I doubt I could have picked a better day to really dive into the Fat Bike scene- 27 degrees, no wind, 2-3 inches of snow, some virgin singletrack, some packed ski trail, all the while basking under a clear morning sky at my favorite trail-Levis Mound. Oh, and atop a brand spankin new Salsa Mukluk 2!
The fat bike bug started biting over the course of the past 3 years while at Gnomefest, luckily enough to be held at my home trail. The Gnomefesters, being friendly and unselfish, were more than happy to slip a fat bike under me for a test spin- (It’s kind of unbelievable how many Fat Bikes are along in the quiver of bikes at Gnomefest). I never had a great chance to really test out the rides of these bikes-maybe a quick 1/2 hour or so, but I always returned smiling. And maybe that smiling, and rumbling over, around and through everything out on the trail is what mountain biking needed to be for me again. I just finally knew that I’d pull the trigger at some point soon and my bank account would be a bit smaller. The Fat Bike gospel according to guys like Adam, Marty and Gomez was spoken and would soon have me swiping my card- it was time.
On one of the coldest snowy days last winter, as I was about to start a session of ski trail grooming at Levis Mound, a car pulls up, Fatback on the roof rack, with a guy quickly jumping out to ask if he could ride here. “Ahhh, sure, but the snow is a bit deep….and please stay on the singletrack.” I really wondered how well he’d do in these conditions-but several hours later, I noticed he’d crossed the ski trail many times while exploring the Levis and Trow Mound singletrack-very impressed! That started my internet search, scouring all the sites, reading up on those Fatbacks, 9:Zero:7s, Mukluks and Pugsleys and this past fall, the Northpaw. Trying to decide which bike direction to go wasn’t easy, but sometimes it’s not the bike so much but people (like always) that make the difference. I’d met Adam while on a Sunday morning cruise at Gnomefest, and of course he, and other friends were riding fat bikes. Adam is the bike shop guru at, “World of Bikes” in Iowa City and started counseling me on possible rides to fit my style.
My first winter love is cross country skiing, so although I wanted a winter ride, I also knew most of my Fat Bike riding would be in warmer months. Fortunately, besides Levis Mound, I live a mile from the Clark County Forest and hundreds of miles of old logging roads, game trails and snowmobile routes to roll big wheels on. So decision time-the divine blackness of the Salsa Mukluk 2 and a swap of some red Surly Rolling Darryl’s (thank you Adam), became the bike for me. The complete build was in his shop and has a great mix of Salsa, Surly and Sram components-a good value. In full disclosure here, I’ve mountain biked for over 25 years, I am not a fat bike expert-and have limited experience riding the big bikes and everything that rolls along with them.
Knowing these bikes are not exactly svelte and have a lot of rotating weight, I worried that it may be really slow in the handling department-a feeling that quickly disappeared as I wound thru the singletrack and navigated several snow covered bridges on the Snodgrass trail. In fact, the neutral handling of this bike was the biggest surprise-it went where I wanted it to go. It seemed some other bikes I’d ridden would take a little more effort to overcome the gyroscopic effect of all that rotating mass-not here. The snow had only been packed by browsing deer, so the Larry up front and Endomorph in the rear, had to do all the packing. I tried to adjust the tire pressure to a level that balanced snow traction and ease of rolling on any packed snow I’d find. Adam had set up the bike with the Salsa Bend 2 bars dropped slightly down, which fit my riding position well. I’m 6’ and the large Muk frame was a perfect fit for me-top tube and stem was a good reach and the standover, with the generous room made hopping off and on easy.
Besides great handling, the bike climbed well-granted, I needed those low end gears (my legs have been “off” for a while) to get up to the overlooks at Levis. Some of the trails ascending can be very technical and rocky, and now snow covered, so to give the bike a fair shake, I wanted to ride those the most. Toad Road, on the north side of the mound, had the deepest snow (with just a huge wolf track to pack things down) but settling into a spin in the granny got me to the top. I was able to cruise the singletrack around the top of the mound with ease, exploring the overlooks-some with snow, some blown down to the sandstone-didn’t matter, the bike rode it all well. We had just completed a new trail off the top of the mound this fall-“Corkscrew” and that also made my list of must-ride-to-test-bike descents. It was fresh snow, very steep at the top, some rocky drops and then swoopy contours as it nears the bottom. Dropping off the rim, the bike quickly picked up speed, but just feathering the excellent Avid BB-7 disks kept things very controllable. The Muk flowed thru the rocky drops easily and the settled into the lower part of the trail-some pedaling required though the deeper snow. A bit less air in the tires would have helped control downhill off camber cornering but I’m still on the learning curve there. Big smiles when the trail dumped me out on the ski trail below.
Since I groom the ski trails here, I gave myself permission, for testing purposes only, to take a spin on the packed surface to reach another singletrack. “Okay, so this is easy”….and turning around, the big footprint of the tires barely left an impression-I can’t wait to get on some sno-mo trails this winter! Some hunters had taken a deer out on the ski trail, so I followed their drag and then hit the last section of skinny trail- Lower Hermosa (AKA “Beer Run” as riders blast out the flowiness to the trailhead). This had been packed by two fat bikes the previous week, so I could really keep my speed up…as long as I stayed in their tracks. The bike felt great and soon I forgot I was on anything other than a mountain bike on a trail…as it should be.
The great thing about riding this time of year, and on this kind of bike, is that the riding experience is so different and the trails are all new again. For me, on my home trails, that difference can rejuvenate riding. My thoughts were not that I was riding a fat bike, but rather I was just riding-riding anywhere I wanted really. The Mukluk was better than I’d hoped on this first ride-great handling, quality components, and stellar looks. Just one concern-that my skis may get just a bit jealous if the bike gets more snow time than they do this winter.