Fat bikes offer a different kind of thrill on the snow.
When compared to a road bike, fat-tire mountain bikes look massive, clunky, and perhaps better suited to children than adults. Their wheels are huge—four or five inches thick, and cushy—and their frames are oddly proportioned. When you see them in a shop, hanging next to sleek, classic Raleighs, they look a little like someone invited a monster truck to a classic car show.
But then, you see them in the snow—and you get it.
When the temperature drops below freezing and many Mainers are huddled indoors, groups of dedicated mountain bikers take to the trails. Their bikes’ big black tires make handy work of the snow, coasting along over icy trails, sending up white spray in their wake.
“I like to stay active in the winter,” explains architect Rick Nelson, who has been mountain biking since 1996, and winter riding since 2001. “I used to go out on a single-speed mountain bike with the widest tires I could find. It worked, but it was suboptimal.” The new wave of fat-tire bikes, he says, has made it so “biking-crazed guys like me can ride constantly,” no matter the weather.
“When these bikes first came out, everyone was like, ‘What is this weird fad?’” recalls Brian Danz, president of the Greater Portland Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). Despite some initial trepidation, he says, fat biking has “totally been blowing up in terms of popularity.” The voluminous tires can be ridden on low pressure, which means they won’t sink into soft conditions like snow or sand, he explains. Plus, the width of the tires redistributes the rider’s weight, much like how a snowshoe spreads out your footprint, making it easier to travel on shifting surfaces. This is a serious advantage in a state like Maine, where, as the old joke goes, we have just two true seasons: winter and August.
These radical two-wheelers find plenty of use on the hundreds of miles of trails within a short driving distance of Portland, which makes it easy for winter riders to head out for a quick cruise after work. (Bikers often praise Bradbury Mountain’s winding trails, but for short jaunts, city riders also like the Fore River Sanctuary and the Sebago to the Sea trail, which runs through much of suburban Portland.) “Gear-wise, it’s not all that different from summer,” says Nelson, “except you need to have warmer clothes. I bring a backpack with food, water, and a down coat—just in case something happens and I need to put it on to stay warm.” Since fat-tire cyclists can share their trails with snowmobiles, and darkness comes early, two other crucial pieces of winter gear are a headlamp and “some blinky lights to make sure you don’t get run over,” he says.
“Snowmobilers have been working with the state for years to develop a system of private land registration,” says Danz. This allows snowmobile riders to use trails that aren’t owned by the state or the town, but rather by individual landowners who don’t mind opening up their woods to recreational usage. Thanks to Danz’s diplomatic skills and work at NEMBA, winter mountain bikers have been able to start sharing the trails with snowmobilers and skiers.
NEMBA has grown to the point where schools and towns are reaching out for help designing and constructing trails on public land. “We have funds we can use, which we get through events and memberships, to help with trail building. Let’s say the town of Cape Elizabeth wants to put a bridge on a property—they can hit us up for that. We’ll bring out volunteers, and we’ll help build it,” Danz says.
In early 2016, the town of Westbrook contacted NEMBA to help manage a parcel of land off Bridge Street called the Westbrook City Forest. In 2015, the town had acquired an additional 30 acres for public use, bringing the total area up to 117 acres. Town officials had $30,000 allotted for improving the land, and they wanted to make the most of their money. “They created a consortium of people to come together, including the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, another organization that is doing a lot to promote mountain biking. Together we’re going to work to make multiuse trails,” Danz says. The project will also include increasing access to parking, cleaning up existing trails, and erecting a kiosk near the trailhead.
More trails means more places for fat-tire bikers to ride, and more bikers riding means more events and opportunities for weekend warriors to band together. “The calendar of races is exploding right now,” Nelson says. But for everyday riding, not much can beat a well-packed snowmobile trail—particularly for beginning fat bikers. “In the winter, it’s dangerous to be riding on the roads,” says Nelson. “Snowbanks make them so narrow, and you don’t have that much room. Riding on a snowmobile trail is a lot like going on a road ride, but in a way cooler location.”
Architect Kevin Browne, who has been mountain biking for years, adds that snowmobile trails offer another benefit: speed. “When you’re mountain biking in the summer you can usually get up to around six or seven miles per hour, depending on terrain,” he explains. But if conditions are right, if you have well-packed snow, wide trails, and an icy base, fat bikers can go as fast as 15 miles per hour on snowmobile trails. Browne frequently rides near his office in Falmouth, as well as on the snowmobile trails in Yarmouth and on the trails in Cape Elizabeth’s Robinson Woods. “Snowmobile trails can take you to places you normally would never get to see,” he says. “When it’s below freezing and the conditions are perfect, and the trail is wide and smooth, you can go so fast, you almost feel like you’re on a rollercoaster.” Heart pumping and tires churning—what better way is there to get a cold-weather adrenaline rush?