Rick Hackett loved to ride his mountain bike. And there was a time, nearly five years ago, when he was resigned to being able to enjoy the sport for only a few months out of the year.
A short season was sort of a fact of life in Colorado for lovers of the outdoors. Those who love to hike the 14ers only had a few months as well, as did elk hunters or skiers and snowboarders.
And then he discovered fat biking four years ago. Now there is no biking season.
“It’s been a game changer for me,” said Hackett, 50, who works in public information for the Boulder County land use department and lives in Longmont. “Now I can go year-round. I used to love snowboarding. But I’d rather go fat biking. There’s no traffic and no crowds. It’s just me and my friends in the woods.”
Fat biking may be the fastest-growing winter sport of the last five years both among avid mountain bikers such as Hackett and others looking for something to do in the winter other than spending $600 on a ski pass. Here are a few things that will help you get started:
• It’s just like regular mountain biking, but with fatter tires.
Fat biking began around 2007, when the Pugsley came out with comparably huge tires, said Jim Simons, 47, a resident of Winter Park and an avid biker. The Pug wasn’t a good bike back then, as it was heavy and didn’t grip the snow well, Simons said. Other models followed, and the sport changed for good in 2014, when bigger manufactures saw the potential and came out with light frames and big tires on the geometry of a regular mountain bike. Simons believes the Fatboy Crave made it possible for most to have fun, but other models exist now.
• However, there is a learning curve.
You could make a comparison between skiing and snowboarding, although the differences aren’t quite that far apart.
“When you crash in the snow, it’s softer, so it’s easier,” Hackett said. “But it’s not an easy sport to just pick up. There is a learning curve. I’ve had folks try it out and give up.” That’s because …
• The best fat biking conditions are the worst for skiing.
Those same people, like many who love snow, thought a good powder day would naturally be perfect. Nope, Hackett said. Fat bikers need to wait for that powder to get pounded down by hikers and skiers.
“If it dumps, you can’t ride in it,” Hackett said. “You need a packed surface. The best trails are those groomed by feet. The more people on it, the more trails get groomed. It’s great for us.”
• There’s lots of help out there.
Many bike shops now rent fat bikes and are happy to show you how to use them, Hackett said, and there are lots of groups on Facebook, including Front Range Fattys, to direct you to the best trails. Nearly every mountain town has a group full of people willing to help.
You probably want to start by renting, and many of the Fatty members (it’s the group’s name; we aren’t commenting on their weight) recommended Dave Chase at Redstone Cyclery in Lyons because he’s also a rider and busy advocate for fat bikes who coordinates weekly group rides and events and even helps groom trails.
But there are other places as well, including Evergreen Bicycle Outfitters, Alpha Bicycle Company (with locations in Centennial and Littleton) and Pedal Bike Shop, also in Littleton.
Many Fattys didn’t want to name specific places other than Chase’s place, so there are probably many others out there, Hackett said. These places are also good places to buy, and many will let you try out models for at least 24 hours.
“Most good bike shops that carry mountain bikes also carry fat bikes,” Hackett said.
• The bikes aren’t fat. It’s the tires that are hefty.
The bikes aren’t much different than mountain bikes, so you’re probably safe telling the store your bike size. However, the tires are HUGE, and that can surprise you and be a tight fit in your car. You need a big SUV, a truck or a rack that can handle a fat bike, said Sandra Marticio, a member of Fattys.
“They often get the bike to the parking lot and go, ‘Oh, crap. How am I gonna get this thing to the trailhead?’ ” Marticio said.
• Wear winter gear.
Fat biking can be cold — it’s mostly a winter sport, after all — and it can be tricky to dress for it, given that bikers tend to get hot when they’re climbing hills and cold when they’re screaming down them. Clothes you wear for skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing tend to work well.
Winter dressing means wearing layers. Basically, you want your clothes to be sweat-wicking against the skin with wind-resistant shells on the top. Whatever you wear in between depends on the weather and your comfort level.
“There are clothing companies and bike manufacturers making fat-bike-specific clothing,” Hackett said, “but I find that’s too warm for our steep trails. They seem to be made for colder Midwest conditions.”
It seems funny in this modern age to say “women can also do this,” but there are special considerations for women, including (usually unjustified) fears of being left in the dust by the male riders, and so there are special rides available for women. Chix Ride is a good group to seek out if you are a woman and have some interest in trying the sport, Marticio said. Contact Ann Oliveria at email@example.com. There’s also a Front Range Fatty’s page for women on Facebook.
• Speaking of trails … .
Hackett and a group of friends traveled around the state a couple of years ago to ride fat biking trails, and while they found a lot of good ones, some of the best exist around the Front Range, including many in Longmont and Boulder. He also said difficult mountain bike trails, even the most technical, can be a lot tamer in the winter with a good coat of snow over them.
Hackett’s favorites include the Buchanan Pass Trail in Boulder County and the Waldrop and Snowshoe trails at Brainard Lake. Others include the Mud Lake Mountain Bike trail in Nederland, Staunton State Park, which has groomed trails, and many areas in Winter Park.
• Like snowboarding, it’s taken some time, but it’s starting to gain some mainstream acceptance.
That’s why people like Simons want to see hikers, snowshoers and, yes, even skiers working together. He believes one group benefits another. But not everyone sees it that way.
“The cross-country ski community is an older community, and there’s a strong contingent in that community that is anti-bike,” Simons said. “But we tend to like the single-track solitude of the winter woods, and most single-track goes unused in the winter.”
Simons admits the older bikes made ruts in the snow, but the newer models, the ones used by the bulk of the fat bikers, don’t do that. The motto in Winter Park among fat bikers is to “leave a flat track.”
“If everyone follows that, that eliminates user conflicts,” Simons said.
Even the hardcore mountain bikers have embraced fat biking as their winter sport. Ty Hall owns the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center nearby Ski Cooper, and has held winter mountain-biking races for fun. The center just celebrated its 18th year of those races, so Hall was on the forefront of winter biking, something he prides himself on. Those races attracted as few as 15 bikers when they began. Now, the race attracts more than 200 riders, and nearly all of them use fat bikes.
“It’s amazing how much faster you can do on those,” Hall said, “and how much you can cruise on them.”
• Fat biking offers the kind of solitude you won’t find at the ski resorts.
Ski towns are beginning to embrace fat biking as another way to draw visitors. In fact, people are incorporating yurts and other overnight locations into their fat biking trails. Instead of ski or snowshoeing trips, people are taking fat biking trips now.
“It’s amazing how many people come to our Nordic center to ski, and then they go fat biking in the afternoon,” Hall said. “It’s not just a different way to enjoy cycling. It’s another way to enjoy the snow.”
But you can find that solitude even in places that seem overrun with people, such as the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, where people pack the trails in all seasons, especially the summer. Hackett enjoys riding with his friends on Tuesday nights.
“There are times when there’s not a single car in the parking lot,” Hackett said, “and it feels like we have the entire wilderness to ourselves. I feel all this gratitude. I just feel like ‘wow.’ And you can’t get that with skiing.”