It’s a frosty January morning when I arrive at The BackCountry. I’m not talking about the millions of acres of wilderness and national forest in the Tahoe Sierra, but the cozy, little outdoor shop on Donner Pass Road in Truckee. I’d arranged with owner Mike Schwartz to borrow his superlight Borealis Fat Bike for a demo ride.
“You want it to freeze at night, so you gotta go in the morning,” says the veteran mountain man and outspoken member of Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, who published an online guide to the Sierra Nevada’s best off-piste skiing years ago. “Snowmobile tracks are pretty much a guarantee for firm snow. There are endless snow-covered roads in our area, so you just have to look around for places to ride. When the snow gets frozen from a freeze/thaw cycle, you can ride it pretty much anywhere.”
After picking up the bike from The BackCountry’s friendly staff, I head out to see what I can find. My first thought is to visit Coldstream Canyon or the Tahoe National Forest along State Forest Road 06. However, as I drive along the Truckee River on this beautiful winter morning I resolve to continue on toward the mothership of Lake Tahoe.
I know that Lake Tahoe Snowmobile Tours regularly run tours from the top of Brockway Summit off Highway 267 so I make that my first stop. When I pull into the parking lot a big, friendly man named Dave tells me that he’s almost finished parking tour clients for the day, but he’d probably have more space in an hour or so.
Since time is of the essence for attaining the best conditions on this chilly, partly sunny, winter’s day, I continue on toward Mount Rose. As usual the snow is about twice as deep up at the top of the 8,911-foot pass than at lower elevations; I park and unload my bicycle along the icy shoulder of NV State Route 431.
My jumbo tires feel like balloons as I pedal along the slick pavement toward the established snowmobile track. At 10 a.m. the snow is already sticky, yet I’m able to make progress through the woods and into an open meadow. It’s the perfect place to get a feel for the bike. The studded tires grip well on the crunchy hard-packed snow, but sink deep on anything that’s too powdery or slushy. After tooling around in my snow gear for a while, I head back to Brockway for a trail better traveled.
Back on the summit of CA State Route 267, I find ample parking and begin my tranquil journey along Mount Watson Road, or what is more popularly known as The Fiberboard Freeway, 11 miles of paved road from Brockway to Lake Watson.
Schwartz’s bike handles comfortably on this well-packed, frozen boulevard, which has retained its stiffness due to the welcome shadows of thick forests lining the way. As I mount my first significant climb, a snowmobile tour comes cruising by. The customers encourage me onward as I pedal frantically to make headway up the snowy slope. For every ounce of effort I use, I am rewarded with only 50 percent of the output because my tires slip ever so slightly in the warming snow. By the time the last snowmobiler passes me, I reach the top with my lungs burning from exertion in the frigid air.
Fortunately, I’m rewarded with astounding views of Lake Tahoe’s snow-covered peaks with an inversion layer of clouds sitting on this magical freshwater sea. Now it’s time for the fun part.
As a make my way onto the slope, I slowly, but surely gain momentum. The little bumps that I rolled over on my way up become authentic whoop-de-doos on the way down. My chubby tires come to life as I barrel around a pitched corner and into a bombed-out straightaway. At times, I feel as if I’m about to skid out and find a little bit of downward pressure helps to keep me moving forward. For a moment, it almost feels a more like skiing than mountain biking at all. I fly into the meadow below with abandoned glee and skid marks to spare.
Although it took me all morning to find the right conditions, I now see what this fat-tire biking thing is all about: cold snow, warm gear, an adventurous attitude and just the right amount of easygoing humor. | thebackcountry.net
Gear | Bike, snow pants, jacket, boots, gloves, goggles, helmet
Best conditions | Early morning during freeze/thaw cycle before snow begins to melt, snowmobile tracks and snow-covered roads
Groomed trails | Kirkwood, Northstar and Tahoe Donner Cross-Country rent fat-tire bikes and maintain snow-biking trails. Nevada Nordic and Tahoe City Winter Sports Park allow fat-tire biking, but not rentals.
Rentals | Many local bike shops offer fat bike rentals in the winter.
Free public winter roads
- Coldstream Canyon in Truckee. Park on Coldstream Road south of I-80, Exit 184
- Forest Service Road 06 in Truckee, park on Thelin Drive in Sierra Meadows
- Mount Rose Summit, park on the side of NV State Highway 431
- Fiberboard Freeway in Truckee, park at Brockway Summit on CA State Route 267
- Boca Reservoir in Truckee
- Jackson Meadows in Tahoe National Forest
- Hope Valley off Highway 88
- Carson Pass in Alpine Valley
- Local snowmobile trails. Visit TheTahoeWeekly.com. Click on Snowmobiling under the Out & About tab.