Fat Biking 101

It seems that over the course of the past year especially, fat biking has become one of the hottest sectors in the bicycle business. Though the bikes themselves have been around for more than a decade in mass production, it seems that only recently have they really caught on. People who once exclaimed “not for me”, myself included, have gotten bikes and been smitten by the two wheeled winter adventure that they open up.

Charge Cooker Maxi

Last year, my wife and I purchased a pair of Charge Cooker Maxi fat bikes from Chris at the Bikeway Source in Bedford. Charge is owned by the parent company of Cannondale, Dorel, so as a Cannondale dealer, Chris was able to get the bikes for us. The Charge are and good quality steel framed bike with solid and reliable mid level components. They were a great introduction into the market space without completely breaking the bank. After all, we were not sure how we would like the discipline and didn’t want to spend too much trying it out.

As luck would have it, last year was a banner snow year. We had the luxury of spending much of the winter in Western Maine where the snowmobile trails were abundant with access literally just down the street. We quickly grew to love the adventure of being out in the frigid winter nights with nary another sole in sight. We loved it so much that we rode literally every day last winter and spent over 100 hours on the bikes exploring over a thousand miles. One thing that became quickly clear was that when riding in the dead of winter, at night, in a northern climate, normal cycling clothing is inadequate. As a long time year round cyclist I’m used to riding in the cold weather. That said, cold weather riding in MA was usually in the upper teens at a minimum. Now imagine starting your ride in falling temperatures that start out at ten degrees colder than that. We very frequently rode in the single digits and did ride that never made it above zero.

45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD

We found that the biggest challenge was keeping the hands and feet warm. To those ends, when it was really cold we resorted to heavy, expedition weight mittens and thin wool liner gloves. Sure, the hands got moist and using the controls with mittens on was a challenge but so was trying to do anything with frozen hands. On warmer days we would wear insulated ski gloves, which afford a bit more dexterity and control at the expense of some warmth. We also always carried spare mittens when doing colder or longer rides, just in case.

On the feet, we used winter SPD cycling shoes with neoprene over boots. These worked pretty well, for a certain length of time and to a certain temperature level. Below about 15 degrees you only had a couple of hours before your feet would get cold from the moisture buildup. Chemical warmers helped stave off the cold as well so we often used them. This year, we have gone to the 45NRTH Wolvhammer SPD winter boots (which run small IMHO so I ordered two sizes bigger than normal). Luckily Chris was able to get some into the shop for us before they sold out for the season. They are the top end for warmth when it comes to SPD compatible cycling boots. We are looking very forward to using them.

In terms of other clothing, we were fans of Nordic wind-front ski pants from Salomon with suspenders and bib shorts with leg warmer underneath rather than cycling tights. The nice thing about the pants was that the cuff went over the top of boot, which helped keep the warmth in and from escaping. In turn, I felt that my feet stayed warmer as well as my legs. Up top I used a myriad of different layers and materials. In the super cold we wore down sweaters outside with a long sleeve wicking base and a breathable thermal layering mid. When it was warmer we went a wind-vest over a long sleeve wicking base and a heavy breathable thermal layering mid. Also, whenever we went on longer rides we went prepared for the worst. This meant carrying a hooded packable down jacket, a thick winter hat and/or balaclava and extra mittens. If something went wrong when you were even a few miles out it takes no time at all to go from hot and sweaty to hypothermic. Where we often rode, there was no cell reception so we were on our own.

Borealis Yampa X-0/X-9

This season we have bumped up the game on many front. I’ve already mentioned the boots. Additionally, we are trying some new designs and materials for outerwear. On top, we are going to use a hybrid jacket for cooler rides. These have thermal insulated fronts with lighter, breathable stretch arms, back and hood. For ultra cold we are switching from down to man made lightweight insulation. Hopefully these will be less susceptible to degradation and pack-out from moisture. We  are getting some heavier gauntlet style gloves as well with the hopes of retaining some of the dexterity. As a note, we tried pogies/bar-mitts but felt confined and never felt they provided the warmth we’d hoped for. On the bottom we are stocking up on more wind front active-wear with suspenders, so they stay up and down expose in the tail.

One other thing to consider is hydration. When it is below freezing, keeping your drink from freezing is a challenge. Clearly bottles don’t work. The best luck that we have had is to use a minimalist Camelback worn under your outerwear, such that your body heat keeps it from freezing. Obviously, the hose needs to stay inside as well less it freeze and render the liquid somewhat useless for all intents and purposes.

Oh, I almost forgot. We also upgraded the bikes as well. We had so much fun last season that we jumped in with both feet, convincing Chris and the Bikeway Source to become the areas only Borealis Fat Bikes dealer. We bought a pair of the X-0/X-9 Yampa, a full carbon-fiber frameset with a very respectable parts spec. We opted for a 2×10 with double front chainrings for the range they offered. We ride some very diverse trails that have some incredibly steep sections that require low end, steady torque to maintain traction. On the same ride there are often long, fast downhill sections where I feared an adequately low one-by would spin out. My guess is that the weight saving alone, nearly ten pounds, is going to make the bikes feel like they can fly.

As you can imagine, we are very much looking forward to the winter months. If you are thinking about getting into fat biking, stop by the shop and see Chris. He usually has some bikes sitting on the floor, though this time of year, they are going out the door quickly.