Snow biking for the uninitiated

An introduction to snow biking

For the longest time, I have considered myself to be anti-fat bike. I live at 9,100 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado in a ski town. It’s February. We have a lot of snow. Despite my location, for the past 2 winters, I have been a strong hold out of the fat bike trend. I've been riding the trails in my neighborhood on both my rigid single speed and my full suspension trail bike, on 3-4 feet of hard-packed snow. I have looked down on the fat bike as a niche, trendy, unwieldy abomination to the greater biking world.  

About a month ago, that all changed when I succumbed to the popular trend and bought a fat bike. I decided that I was tired of feeling like I was riding on a tight rope. I wanted to let loose. I wanted to stop that icky feeling that the subzero temperatures I was riding in were hurting my trail bike's suspension. 

And I've been riding my fat bike every day since.

Last Saturday night was my 4th snow bike race, the Copper Winter Bike. Like a mean stepsister, I'm always trying to sucker my friends into winter biking with me. I'll bait them with what sounds like a good time, then watch the suffering ensue. I personally find the suffer-fest to be quite enjoyable (albeit not as fun as summer riding), and I'm always delighted to find a friend who agrees. Luckily I was able to sucker Taylor, Dave and Eric into the debauchery last week. Despite no record-smashing results from any of us, we had a blast. And we made out like bandits in the raffle. We also earned that telltale metallic taste in our throats and cacophony of smoker's coughs.

Photo credit: Eddie Clark Media

Photo credit: Eddie Clark Media

So now that I have turned to the dark side, let me address some of the more common questions I field about winter biking in snowland:

1. Do I need a fat bike?
Are you training for the Iditabike? Aspiring to circumnavigate Iceland by bike in mid-winter? Desperate to be photographed by random tourists who have never seen such big wheels on a bike? If you answered no, then you probably don't need a fat bike. But you will have more confidence on the snowy trails and therefore, more fun, on a fatty. 

I recommend that if you are just getting started riding on snow, even if you live somewhere like central Alaska or Leadville, Colorado, you should get out and ride what you've got. If you are enjoying the idea of winter riding and doing a lot of it, then make the call about whether or not you ought to go fat. Its totally feasible to master the 2-wheeled drift on your usual bike, but its better on a fatty.

2. What should I expect?
Keep your expectations low. Its gonna be harder than you imagine.  Loose snow sucks tires in like quicksand. Even seasoned winter cyclists can expect to have to push their bikes from time to time.

Expect to work hard. Ever ridden a mountain bike on a sandy beach, up hill, while dressed for skiing? That's what you may feel like. But many people think that's fun. Most of us won't argue that going down slippery trails while sending up a white plume of roost is delightful. And if you do skid out and crash, the landing will be soft and refreshing, and likely accompanied by a chorus of giggles.

3. How do I convert my everyday mountain bike into a winterized, snow bike?
I seriously considered going frankenbike on my single speed by swapping out the fork and putting a fat wheel and tire on the front end. Typical trail bikes will not accommodate a fat tire. After some thought I decided I wanted gears, so I went ahead and bought my 9:zero:7. That said, there are some easy, inexpensive things you can do to your everyday driver to make it more pleasant in the snow. 

First, lock out your suspension. The snow is soft enough already.

Second, let some air out of those tires. You will want the traction, trust me. And the odds of you flatting, whether you are running tubes or tubeless, are significantly less because the terrain is toned down by all the white stuff. If you find a nice drop to hit, odds are the landing is going to be pure powder.

4. What should I wear?
Expect to get hot. A lot of women show up to shred the snowy singletrack wearing what they would go resort skiing in: insulated snow pants, Goretex jacket with down layer, possibly even a ski helmet and goggles. That is a mistake. Its true that on a cold or windy day, it might get chilly on a long decent, but ultimately, you'll be working a lot harder than you do sitting on the chairlift. I usually wear light soft shell pants, a spring windbreaker with a light wool base layer underneath, Kincos on my hands, and some Goretex running shoes. Well-ventilated eye-wear is essential. Gaiters can be nice for keeping the snow out of your shoes, if you've got em.

5. What kind of pedals should I use?
It’s totally reasonable to just ride your usual pedals, be they clipless or platforms. If you do intend to clip in, know that there is a very real chance that you are going to have to hike-a-bike at some point, and that may inactivate any chance of reuniting with your pedals. I mostly ride platforms on my fat bike. Unless its warm and sunny and we haven't had any snow in awhile, its just simpler. 

For all the year-round, die-hard cyclists out there, I strongly encourage you to embrace the craze and get out and ride your bike in the snow. If you find yourself loving it, and you want to get in deep, pull the trigger on a fat bike.

VIDA Ambassador J Leigh Bowe has bruised knees in February and lives in Summit County, Colorado. Follow her adventures here, or on her personal blog:

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