The November rains are here, drowning out memories of the endless summer that lasted right into October. It's winter cycling season; the long sleeves are back, the fenders are on, and the house is full of wet rain gear drip-drying after a soggy ride home.
In the mountains, the snow has started falling with a vengeance. And this has me thinking not just about skiing and snowshoeing, but about something new I want to try this winter: snow biking.
I first learned about fat bikes and snow cycling from blogger Jill Homer's book Ghost Trails, which tells the story of her journey to one of the craziest-sounding cycling endeavours I'd ever heard about: the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Easily the most remote ultra race in the world, the ITI takes participants along 563 kilometres of frozen Alaska trail in the depths of winter. The 2013 race starts Feb. 24.
Homer's descriptions of the trials she faced completing the race make for a compelling read. Hunger, extreme cold and exhaustion. She slept in the snow and relied on the kindness of strangers who provided food and shelter along the way. I was fascinated by her ability to push her body to its very limit in a frozen, inhospitable and beautiful environment.
But most intriguing of all her feats was the cycling. On a bike built for snow, she pedalled along trails hard-packed by snowmobiles, floated over crusts that would have broken beneath regular tires, and pushed through powder drifts that would have been a skier's dream. It was the same sport I knew and yet completely different.
The reason was Homer's fat bike, which describes the tires more than the actual bicycle frame. The balloon-like tires on her bike were nine centimetres wide.
I was intrigued. I looked into fat bikes more closely and discovered they were considered a tiny niche for many years but are now increasingly popular and are available from a number of manufacturers. Surly Bikes have three models: the Pugsley, the Necromancer and the monster Moonlander. Salsa offers the "go-anywhere" Mukluk in both aluminium and titanium frames. Speedway Cycles even has a race-oriented fat bike, the Fatback.
The main characteristics that set fat bikes apart are their huge rims and enormous tires that give them their name. These provide the float that the bikes need for travelling on snow and sand, allowing a rider to go where others can't.
Clearly a bike with these kinds of dimensions - the Moon-lander has 10-cm rims and 12-cm tires - is not the speediest ride and does not have the sharpest handling. But that's not their purpose. They're meant for getting out in terrain, conditions or weather that would keep any other bike at home.
As an avid skier and cyclist, I love the idea of taking one of my favourite sports into a landscape where it doesn't normally get to go and trying a cycling experience that Jill says is "like flying."
For this coming winter, one of my goals is to rent a fat bike and ride the trails I normally ski or snowshoe. And, of course, to report back on how I find this new cycling experience.
Kay Cahill is a cyclist and librarian who believes bikes are for life, not just for commuting. Contact her at email@example.com.