Encased in layers of clothing, the zero-degree windchill burning her exposed skin, Amy Beisel could think of only one thing to do ... smile.
That's what riding a fat bike does for her and other cyclists who have discovered the thrill of pedaling in the snow, or sand, or over any obstacle that might confound a regular mountain bike.
Beisel and a raucous group of riders from Colorado Springs ventured to the World Fat Bike Championships last month in Crested Butte, the self-proclaimed birthplace of mountain biking. The four-day event — more like a party on two wheels — brings the community together for a distinctly "Colorado" experience: racing bikes in the snow.
And so Beisel, a professional rider sponsored by Pro Cycling and Kenda Tires, contorted her face in a big, goofy grin and hammered the pedals.
"I don't know, I just have a smile on my face every time I ride a fat bike," she says. "There is something about it ... the snow is different, the wide tires, that feeling of floating. And if you crash, it's a pretty soft landing."
Beisel, a Colorado Springs native, won the World Fat Bike Championship in 2016. This year, she finished second to her friend Karen Kerkove, of Eagle. Though she relinquished her championship title, the thrill of competing in a relatively new cycling discipline, in a beautiful mountain setting, with cool people — not bad work if you can get it.
"The after-party is not to be missed," Beisel says. "Crested Butte is a cool town and the fat bike world is weird and fun."
One aid station on the course served plenty of booze to half-crazed riders.
"I had shots on two out of my three laps," says Matthew Hall, a member of The Hub Bicycle Shop cycling team. "Last year I had a mimosa on course."
The Fat Bike World Championships — there have now been two such competitions — are the result of fat biking's popularity, though road and mountain biking remain the favorites among cyclists. Still, there is no denying the fun factor when rolling on the balloon-like tires.
"The versatility is the main thing with a fat bike," Hall says. "The traction benefits on our loose soil. There are places now where I only ride my fat bike. It just provides more confidence."
Fat bikes are much like a mountain bike with one big difference, the tires are 4 or more inches wide, allowing for better handling in soft conditions. A standard mountain bike is no good in soft snow. A fat bike's tires — when inflated with the right amount of air — allow a rider to float over the snow. The bikes are pricey, with a solid entry-level ride selling for about $1,000, Hall says. Top-end bikes with lighter components and wheels can sell for $3,000 or more.
Hall wasn't sold on fat bikes. Most riders and all racers are concerned with light machines and speed.
"Initially, I wasn't really that attracted to fat bikes, but I went to Leadville to race in the snow and fell in love with it. Since then, fat biking has taken up more and more of my time and it's starting to creep into my skinny-tire riding."
The winter racing season is in full swing with the 2017 Winter Bike Series races underway in Leadville. It costs $20 to enter a race, and they're low-key and fun. Check out colbikes.com/winter-bike-race-series.html for more information.
Hall said race organizers are opening fat bike categories for summer racing as well. Of course, racing isn't required for having fun on a bicycle. And Colorado Springs has miles of trails to be explored.
Shawn Finley, who also rides for The Hub team, said his first experience on a fat bike was one of discovery.
"I flashed back to my old BMX days," he says. "Out of that youthful feeling, I just had that sense of joy rushing through my body. Riding is like my therapy. I'm not thinking about my job, or my relationships. I'm not thinking about the woes of life."
Fat bikes take more energy to pedal. Finley says they're more like a 4-wheel drive Chevy truck, and less like a Camaro. For folks who like to ride fast, a fat bike may seem a little slow. But don't be fooled. Hall says he has set personal records on downhill sections of local trails. Finley says he's riding over obstacles that used to launch him into the weeds.
"I know it's not going to go as fast as my cross country bike, but if I have the cojones, I can roll over and through rock gardens and technical spots better than on my other bikes."
Ultimately, fun is the goal and fat bikes provide that.
"You get out there and it's a beautiful morning, and you can hear the birds, and you're in tune with your bike," Finley says. "I think we all strive to have those moments."
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