Fat bikes are becoming more popular in Maine, and it’s no surprise. These special bicycles, outfitted with wide tires, are built for riding on snow and rough surfaces — two things that Maine has in abundance.
Responding to the trend, a number of sports shops and recreation centers throughout the state have started renting out fat bikes. This allows people to try the activity without purchasing equipment.
If you’re interested in trying out this relatively new sport, here are a few tips from experienced fat bikers in Maine.
1. “Air pressure, air pressure, air pressure.”
Adam Gariepy, the manager at the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, said that having the right air pressure in your fat bike tires is key for a smooth ride.
“Lower pressure gives you more traction and floatation on the snow,” Gariepy said.
Craig MacDonald, president of the Penobscot Region chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, agrees.
“The tire pressure is probably the most important thing when you’re riding a fat tire bike,” MacDonald said. “Snow conditions kind of dictate how much tire pressure.”
MacDonald starts his tires at around 8 PSI (pound-force per square inch) for soft snow conditions, and increases the pressure for riding on more solid surfaces. He suggests referring to online charts that give suggested PSI for fat bike tires based on the weight of the rider, riding conditions and temperature.
2. Dress warm, but in layers.
Like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, fat biking is an aerobic activity that causes your body to produce heat. For this reason, wearing layers of clothing is important. That way you can take off a layer, such as a coat or vest, if you start to overheat and sweat.
“I usually leave the shop feeling a little cold but I warm up within 5 minutes,” said Gariepy about his after-work rides in Acadia National Park. “I carry a backpack with an extra layer in it, just in case I get cold.”
MacDonald suggests wearing breathable clothing that isn’t too bulky. Thick pants can catch on your bike’s gears and inhibit your movement, and a roomy jacket is a challenge to stow in your backpack if you take it off.
He also suggests wearing warm boots with hard soles. Gaiters — an article of clothing that wraps around your lower leg, closing the gap between your boots and pants — can also add a lot of warmth and comfort to your ride, MacDonald said.
3. Consider your hands.
Every time someone rents a fat bike from the shop Gariepy works at in Bar Harbor, he asks if they have warm gloves to wear. It’s easy to freeze your hands while gripping a bike’s handlebars, he said. And biking with cold hands is miserable.
On the other hand, MacDonald prefers to ride barehanded. To do this comfortably, he shelters his hands with bike pogies, also known as bar mitts. This special piece of gear is designed to wrap around a bike’s handlebars and block the cold air from reaching your hands. Many kayakers use a similar device, wrapped around their paddle, to shield their hands.
He also carries a pair of warm gloves with him, just in case it gets too cold to ride bare handed.
4. Keep up your speed.
Snow conditions can make it especially challenging to pick up speed while fat biking, Gariepy said.
“So the biggest thing about a fat bike is to keep your speed maintained to plow through the snow,” he said.
Changing gears, gaining momentum on downhills and breaking wisely can help you keep up that speed. But don’t go overboard. Just one slippery patch of ice could cause you to spin out of control. Some fat tire bikes have studded tires that can handle icy conditions, but not all.
5. Wear a helmet.
Accidents happen. If you crash your fat bike, wearing a helmet may protect you from a major head injury. It’s really that simple.
6. It’s easier to ride on a hard-packed surface.
While the wide tires of a fat bike will help you stay on top of the snow, they aren’t magical. If snow is melting and squishy or fluffy and deep, it can be challenging to ride in. Instead, fat bikers usually look for firm, packed snow.
To find these ideal conditions, sometimes timing helps, Gariepy said. In Maine, the early morning or afternoon are often better times to ride than the middle of the day, when the sun and warmer temperatures can melt and soften the snow.
The location also makes a difference. On some trails, the snow is packed down more than others. This packing can be done by a groomer, snowshoe traffic or snowmobiles. Multi-use trials are popular among fat bikers. Just be sure to check the trail guidelines before you head out to ensure that fat bikes are welcome, and stay off of classic cross-country ski tracks.