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Keep on rolling

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union
Riders Jeff Glass and Anthony Cupaiuolo ride on fat tire bikes in the Lake Tahoe Backcountry.
Submitted by First Tracks Productions |

Tips for a good ride

Nevada City’s Matt Reynolds, a board member of Bicyclists of Nevada County, says there are a few things to keep in mind when going for a ride the first time.

Physical fitness level is important because fat bikes are heavier than traditional mountain bikes and require a fair amount of leg and core strength. As technology improves each year, the bikes are getting lighter though.

Tire pressure is key and can make the difference between an enjoyable day and a frustrating one.

Reynolds often rides on tires with three to four pounds per square inch (psi) on snow and six to eight psi on hard-pack dirt. Reynolds often changes tire pressure, multiple times during a ride.

“The tires become a pseudo-suspension system soaking up the little bumps in the trail which translates to more control. It’s the difference between floating on the top of the snow or sand or digging in and stopping. It can make the difference between clearing a rocky, loose section of trail and having to hike-n-bike it. It’s like riding on marshmallows when you have the correct tire pressure for your current trail condition,” he said.

Fat biking in snow is a pleasant experience when you are on a groomed single-track trail or cross-country groomed trail with rolling, rather than steep hills. Keep in mind snow depth — up to about six inches of powder is best, or a few inches of a slushy snow surface. Wet snow “mashed potatoes” is problematic in general.

When the snow level drops to 4,000 feet, Reynolds suggests Pioneer Trail starting at the 5 Mile House, on Highway 20. Any fire road packed by a snow machine without four-wheel drive ruts is a good choice. In town, when snow has fallen at lower elevations, Hirchsman Trail and Empire Mine trails are good choices.

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A “weekend warrior” mountain bicyclist since his college days and a longtime fan of 4WD trips into the backcountry, Nevada City’s Matt Reynolds fell in love with fat bikes about three years ago when he bought one from Duane Strawser at Tour of Nevada City Bicycle Shop.

For Reynolds, that first fat bike ride as an adult was like taking the training wheels off when he was a boy.

“It’s just like riding a bike again for the first time. It’s a whole new experience,” he said.

It started out as a strictly winter sport for him and a way to get out onto previously off limits snow-covered trails. Now Reynolds chooses his fat bike year round while his traditional mountain bike gathers cobwebs in the garage.

“Fat bikes can do everything for me,” he said.

Reynolds is not alone. More and more enthusiasts are emerging on local foothill and higher elevation Truckee and Tahoe trails.

Fat biking got its start in the 1990s on snow in Alaska and sand in New Mexico. While the trend has become almost commonplace in other areas of the country like Colorado and Midwest states with heavy snow, California’s fat biking fervor is gaining ground.

The sport has found its way into year-round riding, long distance bike packing and general off-road bike touring due to the control, security, and overall plushness of the ride, said Reynolds.

He explains the appeal of fat biking as a “biking for dummies” — with a bigger tire patch making it harder to crash increasing the feeling of control and security. Others agree.

“I love the freedom to explore, because the fat bike handles loose terrain so well it eliminates a lot of barriers to just go down some road or trail you’ve never been. You don’t care if you encounter sand, or a steep hill, up or down. Most importantly for some reason on a fat bike you don’t care how long it takes, you just enjoy the ride,” said Shawn OMeara, of Reno, who got into fat biking about three years ago.

Since that time, he has seen tremendous growth in the number of fat bikers on the trail. Technology is helping to lead the way.

“Three years ago when I started fat biking. I was it; there was no one else in this area. This year it has exploded in popularity, the bikes are lighter, cheaper and a lot more available,” he said.

Many, like OMeara get into the sport during winter, when favorite trails are covered in snow. Packed-down snow on fire roads and groomed trails from snowmobiles are preferred.

“I go everywhere, in the winter you chase snow conditions the same way a skier does. A little packed without being icy is usually what we’re looking for. That may be Cold Stream Canyon in Truckee or Thomas creek in Galena forest,” said OMeara.

Promising winter recreation in warm times

Many cross country ski resorts are now offering trails for fat bikes. For the second season, Royal Gorge and Sugar Bowl ski resorts offer new fat tire snowbiking trails on a scenic loop and a fleet of fat bikes available for rent.

Paco Lindsay, owner of Paco’s Truckee Bike and Ski, sees the sport as way to keep ski economies thriving despite warming climate conditions.

“I see them as a potential big revenue stream to help keep the cross-country ski centers going. With drought-type years, one can have dirt, ice, snow, and dirt, ice, snow again and have fun, while the skiing is shut down,” said Lindsey.

It’s also a way for those apprehensive about learning traditional snow sports — alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing — to have instant fun in the snow, he added.

Lindsay started the Facebook group, “Fat Bike Truckee Tahoe,” with 289 members and growing.

One of them is Whit Johnson, who moved from Colorado to Foresthill, two years ago. He had always been into winter sports and biking but didn’t combine the two until he built his first fat bike in 2011.

A backcountry skier, Johnson now uses his fat bike to cover the once-dreaded five miles-plus on roads to get to his choice ski spots.

“Fat bikes opened up an entirely different world to me in winter. Riding a bike on snow is one of those things you really have to experience to understand. At its best, it’s like powder skiing, at its worst it can be a lot of post-holing and very little riding, but it’ll always be an adventure that you will remember for years. For me it’s about going places you’ve never been before on a bike,” he said.

Filmmaker Anthony Cupaiuolo gave fat biking a try last winter when low snow and a lack of powder meant fewer opportunities to head to the backcountry on split boards and skis. He was instantly hooked.

Now he is making a film about the sport called, “Off the Beaten Path,” expected to be released by the holidays. Based at Lake Tahoe, the filmmaking crew is also shooting in unique terrain and incredible backdrops of nearby Nevada.

An avid mountain biker and member of TAMBA, Cupaiuolo enjoys being able to get out and ride in conditions that he couldn’t with his other bikes.

Low snow in recent years has had a more sluggish impact on fat bike popularity in the Sierra Nevada compared to other parts of the country, and some competitions have had to be put on hold, but more riders, like Cupaiuolo, are learning the bikes ride great in all terrain.

“There’s a strong and growing contingency of riders based in Reno that we know and they’re riding their fat bikes year-round as their main bikes,” he said.

So far, reaction to fat bikes on the trail has been positive with most trail users reacting with curiosity, Cupaiuolo said. Common courtesy and a “tread lightly” approach is a must to gain pubic approval.

The tire’s larger surface area means the bikes have little impact to the wear and tear of trails.

“We wouldn’t ride in a skate, ski, cross-country track for example and, just like on a regular mountain bike, you need to yield to hikers and those on horseback. I think the people getting into fat biking for the most part are already mountain bikers and have a good respect for our trails and backcountry,” he said.

Contact freelance reporter Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.

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