Big Wheels: Keep on rolling

It’s a commonly held opinion that bigger is better; in the case of biking in the winter, it’s undeniable. Fat bikes — off-road bicycles with oversized tires that allow you ride on soft, unstable terrain like snow — have moved past the “what is that?” stage and are here to stay. From dedicated cyclists who want to ride outside in the winter to folks who simply want to try out a new sport on the snow, fat biking is becoming common on trails around the state. Guided tours are offered and races are held, but the beauty of fat biking is that it doesn’t require a lot of training or skill.

“If your cardio is good, and you can ride a bike, it’s pretty easy,” says Paul Previtali, owner of High Gear Cyclery in Avon which rents fat bikes. “I’ve had all sorts of groups out there.” These bicycles are being spotted with more frequency in the Vail Valley, ridden by both residents and visitors. As its popularity grows, so do the opportunities to ride.


“Fat biking has seen huge growth and I think it’s a great thing,” says Dan Timm, director of the Vail Nordic Center. “Serious cyclists are now adding a fifth bike to their quiver. Most cyclists have a road bike, a mountain bike, a cyclocross bike and a cruiser and now they’re all adding a fat bike. It’s one of the growing segments in the bike industry for sure.”



And, this winter, the Vail Nordic Center has added riding fat bikes to its menu of activities. In fact, it’s putting out a specially groomed red carpet, consisting of singletrack fat bike trails, as well. Approximately 15 kilometers of groomed trails will be available for fat biking, in addition to the Nordic trails.

“We’re really excited about introducing it this year,” Timm says. “We’ll have our own fleet of nine rental bikes; people are welcome to bring their own fat bikes as well.”

And while fat bikers are sure to welcome any new terrain to their winter routes, there are some unexpected beneficiaries of these new trails, too, like people in East Vail who want to commute into Golden Peak and then into town.

But it’s more than cycling enthusiasts who are getting into the fat biking game: Pros are also taking to fat bikes.


Karen Jarchow is no stranger to bikes. A professional mountain bike racer, Jarchow spends most of her summer on her mountain bike. But in the winter? She started fat biking two years ago.

“I love doing other sports in the winter, too, so a part of me was apprehensive to do fat biking,” Jarchow explains. “But then again, the popularity has increased and it’s a great way to not be on my trainer.” The ability to be outside on her bike, year-round, was a key factor in Jarchow’s decision to take up fat biking. When the team that she races for developed a fat bike, Jarchow decided to try something a little different. It was a good decision: She won the 2017 Fat Bike World Championships in Crested Butte.

“It’s a whole different riding style, but it’s really fun,” Jarchow says. “I was surprised how much fun I had.”


As with any new sport, there are always tips to make the experience more enjoyable. In addition to the size of the tire, perhaps the biggest difference between riding a regular bike and a fat bike is the tire pressure. While mountain bike tires will be pumped up to 25 to 35 pounds per square inch (PSI), fat bike tires could be as low as 2.5 to 3 PSI. This lower pressure allows the bike to “float” over the snow instead of becoming mired in it. It makes balancing and controlling your bike easier, too, Jarchow explained. But stick to the groomed stuff: You’ll have more fun, and an easier go of it, on a firm, hard-packed trail than light, fluffy powder.


Temperature also plays a part in fat biking. The colder it is, the better the conditions will be because the snow will remain firm.

“If it gets too warm, it gets too soft and it’ll get a little too squirrelly and you can lose traction,” Jarchow says. “On training days, I would still go out but I didn’t like to go out when it was below zero. Anywhere from zero to 10 degrees was really good.”

When riding in cold temperatures, dressing for the occasion is key. Jarchow explains that layering is important, as your body temperature will rise during exertion. Keeping your head, hands and feet warm are really important: Jarchow wears winter mountain biking shoes, plus wool socks and toe warmers. Bike shorts and Nordic pants will keep your lower half cozy; layer up on your torso according to that day’s conditions. Remember––you can always take something off. Mittens are good for keeping heat in, and hand warmers are always welcome. Top it off with a neck scarf, ear covering and a helmet (ski helmets can keep your head warmer than a bike helmet) and you’re ready to go.

Fat biking has come a long way in its little-more-than-a decade history. Bikes are lighter and shops around the valley are now renting them, letting beginners and cycling enthusiasts follow their joy throughout the winter. So layer up and hit the trails this snow season—it’s a whole new way to keep on rolling through the winter.