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'Fat Bikes' Navigate Snow Trails In Northeast Kingdom

When the temperature plummets and snow piles up, many mountain bikes used to get stored for the season. But these days, more and more winter riders are navigating packed snow on big tires with deep treads.  So-called fat bikes are showing up all over the place, including Vermont’s longest network of single-track routes, Kingdom Trails, in East Burke.

On a frigid January morning, the sun sparkles on snow-covered Darling Hill, where Kingdom Trails runs a nordic center for cross country skiers and, increasingly, hardy winter bikers. Inside, riders are renting sturdy black bikes with huge, puffy tires and straight handlebars.   

“Thanks for coming—thanks for being our first fatty of the year,” Kingdom Trails Director Tim Tierney calls out to one customer.

He’s Dan Flanagan, an avid mountain biker and skier from nearby East Burke. He comes in red-cheeked and grinning, stomping off snow as he returns a demo bike.

“The combination of the fat tires in the snow, it makes for a pretty soft ride,” Flanagan says.

Flanagan admits he took several tumbles.

“No falls, no guts,” he chuckles.

But Kingdom Trails Director Tierney says you don’t have to be that intrepid to enjoy steering a fat bike on these hard-packed single track trails. This is the third year that the recreation center has invited fat bikes onto its extensive network, and winter riders are showing up in droves.

"Even the shop owners are going, 'We can't hold onto these bikes any more, there's a waiting list.' So it's growing all over." - Kingdom Trails Director Tim Tierney

“And even the shop owners are going, 'We can’t hold onto these bikes any more, there’s a waiting list.' So it’s growing all over,” Tierney says.

There are a few differences between riding one of these bikes on snow, and taking a standard, thinner-tired mountain bike out in the spring or summer. Lilias Ide is an expert mountain biker and she gives newcomers to fat bikes a few tips.  

“Rather then trying to spin the wheels or pedal quickly you kind of want to have a slow steady pedal. That will get you up the hills easier, a slower more steady pedal rather than trying to spin it fast, because then you will just spin out. You have to make sure you stay on the packed track,” Ide reminds the riders.

And she suggests sitting up straight, not leaning forward. Ide says these bikes also work well on mud and sand.

Behind the row of rental bikes, technician Collin Daulong is lowering the seat for a newcomer to fat biking, Joana Albright. (No relation to this reporter, and considerably more fit.)

“It’s a new adventure. I mean, I love biking obviously anyway so it’s just gonna put a twist on it and make things completely different,” she says.

When she bikes on the road in the winter, she relies on studded tires. These fat tires don’t have studs, so she’s not sure how steady she will be as she sets out with friends for the first big hill.

But she zooms toward the snow-capped ridge without even a wobble.

And there are plenty more first-timers right behind her.