Confessions of a Fat Virgin

I’ve always wanted to ride a Fat Bike up the beach, and just keep going as far as I could.

Last week I got my chance.

If you’ve never tried it before, here’s a few tips that might make that “first time” more fun.

The Bike

A generous friend recently let me borrow me his On-One Fatty Fat Bike.

The On-One is a low cost Fat Bike with 4 inch tyres, 1 x 10 SRAM drive train, SRAM X5 brakes, and a rigid fork.

They’re currently selling on line for just over $USD 1,200.

It weighs in at just over 15kg (34lb), so although it’s not a lightweight, it’s certainly not as heavy as I expected.

Before hitting the beach with this baby, I was keen to try it out on some of my local trails to get a feel for how it handled.

The first thing I noticed is that riding a Fat Bike turns heads.  It’s hard to ride stealthily on the pavement.  As I rolled down my home street at top speed, the tyres howled like a Mac Truck.

I got looks from everyone I passed.  Some people tried to be cool and pretended not to notice.  Others just blurted out “Wow those tyres are huge!”

The large tyres didn’t seem to slow me down at all.  The extra few kilograms of weight weren’t a problem either.  However, I did notice that the 1×10 gearing was a bit taller than I was used to.  While I could ride it all day on flat trails, I’d have to work a bit harder if I wanted to climb for any length of time.  In fairness to the bike, I think this was more related to gearing than the geometry of a fat bike, and I’m sure it could be resolved by putting in a smaller chain ring.

The soft, spongy tyres more than compensated for the lack of a suspension fork.

The Beach

Early one Saturday morning at low tide, Murray and I turned up at the beach at Bribie Island like two excited kids on Christmas morning.  Ahead lay a 31km (19 mile) stretch of unspoilt remote beach.  The morning sun was low in the sky, the waves were sighing, the tide was waaaaay out and had left us a huge stretch of firm sand on which to ride, and the gentle breeze was at our backs.

This was awesome!

I’d asked a few friends for some tips about riding on the beach and took a few precautions:

1. There’s lots of beautiful white sand on Queensland beaches.  Why try to avoid it?  Murray and I decided to ditch the cycling shoes and clip-ins.  Instead we opted for open-toed sandals and flat pedals.

I chose “Crocs” open toed sandals with a plastic strap that went around the back of my heel.  The sand got in, but it escaped just as easily.  Being plastic they dried quickly when wet, and they were cool – a great bonus when the temperature gets up.

2. There’s lots of sun.  Hide from it!

We both wore long-sleeved jerseys as protection from the sun.  I wore a wide-brimmed hat while Murray wore a desert / legionaires cap.  We also plastered on lots of sunscreen.  My woollen jersey was much cooler than I expected, and both of us were comfortable in long sleeves, even though the temperature reached over 30 C.

3. It’s thirsty work. Take lots of water!

For other rides of this distance I’d normally take a 3 litre Camelbak plus some sports drink in the bottle on the bike.  But the Aussie beach is different.  You’re in the sun all day.  Solar radiation is reflected from the sand.  You need more water.  I attached a couple of “Chaff Bags” from Bike Bag Dude and put an 800ml bottlle of water in each.  This gave me a total of five and a half litres of water for the day.  As it turned out, this was enough – but only just.  I got back with about a cupful of water to spare.

The Chaff Bags were easy to install, and just clipped between the bars and the top of the fork.  They had draw-strings on the top, and held my bottles firmly in place until I needed them.

The Tides

This is the most important consideration for beach-riding.  Picking the wrong time to ride can spoil your day.

At low tide on the beach, the area closest to the ocean is unrideable because it’s too wet, and the sand is too soft.

The area at the top of the beach near the dunes is also unrideable because it’s too dry, and the sand is also too soft.

The area in the middle is like Goldilocks’ porridge, just right.  It’s firm, slightly moist, and a bit crusty.  It’s perfect for riding on.

As the tide rises, the “Goldilocks Zone” shrinks.  You end up riding on a narrower section of firm sand, until the rising tide hits the soft sand, and you can no longer ride.

For short rides, it’s easiest just to set out at low tide. But this doesn’t work for longer rides because you’ll start out happy and carefree, and end up bogged on the way back.

In this sort of situation it’s best to leave on a falling tide.  At the start you have a narrow section of rideable sand.  It gradually widens, then shrinks, giving you perhaps 6 hours of riding time if you’re lucky.

Another solution is to come back on an alternative route away from the beach.  This is what we ended up doing.

The Lessons

Although I came prepared, asked lots of questions, and planned for a fun ride, there were a few things that I didn’t plan for.

1. You can’t ride a fat bike everywhere.  People think that those huge tyres will let you float over anything.  This is simply not true.  When the sand gets really soft, even large 4X4’s have problems in it.  We discovered a 4km “Road of Pain” on one of the inland tracks on our way home.  The sand was too soft to ride on, so we had to push.  It was about mid-day by this time.  The sun had cooked the sand to a scorching temperature.  You could fry an egg on it.  Not only did we have to work hard pushing, but we had to endure really high temperatures on our feet.

I don’t know of any way to avoid this.  Sometimes you’ll have to walk.  Sometimes the sand will be hot.  Get used to it, or go somewhere else

2.  The sun burns!

I forgot to put sunscreen on my ankles.  Normally covered by socks, I forgot that these bits of white flesh would be exposed all day to the blazing sun.  I ended the day with third degree burns.  My feet swelled, and it was almost impossible to walk.  Next time I’ll use more sunscreen, and I’ll re-apply it every couple of hours.

3. Flat isn’t easy.

This is going to sound lame.  When you ride a bike on the beach, there are no hills.  I thought this was a good thing.  It IS a good thing.  The problem is that it means you must pedal continuously.  There are no brief downhill respites where you can get out of the saddle and coast.  If you’re going to ride on the beach for a few hours, you’ll be pedaling non-stop for a few hours.  It’s great exercise but it’s no cake-walk.

4. Beware of 4X4’s

In this part of the world, some beaches are open to traffic.  This legally makes them a “road” with speed limits and road rules.  Most of the 4X4’s we encountered were driven by friendly, happy people.  But remember that some drivers won’t expect to see a bike, and you won’t hear them coming from behind because of the roar of the waves.

Keep an eye out for traffic, beware, but always give them a friendly wave

The Most Important Lesson

The most important lesson of all when it comes to fat bikes can be summed up in three words:

Relax and Enjoy!

Don’t rush the experience.  A deserted beach stretching off into the distance is a thing of beauty where Strava KOM’s are meaningless.

Soak it up.

It’s not a race.

It’s a time to remember how good it is to be alive, how short life is, and how lucky you were to spend this day on a fat bike on the beach.

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