Monday, January 20, 2014

Winthrop Fat Bike Gathering

Since I bought fat Pepper last fall, all my fat tire rides were solo. Of course, there are always people stopping and asking how hard is it to roll on monster tires etc. I did not meet any other fat cyclists on winter trails, heck, I did not meet any riders, even the skinny ones! An email to a fellow Meetup mountain biker connected me to another rider, whose friend video documented a 2013 fat bike gathering at Ocean Shores, somebody sends a Northwest Fatbike Facebook link, and all of a sudden there is a community of fat tire enthusiasts, meeting on the MLK weekend at Winthrop, WA. The meetup was hosted by the Methow Valley sport trail association (MVSTA) and the local ski / bike shop, Methow Cycle & Sport. OK, so now you have all the links, happy browsing.

Winthrop is a cute Western town on Highway 20, north of Twisp and south of Mazama. Highway 20 over the Washington Pass is closed in the winter and buried under tens of feet of snow and avalanche debris. This makes these towns to be "end of the road" destinations. Local atmosphere is very friendly and you can get $1 espresso in coffee shops and fantastic fresh baked goods and sandwiches in delis.

On Saturday morning, a group of about twenty people meets at the bike shop, and after some introductions and trail information, we all head up Gunn Ranch road to a trailhead. The valley fog layer ends right about at the trail level and the views open up.

This is a social ride, lots of talking, picture taking, stopping and regrouping, even some flat flasks are being passed around. We ride through woods with occasional views of the surrounding mountains, on a very hard packed snow surface. An ideal day for fat bikes, cross country skiers would be miserable on these trails.

We climb up to Grizzly Hut for a snack and group photos, under blue skies and at an almost balmy temperature of 38F.

The downhill part is very fun, you can tell the locals know the trails and have the technique to let their bikes fly downhill. There is more stopping for pictures and videos and views.

After lunch in town, the organized event becomes somewhat disorganized, but a group of riders heads up to Paterson Lake, which is completely frozen over.

After a little bit of trail scouting, everybody decides to ride a loop around the lake. I feel like a climb would do me good after a slice of pizza, so I head up Sun Mountain towards the lodge. The trail here is a steep singletrack, basically a foot wide sliver of ice and snow on a grassy prairie hill. As I reach a horse corral near the resort, my hopes of climbing above the fog layer do not materialize and I head back down to the lake on more technical narrow trails. As it gets later in the afternoon, the fog layer above the frozen lake thickens and I hammer on the flat lake trail loop, with about 50 meters of visibility in a pink haze.

On Sunday morning, I meet with Mark, a young mountain biker and snow biking enthusiasts from Missoula, MT, who has been exploring local fat bike routes for a few days. He rode some big rides up to high altitudes, but I convince him to ride the Highway 20, thinking it might be an easy ride before I head back to Seattle. At the road gate, we see bunch of backcountry skiers who use snowmobiles to access skin tracks up those crazy couloirs and chutes around the pass.

We begin our ascent on a nicely packed snowmobile track, the valley is in shade and the morning air is freezing, but there is much less fog in the valley and none up here. Few miles up, the snow, churned up by the snow machine belts, has a consistency of crystal sugar and keeping a straight line becomes a bit more difficult. We let some air out the tires and keep pushing on.

After gaining some more elevation, the snow turns into powder, walking on it becomes impossible without punching deep holes. We again decrease our tire pressure to the point where I think I can squeeze the rubber all the way to the rim, but low tire pressure is key to maintain flotation on snow and be able to ride. We ride, sweat and our conversation stops. We see a huge switch back of the road, after which the highway climbs up along a very avalanchy looking slope. We decide to try for the bend, and after what seems like a long and painful effort, we get there.

From here, we can see the whole valley below and also some jagged rock walls above us. The valley road is now sunny, but we are still in a shadow cast by the spires to our left. About a half mile up, we see the shadow edge and it is sunny above that point. At this point, I am willing to push the pedals another stretch just to reach the sunny spot.

This section of the road has very soft, deep powder, just somewhat packed by a group of snowmobile riders who break trail ahead of us. Under "normal" winter conditions, this would be a very dangerous part, we ride over steep ridges of snow and dip down steep snow banks, formed by snow slides from the chutes to our left. I can definitely feel the altitude here, but here is the Washington Pass sign, and the road turns steeply downward.

We hang around a bit, enviously looking at ski tracks up in snow filled bowls, but also looking forward to the descent. We start to glide down the mountain and the remaining 3 psi or so in the tires act as natural brakes, so we very comfortably cruise down at about 10-13mph. The best thing is to let the bike find its own best path, too much steering feels like a recipe for a wreck. We have to pedal some more on the final mile and half, out of the sun and on a flat trail, now definitely feeling the lack of muscle glycogen. Really, there is no better way to get stronger on a bike than fat biking.
Before my long drive home, I replenish my glycogen at the Mazama store with the aid of a mixed berry bread pudding with whipped cream and lots of coffee.
This was a really enjoyable weekend spent among people who love this part of the state, the trails and all the sports you can do here, without a trace of any judgment for other area users. They all seem to run, bike, ski and ride the trails and were very happy to show us their slice of heaven.

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