Riding with the Fat Bike Liberation Front

There have been conflicts between trail user groups for as long as there have been trails. Hikers hate mountain bikers, mountain bikers hate equestrians and equestrians literally spend all day on their high horse (that shits all over the trail). Now it would appear that there are storm clouds on the horizon for skiers and fat bikers. 

Is it 'Fat Bike' or 'Fatbike'? Beats me, I'm not a fat biker (I've decided on two words). In fact, until the other night, I thought fat biking was profoundly stupid.

You see, I once had a buddy bring a borrowed a fat bike on an annual trip to the Elk Lakes hut.  We normally ski into the hut but there wasn't really enough snow yet last year so most of us just hiked in. I expected my buddy to blast through the ungroomed boot top powder while we trudged along. I even asked him to get the fire going so the hut would be nice and warm when we got there. 

Instead what happened is he pushed his stupid fat bike all 11km to the hut. Two days later when we left it was the same thing except for this time we all took turns pushing what we were now calling the 'burden bike'.

It turns out that without a consolidated base or studded tires to grab the frozen ground below, the fat bike isn't much better than any other bike at dealing with snow. 

Up until then, I'd been seriously toying with the idea of getting a fat bike to try out and that trip killed the whole concept for me. I didn't think about it again until just recently when I heard that some drama had erupted between fat bikers and cross-country skiers on that very same trail to the Elk Lakes Hut. 

This sort of blew my mind because as a skier, I had told my fat-bike-borrowing buddy that bringing a fat bike sounded like a great idea because if the trails were groomed, he could rip right along. It never occurred to me that anyone would have a problem with that. 

Piecing together information about this new conflict from various sources including the account of one of the fat bikers involved (whom I know), I think what basically happened is some fat bikers went riding on the groomed trail, a cross-country saw them and got upset and from there diplomacy wasn't handled super well by either group. After going their separate ways, instead of dropping things, the cross-country skier then posted an account (fine) and personally identifying information (not fine) about the riders.

I'm not going to link to the person's blog because I think that the manner in which they handled things wasn't terribly productive  (unfortunately reciprocated by some fat bikers). Instead of focusing on the actual issue of 'is fat biking appropriate on that trail' or 'how should these situations be handled in the future', it basically devolved into personal attacks from both cross-country skiers and fat bikers which did nothing to further a conversation that clearly needs to happen. 

Anyway, I'm a skier who uses those trails frequently (though using alpine touring skis instead) in order to access the ACC's Elk Lakes Hut, but I wanted to try and understand the other side - the fat bikers. For that reason, when I was approached with the invitation to join a group for a ride, I jumped on it. I think that the group wanted me to see what fat biking is really all about in light of the recent drama.

 The lead up to the trip was shrouded in a comical level of secrecy. Destinations were not discussed, I was simply told to show up at a pickup point from which I would be driven to the trailhead. Upon arriving and meeting the group who would act as my guides for the evening, I half-way expected to be blindfolded for the drive - maybe they'd drive in circles to disorient me so that I couldn't retrace the route by feel or something. 

Not a soul in sight. Getting ready for an evening ride.

Our ride was taking place after work and in our Canadian winter, that means it would be a night ride. The crew actually pointed out that by riding after dark it minimized the odds of interacting with any other trail users. I was also asked to please not use names or photos showing people's faces because after how hostile some people have gotten, they didn't want a repeat of the personal attacks some riders have experienced.

The first thing I'd had to do was find a fat bike to actually ride. Luckily, my buddy Skyler, one of the incredible designers at Porcelain Rocket, had just gotten back from a bike-packing trip to South America on which they had used fat bikes and he let me borrow his (along with warnings that the crank arm might fall off and the rear tire had about 400 thorn punctures and would probably slowly leak air the whole time).

For lights, I grabbed my two ski mountaineering headlamps. I wore one on my (climbing) helmet and Voile strapped the other to my handlebar. For clothes I was rocking my usual gear for bike-commuting to work except for the jacket which was a jacket sent to me by a vendor with specific instructions to abuse - so eating shit into a tree would probably accomplish that. Basically, I was a gumby-looking mess. 

 The trailhead was cold. It was dark. My only other experience riding through snow (other than riding to work) was my borderline idiotic ride up the road to the Stanley Mitchell Hut earlier this season. I wasn't really sure why I had agreed to what past experience led me to believe was going to be several hours of pushing a bike around. 

The crew gave me some pointers and then took off while I struggled to keep up. The trail we were riding was a mostly an ungroomed ski touring trail. The skier traffic had packed the snow down enough that as long as we picked the right line, we were actually staying on top of things - I was still bogging down and having to push my bike at times, but as I got more used to the vagaries of riding on snow, I started to realize that picking the right gear ratio and maintaining the right cadence was letting me make forward progress - far more than I expected. The others could ride everything but the steepest hills. Fat biking up mountain trails is damn hard work - but with a little practice, it works. 

As long as the bikes stuck to the well packed snow, they barely sunk in at all

After an hour or so of riding up the trail, I was told we'd hit our turnaround point. The way in had been a bit of a grind, but riding out was consistently downhill and just incredibly flowy. Minimal pedaling had us cruising down the trail with way more ease than I'd expected. To be honest, I'd braced myself for having to really use my legs like we had on the way up, but with gravity helping instead of hindering, the riding was ridiculously fun. 

 Faces blurred because of the ongoing drama

Faces blurred because of the ongoing drama

A few things occurred to me as I learned really damn fast how to ride a fat bike downhill. The first is that the level of control is wildly better than I expected. I figured that riding on packed snow would have me basically completely out of control. The reality is that even with Skyler's mostly bald tires, I was never short on traction. The level of control was absolutely incredible. The other thing I noticed is that the couple of times I started to get in over my head I could just veer off into the deeper snow, keep my weight back and the ride would come to a stop pretty quick.

It definitely was a gorgeous night out

My weekends are pretty tied up with skiing and ice climbing, but I could definitely see doing more evening rides on a fat bike - with bright lights, visibility is no problem and it's a super fun way to get some exercise after work.

When we got back to the trucks the whole crew sat around laughing and chatting. I sort of took a step back and considered how I would feel as a skier if I came across some fat bikers.

Fat bikers do leave tire tracks in the snow but they are relatively shallow. A skate skier leaves deeper trenches and they're far less annoying than when a split boarder postholes or a snowshoer tramples by. On my very first fat bike ride I would say that I had good and consistent control throughout the ride - but then I have no doubt that some riders, just like some skiers, behave badly.

If fat bikers act like responsible trail users - riding in control and yielding to other users, I have zero issue sharing the trail with them. To me, fat bikes are just another non-motorized, recreational user trying to take advantage of the parks we're so lucky to have. If they ride like total knobs, then I have a lot less sympathy for them - but that goes for any type of user in my book. The skiers who go bombing down hills totally out of control are just as big a hazard as a fat biker hooning it up.

If fat bikers ride over the track-set portions of a groomed trail, that's a dick move - just like if someone on alpine touring gear twice as wide as the track tramples it. I strongly disagree with the trend of specifying only one acceptable activity per trail though because then we ALL lose. We ALL end up with a reduced number of trails where we can have fun.

It should come as no surprise that cross-country skiing is if not a dying sport, then a contracting one. Meanwhile, every other mountain sport I can think of is exploding in popularity. According to the Canadian Ski Council, cross-country participation dropped by over 16% between 2013 and 2015 (6% in Alberta and a shocking 38% in BC). Meanwhile fat biking appears to be exploding in popularity (I haven't found anyone compiling statistics on it yet, but it flat out didn't exist a few years ago and now you see riders everywhere). Meanwhile, backcountry skiing saw a 50% increase in visitors in Glacier National Park between 2010 and 2015.

Today, Fat Biking is the fringe sport - but it's growing while the established sport - cross-country skiing, is contracting. If I was a park manager trying to make the most people happy, I'd be looking to grow my fat biking opportunities and with limited resources, I can hazard a guess where the resources for that might get pulled from. It's not hard to imagine a future when it's the cross-cross country skiers pleading with fat bikers to use their trails if we continue to struggle to share.

Co-operation between skiers and bikers could lead to a far better future for both sports than the current trend of unpleasant and combative interactions. 

We're exceedingly lucky to have the parks we have and I feel like I was also exceedingly lucky to get invited as a skier to join the fat bikers to better understand their sport. The people I met were friendly, respectful, and a shitload of fun - just like the skiers I know. Even though I'll probably never take up fat biking, I'm looking forward to sharing my trails with them.

*edit* Eesh, go to the climbing gym for some after work fun and come back to find comments that really aren't promoting civil discourse. I've disabled comments on this post until tempers calm down a bit. Less hate, more hugs.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.