The night before my first ride on a fat bike — a bicycle designed to ride over snow — I received a text from Craig MacDonald, an experienced cyclist from Bangor who had agreed to introduce me to the sport.
“Do you have a bike helmet?” he wrote. “We have extras if not. Dress like you would for Nordic skiing. Breathable layers. Low cut warm boots for pedaling. A fleece hat for under your helmet. Gloves not mittens. Hydration pack will be a good idea and maybe a power bar or something.”
The next morning, things didn’t start off so well. It took me 15 minutes to find my long johns, and 15 more to fish a pair of gloves out of a pile mittens. And why did all of my fleece hats have pom-poms? They’d never fit under my helmet!
Eventually, I did find a pom-pom-free hat and stuffed it in my pack with a water bottle, a granola bar and my Go-Pro camera. Needless to say, I arrived at the Paul Bunyan Snowmobile Clubhouse a tad late. But Craig and his girlfriend Sarah Hannah were understanding. They’d had a bit of a rough start, too.
Fortunately, the hectic morning ended at the clubhouse.
So I could join them on their morning ride, Craig and Sarah had borrowed a fat bike from Rose’s Bike in Orono. But instead of having me ride the loaner bike, Craig let me ride his bike, which had special 4-inch wide, studded tires that would be less likely to slip on any ice we might encounter.
After reviewing the levers for the gears and brakes with me, Craig told me to take the fat bike for a test drive.
“Don’t worry. You can’t hurt anything,” he said.
I wonder if he could tell that I was more nervous about damaging his expensive fat bike than getting hurt?
As I started pedaling, I noticed right away how flat the tires felt as they crunched over the snow and ice.
In addition to being a couple of inches wider than mountain bike tires, fat bike tires also typically have much lower tire pressure. MacDonald had set the fat bike’s tires at about 8 psi. In contrast, mountain bike tires are typically 30-50 psi and road bike tires are about 80-130 psi.
But why? I asked him.
The lower the pressure, the more the tire flattens and connects with the surface, he explained. That means better floatation and grip on soft surfaces.
I soon learned that riding a fat bike was a lot like riding a regular mountain bike, but with a bit more resistance from the snow. I also noticed that the tires slipped from time to time, and hills were a bit more difficult to climb (or maybe that was just me being a bit out of shape from too many days spent indoors this winter).
From the clubhouse, the three of us headed out on the snowmobile trails. Packed and smooth, the trails were perfect for fat biking. Sarah and MacDonald explained to me that the fat biking community’s relationship with the snowmobiling community will be very important as they work to grow fat biking in the area.
On the packed trail, the bike didn’t seem to sink at all. We barely left any tracks as we headed into the forest, across railroad tracks, along the boundary of the Bangor International Airport, across a field and back into the woods. Along the way, we paused a couple of times so I could shoot video and take photos for my article on fat biking for the BDN Outdoors, which you can now find here.
Then it was up, up, up; the hill seemed neverending. I switched down my gears, as MacDonald instructed, but I was still struggling. And right at the top of the hill, the slope became too steep — I was forced to dismount and walk my bike to the top.
Sarah was waiting for me at the top, where she talked with me about the difficulty of climbing hills. Learning when to switch gears was important for conserving energy and maintaining momentum, she explained, and we talked a little bit about “cadence,” a term used to describe how fast you’re pedaling.
From there, we continued on to an intersection by a big white pine, where we took a break before turning around.
We picked up speed as we rode down the long hill. It was odd and thrilling to move that fast over the snow, self-propelled.
By the end of the ride, I was sweaty, my toes were a bit numb, and my legs were sore. It was nice to get back into my warm car, drive home and thaw in the shower. But thinking back on the fun of the experience, I’d definitely want to do it again. As fat biking becomes more popular in Maine, I hope that more bike shops and sports stores will invest in fat bikes and make some available to rent so more people can experience what it feels like to ride a bike through a snow-filled forest.