Fat biking lets riders tame winter by mountain biking through snow

Katrina Clarke | January 27, 2017 | Toronto Star

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Photo credit: Katrina Clarke

FERNIE, B.C.- I crash face first into the snow for the countless time, mutter an expletive under my breath and let my body sink deeper into the snow.

“The path gets easier just up ahead,” says guide Rick Wiess.

I’m fat biking, which is a sport that essentially involves mountain biking through the snow. It’s growing in popularity amongst outdoor fanatics and mountain biking die-hards, despite having initially been dismissed as ridiculous just a decade ago. Wiess describes it as “slow and social,” but I can barely catch my breath, let alone hold a conversation.

I’m trying it in Fernie, where every resident in the 4,800-person town seems eager for a new excuse to stay outdoors. In this ski-crazed community, fatbikes allow residents and visitors to frolic in the mountains even when powder fails to materialize.

“A poor ski day is a great fat bike day,” says Wiess, noting that hard-packed snow isn’t ideal for skiing, but it’s perfect for fatbiking, which requires a well-groomed trail void of deep human footprints for best cycling conditions.

The initial interpretations of fat bikes emerged in Alaska in the 1980s, around the same time similar bikes made for riding through sand popped up in the southwestern United States, says Peter deMos, owner of Liv Outside, an outdoor gear and adventure business based in Bracebridge, Ont.

Modern-day fat bikes, the first versions of which came on the market in 2005, look similar to mountain bikes, except the tires are double the size — around 10 to 13 centimetres — giving riders a better chance of making it through the snow and challenging terrain, he says.

Back in 2005, they weren’t embraced with open arms.

“At first, people thought it was ridiculous. ‘Why do you have those giant tires? That’s stupid,’” says deMos. “And then they go and they try it and they’re like, ‘Well, this is pretty fun.’”

Now, it’s mainstream. DeMos’ fat bike customers are typically avid mountain bikers who don’t want to give up their favourite sport in the winter, but he’s also seeing casual bikers, including retired couples.

Since deMos started selling fat bikes in 2009, his sales have doubled year over year. He knows from industry reports that not all retailers have seen his success — a fact he attributes to the competition from “plus” or “mid” tire bikes, with tires an inch or so smaller than fat bikes, making for more precise riding and better speed.

Yet in a place like Fernie, known for its huge snowfalls, fat bikes are becoming winter-sport staples.

“(Fat bikes) just open up another winter world,” says Wiess, who fat biked in Calgary before moving to Fernie three years ago.

We climb to an elevation of 200 metres over groomed trails after departing from our bike-rental home base, the Guide’s Hut in downtown Fernie, and I see what he means. All I can hear is the crunch of our tires over snow and own my heavy breathing. We’re accessing the sort of quiet one can only find on a snowy tree-laden mountain. Our determined pedalling pays off when we reach a lookout point just before the sun dips behind the mountains.

The scenic lookout, however, is the calm before the storm for me.

When we turn around to ride a thinner trail that Wiess groomed himself, I’m exhausted and my co-ordination is worsening. There’s a steep slope on my left, prompting me to dive to the right every time the bike wobbles and my confidence wavers, and the hardest part becomes physically hauling my tired leg over the bike after each fall. I’m a mountain-biking newbie putting on a brave face. Wiess’ encouraging words coax me on.

Mercifully back in town after our 15-kilometre ride, I reflect on the appeal of the peaceful yet challenging sport.

First off, it’s a great workout — sweat coats my upper body despite the -20C temperature. Secondly, it’s a peaceful escape unlike anything I could find in Toronto. Thirdly, I feel like I tamed winter.

Unfortunately for me, I think I’m missing the secret ingredient necessary to becoming a fatbike fanatic — actually liking biking.

Katrina Clarke was hosted by Destination B.C. and its partners, none of which reviewed or approved this story.

When you go

Get there: Fly to Calgary, rent a car and drive southeast for three to four hours. Another option: Fly to Calgary, catch a connecting flight to Cranbrook, B.C., rent a car and drive one hour east.

Get around: Rental car is your best option for the five-minute drive between the town of Fernie and Fernie Alpine Resort.

Stay:Lizard Creek Lodge has ski-in/ski-out access, outdoor hot tubs, an ice bar and a heated outdoor pool with a view of the mountains.

Eat: Go to Yamagoya Sushi and order the sashimi carpaccio. At Nevados, order the patacones, a Latin-American twist on bruschetta, made with plantain chips.

Get a guide: The folks at the Guide’s Hut will set you up with a guide and fatbike rental. Fatbike rentals cost $50 for a full day, $30 for two hours. Guides cost $30 per hour for one person, $10 extra for each additional person. Wear clothing similar to what you’d wear cross-country skiing — layering is key. Another resource you can try is Fernie Bike Guides.

Do your research:hellobc.comtourismfernie.com

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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