Feb 1, 2013
This guest blog post was written by Dave Chenault and first appeared on his blog, Bedrock & Paradox.
The author, Dave Chenault, heads out on a ride
According to presenters from QBP this weekend at the second annual Fat Bike Summit, there are around 10,000 fat bikes out in the world today. They expect that number to double in the next twelve months. Where will they be used? What is the future of fatbiking?
The organizers and presenting sponsors of the summit, Salsa and Surly, are betting that it will become a significant alternative to nordic skiing, and a destination activity. Will Island Park and West Yellowstone, with their hundreds of miles of snowmachine trails, become the Moab of fatbiking? Only time will tell, but the answer is not going to evolve in a vacuum.
Dave checks out Jason Boucher's custom painted Salsa.
I was on the fence about hauling down to the summit until Casey made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a free ride and good companionship. I left town after work on Wednesday and did what has become too rare lately, made a relaxed multi-hour drive out of town. These days, Missoula, with all its traffic and culture, brings about culture shock in a hurry. I met a friend I hadn’t seen in far too long for the best pizza in Montana, and had some outstanding local gin to cap everything off. Casey and I got organized and on the road mid-morning for a bluebird day of 75 mph highway driving and polymathic gear chatting. Continuing the theme, we stopped in Dillon, hit up the Patagonia outlet, the Safeway Starbucks for (really good) espresso, and were soon over the continental divide, into Idaho and a ceiling of low-slung clouds. We made our way to Mac’s house in the Teton Valley (he invented the GDMBR), and spent the evening listening to the first human to ski the Grand Teton play the banjo in the fashion of small hardware poured slowly down polished wooden stairs.
The next day, Friday, was the first day of the summit, and it was snowing. The roads up north were icy, and the interface between hills and sky was subtle and blank before we crossed the Henry’s Fork and climbed up into the pine forests. Suddenly fat flakes were falling and the banks along the highway were piled six feet high. Towns that embrace winter as native, and count feet of snow as commonplace are increasingly rare in the lower 48 outside steep mountains. Between the funnel of the Snake River plain bringing Pacific storms safely west, and the gentle but massive, indeed positively orographic uplift of the Yellowstone Plateau, snow is never in short supply. The comparison to Moab, insofar as uniquely precious landscapes are bound together by what they evoke in the human eye, is a correct one.
The Friday Summit
The whole weekend was very well organized, but the rapid-fire presentations Friday morning were the best. I’ll just say that in the world of mental health conferences, presentees don’t stick to their time slots very well, so this was a pleasant contrast.
Fatbike access, at least over snow, is a curious creature. Once the snow piles up, fat bikes are limited to well-packed surfaces, which under all but extraordinary conditions means snowmobile trails or trails groomed for skate skiing. Fat bikes are thus beholden to potentially hostile user groups until more places gain a critical mass of bikers and start bike-specific grooming programs. There are three primary concerns here, each given over to a certain user group: Land and ski area managers worry about safety, snowmobilers worry about cost sharing (their registration often pays for the grooming), and skiers worry about fat bikes rutting up their trails.
The summit organizers had compelling answers to all of these. A representative from Grand Targhee discussed how they’ve successfully integrated fatbikes on their nordic trails by having them ride opposite of skiers and restricting biking on days when conditions are too soft. IMBA and QBP representatives had several examples from Washington and Minnesota of areas where skiers and bikers have coexisted well with only modest changes to existing rules. The Teton valley crew have created a sticker program for fatbikes, in essence a voluntary donation buys you a sticker to put on your bike, and the money is donated specifically to the grooming program. Snowmobilers do not own trails on public land, but they’re a big enough force that being neighborly is especially worthwhile.
District rangers from all the national forest around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were in attendance, including a person from the Yellowstone NPS. The Wyoming and Idaho rangers reported that, by and large, the integration of fat bikes onto the most extensive network of snowmobile trails in the lower 48 has been very smooth. In Montana we have a problem; language in the winter travel plan, built before fatbikes existed, prohibits wheeled vehicle travel on designated snowmobile trails. So trails you could legally ride in the summer are currently illegal in the winter. This was not mendacious or even intentional, but highlights the importance of proactive advocacy. Mountain bikes are excluded from wilderness not by the Wilderness Act itself, but by a district-level interpretation which was promulgated in the mid-80s, and has, by weight of seniority, become entrenched. Fat bikes, not yet especially popular or understood, risk such unexamined exclusion.
Jannine Fitzgerald racing, with her son Braden along for the ride.
The best defense is a good offense, or at least a good PR campaign, which raises awareness and makes visceral understanding more likely. To this end, Surly and Salsa were on hand with demo bikes, and many fatbikes got ridden by some unlikely locals and passers-by. The visual novelty of fatbikes is undeniable: when Greg, Aaron (from Surly and QBP), and I were having lunch on Saturday, a good half-dozen folks stopped to take pictures of the three fatbikes stuck in the snowbank in front of the bar. The more I think about it, the more this might be the big draw for fatbikes; for someone starting from nothing with human-powered oversnow travel, fatbiking is a lot easier to learn than nordic skiing. Most people know how to ride a bike, and having brakes is nice the first time out.
I took the opportunity after the race Saturday morning to use the demo fleet and perform an investigation into frames, rims, and tires. I was able to ride my Mukluk (Big Fat Larry tires on Marge rims) back to back to back with Pugsleys, Moonlanders, Mukluks, both aluminum and titanium, and a prototype Beargrease. I rode everything from 3.8 Knards on Marge lites (Greg’s bike), to BFLs on Clownshoes, and almost everything in between. The only tires not on offer were Bud and Lou, and the studded 45Nrth.
Acknowledging that it’s pretty hard to compare things if components (especially bar width and stem length) vary widely, I was struck by how (on the soft snowmachine trails) everything except rim width made little difference. The Muks, Pugs, and Moonlander all rode pretty much the same, and all the tread patterns gripped and slid at about the same point. Variations in float were quite subtle. What was not subtle at all was how much better the wider rims tracked and steered. In the squishy, warm, tracked out snow I was able to turn more sharply and with more control on the Moonlander (BFLs, Clownshoes) than on my own bike. Case closed; if all I rode was snow I’d need some fat rims ASAP. The Beargrease, which Joe Meiser rode as a proto last year, was the only frame that felt different. It was built with an experimental press-fit BB and Middleburn crank, and a good spread of light and fancy components. After riding it, I’m convinced that the only thing I’d change about my current frame would be to make the BB stiffer. Otherwise, my 2011 Muk held up well by comparison. I particularly like the longer headtube, which was shortened considerably on all the subsequent generations.
Jay Petervary (3rd from right) leads a snowy group ride Sunday morning
The most enjoyable part of the weekend was not the learning, or the riding (soft conditions cancelled the long race on Saturday, and I was content to bail and watch the trout and muskrats with Greg and Aaron), but meeting quality, like-minded people, and turning many internet friends into real-life ones. Getting a rare Salsa Ti spork from Jason was pretty cool too, as was the copious standing around, malarkey-ing, and beer drinking each afternoon and evening.
Mac McCoy of Adventure Cycling Association, and Jason Boucher of QBP, ride past the headwaters of the Henry's Fork just outside Yellowstone National Park
Halfway through the weekend I was unconvinced that, for all their joy and novelty, I’d make a habit of fatbiking on snow. The window of opportunity for ungroomed riding is fairly small in the west, and I’m not so keen on being around snowmobiles for the same reason I don’t ride the road very often: they’re loud. In the end it was Jay who convinced me. The ultimate goal of fatbike advocacy in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is having Yellowstone National Park opened to fatbikes, some of the complexities of which I discussed here. Jay and I discussed this, and how he got turned around while on a fatbike tour in the park many years ago (no doubt putting fat bikes on their radar for the first time). The compelling comment was that, were the park open for fat bikes, he could do a huge loop from his house, encircling the Tetons and go through the heart of some of the most significant landscape in America. It could be skied, but while snowmobiles still exist, a fat bike is the most efficient way to do this. And that is something worth fighting for.
All photos by Adventure Cycling Association Cartographer Casey Greene.
BIKEPACKER is written by Casey Greene and Paul Hansbarger, Adventure Cycling staff, part-time adventure seekers and gear nerds alike. This post was authored by Dave Chenault of Bedrock & Paradox and BackpackingLight.