The Lure of the Fat Bike: A Winter Time Story at Lair O’ the Bear, Colorado

Think about one of your favorite trails. Now think about how that might look if it is covered in about 8-10 inches of snow. Would you ride it?

A little over a year ago, I would have said, “no way. Winter is for snowboarding and dark beer and Xbox.”

But fortunately, in the summer of 2012 my local bike shop held a demo day and talked me into goofing around on a fat bike at a local trail, and I was instantly hooked. It was a good thing too, because as winter approached, my “real” mountain bike had a catastrophic failure (i.e. the carbon fiber cracked), and I was left with riding my 2013 Salsa Beargrease for the remainder of the fall, winter, and spring. Needless to say, I got to know it quite well.

A snapshot of the more poetic part of the ride along Bear Creek in Lair O' the Bear Park

Having spent the last, oh, 37 years living in the Southeastern United States before relocating to Colorado, riding a fat bike, or any bike, in the snow, was a foreign concept to me. It did not compute. In fact, I would have called it silly. However, after moving to one of the meccas of mountain biking, and riding almost every day all summer long, I noticed that I started to get tired of some of the trails I rode over and over.

How could this be? I had moved from Florida, where I had to drive at least an hour to get to any trail, and usually drove two hours to ride a decent one. I did that almost every weekend for years. It was a drag, but it was a chance to ride singletrack, so I did what I had to do. I decided that wherever I moved next, I would have access to killer trails right in my neighborhood, and I made sure that happened. I moved into a home that is within 15 minutes of about 15 trails–a mountain biker’s paradise if there ever was one. So what’s the problem with that? It is easy to get bored with them.

I actually decided to purchase a fat bike before much snow fell where I lived, “just in case” I might ride a few times during the winter when my skinnier 2.3in tires couldn’t cut it. Then it snowed, and to my surprise, a lot of my favorite trails were instantly inaccessible for the season to all but hikers. Regular mountain bikes were worthless in powder.

Lair O’ the Bear is one of those trails, positively reviewed on Singletracks in 2012, and a very popular local trail. So popular, in fact, that it is frustrating to ride on the weekends during the summer because of all of the traffic. Located near Kittredge, CO, about half an hour west of Denver, it is higher in the mountains and stays cooler, and the snow stays longer because of all the tree cover. It is a great place to get away, and despite the long, steep climb to the top, I wanted to try and see if I could ride my fat bike there and enjoy this awesome trail during the winter.

Climbing to the top of Lair O' the Bear on my Salsa Beargrease, enjoying the solitude and zen of an abandoned forest

If you ride trails like this in the nippy months, you will discover something that has become one of my favorite things about the cold: the trails are deserted. I mean, there is sometimes no one around, which is excellent if you are seeking solitude… and not so great if you need help.

Last year, I learned a few things. First, don’t even try to ride clipless pedals when there’s a lot of powder. I spent much of my ride time pounding out the ice from my cleats, only to dismount again and repeat. I walked most of the way up the steep hill, but I justified this inconvenience because the downhill was amazing.

Second, it is a really good idea to ride with very low pressures in your tires… as low as 5-6 psi, if you want to have a snowball’s chance in hell of climbing a steep grade when there is ice or deep powder.

Third, I worked up quite a sweat riding/walking uphill for over an hour, and had to shed mucho clothing.

Despite these troubles, the chance to get out in the woods on a trail, as well as the education the experience gave me, was well-worth it. I seem to learn something new about riding every time I get on a fat bike.

I rode Lair O’ the Bear several times in the summer this past season, and once again, to my surprise, I found myself getting a little tired of riding it. I decided to take my Beargrease out again a month ago after a hearty snow fall, and this time I decided to change a few things I remembered from last winter. I rode with flat pedals and comfy, warm 45NRTH Wolvhammer boots, and dressed in all the right layers (I knew what to expect this time).

It was a great feeling to get fresh tracks, even though I still had to work pretty hard on the way up. I only encountered three runners, and I felt alone and at peace. The forest was quiet, and it was bathed in a winter-wonderland coating of fresh powder. The air seemed still, and I paused several times to look around and admire how differently this trail looked when it was white. I noticed a few boulders and beautiful trees that I had never paid attention to before. Things looked so different than they did just a few weeks ago… did I really know this trail?

Normally this section is a tricky mess of rocks and roots. Nothing but soft white powder here and the sound of fat tires crunching over snowy bliss

I rode as fast as I could and ripped downhill, but honestly, it wasn’t my favorite memory of this ride. Unlike most of my other rides, the fun, gnarly downhill is almost not worth remembering at all. An appendage, an afterthought. Some may find that strange, but it really was the poetic journey that gave me a new perspective on an “old” trail, a renewed sense of wonder at the same rocks and roots and trees I had been staring at all summer. Having a bike that allowed me to ride when I, and most others, would probably be doing something else let me see a part of the world in the winter that I am glad I didn’t miss out on.

Your Turn: Have you tried a fat bike yet, or have you tried to ride in the snow? What were your experiences?

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