116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A fat tire adventure
The Nature Call: Recent race was challenging and fun
John Lawrence Hanson - correspondent
Feb. 24, 2022 12:06 pm
I was flat on my back, spread-eagle — and not interested in how blue the sky was.
I was laid out on water. On a warmer day, I would have been soaked as a muddy mess. But on this day, the temp was about 12 degrees and this water was hard.
I was grateful I wasn’t injured. Since no one saw my spectacular crash, my pride was undamaged as well.
My bicycle was a still-life on the trail. Moments earlier, the bike reminded me of high school physics and something about Newton’s law of angular momentum. In other words, bikes don’t belong on ice.
Mountain bikes are a known quantity, but have you seen a “fat tire” mountain bike? It’s the same bike but with balloon-like tires that range from 3 1/2 to 5 inches wide and at a very low pressure.
A performance skinny-wheeled road bike will run at 110 plus pounds of air per square inch, a touring bike at 75, maybe 50-60 for a regular mountain bike. But these fat tires often run between 3-15 PSI.
The soft and generous tread serves a flotation function and the operator can ride over sand, loose gravel roads or snow without getting bogged down. Fat tire bikes have taken the “toys of summer” to an all seasons status.
The Sugar Bottom Bike Shop, Solon Lions Club and others sponsored a winter race and ride. With a borrowed bike and one preparatory session, I felt at least ready for the ride. The racers, 112 strong, commenced at 9 a.m. with a mass start. The riders left at 11. We were staggered to avoid conflict on the trails. The racers had 28 miles to thrive or survive, the ride was 10.
We riders got underway sans fanfare. It was too cold for that. Riding would surely turn up our internal heaters. With the wind and the cold there was only one way to prove the hypothesis. Through no fault of my own, I found myself near the front of the, err, “pack”? Racers traveled in packs, we riders were more of a “congregation.”
This was the first time I’d biked wearing my winter hunting boots. I felt clunky and pedaled as foolishly as I looked. I pulled off the trail to take pictures and, as a side benefit about half of the faithful biked by. The gearing on fat tire bikes is high torque and low speed. The roughness of the trail forbid any fast designs anyway.
The Lake Macbride Golf Course led to the entrance of the park and then my first true test: a winding trail in the woods down to the lakes-edge trail. Carelessness here could mean an intimate encounter with a tree and a lesson about a relatively light body meeting a massive stationary object.
I picked my lines carefully and avoided touching the brakes. My first test, passed. Now the lakeside path to Solon awaited.
The race director reported the trails were in dandy shape until a midweek rain followed by this cold snap made them an ice-decked gauntlet. He recommended studded tires.
As long as I avoided the other riders, I felt safe enough: no one to slide into me or vice-versa. The times when I had to pass or get passed were heightened tension. On most any other day, I wouldn't have had to think about it. Now, I had to plot carefully the repositioning. I think Newton said two bodies could not occupy the same space.
During the summer season, small rises and falls on the trail would have gone unnoticed. Now the molehills took on the seriousness of mountains: Everest is no place to play.
I broke my ad hoc rule and followed a rider down the grade. He seemed to have been taking a good line and holding onto the trail as well as keeping up his speed.
And then I was tumbling on the trail like a B-movie stunt double. Approaching riders asked about my condition, I sheepishly brushed off their concerns. Truth was, I couldn’t believe how fast the bike went out from under me and how quickly I was dropped on the frozen path. The guy ahead didn’t notice and kept peddling.
About six miles in, I reached the aid station. There was bacon, beer and camaraderie. I just wanted a dose of lukewarm energy drink and to jiggle my toes to see if I could get back their feeling. I went one for two.
Before returning to my destiny, I eyeballed the collection of bikes there. And would-you-look-at-that. Before my crash, I was following a biker with studded tires, that sure helped explain his steady descent and my crash and burn. Or is that crash and freeze given the conditions?
I had a rhythm on the final leg. Lean, don’t steer. Glide, don’t pedal on flat ice sections. Blaze a route off trail if the stretch looked too risky.
Patches of exposed dirt or crunched up ice held the tires. What was left of the snow was coarse and complained at the tires’ assault with a tearing sound. It was a substance that seemed more at home atop a glacier than in the fields of Iowa. The scientists call that “firn.”
My improved confidence on the bike coupled with my numbed senses yielded a lack of discretion that cost me my big wipeout. That one really stung.
The final stretch ascended Opie Avenue to the golf course. A woman in mukluks and a red-and-blue tutu was putting away her bike. At least some racers didn’t let the conditions stymie a little merriment.
We riders only needed to get back to the clubhouse parking lot. I insisted on finishing through the start-finish line. A group of racers approached. They had been out almost 3-and-a-half hours, about 90 minutes for me.
The after-party in the clubhouse looked fun. But I put the bike in the truck bed, swapped the boots for loose sneakers, and hit the road to make it to the “Mo Show” show choir competition at Washington High School.
Bikes can go four seasons. If I break down and buy my own fat bike, then I can go four seasons, too. But only if I get studded tires.
Looking up, looking ahead and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.