For many, a fat bike might seem like an indulgence in a cyclist’s stable of bikes. Some see them as a kid’s bike for adults that is not serious. A frippery within the world of bikes. Those who hold such attitudes do not live in the upper Midwest, or Wisconsin to be more precise. Here, it really is a necessary bike if one wishes to maintain sanity over the long winter months which can stretch from November to late March.
Those months do not just mark time on the coldest season of the year here, it’s winter writ large. Inches and inches of snow. Temperatures that can go below zero with wind chills so bad advisories are issued which basically amount to “if you don’t have to go outside, don’t.” So your riding choices are endless sessions on the trainer or sucking it up and venturing outside – and with the roads being snowy or icy, the best way is on a fat bike.
I’ve had mine for about three-and-a-half-years. A pretty standard aluminum Motobecane that’s had a few upgrades: carbon fork, carbon bars and stem and decent tires. Even then it’s still a bit of a beast. But, I take the attitude of “it’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it,” and mine sees some serious action over the winter on days that are either too cold for road rides or the roads themselves are too tricky.
Our neighboring state of Minnesota might boast of having 10,000 lakes, but Wisconsin must run it close. They’re everywhere and our culture embraces this. In summer they are popular with boaters, skiers, sailors, fisherfolks. In the winter it’s ice fishing time. Lakes become mini villages covered in shacks (the size of a nice garden shed) dragged onto the ice to provide shelter from the elements as fishing rods and spears are lowered through holes cut in the ice with augers or chainsaws. Patience is a necessity and if you can wait in a nicely furnished “shack” then why not?
My favorite fat bike thing to do is to ride ON the frozen lake and my favorite place to do it is Lake Winnebago, located about 40 minutes north of me. At 215 square miles, it is roughly 28 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest. “Winnebago” translates as “people of the stinking water.” Does it smell? Hard to say when it’s covered in 20 inches of ice topped with a generous helping of snow.
Winnebago is famous for its two-week sturgeon season which just ended. They reckon there are 40,000 of these pre-historic-looking fish in the lake and quotas are carefully set for these prize catches. The roe that are harvested are a particular delicacy. Hundreds of keen fisherfolk drag their shacks onto the ice in the hope of spearing a trophy. And when I say trophy, I mean a fish that can weight upwards of 150 lbs and be six feet long.
To make this pilgrimage possible, local fishing clubs literally plow roads on the lake and mark them with old Christmas trees every tenth of a mile. You don’t have to park your shack next to the road (most don’t), but it makes getting on and off the lake much easier and safer – especially as there are a couple of big pressure cracks that form and steel “bridges” are laid down to facilitate vehicular access.
Now, anyone who’s ridden a fat bike on fresh, undisturbed snow will tell you that it’s the toughest workout around. You’re doing single digit speeds and sweating a ton. But get on some nicely groomed trails and it’s a joy – and the plowed roads on Lake Winnebago are just that – just find a nice bit of road with a dusting of snow and you’re all set. Well, that and tire pressures around four psi. Fisherfolk going on or off the lake look at you like you’re crazy but none ever fail to give you a wave – a nod to a fellow traveler who embraces the winter.
January here in Wisconsin was relatively mild, but the first three weeks of February were nasty – savagely cold temperatures and bone-chilling wind. I didn’t ride outside for three weeks. But a beady eye on the forecast said February 20th was going to be my day. Cold but sunny. Little to no wind. So off I set in the early afternoon – it was 21 degrees. I parked at my usual spot in the gas station parking lot at the foot of the lake. They plow parking lots on the ice but why risk it? It took me 20 minutes to get the bike ready and all the gear on: multiple layers on every part of me. Then it’s but a short hop onto the lake and the ice road. Perfect! Smooth with just enough grip for the tires. The ever-slanting sun gave great definition to the ice and snow surfaces, a critical detail as I’d ridden a few weeks before on a dull, overcast day which rendered reading the surface very difficult. As I rode north I got a wave from every driver coming off the lake.
I rode 16 miles in maybe an hour and 45 minutes. I had a nice chat with some kids who’d never seen a bike on the lake before. Then I rode back to the car to my thermos of hot chocolate. I’m sure some of the drivers got home and told someone “hey, there was a guy on a bike on the lake today!” I was that guy. I was that happy, happy guy.
The day after my Winnebago ride it was 32 degrees and overcast so I rode on the local trail which is much used by snowmobilers. The issue with them is that their tracks do a nice job of fluffing up the snow so while it leaves a consistent surface, it’s soft and slippery. It’s really not ideal for riding on but it improves your bike handling no end. A couple of days after my Winnebago ride, it really started warming up into the 40s. A week later it was almost 50 degrees. The lake is still seriously frozen but I’m not sure about the “road” conditions, so I rode on the real roads on my winter bike – a fendered aluminum ride that might not be too light or too fancy, but just the job on roads that might still be a bit wet with salty melt water. I’m not sure if I’ll lake ride again this season but whatever happens, I had a wonderfully memorable ride and that’s what counts.