I could feel the stares as soon as we unloaded our bikes at the Big Valley trailhead about seven miles west of town.
We were heading out on the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association trails on fat bikes, the latest fad in cycling and snow sports.
Fat bikes are essentially mountain bikes with low-pressure, motorcycle-size tires that allow riders to pedal over compacted snow.
“Remember when you were a kid and you got a Big Wheel and you felt like you were invincible, like you could go anywhere?” said James DeSalvo, the association’s executive director. “That’s what you feel like when you are on a fat bike. You just bounce over curbs and pot holes and keep going.”
I understood what DeSalvo meant as soon as the four-inch wide tires on my rented orange Salsa Mukluk hit the snow. I’d never consider this on my mountain bike, but now I felt like I was floating over the snow.
Clearly we looked as interesting as I felt, because less than a mile down the groomed trail I felt the looks again. Two couples from Seattle out for a hike couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
“Want to give it a try?” said Kristen Smith, the association’s marketing director. At first they politely declined, but wanted to know more about the bikes. After awhile, Smith offered again. This time the husbands hopped on while their wives took pictures.
When they pedaled back a few minutes later, all four posed for pictures with the funny looking bikes.
“One of the guys at the bike shop says riding a fat bike right now is almost like getting your 15 minutes of fame,” DeSalvo said. “Heads are turning. People stop you to ask questions. For those few minutes you get to be a hero.”
“Hero” might be a little strong. You might look a little different, but the truth is this sport is quite easy.
“Whether you’re athletic or unathletic, if you can ride a bike, you can ride a fat bike,” DeSalvo said.
My riding partners on this unseasonably warm (about 30 degrees) morning should definitely be classified as athletic. Smith, Ed Stockard and Joe Brown all enjoy logging miles on their fat bikes.
Brown, co-owner of Methow Valley Cycle and Sport worked with the trails group to get the trail system open to fat bikes on a trial basis this winter.
He rents four bikes from his shop and says he’s ordering more because he having trouble keeping up with demand. The bikes sell for $1,700 or more.
When the bikes are returned, he says almost every customer raves about the experience.
“Your brain tells you it’s going to be one thing, then you realize you’re floating on top of the trail,” Brown said. “It’s pretty cool.”
He added, “One thing I hear a lot from people who ski is that it’s really fun to have a different experience on the same medium.”
Brown compares the fat tires to “those big squishy go-anywhere tires you see on tundra trucks in National Geographic,” and says they work well on almost any surface. Snow is most popular, but they travel over sand and rocky surfaces too.
The low tire pressure (10 pounds or less per square inch compared with about 60 psi on a mountain bike or 100 or more on a road bike) negates the need for a suspension system. Riders recommend playing with the tire pressure a bit until you find the best ride.
“If in doubt, let air out,” said Steven Mitchell, perhaps the valley’s most experienced snow rider.
Fat bikes might just now be catching on, but Mitchell has been riding on snow for 25 years.
In 1987, while he worked at a Seattle bike shop, he read an article about the Iditabike, an Alaskan bike race that followed a portion of the famous route used for the Iditarod dog sled race.
The next year he showed up with a standard mountain bike ski rigged with a ski. He needed 55 hours to cover the 200-mile course.
“But the fire was lit,” said Mitchell, who owns Winthrop’s Rocking Horse Bakery. “It was my first experience in the true wilderness without a sole around. I saw the northern lights. It wasn’t like a race. It was a real adventure.”
Mitchell ended up moving to Alaska and even organized the race in 1990 while continuing to participate.
Each year he and the riders got more and more innovative with their bikes, trying to make them travel better over the snow.
Mounting skis to the bike didn’t seem to work. Huge knobby tires didn’t work as well as ones with shallower tread.
Some started welding rims together to use wider tires only to learn the tires would come loose when the air pressure was super low. So, they started gluing the tires to the rims.
In 1991, Mitchell dropped his time to 26 hours by using a bike that had two rims welded together in the front and three in the back.
“We all learned from trial and error,” he said. “We all thought we were pioneers, but really, everybody who lived in northern climates was probably doing the same thing if they wanted to ride on the snow.”
Mitchell doesn’t expect the sport to become as popular as mountain biking (although you could argue that it’s a form of that sport), but he expects it to carve out its niche in the cycling and snow sports industries. “This fad may be less fad and more reality.”
Not everybody is excited to share the Methow Valley’s beloved Nordic trails with fat bikes.
Letters have been written to the association and the local newspaper. The primary concerns are safety and trail damage.
Some believe fat bikes go too fast to safely interact with skiers. Others believe the bikes will leave unsightly tracks on the neatly groomed trail and make the going tougher for skiers.
These concerns are why the trail group plans to evaluate fat bike usage at the end of this season.
So far, the organization likes what it sees.
As I discovered pedaling through Big Valley, the bikes aren’t as fast as you might think. The wide, low-pressure tires result in considerably more surface contact than other bikes causing the fat bikes to go slower.
“They are somewhere in between the speed of a classic skier and a skate skier,” DeSalvo said.
And as for safety, the bike seems to handle just as well on the groomed trails as they do on dry surfaces.
“With the disc brakes you have infinitely more control than a skier,” Brown said.
On warm days when trails are too soft, bikes aren’t allowed.
I found out why when Smith and I headed to Pearrygin Lake State Park, about four miles outside of Winthrop, for an afternoon ride. The trails here aren’t part of the association’s system, so fat bikes are welcome even when they aren’t permitted in other places.
At least, they’re welcome to try.
We made it about 100 feet up the trail before I sank up to my crank and toppled over. After another 100 feet or so we gave up and I pedaled back into town to swap the bike for a pair of skis.
“But when conditions are good they really don’t do any more damage to the trails than other users,” DeSalvo said.
The next morning, I decided to check this out for myself by heading out for a 4 a.m. grooming shift with trails manager Rob Seckinger.
Just before 5 a.m. the lights from the groomer caught a set of tracks left by knobby fat bike tires. Beside them, clearly deeper, were the impressions left by skate skiers.
“The bikers weren’t even supposed to be on the trail yesterday because it was so warm,” Seckinger said. “And they still left less tracks than the skaters.”
NEXT BIG THING?
The association is reminded constantly that it is on the front end of the fat biking fad.
Bike shops as far away as Wyoming have contacted Brown. Nordic trail systems in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Bend, Ore., have checked in with the Methow group, DeSalvo said.
“They’re saying people really want them to open their trails for fat bikes,” DeSalvo said. “So they’re picking our brains and wanting to know how it’s going here.”
So far, so good, DeSalvo said, although the association won’t officially call this pilot program a success until the spring when the season is over and input is collected from the community.
“I think it can be the next big thing here,” DeSalvo said.
Seckinger sees the Methow Valley carving out a reputation that could make it synonymous with fat biking.
“Like snowboarding at Mount Baker,” Seckinger said, referring to the first U.S. ski area to allow snowboarding.
“It is a lot of fun,” he said. “I hope it is here to stay.”Craig Hill’s fitness column runs Sundays. Submit questions and comments via firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/AdventureGuys. Also get more fitness coverage at blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure and thenewstribune.com/fitness.