It’s no secret that I enjoy winter. In fact, right now I’m dreaming of the coming months when the aspens will whisper golden secrets in the wind and snowflakes will begin to fly in the mountains. When it does I’ll probably spend an inordinate amount of time running around the state of California like a polar bear trapped in a roadrunner’s body (ok, a rather plump roadrunner) searching for new places to enjoy both fat biking and backcountry skiing. Maybe even combine the two disciplines if the conditions are right, much like how a roadrunner pulls off both flying and running: not very well on either count.
I’ll tell you what though, finding places to ski is a hell of lot easier than finding a place to ride the fat bike on snow. In addition to dreaming about the white stuff I’ve also been considering my choices of places to ride and as usual, they’re kind of limited. In this state it’s feast or famine with snowfall, there’s either none or 10 feet of it on the ground, and fat biking in that much snow only works if you have a packed trail (such as those laid down by snowmobiles). The areas that I do know of as being potentially great for fat biking come with a certain set of access issues.
One such area exists within my own backyard (so to speak, California is a damn big state). A few months back I spent a Saturday night exploring the groomed snowmobile trail system that exists between Mammoth Lakes and June Lake in California’s beautiful Sierra Nevada. Why had I ridden at night? Well before answering that question take a look at this photo and ask yourself “Why the hell not?” It was a beautiful moonlit night, and the trails were in perfect condition.
Ostensibly I had needed to get a long ride in as a final tune-up for my trip to Finland for the Rovaniemi 150, but mainly I had just wanted to ride. Riding at night allowed me to time the ride for the coolest part of the day as the temperatures had been kind of warm in the Mammoth area for the latter part of last winter. No need to mess around on slushy trails in 45 deg temperatures.
A final consideration for riding at night was that by riding this trail network I existed within a grey area of sorts (or at least I thought I did at the time – more on that later). Many of you that read my blog know this, but fat biking is a relatively new sport and groomed trail access has become an issue in many areas of the country. Sure, you can float through a few inches of unconsolidated snow rather well with these big ol’ tires but to really enjoy the freedom that these bikes supply you need a packed trail. Snowmobile trails are perfect for the new bikes, but many trail systems (here in California they are located mainly on National Forest land) do not allow wheeled vehicles for fear of damaging the groomed surface. The Mammoth trail system specifically states on the signs at the access points “No Motorized Wheeled Access”.
Ok, well no one will ever accuse me of having a motor hidden on my bike (my power output draws no comparison to Fabian Cancellara). This restriction is intended to keep heavier motorcycles and ATV’s from destroying the trails. But if ridden under the guidelines of the IMBA’s Fat Bike Best Practices, fat bike wheels neither create ruts in the snow nor destroy the trail systems for other users and I was clearly operating within the guidelines. Under most conditions we float right over the surface leaving nothing but tire tracks. Honestly, if the conditions suck to the point where we’re punching through the snow who really wants to ride a bike anyway?
Anyway, this past winter fat bikes had been popping up in Mammoth Lakes just like magma rising beneath its own caldera. People began to explore the area to the point that fat bikers began to break out of the shadows and have a presence on the trail system. Rangers began to warn riders that riding on the groomed trails was forbidden and tickets would be handed out. The author of the blog that I just linked, Alan Jacoby, went before the Mammoth Lakes Recreation Commission to plead his case. As of yet I have not heard whether a decision has been made to allow fat bikes on groomed trails this coming year.
But I wasn’t really thinking about these things while I pedaled through the splendor that is the Eastern Sierra nor did I know that what I was doing was technically illegal. Ignorance is bliss. I’m kind of a loner and trail access issues have never been a problem for me as I’ve basically coasted along in the draft of the previous generation of mountain bikers that gained the rights to these places I now ride. I’ve been a wheelsucker, and everyone hates that guy (I usually blow my nose on him).
Out on the Mammoth trail system that night there was zero snowmobile traffic but plenty of nose blowing as up there in the high elevation night the moonlight enveloped me as the air temperature dropped down into the lower teens. In the distance I could see the twinkling lights of the groomers plying their trade on the slopes of Mammoth like so many ornaments on the tree of the mountain. They competed with the stars for attention under the wide, clear skies of the Sierra night. On the path of John Muir I thought (as he wrote), “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”. I rode on through my own universe and as I did my tires crunched the snow so loudly as I rode down Deadman Road that at first I barely hear the voice whisper:
“If you build it, they will come”.
What the hell? I generally don’t like hearing voices while riding down Deadman Road at 2AM. Sure it was late in the evening and I had driven 300 miles earlier that day just to get up there, but hearing voices? Just how many times have I seen “Field of Dreams” anyway?
I rode deeper into the night and settled in for a quick bivy beneath the moon. The previous 40 miles had gone smoothly and I had almost kept going for the final 25 or so but wanted to practice my bivy skills and sleep for a bit in the snow. Note the shelf I carved in the snow for my alarm clock – this was a luxurious bivy! Two hours later I awoke with a start, no alarm clock needed. There was that voice again:
“Go the distance”
Okaaaay… At the time I thought the voice was just telling me to finish the ride, but now I realize it was more than that. The voice was urging me to step up and fight for access rights so that others could enjoy the type of night that I was experiencing, so that others could inhale the cold, dry air of freedom that is fat biking (and bikepacking in general). Traveling via bike has become my favorite escape, and in a weird way also my way to connect. I bike, therefore I am, and this voice was urging me to do my part to ensure that others could experience the thrill of biking through a winter’s night.
Dawn spread across the landscape as I pedaled back to my car and as I yawned and fought the sleepmonster the voice became clearer. James Earl Jones began to speak in his booming voice:
“People will come, Tom. They’ll come to ride these trails in the winter for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn off the highway with their fat bikes on their racks next to their skis and boards, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at the trailhead as innocent as children, longing for the past. “Of course, we won’t mind if you have a look around,” you’ll say. “It will only cost you an OHV sticker that pays for the grooming of the trails – just as the snowmobiles do.” They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack.”
“And they’ll ride out into the mountains, and exhale puffs of breath on a perfect, cold afternoon while getting a great workout. And they’ll enjoy the views, and it’ll be as if they’ve dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”
I rode through dawn until it surrendered to day, and I to the relative ease of a few miles of paved roads back to my car.
“The one constant through all the years, Tom, has been bicycles. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But bicycles have marked the time. These snowy, multi-use mountain trails, this new fat bike game, is a part of our past, Tom. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Tom. People will most definitely come.”
I couldn’t agree more, Mr Jones. Let’s hope that when they do come they will have legal trails on which to ride.
The ride I took that night was probably the best I had all year, but unfortunately I don’t plan on repeating it until it is legal for me to do so. I’ve been researching many other areas to ride this winter that may or may not be legal to explore. It’s time to speak with some land managers and find out if they are legal and if they’re not under the current rules, to lobby for the inclusion of fat bikes. With the recent (relative) explosion of fat biking onto the biking scene as the major manufacturers start offering bikes, there will be more riders looking for places to explore. Fat bikes are a quiet, non-polluting way to enjoy the splendor of nature and are compatible with the issues facing many land managers. Now is the time for me to give something back and join the fight for more trail access. Besides, sucking a wheel at fat bike speeds is really silly.
I’ll let you know how things work out in future posts.