A recent posting on skinnyski.com showed a newly groomed ski trail in Sjusjoen, Norway. It depicted a Nordic skier's dream: an untouched ribbon of freshly combed snow rolling toward the horizon between snow-laden spruce trees. It could have been an ad for Pisten Bully.
As Nordic skiers, we dream of such perfect and pristine trails, sliding across the smooth carpet of a level skate deck or locked into deep, firm classic tracks, and we jealously guard this ideal.
The reality, however, is that Nordic ski trails dare used and abused by nonskiers. for example, recent warm weather attracted several walkers to my local ski area. Most of these folks know to stay to the side of the trail. But there always seems to be someone in a size 13 boot who post holes right down the middle of the trail. To some skiers, it feels like this guy is giving them the finger.
Other factors, like weather and wildlife, also mar groomed trails. Deer do some of the worst damage where I routinely ski (Nine Mile County Forest outside Wausau, Wisconsin), running across or down the trail as well as rooting through the snow to find acorns or other browse.
A new trail threat?
Fat bikes, as some skiers insist, are the latest threat to groomed cross-country ski trails. A post on a mountain bike forum illustrates this: "In Wisconsin, the skiers protect their grooming with the ferocity of the honey badger. Sometimes we use their warming shelter as a meeting spot for rides (our MTB/snowshoe trails are across the road), and every single time some skier approaches us and puffs out his chest about us riding their trails, no matter how many times we tell them that we only ride across the road. It may be different in other parts of the country, but it would cause huge user conflict issues in the land of the Birkebeiner."
But are fat bikes really a threat to cross-country ski trails? First of all, fat bikes (with tires more than 3.7 inches wide) run at extremely low pressure (under 10 psi) and distribute their weight over a wide area using two points of contact. This is unlike walkers, snowshoers and even skiers in most situations, who make contact with the snow one leg and one point at a time. A skate ski actually knifes into the snow with its greatest force as a skier loads the ski and pushes off, and snowplowing downhills forms ruts and berms. I once skied the Birkebeiner Trail the Sunday after the race before it had been regroomed, and it looked like a battlefield.
One could argue, though, that skiers pay for the grooming and, therefore, should have the first chance to wreck the trail.
Greg Smith, co-owner of the website Fat-bike.com, feels fat bikes make about the same imprint in the snow as snowshoes and do little damage in most snow conditions. I agree. The ski trails that join our cabin to our neighbors' cabins in Seeley, Wisconsin, see multiple use in winter: walkers, dogs, skiers (both skate and classic) skijorers, snowshoers and now snow bikers. With this year's snow, which has been hard pack, only a tread pattern was visible, much like a mountain bike tire in loamy soil. In my limited observation, the snow bikes did the least amount of damage.
This is not to imply that fat bikes have zero impact on ski trails. Steve Meurett, a volunteer groomer at Levis Mound in northwest Wisconsin, as well as a cross-country skier and fat biker, admits fat bikes can damage ski trails, particularly in deep, soft snow, say after a recent snowfall, or in thawing conditions.
"If it's warm, then tires will really dig in and it's hard to groom them out," Meurett said. "If it is a thaw/freeze, then a tank could go on the ski trail without any impact. The problem is it would be too hard to open/close XC trails if you are doing it based on conditions."
The solution, according to Meurett, is separate fat bike trails. Levis Mound has cross-country ski trails and separate trails for snowshoers, hikers and fat bikers.
"So far, we have had zero problems with fat bikes on groomed cross country ski trails," Meurett said. "We have not had, or ever have had, the same respect from hikers and snowshoers on groomed ski trails."
Meurett feels the winter user groups at Levis Mound "have gotten along great, and everyone hanging out on the trail is friendly. At the chalet, everyone is very interested in the bikes. Some of the riders are skiing one day and biking the next, or both in one day."
The county forester is pleased because riders of fat bikes bring in more trail fees and tourism revenue for the surrounding area since many of the fat bikers come from out of town to ride Levis.
Smith has had the same positive experience at ski areas as Meurett. "I've come across skiers and they're like, 'That's cool,'" he said.
Fat bikes are here to stay, says Smith, who is also the owner of Schlick Cycles. In the last half dozen years, according to Smith, the fat bike market has quadrupled each year, making it the quickest growing segment of the bike industry. Bikes, frames, wheels and tires sell out quickly. In the upper Midwest, more and more cyclists are using their fat bikes in winter, and the demand for places to ride will continue to grow.
In January, IMBA posted "best practices for winter biking," which include guidelines for tire width (a minimum of 3.7 inches), air pressure (less than 10 psi) and discourage leaving ruts more than one inch deep in the snow. IMBA suggested that rider of Nordic areas joining the local ski clubs and help pay for grooming. IMBA is also adamant about not riding in classic tracks and riding on the firmest part of the trail. See imba.com/resources/land-protection/fat-bikes for more info.
Some Nordic areas will continue to resist fat bikes on their ski trails, out of concern for safety and limiting traffic volume. At more popular areas, the trails are hallowed ground in winter, not to be touched, except by the sanctified P-tex of a ski base.
"I think in a popular area like Nine Mile, ski trails are pretty sacred, and sharing them with fat bikes would not go over well even if they did no harm," Meurett said. Even so, the Birkebeiner will sponsor the first ever Fat Bike Birkie on March 9 on the north end of the trail, perhaps the holiest ground in Nordic North America.
Smith would just like to see the conversation opened between skiers, snowshoers, fat bikers and any other winter users of public ground. "User groups need to coexist. People have to talk about how new user groups will coexist."
I say, let the dialogue begin.
Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.
Fat bike best practices
The International Mountain Bicycling Association recently issued guidelines for riding fat bikes on snow covered trails. IMBA's "Fat bike best practices" can be found at www.imba.com/resources/land-protection/fat-bikes. Here are some of them.
Fat biking on groomed Nordic trails
• Only ride at ski areas that allow and encourage biking.
• Yield to all other users when riding. Skiers don't have brakes but you do!
• Ride on the firmest part of the track.
• Do not ride on or in the classic tracks.
• Leave room for skiers to pass (don't ride side-by-side with all of your buddies blocking the full trail).
• Allow the track time to set up after grooming and before riding.
• Be an ambassador for the sport: stay polite, educate other riders, discourage bad behavior and follow the rules.
• Help out and get involved by joining your local Nordic ski club. Consider donating money for trail grooming.
Riding on snowmobile trails
• When riding on snowmobile trails, use a front white blinker and rear red blinker at all times. Wear reflective material on both the front and rear of your body.
• Know and obey the rules of your local land manager. Understand that some trails may be on private property and might not be open to alternative uses.
• Be friendly. Fat bikers are the newest trail users. Be courteous and open to suggestions from snowmobile riders.
• Help out by supporting your local snowmobile club and consider donating to trail grooming and maintenance efforts.
Riding in the backcountry
• In the right conditions, a fat bike can be the ultimate winter backcountry travel tool. Frozen conditions and minimal snow coverage (1-5 inches) means access to areas that are impassible during the warmer months. But just because you can ride somewhere doesn't mean you should. Be aware and be prepared.
• Do not trespass. Know whether or not you are on private property. Obey all land manager rules. Some land parcels are closed to bikes whether you are riding on a trail or not.
• Do not ride through sensitive wildlife habitats. This may be especially important on beaches or in places where animals hibernate. Do not disturb wildlife. Many species survive on minimal diets during winter. Stressors or the need to move quickly can deplete their energy stores.
• Learn safe ice travel. Riding on frozen water can be extremely dangerous. Is the ice thick enough to support you? Take ice fishing picks and a length of rope when riding on lakes and rivers.
• Be prepared. Carry provisions in case you have to stay out longer than planned.
• Make sure someone else knows where you are going, when you left and when you expect to return.
• Learn to share. Be aware that your tracks might attract other riders. Understand that "your" route might not remain a secret for long.