If you listen carefully, you may catch a cross-country skier whispering a mantra, "The snow is coming, it will snow this year, the snow is coming." Since Mother Nature can be fickle deciding who gets snow and who endures another brown winter, an increasing number of skiers are looking for alternative ways to have fun outside.
Introducing fat bikes.
Once only seen in occasional and fleeting media reports about wilderness ultra-endurance events like northern Minnesota's Arrowhead 135 or the Iditarod Trail Invitational, bikes with oversized tires designed for winter riding are becoming a common sight across the snowbelt.
Similar in look and design to mountain bikes, fat bikes feature very wide wheels and rims. "We like to say they can ride where other bikes can't and that is true in many ways," said Mike Riemer, marketing manager of Salsa Cycles, which produces the popular Mukluk fat bike. "The large tires create tons of floatation, which is important in snow, sand or soft conditions riding."
"There are other benefits as well," Riemer continued. "The large contact patch creates incredible traction, especially with some of the newer tires on the market. There is just a lot of rubber touching the ground. That large contact patch also does a good job of creating a very stable bike."
In the last two years, partially because of low snow conditions that have hampered skiing, interest in fat bikes has increased substantially.
"The fat bike market has absolutely exploded over the last few years in the Marquette area," said Matt Calcaterra, owner Lakeshore Bike in Marquette, Michigan. "A lot of avid cyclists want to pedal year round. Nordic skiers have also taken up the sport."
Calcaterra agreed, "The incredibly wide tires (3-4" wide) give you great flotation. A narrower tire is going to dive into the snow and you will lose traction. When there isn't a tremendous amount of snow and Nordic skiing is a little less than ideal, fat biking is a perfect alternative."
Looking at a fat bike for the first time, your eyes are immediately drawn to the big tires. Taking a test ride is the easiest way to get a feel for the way a fat bike handles.
"Like other bicycles, fat bikes can have different characteristics and therefore slightly different handling from one another," Riemer said. "In general fat bikes always blow people's minds when they first ride them. They see how big the tires and wheels are and automatically think 'slow and heavy.' Then they start riding them and see that they actually roll pretty well and have tons of momentum at speed."
Cyclists often add metal studs or sheet metal screws to their mountain bike tires to improve traction on ice. Even without studs, fat bikes can handle icy conditions.
"Ice can still take you down because it is so smooth and frictionless. But the reality is you have a much better chance on ice with a fat bike because the large tire volume and soft tire pressure stands a much better chance of gaining at least a little bit of traction," Riemer said.
Fat bike trails
Fortunately for fat bike riders, finding a place to ride is getting easier than ever.
In Upper Michigan, portions of the Noquemanon Trail system and Michigan Tech trail network are open to fat bikes. Nikki Dewald, director of operations for the Noquemenon Trail Network, said, "We see fat bikes as a low-snow possibility early in the season. Fat bikes allow cyclists to get off their indoor trainer and get out in the woods and get their aerobic and adrenaline workout."
Jeff Parker, a groomer for the Michigan Tech trails, helped facilitate limited trail access for fat bikes. "As a fairly new sport, we've take a go-slow approach and for now only allow fat bikes on trails that are open to dogs and walkers," Parker said.
Cross-country skiers, fat bike enthusiasts, trail managers and volunteers appear to be working well together to accommodate a new approach to winter recreation.
"We've taken a proactive stance to dealing with multiple users of the trail system right from the start," Calcaterra said. "We're learning as we go and trying to develop usable snow trails so one doesn't affect the other. There are some places where fat bikes and skiers don't play well together. There is a strong group of volunteers that want to provide (access) for most nonmotorized trail users."
Bikers and Skiers Willing to Share the Trail
After opening up a limited number of trails to fat bikes in last winter, the Michigan Tech trail system managers were surprised by reactions from trail users.
"There was a pretty big outcry from certain skiers when we first announced opening partially to bikes. But in implementation, it was a nonissue. Not one complaint," Parker said. "The bikes spent the early and late season adventuring off trail and were almost unnoticeable on the trails come mid winter."
Parker added, "Fat bikes were much less trouble than the dogs we allow on the trails as they don't bite, poop or run away, and in some ways are better than skiers since (fat bike riders) have brakes.
"Their speeds are similar to skiers, but for now we're keeping them on the flat areas to keep potential collisions at low speed. They do cause more trail damage than skiers in very soft conditions, but they have been very good about staying off them then. I think that's because most bikers are also skiers."
In Minneapolis, local mountain bike trails are open in the winter once the ground freezes so trail damage doesn't occur.
"I've ridden on a ski trail late at night with no one around, and to be honest a skate ski cuts into a groomed trail much more than a fat bike tire does," Riemer argued. "My hope would be that skiers give fat biking a try because they might just find it to be a nice addition to their winter sports or fitness regimen. I know a lot of bicyclists are also skiers and I see this as another way for someone to get out into the fresh air, get some exercise, and have a lot of fun."
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.