By Molly Hurford
If you’re in Ontario for the winter, that means you have three primary options for on-bike training: riding the indoor trainer, riding outside on plowed roads (carefully!) on a gravel bike or MTB, or shredding in the woods on a fat bike. While all three are great options, I have to admit, the fat bike is arguably the most fun option out there, whether it’s on groomed trails or even just roads covered in hard-packed snow. It’s the safest outdoor option for riding as well, since the trails tend to be beginner friendly and forgiving, and on the road, you’ll have better traction and control than on any other type of bike. So, how do you get ready for fat biking in the winter, as a beginner or as a veteran rider? We have some tips:
Check your local options
Many trail networks and MTB clubs are making efforts to actively groom trails around Ontario expressly for fat biking. Some cross-country and downhill ski resorts are even adding groomed fat bike trails (and bike rentals, in some cases) to their winter offerings. Even rail trails in many areas are being packed down for cross-country skiing and fat biking. So before you head to your regular riding spot with the intention of blazing your own trail, look to see what’s available in your area. Riding pre-groomed trails is typically much more fun and fast than making your own! If you don’t have much in your area, look around for local gravel roads that have no winter maintenance, or limited winter maintenance. Often, these roads end up with a hard-packed layer of snow that makes riding a fat bike on the road actually feel like an adventure—and roads like this are a great way to get started and get used to riding on a slick or slushy surface.
When it’s cold outside, unless you’re a dedicated winter rider with insulated cycling shoes, you may be better served to swap your MTB shoes for your winter boots and a set of flat pedals. Not only will your feet stay warmer, you may even find that the ride is more enjoyable when you’re not clipped in. For beginners in particular, the ability to easily put a foot down or to kick a leg out for some added stability (creating a tripod effect in a corner) can make a ride feel much smoother and less scary. We also recommend layering up on top and bottom—make sure you’re wearing enough that if you’re stopped and forced to walk your bike or make a trailside repair, you won’t instantly go hypothermic. And keep your head warm: Aim to cover your entire face, especially on those bitter, windy days. You may even want to use a thick moisturizer on your nose, cheeks and lips to keep your skin from chapping. And full ski goggles might be more comfortable than regular riding glasses. Your hands will also be prone to getting cold fast, so look for the heaviest gloves you can find that still allow you to control your brakes and shifters. There are even some brands that make battery-heated gloves specifically for cycling! And lastly, if you’re riding more than an hour, you’ll want to bring water… but you may need to stash warm water in an insulated thermos rather than just filling a regular plastic bottle, since water freezes quick in those negative temps.
Remember, when riding in winter, prioritizing visibility is key. Unfortunately, many drivers aren’t expecting to see cyclists on the road, so the lighter and brighter you can be, the better. Front and rear lights in addition to high-vis gear are more important than ever, especially in any bad weather where visibility may be impacted.
Your best traction control comes from confidence and a willingness to wobble. Trying to control your bike too much will act in the opposite way that you’re hoping: Too much tension will make you more prone to slips, and nerves that cause you to grab for the brakes can lead to skidding out of control and into the nearest snow bank. Instead, try to embrace ‘going with the flow,’ letting the bike move more underneath you as you pedal. When braking, thing slow and steady rather than sudden. It may not feel natural at first to let the bike pick your line, but eventually, you’ll get used to the feeling.
Keep your bike clean
While fat biking seems much cleaner than mountain biking (way less mud splatter!), your bike will still be, at minimum, wet from snow by the time your ride is over. And if you ride on the road or it’s mounted on the back of your car as you drive home from the trail, it also may be covered with salt and grime from the road. Give it a rinse with warm water, and use degreaser on your chain regularly.
About the writer:
Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.