In Idaho, thin snow means thick tires

So-called ‘fat’ mountain bikes offer a ‘new way to be outdoors’ in a dry winter

SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMESMarch 2, 2014 

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Erin Swenson rides her fat bike toward the Salmon River Mountains in December. With little snow in Idaho and much of the West, biking on “fat” tires has taken off.

DAVID LINGLE — NYT

Snow has been so scant in Idaho this winter that bicycles started showing up in shop windows in the middle of January, and cyclists began booking ski huts during a season when it’s usually backcountry skiers who are seeking accommodations.

What may be bad news for skiers has turned out to be an irresistible opportunity for those who love to ride on mountain bikes with four- and five-inch-wide tires, which are designed to float over snow and sand and still provide substantial cushion for rough single track (even without the suspension common to many bikes with skinnier tires).

Where trails are too soft for regular mountain bikes, or too sparse to protect skiers from subsurface obstacles, fat bikes are filling a gap. Riders do well on mixed terrain, including on trails where the snow is too thin for skiing and on south-facing pitches where dirt is exposed during a low-snow winter. “It’s opening a new way to be outdoors,” Chris Estrem, a Ketchum physical therapist, backcountry skier and world bicycle traveler, said. “It’s made me a better mountain biker. I want to ride it all the time. I love it.”

Tory Canfield, who started an organization called the Fat Bike Advocacy Group, said, “For me, fat biking on snow creates a sense of ethereal floatiness that conjures up the sensation of powder skiing. As soon as your tire rolls forward, your mouth turns up into a big, fat grin. It is nothing short of fun.”

DRY TREND

The weather that has made for optimum fat-tire biking may be around for a while, Charles Luce, a Boise-based research hydrologist for the U.S. Forest Service, told me. “Precipitation has been declining in the region, and the probability of severe droughts has been increasing over the last 60 years,” said Luce, who co-wrote a paper on the subject that was published last December in Science magazine. “One of the key physical drivers for future precipitation, westerly wind, is also expected to decline on average in the future.”

TEST TRIP

As a longtime mountain biker who finds peace in remote trail riding, I decided to experience the winter “fat bike” phenomenon for myself and took a road trip from Boise to test bikes in some of the state’s mountain haunts.

It has been cold in Boise, at an altitude of 2,700 feet. But that hasn’t stopped riders of fat bikes, especially when it comes to fat-bike trials, including an event organized by Fat Bike Boise in early December to celebrate Global Fat-Bike Day on a thin layer of early snow preserved by the cold.

The first higher-elevation stop on my biking quest was at 3,900 feet in Salmon. Roads there wind through crinkled mountain ranges that begin near the phenomenal lava fields of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve and continue north to the Continental Divide.

Salmon is a hunting and recreation gateway on the edge of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. My trip began at the Hub, a new bike and ski shop a block off Main Street that also serves pizza and beer. There I met the owner, Max Lohmeyer, a Fruita, Colo., native and lifelong mountain biker, who took me for an evening ride on Discovery Hill.

After exiting Lohmeyer’s van at the trail head, we crunched on our bikes over thin patches of snow turned ice luge in some sections. In the dark, chips of snow that shot from the front tire glowed like welding sparks as they floated through the bright beam of my bike light. Traction on marginally snow-covered trails varied with pitch and aspect. Navigating surfaces and slopes was more fun than it may sound, which I attribute to the novelty of riding a super-fat mountain bike tire under the shine of a full moon.

At times during our ride, some 13 miles through mountain desert country with Salmon photographer David Lingle, we could see the lights of town below.

Back at the trail head another rider left a note on Lingle’s car, a calendar photo of two emperor penguins standing together in the grass. One bird, craning its neck, had a scribbled dialogue bubble above it that read, “Just call me Master of the Moonlight! Bahahaha.”

Later, at dinner at the Junkyard Bistro in Salmon, where the special was an Idaho burrito with mashed potatoes and bacon, the conversation was, inevitably, about fat bikes. “I’ve never seen a trend come on so fast,” Lohmeyer said. In fact, the first-ever U.S. National Fat Bike Championship will be held March 8 in Cable, Wis.

In bed after enjoying the frontier night life, which included watching outdoor hockey, my mind continued to slip and slide — I was hooked on riding in the snow and excited to try it in the daytime, too.

ON TO THE TETONS

To get to my next destination I drove through the wide valleys of the Lost River and Pahsimeroi mountain ranges to Victor and Driggs in the Teton Valley, which has a large contingent of snow-sports people. Snow biking is managed in conjunction with Nordic skiing at the base area of the Grand Targhee Resort at 8,000 feet in Alta, Wyo., just over the state line from Driggs. Groomed trails wind through the forest nestled in the backdrop of the Grand Tetons.

At Grand Targhee, I was unable to resist the temptation to jump into a fat-bike race on a custom Trek Farley that I tested from Fitzgerald’s Bicycles in Victor. (It’s the first year that Trek, based in Wisconsin, has produced a fat bike; the Surly Pugsley from Minnesota is known as the first mass-produced mountain bike with extremely high-volume tires.)

“Fat biking is exploding,” said Andy Williams, who organizes special events at the resort and is developing a single-track grooming mechanism to tow behind a snowmobile to further expand snow biking. “It’s really a great way to get out and enjoy winter,” he added, explaining that other groups, including Nordic skiers, are beginning to wrap their heads around the new use of trails. “It’s not a bad thing, just different,” he said. “Fat bikers and skate skiers almost go the same speed.”

LAST LEG

The nine-mile, 1,500-foot ride up to Tornak, a Sun Valley Trekking hut, 8,500 feet high in the Smoky Mountains near Ketchum, was intended to be the last leg of my fat-bike journey, but it looked doomed after it snowed nearly eight inches.

Still, most of my group at Sun Valley Trekking remained committed, and we were admittedly nervous as we made final preparations. I fixed a flat tire, and Joe St. Onge, co-owner of Sun Valley Trekking and a professional ski guide, checked our avalanche transceivers and gave us a safety briefing. We would cross known avalanche paths on our way to Tornak.

We pushed our bikes through loose snow that would have been perfect for backcountry powder skiing if only the base were better. Pedaling when possible, I remembered advice I had received from Erwin Reitsma, a fellow racer at Grand Targhee: “Sometimes lower pressure is the difference between pushing and pedaling.” I let air out of my tires until the pressure was as low as three pounds per square inch. Soft tires provide better traction on soft snow.

Tornak, in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area just below Fox Peak, looks like a longhouse and has ornately painted doors, a panoramic window facing the Boulder Mountains, comfortable bunks and a welcoming dining table, all set on a log foundation.

A hearty ration of pesto pasta, Belgian beer and pecan bars made by Joe’s wife, Francie, led to a long night of heady conversation, with heat provided by a wood stove and the glow by solar-powered lights.

After a breakfast of pancakes, hash browns and sausage, we were happy to discover that all our work on the ride up had helped pack down the trail.

The track that took us more than five hours to ascend with plenty of pushing had stabilized enough in the night that we could pedal out in less than two.

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