Fat bike riding gaining traction as a winter activity at Tahoe
There are a few days at the tail end of the winter when the conditions are perfect.
Not for shredding or ripping down a mountainside. No, on these days, leave the skis and snowboards in the garage.
When a winter rainstorm is followed by a biting cold snap, leaving the firm snowpack with a crunchy layer of crust, a growing number of recreationists are dusting off their bikes.
Fat bikes, that is.
“Fat biking is super fun when conditions are right,” said Anthony Cupaiuolo, owner of First Tracks Productions, a digital media company based in South Lake Tahoe, and avid fat biker. “For me and one of my friends, we feel like it’s a great addition to the different toys we have to play with here (at Tahoe).”
Cupaiuolo said he was driven to try his hand at fat biking during Tahoe’s recent string of drought years (2012-16). The predominance of powder-less days, Cupaiuolo found, provided an opportunity to traverse mountain terrain on wheels — big ones.
“The days that I’m going to take it out are the days it’s not good to be on skis and snowboards,” Cupaiuolo added.
Before we roll further into the ins and outs of fat biking in the Sierra Nevada, let’s pump the brakes and examine this unique winter activity.
WHAT’S A FAT BIKE?
Fat bikes are bikes with over-sized tires at least 4 inches wide that are designed for low ground pressure to allow for riding on soft, unstable terrain.
They were first invented in the late 1980s for winter riding on the Iditarod Trail in Alaska. Joe Redington, who invented the famed sled-dog race, conceived a cycling version of the Iditarod. Initially dubbed the Iditabike (now the Iditarod Trail Invitational), the race asked bikers to trek 210 miles along the first section of the sled-dog course.
Since, fat bikes have slowly grown in popularity across the country, catching on first in the Midwest, where the consistent cold temperatures, flat landscapes and long-lasting snowpack make for perfect fat bike conditions.
“It’s a different way to get out on the snow and enjoy the winter without having to learn the skills of skiing or buying extra equipment,” said Sally Jones, manager of the Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski Area, which offers fat biking on its groomed trails.
Jones said customer request was the main reason the resort decided to give fat bikes a whirl in 2015.
Along with snow, fat bikes can also be ridden across dirt, mud and pavement — in other words, anywhere you want to take it. The bulky rubber tires can ease through muddy hairpins, glide over sand dunes, track smoothly over rocks, and float across crusty snow.
“There are certain times when the fat bike just makes sense,” said Cupaiuolo, who pointed to a day in April when, with a striking view of Lake Tahoe and his dog Emmie running alongside his oversized tires, he crunched down terrain in the Spooner Summit and Kingsbury Grade area.
SLOW AND STEADY
This begs the question, is riding a fat bike on snow as easy as, well, riding a bike on pavement?
Short answer: no.
“It’s going to be a lot more work than a normal bike ride,” Cupaiuolo said.
To that end, Jones said anyone who jumps into fat biking should be familiar with riding a mountain bike and using its gear system.
“We encourage folks to stay on the easier trails because it can be quite difficult,” Jones said. “They are a lot slower and harder to pedal in the snow than a regular mountain bike. I would not recommend it for a first-time bike rider. It would be tricky to manage the changing of gears and the balance and dealing with the extra component of snow, which isn’t as consistent as the dirt we ride in the summer.”
What’s more, Jones said inexperienced bikers might end up doing more walking than riding, which, in turn, makes the terrain more challenging for those in their rear-view.
“The last thing we want folks to do is to get off and start walking on the steeper terrain,” she said. “That just puts holes in the snow, which is tricky for the people behind them.”
A SPRING THING
But, again, the conditions have to be just right for fun and efficient fat biking on snowy Tahoe terrain. Jones said the region’s snowfall last year was so strong and constant that “it wasn’t conducive to fun riding, because you would just sink in too deep.”
Added Cupaiuolo: “We get big dumps of snow here, and when you get 10 feet of snow in a week, that’s too much snow to get on a bike.”
Typically, the best time of the year for fat biking, Jones and Cupaiuolo agreed, is the springtime. Jones added that anyone interested in fat biking at Tahoe Donner throughout the year should first check the resort’s grooming report, which will notify visitors when fat biking is permitted on any given day.
“We tend to steer people more toward the spring — we can never guarantee — but it’s more likely to be good conditions,” she continued. “It’s just not like skiing where you can go out in any condition and have fun; you do have to have the right conditions.
“But when it’s good, it’s really good.”
Notably, Northstar California and Kirkwood Mountain Resort are other resorts in the greater Tahoe area that offer fat biking on groomed cross-country trails.