The Art and Form of Fatbiking by Daniel Smith


Winter is naturally a time for hibernation; a time to sleep, read books and work on art projects. It’s a time to hang out with friends, drink dark beers, and play board games by the fire. It’s a time for self-indulgent lethargy after the incessant action of the sunny summer when sitting still seems a sin; I justify it to myself as recuperation.

But this winter has been different for me. Not outwardly, but in my attitude towards it. It changed suddenly but made sense; an epiphany, a revelation, a “Eureka!” moment. It happened the day I decided I would buy a fat-bike.

On that day, the cold, clutching fist of imminent winter relaxed, and there, in its open palm, were glowing possibilities. The encroaching season no longer seemed isolating and oppressive, but exciting and inviting, with opportunities more expansive than those of the summer for those who can access them. My fat-bike was my ticket.

Riding in the lingering shadow of Anchorage’s Front Range, December.
Winter reveals a world of biking veiled by summer’s raiments. Trails once marshy or heavily rooted are paved into a flowing smoothness by snow and ice. Frozen rivers and lakes solidify as the keystones of new routes, like a Northwest Passage navigable only in the frozen winter rather than the brief thaw of summer.

New trails and singletracks materialize without explanation in the snow-laden woods, a seasonal infrastructure laid by ghosts during the long nights. The somnolent woods awaken with a labyrinth network of trails carved into them like bug tunnels in the bark of a rotting tree; they hum not with insectile invocations but with whirring hubs and chirping disc brakes like the echoes of birds flown south. There are whispers of such trails online or in hushed discussions at trailheads, but one must rely on venturesome intuition to find them. To ride a new trail is to plunge blindly into a scenic shortcut, a moose trail, or a technical track never suspected but serendipitously found. Weaving new and old trails together to create novel routes feels like riding through a puzzle, and is inexhaustibly entertaining in the winter.

The finite nature of the winter trails makes them irresistible, and they continually tempt me back into the saddle. My perennial winter pastimes have been “left in the warmth,” while it’s me who is out in the cold. My bookmark advances slowly through chapters and artworks sit as sketches while I giggle maniacally up and down snowy hills. Fatbiking has become my primary art form this winter, as I work to be strong, precise, and poised like a ballerina. I wear pointe shoes of five-inch rubber; a leotard of synthetic insulation. I bend my knees and plié atop the pedals, absorbing the terrain as I strive to flow elegantly through the woods like water.

The landscape over which I ride is a blank canvas, beautifully reinforced by its snowy whiteness. The terrain is a medium for creation and I see it through imaginative eyes. I visually connect gaps in the trees then pedal through them to create a new path, maybe one never before ridden, and, small as it may be, exemplifies the creative opportunities of fat biking. Every hill is a challenge to surmount and splash back down, the ballerina leaping to ever higher. Even the crusty snow heaped along the street is a stage for graceful feats. It’s opportunistic art; it’s live; it’s a performance done solely for the performer.

I paint in five-inch brushstrokes of tire tread, creating abstract pieces on a scale as broad as Anchorage and beyond. They always start and end at my front door, like a drawing done without picking up the pen from the paper. It’s art too big to view as a whole and wouldn’t make sense anyway; its beauty lies in its emotional outpouring, and I can feel it with the catharsis of an artist. It’s a finite art form: a dance that exists in the moment and ceases when the motion does. The marks I leave will be repaved in snow and the treads of others, like a wall of graffiti to be whitewashed and begun again. The summer is the great eraser, but the rides and routes I create live on in my muscle memory.

On the frozen coastal plain, January.
Winter’s early-descending darkness and long night once sent me home like a curfew, but now they entice me, calling to me in sweet whispers like Sirens. They seduce me into the Stygian woods where I find myself alone under amber clouds saturated with city lights. The solitary beam of my light pierces the inky air in front of me like the lance of a jousting knight. It’s serenely quiet save the constant, gentle crunch of my wide tires on the snow. I sail through the landscape like the swift light of satellites passing soundlessly in the night sky above. It’s a mesmerizing, otherworldly environment, suspended in time, where the world falls away and I disappear, too. It’s conducive to thinking, allowing thoughts to be exhaled as steamy breath and hang in the dense air to be better examined and pondered. Such exhaled thoughts condense and cling onto my beard as an icy rime, only to melt and drip away once home, leaving me more collected and clear-headed than before.

Like a hand-cranked flashlight, pedaling recharges my energy drained by winter’s darkness, and with that warmth, I can embrace the winter for its beauty. Biking through an ethereal ice fog or across a beach of icebergs are phenomena not to be wished away for warmer weather but to be marveled at from the saddle of my fat-bike.


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3 Responses to The Art and Form of Fatbiking by Daniel Smith

  1. Erv Spanks February 2, 2018 at 12:40 pm #

    Preach Brother, Preach!

  2. Mike G. February 3, 2018 at 6:14 am #

    Very well written sir. You’ve managed to express much more eloquently what I call my riding therapy. I think you’ve summed up the difference between fat biking and other bicycling activities. Well done!

  3. Karen February 12, 2018 at 1:37 am #

    Well you just made winter bike riding sound more beautiful and desirable than I ever thought possible. Very nice Dan, glad to read about your northern adventures like this!