Monday, February 23, 2015

Fat Bikes: from obscure to annoying in 24 months

Fat bikes started out as sort of a secret society. Now they're incredibly hip. Maybe that's the secret to success in America: Get fatter. The original mountain bikes were fat-tired, fun-loving and durable. Then they became tweaky and expensive. But once you go fat you can never come back. So only a fatter bike can capture the public's affection. And with popularity comes misunderstanding and come-lately "expertise."

As the fat bike bus gets larger and picks up more idlers from the sidewalk, the cacophonous chatter of misinformation rises in the background. And news of misbehavior filters in, like the report brought to us by a fat bike rider from Barnstable, Massachusetts, that fat bike tracks across fragile dunes in the Cape Cod National Seashore have brought unwelcome scrutiny from law enforcement. When popularity surges, idiocy increases.

A bike shop in the 1990s needed good answers to semi-informed questions from newly-minted experts who got their opinions from the plethora of magazines that blossomed to provide them. Now a bike shop needs to deal with another crop of enthusiasts who want to see fat bikes and hear about fat bikes even if they have no intention of buying anything. A shop's credibility rests entirely on having the latest cool thing.

I wonder how many people who are getting fat bikes now will use them enough ever to replace a set of tires. From an industry standpoint, who cares whether a customer actually uses anything, as long as they buy it? From a human standpoint, I just see more waste.

The fat bike in winter takes advantage of the snow-packing efforts of others. Some intrepid souls may pack down their riding trails by tromping on them in snowshoes first, but the majority of snow preparation is done with grooming equipment, unless the snow type and temperature swings have led to a naturally condensed and firm trail surface. Many miles of trail are prepared for snow machines and other motorized vehicles. The trails and logging roads provide access for human and animal travelers. These trailways were the fat bike's initial habitat. Only recently have the rising number of riders in a coincidentally difficult economy opened the dialog and debate between riders and cross-country ski areas.

The common characteristic in all these potential fat bike venues is packed snow. It's the winter equivalent of a paved road. Thus the fat bike is doing what the automobile did in the early 20th Century, taking advantage of road surfaces improved through the lobbying efforts of bicyclist organizations to take over those roads with heavier wheeled vehicles that would eventually try to make the bicycle extinct.

A fat bike would be good winter transportation if the roads were safe to share, but they're not. So fat bikes become another indulgence for a toy-crazed culture. If you happen to live where bike routes actually go to practical destinations, and someone makes the effort to keep them passable by plowing, snow blowing or grooming, bike on. But around here we're lucky if there's room for two motor vehicles to squeeze past each other in some of the snowier places, let alone maneuver past a cyclist none of them are happy to encounter.

IF humans in general -- and industrialized-nation humans in particular -- suddenly changed their transportation mindset and started providing for winter bikeways and other winter transportation options that did not require bare pavement, winter-adapted bikes would not just be toys. Unlikely as that is, it's not impossible. I like to imagine packed-snow travel ways on which someone could commute by ski or fat bike. I would pay tax dollars for that. Take it out of the road salt budget. Economically, it might make more sense for people in snowy regions to put the car up on blocks in the winter and use tracked vehicles rather than bathe the automobile in brine for six months. But then the tourists wouldn't be able to get around up here to shed money on us. Damn. It's always something.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fat Bike Ethics

When an activity based on self-reliance becomes popular, self-reliance is one of the first casualties. It happened with backpacking, cross-country skiing, winter hiking, mountain biking, kayaking...people are attracted by some element of the sizzle, but still expect someone else to cook and cut the meat. Where a few people would come in, seeking to learn the skills and master the craft, the masses come in looking to own the gear, get the tee shirt and project the image.

Fat biking is taking its turn in the spotlight now. It's still a narrow spot, but interest is on the rise. And the most frequently asked question is, "where can I go ride this thing?"

Operators of cross-country ski areas have to tell fat bike owners whether their machines are allowed on touring center trails. The bike advocates consider this a reasonable question. Some of them get a little snivelly when the answer is not an immediate and emphatic yes.

The fat bike of today started out a decade ago as an expedition bike. It was a go-anywhere machine for someone who might want to ride through the interior of Alaska, or across a desert, or some other place where a rugged machine with ample traction could make its methodical way from place to place. But, like so many other pieces of expedition and exploring equipment, the bikes proved fun or useful in less drastic situations. The subculture took hold.

Fat bikers: ski touring centers owe you nothing. Fat biking evolved in the wild, away from groomed skiing areas, and it flourished there for a decade before the public began to take notice. A fat bike was a tool for riding in venues that already existed, not a novel toy based on a mere idea, which then had to find a place in the real world. Fat biking venues already existed and continue to exist.

The wide tires may make little or no impression in some trail conditions, but in others they gouge up the trails so that re-grooming would be needed to make the trails usable again for the skiers for whom they were built. In some conditions, even normal skier use hacks things up pretty well. But tire tracks create a new pattern of disruption that can seriously impact trail conditions.

If a touring center allows limited fat bike use, someone has to patrol to make sure those limits are respected. Fat bike riders will need to pay fees sufficient to offset the expenses generated by their presence. But it doesn't end with the exchange of funds. The ski area has to patrol the trails, assess conditions and repair them as necessary, in addition to the normal maintenance and grooming schedule familiar from ski operations.

Many ski areas are making some effort to accommodate --or even attract -- fat bikers as another source of income. With natural snow becoming unreliable, cross-country areas have to figure out how to monetize what they've got, or put in costly snowmaking systems that still rely on sustained temperatures below freezing. So fat bikers look like a viable cash cow. But there's no escape from the logistical realities of trail maintenance when snow brings skiers and current fashion brings fat bikers at the same time.

In our area, uncommonly sustained low temperatures have brought deep powder this year. This is snow that does not pack readily to a firm surface for skate skiers, let alone solidify enough to allow fat bikes to pass without digging deep into the corduroy. It may not look like much damage to a non-skiing bike enthusiast, but it might as well be a ploughed field for someone rocketing along on skinny skis.

In other years, or even the later part of this one, conditions could change to favor the fat bikers. Whatever happens, those who take up the super wide tire need to remember that their machine started out as another way to travel freely, not another way to depend on the continuing efforts of trail groomers who work for someone else. Sure, the bikes require a somewhat compacted surface. Such a surface can occur naturally or artificially. But just because someone is creating such a surface doesn't mean they'd be tickled to have you on it. Nor are they a bunch of killjoy old fuds if they seem reluctant to fling wide the gates.

When winter collapses and takes the ski industry with it, within a decade or so, fatties can rule the Earth. Bide your time. Be kind and polite to the cross-country skiers as they enjoy their declining years.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

My turn for The Chimp Report

Big G!

Don't know if you'll see this tonight, but it's too funny to risk forgetting.

The chimps were particularly bangy today. Plus they had something that made a piercing, metallic whine like a Dremel tool working on thin metal or ceramic or somebody's skull. I spent a lot of time with my ear plugs in. But they did not take the edge off the shockwave slams of whatever they would drop or throw at irregular intervals. After lunch I started banging back with an old rack bar. They had quieted down somewhat, so hopefully it startled them as I did it at irregular intervals.

Minutes after Esteban took off for practice, leaving me with the Commander, I was brushing out those hotbox skis when a voice said, "hey there! I have a delivery for you."

Twenty-two Specialized bikes. I went out into the snowy parking lot, leaving the Commander on the bridge. Of course the shop filled up. He sold hats for cash at discount prices to apologize for his ignorance of the computer system. The couple who wanted to rent he turned away. What could I do? Truck dude would have gotten impatient and dumped the remaining bikes in the street.

On one of my trips out from the basement I smelled cigarette smoke. I glanced over to see a grumpy young chimp at the tailgate of a pickup truck. He had a freshly lit cancer stick. Since he'd been sent outside to do a chore, he must have figured it was a great opportunity. The chore? Refueling their space heater. Yes, young Einstein was pouring what smelled like kerosene from a fuel can into their jet-engine heater. I started laughing and pointed him out to the truck driver, who also started laughing. The grumpy kid looked over like, "What?! What's so funny?" Then he LEANED DOWN CLOSER TO SEE HOW FULL THE TANK WAS.

Why did he not erupt into a human torch? Now he's convinced all this bullshit about not smoking while you handle fuel is just more sissy nonsense from people who don't like smoking. Well, the little Bic flicker survived...this time. He walked a lap or two around the building to finish the butt before going back in. Might have been dicey if he'd lit himself on fire, panicked and run around, lit the pickup truck and maybe careened into something else he could ignite.

Ah well...there's always tomorrow. Pleasant dreams!