Dirt Rag Magazine

A look at some of the cold-weather gear we have on test


I had lots of plans to ride fat bikes this winter. But January seemed to have more days in the 50s than the 30s, and I missed the only real snow storm due to a trip to Chile to ride the new Santa Cruz Hightower. Winter is paying us back with some cold weather, and that should give us a chance to get out on some of this cold-weather stuff that has been staying warm inside.

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Stan’s NoTubes Race Sealant

First up, a not-specifically-cold weather product, Stan’s new Race Sealant.

  • Twice the sealing crystals = faster, stronger seals to get you across the line first
  • Additional larger crystals = seals larger punctures to keep you rolling
  • Premium low-viscosity latex = reacts fast and works in the widest range of temperatures and conditions
  • Natural materials = safe for the environment

It is also good until -30 degrees, which is pretty important for fat bikers.

This is the first product developed in Stan’s Racing Development (SRD) group, a newly-developed collection of employees dedicated to developing race-oriented products. This new sealant should be checked every two weeks, versus 4-5 for the standard juice. Pricing is forthcoming.

More info: notubes.com

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Bar Mitts Extreme Cold Pogies – $125

With below zero wind chills threatening in a few days, I should be able to put these to the test. Lot’s of room inside to keep snacks from freezing and various glove thicknesses. They install via handlebar end-plugs, which seems pretty simple compared to the internal Velcro loops of standard Bar Mitts pogies.

  • Waterproof, 6 mm thick neoprene with Fleece on the inside and nylon lamination on the outside
  • Removable Velcro cuff for easy access & removal of hands with no draw string complications
  • Expandable bar end plug, which keeps the mitts stiff and in place
  • Zipper can be opened for ventilation and temperature regulation
  • Easily installed and removed
  • Reflective material on seam & logo

More info: barmitts.com

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SKS FatBoard fenders $55

Fat bikes need fenders, too. SKS has these easy on-and-off set that should provide coverage all the way up to a 5 inch tire.

More info: sks.com

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Orange Seal Subzero Tubeless Sealant $14.50-$22

We’ve had great luck with Orange Seal’s standard sealant, and look forward to trying this new Subzero stuff. Should be fun to have a face-off versus the new Stan’s Race sealant.

More info: orangesealed.com

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Bontrager Gnarwhal studded fat bike tire – $225 (each)

I paid almost the exact same amount of money for a set of steel wheels and winter tires for my car. That was used, and off craigslist, but still. Front and rear is going to set you back $450. But for riding the packed-down, icy and bumpy trails these might turn what would be a completely frustrating ride into a good time. And good times often have a price tag.

More info: trekbikes.com


Stay tuned for full reviews of all these things in the future. In the meantime, go enjoy the weather, whatever it is doing in your locale.

 

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Grooming fat: The fight for winter fat bike access


Words: Sarah Galbraith

In parts of our country, when winter takes a firm, frosty grip on your core, some mountain bikers mark the turn of seasons by putting away their bikes and tuning up their skis. But explosive growth in winter fat biking has taken hold in the past few years: Sales grew 44 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association, with nearly 38,000 fat bikes sold in 2014 alone. It turns out pedaling on two wheels is just too much fun to call it quits when Jack Frost comes a-banging.

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As Andy Williamson, Great Lakes Region director with the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), puts it, “Fat biking is not a fad; it’s still mountain biking.” Mountain bikers in his neck of the woods, like Illinois and Iowa, are psyched to have an option to ride year round. “What we enjoy on mountain bikes in the summer is now also available in the winter season,” he says.

While the popularity of fat biking has exploded, the number of places to ride has not necessarily kept the same pace. When it comes to winter trails, many land managers and mountain bike advocates are still figuring things out. Folks in Colorado, Illinois and Vermont are working hard at developing new relationships and gaining trail access for fat bikes, and they’re all making progress in exciting ways.

The Same Access Fight

At first, bike shops were selling fat bikes like hotcakes but couldn’t really advise customers on where to ride, so they began sneaking onto groomed cross-country ski-touring center trails at night when no one was there to catch them. (They were riding snowmobile trails without permission as well.) They were also heading out on local ungroomed singletrack, often disappointed after struggling over a trail that was tracked out by snowshoers and dog walkers. None of this was terribly fun, so soon bikespecific snow singletrack became the goal among fat-bikers.

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“We’re in the thick of it in terms of finding access for fatbikers,” says Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association based in Aspen, Colorado, and associate region director for IMBA. “Our philosophy is ‘build it and they will come.’” Pritchard explains that his community’s goal is to create winter mountain bike trails rather than searching for access on existing trail networks. “We’re looking to provide a separate experience. Riding singletrack is more enjoyable than riding 8- to 12-foot-wide groomed Nordic tracks,” he explains. “Bikespecific singletrack is the goal. That will give everybody the best experience possible.”

To achieve this, Pritchard believes fat-bikers have to do the same thing mountain bikers did a few decades ago to gain summer access. In the ’80s, bikes were used to explore existing routes in forests and beyond, generally on public lands, much in the same way the first fat bike riders took to established winter routes. When the administrative decision came down to exclude mountain bikes from legislated Wilderness areas, mountain bikers got organized and worked with land managers to find places for trails that were sustainable, catered to a broad ridership and provided the best experience.

Now, Pritchard says, fat-bikers need to organize in the same way: “We need to join together so it’s clear to land managers that this is not a fad, and that providing great fat bike experiences is a truly worthwhile cause.”

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His community is working on access to naturally groomed trails that are currently used by skiers and snowshoers, skirting town on public and private land. They’re also working with National Forest land managers to develop fat biking on federal land, where snow compaction is an issue for wildlife management. His group thinks fat bikes could be added to National Forest areas with existing compacted routes such as roads and snowmobile trails, and National Forest staff are planning an environmental analysis of the issue.

The Global Fat Bike Summit and Festival, held in January 2015, brought together fat bike advocates and land managers, including staff from the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and various state parks. The summit was held in Jackson, Wyoming, where local U.S. Forest Service staff have been progressive with fat bike policies.

But other public and federal areas, like Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, have banned fat bikes. The takeaway message of the summit is that this is not going away. For riders, fat bikes mean new trails and new terrain to ride. For bike shops, fat bikes allow them to still be bike shops through the winter, rather than laying off staff or switching to skis. But for land managers, it’s a new user group to manage, and new strategies are needed.

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Pritchard says that quickly evolving fat bike technology can help the case for winter access. For example, tires have gotten wider and can run lower pressure. This means less compaction, which is important when sharing trails with other users, as on groomed Nordic trails, or riding in natural areas. Suspension forks are increasingly available as well, making riding on naturally groomed trails smoother.

“This technology can lend itself to better access, compared to bikes from 10 years ago,” says Pritchard. Plus, smaller-wheeled fat bikes for kids were added to the market last year, and that should help more families get out on the trails.

Getting to Know Snow

“Winter riding was already happening when fat bikes came along,” says Matt Andrews of his home state, Minnesota, where he’s executive director of Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (MORC) and an assistant region director with IMBA. “MORC already had winter cycling, so when fat bikes came on the scene we just started grooming trails we already had.”

MORC maintains 50 miles of winter singletrack that exists in six public parks. Fat-bikers share the trails with snowshoers and runners. They don’t share trails with snowmobiles because there is a concern about the safety of combining motorized and non-motorized use, particularly in the dusk and evening hours.

Andrews also believes it’s important for trail maintainers to learn snow science. Learning how to groom is a big deal, and it can take years of experimenting to learn when to groom and what tools to use in different snow conditions. His group learned about grooming by connecting with the local Nordic community. “They understand when to groom,” he says. “If there is fresh snow, they’ll groom at midnight and let it set for four, six or 12 hours to get it solid.”

The key to good grooming is to fluff the snow to get the air out and then pack it down with something heavy. On trails where they can use motorized equipment, MORC employs a Yamaha Big Wheel, which is a fat-tired motorcycle. A club member who is handy with a welder designed their own grooming implements to attach to a hitch behind the motorcycle. “One looks like a big cheese grater,” Andrews says.

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Where motorized use is not allowed, snowshoers will pack in the trail and drag truck tires behind them. In northern Minnesota, a group called The Snowshoe Zombies packs in winter singletrack by snowshoe. “These are athletic, CrossFit-type people,” according to Andrews. They snowshoe in a line, sometimes walking sideways, up and down the hills. “They’re Jazzercising down the trail,” he laughs, “working it out, and that makes beautiful singletrack.”

But snowshoe grooming takes a tremendous effort and works only where there is a dedicated group of volunteer snowshoers or runners. Aside from grooming advice, Andrews recommends that mountain bike groups think about winter when they’re proposing new trail projects and maintaining existing trails.

For example, trim tree branches higher when building trail to accommodate for the extra height of snow. Look at features like berms, double jumps and drops and think about how they will ride in the winter, or how they can be improved upon with snow. Because snow is a more durable surface, trail builders can break the rules a bit when designing winter trails.

Sharing Is Caring

When fat bikes first came on the scene, Vermonters were finding their own places to ride, legal or not. But in the last couple of winters, Vermont has been adding fat bikes to existing summer and winter trail networks, and the shared-use model is working. Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vermont, which sees 60,000 summer mountain bikers per year on its vast network of singletrack, switches to a cross-country ski-touring center in the winter.

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But in recent years the nonprofit organization that maintains the trails has been encouraged by the popularity of fat biking, so they added it to their winter operations. A 12-mile network of singletrack is snowmobile and snowshoe groomed by the trail crew, and last winter they had 2,500 fat-bikers ride there.

The Jay Cloud, a full-service bike shop located near Jay Peak Resort in Montgomery, Vermont, just added a winter bike shop at the mountain. Co-owner Ethan Dull got excited about his own fat bike last season and talked to the operations staff at the ski resort; management saw it as an additional recreation opportunity that would bring more people to the mountain. Everyone was happy to bring more people to the Nordic trail network, which hadn’t been seeing a lot of skier traffic.

Plus, fat biking complements skiing, says Dull: “On crappy ski days, the trails are great for riding.” Dull moves his bike shop to the Nordic center at the mountain for the winter and offers sales, service and fat bike demos and rentals. Fat-bikers have access to nearly 12 miles of Nordic ski trails and about 2 miles of snowshoe-groomed singletrack. He also likes to set up his demo fleet at the base of the mountain on a nice day and says the bikes get a lot of attention. “Most people have never seen or heard of these things, and once they see them they want to get out and try it.”

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Dull also gets a lot of attention just biking around the base area to get coffee or run errands. Last year was particularly stellar when it comes to fat biking events in Vermont. New England’s fat bikers enjoyed Le Grand Fat Tour, a six-event series organized by Mountain Bike Vermont. The events spanned the Vermont-Quebec border and drew in 1,000 participants. Winterbike at Kingdom Trails was the culmination of the series, with 400 people joining the ridiculously fun daylong festival of riding, drinking, food and music. Plus, the Stowe Derby, a nutty downhill ski race that combines cross-country and downhill ski racing on old-school gear, welcomed 100 fat-bikers to the start line in 2014, marking the event’s 70th anniversary.

Vermont Mountain Bike Association’s (VMBA) executive director, Tom Stuessy, has been working tirelessly on winter access. Plans are in the works for an interactive online trail map, which this year will show 15 to 20 areas with open access for bikes, and expanding access is also at the top of the agenda. “VMBA’s been working very closely with public-land managers to find more and better access in Vermont,” says Stuessy. A new partnership among VMBA, the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) and the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation has invited five VMBA chapters to allow fat bikes on groomed snowmobile trails that are on state land.

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“The point is not to provide long, 20-mile corridors of shared snowmobile trails,” says Stuessy. “The partnership is based on an understanding that we want access to the corridor to connect other fat bike riding areas.” To support the partnership, riders across the state will join local VAST clubs and will pitch in with trail maintenance and signage.

The Future Is Not Frozen

Clearly the number of places to ride your fat bike is on the rise across the country. Williamson, IMBA’s region director working in the Great Lakes area, thinks the winter fat bike access fight will be expedited, since this is just mountain biking, after all, and we’ve already come a long way with summer access. Yet he sees a future of providing trails on public land where people live that are purpose-built for fat bikes. He expects more ski resorts will add groomed fat bike trails in the coming years as well, since those riders represent a new market. To help all of this happen, he says, “We need to talk up the benefits of winter mountain biking.”

 

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Shimano releases new gravity, touring and winter shoes


The new Shimano gravity series has been designed with input from Men’s Downhill World Champion Gee Atherton, 2013 Downhill World Champion Rachel Atherton and multiple British 4X National Champion Dan Atherton. The Atherton’s influence is clear to see in the AM9, which the whole GT Atherton team has been testing since the beginning of the season, with protection and grip to suit harsh riding conditions and the most aggressive riding styles.

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AM9

The newly designed pedal channel in the outsole of the AM9 makes it easier to re-engage to the pedal while unclipped. This feature also brings about a weight-saving of 217g per pair (size 40), a 23% reduction over the AM45. It features a comfortable EVA foam construction midsole and Volume Tour Last sizing outsole for extra volume at the ball of the foot, providing additional comfort and support on and off the bike. A Velcro strap on the upper of all new AM shoes keeps the foot securely in place with even tension across the metatarsal bones.


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AM7

The AM7 is identical to the AM9 but with a flat Virbram outsole for flat pedals. Armoured lace shields on the AM9 and AM7 provide additional metatarsal protection from the elements and keep laces confined, away from chain rings and cranks.


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AM5

The AM5 on the other hand, foregoes the lace shield to offer a street-inspired style, equally at home in skate parks, trail parks and everywhere in between. With a lightweight and non-compressed flat insole, the AM5 offers an even and comfortable foot cushion for a platform that’s ideal for both walking and riding.


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XM9

With its high-ankle protection and walking support, the XM9 takes on the appearance of a hiking boot rather than a traditional cycling shoe. Strategic ankle padding prevents debris from entering the shoe and offers more ankle support than a regular cycling shoe without interfering with pedaling movement. Further protection from the elements comes in the form of a durable rubber toe cap, natural nubuck leather and a breathable, waterproof Gore-Tex liner for optimal climate comfort.Traditional laces provide the closure system with metal hook eyelets for lacing, combined with a Mini Power Strap, TPU heel, and cupped and grooved insole to secure your foot in the shoe.


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XM7

Designed for riders who are likely to spend as much time off the bike as on it, the XM7 delivers the best of both worlds. Natural Nubuck leather and a reinforced rubber toe box provide protection and durability, whilst a Gore-Tex liner allows your feet to breathe. Much like the XM9, a Vibram® outsole provides grip and a flexible half-length shank plate and shock absorbing EVA delivers outdoor walkability in all conditions. The lace closure system with its Velcro cross-foot top loop-strap provides a snug fit and allows laces to be tucked away.

Both the XM9 and XM7 come with a screw-in plastic cap for the recessed SPD cleat. This multi-functional cap is designed for use with flat pedals but is designed to fit an SPD pedal for those who want to get used to the cleat entry and exit action before committing. The cap simply unscrews when you’re ready to add Shimano’s SPD cleats.


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MW7

A new addition in Shimano’s off-road shoe line-up, these insulated and waterproof boots are fleece-lined for protection from rain and cold. They have a waterproof Gore-Tex insulated comfort liner and heat-retaining fleece lined insole as well as Shimano’s Torbal torsional midsole giving you a stiff instep section and an independently flexible front and back section. This gives the foot a natural flow for descents and also provides you with efficient power transfer to the areas of the foot that need it most. Meanwhile high-traction rubber studs on the outer edges of the sole ensure excellent traction on a wide variety of terrains and conditions.

For mountain biking, the MW7´s molded toe cap and ankle support, cupped high sole and instep, and tough, padded synthetic leather surround protects the foot from on-trail basketball-shaped rocks. Lacing is taken care of with speed-lacing pull-cord and Velcro armored lace shield to ensure a quick and secure fit.


Pricing and availability

  • MW7 – September
  • XM series, AM9 and AM5 – October
  • AM7 – November
  • Pricing has not yet been determined.

 

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2014 Dirt Rag Literature Contest: ‘A Break in the Weather’


Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.


A Break in the Weather

By Thomas Gada

Running in the summer feels like failure. It’s a missed opportunity to ride. But come winter, my perspective changes. While I never enjoy running, I accept it during the cold months. I’m often told a fat bike is the solution I’m looking for, but in reality its oversized tires won’t lengthen the short days so that I can keep riding before work or make me more tolerant of sub-20 degree weather. So I run. I run to stay in shape. I run so that I’ll be ready when the weather breaks.

If there’s a good thing about my reluctant morning jogs, it’s that I can let my mind wander in a way I can’t when I’m picking my way through a twisting singletrack. As my feet pound the pavement, I look forward to the adventures warmer weather and a winter spent tuning my bike will bring. But today, the salt-stained streets and icy patches on the sidewalk remind me that this is not the first time I’ve waited for winter to loosen its icy grip long enough for me to sneak onto the trails.

My ongoing feud with old man winter started when I was just a kid. I got my first mountain bike in 1988 for Christmas, during a time when most of my 12-year-old friends were hoping to see a new BMX under the tree. But not me. I had wanted a mountain bike since I had witnessed my older brother and his friends return from a ride with mud-splattered smiling faces the previous summer.

That Christmas, I woke to find a Mongoose Switchback waiting for me, and it was glorious. Twelve speeds, 1.5-inch tires, and upright handlebars complete with puffy foam grips. Hardly a mountain bike by today’s standards, but to me it represented endless possibilities. Despite the bitter cold, I had to take it for a spin.

I didn’t know where to pick up my local trails, but that was okay—they would be covered with snow. And to be honest, I knew I wasn’t ready to tackle them yet. Instead, I hit the neighborhood’s biggest hill, eager to see what my 12 speeds could do. Clumsily shifting my bike into the lowest gear, I spun my legs until they were jean-clad blurs. I was a bit perplexed as to why it was taking so long to get to the top, but that was okay. I knew I’d figure it out eventually. I was far more concerned with the adventures to come—I just needed to get through winter.

By the time I got home, I was struggling to brake and operate the above-bar thumb shifters with numb hands. I hobbled in, stiffened by the cold. “I loved it,” I mumbled enthusiastically to my mom through frozen lips. That night, and every night after, I dreamt of leaving the pavement behind.

Winter seemed to drag on, but I didn’t stop. Weekends or after school, I’d hop on the Switchback and see how far I could go. Then it finally happened. A few warm days melted much of the snow. The temperature quickly dipped again, but not before two previously hidden ruts carved into the frozen ground revealed themselves, winding away from the paved roads of the civilized world. A stubborn layer of snow clung to the ground, but I was sure I could ride it. I felt ready.

I stepped off my bike and lifted it over the curb.

My heart seemed to hammer against my ribs as I bounced down the doubletrack into the thickening trees. The trail dipped toward a pond. I paused to take in the sight. As silly as it seemed, the discovery was intoxicating. None of my friends knew it was here, and I wouldn’t have either without my new bike.

The trail meandered up a small hill. After a few tractionless spins, I realized the knobs on my tires were more for show than function. I got off and walked. The snow instantly penetrated my sneakers, numbing my already cold feet.

Eventually, the crude ruts connected to a crushed gravel dirt road. A plow had come through at some point, but left behind a compressed layer of beige snow. Even though it wasn’t a trail, it also wasn’t pavement, and I was eager to continue my exploration. The road twisted past some lonely summer cottages that overlooked a lake covered with ice that looked more like glass. The sand on the empty beach swallowed my tires as I pedaled past the unused lifeguard chair. My world was growing.
Then I came to the hill.

This was like no hill I’d seen before. Dirt, steep and punctuated with ice and snow. Technically it met the minimum requirement for being called a road, but just barely. There was nothing on it—no houses or driveways, no mailboxes or trashcans waiting for pickup. Just trees to my left, a stream babbling somewhere down a hill to my right. I needed to see where it led.

I began rolling. That’s when I first learned about different wheel sizes. By today’s standards, 26-inch wheels are small. To a kid just coming off a BMX, they’re wagon wheels. My bike gained momentum with startling ease. I flew down the hill with no idea how to handle a bike. My ass was firmly planted in the seat. Every bump radiated through my spine. My arms were locked like steel. Beneath my gloves, my knuckles must have been whiter than the snow.

Something in my mind started to tell me to slow down, but a voice in my heart talked over it. Just a little faster, it begged.

Cold snaked up my sleeves, leaving my arms red and angry. The cuffs of my jeans snapped against my cranks. My ears burned, even beneath my wool hat. Tears streamed from my eyes as I sped down the hill beneath a ceiling of overhanging pine trees.

Logically, I have to assume I’ve topped the speed I reached that afternoon many times over the years. All I know is that I’ve never felt like I’ve gone that fast again. But who knows? Maybe my finest moment on the trail was my first.

Then, I was on the ground, skidding across the dirt and snow. I suppose it was good that it happened so quickly; there was no time to be scared. Rocks and gravel bit my icy skin through layers of clothing. My bike skipped over the hardened dirt, grinding to a stop a few feet away.

I instantly realized how reckless I had been. Snowy and stung, I scrambled to grab my bike and get us both to safety on the side of the road.

The Switchback didn’t look new anymore. The pristine white paint was chipped in places, and the plastic front brake lever was dangling from its cable. My heart broke.

I began coasting down the hill again, this time feathering my rear brake to control my speed. The dirt road eventually turned to pavement. Sights began to look familiar. I soon realized I was near a friend’s house who lived in an entirely different neighborhood. The discovery of this secret new route softened the blow of the damage I had done to my bike. Just like my brother and his friends, I was an explorer. My pulse quickened at the thought.

Before I could revel in my accomplishment, I had to deal with my mom. I had nagged her for a new bike for months, then I crashed it after a few weeks of ownership. But as I pedaled closer to home, I realized something: it was worth it. Sure, I had dinged up my bike, but I also learned something. I learned what not to do. I learned something about limits and common sense. But I also learned about the exhilaration that could come with mountain biking and discovery.

I walked into my house and pulled off my hat with a gloved hand.

“How was the ride?” My mom asked. “You were gone long.”

“Amazing,” I told her. Then I proceeded to tell her a sanitized version of my story, with the crash occurring due to black ice, not my stupidity. She wasn’t happy, but I gladly dealt with the consequences. After all, I had lived an adventure. I hadn’t just watched one on TV or read about it. That was certainly worth a few stern words.

The next weekend I was at the bike shop getting my lever replaced. I asked for something metal—the first step in a lifelong upgrading obsession. Milling around the shop while they did the repair, I noticed big mushroom-like helmets on the shelf. Everyone in the magazines I’d been reading wore them. None of my friends had one, but I wasn’t like them anymore. I needed one. My mom happily footed the bill.

It’s funny. Not much has changed. I love riding in the winter, but I simply don’t get as many opportunities as I’d like. Running keeps me in shape better than those rides around the block, but it’s admittedly a poor substitute. While it gets my blood pumping from a fitness perspective, it doesn’t get my blood pumping with thrill of adventure.

The fact is, when I’m out there shuffling along on those short winter days, I smell the same frozen air as when I was a kid dreaming of doing great things on my Switchback. The cold bite on my cheeks—that’s the same, too. So if a break in the weather comes next week or next month, I’ll be ready to pounce. In the meantime, I listen to my footfalls on the frozen sidewalk and let my imagination go wild, reliving past adventures and plotting future ones.

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