For decades, Minnesotans who love to play outside in the winter have had a quartet of choices: snowmobiling, ice fishing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Now, a formerly summer-only sport of rolling on trails continues to capture the attention of winter enthusiasts. Some local parks and trails where they are allowed are filled with fatbike riders playing in the snow.
The fatbike has become of a means of exploration in areas (like the Minnesota River bottoms, frozen lakes and other wilderness areas) that just aren't doable in warmer months. With some thoughtful gear decisions, fatbikes perform on deep snow, groomed snow, ice-coated trails and for everyday commuting.
"It's an exciting time for fatbikes. Winter is finally here and we've got lots of snowy trails to ride, and the market overall is very good," said Kurt Stafki, marketing manager at Otso Cycles in Burnsville. "Locally, trail networks are grooming fatbike trails just as they groom cross-country ski trails. The number of local races every year has been steadily increasing as well. Many established cross-country ski races have added fatbike races to their schedule of events, such as Birkebeiner, City of Lakes Loppet, and Vasaloppet."
Like every sport, fatbiking has its own culture, personality, performance characteristics, apparel choices and unique quirks. The learning curve from beginner to comfortable rider isn't too steep, especially if you follow the tips suggested by a group of committed, experienced fatbike ambassadors, like the ones to follow:
Dress in what works
Minnesotans who spend anytime outside understand the concept of layering. The best way to stay warm is to move moisture away from your body and shield yourself from the wind. Fatbike enthusiasts have eclectic clothing collections. Some are comfortable in a pair of brown canvas Carhartt bibs and traditional Sorel boots. Every rider learns what works best through trial and error. That "what works best" clothing list changes day by day with the weather conditions. Plan to experiment with different configurations of boots, gloves, hats and jackets until you find an outfit that works best for you.
Bruce Martens, cycling director, The Loppet: "Keep your tips warm. That's your toes, your fingers and your ears. If you keep those areas warm you will have a positive experience. Those body parts get cold first, prohibiting someone from having an optimal experience. If you can get in the right gear, that's half the battle right there."
Chris Rourke, Angry Catfish Bike Shop and Coffee Bar: "I have a pair of gloves for below zero, another pair for 15 to 30 degrees, and another for anything from 30 to 50 degrees. If you experiment you will stay warm and comfortable outside for a long time."
Risa Hustad, account manager, Minneapolis resident and fatbike commuter: "I have a backup plan and use a backpack or frame bag to carry extra socks or a jacket. If you get too hot or too cold you have options."
Venturing outside on a cold day can be a test of willpower. The first few minutes of riding can be cold and call into question why you are outside at all when there's a warm couch and good book inside. It's easier to say "No, I'm not riding today" to yourself than a group of friends all suffering through the same decision. Check the trail conditions, find the trail system that is the right fit for the group and send out the rider rendezvous message. The Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists website (morcmtb.org) offers helpful, timely trail condition reports for 13 local parks and nature centers. If you are looking for people to ride with, there are hundreds of organized group rides. Check out mnbiketrailnavigator.blogspot.com for a list of rides, locations, skill levels and other details.
Martens: "Everything's better in groups. This is a great opportunity to explore the outdoors with other people. There's always smiles and it's generally a joyous experience. If you're planning on getting out, find somebody to go ride with. It's always better with buddies.
Rourke: "When the temperatures are below zero, everybody's in it together. People share ways to embrace the cold and make it fun. Finding people to ride with is really comforting."
Stephanie Johnson, president, Bloomington Off-Road Cycling Alliance: "People are very welcoming. If there is a slower rider, a group of riders will take breaks and stop every so often and wait for everybody to catch up. If someone has a mechanical problem, there's always help. Don't forget to let people know where you are going. If you are late because of a mechanical issue or getting lost, they'll know where to start looking for you."
Managing the air in your car tires is fill-and-forget. On the other end of the spectrum, experienced fatbike riders will often adjust fatbike tire pressure up or down, even stopping during a ride to add or release air from their tires. With the fat-tire range of 3-12 psi, new riders are amazed at the difference a few pounds of pressure can make. Lower pressures provide more traction on slippery, icy trails by creating a larger contact surface between the tire and the ice."
Kirsten Powers, marketing coordinator for promotions and branding, The Hub Co-Op: "It's like learning to wax classic cross-country skis. If you're going to be mostly on a hard surface, going to go toward the higher end of the tire pressure range. If you're in deeper loose snow conditions then you're going to go a little bit lower because that's going to give you more surface area and traction.
Stafki: "Tire pressure is also important. Riding on hard-packed snow is good with 7-8 psi, while you can go as low as 3-4 psi for softer trails. Because snow comes hand-in-hand with ice, studded tires are also popular. When selecting tires, determine what kind of trails you'll be riding and whether those trails are groomed or not. It's quite common for cyclists to have multiple tires and wheel sets to swap out based on riding conditions."
Powers: "If you decide to go run over a curb, you probably won't even feel it on a fat tire, and that translates to when you get into trail riding because you can pop over rocks in the same way a Jeep Wrangler can climb the side of a mountain. That's exactly what a fatbike is designed to do."
A fatbike's wide tires offer increased traction on soft and groomed snow. When the surface is icy, a pair of studded tires can be your best friend. Far wider than road or mountain bike tires, fat tires feature patterns of deep lugs. On studded tires, carbide studs are embedded in the lugs. When the tire is pressed against an icy surface, the studs can significantly improve traction. A pair of studded tires start at around $200. Bike shops also offer less expensive easy to install do-it-yourself stud kits that start at $45.
Martens: "Depending on the conditions, one set of tires may not work all year round. Last year the trails were icy and people with studded tires were still able to ride.
Stafki: "Even the snowiest of trails can have icy patches. Studded tires allow you to ride safer and get out more often."
Chris Chavie, blogger, MN Bike Trail Navigator: "When the sun softens up the snow in the afternoon you're definitely going to want to drop your tire pressure. On icy trails without studded tires your chances of crashing are pretty good. I recommend investing in a pair of studded tires. It's a great investment and it gives you confidence in all conditions."
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer from Richfield.