Each season there comes a sad day in every mountain biker's life. It's that time when the last leaves of autumn fall and clouds roll in to bury the trails beneath thick blankets of snow. With a heavy heart, the biker will hang his or her beloved steed in the garage, beginning a mental countdown until the first rays of spring. At least, that was so until recently.
It's nearing 8am but still pitch dark and well below freezing as I stomp my feet in a car park in the small alpine town of Jasper, in Canada's Alberta. Dozens of cyclists circle the block around me, their head beams darting erratically through the winter gloom. They jockey for position beneath an inflatable archway as race time nears and, with the blast of a starter pistol, bolt from the car park towards the wilderness trails meandering through the backwoods ahead.
I've come to Jasper to witness the Frosty's Fat Bike Race Series. The inaugural event took place in 2014 in Nordic Valley Utah, with subsequent races hosted throughout the same state. In 2016, with the popularity of the sport rapidly escalating, the race was invited to Jasper for the first time.
The origins of fat biking stretch back to the 1980s when a man named Roger Cowles unleashed a contraption called The Six Pack at the Iditabike – a cycle version of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Comprised of three-wheel rims welded together for greater traction, it was clumsy, but it gave birth to the idea that modified bikes could be used on snow.
In 2000, the first official fat bike was unleashed in Alaska and in more recent years the sport has really caught fire.
Watching the last riders vanish into the forest, I fire up my four-wheel-drive and wind up icy roads to the next vantage point. As the inky blackness of night gives way to dawn, the majesty of Jasper's landscape is slowly unveiled, a lilac sky wedged between frozen treetops and the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies.
I pull up at Pyramid Lake, about five kilometres north of the town centre as the first riders spill out of narrow trails. They are a motley crew, ranging from game – if not mildly insane – amateur enthusiasts to a handful of professionals invited to compete in what is only the event's sophomore year in Jasper. The pros are of an elite calibre, including Ami Stewart, a US mountain bike national champion, Emma Maaranen, a US fat bike national champion, and Ty Hopkins, a cycling veteran who has competed in multiple disciplines for two decades.
Even with tyres nearly 10 centimetres thick, tackling this type of terrain in -20 degreetemperatures is not for the faint-hearted. Clad head-to-toe in a carefully selected mix of stretch fabric and thermal wear, it's a lung-burning, muscle-fatiguing enterprise and the gritted teeth reflect as much as the contestants skirt the scenic shores of Pyramid Lake.
The race encompasses a roughly 20-kilometre loop along the Overlander Trail towards a turnaround point at Mobery Cabin before winding back to town. The average rider takes about three hours to finish. Some pop audacious jumps as they hurtle down the final hill, others lumber across the finish line with frozen beards and eyelashes, glad simply to be in one piece.
Come lunchtime, everyone gathers at the Legion Club for an awards ceremony. The mood is gregarious, all soggy sportswear, bobble hats and pitchers of beer. It's Saturday and there's a palpable sense that the hard work is done and it's time to cut loose.
Cash prizes totalling $5000 are awarded across three categories (pro, intermediate and those keen amateurs) and handed out at a wooden podium flanked by a guy dressed as the Utah Yeti.
"I coach mountain biking, too, but I've found that the fat bike is the most non-threatening, approachable bike that's out there," says Emma Maaranen when I ask what's behind the sport's meteoric rise.
"So many people have a bike they maybe once took to the grocery store and that's the extent of their experience. But the fat bike, because it looks a little silly, it's incredibly stable, it means people feel safe to push their boundaries and experiment in a way that opens up doors to other cycling categories."
No one is much in the mood to call it a day after the ceremony. A few peel off to soak their aching bodies in hot tubs while the rest of us roll around the corner to the Jasper Brewing Company. It's refreshingly down to earth inside, a distinct absence of hipster beards – aside from my own – or poseur snowboarder types, but this is Jasper all over.
Isolated in its location, Jasper has largely escaped commercialisation and a preening culture. It has a small population of about 5000 and most of the people who live here seem to value The Great Outdoors lifestyle over climbing the corporate ladder or the trimmings of urban status.
Our table now cluttered with beers, I watch a seemingly infinite freight train roll past the window while elk forage for meagre pickings in the snow. There will be sore limbs and even sorer heads tomorrow, but no one here will complain much.
Life is better in the mountains.
Guy Wilkinson travelled as a guest of Tourism Jasper.
FIVE MORE WINTER THINGS TO DO IN JASPER
1. CLIMB A FROZEN WATERFALL
Test your mettle on a multi-pitch climb of a frozen waterfall in Jasper National Park. Tours cater to a range of abilities, including total novice. See rockaboo.ca
2. EXPLORE MALIGNE CANYON
Navigate a frozen canyon floor, marvelling at natural ice sculptures, exploring ice caves, fossils and towering frozen waterfalls. See sundogtours.com
3. SNOWBOARD MARMOT BASIN
Carve your way through 3000 vertical feet of outstanding skiing and snowboarding on 1675 acres of varied terrain. On weekdays the mountain – located just a 20-minute drive from Jasper – is blissfully devoid of crowds. See skimarmot.com
4. SKATE ON A LAKE
Several of the frozen lakes around Jasper are perfect for ice skating. Among the best are Lake Mildred and Lac Beauvert near the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and Pyramid Lake, of which a section is cleared and lit during winter. See jasper.travel
Visit Jasper's planetarium, then be guided on a visual tour of our galaxies by expert astronomers while viewing the night sky through state of the art telescopes. See jasperplanetarium.com
Frosty's Fat Bike Summit will next take place in Jasper in January 2019, with events scheduled this year and next throughout the US and Canada. See frostythefatbike.com
Qantas flies direct to LA with ongoing connections to Edmonton. See Qantas.com
It's a four-hour drive from Edmonton to Jasper so consider a night at the stylish Renaissance Edmonton Airport Hotel. Rooms from $CA153 a night. See Marriott.com
Pyramid Lake Resort is about 10 minutes' drive from the Jasper town centre and offers alpine chalet style lodging on the shores of Pyramid Lake. All 62 guest rooms come with fireplace and views of the Canadian Rockies. Rooms start from $CA148 a night. See mpljasper.com/hotels/pyramid-lake-resort