Fat biking: what the new hipster ski holiday experience is really like?

Stephen Wood
Fat bikes are built to withstand wintry conditions

High on the ski area, more than 1,000m above the Austrian resorts of Kitzbühel and Kirchberg, conditions were grim. Snow was falling, but it was wet and sticky; and visibility was so poor, anyone unfamiliar with the mountains was reduced to following other skiers in the hope that they knew where they were going. It was the sort of day when you just want to get off the mountain and do something else. So that’s what I did.

In the last few years, alpine resorts have started offering fat bikes to guests, either for use on guided “safaris”, or simply for rent. They look like mountain bikes on steroids, their frames bulging outwards at the front and back, their tyres so pumped up they can be five inches wide – more than four times the width of the tyres on a racing bike.

Fat bikes were developed, independently but almost simultaneously, for use on two different surfaces: snow and sand. In Alaska the launch in 1987 of the 200-mile Iditabike race – a mountain-bike version of the famous Iditarod event for dogsleds – stimulated the customisation of bikes specially for winter conditions. 

The variety of surfaces encountered in an Alaskan winter, ranging from hard ice to soft snow, demanded modifications to deliver more support and grip, and experiments began in which two or even three wheels were welded side by side. Subsequently bike-builders in Alaska and New Mexico (where bikes required flotation for use on sand dunes) began to manufacture wider wheels; and in 2005 the Minnesota-based bicycle maker Surly launched the first production fat bike, named Pugsley.

There was a current model Surly in the Bikeacademy shop in the centre of Kirchberg, but its rental fleet was composed mainly of German-made Haibikes. Fat bikes may be ungainly and heavy-looking machines, but an hour of riding on one – on absolutely flat terrain in Colorado – persuaded me that they were fit for purpose. This time, though, I would be riding on the mountain above Kirchberg, taking one of Bikeacademy’s guided tours.

Kirchberg shares its ski area with neighbour Kitzbühel Credit: birgitkoch@fotosonline.de/imageBROKER/Moritz Wolf

There were two of us on the afternoon “Easy Rider” tour, a two-and-a-half-hour session (15km long and with about 200m vertical of climbing) which sounded right for a near-novice. But to my alarm I discovered that my fellow easy rider, Peter, was riding his own fat bike, not one of Bikeacademy’s; and, much worse, it was power-assisted, by an electric motor. I set off with trepidation, our guide – a very fit, 30-year-old former professional ski racer – in front of me, and an experienced fat biker on a motorcycle behind. Had it been apparent how inappropriate the word “Easy” was, I would have made my excuses and gone skiing.

I had attended the Bikeacademy before, on a summer mountain-biking course. The institution was created by Kurt Exenberger, a former road racer with what was then the top European cycle team, Mapei; and it was Exenberger himself, now coach to Austria’s mountain-biking team, who took me on an early evening ride, offering tips on technique, pushing me just beyond my comfort zone, and choosing a route that kept us in the evening sun. Curiously, it was very like being in the hands of a good ski guide.

The following day was spent with a group of mountain bikers led by one of Exenberger’s lieutenants. Rain poured down incessantly. It was sensationally good fun.  

My afternoon’s winter fat biking was sensational, too; but the main sensations were pain and fear. The ride out of Kirchberg, on a local road covered with slush, was fine. Then we hit the wall: a cart track reared up in front of us, and continued rearing for almost half an hour. It turned out that this hill – whose combination of gradient and length made it the most punishing I have ever encountered – accounted for the entire 200m vertical of the ride. Halfway up, I had to change my feelings about Peter, the electrically assisted easy rider, when he proposed we swap bikes for a while to let me get my breath back. I was pitifully grateful.

Though they would be familiar to a mountain biker, fat-biking techniques seem perverse to a racing-bike user. For a steep climb on my bike I commonly get out of the saddle, to exert more pressure on the pedals. On a fat bike you stay firmly seated, because weight on the rear wheel is what prevents wheelspin in slippery conditions. (A hill start on ice demands something approaching circus skills.) 

Then, on a descent, I crouch forward on my racer; but a descending fat biker must take a wide, upright and agile stance, legs apart with his or her weight bearing on the back wheel. This is because on a slippery descent neither handlebars nor front brakes can be trusted: a little light steering is OK, but anything more forceful will provoke an uncontrollable skid. So only the rear brake is employed, and it is largely body movements that keep the bike upright and on course.

Pain was a constant companion on the climb; fear joined me for the trip back to the valley on a bumpy track covered with a mixture of snow and slush. Our guide, Martin Depauli, demanded a relaxed stance, but failed to explain how that could be achieved on a road to disaster. On the ascent I had quickly mastered my fat bike’s unfamiliar sequential gear change; but just as quickly I had forgotten that the brake levers were reversed, by comparison with a UK bike. The result? I applied the front brake, got into a skid – and didn’t fall off. The fat tyres did a good job, and I grew in confidence.

True, I did have a setback when Depauli suddenly took a 90-degree turn off the track, plunged down a steep snowfield and – having rejoined the track – bade us take the same short-cut. I took some persuading, but finally jumped into the snow, which was about a foot deep. Gravity did its stuff, and to my surprise I completed the descent upright, facing forwards, and feeling elated. It’s actually an easy trick: the snow prevents the bulky bike from moving too fast, helps the rider stay upright, and cushions a fall. I fell at my second attempt and, oddly, felt even more elated.

The three of us reconvened the following day for Bikeacademy’s 90-minute “Nightride”, starting at dusk. This time we would all have electric power, to help us climb 500 vertical metres and to illuminate the bright lights attached to our helmets.

On an electric bike the rider sets the pace with his or her pedal strokes, and the motor merely lends a hand. That’s the principle, anyway. But for an inexperienced electric-bike rider on a cold night, practicalities intervene. Thanks mainly to the battery pack and motor, powered fat bikes are very heavy: the Haibike I rode was three times the weight of my racing bike. The surge of power needed to get the Haibike going might have been exhilarating in different conditions, but with black ice forming on the valley roads it was just frightening. Peter skidded and fell; I wasn’t eager to go down under a 20kg bike.

Up on the mountain, I fared little better. In snow, my efforts to ride out of trouble generated wheelspin and foul language, but no forward movement. I got off and pushed.

Need to know

Bikeacademy no longer runs winter Fat Biking tours, however there are other providers in the Tirol region this season. Silvrette Bike Academy in Iscghl runs group guided tours from €78 per person. In St Anton the PETE Hotel and sports shop has bikes for rental and tours available to both guests and non-guests from €39.