Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How's that fat bike working out for ya?

It used to be that cyclists lamented the snow and skiers got all giddy. These lines of demarcation are getting a bit blurred now. Many mountain bikers are picking up "fat bikes," bicycles with super wide tires for riding in snow.  Apparently, the fat bike Kool-Aid tastes even better than the singlespeed Kool-Aid from many years ago, as the fat bike tipping point came quicker and market saturation will be reached sooner.

I owned a Surly Pugsley for a year or so.  I'd probably still own it if the wide Q-factor didn't muck with my knees so badly. I rode the Pugsley very little on non-snowy terrain. I did get out in powder and snowmobile trails several times. My experience led me to conclude that there is a fairly narrow range of conditions where only a fat bike will work. Deep new powder, no bike works. Hard packed trails, a regular mountain bike works. These conditions represent conditions most likely to be encountered over the course of a season. In between these two, a fat bike often may marginally work, with intensive effort and focus on keep it going. Best bet for fat bike riding is on snowmobile and groomed cross-country ski trails.

So I got to thinking. Would I rather skinny ski or fat bike on snow? I started considering the pro's and con's of each activity. There are many points to consider.

Pay to Play

Generally, most mountain bikers don't pay to ride their bikes on trails. There are a couple popular fee based areas in New England, such as Kingdom Trails and Millstone. But there is a good chance most mountain bikers have free trails close to their home. Skate skiers usually have to pay a trail fee to ski, especially in the northeast. It costs money to groom trails with equipment. Skiers most likely have to drive to groomed trail systems too. In the Midwest, where I'm originally from, there are many free places to ski. Tax dollars are often used to groom trails, no different than say plowing streets.

14" total at the state line. Is that fat bikeable?

So how do singletrack trails for fat bikes get groomed? Mostly by hikers and snowshoers. Fat bikers form a big contingent of this group, anxious to get their favorite trail packed down enough to ride after a big snow dump. So what happens when a second big snow dump comes along before your trail becomes packed enough? You keep packing! I've never snowshoed, but I have no doubt it is great exercise. Mountain bikers are building creative human powered grooming equipment too, like the converted dolly below. Anything that gets people moving outside is fine in my book.

The Bully's groomer. I'd be wrecked pulling that one mile in 14" of snow. But I'm no Bully.

Cost of Entry

At first, fat bikes were relatively cheap. They used steel frames and little was done to trim weight. Then they started catching on, with a whole market building up around them. You can now buy carbon and titanium fat bikes at well over $5000. Cost of entry is much lower though. There are entry level models for under $1000. A comparable level skate ski setup (skis, bindings and poles) will run you about $400. Top of the line race skis run about $600-700 with bindings.


Fat bikes entail no more maintenance that other bicycles, unless you ride them on salty roads. Then maintenance sky rockets. Riding on snow is usually quite clean. Skiing can be low maintenance too, but avid skiers obsess over waxing. They may wax every time going out on skis, choosing the optimal wax for the conditions. This is imperative for classic technique skiers that don't use waxless skis, but less imperative for skate skiers. I do wax my skis after a long ski session. It does increase the enjoyment factor if you have better glide. The difference can be more pronounced than riding in soft grass vs. pavement. For casual skiing and training, inexpensive paraffin waxes are used. It may take 20 minutes to wax a pair.


I doubt anybody will disagree that both cycling and skiing are superb, low impact forms of aerobic exercise. For the full-time cyclists, continuing to ride all winter may contribute to imbalances that cycling seems to create in our bodies. I believe there is considerable value to cross training, breaking the pattern, to restore some balance in the body. Fat bikers that help groom their own trails no doubt get in cross training efforts by snowshoeing or towing grooming sleds.

Skiing, on the other hand, is entirely different. Half or more of energy expenditure is through the upper body. Compared to cycling, skiing is weight bearing and uses all of your major muscle groups. Skiing has the capacity to tax your cardio system much harder than cycling can. It is a great way to maintain or even improve your cardio capacity over the winter without using the same, small set of muscles you use on the bike.


I've known cyclists that burn out well before the summer is over. I think massive indoor trainer hours over the winter contribute to this. By doing something different over the winter, such as skiing, you break up the monotony of doing the same thing over and over and over. You give your mind a new challenge to tackle, something that requires much more finesse to do properly. It breaks you out of the physical routine you've been in for many months.

There is something unique about skiing, particularly skate skiing, that I've heard other biker/skiers mention. It is meditative. Sure, riding a bike can put you in a meditative state too, but skiing takes it to a whole other level. It has to do with the pendulum rhythm, push, glide...., push, glide...... It is hypnotic. You don't get this pronounced rhythm on a bike. It is a steady spin. Running too, it's not there. The turn-over is too fast in running.

It is the combination of doing something physically different with my body for part of the year with the hypnotic state it induces that draws me to skate skiing on snow. I'd much rather ski snow than bike snow. It is a unique experience. I can ride my bike almost any time throughout the year, but I can ski for only a small part of the year.

Marginally groomed at Waterville on Wednesday, but endorphin buzzed achieved that would be
hard to beat on a bike. Brett on Livermore Rd.

Hopefully the awesome start to the season continues. I've already skied more times on natural snow before Christmas than any other season since I got hooked on this sport. Looking forward to the Weston Tuesday night "Worlds" races to start after the first of the year.


Elvota said...

I've got over 500,000 feet of elevation gain on mine so far and have no plans of going back to skinny. Overall, I am least impressed with fatbikes in the snow and feel they are actually far better than conventional wheels in the dirt. That said... I'd never choose a ski over my MURU. :-)

PatrickCT said...

Doug - totally agree with your skate ski observations...also, I can't help but think you'd enjoy the nascent skimo/rando racing experience (skiing uphill with skins, then down, up, etc...) - that's pure VO2 pleasure - of course, a whole new arena of gear...

the bully said...

Trails that we groomed that we're left untouched by hikers were smooth and flat. I would not of wanted to ride a skinny tire on some of the chop today as it would have been unbearable. Groomer is a work in progress. Going to add a couple mods. It's not bad to pull even on the hills. You would crush my sled pulling time up p-line. Great post...