Caroline Bishop gets to grips with the newest winter sport to arrive in Gstaad
'The biggest enemy for fat bikes is sheet ice,“ explained my guide, Simon. I rubbed my bruised behind; it would have been helpful to know that before I attempted to cycle along an impossibly icy path, ending up on my backside with the bike half on top of me. They may look like the 4x4s of cycling, but even fat bikes, I swiftly discovered, aren't invincible.
The Swiss alpine resort of Gstaad may be best known for skiing, luxury shops and celebrity residents (Bernie Ecclestone and Julie Andrews are unlikely neighbours here), but this winter it's hoping to gain a reputation for something rather different. Winter biking on snow is the newest craze in the Alps, since fat bikes were made commercially available in Europe last season, and I'd come to Gstaad to give it a go.
Invented by cycling fanatics in the US some 30 years ago, fat bikes are so-called due to their extra-wide tyres that can tackle snow, sand and other terrain that's beyond the capabilities of regular mountain bikes. For years they were the preserve of “bike freaks”, as Simon put it, until cycle manufacturers started developing lighter, better versions with commercial appeal. According to US-based Outside magazine, fat biking is now one of America's fastest growing winter sports. Last season, retailers in Europe cottoned on and pushed Alpine regions to embrace the sport. Gstaad jumped at the chance, becoming one of the first resorts in the Alps to offer “fatties” for hire, plus, crucially, trails on which to ride them.
But a mild start to the winter season meant on my December visit, Gstaad's trails were lacking in one crucial element: snow, and heavy rain had made the paths slick with ice. It was hard to picture the scene a few weeks hence when – next weekend – the region will welcome riders from all over Europe for the newest event in its calendar, the 2016 Snow Bike Festival.
The festival was founded by a South African, Herman Coertze, a keen all-season mountain biker who lives in Switzerland. The inaugural festival was staged in Engelberg, near Lucerne, last January. Attracting competitors from 20 countries, it demonstrated the sport's growing popularity in Europe. This was duly noted by Gstaad, which had seized upon the relatively cheap (if you hire the equipment) and accessible sport of winter biking as a way of promoting itself as a resort for everyone, not just skiers and the super-rich. So, it enticed Coertze's festival to Gstaad, where next weekend's second edition will welcome pro and amateur cyclists for events including a three-day stage race and a two-hour fun ride in the snow.
“It's not like learning to ski. If you can ride a bike you can fat bike,” Coertze had told me. But as a beginner who had just ended up sprawled on the ice, I was not convinced. So, Simon and I headed to the higher ground of Saanenmöser (one of the 10 villages that make up the region of Gstaad) in search of snow. Here, thankfully, we found it, and I pedalled after Simon along an easy trail whose hard-packed snow proved a much better testing ground.
Fatties have wider frames than regular mountain bikes, so it took me a few minutes to get used to manoeuvring the bike and keeping my balance, particularly at low speed. But its chunky tyres travelled surprisingly smoothly over the snow with a pleasing crunch. So, I soon relaxed into it, cycled faster and began to worry less about ice. As Simon told me, it takes time to learn to trust your bike's grip on the snow – but I was getting there.
I can't say I was entirely trusting when I followed him down a slope that was a little too icy for my liking, but the monster tyres found traction this time, even when braking, and my fattie and I made it down the trail in one piece. Climbing was simple, too, with the bike's sophisticated gear system taking the sting out of the hill. After a while, it simply felt like regular mountain biking, which is really the point, after all. Once you've learnt to trust your bike, and provided the conditions are decent, you should be able to do everything on snow that a mountain bike can do on dirt. Tricks, jumps, steep climbs, winding descents – none of this is beyond the capabilities of a fat bike, said Simon, who promptly demonstrated by doing a wheelie.
For me, it turned out to be better than summer biking, not least because of the novelty factor of what is still a niche sport in these parts (I enjoyed the bemused looks we got from walkers). But best of all is the chance to ride through Gstaad's winter landscape, still beautiful even with cloud blurring the line between snow and sky, and sleet speckling my sunglasses. I finished my inaugural ride persuaded that anyone, whether committed mountain biker or occasional cyclist like me, could ride a fat bike. Even, it turned out, in less than perfect conditions.
Gstaad is two hours from the nearest airport, Geneva. The main airline from the UK is easyJet, but flights are also operated from a range of airports by British Airways, Flybe, Jet2, Monarch and Swiss.
The Snow Bike Festival (snowbikefestival.com) is on 22-24 January. You can hire a fat bikes in Gstaad from around 50 Swiss francs (£34) per day.
Posthotel Rössli (00 41 33 748 4242, posthotelroessli.ch) offers doubles from 170 Swiss francs (£116), including breakfast.