On snow bikes and gravity/Dan Schneider

When I was in high school, I worked summers at a golf course still under construction. A lot of the work was done using power equipment – excavating the land, digging the sand bunkers, cutting the trenches for sprinkler pipe – but much was also done with hand tools, and that was the work I did. The tools involved were shovels, landscape rakes, heavy-duty watering hoses, specialized tools for repairing sprinkler heads, and numerous others.

One tool in particular, the hand tamper, was memorable. I don’t remember what all it was used for, but I do remember the way it made my shoulders feel after using it for an afternoon.

The hand tamper I used most often was an old bruiser with a wooden handle. Its tamping head was cast iron and at some point in its history, someone had welded onto it the phrase “Da_n this is work!” The “m” had either been obscured by corrosion or ground off by a worker with a low tolerance for profanity. I took the modified text as a personal invitation to use that particular tool whenever my work called for a hand tamper. Its pithy statement, rendered by a welder, really summed up the experience of hand tamping: da_n, it was work.

Last week, I learned the same phrase could be scribed just as accurately onto the frame of a Surly Pugsley (it could even be welded on, since the Pugsley’s frame is chromoly steel). The Pugsley is one of several examples of a snow bike, or fat bike, that are currently all the rage among mountain bikers in northern climates. These fat bikes have extremely oversized tires (up to four inches wide) which make them ridable on shallow or well-compacted snow.

There is no shallow snow left in the Keweenaw this winter, so a classmate of mine, John, and I spent a fair amount of last Thursday driving around the peninsula with a pair of rented Pugsleys in the back of my pickup, trying to find snow compacted enough to make the fat bikes really shine. The best we could come up with was a snowmobile side trail out by Phoenix. It was a long and gradual hill climb up a ridge line and da_n, that was work.

A Pugsley is about 10 pounds heavier than a regular mountain bike, but the main challenge was motivating the big tires through snow. The fat tires run at low pressure, which improves their flotation over the surface of the snow but makes for tough pedaling. Traction was negligible. These factors, coupled with last week’s bitingly cold temperatures, made for an arduous slog to the top of the ridge.

But at the top of the ridge, the fat biking experience changed considerably.

Gravity is a powerful force, and having it on our side transformed the Pugsley’s liabilities into assets. Extra weight became extra momentum. The low tire pressure and scant traction created a palpable sensation of floating as we bombed down the hill. The deep snow, which had made it so hard to find a suitable place to ride, promised a soft landing in the event of a crash. So we cranked it in the tallest gears and eschewed brakes.

Riding downhill, as opposed to uphill, changed the experience from arduous to epic. It made me think, “Da_n, this is fun.”