Fatbiking in California: could the cycling trend be as big as snowboarding? – The Guardian

Fatbikes – so named because of their comically thick tyres – are the latest trend in cycling. They look like the monster trucks of the biking world and are designed for riding on surfaces you’d think would be impossible to cycle on, such as sand and, in particular, snow.

Which is not to say they make the whole thing effortless – as I found to my cost during a weekend at Tahoe Donner, a downhill and cross-country ski resort in California which, in response to increased demand, recently opened some of its trails to fatbiking.

Tahoe Donner map

Sally Jones, manager of the Cross Country ski area, has overseen the introduction of the bikes, including a half-dozen to rent. “It could eventually be as popular as snowboarding,” she says.

Fatbiking as a sport is booming across the US, especially in states such as Alaska and Colorado, where cycling wouldn’t otherwise be possible in winter. And in Europe, the inaugural Snow Bike Festival – the first of its kind – runs from 19-22 January in Gstaad, Switzerland.

So these days, where there’s snow and sports, there are likely to be fatbikes.

“We saw other ski areas in different regions embracing fatbiking,” says Sally, “and we figured we wouldn’t really know if we could make it work unless we tried it.”

Merope Mills on her fatbike in Tahoe Donner



Merope Mills on her fatbike in Tahoe Donner.

Their introduction was not without obstacles. Hikers and mountain bikers aren’t always the best of bedfellows, and the same applies in the snow – where the two are allowed to coexist, there is tension between fatbikers and cross-country skiers. To solve that problem at Tahoe Donner, fatbikers are confined to 3km of flat, wide multi-purpose trails (where anything goes, and skiers and walkers are allowed to bring their dogs) and to 12km of single-track snow-shoeing routes.

We set off in the direction of two of the easiest multi-purpose trails – named, surprisingly perhaps for California, Cup of Tea and Piece of Cake. Flat and wide, with firm compacted snow that is groomed by snowmobiles, these trails were true to their name, and I found myself gently bobbing up and down, marvelling at how it felt no more difficult than cycling on a street. At this point, as we slipped between freshly snow-dusted white pines, it all seemed beautiful and effortless. My husband – never a skilled downhill skier – even declared that it suited him much better as a sport as he always loved being out in the snow but had never fallen in love with careering down a mountain at top speed.

Two male riders in blue jackets cycle on fatbikes in the snow at Tahoe Donner, California. US.



Tahoe Donner fatbiking Photograph: Daphne Hougard

We spoke too soon. Sally sent us off on the Tiny Tim Trail, a sloping, twisting, turning snowshoe path that had me panting and out of breath in less than five minutes. This route is designed for keen mountain-bikers, and I found it almost impossible to navigate the part-slush, part-powder path: I confess that at this point I got off and pushed, causing one passerby to call out cheerily, “It’s called fatbiking not fatwalking” as they sped past on crosscountry skis.

People say fatbiking attracts a slightly older enthusiast than mountain biking (entrants in a recent race in nearby Tahoe City were mostly in their 40s). I was rather surprised and shamefaced when, as I was still pushing my bike, we met a 75-year-old snowshoer who told me she’d been on a fatbike, and found it fine. Very Californian.

Bathed in a rich, orange and blue sunset, the adventure centre at Tahoe Donner, California.



The adventure centre at Tahoe Donner. Photograph: Bill Stevenson

It’s all great fun, and Tahoe Donner is stunning. Plus, when you’re hopelessly out of shape and unable to quite complete the trail on your fatbike, you can always blame it on the altitude.

The trip was provided by Tahoe Donner resort. Its Bikeworks division hires out fatbikes for $16 an hour, and a trail pass costs from $19 a day. Accommodation was provided by Hampton Inn & Suites in Truckee, which has doubles from $149 B&B

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