Full disclosure: I’m an avid, outdoorsy type, but am ashamed to admit that I’ve cross-country skied only a handful of times in my whole life. And though it’s been difficult, I’ve come to terms with the idea that spending a few days in the Methow schussing and sliding up, down and across the wonderful winter trails there is something to be enjoyed by other people, not me.
That all changed, however, when I began to hear rumblings that the Methow Valley Sport Trails Association (MVSTA) was opening up a few trails to snow bikes this winter. Also called fat bikes (fun to say, by the way), they’re essentially mountain bikes with great big, 4-inch-wide knobby tires that float atop the snow and keep riders from digging in or sinking down into the white stuff.
Bike addict that I am, “Get me to the Methow!” is what I said — and did.
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Cut to: an icy cold afternoon a few weeks ago. Winthrop’s Joe Brown and I are riding snow bikes up and down the firmly packed, groomed rollers of the Bitterbrush Trail just south of downtown Winthrop. It’s a stunningly beautiful winterscape — all the world is snow and icicles and the trees appear frosted with sugar. (I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on this for so many years!)
Emitting great puffy clouds of condensation as we pedal, we approach a short, steep rise. As happens whenever I have to climb in the snow back home around Bellingham on my nonsnow bike, I expect my rear wheel to start spinning out from under me. But it doesn’t. The grip is good and the ride really stable, with no side-to-side slippage or skidding out at all.
Brown and I zip up the hill — as much as I’m capable of zipping up a hill — where we’re rewarded with a smooth, swooshing descent around a bend that has me involuntarily whooping and hollering.
It feels like we’re on a magic-carpet ride through the Methow! If this is what cross-country skiers experience all the time, I totally understand the allure. But for me, it’s a first and I loooove it!
In recent years, snow bikes have become the fastest-growing sector in the bike industry, gaining traction especially in places such as Alaska and the Midwest. Snow-bike races are popping up all over: Wisconsin, Michigan, Finland, Siberia. In a few days, Brown himself is headed for Talkeetna, Alaska, to race The Trio, a 60-miler. There was even a Fat Bike Winter Summit in Idaho (fatbikesummit.com) at the end of January.
Trial on trails
For the MVSTA, allowing bikes on snow trails this season is a pilot program to see how bikes and Nordic skiers can coexist.
“I think MVSTA is being pretty ballsy, because nobody really knows how skiers are going to react to bikes being on the trails,” says Brown, who also owns Methow Cycle and Sport (methowcyclesport.com), a Winthrop shop that rents and sells snow bikes and also caters to skiers.
“They’re being forward-thinking, too, because as the population gets older, there’ll be fewer people cross-country skiing and MVSTA is going to need to find a way to attract new trail users.”
During our two hours pedaling a couple of Salsa Mukluk bikes from Brown’s shop, we garnered plenty of bewildered looks from passing skiers as well as genuine interest from folks eager to try it.
“That looks like a lot of fun,” said Bellingham’s Steve Harper, an avid cyclist, who was out for an afternoon ski with his brother Brad. Looking down, he pointed at the snow’s surface with his ski pole.
“And look at your tread, you can hardly see it.”
Snow-bike use conditions laid out by the MVSTA state that snow-bike tires must be at least 3.7-inches wide and that they carry less than 10 pounds of air pressure. (Most mountain-bike tires are about 2-inches wide and take 30 to 60 pounds of air pressure.) The wider tire-contact patch of a snow bike leaves a shallower tread mark in the snow, and thus has less impact on groomed trails.
Because most mountain-bike forks aren’t wide enough for 4-inch tires, however, you can’t just throw some fatties on your current bike. Thus, to ride the MVSTA trails you need a snow-specific bike.
Along with Salsa, companies such as Surly, Fatback, 9:Zero:7 and a handful of others offer snow bikes, with most prices ranging between $1,700 to $3,500. Methow Cycle and Sport’s rental prices: $35 for four hours; $55 for 24 hours.
Near the end of our ride, Brown and I pedal along the Methow River via the Winthrop Trail. A bald eagle rises from river’s edge and with a few flaps of its great wings, finds purchase in a nearby tree. Cross-country skiers smile and nod as they schuss by in their tracks. It’s all so spectacularly beautiful.
And on a fat bike, now it’s open to me, too!