Given the weather conditions we’ve been experiencing, my thoughts have turned from skiing to mountain biking. I’ve been making the hour drive to the foothills to find some sweet dirt to roll on, but I’ve also seen people riding bikes with enormous tires around Tahoe. No driving required.
I had to try it, so I connected with Mike Miller from The Gravity Shop in The Cobblestone in Tahoe City. He set me up with one of the nice fat tire bikes he rents all winter.
What is a fat tire bike? The simple answer is that it’s a mountain bike with really big tires. The tire footprint is three times as large as a regular mountain bike. And, while normal mountain bike tires are pumped to 35 psi, fat bikes have only 8 to 10 psi. This all leads to more surface area hitting the snow or dirt, and thus better traction.
It’s like driving an OHV onto deep sand. You need big, soft tires to get you through the soft stuff. Surprisingly, while the fat bikes look huge, they only weigh a few pounds more then a regular mountain bike.
On my inaugural ride, I headed steeply up Jack Pine in Tahoe City to Burton Creek State Park. I quickly discovered that it rode almost as nimbly as a normal mountain bike and took on the hills like a champ. My first challenge was as the hill became steeper and the packed sections became narrower, the bike was harder to control, especially if I ventured into the soft snow. Eventually, I reached wider, less steep, well-packed snow, and this is where these bikes shine. Conditions that would bring me to a screeching halt on a regular mountain bike, you can power right through.
Longtime local Tom Mills purchased a fat bike a few years ago. He says that he loves to ride and run, but doesn’t ski, so the fat bike has given him the opportunity to get his riding workout without leaving town.
“If it’s too warm, it gets squirrely. When it’s icy, it’s ugly. But if the conditions are right, you can really cruise. I can climb almost anything on the fatty that I could ride on my regular bike,” Mills says. “It’s a blast on regular dirt, as well. All I can tell you is I love it.”
The bikes “have certainly taken off in the last year,” says Kevin Joell of the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association. “Slowly we’ll see more resorts getting on board. Many large resorts such as Grand Targhee and Jackson Hole have embraced fat bikes and been quite successful. Fat bikes could have a huge benefit to a resort in the shoulder season when coverage is too spotty for XC skiing.”
Miller from The Gravity Shop has found that a lot of people are skeptical of fat bikes, they are great for those who want the opportunity to ride year-round.
“You have to be aware of the conditions and where to go,” says Miller. “That is the adventurous part of fat biking.”
The best places to ride are trails or roads that have been packed down by skiers or snowmobiles. Once the cross-country ski areas have closed in the spring, those melting trails make for excellent places to ride. Miller keeps his pulse on where the riding is good based on the conditions, and is ready to pass on the information to those who come into his shop. The bikes can be rented for $35 for two hours, or $60 for the day. Purchase prices begin in the $1,300 range, with most people spending at least $2,000 for a bike.
Miller says that fat bikes “are the Humvee of mountain bikes. Not the fastest, but they will go through anything.”