Wilderness biking in the lower 48
Fat bikes are in the process of reshaping what a mountain bike is. They’re a fad, insofar as their popularity is riding a cissoidal curve. Doubtless in five years there will be a number of Pugsleys and Mukluks gathering dust. There will also be exponentially more fat frames and components. In 20 years the average width of a commercial mountain bike tire will substantially bigger than the 2.2 of today.
Why might this not come to pass? Or, what motivates much of the increasingly silly criticism of fat bikes? An understanding of off-road cycling as exceedingly groomed-trail centric. To use Roman’s distinction, mountain biking for the past three decades has been about backcountry riding, where human-made passage defines the route and experience, as opposed to wilderness riding (not juridical Wilderness) where route finding occurs on the landscapes’ terms. After having the doors blown off my understanding of backcountry in Alaska this past summer, it is clear that I’ll need to find a way do some wilderness cycling, if mountain biking is not to waste away even further into a casual hobby.
The obstacles to doing this in the lower 48 are two-fold: what wild country we have left is largely truncated into rugged islands unsuitable for development, and most of that is Wilderness, where cycling is for the moment not allowed. The lower 48 version of the Lost Coast, for example, would be a superlative and very rideable fat bike route were it not Wilderness. This is an administrative rule, an interpretation of the Wilderness Act, and thus subject to change. There are substantive arguments on both sides, and what has become clear in the past decade is that the debate is a purely ideological one. Even when stock damage is taken out of the discussion, there is no case to be made that cycling is a greater threat to wilderness (or Wilderness).
(w)ilderness biking is thus an ethical practice, if a legally problematic one. Where then can it be practiced in the lower 48, in the 30-50 years it will take for generational change to run pack stock into antiquation and install human powered recreation back into its rightful place?
I’ve got a few ideas, categories as well as specifics, and would gladly welcome further input.
-Dunes and Ocean beaches, like those in Oregon. This might not be an enormously extensive option, as far as multi-day riding is concerned, but I presume there are many hidden pockets with legal public access and outstanding off-piste riding.
-Reservoirs at low water. An increasingly common phenomena, given the USAs systemic magical thinking about long-term streamflow, and should function as an inland rats ocean substitute. Sherborne as it exists in the fall looks fantastic, though I’m sure the park service would look dimly upon such shenanigans. I will nonetheless be sorely tempted when the snow melts off a bit.
-The great wash systems of the desert southwest. The first things which got me thinking about a Pugsley was driving through Arizona’s empty quarter, and in the basin and range provinces these rides likely exist on a multiday scale.
-The slickrock benches of the Colorado Plateau should also provide some good wilderness routes, linked with wash systems, and assiduously avoiding crypto forests.
-Lastly I hope to explore the gravel bars and floodplains of rivers, like the Flathead, pictured above. Likely with a packraft. This will seem contrived and slow, no doubt, especially near a road and absent the magical gravel plains of glacial rivers.
Edit: To be clear, I’m looking for routes where at least a significant minority of the ride would be off human-created trails/roads.