Gasping for breath, soaked with sweat, and falling through the air at about 25 miles per hour, time slowed as I braced for a crash. The large snowbank in my flight path would at least dampen the fall, I thought, tensing up for impact as my bike tumbled behind in the snow.
It was near the start of the On-Snow Bike Crit, an intense, 35-minute race that was a part of the Winter Teva Mountain Games held in Vail, Colo., earlier this month. I hadn’t raced a mountain bike in years, and never before had I pedaled on snow. I signed up for the Crit on a whim, hoping sheer will could get me through.
Smash! My body rocked into the snow as the Surly Moonlander bike I’d demo’d for the race continued on down the hill. Somehow nothing was hurt but my pride, so I scampered back onto the bike and into the fray.
Of the 51 racers in the Crit, about half were on “fat bikes” like the Moonlander. Surly’s Pugsley, Salsa’s Mukluk, and other makes were rolling around the steep, sharp-cornered course.
Fat bikes make riding or racing on snow not just possible but downright enjoyable. While I was a complete newbie to the sport I was still grinning like the village idiot as I pedaled, pushed and crashed my way around a treacherous course. With its downright obese 4.7-inch-wide tires, the Moonlander offered insane traction and better “float” in the snow than almost imaginable.
The Crit had one long hill on its course, and riders had to attack it again and again as they made the loop. As racers on traditional mountain bikes spun their tires and were forced to walk, I was thrilled to find the Moonlander gripping the snow instead of fruitlessly digging in.
Another part of the course gave lots of riders fits as their tires skittered out from under them. But the Moonlander made it look easy — no slipping, and a clean pedal past the struggling skinny-tire racers.
The bike handled the course’s ice and sloppy, soft powder on a downhill section well. I did take two glorious falls, but asking any bicycle to handle that course was a lot, and rider error was heavily at hand.
But for the most part, I was able to keep the bike upright and rolling efficiently through the rutted and challenging line, all while moving in excess of 20 miles per hour.
By the end, I’d been lapped by the tops guys more than once, and my finishing time was near the bottom of the pack. But the Teva Games race featured a strong field, and I was happy with my performance, and even more impressed with the bike.
Most all of the best riders in the Crit were on fatties, and snow bikes (fat bikes, if you want to call ‘em that) are likely here to stay.
—Sean McCoy is a contributing writer. He covered the Winter Teva Mountain Games live from Vail. See reports on Day One and Day Two of the weekend-long Games, as well as an intro to the Games here.