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Pedal to the powder: Fat bikes pushing the sport into the snow
By R. SCOTT RAPPOLD
The “Sunday Snow-cial” rides are never canceled for inclement weather, even in the dead of winter.
Neither is the New Year’s Day “Frozen Water Bottle Ride.”
“The worse the weather, the better. Seriously, if there’s good weather, we might cancel,” said ride leader Al Brody.
But it’s not just bravado or hubris against the elements that compels the Colorado Springs Cycling Club to schedule such rides in the season of snow, ice and brutal cold. In Colorado and across the northern parts of North America, a wave of new cycling gear is bringing the sport to the cold, dark days of winter.
Thanks to warmer, lighter apparel, studded tires and the latest craze, “fat” or snow bikes with balloon tires designed for snow, more cyclists than ever can safely navigate icy and snowy roads and trails.
Of course, “safely” is relative, but at least snow is gentler when you crash.
For riders, it’s about pushing the limits of their season and their skills — winter weather adds a whole new level of adversity, even to familiar trails.
“People that like bikes ... can bike year-round. It’s a different set of skills and challenges riding on snow versus dirt,” said cyclist Allen Beauchamp, outreach coordinator for the cycling club.
And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to bounce through snow on 5-inch-wide balloon tires.
“It makes me feel like I’m 5 years old,” Beauchamp said.
Except for the occasional springlike afternoon, most local cyclists hang up their spandex with the onset of winter.
“Some people just don’t do well in the cold. They’re a little stymied with the fact, ‘I want to wear my cycling clothes,’” Beauchamp said.
The cycling club used to cancel rides for winter weather. Then members discovered studded tires, which, at a cost of $50 to $100 a tire, enable regular mountain bikes to tackle most of what winter throws at Colorado Springs.
But add more than an inch or two of snow, or try to tackle snowier terrain in the high country, and even studded tires sink and chains get caught in the powder.
So Beauchamp bought a fat bike.
Fat bikes were born in Alaska a decade ago, created by adventurers for trekking the frozen land. With huge balloon tires inflated to just 5-10 psi, they were perfect for floating above the snow. Today, fat bikes are used there by park rangers, scientists, hunters and others to traverse the deep snow.
The bikes have crept into the lower 48 states in recent years, especially in regions that are typically snow-covered in winter. Leadville and ski area Copper Mountain now have winter bike races, and others are being held around the country.
(From Allen Beauchamp's Facebook page, of a recent ride at Elven Mile Reservoir. See more photos from the adventure here.)
Though they cost $1,500 to $2,000, Beauchamp likes his so much he just bought another, this one with 5-inch-wide tires.
“This is literally just snowshoeing for a bicycle. You’re effectively spreading your surface over a larger platform,” he said.
He said the bikes work best on snow that has been groomed or packed down by hikers. They’ll sink too much in unconsolidated snow.
Even then, you might be on a nice crust when your front tire will hit a soft patch and down goes your front tire. And down you go. Or you might be on a fresh couple inches of snow when your tire sinks into a frozen bootprint just under the new snow. And down you go.
When it snows, some people grab their skis or snowshoes. Beauchamp just grabs his snow bike.
“There’s something very special about a full-moon, in-the-snow ride,” he said. “It’s a very different way to ride a bike.”
Beauchamp rides his fat bike year-round. It’s great in the sand and decomposed granite found on many of the region’s trails, which is probably why the bikes have become popular among beach-riders in coastal regions.
“They just open the door of what you can ride, what is possible with a bicycle,” said Chris Wallin, co-owner of The Hub Bicycle Shop in Colorado Springs, which opened last year and specializes in fat bikes.
But there’s a downside to riding a fat bike in winter: They’re awful on the ice, so be sure you know what you’re getting into on a ride.
For Brody, it’s all about looking for a challenge.
“I think many of us look for technical challenges, the skills of riding and we build and buy better and better bikes to deal with those challenges,” he said. “You become a purist. Snow is such a challenging medium to be riding on because it changes all the time.”
But he does have a limit on how much winter he’ll take.
“Below zero degrees, I draw the line.”
Contact R. Scott Rappold:
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What you’ll need
For ice and snowy spots: Studded tires for your mountain bike, which cost $50 to $100 per tire, and a pair of fenders to keep slushy spray from coating you.
For deeper snow: A fat bike, which costs $1,500 to $2,000.
For the elements:
• Warm gloves or mittens and an inner layer, because bulky winter-sports gloves aren’t conducive to cycling.
• Winter cycling boots, or just a good winter hiking boot. Be sure you have a flat pedal.
• Wool socks.
• Ski or snowboard helmet, or a bike helmet with a good inner layer, like a Balaclava head cover.
• Lights and bright clothes if you’re anywhere near traffic, because drivers aren’t expecting cyclists in winter.
Where to ride
During or just after a snowstorm:
• New Santa Fe Trail
• Monument Valley Park
• Red Rock Canyon Open Space
• Palmer Park
• Along Sand Creek (Don’t ride during or after rainstorms as this can flash-flood.)
• The bike path along Colorado Highway 67 from Woodland Park to Manitou Lake
• High Drive, from North Cheyenne Cañon, when lower-elevation trails are melted or muddy
• The road to the Crags trailhead
• Mueller State Park