Bikers who brave the cold

Maybe you've seen them: brave souls dressed up like snow ninjas peddling around town in orange safety vests or propelling themselves down icy, hard-packed trails on oversized tires. Snow bikers are taking over Whitehorse.

Maybe you’ve seen them: brave souls dressed up like snow ninjas peddling around town in orange safety vests or propelling themselves down icy, hard-packed trails on oversized tires.

Snow bikers are taking over Whitehorse.

It’s one of the fastest growing winter sports in Canada, and Whitehorse has one of the largest communities of snow bikers anywhere in the world, said Sierra van der Meer, president of the Contagious Mountain Bike Club.

The popularity of the sport has blown up in the last few years with thanks, in part, to the arrival of purpose-built, hard-tailed bicycles with fat tires.

“I got my bike four years ago and at the time there were only three of us in town that had fat bikes, and one of them was my husband,” she said. “Now there’s like 90 in town. It’s gone crazy.”

Whitehorse has just the right amount of snow and the critical mass of people dialed in to winter sports, said van der Meer.

“We just happen to have all the right elements to make it a really fun fat-bike zone,” she said.

The origin of fat bikes can be traced to the now-defunct Iditasport Snowshoe Ski and Bike Race. Back in the 1990s, industrious cyclists built the experimental fat bikes themselves, welding two tire rims together and slapping on the widest tires they could find.

The wider tires let the bikes float better on the snow.

While fat bikes might be new to the Yukon, snow biking isn’t.

In the late 1800s, biking during the winter was a common way for people to travel the hard-packed snow trails.

Even without cars sharing the road, it was still a dangerous way to travel.

On Christmas Day, 1899, Fred Clayson, a Skagway gold buyer biking from Dawson to Whitehorse, was robbed and murdered, along with two other men, on the trail outside of Mayo.

At the time of the murder, Clayson was pushing the bike because one of his pedals had broken.

If he’d had a fat bike it’s hard to say if he would have escaped the bandits, but he definitely would have had a more enjoyable ride.

“They’re really, really fun,” said van der Meer. “It’s kind of a cross between GT racers and a normal bike.

“You have this control but when you’re going down hills you’re half out of control, falling in to the snow drifts so it doesn’t hurt.”

Although fat bikes are expensive – $3,000 and up – they’re cheaper than a few years ago, when they were custom made.

There are now a handful of companies that design and build fat bikes.

In Whitehorse, both Cadence Cycle and Icycle Sport stock the increasingly popular bikes.

“We started selling them five years ago and we sell about 10 to 15 a year,” said Jonah Clark, the owner of Icycle Sport.

He owns one himself, which he uses for his five-kilometre commute to work.

“When it’s this cold I actually try not to drive my car,” said Clark on Tuesday when the mercury was hovering around -30 C.

Cold weather is tough on a car, something that van der Meer found the hard way.

She’s been commuting on her fat bike every day with the exception of one this week, which was of course the day her car broke down.

“I got a flat tire on my car, and then broke the tire, and now have this huge bill,” she said. “Had I just ridden my bike to work I would be a much happier human being today.”

Fat bikes are designed to brave the cold. The frames are often made of steel – or if money is no object, titanium – which maintains more flexibility in frigid temperatures. Along with the fatter tires and larger crank, the pedals are flat and wide to accommodate winter boots.

There are no shocks on a fat bike and simpler thumb style shifter is the preference.

“Everything ultra simple: the less moving parts, the less things to go wrong when it’s really cold out,” said Clark.

And disk breaks are a must.

“Rim breaks don’t really work at all when it’s cold out,” said Clark. “A little bit of breaking will heat up the rim and ice it up.

“It happens to a degree with disk breaks, but they work better.”

Even though fat bikes are built for the cold, the kind of extreme weather Whitehorse has had this week is still hard on them.

“Below -25 or so, the bike just doesn’t handle very well,” said Clark. “The wheels are really slow and the tires don’t flex properly and the bearings that allow your handle bars to turn are stiff.

“It just feels weird. Plus, because everything is slow, you never get going very fast, so it’s not as fun.”

Not that you necessarily need a fat bike if you want to cycle year-round. A regular bike with a few minor modifications works just fine if you don’t plan on trail riding, said Clark.

“Older hard-tailed mountain bikes from the ‘90s make good conversions to winter bikes because there’s not many moving parts and the shifting is usually a little simpler,” he said.

You just have to replace the grease with a less viscous lubricant that won’t gum up in the cold.

“We take that freewheel mechanism off the bike, fully strip all the grease out and replace it with either nothing, or a little bit of light lubricant just to get you through the winter,” said Clark.

Studded tires are also a good idea, especially for the front wheel, he said.

“If your front wheel slips out on you, you’re going down on your face,” said Clark.

No matter what kind of bike you have, dressing for the cold is vital.

But it’s a delicate balance, said Clark.

You can never have too much on your hands or you feet but the core gets tricky, he said.

“You need just enough but not too much, because if you start sweating, as soon as you start cooling down a bit moisture becomes a problem.”

This Saturday the Contagious Mountain Bike Club is holding the 5+ Hours of Light Fat Tire Festival at the Whitehorse Biathlon Range.

There will be bikes there for people to try out, said van der Meer

It’s the second year the club has run the event, but there’s a chance it might not happen. If it’s colder than -28, the race will be cancelled.

But regardless, there will be more fat-biking events to come this winter, she promised.

Contact Josh Kerr at