Monday, February 23, 2015

The Fat Bike Irony

The fat bike was first created out of necessity, allowing it's creators to travel across loose and unstable surfaces. Arguably the initial creation was produced to travel across sand but the true predecessor of the modern fat bike was the snow bike, build to work better than a stock MTB while riding and racing across primarily frozen and packed snowmobile trail in Alaska.

Initially, the improvements and designs took advantage of readily available parts in very creative ways. As someone who has ridding bicycles in snow my whole life I've followed the progress quite closely, though ironically only jumping into the fat biking fray last year. I can recall spending hours scouring the snow biking pioneer site, Icebike, for ideas and tips as well as the latest creations. Some of the initial snow bike modifications and designs did crazy creative things like lacing two rims to the same hub and running two tires to get the extra wide footprint. That of course required modification to the bike frame to widen the fork and stays to accommodate the extra width of the tires. Widening the stays then presented drive-train issues, issues for which parts were not readily available to fix those issues.

Along about this time, the early to mid nineties, Dan Hanebrink also produced a really wild jack shaft driven ATV tire based bike. It was made in the USA, aluminum and really cool. It was also really expensive. Belmont Wheelworks even had one on the floor along with their myriad of other exotic eye candy bike art. It didn't catch on though.

The first real game changer came when Simon Rakower produced an extra wide 44mm 26" MTB rim. Initially these were a normal rim cut down the center with a rolled aluminum hoop welded between the two halves. There were also other DH MTB rims that were wide, such as the Sun-Ringle Doublewide, but they weighed a ton. I still have one of those in the basement in fact. The challenge was then in finding tires. At that point, in the later '90's, DH MTB tires were getting wider and you were starting to see 26" x 3.0". Typically they weighed a ton though. Earlier in the '90's Specialized and Ritchey produced very wide and very light 2.5" tires that would have worked great but by the time the Snowcat rims were readily available, the tires were all but nonexistent.

The full on DH wheel and tire gave good footprint but was heavy and overbuilt and required a frame that could handle the extra width. This meant an overbuilt, heavy, freeride or DH hard-tail which was in existence at the time (early '00's) but carried a huge weight penalty and also had size restrictions. Being gravity based and not really designed to pedal in an XC situation, they were on the small side and I could never get one that fit me. The closest I got was a Surly Instigator with Sun-Ringle Rhyno XL and Tioga 2.3" tires that measured to a solid 2.5". I also had a Stratos FR-4 double-crown fork on it making it a 36# steel beast. It worked, not great, for many reasons. Heavy and only marginally better than a lightweight XC bike with 2.1" tires was the main reason.

Another part of the problem was that where we rode in the winter, in suburban MA, the only packed trail we would get to ride was parked by foot traffic and quickly went from too soft to packed to ice. Historically, winters were not as long and consistent as we've had the past few years. Thaw and freeze would often yield hard-pack, post-holed trail and lots of ice. That necessitated the use of studded tires and so for years and years, winter riding meant finding places packed to the point of being able to ride with XC bikes and 2.1" studded MTB tires.

When fat bikes first hit the mass production market with the Surly Pugsley, it was novel for sure. One friend jumped onboard and bought one and I recall on the first ride together, he hit a patch of snow covered ice and wiped out hard. The rest of us on our studded MTBs were fine. In terms of increased trail access with the Pugsley, it was very minimal. Literally there were few situations where the Pugsley would go when a normal MTB would not. That and the fact that we had lots of other winter passions such as skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling sealed the fate and we never considered purchasing the fat bike.

Last year, with the fat bike phenomenon in full bloom, Cathy and I sold the sleds, decided to spend the winter in Maine and bought a pair of entry level Charge Cooker Maxi fat bikes. We spent the winter riding our local snowmobile trails, which were by and large in excellent condition. The winter, despite having ample snow, was spaced such that the trail surface was usually firm and great for riding. Other than one race at Moose Brook in NH, we didn't really venture off the machine groomed snowmobile trail. We had a  good thing going so why bother. We also wanted no part of riding fat bikes on dirt. IMHO, they suck on dirt. They are slow and bulky and don't work nearly as well as the MTB that I already have in the basement. Personally, I think the whole dirt thing is just a marketing ploy to sell more redundant while inferior bikes to unsuspecting and naive people. Let me also say though that if you live in a snowy or sandy climate and plan to ride all year and can have only one bike, sure, a fat bike is a viable solution, albeit as cumbersome as carrying around a 36 tool Swiss Army knife in your pocket.

This year we bought new Borealis Yampa full carbon-fiber bikes and again decided to spend the winter in Maine. We were stoked for another stellar winter adventure that we wished would never end. Then reality sat in. This winter was a little bit different than last. We started out great with us seeking out the snow and finding well packed despite low snow, conditions perfect for the fat bike. We had some great rides. We did the Moose Brook race again and the conditions were even better than last year. It was shaping up to be a great, albeit on the colder than normal, winter.

And then it started snowing and it hasn't really stopped since. We have gotten consistent snow multiple times weekly for the past month and half. The temperatures have remained well below freezing consistently and the snow has all been in the fork of fluffy powder. Because we have thew machine groomed snowmobile trails we've been able to ride but each and every ride for the past month has been hard going. By hard going I mean soft enough that you sink in and leave tracks, unlike much of the real hard-pack we saw last last winter where you never broke the surface of the snow. The result has been an endless myriad of rides working hard to go 8mph. Those miles wear on you, like the wet spring road miles into the constant, omnipresent headwind.

Last week Cathy and I did a little experimenting with manually packing snow using snowshoes. I'd never really tried it for fat bikes before, especially with loose powder conditions. As kids, we used snowshoes and snowmobiles to try and pack trails to ride our BMX bikes on. We'd also done it, unsuccessfully in most cases, years back for normal MTBs. Problem was that unless you packed wet snow which then refroze, the normal MTB just cut through and roto-tilled it. Fat bikes should be better though, so we gave it a shot. We used the age old "stamp-packing" technique with snowshoes, where you literally stamp your foot on each step to compact the snow as best you can. We also overlapped steps taking only half steps such that the snowshoe contacted the same piece of trail twice, in an overlapping pattern. Cathy then followed behind me overlapping tracks and further packing the trail. On the corners, technical sections and hills we packed the trail out wider, double the width and we triple packed it, out, back, and then out again.

The next day after a deep freeze overnight we went back and successfully rode 90% of what we had packed just the day before. This was very encouraging but also exposed limitations. If the trail is packed too narrow (two snowshoe width or ~20") in powder conditions such as we have, eventually someone rides off the packed track. This convexly rounds the narrow packed trail off running the risk of sending all who follow off into the soft powder. The net was that trail needed to be wider and if at all possible, concavely cupped to encourage people to ride in the center of the trail while also making it easier to do so. We packed trail out to three snowshoe width (about 30" wide) and four plus in the corners. To help smooth and cup the trail I had the idea of towing an old auto tire around. It worked great and provided some concave cup to the trail. It was also a killer workout. The next day after another super cold evening, we successfully rode all but three turns of one small section of very tight and twisty uphill single-track. I created a video of some of this trail that documents the details as well at the end.

This is very promising and after a weekend of riding suburban foot traffic packed trails, I'm amazed at how effective the method can be, even with less than ideal snow conditions. The key is simply getting the required traffic over the trails and packing it into a usable surface. We are by far not the only ones who understand this or are successfully packing trail. Local fat bike groups have been working hard to pack local trail but face the all too familiar problem of not having the volunteer manpower to do the job of maintaining the trail, despite more than ample numbers of people looking to ride those trails.

This year with the onslaught of fat bike purchases but what would appear to be folks who have never ridden bikes in snow before and as such, have no idea as to their realistic limitations, we have seen much griping, much head scratching and much race cancellation. Yes, because fat bikes were this past holiday season's Tele-Tubbies gift, and racing bikes is the best excuse ever for middle age people to drink beer, we had no less than a half dozen races pop up. Unfortunately, reality eventually sank in after a couple of those races on ill prepared courses quickly turned from riding your fat bike on snow to pushing your fat bike through snow. Meanwhile as this brutal winter progressed, all of those spiffy new fat bikes were left sitting in the basement collecting dust while their owners were on their roof shoveling three feet of snow and chipping away at the endless ice dams.

So where does this leave us? I guess my point is that if we look at why fat bikes came into being, it was to fulfill an existing need, that need being the ability to more effectively ride on the snow covered snowmobile trail that already existed. In taking fat bikes mainstream we have sort of put the cart before the horse. Many areas, such as metro Boston, don't have existing snowmobile trails and by and large, don't get the required foot traffic packing of trail in many public areas.

That is not to say that there is no place to ride. We have been riding bicycles off road in the winter in this area for years. There are still places to ride, you just need to explore and seek them out. Go to the places that get the most use by other user groups. If you can stomach the endless dog poop baggies left lying by the trail, go to where people walk their dogs, on public land. That is always one of the first places packed to rideable. We can leverage the side effects of other user groups to allow us to ride, as long as we respect those groups. Packed foot and snowshoe trail is all good when it is hard enough to bear traffic but riding in XC ski track is bad form. Don't eff it up for others.

Still, other areas like Vermont do have the snowmobile trails already in existence, which are machine groomed for the sleds. Unfortunately, VAST (the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers) has blanket banned fat bike use on all of it's trail unless they are on public land or you have explicit landowner permission. That is perfectly fair as VAST and more, the local clubs, do all of the work and secure access to the trails on private land. Still, it is unfortunate. I expect other states to take a stance one way or another in the very near future as well. Luckily for us, our snowmobile club has multi-use permission for the trails they maintain and the club is very receptive to club members using their on fat bikes.

We also made the trek to Kingdom Trails for the first time in the winter, this season. It was a whole lot of fun and they are doing a great job of grooming the trail. That will become a staple for us in the future I'm guessing, once the camp is winterized and good to go next year. 

Anyhow, this winter has been tough for all of us. It is ironic how there has been too much snow to ride snow bikes but that isn't an uncommon theme. Same thing happens with snowmobiles in certain situations. If you get a huge storm of heavier weight snow, an average snowmobile will just bury itself and get stuck. Sure, specific mountain sleds with super long tracks with huge paddles and tons of power in the right hands will go in anything but and average rider on an average sled will get stuck quickly riding off a packed trail in deep snow conditions. Imagine digging a 500# sled with 100# of fuel and 100# of snow stuck inside the track out of a 3' deep hole. You haven't lived until you've done that a few times on a ride. In ways, the fat bike is a much more versatile tool as when the trail becomes impassable, we can always bail out to the road.


In closing out this rambling post which is part history, part reminiscing, part bitching, part glorification and part suggestion, I've been riding snow for a long time. The progression and adoption of fat biking by the masses and the blossoming and subsequent collapse of a race scene for said fat bikes has presented challenges, most of which were simply challenges to the expectations of new owners and promoters. Simply put you have two options if you want to ride in the snow. You can go to where the snow is packed enough to ride or you can put in the relatively large amount of effort, some of which I tried to quantify, to pack the trail to ride. No, that already packed area is not necessarily going to be where you ride MTB on dirt as these places are too vast and too remote to receive the traffic. Think lots of user traffic packing the trail down to the point where it becomes rideable. Dog walkers are by and large the largest winter user group.

For racing, why not leverage areas that are already packed down for use by other user groups. I'm thinking ski areas. Many Nordic areas are embracing fat biking as a way to draw more people to the area. They are also starting to rent fat bikes. In Bethel Maine alone we have two different Nordic areas that not only allow fat biking on at least some of their trails but also rent fat bikes. Smaller Alpine areas are also jumping into the fat biking fray and I'm betting it won't be long before we see lift service and gravity based trail systems at some of them.

2 comments:

BAILEY smith said...
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SALMA said...

Biking in winter is thrilling and adventurous but safety is also require at same time, thanks for sharing this great tips.read more etc