This, apparently, is fat biking.
While most riders in Jasper relegate their bikes to the storage room sometime in October, not all of Jasper’s pedalheads are willing to trade their bikes for skis when the snow flies. Sure, many commuters bundle up for their ride to work on the blacktop, but thanks to a new trend in the Jasper mountain bike community, our prolific trail network is seeing a growing number of tire tracks.
“Every time I go out I can’t wipe the smile off my face,” said long-distance cyclist and newly-anointed fat biker, Greg Van Tighem.
How can mountain biking be so popular in sub-zero temps with six inches of snow on the ground? The reason is in the rubber. Super wide, low-pressure tires supported by custom hubs and frames have made their way to early adopters' bike quivers. Last year, Derek Anderson and Andrew Bovard—two of Jasper's most dedicated riders, no matter what season— ponied up for the fattest ride on two wheels, the Surly Pugsly, which sports four inch tires for seriously spread-out weight distribution. This year, the sport is booming. Freewheel Cycle has already sold out of their stock of Pugslys and, particularly on the weekends, the shop can’t keep its rental fleet in the rack.
“Locals, visitors from Edmonton, friends from Hinton...we’re seeing a ton of interest,” said Freewheel’s Wendy Hall.
Initially, Van Tighem was interested purely in the winter workout. Like Anderson and Bouvard, the fire chief wanted to extend his biking season while keeping the legs in shape. He was, after all, training for a 2,800 km road ride for his EndMS93 Campaign. But then something happened. He realized how much fun he was having.
“You quickly forget how cold you were when you started,” he said.
And it is a workout. By the time the chief and I get to the top of the climb above the Catholic Church, even though the thermometer was reading minus-15 degrees Celcius, I’ve peeled off my fleece and my neck warmer. Later, as we cruise back down I can feel an onset of frost nip on my face, but for the most part, like ski touring, a steady pace keeps the chills at bay. Thick gloves are essential, as is a thermal underlayer, and using a ski helmet rather than a bike lid gives you the option of fitting a toque underneath. Goggles, we discovered, are susceptible to fogging and bike cleats, while useful for cranking out a good cadence, can ice up and jam. Upon our descent to town, GVT got stuck in his pedals and took a spill, cracking his hand off his brake lever in the process.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold a pint,” he joked.
Perhaps the most exciting part about winter biking is the transformation of the landscape. The myriad stumps, rocks and roots which have been stamped into my subconscious after six years of mountain biking in Jasper are now covered in snow, rendering every trail, every turn anew.
Unfortunately, the snow also helps to disguise hazards. The chief discovered as much when a pointy branch almost skewered him after what looked like a harmless tumble. Brushing himself off, he decided the experience would only toughen him up for his next EndMS Challenge: cycling the entire length of the Yellowhead Highway on a fat bike.
“I learned a lot on my last trip,” he said while toasting his first training ride of the winter at the Jasper Brewpub. “I took some risks I don’t want to repeat.”
For example, trying to negotiate a lane between rumble strips, non-existent shoulders and two
approaching transport trucks.
“There were some days I thought I was lucky to be alive,” he said.
In February, as he begins the first of 3,000 kms from the Queen Charlotte Islands to Winnipeg, Van Tighem won’t be risking life and limb to get to his next pitstop. What he could be risking is frostbite, pneumonia and being caught in a prairie storm.
“If you get an ice blizzard you don’t want to be on Highway 16,” he said.
By mapping his route so he stays in fire halls, rather than in a tent, he’ll have access to a lot more support, meaning he can watch out for things like impending storms, the onset of a flu and, of course, that next IPA.
“It’s important to set goals,” he said, tipping back a Rockhopper.