Fresh Snow: Riding Through the Snow and All

Fresh Snow, a column to share new fat biking experiences. New to some aspect of fat biking and want to share your tale? Write in to us at two9er@gmail.com. This week’s addition to the column is by Mat Cloak, a Canaan Valley writer and educator. 

Riding Through the Snow and All

By Mat Cloak

The same storm that brought up to a quarter inch of ice to a large portion of the Mountain State the week before Thanksgiving, layered snow in the Eastern Panhandle of the state, Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley.  Needless to say, the Potomac Highlands got shafted.

After a full day of ice, the sleet, thankfully, segued into just pure snow, totaling about 3 to 4 inches overnight.  I buckled into my skis for the first time this season and enjoyed two days of wintry, carving bliss. Come Sunday, skiing was marginal after 40-degree temperatures.  

I’m typically content with my bike housed in the garage while the snow falls.  When the snow melts and the trails are rideable, I bust the bike back out.

Q: But what happens when the conditions are in between the two?  

A: Fat biking. Fat biking is the answer.  

So the marginal snow conditions and warmer temperatures provided an optimal opportunity for my first ride on a fat bike.  Zach threw his Framed Minnesota fat bike my way on loan.  I was ready to roll.

I knew the riding would be different.  I knew the conditions would be different.  So, where do I go for my first ride? Trails that I feel most comfortable riding, somewhere super easy to get the feel of it, or do I turn on the blaster jets and go full bore?

I decided on the balanced trail choice: Dobbin House, a network of trails in Blackwater Falls State Park accessible from Pendleton Lake.  The Dobbin House network offers a diversity of trails in a tight nexus – classic Canaan technical, mixed forests, some punchy uphills, and fast downhills, all situated right on the lip of the Blackwater Canyon.

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The Pendleton Lake drainage that flows into the canyon.  

Usually when I try something new, I like to go alone.  I like an unattended initiation to a new experience, because without social contact, I am able to fully think and feel through the situation. I often make mistakes that if I had someone guiding me through my first experience, I might not make, but I find the solo experience enjoyable on the first go round.

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Dog is my co-pilot.

The conditions on this Sunday, the day before the start of West Virginia’s rifle hunting season, was typical for the Highlands in late fall, early winter.  The snow had begun to melt, there was leftover ice in patches, and there was plenty of mud. But with Vee Rubber Bulldozer tires running around 5 to 10 psi, any trail condition is pedalable.  

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Bulldozin’ through any condition.

With that being said, there are snow conditions that are better than others for fat biking.  According to sources more experienced than myself, cold and firm snow is perfect for fat biking.  In those conditions the tires roll with a grip on the snow that makes the whole experience blissful.  

When I first saddled up, I was in the parking lot.  Hearing those gumptious tires on the pavement for the first time was like hearing a troop of Jeeps blasting down the road.  

If you’re looking for a fun ride experiment, ride a road bike around the block.  Then grab a mountain bike and take that for a spin around the block. Feel the difference?  Now grab a fat bike = worlds apart.

So as I hit the trail, I first noticed the difference in speed.  Get this, a heavier bike with fatter tires riding on top of snow may slow you down a bit.  I’m no physicist, but I thought I’d go a little faster on a fat bike than on my Cannondale Scalpel.  Oh well…

But seriously, that slower pace is the key!  What you lack in punch and speed, you gain in accessibility through weather that may be less than desirable.  After a few miles through Dobbin House, the slower pace became an aspect that I enjoyed most about fat biking.  

With this rigid frame Minnesota beneath me, rolling over the roots, sliding down the slushy banks, hucking over rocks, and weaving through evergreen stands offered a more idyllic and laid back approach to mountain biking than I’ve come to expect over the last year and a half living and riding in Tucker County.  It was a peaceful experience, but that’s not to say I didn’t get a workout.

Some of the same technique and skill used while mountain biking translates to fat biking, but fat biking is its own beast.  There’s a lot of sliding to negotiate, which is a ton of fun once I let go and learned to move with the slides. Steep, uphill pitches are much more difficult to climb.  Fat bikes offer you an extended riding season, because you’re able to bike through the most conditions, but those conditions do play into the equation, especially on uphill climbs.

There are fewer moveable parts on most fat bikes; which, appeals to me, because I’m always breaking my rig.  Just ask Rob.  Fat bike specs are pretty simple, and there are models out there that won’t clear out your checking account.  

The main difference I noticed between fat and mountain biking is the psychological shift in perspective.  I took time to observe moments and aspects of my ride that I would sometimes blow past. My balance was worked over in a healthy way.  Ascents and descents took more precision and thought. I also like that fat biking will keep me ready for the spring biking season. Along with practicing my telemark turns, I’ll pedal through the winter to stay in shape.

All in all, my first ride was a success.  I got to jump on a bike right after two days of skiing, with my dog and in a beautiful setting.  What more could I want, huh?

With (at times) marginal winters and an established, dedicated mountain biking community, the Potomac Highlands is well suited to ramp up its access and involvement in fat biking.  Plans for a fat bike trail groomer are in the works, which I’ve heard is a game changer.

The third installment of the Mountain State Fat Bike Champs is scheduled for Super Bowl Sunday 2019.  This timed, XC style fat bike race takes place on the trails of the infamous cross-country paradise that is White Grass Ski Touring Center.  Race proceeds go to a local trail project.

So get out there, make your winter magnificent!  Fat biking is an all season, all condition kind of deal, so don’t wait for the perfect amount of snowfall to hit before you try it.  

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