This article first appeared in print in the March 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
Cyclists seem to love absurdity. It all started with the penny farthing, the bicycle with the awkwardly huge front wheel that was responsible for many Victorian-era faceplants. Since then people have built bicycles for cliff jumping, polo, jousting, basketball and lowriding. Bikes with square wheels, bikes for two, and bikes with treadmills instead of pedals. And now there are fat bikes built specifically for riding on snow and they may soon be faceplanting right here in Revelstoke.
Fat bikes are mountain bikes outfitted with tires between 3.7 to 4 inches in width, roughly double that of a normal tire, that give them extra flotation on snow. Originally conceived in 1987 to compete in the Iditabike race that traverses hundreds of kilometres of Alaskan tundra, fat bikes have gained traction worldwide in places that have long snowy winters. Riders generally stick to areas with a naturally thin snow pack, or they rely on grooming machines to pack a firm track.
But couldn’t they just ski instead?
“I wouldn’t say they do it instead of skiing. The fat bike could come into play for a number of reasons,” explains Mike Gravelle, owner and manager of Skookum Cycle and Ski.
“Commuting, early morning warm up, and some people just want to be outside exploring, breathing in the fresh air.”
Fat biking conditions also tend to be optimal when ski conditions are sub-par so it meshes nicely in a ski town. Of course, true enthusiasts will point out that it’s just plain old fun that has grown the niche so much in recent years.
“It is growing every year,” says Magne Kvam who operates Icebike, an Icelandic mountain bike tour company. “For the more hardcore trips, like the heli fat biking trips, we get clients coming in specifically for that.”
Closer to home in Vernon, B.C., Silver Star Mountain Resort has groomed over 15 kilometres of fat biking trails that weave through the base area. Similarly, in Rossland, B.C. fat bikers are into their fifth winter of riding and have now progressed to grooming the trails with machinery they purchased last year. From the sounds of it, fat could be getting big.
But is it a good fit for Revelstoke?
“We have a deep snow pack and to ride in Revelstoke you need frequent grooming to create a solid base,” continues Mike. “We need (a groomer) that can plough through deep snow, and perhaps deal with a heavy wet snow at times.”
Trail groomers, which move at roughly walking pace with a skilled operator, don’t come cheap at five to ten thousand dollars each. That’s why Matt Yaki, owner of Wandering Wheels bike guiding service, is spearheading a fundraising effort similar to a recent one in Invermere BC that raised the necessary cash in just ten days. So far Revelstoke is off to a slower start.
“It’s tough because the snow is so deep this year and the skiing is so good,” says Matt. “Plus Revelstoke has such a strong ski culture which makes it challenging to promote and grow a new sport like fat biking.”
Nevertheless, the fundraiser continues, aiming to raise $5,500 by November 2018 and to have the first corduroy singletracks laid down not long after. Portions of Lower Macpherson are tentatively earmarked for grooming since the grades are appropriate and since the Revelstoke Cycling Association already has a well-established land use agreement for the area.
If you’re thinking some corduroy singletrack sounds great for walking your dog or pedaling your summer steed, think again. The groomed tracks are easily damaged by snowshoes, skis, and even ordinary mountain bike tires so trail networks like Silver Star’s often require a minimum tire width of 3.75” and a maximum tire pressure of eight psi.
“Tactful trail etiquette signs are a good idea,” suggests Tyler Merringer of Revolution Cycles, one of the early proponents of fat biking in Rossland. However, he also points out that trail conditions improve as fat bike traffic increases. “More traffic equals more compaction so it’s a win-win.”
There’s a palpable ‘build it and they will come’ kind of optimism amongst fat bike devotees that the sport will reach a tipping point and catch on quickly.
“If someone were to develop a groomed, singletrack fat bike trail network, then more people would start riding and we can keep riding all winter long,” Matt says optimistically. “The possibilities are pretty exciting!”
While there is still a lot up in the air, if fat bikes land in Revelstoke one thing is for sure: epic faceplants.