If you only think of twig-thin cyclists flying up the Alps at the Tour de France when you think of bike racing, press reboot. The Tour is awesome and truly elite. But fat biking, cyclocross and gravel grinding give riders of all ability levels three new ways to compete and have fun at the same time. Try them and prepare to have a smile spread across your face like you had the first time you rode without training wheels and you got a taste of two-wheeled freedom as a kid. Here’s what these new cycling genres are all about and why you need to give them a shot.
WHAT IT IS: Mountain biking, often on snow, on a bike with tires four times as wide as normal mountain bike tires that you can run at extremely low pressures for suspension and supreme traction on any terrain. Invented to ride on terrain where regular mountain bikes don’t get the job done.
WHERE YOU DO IT: A fat bike can smooth out a rough, rocky trail, float on sand and go anywhere a mountain bike goes. But it shines on hard-packed snow like snowmobile tracks, cross country ski trails or the purpose-built fat bike tracks popping up at winter resorts.
WHY IT’S AWESOME: “Whether I’m at a fat bike race or meeting up with strangers for a fat bike group ride, it’s a fun, laid-back vibe. Some people take it seriously but it’s more about just having a blast and it gives you a way to ride and experience trails in the winter that has never existed until fat bikes came along,” says Alex Grant, the current fat bike national champion and a pro mountain biker. Fat bikes are a great conversation starter, too. “It just blows peoples’ minds when they see a fat bike for the first time. I’ve had hikers stop me just to tell me how cool my fat bike looks.”
WHAT IT IS: An extremely high intensity hybrid of road racing and mountain bike racing that you do on a bike with drop bars and road bikes wheels with mountain bike brakes and skinny but knobby tires. It started in Europe as a way for pro road racers to stay fit in the winter.
WHERE YOU DO IT: At a cyclocross race where you complete loops of a short circuit for 30 minutes to an hour in ability-graded classes ranging from brand new to the sport to pro. Courses can have sand, grass, gravel, pavement, dirt and mud and feature a variety of barriers and obstacles that force you to dismount and sprint with your bike a few times per lap.
WHY IT’S AWESOME: If you want to do well in a cyclocross race, you need to be an amazing bike handler and have to be supremely fit with a high tolerance for physical discomfort. It’s an all-out physical test that will leave you feeling like you’re on the edge of puking for much of the race. But ‘cross isn’t just about the racing. “The atmosphere around races is like a big party,” says Maxxis/Shimano cyclocross pro Danny Summerhill. “So much of cyclocross revolves around beer and drinking and having a good time. It’s as much about the environment and the before and after as it is about the race.” It’s not uncommon for spectators—and sometimes racers—to don costumes or for riders to grab a beer hand up during a race. Crack open a can of courage and get out there to try it for yourself.
WHAT IT IS: Adventure rides and races on gravel roads that you can do on a cyclocross bike, mountain bike or a gravel bike, which is like a road bike with clearance for wider, higher-volume knobby tires that smooth the rough ride. Born in the midwest where riders went looking for adventure on lightly traveled gravel roads.
WHERE YOU DO IT: From sea to shining sea, you can grind anywhere you find access roads, farm roads or fire roads. Part of the beauty of the sport is that every region has gravel roads. Hundreds of gravel grinder races take place across America and around the world now with the most popular gravel grinders stretching from 100 to 200+ miles.
WHY IT’S AWESOME: “It puts you out on roads that you’d likely never see that have very little or no auto traffic,” says former World Tour pro and Untapped Maple Syrup cofounder Ted King. Racing 200 punishing miles on wind-swept Kansas gravel might not sound like a blast. But Ted won the Dirty Kanza 200, the biggest event in gravel, in his first year of retirement. “Come out and ride with your buddies, be as competitive or have as much fun as you want and at the end you’ll lift a beer. It’s the new age of fun in cycling. Instead of focusing on your post-race carb to protein recovery ration, you grab a beer and a brat and jump in the river.”