Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…
I know it’s only October, but do you see that picture up there? The trails won’t look like that for long. Winter is coming, and it’s time to start thinking about the fatbiking.
I didn’t want to become a fatbike RIDER. Between my hardtail, single speed, road bike, and dirt jumper, there are plenty of cycling disciplines that I can be bad at. But then, last year, December came, it snowed, and a friend of mine said “Want to borrow my fatbike?”. So I did, and, in doing so, I was pulled into a world of awesome bikes with 4 inch wide tires, huge chainstays, and what can only be described as clown forks.
I didn’t want to become a fatbike RACER. 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 then the 45 NRTH Ontario Fatbike Race Series happened, and I was pulled into a world of racing bikes with 4 inch wide tires, huge chainstays, and what can only be called clown forks.
I didn’t want to become a proficient fatbike rider… And I’m not, so at least got that part right…
But there’s a reason I lack proficiency. It’s because I just don’t ride one often. And it’s no wonder why: I’m in LOVE with my hardtail, and my single speed (and I’m in LIKE with my road bike) so it’s tough to find the time to give my fatbike an honest try—especially since we’re still just getting to know each other
However, after my last blog, and in order to improve on that “lack of proficiency” for the upcoming fatbike race season (read: GET FASTER), I figured I had to reacquaint myself with my fatbike. It went something like this:
(Team Colin opens garage door and approaches his bikes)
Me: Hey fatbike, what’s up?
Fatbike: Chillin’ like a villain.
Our discussion wasn’t informative (and I wondered why my bike was talking like a teenager) so I decided to take it for a rip. I loaded it onto the Team Colin Support Vehicle, loaded my hardtail too (just because), and set off for Durham Forest in search of some magical single track.
While I was riding I thought about last year’s fatbike race series, and how I very quickly went from a guy who didn’t even own a fatbike, to a guy who raced a fatbike.
Here’s what I learned about the fatbiking:
- Plainly put, it’s different. While fatbiking in the spring, summer, and fall, is at least similar to mountain biking, it is completely different in the snow. In the same way that a road bike is different from a MTB (and in the same way their applications are so different) a fatbike on a snowy trail is even differenter. Last year, I thought I could just jump on one and book it. I was wrong. This year, I’m embracing the differences. Aww, fatbike hug.
- Traction is waaaaay better than I thought. The techie riders have tried to convince me to get studs for my fatbike, 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 never enough). Besides, one stud on a bike is enough. Hazzaah. See what I did there? Because I’m the stud. Oh, forget it.
- There are two types of fatbike riders. I’m the other type. It’s a bit like a novelty for me: fun and, well, fun. And I want to keep it that way. The fact is, I’m not willing to put in the time to get better (so I probably won’t). And while that’s not the winning spirit, it’s a fact of life. Also, it keeps things fun. Plus, I’m really good at not winning races. Stick with what you know!
- 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 trail feature; in GOOD conditions, it’s great–although I still struggle to find my 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’s cold. I need to get better-than-good gloves, and maybe even a set of pogies. A helmet liner, ear mufflers, and a neck wrap are also par for the trail. I’d like a pair of 45NRTH boots (I can’t seem to find my size) but my neoprene booties have served me just fine. Although 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 lesson my kid’s RESP fund, it’ll take away some of the fun. UPDATE: I wrote this blog in the fall. However, at the Frozen Beaver last weekend (January 28), I spent most of my race with the toes of my booties pushed up and over the toes of my cycling shoes. Booties aren’t meant for hike-a-bike hills, and the toes don’t stay in the boots when you scamper up a hill. I think I’ m going to look for a pair of winter boots that will fit the bill.
- It’s hot. While much of my body is really really cold, my goggles and glasses steamed up, my back was a swamp, my neck was a wetter swamp, and in locations where my neck or back met the cold air, ice formed. Yay. Ditto for my beard. Ice encrusted anything is kind of a drag, and it’s a constant battle between the two extremes, but it’s manageable. The key was to not cool down too much when I was too far from my car or the trailhead. I like to wear my fall/early spring kit. Between -2 and -10, I wear insulated bib pants and wool socks, with two or three layers on top: a wicking, long sleeved bottom layer, technical long sleeve, and a jersey. Gloves are a different matter. I always bring a second set in my jersey pocket. I’ve never used them, but I always have them just in case.
- Snot management. There’s lots of it. Sorry, you’ll have to figure this one out on your own.
- Ice. Water freezes below zero, and winter temperatures are typically below zero, so my water bottle is going to freeze. If I had a camelback, it would freeze too. Even an insulated water bottle will freeze, but it will take a bit longer. And while it’s true the bladder of my camel back probably won’t freeze (you know, sweaty back) the tubes will. I heard a cool tip recently. To prevent frozen tubes, after you drink, blow air back into the bladder. Not sure if it works, but it’s worth a try. It’s not great to drink cold water when you’re freezing, trying to stay warm, and sweating through your clothes—all at the same time—but you need to replenish fluids. I’ll be sure to 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. It’s probably not going to happen unless someone 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. Again, not the winning spirit, but well, whatever.
- 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, my tire pressure is still wrong, but it’s either too low or too high. I’m just not sure which it is.
Back to the things I learned:
- Cleaning and lubing: Snow takes time to melt, and while it does, the water stays on my 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.
- Train. When it’s too cold, or dark, or icy, or whatever (because that’s what Canadian winters are), spending time on my bike will keep me 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.
- Muscles get cold. Cold muscles hurt. My performance is never the same, and I always feel like I’ve got more in me, but everyone is dealing with the same issues.
And that’s what I learned about the fatbiking last year.
Last year, after a race, I posted the following: “Fatbiking is hard, like, really hard…”. And it is, but it isn’t. To the legions of fatbike riders who have adopted it as THEIR discipline, and ride one all the time, it’s easy. To those of us—LIKE ME–who adopt fatbikes only when the trails are covered in snow, it’s a bit more challenging. And although it’s not as hard as I originally thought, it’s still not as fast as my MTB. At least I can implement some of the things I learned last year, and most important, approach the sport without expectations of Olympic glory.
The thing about fatbiking for me, is that it’s still filed under N for novelty (which is why I brought my hardtail on my last fatbike ride), and I think it’ll remain a winter pursuit. It’s a novelty because I don’t ride one often; it’s a novelty because the ride is so vastly different from anything else; and it’s a novelty because, well, clown forks.
But being a novelty isn’t a bad thing. To be honest, with a 35 pound bike, my kit, a water bottle, and a few tools, I’m cranking the better part of 300 pounds up a hill. If I took it more seriously, I don’t think it’s possible for me to be much better anyway.
To make it easier, I tried to ride without clothes and a water bottle, but I kept slipping off the seat.
And I got thirsty….
Naked fatbiking probably has a place, but, you know, shrinkage.
Back to wearing clothes while riding and not getting arrested for indecent exposure. Thanks to last year’s 45NRTH Ontario Fatbike Race series, I got to race a my fatbike four times–in the dull, dark, dead of winter, and it was fantastic.
Thanks to fatbikes, the (outdoor) riding season never ended.
Thanks to the 45NRTH series, the race vibe was always just a few weeks away regardless of what month it was.
And thanks to Dan Marshall, Cycle Solutions, and Substance Projects, the race vibe wa always wicked.
Fatbiking is for everyone. Fatbiking is for you. Fatbiking is sort of for me, and as long as I keep my clothes on, it’ll be a blast this coming winter, and for many winters to come. After all, at the heart of any great ride, is the fact that riding is equal parts challenge, fitness, joy, and fun. I think my fatbike and I are going to be just fine.
PS. Here are some awesome fatbiking sesources
Click on Substance Projects 45 NRTH Ontario Fatbike Series: Race!
Check out Shikaze’s blog. He’s a real fatbike rider and an awesome racer: Steve S!
The guys at Cycle Solutions: BUY CS! and Evolution Cycles BUY EVO! can hook you up with a sweet deal. Jamie at Evolution is loving his new Norco Ihaqua fatbike. Ask him about it. UPDATE: I wrote this blog in the fall. Since then, I had a chance to demo a few pretty sweet bikes: A Norco Ithaqua 6.1 from Norco, a Trak Farley 9.9 from Cycle Solutions, and a Norco Ithaqua 6.3 from Evolution Cycles (that I raced last weekend). Each bike was a thing of beauty
Fat Bracebridge seems to be the epicenter of all things fatbiking: FBC.
Okay, maybe these next two aren’t awesome resources, but for a long read about my experiences in the last two races of the inagural 45NRTH Ontario Fatbike Race Series, check my first few blogs. Here’s a link or two.
That time I rode my fatbike in Kingston: My first blog!
That time hated my fatbike, but learned a whole bunch about it: Fat Bracebridge!
(By the way, the bike in the featured image of this post is my 2015 Norco Bigfoot 6.1. I took the shot on Ogre and Out at Durham Forest.