Friday, November 26, 2010

Fat ainít what it used to be

Bikes with 4-inch-wide tires allow cyclists to pedal through winter

Express Staff Writer

The Surly Pugsley in its element on a winter day in Adams Gulch, north of Ketchum. Photo by Keith Anspach

For an increasing number of cycling enthusiasts, the onset of winter doesn't demand a hiatus to their sport, only modifications to their machines and additional layers of clothing. When others start sliding, they keep on rolling.

Accounts of winter cycling date back at least to the early 1900s, when a few intrepid prospectors challenged the white vastness of the Yukon by peddling along its frozen rivers and trails. Snow biking in its more recent form as a recreational activity was also spawned in the far north. In March 1987, the first Iditabike race was held on a 200-mile-long course in Alaska. Twenty-six racers began the race, 13 finished.

Those early racers used regular mountain bikes, but as the sport progressed—the race is now called the Iditarod Trail Invitational and runs the full 1,160 miles of the dogsled course from near Anchorage to Nome—racers began making modifications. Two or even three wheel rims were welded together to provide better flotation in snow. A couple of one-man custom-frame operations grew up to supply fatter frames to accommodate the fat wheels. It took awhile for the sport to spread south, but at least two manufacturers now sell complete bikes intended for use on snow, mud and sand.

The first was the steel-frame Surly Pugsley. New this year is the aluminum-frame Salsa Mukluk. Both bikes have four-inch-wide tires designed to be run at a squishy 18 psi on 26-inch wheels. That allows them to not only float over soft terrain, but to crawl over obstacles as well.

"It's kind of like an ATV—they've got big balloon tires that just blow through everything," said Mark Carnes at Backwoods Mountain Sports. "It's definitely not a bike that's limited to snow—it's a full-on adventure bike."

Carnes said he's ridden through 10 inches of snow, but the bikes perform best on packed surfaces such as snowmobile trails. On hard snow in the spring, he said, he can ride anywhere.

Carnes said Backwoods was able to order three Mukluks, and they're all pre-sold.

"We've brought them into the valley to try to stir it up and see what happens," he said.

One of the bikes was bought by Blaze Reardon, lead avalanche forecaster at the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center in Ketchum. Reardon said he plans to use the bike to gain access to backcountry ski runs.

"That way I don't have to buy a snowmobile," he said.

Though recreational snow biking is a new phenomenon in the Wood River Valley, a few people have been using bikes as year-round transportation for years. Two of those are John Fox and Roger Mankus, both bike mechanics at The Elephant's Perch. Fox hasn't owned a car for 18 years and Mankus has been without one for the past two years.

"The potential of the bike is underappreciated," Fox said. "It's a shame that everybody treats their bike as a toy."

"We don't do it just for fun, we do it for fun and because it helps the environment," Mankus added.

They admitted that riding on slick winter roads requires some changes in technique, primarily going slower, staying a little more upright and turning by steering more than by leaning. But they said that with the proper equipment—studded tires, fenders and a bright light—winter biking is easy. They also dress up, with handlebar pogies over their hands and neoprene booties over fleece-lined biking shoes. A good rack can carry winter sports gear.

"I pack more stuff around than most people, and I manage to haul it around on a bike," Fox said. "Most people's cars turn into their mobile closet. Driving your car to go to spin class—that's the ultimate absurdity."

Greg Moore:

Resources for snow biking: news and information on equipment, clothing and technique. news on snow biking in Alaska as well as information on equipment. home of the Pugsley. home of the Mukluk. fatbike frames.

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