Before I read Jill Homer‘s Ghost Trails, I had no idea there was such a thing as a fat bike. Afterwards, I made a pledge that this winter I would find a way to ride one. It was a pretty safe bet that I’d fall hard for the idea of something that combines my favourite summer sport with the snowy landscapes that I love so much.
After writing about this for my Vancouver Courier cycle column, I got an email from Kristen Smith of the Methow Valley Sports Trail Association. For the first time ever, the MVSTA were opening up some of their world-famous cross-country ski trails to fat bikes. Knowing that an opportunity was so close at hand was impossible to resist. And so a couple of weeks ago, we loaded our gear, some friends and the traveling lolrii into the truck and took a drive to Winthrop, Washington, to make my snow biking dreams a reality.
Winthrop, a tiny little town with a pioneer vibe, endeared itself to me immediately. Super friendly without being overwhelming, full of old West style buildings and saloon bars, spread out on the banks of the winding Methow River against a backdrop of dusty grass and sagebrush. Winter lingered on the hills above the town, and I found myself scoping possible cycle routes along with the potential ski lines that dropped down to them.
We picked up our Salsa Mukluks from Methow Cycle and Sport, and I couldn’t resist taking mine for a quick evening pedal around town. On tarmac the huge fat tires felt more like the squishy comfort of a full suspension bike, and leaning to turn required some aggressive weighting. They were much happier being steered. I bunnyhopped off a few curbs, then retired to our beautiful cabin and its riverside hot tub for the night. As the sky faded to black above us, the silhouettes of grazing deer stepped delicately along the ridge on the far side of the river.
In the morning we headed for the Sun Mountain trails. It was chilly and the trails, which had officially closed for the season a day or so previously, were hard-packed. I couldn’t wait to get the snow bike out into its natural habitat. First impressions as I span the pedals were delight and amazement at just how well the fat tires held on the icy surface. There was no slipping or spinning; they just dug in and cruised. We stuck to fairly gentle slopes while we got a feel for the bikes, sharing the trails with happy cross-country skiers who waved and smiled as they flew downhill past us.
As the morning wore on we followed the bike shop’s advice and headed back through town to the Rendezvous Trails on the far side of the valley. Here the snow on the lower trails was starting to soften as the day warmed, and I found myself having to work a little harder. We took a winding trail that eventually curved uphill and led us onto a ridge high above the valley where the sun shone and the wind sighed through the pine trees.
After washing the rear wheel out a few times I found that the trick on the steeper parts of the trail was to keep the bike in the easiest gear, and spin my way up with my weight as far back as possible. This proved a surprisingly good workout given the relatively slow forward pace. One of the lovely things about snow biking is the time that it gives you to drink in the landscape you’re passing through, even as you’re working hard to make progress.
The ride back down from the ridge was a blast. Somewhere between skiing and biking, it was faster and more slidey and infinitely more fun than a regular downhill ride. The Mukluk’s big fat tires felt like they were flying over the snow. The lower part of the trail had turned to slush in the increasingly warm day, making for an enormously fun pedal back to the truck as I slipped and slid along. This was another situation where downhill techniques translated really well to the snow bike.
Much though I wanted to continue riding, I had to concede that conditions were hitting the cut off point. We loaded the truck up and headed back into town, where we went for a stroll along the ridge where we’d seen the deer the night before. Here’s the view looking down to our cabin at the wonderful River’s Edge Resort:
During the afternoon a colony of marmots kept us entertained as we soaked in the hot tub before heading out for a night on the town. We discovered an excellent Mexican restaurant with some of the largest portions I’d ever seen, took over the jukebox at Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon, shot pool for hours and bonded with the barman over pints of Alaskan ale. On our way home we took a walk over a little bridge on the edge of town into an inky darkness where the silver of the stars took our breath away. The Milky Way was clearly visible above us, a ribbon of scattered light unfurling across the centre of the sky.
The next morning we woke early and discovered that winter had returned to Winthrop.
Since the need to be on the road back to Vancouver meant we couldn’t linger too long, J and I drank our breakfast coffee in the hot tub while snowflakes drifted down around us. It was the perfect end to our time in town. The snowfall grew heavier and heavier as we prepared to leave, and we left Winthrop behind in a sea of white.
The drive back – we took the southern route along Highway 2 – was spectacular. The snow rapidly faded to a distant memory as we drove beneath wide open skies through the Columbia River gorge. The river itself stretched away beside us, enormously wide and impossibly blue in the sunshine, and in one unbelievable moment an eagle struck white foam from the water’s surface and then took off just an arm’s reach ahead of the car, droplets showering the road from the silver salmon that thrashed in its talons.
Outside of Leavenworth the landscape around us changed back to mountains, and we drove from brilliant sunshine straight into an intense snowstorm near Stephen’s Pass. Passing the Tunnel Creek area, the air around us felt spooky and sad. We all noticed, but didn’t place the reason at the time. RIP, Jim Jack and friends – every time I watched the Freeride World Tour this year, I thought of you.
The drive back was so full of moments when our jaws dropped, and the entire car chorused “wow” simultaneously. This whole trip was another reminder of how lucky we are to live here, with such amazing places either on our doorstep or just a short drive away, and such great friends to share them. The snow biking was everything I hoped it would be; what I didn’t expect was how much more my pursuit of it would give me.
(Snow biking photos by the incredibly talented Cecily Walker)