In the deep sand, the bikes don’t seem to operate in accordance with the normal laws of bicycle physics. Turning right might send you left. Turning left may hold your line. And doing either, at any moment, can send you flying. And while falling off your bike on soft beach sand hardly hurts, you still feel like an idiot as you remount your bike while the kite flyers, frolickers, and shore fishermen lining the beach look on.
It takes more than a moment or two to get a handle on piloting a fat bike in the deep sand, far from the shorebreak, a moment or two that hardly go unnoticed by our guide.
“Don’t worry. We’ll spend most of the day down there,” he says, motioning to the hardpacked sand, darkened with saline. Before we left the parking lot, he armed us with a few pointers: when unsure of which line we should take, follow his track; avoid shells as best we can; pray for a tailwind; keep it in the big, easy gears in the soft sand.
The extraordinarily high cadence feels unnatural to me, a massive-thighed producer of big-watts-in-small-gears, always happy to spend a day grinding away at 75-80 rpm. It’s hard to focus on handling while churning my legs at what feels like 120, if not 125 rotations per minute.
In a way, it feels like I’ve never been on a bike before.
But just as our guide promised, once we reach the hardpack, my roadie instincts take over, my cadence smooths out, and my legs pump just as they have over tens of thousands of paved miles.
Compared to the thick, unstable soft sand, riding over the hardpack is easy. Our main focus now is to avoid letting the saltwater hit the bikes. Too corrosive, our guide warns. And mind the fishermen and women as we make our way down the coast, as their impossible-to-see lines could clothesline us clean off our saddles.
Ride as close to their sand-mounted poles, he advises. Their lines are highest there.
Now Entering: Car-Free Zone
There are only two ways to get to Bald Head Island, the six-square-mile island off of North Carolina’s southernmost coast. The first and by far most popular is by water. Whether via the Bald Head Island Ferry, which leaves from Southport on the mainland, or your own means of hydroconveyance, crossing the Cape Fear Fiver on a boat is how most find their way to the car-free island. The second is to trek down the coast from Fort Fisher, through Zeke’s Island Reserve, across the Bald Head Island Natural Area, and around The Point, which is where the coast turns hard west.
About halfway into this route, a handful of signs tell you that mechanical means are no longer allowed on the beach. Meaning the only way to endure the entire uninhabited nine-mile trip is either on foot or, as we’ve chosen, fat bikes, with sturdy frames, flat bars, carbon forks with an absurd amount of clearance to fit their tires which near five inches in width.
I had first heard about this route from an uncle who lives a few miles up the coast and after some internet sleuthing, came across Shawn Spencer, who has owned the Wilmington-based shop Bike Cycles since 2006 and rides this route with some regularity, either guiding newbies like myself or heading out with friends for the regular trash pickups that double as a workout. After a bit of back-and-forth, Spencer and I decided on a date when he would take me on a 20ish-mile round trip, from The Rocks at Fort Fisher to The
Point at Bald Head Island and back. All that was left was to source a photographer and some bikes. Brian Hueske is a Green Beret-turned-adventure photographer who has become my go-to for pics for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, he takes beautiful photos. Second, he’s down for just about anything and usually needs the barest of information to make a decision.
Wanna ride some fat bikes down the beach for a story? I texted him a few weeks back.
Fuck yes. He texted back within moments.
See: Second Point.
Armed simply with our heights, Spencer sourced a pair of fat bikes from local friends and customers. Brian and I would be riding a pair of aluminum Specialized Fatboys, carbon-forked with wheels wrapped in thick Maxxis tires. Spencer would be on his Salsa Mukluk, Hed wheels and a pair of now-discontinued Specialized fat tires The final element would be to pray for good weather and kind wind.
March in North Carolina is unstable. Weather here can be less day-to-day, often venturing into the hour-to-hour and sometimes minute-to-minute. And like all things weather, it tends to get more extreme at the coast. A perfectly sunny day can cloud over in a matter of moments before a deluge quenches the soil’s thirst. And those clouds can dissipate just as fast as they rolled in, leaving behind no remnants of a spring storm. A thirty-five-degree morning often means an afternoon in the seventies before dipping back to the forties by evening time. The three of us watched the forecast all week, hoping for the best for our planned excursion. Finally, as we closed within a day of the predetermined meetup, I texted Shawn and Brian.
Gonna be perfect. Mid-70s. Sun. Little wind.
Shawn laid out a four-hour window to get from the Rocks in Fort Fisher to The Point on Bald Head Island, nine miles out, nine miles back. Two to six pm. After that, the tide would come in and we’d be stuck riding back in the soft sand. It was a scenario known all too well to Spencer, who once missed the tide and had to ride the entire nine-mile trek back to The Rocks with his then-teenaged son in the soft and unforgiving sand.
“He cursed me the entire time,” he says with a laugh. “Used every curse he knew.” So long as we stay in the hard stuff near the shorebreak, it’s more than doable. Spencer instructs us to tap a piling near our starting point, something of an unofficial homage to start this journey not unlike dipping your tire in the sea before starting a cross-country journey.
“Wind at our backs,” Spencer says. “Let’s hope it turns.”
He then asks if we want to see something cool.
Of course. Always.
He instructs us to space out from one another and try to engage our senses as much as possible; to feel the firmness of the sand beneath our hulking tires and to listen to the crash of the breakers beside us.
“Now close your eyes and see how long you can ride for.”
I pause of a moment and replay what Spencer just told us.
Close my eyes? On a bike?
“Nowhere else you can really do that, right?” Spener says, before putting an extra bit of power into his pedals and gapping us to ensure we have enough space to ride blind. With that, Brian and I close our eyes. Spencer yells from the apex of our loosely defined group.
“See how long you can hold it without looking!”
I hear the waves getting nearer. Am I veering too close or are the breakers just rolling in? I listen to the subtle whizz of our tires over the sand. I hear Brian.
“Dude, this is nuts.”
He doesn’t sound too close. We’re doing okay, I think. After thirty or so seconds (which felt much, much longer), I open my eyes and crane my neck to look at the tracks our tires left in the sand. Hardly a pair of straight lines but not too bad. We didn’t crash and no one ended up in the proverbial drink. I see Spencer ahead of us, smiling.
“Pretty wild, right?”
Seven or eight miles down the coast, pull out my phone I check my Strava. Nine-and-a-half mph average.
“Damn,” I say. “Feels like we’re going way faster.” Spencer smiles before explaining how we could be going a lot faster if we wanted to. But this is more of a leisurely pace, that we might get to know each other a bit. We pass almost no one; just a small handful of shore fishers and a couple setting up camp out of the back of their SUV.
I ask about Shawn’s life on bikes and we talk some about Brian’s service. Spencer tells us he was an Army Reservist from 1990-98 and we play a bit of The Name Game, asking each other if we’ve ever heard of this guy or that, to no avail. There’s mention of a Redneck Gatsby up in Castle Hayne, a small wooded town just north of Wilmington, and talk of our wives and children. Then I ask about the tires. They’re bald. These are offroad bikes, in our case used almost exclusively on sand. No way the tread should be gone.
Spencer explains that when started riding fat bikes on the beach, there was something about seeing a pockmarked trail behind him that left him unsettled.
“The shapes of the ocean and the way the waves move, nothing is linear on the beach,” he says. “You’d see this straight line and it just wasn’t natural.”
He tells me he scuffs the tread off intentionally, to keep his footprint more in sync with the natural world. Of course, one huge knock-on effect is how much rolling resistance is improved by the lack of knobs. If there’s a track going down into the sand, Spencer explains, that’s indicative of energy that is not going forward.
“Anyway, you only need grip to turn,” he says, before taking a hard right into the soft stuff and climbing up the side of a twenty-foot berm that had to have been near 20% in grade.
An Oceanside Life
Shawn Spencer has spent his entire life at the edge of the sea. Born in Wrightsville Beach and raised in neighboring Wilmington, North Carolina, where he still calls home, Spencer is the prototypical mid-life coastal guy; taught, muscular, and slim, with a bald head and skin that has been sunkissed over a lifetime, more beach volleyball player that burnout surfer dude. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter.
And when he’s not talking about his cycling exploits, whether racing through Costa Rica, jetting around the world as a mechanic or domestique for some of his more well-heeled clientele, or hosting the annual Fat Bike Beach Championships on nearby Wrightsville Beach, he’s remembering a life intrinsically tied to the ocean. He raced submarines as a young man, has traversed much of the coast via bike and pack-raft combo, windsurfed the entire coast of North Carolina, and, of course, is an avid surfer. Though he tends to avoid the break we spent the afternoon riding beside.
“Too many sharks,” he said, recalling one particular incident where the sixteen-foot-long, 3,456-pound Mary Lee, perhaps the most famous of the tagged white sharks on the Eastern Seaboard, swam along this very shore, curved around The Point, past Bald Head
Island, and spent some time exploring the adjacent Cape Fear River.
The sharks, he explained, are attracted to this particular part of North Carolina’s coast, as the land comes to a near-complete stop before making a hard westerly turn, leaving it stuck out like a downturned thumb into the ocean. The parabola of its curve has given this beach its nickname. Surrounding The Point is the famed Frying Pan Shoals, a 28-mile-long section of shallow water that makes for excellent fishing. For humans and, of course, for sharks. But it’s not the sharks for which these Shoals are famous. Rather, it’s the shipwrecks.
South of the heart of the Outer Banks’ Graveyard of the Atlantic, the remnants of hundreds of shipwrecks have been discovered in the shallow Shoals, some dating back as far as the seventeenth century. A multitude of lighthouses have been erected over the years to warn wayward seamen of the dangers nearing the coast; Oak Island Lighthouse, Bald Head Island Lighthouse, a lightvessel called Frying Pan, and, perhaps most famously, thirty-two-miles offshore, the Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower, from which a tattered American lag whipped in the punishing winds of Hurricane Florence as a nation watched live via webcam.
Still, despite all of the measures put in places, the area is littered with shipwreck.
You never know,” Spencer says as we pedal nearer to The Point, two giant brambles of mangled and tangled sea twigs providing our guide on the horizon. “I just always think what kind of stuff we might be riding on top of.”
After an hour of riding, we reach The Point and lay our bikes on the hard sand. Day trippers are out from the grand homes on Bald Head Island, burrowing their feet in the wet sand. They have dogs and coolers and pants rolled up to their knees. We spot a small crab far from the gently crashing waves. Spencer grabs it by its rear and walks it the twenty-five yards back to its home. Of course, Brian makes him pause for a photo op. Brian continues snapping shots while Shawn and I wander around the pinnacle to see if we can catch sight of the tall, thin Oak Island Lighthouse around The Point’s other side. We remark how odd it is for us, two people raised on the ocean, which has always to been our East, that Oak Island’s coastline is oriented East-West rather than the typical North-South.
“Makes for a crazy sunset,” I say.
Spencer goes silent for a moment, feeling the wind on his face.
“Man, we never get this lucky,” he says. “Tailwind both ways.”
And with that, we return to our fat bikes, enjoying the mother wind at our backs, which makes our nine-mile return trek anything but hard work. That is, of course, until we got back to the soft sand near The Rocks where we left our trucks, were our journey began.
Then, all bets are off and it’s like I’ve never ridden a bike before.