When I moved to Crested Butte last year, I had ambitions of getting back into ski mountaineering after a five-year hiatus, and also of making backcountry skiing a bigger part of my life again. I used to ski every chance I got. There is nothing like going into the mountains under your own power, with only the things you need on your back, and enjoying the beauty and solitude of the mountains under their quiet blanket of snow. Not to mention the thrilling adventure of climbing a steep ribbon of snow up a mountain face with cliff walls on either side, and flying through bottomless powder that at times makes it hard to breathe.
Last winter, two things happened: 1) I had shoulder surgery and couldn't use my left arm for much, for the majority of the winter and 2) I realized that access to the bigger mountains around Crested Butte can be long and difficult, as town happens to be literally at the end of the road in the winter, and a lot of the access involves a long road approach. I don't have a snowmobile and have no plans to get one, as I think they are noisy, stinky, expensive to maintain, a really big anchor (I prefer to keep life simple so I can pick up and go whenever I want) and bad for the environment. Now, I don't think badly of people who do use them- I am bad for the environment in many of my own ways. This is just not one of them.
So, seeing as how I am not going to be purchasing a snowmobile in the foreseeable future, I spent last winter scheming about how I could access the mountains while at the same time still maintaining the value I see in quiet travel, and maybe making it to my destination a little quicker than just walking. Fat biking seemed like a natural choice for me- I can access my winter playground while getting in some base miles in training for mountain bike season. Plus bikes are fun, and I love riding them. So... why not?
This winter I was lucky enough to land a sponsorship from Fatback Bikes, a company out of Alaska that is on the cutting edge of fat bike technology. This is ALL they do- and they do it well. They sent me a Corvus, their new full carbon fatbike. With a SRAM XO1 buildup and an upgrade in tires the bike weighs in at just under 28 lbs. The Corvus is an awesome bike- it handles really well in the snow, it's responsive, and it definitely can get me places that my regular 29er mountain bike cannot. I've had the bike for a couple of weeks now, and I've been learning a ton about how fat bikes work and what their capabilities are. As it turns out, it's a whole different animal than regular mountain biking!
Here are a few basic things about fat biking I learned through Ride #1, which happened to be the local Winter Growler race at Hartman Rocks in Gunnison:
1. Pogies are ESSENTIAL if you're living/riding in winter. It is regularly below zero here, and I've ridden in the thickest ski mittens I have and still frozen my hands off. A pair of these Dogwood Designs pogies did the trick nicely- now I can ride in the same gloves that I use for backcountry skinning. (Score one for using the same equipment for bike/ski). Check out this great article from Bikepackers Magazine on pogie options, as well as heaps of other great info about using bikes for long-distance travel in winter or summer.
2. I ride in heavy winter boots, and I like it that way. For one, I am not going to shell out $350 for winter cycling boots. Knowing my feet, they would still not be warm enough. I've been curious, but that would be a really expensive "test run." Also, I have learned that when you are fatbiking in a snowy place like the Gunnison Valley, chances are you are going to end up hiking and pushing your bike through some deep snow. Fat bikes float great over well packed and even moderately packed terrain, depending on tire size, but they are not skis. I've spent multiple rides already, while experimenting with what my bike can do, getting a little overambitious and ending up wallowing through deep snow. Because my winter boots come up to my knees, my feet stay dry and warm no matter what I'm riding or pushing through. They also stay warm when I'm riding in -20 degree temps. (Yes, that happens here- regularly.)
3. Tires make a HUGE difference! My bike came with a set of Maxxis tires that probably would have been great for snowy road riding, but again the snow is deep, soft, and plentiful here, and I could tell midway through the first lap during the Winter Growler race that they were not the right tool for the job. So I upgraded. I am running a 45Nrth Dilinger (5") in the front and a Surly Nate (3.8") in the rear. Both have great grip, and the Dilinger especially is very floaty. At some point I may put one in the rear... we'll see. Massive thanks to Rock n' Roll Sports for setting me up with these tires.
4. Riding a bike in the snow exposes your weaknesses, leaves little room for error, and makes you a much better rider. When you are riding off road and have a very narrow track on which to ride, you can't slip off the track or you'll end up buried in the deep snow. Then, getting back on is VERY difficult. On my first ride in the Winter Growler race there was maybe a 6" strip of snow that was packed enough to ride on, and I kept getting distracted and slipping off to the side, and then getting frustrated when I couldn't get back on and had to spend time postholing through the deep snow while pushing my bike along the track- especially when I saw other people riding it with no trouble! I was very glad I was wearing my tall snow boots. Since then, I have learned to really keep my focus on where I want to go (the trail ahead of me), not getting distracted, and at times moving slowly enough that my tires don't slip, like on steeper climbs. I'm also getting better at staying loose and letting the bike move around underneath me, especially on steep downhills where there is loose snow, maybe ruts from skis, variable conditions, and a narrow track. Just like on a mountain bike but even more so, it is really important to stay relaxed and balanced over the bike while it dances around underneath you, and staying calm if you feel the wheels start to slip or go off the track.
Yesterday, I did a trial run with my bike and current bag system plus my ski touring and mountaineering equipment. I headed up one of the roads heading north out of Crested Butte to access some ski terrain that most people take snowmobiles to. It was a super fun day, somewhat hilarious, and I learned heaps about what works well in my current system and what I need to change. Stay tuned for another post about the adventure of learning to travel in the winter by bike!