There’s something extraordinary about exploring the white, sparkling winter wonderland. Surreal experiences can be had, whether looking out across a white valley from a mountain top, meandering through the treeline or traversing across steep slopes.
Regardless of your method, amazing experiences come from exploring the backcountry in the winter, but I have become quite fond of exploring by bike.
SNOWBIKING MEANS FATBIKING, RIGHT?
Just like biking during the winter doesn’t mean biking in the snow, snowbiking doesn’t equal fatbiking. It certainly isn’t new, and though wider tires help, they aren’t always necessary. Before fat tires were even in our midst 10 years ago, people were riding their commuters and mountain bikes on the snow, often with studs to grip the ice.
For me, biking in the snow became something that allowed me to recreate in the winter and go on solo adventures without putting myself at risk. When I really got into mountain biking and the first winter came, the thought of putting up my bike for the season didn’t even cross my mind like in years past. Of course, I’m going to keep biking — why wouldn’t I? I didn’t have a fatbike then. All I had was my Trek 820 Mountain Track, a 20+-year-old, cro-moly steel frame with no suspension. It was my only bike and I used it for everything. To ride snow, trail conditions had to be perfect, but I made the most of it.
For the first couple winters, I lived in places that got snow, but were manageable to ride in. Last winter in the Tetons, however, this wasn’t the case. I did take it out on some snowpack trails a few times, but this required perfect conditions, and even then it was tough at times. For the most part, I biked snowpacked gravel roads instead.
This winter I have a fatbike. A Surly Pugsley Ops that I bought used. It’s allowed me to ride ANY condition of snow. And it’s become my primary winter recreation.
Some people ski cross country or downhill. Some snowmobile. And some keep running through the winter. I keep biking. I do ski. I do snowshoe. But bikes just have a hold on me. I find them magical.
You can still get out in the woods and the backcountry by bike. Sometimes it’s a slog… but always it’s rewarding.
Biking also allows you to go further than by foot, but still slow enough to enjoy all that’s around you. The serenity. The effort. And of course, the downhill thrill.
But doesn’t skiing offer all of these things? Yes. And I know I’d love backcountry skiing for all those reasons. There have just been some barriers for me to break through, but I certainly will. For the moment, bikes still provide adventure, excitement and the ability to stay active during these Jackson Hole winters.
NEW PERSPECTIVES AND APPRECIATION
Those summer trails that you know so well take on a very different appearance and become much more wild come winter. All of a sudden the “easy trails” are now more challenging. You learn to appreciate their existence. You discover and learn new things… maybe see tracks of an animal you didn’t know lived there. Or notice a nearby waterfall or stream you had always just rode by before.
You’ll also notice all of the deadfall and realize the work that takes place clearing the trails in the spring. We so often blow by the cut trees, but that tree probably fell during the winter, and someone had to cut it.
If you already ride singletrack, snowbiking is a great “off season” activity. It keeps you in shape and it builds your skills — no doubt you’ll come out of the winter a better rider and be leaving your buddies in the dust come spring.
IT’S ACTUALLY PRETTY SIMPLE
Do some research and you’ll find you don’t need a lot of gear or even a new bike to start winter cycling. Drop the air pressure, pack some extra layers and head out on your local trails, given that they are in good shape to ride. If you want, start out on groomed trails or find some places where snowmobile traffic has packed down the back roads.
I always look forward to the downhill… I’m almost always slightly out of control — sliding around the corner, relying on the snow to keep me afloat. Trusting completely in my bike, the trail and my ability to not overthink. It’s the one time in my life that I am not worrying about other stuff and just trying to make it around a corner without diving into 4 feet of powder… But even when I do, how can I be mad? It’s snow!
IT’S NEW AND CHALLENGING
What? Put away the skis to ride a bike? Well… not permanently, but when the snow conditions are junk, biking is an excellent alternative. But even just for a day, try biking some trails. Variety is a great thing. Often times people don’t say “no” to something, but they don’t say “yes” either. Instead, the idea just kind of exists in a vague black space of your mind… what I refer to as the Someday Section. Instead, just start with what you have. You’ll make mistakes and learn from them. If you want to fatbike, go rent one from your local bike shop and take it on some trails.
AND IT NEVER GETS OLD
You can always add elements to make it more challenging and interesting. Riding further. Riding harder. Snow offers a variety of conditions — from powder to snowpack to groomed and any combination. Each is a little different, but all are fun. Even with the same views, morning and evening light accent and highlight the scenery in different ways. Also, winter equals shorter days, which means you may end up riding at dusk or in the complete dark. Go for it! It opens up a whole new world of biking and you may be intrigued to go out on some night rides in the summer too.
Your eyes water, your nose drips with phlegm, but you press on. Why? Because you can’t resist the magic of biking in the winter. Despite the frigid air, blasting down a trail and carving a snowpacked corner, almost feeling out of control, brings an unmatched zen. Atop a windblown snowy peak you conquered, view and moment demands your attention. There’s no doubt that winter has a captivating beauty you can’t ignore.
Feature Image: Fatbiking groomed singletrack at Grand Targhee Resort