Rusch Job: Zen and the art of fat biking

Originally posted on March 8, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Words: Rebecca Rusch
Illustration: Chris Escobar

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.47.21 AM

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. – Zen master Shunryu Suzuki

Fat biking is not a fad. It’s here to stay and has opened the doors to a whole new segment of riding, especially in winter climates. I was not an early adopter. I welcome the snowfall and the opportunity to recreate in other ways. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the forced break from two wheels allowed me to avoid potential burnout and greet spring rides with giddy enthusiasm. But when I was gifted a fat bike a couple of winters ago, I halfheartedly swung a leg over it, expecting to be underwhelmed.

I approached fat biking in the same way that I approach most things: by pushing harder when things got difficult. This approach didn’t work. The harder I tried, the more I flailed. It took me many rides stuffing my nostrils full of snow and digging tire trenches before I began to see the light.

Gradually, I gave up on my old tactics and allowed the snow to show me the way. The challenge of riding on this changing, unpredictable medium has become a Zen ritual, a kind of two-wheeled religion. Not the sort of cult religion that makes people crazy, but instead the ancient, contemplative type that develops quiet strength and calmness.

Don’t think for a second that fat biking is easy. You’ll find yourself dripping with sweat and ripping off layers of clothing in freezing temperatures. You have to work for even the tiniest bit of forward progress. The path forward is there, but in order to find it, you must slow down. In order to attain success, you must first forget what you know about riding on dirt and approach fat biking with a beginner’s mind.

In the ancient Zen Buddhist religion, the tenets of the beginner’s mind read like a how-to manual for fat biking.

Fall down seven times, get up eight

It might be more accurate to say “Fall down a thousand times, get up a thousand and one.” You will fall more times in one winter than you have fallen your whole life on two wheels. This is a fact, and you must accept it. The falls rarely hurt more than your ego because the soft, pillowy snow is just waiting to embrace you. Dress accordingly.

Let go of being an expert

So you think you can ride? Forget it and get ready for an education every ride. Snow is an ever-changing medium, tire pressure is king and just when you experience a moment of flow, the snow ruts will smack your ego back into place. You even have to learn how to dress yourself again, and your usual riding attire probably won’t cut it.

Experience the moment fully

Even if you don’t want to live in the moment, the super-slow pace of riding in soft snow will force you to quiet your mind and just soak it all in at approximately 5 mph. You’ll have lots of time here to engage in moving meditation. Let go of all expectations of time and distance and just quiet your mind. You are going to need to embrace mindfulness to keep that 4.5 inch tire inside a 5 inch tire track anyway.

Discard fear of failure

You will look silly, you will dress inappropriately, you will crash on flat ground, you will pack your glasses full of snow and you must laugh at all of it. The beauty of fat biking is it’s hard to take it too seriously. The moment you do, the snow goblins will reach up and smack you right down again because you are not in control here.

Use the spirit of inquiry

Focus on questions, not answers. The beginner’s mind will ask others about gear, tire pressure and whatever else you don’t know. Conditions dictate everything, so what you know one day will be different the next. It’s a blast to be soaking up information like a sponge, and fat-bikers love to talk tire pressure. Just ask them or go cop a feel when they aren’t looking.

For me, fat bike riding is an exercise in practicing mindfulness: a total state of focus that incorporates a togetherness of body and mind. It is an approach to an activity, skill or subject that emphasizes simplicity and intuition rather than conventional thinking or fixation on goals. No fixation on goals? Yeah, that’s a hard one for me, and it’s one of the reasons I now need fat biking.

Zen Buddhism asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, practice, self-contemplation and intuition. I insert “while riding a fat bike” on the end of that sentence. I’m using big fat tires in the snow as a modern way to inch toward my own enlightened state—well, at least until the snow melts.


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