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Heather Steeves

Heather Steeves tries to do things that are fun -- and only things that are fun. So far that's included stilt walking, roller derby and cross-country road trips in her Saturn.

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Posted: January 8, 2015

Ride Maine’s snowy trails on a fat tire bike: the honey badger of the cycling world

Written by: Heather Steeves

Sorry to say it, but it seems like winter breeds winners and losers. Skiers and snowboarders tend to win. They get it. They embrace the cold. They wake up to sloppy roads, face-hurting cold and their heaters blasting to keep the room at 60 degrees and think, “this weekend is going to rock.” The rest of us sulk and click the ever-judgy “continue watching” button on Netflix, getting fat and depressed while worrying about the heating bill. That said, not everyone wants to barrel down a mountain — sounds dangerous. demilarly, ice skating looks fun, but strapping blades to your feet and falling on ice over and over …

A new winter sport is growing in Maine — one that doesn’t require expensive lift tickets or knee pads: Fat tire biking. The mountain bikes usually have 4- to 6-inch tires (compared to 2-inch tires on regular mountain bikes). Without the huge tires the bike would slip out. The bulldozer tires slip and slide over ice — slide like drift race cars, not skid uncontrollably like my 4-cylinder Saturn on a frozen Hannaford parking lot. The wheels crunch over snow. They can travel anywhere a regular mountain bike can, plus on snowmobile trails and beaches.

The sport is gaining traction all over the country. In Maine, several bike stores are now renting these beast-bikes. Parks and recreational areas are opening their gates to the bikes. Recently Baxter State Park opened some trails and roads to the bikes because of the demand. There are a few fat tire races in the works for this winter too.

“It seems like the fat bike movement came out of the desire to do something in the winter with bikes, but increasingly people are using them all year,” said Jim Tasse, the assistant director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. “I have one and it’s wicked fun to go on the beach or use it like a mountain bike. They’ll go over anything; they’re the honey badgers of bicycles — they just don’t care.”

Recently, I took a honey badger out for a test ride. Carter’s XC Skiing in Oxford has two that it rents out for $55 a day, plus a $15 trail fee.

… but I picked the wrong day to go. Learn from my mistake: Don’t go in slushy conditions. Although these bikes are amazing at handling crunchy snow and slippery ice, wet and deep snow make biking hellish — like pedaling in the soft dune sand of a beach.

That said, part way through my 3-mile ride I hit a trail that a pickup truck’s tires had crushed — ideal conditions for fat biking: icy, crunchy, packed. It was heavenly. The big bike fishtailed, but didn’t slide out or fall over, making for a fun and fast ride. “So this is what it could be like,” I thought. The bike grabbed to the snow and it felt like I could ride all day. And that’s how it’s supposed to feel. The bike has super-low gears (mine was a 20-gear bike with two in the front, 10 in the back), which makes the hills easier, but also means you’ve got to pedal like the wind. Once the season ramps up, the 3 miles of fat tire trails at Carter’s will be groomed specifically for fat bikes by packing down a slim single track (and if you’re lucky Maya the golden retriever-Australian shepherd will bound beside you as you ride).

Picking the wrong conditions was my first mistake. Wearing an under layer, down vest and wool sweater was my second mistake. By the end of the ride, I was in just the under layer. Fat tire biking is a work out. After the fact, veteran bikers said they like to dress as if they’re going cross-country skiing.

So, mistakes were made. But overall, the sport has a ton of potential to be fun. Part of the intrigue is how easy it is to get started: You just need to know how to ride a bike. The bikes are expensive — decent ones start at about $1,000 — but you can now rent in Maine. Rentals are offered at Gorham Bike and Ski ($50), Cyclemania ($40), All Speed ($50), Green Machine in Norway ($55), Carter’s in Oxford ($55), Side Country Sports in Rockland ($75) and Bethel Bicycle via the Outdoor Center by Sunday River($35 full day, $25 half day).


What to know if you go:

-Dress as if you’re going cross-country skiing or winter running (no cotton). Wear good gloves. Bean boots got me through.
-Go when it’s cold. Ideally, with no fresh snow (unless the trails you’re going to bike on are groomed). Call ahead to make sure trail conditions are optimal.
-Consider bringing a backpack for your water, a snack and any clothing layers you shed.

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