Rafael Garcia of Portland makes fat-biking look easy along a trail at Inland Woods and Trails in Bethel. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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Fat-biking confidence was running full tilt when we arrived at Inland Woods and Trails in Bethel on a recent sunny Sunday.

The four of us were fat-biking beginners amped by the enthusiasm that comes with trying something fun and new. We filled out our rental forms, donned our helmets, and eagerly chatted through our masks as our bikes were rolled out of the Inland Woods and Trails rental center, which is tucked into the back of the Bethel Inn Resort.  

A tight turn in the woods makes fat-bike fun in Bethel for Jess Gagne, Angela Garcia and Rafael Garcia. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Inland Woods and Trails (formerly Bethel Village Trails) manages multiple trail systems in Bethel, including the Bethel Community Forest and Bacon Hill. The trails at the Bethel Inn Resort are on what in warmer seasons is known as a “golf course.” It’s an excellent place to cross-country ski, which is my usual mode of travel there (usually followed by a swim in the inn’s outdoor heated pool, although that option isn’t available to day-visitors this year). 

But on this day, we were here for the wheels. 

Like so many other novice riders, we were lured by knobby tires and fantasies of tight turns on tree-packed winter trails. And I was pretty sure we were about to be awesome at this. 

While the true source of my optimism is unclear, I suspect it has something to do with those plump tires (they’re the reason fat bikes are called fat bikes: the “fat” references the fat tires).

Fat-biking on a wide-open portion of a trail in Bethel. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Those charmingly pudgy wheels remind me of the cushy inflatable inner tubes we use for lazy river floats on slow summer days. I figured the bike ride would be nearly as gentle and easy-going. I fancied those fat tires would float on the snow as though they were inflated with high-powered helium, and my body weight would be the only thing preventing the bike from lifting off toward space.

It wasn’t exactly like that. (You probably saw that coming.) 

The bike, as it turns out, is not a hovercraft. But it still turned out to be a wonderful way to roll along the packed and wide multi-use trails, and the turns through the woods were even more thrilling. 

There were some tip-overs along the way and some impressive bailouts into the snow. We had to stop and catch our breaths on some of the longer inclines. My quads burned. Apparently all the COVID-time exercise didn’t prepare me for this.

Fat biking is more challenging than I gave it credit for – both to the legs and lungs – but we had a glorious time. I particularly loved the Winter Helix and Bingham Loop trails, which wove through the trees and gave us novices a welcoming taste of winter riding in the woods. 

We rode with big grins, whooping loudly as we went, screaming “weeee” on the curving downhills.  

Relaxing after the ride at Millbrook Tavern in Bethel. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The conditions were grand, too, both because of the snow and sunshine and also because Inland Woods and Trails does a fabulous job maintaining the trails. Between the maps and trail markers, it’s easy to navigate the terrain (although we did unwittingly end up on a trail not meant for fat bikes; that was my fault). 

After two hours of riding and smiling, we returned to the rental office and bid farewell to our bikes. And we departed the Bethel Inn as true fat-bike fans, but not before sitting in the sun to enjoy a post-ride outdoor lunch. While we brought our own snacks, you can order food from the Millbrook Tavern, which is on-site, and enjoy your meal or beverage at a fire pit table or inside an “igloo.” 

Not a bad way to spend the day.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

Jess Gagne of Old Orchard Beach enjoys a beautiful day in Bethel atop the fat bike she rented from Inland Woods and Trails at the Bethel Inn Resort. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

Rent, ride made easy

Get yourself on a fat bike and see what it’s all about. These locations have rentals and trails in the same place:

• Inland Woods and Trails, Bethel Inn Resort, 21 Broad St., Bethel. Fat-bike rentals and trails in one location. Rentals include a helmet and cost $20 for one hour, $35 for two hours, and $45 for three hours, plus a $12 trail pass. Call 207-200-8240 to reserve a bike rental. Afterward, enjoy lunch outside by a fire or inside an “igloo” outside the adjacent Millbrook Tavern. FMI: woodsandtrails.org.

• Hidden Valley Nature Center, 131 Egypt Road, Jefferson. Cross-country skiers in the area are familiar with the 25-plus miles of groomed trails at Hidden Valley Nature Center. This winter they’re offering gear rentals on weekends, including fat bikes that you can ride right there. Rentals are available 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 28, as well as 9 a.m.-3 p.m. every day of Presidents Week, Feb. 13-21. No reservation required. The cost to rent is $25 for two hours and $35 for five hours. FMI: midcoastconservancy.org.

• New England Outdoor Center, 30 Twin Pines Road, Millinocket. Rent a fat bike at New England Outdoor Center and cruise through Katahdin Area Trails, winding through the woods on beginner and moderate terrain. These trails are close to Millinocket Lake and stupendous views of Katahdin. Rentals include a helmet and cost $15 for one hour, $40 for half a day, and $60 for a full day. Call 800-766-7238 to reserve a bike or inquire at the front desk. Get some to-go grub from on-site River Driver’s Restaurant. FMI: neoc.com.

• Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, 3001 Outdoor Center Road, Carrabassett Valley. Tackle the rolling hills at Sugarloaf’s Outdoor Center, right down the road from Sugarloaf mountain. Fat bikes are welcome on specific trails, and rentals are available. Rental costs $40 for two hours and $90 for a full day (cost includes trail pass). The outdoor center is open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. all winter. Afterward, hit up the Bull Moose Bakery for lunch. FMI: sugarloaf.com/the-outdoor-center.

• Pineland Farms, 15 Farm View Drive, New Gloucester. The scenic trails of Pineland Farms are not too far from Portland. Fat bikes are welcome on the snowshoe trails, which are open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Fat-bike rentals are available at the outdoor center. Rental includes a helmet; cost is $30 for two hours and $10 for each additional hour (cost includes a trail pass). Call 207-688-6599 to reserve. Afterward, get a sandwich from the on-site market or rent an outdoor “snow globe” for $20 an hour. FMI: pinelandfarms.org.

To-go rentals, guided tours

• Gorham Bike & Ski rents fat bikes for $50 a day, so you can take the bike wherever you want. FMI: gorhambike.com.

• Summer Feet Cycling leads fat-bike tours in Portland that include some interesting history along the way; $59 includes a bike, helmet, and a guide to show you around. FMI: summerfeet.net.

— Shannon Bryan