These dedicated cyclists hit the trails all winter long

Sunday News Correspondent
January 12. 2018 7:32PM
With the temperature below zero, the Fat Tire Wednesdays group heads out in the dark at Musquash Conservation Area off Hickory Hill Road in Londonderry on Jan. 3. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

LONDONDERRY -- Wrapped in multiple layers of warm clothing and crowned with a powerful headlamp firmly secured to his helmet on a pitch-black January night, Justin Rigoli could only muster up one difference between riding his bicycle now and in July.

"No bugs," he said on the sub-zero night. "Gonna love that."

Rigoli, of Cycles Etc., with locations in Manchester and Salem, rides a 26-pound Fatback Corvus, one of the latest fat bike models perfect for riding through Old Man Winter.

With its mammoth tires and sturdy frame, these adventure machines turn off-road cycling into a year-round activity.

Originally designed for sand dunes, fat bikes hit the market in the early 2000s and have become popular on all surfaces, especially the snow that hammers New Hampshire.

"No longer do we have an end of our riding season," said Bob Beal, co-owner of Cycles Etc. "No more staring at the wall in winter."

Fat bikes look like mountain bikes on steroids. With a wider frame it digs in and gives more of a damping suspension that keeps the rider floating, similar to a snowshoe. Many have carbide studs in the tires, similar to those on a car or truck this time of year, for icy patches.

Rigoli said the quality of the bicycle matters - there are inexpensive models on the market that are heavier and more resistant, making for a more tiring ride. Some of the starter bikes go for around $600. At the other end of the range, the Trek Farley series has a $5,500 price tag at Beal's shop.

"Just like any other sport, when you get into a mid-range or something a little bit more higher-end, it's going to ride a lot like a mountain bike," he said.
Justin Rigoli, Bob Beal and Bill Theroux , all of Cycles Etc. in Manchester and Salem, talk about the weekly Fat Tire Wednesdays rides before heading out on a recent tour. The group rides for 90 minutes to two hours at a time during the winter months. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

Ski areas buying in

In the Granite State, fat bikes have quickly become fixtures at most ski resorts, including Waterville Valley, Gunstock and Bretton Woods, and are available for 24-hour rentals at many bike shops.

The New England Mountain Bike Association has an entire page committed to winter fat tracks across the region.

In February, the annual Polartec FattyFest - open only to true fat bikes - will take place at the Gunstock Nordic Center in Gilford. In March, the Great Glen Trails and the Mt. Washington Auto Road host a Ski, Shoe & Fatbike to the Clouds challenge, dubbed North America's toughest 10K, with separate classes for nordic skiers, snowshoers and fat bikers.

Coping with cold

Outside the competitions, most winter rides are 90 minutes to two hours. That's about the life of some of the headlights and within the safety timeline so riders do not get too sweaty in the frigid conditions.

Longtime riders like Rigoli stress the importance of "starting cold," then warming up as opposed to stripping off layers as sweat begins to build. Each also urged any group of first-time bikers to have at least one experienced mechanic along on their inaugural ride.

"You have to be really aware of your bike's being maintained so you're not going to have problems out in the woods, because if it's 8 degrees and you break something, you're in big trouble - unless you're with a bunch of mechanics like us," Rigoli said. "I'd recommend it to anybody, just go with somebody. It's a dangerous time of the year to get hurt and get stranded."
Mark Saffer, a bike mechanic with Cycles Etc. in Manchester does a wheelie as they take off for a night ride during the weekly cycle rides facilitated by Cycles Etc. The group was meeting at Musquash Conservation Area off Hickory Hill Road in Londonderry at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

In the woods 

Every Wednesday during the region's snowy season, a handful of fat bikers meet up at a different New Hampshire trail for a quiet ride through the state's conservation and recreation paths. They travel all over the Granite State, from Merrimack and Auburn to the northern counties.

"Nothing beats being in the woods," Beal said.

"It's probably the best way to be in the moment. In a hustle and bustle, overconnected digital world, we get out in the woods at night and all you can really focus on is what's in front of you," he said. "It's the trail and the people you're riding with. It's a great way to disconnect with one part of life and reconnect with another part."

On the first Wednesday of 2018, they arrive at Londonderry's Musquash Conservation Area. The temperature is below zero, the environment cool and still.

They park on secluded Hickory Hill Drive near the trailhead, each vehicle equipped with a husky bike rack. Before they ride, some bikers head up the quiet street and race back down to pop a wheelie, others simply jump in place to get the blood moving before the cold sets in.

"Everyone else is sitting on their couches, we're heading outside, keeping us healthy and less depressed," said Rigoli, who goes by the nickname "Rocket" and was powered by Mexican food.

"We have a page called Fat Tire Wednesdays on social media where people can find out where we're riding, so it's not just our core group - it's getting people basically motivated to be on bicycles this time of the year," he added.

Smooth riding

As more riders, snowmobilers and other winter users pack down the trails, the groomed path becomes even and polished, like a single-track highway through the woods.

"Fat biking in my opinion is some of the best riding because it's smooth," said Mark Saffer, a mustachioed bike mechanic so thoroughly bundled up that only his glasses and nose are visible out of his winter gear.

"It smooths the trail out, so there's no more obstacles, there's no more roots and rocks. It's just a fast-running track. It's unreal," he said.

Beal said a fat bike will feel familiar to mountain bikers. "Some of the trails you'll actually have faster times in the winter than in the summer," he said. "The trails are really rocky and technical in the summer. All that technical terrain is slowing you down, but in the winter once you have a good snowpack, it's like a smooth road."

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