Winter Fat Biking on Lake Champlain
March 03, 2015
It’s not every day you go biking in ski pants on a frozen lake in Vermont.
But last week, that’s exactly what I did. After seeing dozens of Instagram and Facebook photos of friends and acquaintances walking, skating, and ice fishing on Lake Champlain, I decided to see what all of the fuss was about.
While Lake Champlain doesn’t freeze every year, this is the second winter in a row you can walk across the ice from Vermont to New York (before 2014, the last time the lake completely froze was 2007).
It recently occurred to me that I haven’t set foot on a frozen lake in 35 years. In 1980 when I was 9 years old, I went snowmobiling on Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks. But that has pretty much been the extent of my time on frozen lakes.
What kind of Vermonter am I? Admittedly, I’m someone who is a little afraid of standing on ice and falling though.
So, I decided to face my fear. Instead of walking on a frozen lake, I thought riding a fat bike would be a fun little adventure. I’ve never been on a fat bike, and figuring out how to ride it over ice and wind-blown snow would distract me from thinking about what lies beneath the lake’s frozen surface.
What is Winter Fat Biking?
Fat bikes are designed to traverse snowy trails and any terrain, including ice. Extra tire tread and the option for studs add grip and prevent the wheel from sinking into soft surfaces.
Introduced in Alaska several years ago, fat bikes feature large, “fat” tires between 4 to 6 inches in diameter. Fat bikes also require lower tire pressure than regular mountain bikes, reducing the need for suspension and allowing the tire to float over surfaces rather than dig in.
As Justin Carter, service manager of the Old Spokes Home bike shop in Burlington, told me, “It’s basically the difference between walking with and without snowshoes in the snow.”
Why Local Outdoor Enthusiasts Love Fat Biking
A variety of places in Vermont rent fat bikes and offer extensive trail networks for winter fat biking, including Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Strafford Nordic Center in Strafford, and Catamount Outdoor Family Center in Williston. Even so, I couldn’t find any bike shop in Burlington that offers fat bike rentals to use on Lake Champlain. For the sake of this post, the Old Spokes Home agreed to rent me a Salsa Mukluk 3 with studded tires so I could take it out onto the lake for a spin.
When I arrived at the Old Spokes Home on North Winooski Avenue with my ski pants and winter gear on, a fat bike and helmet were waiting for me at the shop. As Carter adjusted the tire pressure before I loaded the bike into the back of my car, he mentioned that he rides his fat bike year round.
“I really love the versatility of a fat bike, and I ride mine year round in all conditions. It’s the bike that lets me ride off road 12 months of the year instead of seven. To me, it’s like the first bike I ever had; I want to ride it to my friend’s house and take the shortcut through the woods, and if that trail happens to bring me down to the beach, then all the better,” he says.
Facing My Fear and Having Fun
After riding on the lake, I see what exactly what Carter means.
As I pedaled out onto the lake, the bike helped me navigate over deep piles of snow and grip the ice without slipping. And after all these years, I was able to enjoy myself on a frozen lake and feel (mostly) unafraid.