By Mariah Griffith
From the January/February 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
It’s a perfect winter day. A thin layer of snow is crisp and white, with sunshine to make it sparkle and warm your face. Maybe a few birds and squirrels rustle through the naked tree branches, but otherwise the world is pretty quiet.
In the local park, a young family sleds down a hill. Their bright, puffy coats stick out like flowers against the whiteness. On the other side of the hill, a mountain bike trail cuts back and forth through the trees. Barreling down the trail, the white of the snow and brown of the tree trunks blur like an impressionistic painting. Zipping nimbly through the turns, a bike rider laughs as he skids a little. He rounds one turn, about halfway down, and notices a freshly fallen branch blocking the path. The snow is too soft to stop in time. There’s nowhere to turn. His mouth drops open in sudden fear and he braces for impact.
Thanks to his tires, it’s little more than a bump.
Fitness trends may emphasize everything skinny, but Iowa cyclists say fat bikes can get over that—and just about everything else.
These heavy-duty bikes sport tires near 4 inches wide, which allows them to go where most road and mountain bikes can’t. The oversized tires’ extra surface area gives the bike traction on mud, snow, sand and other slippery surfaces, and the inflation can be adjusted to absorb impact from uneven surfaces without overly jostling the rider.
“You can ride one anywhere, over anything,” says Andrea Cohen, manager at World of Bikes in Iowa City. Cohen started riding fat bikes seven years ago, and now she doesn’t own a car because her bikes can take her wherever she needs to be.
That’s what fat bikes were made for.
Now, multiple shops around Iowa carry a variety of fat bike makes and models. One example is Decorah Bicycles, which carries numerous fat bike brands. Shop owner Travis Greentree says he’s loved cycling since he was little.
“As a kid, cycling gave me freedom, independence and fun because I was good at it,” Greentree says. “It gave me something to do and kept me out of trouble, and I suppose it still does.”
Greentree didn’t get into fat biking until the winter of 2013, but now he appreciates the flexibility and opportunity to explore local parks in the dead of winter.
“The great thing is that they make absolutely everything rideable,” Greentree says.
That includes multi-use and mountain biking trails in state parks and recreation areas. Groomed and one-way trails in particular are great for a beginning cyclist, and maps are available of most trails online.
Tammy Domonoske, avid fat biker and DNR park manager at McIntosh Woods State Park, says she particularly likes riding in Pilot Knob State Park and Volga River State Park, but cautions that equestrian use and erosion have made some spots on the trails tricky. Other notable destinations include Mines of Spain and Brushy Creek recreation areas and George Wyth, Backbone, Pikes Peak and Waubonsie state parks.
Jeff O’Gara, wrestling coach at Luther College and member of Decorah Human Powered Trails, says his cycling friends all used to ride road and mountain bikes. That changed after just one ride.
“We used to just ride regular bikes, and one day a friend of mine brought a Surly Pugsley. He pretty much destroyed us,” O’Gara says. “We were sliding all over the place, and he was just riding by laughing.”
Although fat bikes are typically weighty, cyclists like O’Gara can invest in carbon-fiber models to cut down on pounds. O’Gara says his current model weighs only 22 pounds, which makes it easier to use on rough stuff like gravel and snow or on paved roads. He says the rough stuff is more fun though.
“A rocky, muddy, sandy trail is great in the summer for a fat bike,” O’Gara says. “I always tell people who have never ridden one before it’s like a monster truck. You get on it and you just want to ride over stuff and have fun.”
Burn Some Fat at Fat Bike Races
For those who like competitive fun, Iowa does have a few fat bike races.
The Triple D Winter Race and Poker Tour in Dubuque features two fat bike-eligible events. One is a 65-mile ultramarathon race, and the other is a non-competitive ride where cyclists stop by checkpoints to get playing cards. The cyclist with the best poker hand at the end wins a prize. (facebook.com/TripleDWinterRace)
The Frozen Fat Fondo Festival will be held in Davenport in early February. The race is held no matter weather—as their promotions say, rain or shine, snow or slime. The race is a fun and messy three hours, but teams can break it up into relay segments. Even if you don’t own a fat bike, you can rent one to participate in this race. (qcforc.org)
In Decorah, the Fifth Annual Pugsley World Championships is held March 7. This race is approximately 30 miles on varied terrain, and is open to any cyclist using tires at least 3.5 inches wide. bikedecorah.blogspot.com.
For more information on cycling, fat bike events and cycling in Iowa, visit iowabicycleracing.org, fat-bike.com and bikeiowa.com.
You can also find more information on fun and creative winter recreation on the DNR's Pinterest boards - check out We Love Winter In Iowa and Take It Outside.