Go Play: Rolling through the winter on snow bikes in Telluride
Special to the Free Press
I’ve ridden this trail a thousand times. But at the moment, it feels decidedly unfamiliar. The rock clusters and creek crossings by which I normally get my bearings have disappeared under a ribbon of packed snow. Ice patches appear here and there, but instead of dismounting, I roll right over them. Last night’s hoarfrost crackles under my wheels. And the ridiculous bulbous tire that’s spinning beneath my nose looks like it belongs to a motorcycle.
I’m on a fat bike, enjoying the spoils afforded by this funny-looking sport: Year-round access, uncrowded trails and a new way to spin the wheels.
Fat bikes were first developed for long-distance snow biking in Alaska more than 20 years ago. They are built to fit tires up to almost 5 inches wide, and the idea behind them is that fat tires provide floatation and stability on snow, sand and loose rock.
Today, fat bikes represent a rapidly growing sector in the cycling world, and the bikes with the clownishly large tires are finding a lot of, well, traction in mountain towns. And thanks to a few serious bike advocates and Telluride’s penchant for outdoor recreation, fat biking has blossomed in the box canyon in recent years. What started as a novelty that would have tourists staring in curiosity has turned into part and parcel of Telluride’s winter scene, with many local cyclists now using fat bikes to ride year round.
Max Cooper, bike mechanic at Bootdoctors/Paragon, cycling proselytizer and fat bike advocate, deserves some of the credit for the popularity of fat bikes in Telluride. Cooper first laid eyes on a fat bike when he was working at the Gear Exchange in Glenwood Springs in 2006.
“Nobody could really figure out what it was for and why … so we pretty much just took it upon ourselves to ride the hell out of it,” Cooper said. Soon, he and his friends acquired a second fat bike, which allowed them to start taking them out together.
“The thing that takes a little time is realizing they are unlike any other bike in that they are not really for riding in the traditional manner,” Cooper said. “As soon as you start exploring what they can do, especially with friends, you realize that every surface has a different opportunity. Riding around on packed snow trails is awesome, riding sandy washes in the desert is awesome. Riding right down the middle of the Miguel at low water is awesome. And riding the Wasatch is awesome.”
Soon after Cooper started working at Bootdoctors, he got owner Bob Gleason to try one out. Bootdoctors started carrying fat bikes in 2010, and not long after that local cyclists began acquiring them. Through group rides organized by Cooper, word of mouth and people trying them out, fat bikes started to catch on.
Cooper said the emphasis in cycling is always on lighter, faster, more efficient, so it can be tough to be open minded to these beastly bikes. Once a rider lets go of the lighter-is-better mentality and focuses on the fun factor and exploratory nature, he said, they usually get hooked.
“Really one good ride is all it takes to get people to understand that it opens up a whole different kind of riding, opens up a new season and makes people a better rider overall,” Cooper said.
Rico resident Jeff Hemperley first got a fat bike two years ago.
“Riding my bike year round was my goal, be it desert or snow or singletrack,” Hemperley said.
Hemperley accomplished that and then some, riding back and forth between Telluride and Rico in the snow, taking his fat bike to the White Rim and Phil’s World and the Moab area and even doing a 100-mile endurance race on it.
“To me a fat bike is an all-purpose bike,” he said. “People call them just snow bikes, they aren’t. They’re good on sand, snow and are great trails bikes too.”
Their heftiness also makes them good to train on, Hemperley said, but it’s certainly not all serious.
“There’s a fun factor for sure,” he said.
Fat bikes’ big tires make it easier to roll over obstacles, which makes them good for all ages and abilities of riders, Cooper said, and the all-weather bikes mean mountain biking is possible even through the darkest, coldest months of the year — especially if you pair them with night lights.
“Can they help to bring more people into riding? I think they can,” he said. “They are more stable, grippy, comfortable and playful for all ages.”
Locally, trails that get packed down by dog walkers are good options for winter fat bike riding, as well as dirt roads that get some traffic to pack the snow and certain multi-use trails.
“The walking trails that get consistently walked around here can be totally different experiences in the winter,” Cooper said. “Climbing Boomerang or Bear Creek in the snow is all the workout you could really imagine wanting on a cold winter morning.”
Jurassic Trail, the Meadows in Mountain Village and the Alta Lakes Road area are other good options for riding, he said. For more adventurous riders, frozen rivers could be great for exploring, and the bikes are perfect for desert pack trips through sandy terrain.
This winter, several local shops will be carrying fat bikes and rental fleets. Bootdoctors/Paragon carries the Salsa Mukluk, Surly Pugsley and the Surly Moonlander (which has the biggest wheels of the bunch.) The gear shop is also carrying the new Surly Beargrease, a carbon fat bike. Bootdoctors has a fleet of rentals so people can try it out, organizes regular group rides, offers guided rides and will help people order and build their own fat bike.
Box Canyon Bicycles is also jumping on the fat bike train this winter. Owner Travis Young will be carrying Borealis fat bikes. The new Colorado company produces ultra-light fat bikes (as light as 21 pounds!) that Young says are the coolest fat bikes out there.
Young said that until recently, he hadn’t been thrilled with fat bikes, “because they feel sluggish and slow. These don’t,” he said of the Borealis bikes. “They feel like a race bike with big fat tires on them instead of a tractor with big fat tires on them … These are definitely very different from what everyone else has, for sure.”
Telluride Gravity Works is also venturing into the fat bike world this winter. Gravity Works is carrying the Kona WO! both for purchase and for half- and full-day rentals. The aluminum frame model just came out.
“[Kona] really thought this bike out,” Gravity Works co-owner Jorn Reimann said. “We’re really excited to be working with them. It’s going to complement what we do in the winter.”
Reimann said they decided to incorporate fat bikes into the mix because Kona put out a great bike, but also because it makes sense in this town.
“It’s definitely becoming part of the mountain town lifestyle,” he said.
After about 45 minutes of heart-pumping climbing, I reach the top of the trail.
The falls have frozen into a delicate and many-tiered sculpture of ice, and aside from the creek murmuring below, it’s quiet up here. Unlike summer, when it can be a zoo of hikers, dogs and tourists, I’m the only person around. It’s a peaceful feeling.
Soon, I turn around, and the best part awaits: A floaty, flowy and fast ride back to town, care of these ridiculous tires.
This story first appeared in the pages of the Telluride Daily Planet. More Telluride stories can be read at http://www.telluridedailyplanet.com. Like the Planet on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/telluridedailyplanet.
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