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Fat Bikes

Just a few years ago, bikes with huge tires appeared. At first, they seemed like an amusing oddity. Now more and more cyclists are jumping onto Fat Bikes to go ride on the snow.

And you'll find that, during the summer, these bikes are great for riding sandy loose trails because they don't "dig in and die." They float over the sand.

Shane Horton turns off the Silver Lake Flat road to ride down to the lake itself. Mount Timpanogos fills the background.

What exactly is a Fat Bike?

A "fat bike" is specifically made to use wide tires, 4 to 5 inches in diameter. The big tire makes the difference, floating on top of hard-pack snow rather than cutting into it.

The front fork, chainstays and seatstays must be wide enough to clear the tire. This requires a special frame.

Because these big tires use very low pressure, the bike doesn't need shock absorbers for riding on smooth packed snow. So most fat bikes are sold with a rigid frame and fork as seen in the photo above. 

But as these bikes have gained popularity for desert riding, models are appearing with front shocks for riding sand-and-sandstone trails. A front shock absorber also dampens the "bounce" on post-holed hard-packed snow trails. This lets you stay in better control. It's especially helpful on bouncy narrow downhill singletrack where high trail sidewalls will grab you if you get off-line. But both the bike and its price will be more weighty.

My Rocky Mountain Blizzard -50. Love this bike.

Where can I ride a Fat Bike?

You can ride a fat bike on compacted snow. Snow that's hard enough to support your feet will usually support a fat bike.

For example, mountain roads that are closed during the winter (but are open to snowmobiles) will pack down enough to ride a fat bike on them.

December 28, 2013. In American Fork Canyon, riders wait for the rest of the group to catch up.

Well-tromped singletrack is another good destination for a fat bike. This is a lot tougher than the groomed hardpack of a mountain road. Singletrack should probably wait until you and the bike know each other.

Looking down some bumpy singletrack near Granite Flat. The challenge is to avoid "bobble" as you ride. You need to stay in the middle of the trail so your feet and front tire don't graze the snow on the side.

When is the best time to ride?
The best time of day is early morning. The frozen snow has great traction. And you'll avoid most of the ATVs and snowmobiles, which tend to show up later in the day.

The morning sun is just hitting Timpanogos as we climb up the snow-packed Alpine Loop Road. Temperature: 11 degrees. Snowmobiles: None. Hikers: 5 in 90 minutes of riding.

The best days to ride are the worst days down in the valley -- a few days into an inversion when the smog gets deep. The mountain air is pristine. The sun lets you see the snow details (and the scenery). And the hiking boots and snowshoes and snowmobiles will have packed the snow down nicely.

Mike hits the Alpine Loop Summit Parking area. Now it's time to ride Ridge 157 northbound. Down in the valley, it's ugly with dense fog.

How do I get myself on a Fat Bike?

The easiest way to try out this sport is with a rental.'s Lehi store not only offers fat bikes for rent, we have group rides where you and your bike are delivered right to the snow.

A winter group ride assembles in the parking area at Tibble Fork reservoir.

If you're just dabbling and aren't ready to commit to winter riding, you can simply wear snow boots and use a platform pedal.

Most of us like clipless pedals because it increases our climbing efficiency. Let the bike store know what type of pedal you want to ride. To keep ice from clogging your pedal, it's best to use a pedal with no platform such as Eggbeater or X-pedo.

Your bike carrier can usually fit a fat bike, but it may need a little help. For example, the ratchet-strap on the rear-wheel cup may not be long enough to go around the rim and into the ratchet mechanism. A tie-down strap secures the rear wheel.

Sounds COLD. How do I prepare?
Fat biking is not as cold as you'd think. You'll be working up a sweat soon enough. But you need to pay attention to your ears, hands, and feet. These can get frostbite even when the rest of you is dripping sweat.

Some riders like bar mitts. Bar mitts fit onto your handlebar, protecting your hands from the wind. With bar mitts, you can usually use your standard full-finger riding gloves. But you won't be as quick getting your hands out to catch yourself when you fall. Bar mitts should wait until you're experienced.

You can buy winter cycling gloves. But if you're just trying out snow riding, go with ski gloves. Use fingered gloves, not mittens. (You need to work the shifter.)

Some bikers insert disposable chemical thermal packs into the gloves for super-cold windy rides.

If your feet are uncomfortable, you won't enjoy your ride. Once you become a fanatic winter rider, you can spend a fortune for winter riding boots. But for your first rides, you'll want something that gets you by.

Even if you always ride with clipless pedals during the summer, consider making your first ride with standard winter boots on platform pedals. Toasty warm, as well as saving you the trouble of clipping in.

Even if your shoes are waterproof, wet snow can splash up your leg and trickle into your socks. A sock sleeve made of waterproof fiber is worth the money. Use this as your outer layer, over your wool riding socks, before putting on your shoes.

A foam shoe cover lets you ride with your summer biking shoes and cleats. These shoe covers are fairly inexpensive. This one has a zipper to close it on the back, with a hole in the bottom for the cleat.

And you can stick a disposable heat pack between the top of your biking shoe and the shoe cover. Ooh, nice warm toes!

Using clipless pedals on your fat bike? Here's a tip that serves
two purposes: foot warmth plus reduced icing on your cleats.
Take an old foil survival blanket or mylar ballon. (Plain tin foil
will do, but only for a ride or two -- it falls apart.) Pull out the
insole of your shoe. Cut two insole-shaped mylar inserts per side.

Insert the two mylar insoles into the shoe under your standard insole.
The double shiny layers reflect heat. Your foot stays warmer.  But
also important, not as much warmth makes it to your clipless
cleat. So you're less likely to have snow melt -- then turn to ice
on your cleat. The snow "knocks off" and lets you clip in.

A thin beanie cap will cover your ears and keep your scalp warm. Yes, you'll look like a dork, especially if it raises your helmet up in the air. Some riders combine a thin cloth head-cover with an ear band. This makes a better fit than a thick beanie cap.

Bruce tries to ram a snug racing helmet down over a knit beanie cap.

Multiple thin layers work best. Rummage through your ski and cycling clothing and put something together that gives you at least three layers on your core. For colder temperatures, add more layers.

Mike Engberson opens a layer to cool off. His outer layer is already in his backpack.

Other hints...

You'll need just as much fluid as for a summer ride. I often come home soaking wet from my own sweat. But remember that water freezes. Here are some things I've learned: 
(1) If you're using a Camelbak, always blow backwards into the hose to clear it after you take a drink. Otherwise the hose becomes a long ice cube that's impossible to clear.
(2) For short rides I like to simply use a bottle -- no struggling with a backpack over heavy clothing. The tilt of the frame holder keeps air at the valve. I only half-close the valve so I've never had a problem with a bottle freezing closed.
(3) Liquids with electrolytes and sugar are less likely to freeze, and if they do freeze are "slushier" so you can clear the bottle opening or the Camelbak valve.

If you ride clipless, you'll get snow on your cleats when you touch down or walk around. If that snow turns to ice around your cleat, you may not be able to clip back in. (See the advice above about foil shoe-liners to reduce warmth in the cleat area.) I like to carry a stubby screwdriver in my jersey pocket. If a cleat ices over, I just pull out the screwdriver and dig the ice away. No need to get into my tool kit.

Losing things in the snow!
Speaking of tools, eventually you'll have to fix something during a winter ride. Your summer habits may cause you to lose something important. Take off your outer coat and lay it on the snow as your "parts worktable." If the snow has a slope, dent the center of the coat into the snow so nothing will roll or slide off. Everything -- glasses, gloves, tools, valve cap, bike parts -- goes onto the coat as you work.

Favorite snow-biking spots!

Experienced riders will head for singletrack trails. It's more fun, challenging, and a harder workout.

In Park City, Round Valley offers groomed and/or packed routes with plenty of fat bikes on the trails. This can be a good choice as you start hitting singletrack, because there's not a lot of vertical. Multiple trail options means you can tailor your ride to your leg strength, available time, and the conditions.

The American Fork Canyon singletrack is a popular destination, and it's better than ever:  For example, ride Ridge 157 from the Alpine Loop Summit, descend Pine Hollow or take the Salander Flat trail (GWT) back to roadway. Another option is Provo Canyon's North Fork:  Climb from Sundance to Alpine Loop Summit then descend the Lame Horse singletrack.

In Corner Canyon, some trails are groomed for winter riding. Canyon Hollow, for example, is regularly smoothed for bikes (winter 2015-2016). The eastern trails (such as Rattlesnake) are good before the sun hits them. 

Bruce descends the singletrack of Pine Hollow.

For beginners, there's packed-down roadway above the winter-closure gates in American Fork Canyon:  From Tibble Fork there's Silver Lake Flat road or North Fork road. From Pine Hollow, ride the Alpine Loop road to the summit.

Another good snowpacked roadway is Butterfield Canyon on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Note that, last time I checked, bikes weren't allowed beyond the gates in Mill Creek, as the snow there is groomed specifically for cross-country skiing. They don't want you to rut their groove.

1100 vertical feet of climbing completed. Hanging out before descending the Silver Lake Flat road.

 Horse Flat is a popular "suncrust" riding area during the late winter!

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