By Wendy Sweet
My first fatbike ride was in January 2014, but I didn’t fall with the sport and buy my own fatbike until January 2019. I’ll share what I did wrong and what I didn’t know so you don’t have to miss out on 5 years of fun.
Where to Ride
My first ride was a Borealis demo ride at Marshall Mesa in Boulder in 2014. It was one of those typical warm and dry years and we rode mostly on dirt. I was terribly underwhelmed, I didn’t love the fatbike style (which some people do and ride year round on them, it’s certainly a personal preference) and I couldn’t understand why I’d want a new bike to do what my regular mountain bike does.
Take-away: Boulder trails under 8,500 feet in elevation are inconsistent at best in winter. They often are dry or packed enough to ride on 2.3” tires all winter long. The window of good fatbiking is often short before the trails get too packed or turn icy or muddy. Real, consistent snow fatbiking happens up high. If you don’t think you’ll be hitting up trails along the Peak to Peak Hwy. often, you may not need a fatbike to enjoy winter riding.
For my next ride, I waited until there was a big dump of 10+ inches and then rented a fatbike from Boulder Cycle Sport to head back out to Marshall Mesa. We floundered around for less than 2 miles and then called it quits. We learned the second rule of fatbiking the hard way – fatbikes don’t magically float on powder. Whether you are down in Boulder or travel to the high country, you generally need packed snow conditions for snow riding. It usually takes 1-2 days for skiers and snowshoers to get to a trail and pack it down enough for fatbikes to ride. If you want to earn karma points, be that snowshoer!
Take-away: Conditions matter! Follow the general rule of waiting 1-2 days before riding if it’s snowed more than 4-inches and find out trail information on Front Range Fattys or BMA’s trail conditions page.
After 2 disappointing rides down low, I was excited to try fatbiking at Brainard Lake. Our group went the day after a wind storm and conditions were deep and drifty. We rode 3 miles in 90 minutes and much of the ride was spent falling over into 5-foot deep snowdrifts along the trail. The ride was a whole lot of squeeze for hardly any juice.
Take-away: In hindsight, the snow was probably not so deep that much of the trail would have been rideable, but we were running too high of a tire pressure. Of all the equipment and adjustments you can make on a fatbike, none are so important as the tires and lowering your air pressure.
– For backcountry non-groomed riding you want as big of tires as possible. BMA recommends at least 3.8” wide, but 4.5” – 4.8” is the sweet spot.
– Tire pressure is ridiculously low. I start out at 5 psi and then drop, sometimes as low as 1 psi. If you are slipping or leaving a rut, it’s time to air down!
– Not all fatbike tires are created equal! You’ll want a tire that has snow traction and rubber that handles cold well. I run Surly 4.8” Bud & Lou’s but there are other brands and models that work great too. Running tubeless also helps you run very low pressure so you won’t get a pinch flat if there’s the occasional rock. Tubeless fatbike setup is more challenging than standard mountain bike tubeless setup but worth the trouble (and a possible visit to a bike shop).
– You don’t need studded tires. Fatbike tires do come in studded varieties but aren’t very useful for packed snow riding. The ice you do encounter will be small patches and studs aren’t worth the extra weight they add to an already heavy bike.
I finally fell in love with fatbiking in December 2018 when 2 experienced fatbiker friends took me out for a ride at Peaceful Valley in good conditions. Here was the magic – a snow covered flow trail in a beautiful forest that my regular bike couldn’t do. I committed to the sport, bought a fatbike and have been riding and learning more ever since.
Take-aways: It took a bit of experimentation to figure out my bike (I replaced the Bontrager tires with Bud & Lou’s and got a dropper post), my gear (I started out in my snowboard outerwear and was getting way too hot. Now I ride in fatbike specific pants and a base layer and wool or tech jacket). I learned that CamelBak bladder hoses and water bottles can freeze, so instead I carry an insulated bottle on my bike that I fill with hot tap water and another bottle in my CamelBak insulated bladder pocket that I switch out when needed. And of course learning where and when to ride.