can be a blast this coming winter, but if you lay a bunch of cash on a bike shop’s counter, you’re going to resent. Sorry bike shops, it had to be said.

And finally…

Don’t Lick Anything

Unless your bike is carbon (you lucky devil) you can’t lick it. If you do, your tongue will freeze to it. If you didn’t learn your lesson when Molly Smitherman dared you to lick the fence in Grade Two, learn it now. Don’t lick your bike.

And that’s what I learned about the fatbiking last year. School is out.

At the heart of any great ride, is the fact that riding is equal parts challenge, fitness, joy, and fun. And thanks to last year’s 45NRTH Ontario Fatbike Race series, I got to experience all of those things—sometimes in the same breath–as I cursed, cussed, and carried my fatbike, around a race course, in the dull dark, depths of winter.

This year, the outdoor riding season won’t end, and the race vibe will always just a few weeks away. And with the sport gaining popularity, we’re sure to have better maintained trails, more people sharing our passion, and a a whole lotta fat this winter.

Ride

2016 2 Snophy Air

“The Time Ted Made Me Fly” courtesy of Ted Anderton (Apex Race Photograhy). It was taken at the Kingston Snophy fatbike race, at MTB Kingston, on February 6, 2016. Ted was snapping pictures at the bottom of a jumpline. His head was turned when I hit the second jump, so I squealed a “Wheeee” to get his attention. He turned in time to see me gap the jump, and nail some sweet air. Awesome.

And so what if I landed with a thump, unclipped, and staggered like a drunken hamster. He didn’t take a picture of that part, so it doesn’t exist. Boom.

My name is Colin. I'm 44. I'm a father, teacher, husband, and rider. I race my Norco Revolver 9.1, or my single speed Cannondale Trail SL as often as I can. The podium is out of reach for me, but that's okay because I'm the happiest of Clydesdales (250 pounds, and that's okay too). I also write a blog (teamcolinblog.wordpress.com).

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1 Comments

  1. Great article Colin. I agree with everything, but have one comment about clipping in. For racers, it is probably a must. For recreational riding of most levels, flat pedals offer the advantage of being able to use everything from a light hiking shoe to a very well insulated boot. I have 3 weights of gloves and poguies for when it gets really cold for the hands, and I use the same thinking for the feet. 2 sets of hiking shoes and two sets of boots. Again this is all for non racers. If you are racing and really pushing for a couple of hours or more your gear has to be better whether shoes or layers. If not racing you can get away with all kinds of non-bike specific gear and layers. It can get pricey if you go for all that at once and the bike.
    I have a carbon bike and it never occurred to me to lick it 🙂

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