Editor’s Note: Last year about this same time of year, Sheri Rosenbaum wrote this piece on fat bike riding as a winter training alternative. She’s still hitting the trails – and even the beaches of Lake Michigan – on “Chris,” her Trek Farley, named after the late comedian Chris Farley… “slow, large and a lot of fun!” We thought we’d rerun the article as a reminder of a fun alternative to the nowhere machine for anyone who lives in a climate that makes winter road biking untenable.
Living in the Midwest, I always dread winter. The shorter days and cold, nasty weather mean road rides are few and far between.
This year (so far) El Nino has been our friend, as I was able to get in 200 outdoor miles during the month of January. Not bad for a working stiff. Riding the trainer is always low on my list compared to heading outdoors. Even our Strava ride names include “BTTB” or BTTT”. That’s code for: better than the basement or better than the trainer.
I’m a roadie, but riding the roads of suburban Chicago during the winter (when El Nino is not cooperating) can be challenging. In addition to the danger, snow, ice and salt can wreak havoc on a bike.
Made Me Feel Like a Kid Again
So, last year my boyfriend and I decided to test ride fat tire bikes. We rented them from a local bike shop and went across the street to a forest preserve. As we headed out the door, the sales guy yelled “when in doubt, run it over!”
Immediately I was transformed into an 8-year-old kid. There was sheer joy in riding what I call the monster truck of the bike world. The 5-inch-wide (12.7cm) tires rolled over everything. We rode through the snow at a lightning speed of 9 mph (14.5 kph). Yep, slower speeds take some getting used to, but that’s the new normal on a fat bike. Don’t get me wrong, you can get them up to higher speeds, but it’s a lot of work and doesn’t really boost the fun factor.
The forest that day (and every day since that I’ve ridden through it) was beautiful. Quiet, pristine, and inviting. The trees and lower speeds helped to keep you out of the wind, which translates to staying warmer. No doubt I was hooked on fat biking after just one ride.
And I’m not the only one. Many riders are flocking to this type of winter riding in locales where the weather typically forces roadies indoors. The Wisconsin and Michigan areas have fat bike racing and events almost every weekend, and many of the cyclocross races have now added a fat tire division. I can only hope the same will happen in Illinois.
Fatties Are Versatile, Customizable
Fatties, as they are affectionately called, lend themselves to riding on single-track, paths, roads, frozen lakes, and the beach. In fact, just the other day we headed to the Lake Michigan shores and rode along the beach. Who says you can’t go to the beach in January in Chicago?
Many cyclists have a hard time justifying yet another bike in their garage, shed or basement. But I believe in the N+1 rule. My N currently is four bikes – two road bikes, one cyclocross and a fattie – but there’s always room for the +1.
I’ve learned a lot since buying my first fattie. I’m used to high-end components and light-weight frame/rims on my road bikes. I made the mistake of buying a bike that was too heavy and had lower level components. My second fattie has lighter rims, tubeless tires (saves about 4 pounds), better components and a 1x. Not having to worry about shifting in the front as you fly down a hill and back up a steep incline is priceless. Live and learn – and spend a few extra bucks to greatly improve your riding experience. (That’s me on “Chris.” It’s a Trek Farley, so it’s named after Chris Farley…slow, large and a lot of fun!)
For the gear-heads among you who take up fat-bike riding, you can trick out your fattie just like you can your road bike(s). My boyfriend definitely caught the fattie bug and completely rebuilt his original bike. Now he has Di2 shifting, HED BFD 100mm rims and tubeless 45NRTH Dillinger 5 tires. The Di2 can be programmed to automatically shift the front derailleur according to where you are on the rear cassette.
So if you live in an area where weather can be a beast in the winter, don’t head for the trainer without at least considering the fattie alternative. See if you can find a shop that will let you try (or rent) a fattie and rediscover that inner child. I guarantee it will put a smile on your face. Yes, that smile might get frozen in place with a -10 wind chill, but it is so worth it.
Sheri Rosenbaum regularly contributes articles and reviews products for RBR. She’s an avid recreational roadie who lives in the Chicago area and a major advocate for women's cycling, serving on the board of directors and volunteering with the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club. Click to read Sheri's full bio.