Winter is often dreary: heavy iron skies, biting cold, salt and slush coating everything. But not every day is cruel. And even on miserable-looking days, one of the best ways to conquer the season’s doldrums is to get outside and move. It’s why I keep biking throughout the winter: it lets me get places without using gas, keeps me physically healthy, and improves my mood.
Biking in the cold can be a challenge, but it’s a worthy one. You just have to pay even more attention to your gear. I’ll be covering a selection of my winter cycling gear in a later post, but today I’m going to share a revelation I had while hiking around Michigan’s Mackinac Island recently.
One of Mackinac Island’s unique features is the lack of cars. In fact, apart from the emergency service vehicles, and snowmobiles during the winter, motorized vehicles are banned from the island. If conditions aren’t right for snowmobiles, that means you travel by either horse-drawn carriage (whose presence is why cars were banned in the first place), walking, or by bike. The entire island’s a cyclist’s paradise, even with snow and ice on the ground.
Icy snow and bikes don’t mix well. Usually. But over the past few years, a new kind of bicycle has risen in popularity: the fat bike. If it wasn’t obvious enough, the name comes from the ridiculously oversized tires the bike is designed to run on. The wide, low-pressure footprint make these bikes into the Jeep Wrangler of the cycling world.
One of the biggest problems with driving or riding in the winter is variable traction. Sometimes, there’s enough; other times, it’s a miracle to go a block without fish-tailing. Cycling through the snow usually doesn’t leave me laughing all the way. If the snow’s powdery enough to drift in the wind, or enough time has passed for the snow to get packed down, there’s enough stable surface for my tires to grip. But what I usually encounter is a mix of wet snow and ice that’s melted and then refrozen into weird humps. To stay safe, I usually go slower, which makes it harder to balance. That makes it easier to slip, so I go even slower, and...you get the picture.
There are two general strategies to riding a bike in the snow. Some use narrow road tires. This is similar to why tire companies like Tire Rack recommend going down in tire size during the winter. The reasoning is because you want the tire to cut through the ice and snow in order to grip the road. This works for the significantly heavier car, but I’ve only seen this work on my bike when the snow acted like powdered sugar.
That’s why I’d decided, before leaving for Mackinac Island, to suggest the other strategy if anyone asked. That being, go for the widest rubber you can fit.
After riding the Felt DD 30, I’m confidently preaching the gospel of fat rubber. Instead of screaming in terror, the island’s hills made of rocky soil and rock-hard ice left me laughing my ass off.
This bike is intoxicating. On a normal bike, seeing a pothole or a patch of ice leaves you a nervous wreck. You ask yourself, can I drive around it? Will the cars behind me hit me if I do that? Can the bike take the hit if I don’t swerve? Can I take the hit if I don’t swerve? Oh God, it’s coming up, what do I do?!
On the fat bike, I see a pothole, I ride over it. No thinking necessary. I then cackle, grin, and go hunting for the next one to conquer under my enormous wheels. Ice patches may as well be autobahn asphalt.
On this bike, I can conquer anything and everything. Gravel? It’s this thing’s breakfast cereal. Mud? Snort. Racing someone on snow, or even sand, my only thought would be, “Closer! I want to hit them with my sword!”
The DD 30 has a solid aluminum fork, instead of suspension (as the DD 10 model does), and its 6061 aluminum frame would make you think it’d be stiff, but uncomfortable. But the low pressure and gratuitous amount of rubber mean you don’t have to feel a thing when the bike makes the road surface its bitch. Those glorious tires do mean the bike weighs almost 31 lbs. But the Shimano Deore M615 mechanical disc brakes are more than up to the task of stopping this tank of a bike, even when I was barreling downhill.
It’s like a tank in one other way: speed. Wide rubber means high rolling resistance. On level ground, I can reach 18 mph and above on my Jamis Renegade adventure bike. On the Felt? I’d estimate my max speed at 10-12 mph.
But top speed isn’t the point of a fat bike. It’s the ability to go up, around, and over essentially any terrain. The Shimano SLX 1x11 drivetrain helps with that. That “1X” means the bike has no front derailleur (only one chainring at the pedals), only one in the rear.
Getting rid of the forward derailleur does mean you lose some ability to modulate pedaling effort—less gearing choices—but it saves a little weight and cost, and makes the bike simpler as a whole to ride. There’s less to go wrong, which makes it easier to just get on out there and shred some snow.
Downsides? Well, the decrease in top speed may not matter that much in the real world, but it does mean the fat bike can’t zip around trails like other mountain bikes can. You’re not going to be the next Danny MacAskill on the DD 30.
Compared to other mountain bikes seemingly wider breadth of ability, the $1700 MSRP may seem somewhat expensive.
But the beauty of a fat bike is that, where you can go, you don’t need any trails. And even if you don’t flit around muddy forests like a bat outta hell, pedaling with those tires you can get fit real quick. Plus, $1700 is actually a really good price for a bike this capable. I compared the Felt to a Jeep Wrangler earlier. Jeep enthusiasts don’t (and can’t) go through Moab with their feet pressed to the floor mats. It’s about experiencing the world, tackling the terrain one rock and hill at a time.
Really, the biggest downside is that I don’t already have one of these. Hell, you can even hunt with ‘em.
Despite what the groundhog said, winter will be over soon. But you can expect to see me outside during next year’s snowstorms. I’ll be the guy on a bike with ridiculously wide tires, laughing as winter begs for mercy.