Deep in the Woods on a Fat Bike
Die-hard biking fans get off the beaten path. Way off.
Here and there, batches of snow floated dreamily from a metallic sky, moving slowly and spaced far apart, drifting down as if each flake was being lowered on a string. Gently, they came to rest among the branches of the pine trees, on the tip of my nose, and on the notebook spread open on my knee, melting into the story.
I was seated on a loaf-shaped boulder, high up on a biking trail called Wild and Wooley in Franconia. After 50 minutes of effort, mostly climbing but often descending into little ravines like a life-size game of Chutes and Ladders, I dismounted my bike, lifted it out of the single-track, and rested it against a tree.
There was no wind — not a sound coming from the snow-padded hillside. Just that cold, dry smell of winter. It was so quiet, I could hear my pencil scratching across the page.
An hour earlier, and a mile south of my current position, I’d broken away from my companions and gone off alone. Immediately, I felt more at home, dropping down the early slope as I curved off between the trees. This was a surprise, because I was with two of my closest friends, Tanya and Chris Pierce, and photographer Joe Klementovich, who
I’ve spent many happy hours alongside, exploring the wilderness.
But it had been a year since the world closed up shop, a prolonged hiatus where each of us was left to reckon with himself. As I reached the bottom of the hill, turned right, and skirted the old airstrip, I finally tuned in to the bike, the convolutions of the trail, and the forest pressing in from both sides. It was good country, and I was seeing it for the first time.
Over the previous months, I’d gotten more comfortable being alone, the portion of my solo adventures rising from approximately 65% to 90%. As I moved across the landscape and one season was eclipsed by the next, I started to feel crowded if a deer showed up among the trees. During this period, I’d specialized in open water swims, mountain bike rides along the rim of the Merrimack Valley, snowshoe treks that stretched into the chilly dusk, and hour-long skates across the frozen ponds of my youth, the only sound the clack of my stick as I ragged the puck.
The deeper into the woods I got, with the trailhead or shoreline or parking lot receding into the far distance, the more content I became.
Up on Wild and Wooley, I pondered all this, scribbling in my notebook. Thirty feet above me, there was a slight disturbance in the atmosphere, a wrinkle in the stillness, and I glanced up at a bird of prey sailing just above the trees. The bird’s silhouette, nearly three feet from wingtip to wingtip, glided overhead and then veered away.
I drank from my water bottle and moved my feet, shivering a bit, the sweat from my exertion pooling in my boots. Then I stood up, put one foot on the boulder, resting the notebook on my thigh, as I wrote:
The situation we’ve found ourselves in lends itself to contemplation, and the wilderness is a place that allows you to do just that. It offers no opinions, no clear path forward, just a space that doesn’t care what you do or who you are. It’s a blank slate, and I’d been drawing on it for a year now, mapping out my inner geography, everything that seemed worth doing and all the untraveled vistas I still wanted to see.
Early that morning, I’d driven north on Route 93, passing through the chokepoint of Franconia Notch at 8 a.m., which seemed like a late start given my predilections. That mile-long stretch of territory has its own ecosystem, and I marveled as the temperature on my console dropped from 27 degrees to 14 in under a minute. Off to my left, impenetrable banks of fog poured over the ridge, hanging halfway down into the notch.
More village than town, Franconia is just over 65 square miles, with its population barely exceeding 1,000. Every summer when I was a kid, our family went camping on the eastern slope of the White Mountains, but my Dad loved the Flume and Franconia Notch State Park and we explored the area thoroughly. From my mid-teens into my 30s, I spent a lot of time on the bone-chilling lifts at Cannon Mountain, skiing down the steep, icy slopes with my high school buddies. And when the rocky profile of the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed on May 3, 2003, a portion of my childhood was buried in the rubble.
As I turned off Route 93, I had a good view of Cannon’s northern slope. Just a few tiny skiers, high up on the narrow trails, were weaving their way downhill. A short while later, I arrived at the parking lot adjacent to the old airstrip on Route 116. Only a handful of vehicles occupied the lot. Across the road at the Franconia Inn, a trio of cross-country skiers snapped into their bindings and went poling along the trail that paralleled Route 116.
Chris Pierce and his wife Tanya and their dog Lenny arrived five minutes later, pulling alongside my vehicle on the passenger side. Piercey rolled down his window. “Let’s do this,” he said, grinning.
Joe Klementovich eased into the spot to my left. I got out of my vehicle and we shook gloved hands. “It’s been a while,” Joe said.
In the 15 minutes it took to arrange our gear, pull the bikes out and mount up, another dozen cars had arrived and an expanding troupe of cross-country skiers were populating the snowy lawn of the inn. Already I felt uneasy, turning away from the crowd and heading across the snowed-in airstrip behind Piercey, who was leading.
I was in familiar territory as we crossed 100 yards of open ground, the darkened tree line looming up ahead. Over several years, Piercey and I had participated in the Old Man of the Mountain Rugby Tournament, held each June on the grassy airstrip. We’d had some memorable experiences on that pitch, and won a lot of matches.
But it had been two years since I’d ridden a fat bike — having borrowed Piercey’s spare — and it was slow going in the loose, shin-deep snow.
Ahead of me, Joe caught his front tire in the deep snow and was flung onto the ground. He’s an experienced mountain rescue volunteer, and an accomplished paddler, ice and rock climber, skier and mountain biker. When we reached the tree line and turned southward onto the border trail — an 18-inch depression in the snow — Joe got tossed from the bike again when his tire slipped out of the groove. It was an inauspicious start.
I knew Piercey was out on his fat bike two or three days a week, exploring a variety of trails in New Boston and Goffstown. Having recovered from a hand injury early in the season, Tanya was also biking pretty often. We rolled along between the clusters of birch, their slender trunks so close to the single-track that our handlebars barely fit between them.
Piercey surged ahead, climbing a narrow, barely discernible trail misnamed EZ Rider. Our of my line of sight, he’d been joined by Bob Lesmerises, the lean, grizzled proprietor of the White Mountain Bike Shop, located in an old barn next to the Franconia Inn. A biking acquaintance of Piercey’s, “Big Ring Bob” is an expert rider, guide, and raconteur, sharing his colorful experiences while maintaining an uphill spin rate that would have discouraged Lance Armstrong.
From 30 yards back, I could hear Bob and Piercey jawing about the steep terrain, and the “Oh, wow, man” of cranking uphill, dodging the trees that seemed to jump into their path.
Ever rising, the trail was doglegging right and left, and then shifting downward into gulleys that had me putting my foot down every 10 or 15 yards. Descending one of these drop-offs on the trail, my right handlebar clipped one of the birch trees and I went flying off to the left, crashing hard on my shoulder and hip.
When I got up and dusted myself off, I saw that the trail rose for another 75 yards or so, curling off through the trees. With no flat place to get a head start on this section, I was forced to “hike a bike,” trudging through the soft snow alongside the trail, pushing the unwieldy fat bike uphill.
At the top of the rise, there was a depression in the terrain, then it rose again in a northwesterly direction, the snow humped up on either side. I got maybe three revolutions into my spin and caught the loose snow and fell a second time.
Chest heaving, I righted myself and the bike, unclipped the straps of my pack and took out my water bottle. Savoring a long, cold drink, I turned my bike around, facing back downhill. Above me, I could hear the voices of my friends, their chatter fading into the distance.
Tightening my pack straps and straddling the bike, I made ready to descend the hill. The empty woods in front of me were inviting — I had the strong desire to be alone with my thoughts, exploring this new country.v
Just before I set off, Piercey came over the rise and pulled up beside me. He lifted his chin in my direction, and I told him I was going to turn back and practice on the lower trails.
“Nah,” he said, leaning on his handlebars.
Piercey and I have undertaken dozens of adventures over the past several years — from northern California to Montana and across the Northeast — rugby tournaments, winter paddling trips, two-day mountain bike rides, pond hockey, remote fly fishing and the annual DIY Backcountry Triathlon in Rumney, New Hampshire. We’ve pulled off some daring feats, and have dozens more in the planning stages. A ruggedly built fellow, Chris Pierce is the most reliable, level-headed guy I know, and I always feel better when he’s along for the trip.
Now he stood a few feet away, gazing at me. “C’mon, dude,” he said. “Ride with us.”
“I’m gonna do what I wanna do, like always,” I said, mounting the bike. “I’ll catch you later though.”
Piercey turned his bike around and I set off, dodging trees like a slalom racer, my center of gravity pushed far back on the saddle, feeling light and balanced on the frame of the bike.
An hour later, I was perched in that remote spot up on Wild and Wooley and starting to get cold. Putting down my pencil, I shifted sideways on the frozen boulder, blowing warm air into the heel of my right-hand glove.
The woods were silent except for the occasional creaking of a birch tree, or a packet of snow sliding off one of the pines onto the ground. Scratching away at my notebook, I caught a glimpse of color, and then some movement, just uphill from my position. A fit-looking woman on a florescent green bike, her face obscured by her balaclava and helmet, floated down the trail, hovering in a downhill position about 15 feet away.
It was like running into someone on a deserted planet, and I felt like a character in one of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s stories.
The woman gestured toward me. “Are you all right?” she asked.
I raised my pencil, smiling at her. “Yeah — I’m writing.”
She nodded, gliding past me in tight quarters.
“You’re probably gonna run into three guys, a petite blonde woman, and a dog in an orange vest named Lenny Kravitz,” I said. “Tell ’em you saw me.”
The other cyclist laughed. “I will,” she said.
Packing away my notebook, I climbed into the saddle, my front tire pointed downhill. After my early struggles, I wound in and out of the trees, leaning slightly right and left to control the frame of the bike and keeping my hands still. My desire to pull away from the group, at least temporarily, had allowed me to find my rhythm, digging the Zen of the trail rather than fighting it.
In the trees up ahead, I saw a flash of blue and heard Piercey’s loud monkey cry — a signature greeting across our long friendship — “OOOOH-Ooo-oo-Ah AH AH-OOO-Oo!”
My head jerked that way, and my front tire slipped out of the track and I was dumped out of the saddle onto the ground.
Righting myself and the bike, I brushed off the snow, gazing down the trail. Piercey came into view, a broad smile on his face. “We came to hang out with you,” he said, gesturing at the woods behind him. “Ride with us.”
I glanced upward at the treetops swaying overhead. “I’m riding this section twice, getting the hang of it,” I said. “Go ahead. I’ll catch up soon.”
Piercey looked straight at me. “No,” he said. “Come with us.”
“Don’t make it a battle of wills,” I said, raising my eyebrows.
Piercey rocked his head back. “I’ll see ya,” he said.
Soon I was rolling over flat ground on a trail marked “Birch.” Then I detoured to the left, going uphill on some double-track called Middle Earth, climbing for a while, then returning swiftly with a hard right onto Wild and Wooley and another long climb. Twenty-five minutes later, I cruised back down with little conscious thought, meeting up with Joe and Piercey and Tanya on the edge of the airstrip.
“All right?” Piercey asked me.
“Yeah. I’m good.”
More skiers and bikers were milling about and a large white-and-black horse was pulling a sleigh along the furrowed snow of the airstrip. We decided to load up the bikes, jumping in our vehicles and following Joe north on Route 116, hanging a right onto Main Street, and leaving the cars a half-mile from Fox Hill Park.
Wide and flat at the start, the Gale River trail ran alongside the bank as we headed east, the river gurgling at our feet. The smooth double-track wound along the Gale for a mile or so, then narrowed and began to climb, weaving back and forth, eventually turning into a side hill trail that divided Fox Hill into its upper and lower half.
It had been overcast all morning, but now the sun broke through, lighting the ice crystals clinging to the upper branches, the bright thread of the river shining between the trees. After another half-mile, we were cranking straight uphill. My legs felt encased in cement, my breath coming in short, stabbing gasps as I pushed downward with my forefoot on each revolution, grinding along.
“At-kin-son!” shouted Piercey. “Do it!”
At the next junction, Piercey turned left to explore the Boundary trail and as I began following Tanya downslope, he called out, “Feather the brakes. But don’t feather them too much.”
I started off, the air whistling through the apertures in my helmet. “I like the downhills,” I yelled over my shoulder. Thirty or 40 yards behind Tanya, I skittered over patches of loose snow, riding the contour downhill. Now everything was in sync — sky, terrain, and trail.
In the parking lot, Piercey hailed me. “All good?” he said.
“Let’s eat,” I said.
Soon we reconvened a mile down the road at Iron Furnace Brewing. We were seated at an outdoor fire pit, and Piercey began adding wood to the fire, despite a sign that said only employees were allowed to do it. Soon a young fellow in a wool beanie came over with an armload of wood.
“Am I breaking the rules?” said Piercey, winking at me.
The kid laughed. “No. It’s all right,” he said, making a tent-like structure with the wood he was carrying.
“You favor the teepee style?” Piercey asked. “I sometimes prefer the log cabin arrangement.”
One of the brewery’s owners, Tim Clough, is a friend of Joe’s. A local fellow and sporting enthusiast, Clough said that he and three of his local buddies made their dream come true when Iron Furnace Brewing opened in 2017.
Tanya ordered a New England IPA called “237 Miles,” asking Clough how they chose the name. He said that one of his partners who grew up in Franconia now lives “237 miles away, in Connecticut.”
After sitting by the fire for a half-hour, we moved to a large, shed-like structure in the rear of the building. Tables were spaced far apart, and metal heat lamps threw a little warmth on each one. In a lively discussion, Piercey was adamant that “fully supported ascents” of Everest, etc., are not the same as getting to the summit under your own power.
“You drove to get here,” said Joe, winking at me. “You should have walked.”
I was starting to feel cold and getting antsy with so many people around. Piercey had gone outside to check on Lenny, and I said goodbye to Tanya and Joe and headed for my vehicle. Piercey was nowhere in sight, and I started up my car, hoping he wouldn’t think I’d take off without trying to say goodbye.
Suddenly, Piercey appeared at my window like a character in a TV show. I couldn’t help laughing.
“Hey, taking off?” he said.
“Yeah. I was looking for you.”
Piercey stuck his gloved hand through the open window. “It was a good day,” he said.
In Ernest Hemingway’s 1935 masterpiece “Green Hills of Africa,” he wrote, “I had loved country all my life; the country was always better than the people. I could only care about people a very few at a time.”
As I cruised along Main Street, I turned up a Willie Nelson song that came over the radio, grinning in spite of myself. For I realized that, for me, Piercey and Tanya and Joe will always be counted among those very few.
Tips for Beginner Fat Bike Riders
- Rent gear the first time. Many of New Hampshire’s ski areas and local bike shops offer rentals of fat bikes and safety gear, with rentals starting around $40 a day. Try it before you buy it.
- Choose your day. The weather will play a big role in your experience. If it’s too cold or windy, you’ll be miserable.
- The ideal trail is hard-packed snow. Small patches of ice are OK — but treat any ice longer than the length of the bike with respect.
- Trails are rated for difficulty. Choose easy or moderate trails when you’re just starting out, especially if you have no mountain biking experience. Start with short trails.
- Dress appropriately. Wear warm winter boots and gloves or mitts with enough dexterity so you can change gears. You still need to wear a helmet, so a thin hat or a headband is a good idea. Padded shorts with leg warmers under an outer shell would certainly make the ride more comfortable.
- Bring water or a drink to stay hydrated — in a thermos if it’s really cold, so it doesn’t freeze.
- Don’t forget energy bars and snacks. Working hard on the bike, you’ll use a lot of calories. You don’t want to burn out far from the trailhead.
- The better physical shape you’re in, the more enjoyable the fat bike experience will be. Know your limits.
- Share the trail. Many fat tire trails are shared with cross-country skiers, hikers and snowshoers. Stay out of the ski tracks and be prepared to pull over for others.
For more great fat bike tips, visit fatbikeplanet.com.