WANOGA SNO-PARK —
The new snow sparkled in the sunlight as we floated along the freshly groomed singletrack trail, weaving cautiously around the white-specked lodgepole pines.
The uphill was certainly challenging on a fatbike. But the downhill was simultaneously frightening and exhilarating as I picked up speed around the corners but worried about wiping out and making an ugly snow angel in the fresh powder just off the trail.
“You’ll see snow angels where people have crashed,” said Gary Meyer, a fatbike enthusiast from Bend. “You’re kind of floating along. You’ll get slippery conditions or loose snow on top of the packed snow. You’ll feel your bike float or drift around corners. Once you get used to that and increase the balance and control of your riding, you can drift a corner to your advantage, without having to grab your brakes.”
Meyer, a volunteer for the Central Oregon Trail Alliance who first started riding bikes on snow in the 1980s, has been in charge of grooming the snowy singletrack for fatbikers the last few years at Wanoga Sno-park. Last winter, meager snowfall made for a short season for fatbikers at the sno-park, but this season has been spectacular so far, according to Meyer.
The snow base at Wanoga was about 3½ feet this week, with the fatbike trails packed down to about 2 feet deep, said Meyer, who pulls a rolling groomer behind a snowmobile to groom about 10 miles of snowy singletrack for fatbikers at Wanoga.
The trails include a 3-mile loop and a 6-mile loop, and an additional 4-mile loop is in the longterm plans, as Meyer and COTA have a winter grooming permit from the Deschutes National Forest. Snowshoers and cross-country skiers are allowed on the trails as well, which start near the sledding area. The regular grooming schedule is Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“We’ve had an amazing year,” Meyer said. “Conditionswise it’s been perfect for us with the moisture content in the snow that packs well, which is what we look for. Last year we had a little snow early in December (2017) and it all went away. It was basically mid-February to mid-March was all we had last year. We were barely a foot (base) last year. We were barely skimming over all the logs and stuff.”
Fatbikes typically perform better on packed-down snow than on several inches of fresh powder. The bikes’ wider tires (typically 3.8 to 5 inches wide versus 2.25 inches for standard mountain bike tires) allow for better traction in snow.
Fatbikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers have all been enjoying the conditions so far this winter at Wanoga, Virginia Meissner and Swampy Lakes sno-parks, all west of Bend. (Sadly, those same icy conditions that are ideal for fatbiking and nordic skiing led to some serious sledding injuries at Wanoga and other Central Oregon areas during the holidays.)
Meyer, 58 and a retired engineer, began grooming fatbike trails at Wanoga in the winter of 2013-14 and the sport has steadily increased in popularity over the last few years in Central Oregon. Most of the bike shops in the area now sell and rent fatbikes.
We saw a number of other fatbikers out on the trails on Monday along the 3-mile loop. Meyer had groomed the trails that morning after a few inches of snow had fallen the night before.
“The difference I’ve seen this year is I’ve seen lots and lots of people from out of town,” Meyer said. “Some people I’ve talked to are coming here as a destination now. I don’t know if they were on a ski vacation and they read about these trails, but they were specifically at Wanoga for fatbiking.”
Tire pressure can be as low as 3 or 4 pounds per square inch on fatbikes — mountain bikes are usually between 30 and 50 psi — to provide even more traction on challenging terrain.
Fatbikes are capable of ripping through about 2 to 3 inches of fresh snow. Anything deeper than that becomes extremely difficult, Meyer said. Groomed trails give fatbike riders a firmer surface to avoid sinking into the snow.
Fatbikes are also allowed on snowshoe trails and groomed snowmobile trails in Central Oregon, but they are prohibited at nordic ski areas such as Meissner Sno-park and the Mt. Bachelor Nordic Center.
Snowshoe loops at Swampy Lakes Sno-park and near Todd Lake are popular among fatbikers. Sometimes cyclists will ride along regular snow-covered mountain bike trails to pack the snow down and make them more ridable for others.
“A lot of people are riding the Phil’s Network,” Meyer said. “When there’s snow on it they’ll pack it in and one person rides a ways, gets tired, and comes back. And the next person rides a little farther. Within a day, a short loop is ridden in, and then within two or three days we’re riding all the up way up to the bench at the top of Whoops (Trail). But once it melts out and turns to mud, even with fatbikes you should stay off the trail (to avoid damage).”
Riding the groomed singletrack with Meyer this week, I noticed how much harder the climbing was on snow on a fatbike than on dirt on a regular mountain bike.
“The surface creates more friction,” Meyer said. “And you’re moving a lot bigger chunk of rubber. It is a little harder.”
Meyer recommended using easier gears than normal when riding uphill on a fatbike, rather than trying to push a harder gear up a climb.
“What happens is your tire ends up spinning and you end up digging a rut,” he said. “You’re better off going to easier gears and spinning up the hill. You’ll climb faster and you won’t dig a trench or slip and slide.”
On some corners along the downhill sections Monday, I would ride into a rut in the snow and my back tire would drift, which made for a scary-but-thrilling sensation. Meyer said it is best to avoid the ruts, which can further damage the trail and send riders sprawling into the snow.
Novice fatbikers need some time to get accustomed to the unstable surface of the snow.
“It takes a little more balance control and a little more steering control,” Meyer said, comparing the fatbike snow experience to regular mountain biking. “It takes a little more finesse. But the overall enjoyment outweighs the extra effort.”