A look back to my first days with the Fatback Corvus
February 02, 2017
When I moved to Crested Butte a few years ago, I had ambitions of getting back into backcountry skiing after a five-year hiatus. I used to ski every chance I got. There is nothing like going into the mountains under your own power, with only the things you need on your back, and enjoying the beauty and solitude of the mountains under their quiet blanket of snow. Not to mention the thrilling adventure of climbing a steep ribbon of snow up a mountain face with cliff walls on either side, and flying through bottomless powder that at times makes it hard to breathe. Through five years of focusing on mountain bike racing, skiing had gone by the wayside. Finding myself in a place that sees eight months of winter, I wanted to bring backcountry skiing back into my life.
I realized that access to the bigger mountains around Crested Butte can be long and difficult, as town happens to be literally at the end of the road in the winter and a lot of the access involves a long road approach. Most Crested Buttians access ski lines via snowmobile, but I didn’t have a snowmobile and had no plans to get one. So I spent the fall scheming about how I could access the mountains without necessitating an alpine start or spending the night in a snowcave. Fat biking seemed like a natural choice for me -- I would be able to access my winter playground while getting in some base miles in training for mountain bike season. What I didn’t realize was how fun riding a fat-tired bike in winter would actually turn out to be.
Ambition: To combine these modes of travel...
I approached Fatback Bikes with my ideas, a company out of Alaska that is on the cutting edge of fat bike technology. This is ALL they do- and they do it well. They sent me a Corvus, then their brand new full carbon fatbike. With a SRAM XO1 buildup and an upgrade in tires the bike weighs in at just under 26 lbs. The Corvus is an awesome bike- it handles really well in the snow, it's responsive, and it definitely can get me places that my regular mountain bike cannot. It took me a couple of weeks to get the hang of riding in snow and to learn what a fat bike’s capabilities are. As it turns out, it's a whole different animal than regular mountain biking!
My very first ride happened to be the local “Winter Growler” race in Gunnison, CO.
Looking back to my first few rides on the Corvus, here are four basic elements of fat biking that I learned.
1. PROTECT YOUR HANDS!
Pogies are essential if you're living and riding in winter. It is regularly below zero in the Gunnison Valley, and I've ridden in the thickest ski mittens I have and still frozen my hands off. A pair of these Dogwood Designs pogies did the trick nicely- now I can ride in the same gloves that I use for backcountry skinning. I like to use the same gear for fat biking and skiing whenever possible to save on pack weight. Check out this great article from Bikepackers Magazine on pogie options, as well as other great info about using bikes for long-distance travel in winter or summer.
2. TOASTY TOES = HAPPY CYCLIST
I ride in heavy winter boots, and I like it that way. For one, I am not going to shell out $350 for winter cycling boots. Knowing my feet, they would still not be warm enough. I have also learned that when you are fat biking in a snowy place like the Gunnison Valley, chances are you are going to end up hiking and pushing your bike through some deep snow. Fat bikes float great over well packed and even moderately packed terrain, depending on tire size, but they are not skis.
I spent multiple rides in the beginning, while experimenting with what my bike can do, getting a little overambitious and ending up wallowing through deep snow. Because my winter boots come up to my knees, my feet stay dry and warm no matter what I'm riding or pushing through. They also stay warm when I'm riding in -20 degree temps which happens in the Gunnison Valley regularly.
3. MORE RUBBER = MORE FUN.
Tires make a HUGE difference! My bike came with a set of 4” tires that probably would have been great for snowy road riding, but the snow is deep, soft, and plentiful here, and I could tell midway through the first lap of the Winter Growler race that they were not the right tool for the job, so after the race I upgraded to a fatter option. I have been running a 45Nrth Dilinger (5") in the front and a Surly Nate (4.8") in the rear. Both have great grip, and the Dilinger especially is very floaty.
4. POLISH YOUR SKILLS – and keep your sense of humor.
Riding a bike in the snow exposes your weaknesses, leaves little room for error, and in the end makes you a much better rider. When you are riding off road and have a very narrow track on which to ride, you can't slip off the track or you'll end up buried in the deep snow. Getting back on is quite difficult. On my first ride in the Winter Growler race there was an 8” strip of snow that was packed enough to ride on, and I kept getting distracted and slipping off to the side, pitching over into the fluff. Since I was in a race, this led to me getting frustrated when I couldn't get back on and having to spend time postholing through the deep snow while pushing my bike along the track. I lost count at 14 crashes, and I was very glad I was wearing my tall snow boots.
With that first ride and my less than graceful techniques behind me, I spent the following weeks getting comfortable riding on snow. I learned to keep my focus on the trail ahead of me, not getting distracted, and shifting weight and slowing my pace enough that my tires don't slip out on steeper climbs. I got better at letting the bike move around underneath me, especially on steep downhills where the conditions can be variable. I learned how to grab my rear brake and shift my weight to drift around corners, which prompted more than a few crashes in the beginning but has proven to be a fun and valuable skill to have. Just like on a mountain bike but even more so, it is important to stay relaxed and balanced over the bike while it moves underneath you, especially if you feel the wheels start to slip or go off the track. I finally became good at riding on snow, and it improved my skills on dirt as well.
Now I keep searching for more mountains to ride, Check out about one of my Adventures in Guatemala.