Fat biking has been all the rage in recent years as Colorado’s famously fanatic bike community seeks out new ways to extend the season. But there are barriers to enjoying the activity. Most obvious is the cost: Dropping $1,500 (or a lot more) on a new bike you might get limited use out of is a tough sell. There’s also the space issue: Do you have room to house another big toy?
While it is possible to rent a fat bike at places like Boulder’s Full Cycle, options are currently limited. Many bike shops have sold their rental fleets amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to take advantage of record numbers of people looking to purchase a two-wheeler. There is, however, another course of action. With a few tweaks you can get your mountain bike ready to churn through some snow. We even got some tips from local experts on the best ways to do so.
Go as wide as you can
The key to successfully riding on snow is two-fold. First, you want as much traction as possible. And second, you need a wide base to allow you to “float” on top of snow, rather than sinking in. A wider tire with more surface area effectively accomplishes both, which is why fat bikes usually have an impressive 3.7 inches (and often more) of rubber on the ground, in comparison with mountain bike tires that typically range from 2.25 to 2.4 inches wide.
The best move is to run the widest tire that your frame will allow. Eric Harrison, a service tech at Full Cycle in Boulder, notes that you can typically fit a tire that is 2.5 to 2.6 inches wide on a regular mountain bike, thanks to the industry’s trend toward having wider rim profiles.
Flatten your tires
Lowering your tire pressure allows your body weight to push the tires down so that more of the rubber is in contact with the snow, thereby giving you more traction. Sam Dale, service manager at Campus Cycles in Denver, recommends looking at the sidewall of your tire for its acceptable pressure range and then pumping your tires to the lowest number.
“Just be wary of pinch flats,” he warns, describing the much-maligned type of flat tire that occurs when your tube is pressed too tightly between your rim and the ground. “If you hit something abruptly, you can actually depress the tire into the rim and you can cause little holes in the tube,” says Dale.
Which brings us to our next point …
Tubeless tires have been named among the greatest innovations in mountain biking—and for good reason. The system, which removes the tube and replaces it with sealant, allows you to run on even lower pressure without the worry of pinch flats. Also, because there’s sealant in your tires, smaller punctures tend to self-seal.
Keep in mind, though, going tubeless is a difficult process, so we recommend asking a more experienced friend or checking in with a bike shop for help if you’re new to the process.
Don’t clip in
Trade your clip-in pedals for flat pedals. “You’re going to slide off the trail,” Harrison warns, “so you’re going to need to put your foot down quicker.” He recommends steel-pin flat pedals, which will give you a bit of grip on the pedal while still accommodating lightning-fast dismounts. Dual-sided pedals are also an option.
Another benefit to riding flats is the ability to wear bigger shoes or boots, which are warmer and will prevent you from ending up with a shoe full of snow when you step down in that fresh patch of flakes.
Choose trail conditions wisely
Both experts agree that a pristine layer of powder two-to-three inches thick is ideal. Harder, packed snow can work well too (and it’s probably easier to come by), so Harrison recommends going out early in the morning or later in the day when temperatures are a bit colder. “When [the snow] starts to get soft, it’s almost impossible to ride because you can’t keep the bike on the trail,” he says. Also avoid muddy trails, since riding in such conditions can damage the landscape.
Ultimately, terrain with little-to-no elevation change is best, Harrison says, calling Boulder’s Marshall Mesa and Doudy Draw trails two great starting options. And always keep an eye out for—and carefully walk over—icy patches.
Slap a smile on your face
“Have a really good, fun attitude,” Harrison says. “You’re not going to go fast. You’re going to fall. You’re going to slide. You’re going to get cold. You’re going to get wet. But it’s a blast.”