Fat tires & tire biters
Noquemanon ski fest adds snow biking & skijoring races
Tyler Gauthier faced an enviable dilemma at the finish of the Noquemanon Snow Bike Race. Should he be more excited about winning a world championship or setting a course record?
Given the relative newness of the sport, both were up for grabs the day after the 14th annual Noquemanon Ski Marathon in Marquette, Michigan.
Organizers called the 25K Snow Bike race, along with the 12K Animoosh skijoring race, the "wild side of the Noque." With an ambitious approach, they declared the snow bike outing the sport's world championship.
"We decided we would be it, and create a governing body," said Jon Mommaerts, director of all things Noquemanon. "We've got snow. Why not have it be us?"
The turnout - 77 riders on super-fat-tired snow bikes and 25 skiers pulled by dogs - exceeded expectations and certainly met the wild side standard.
Snow bike slog
Howls echoed through the pines surrounding the start area at the Forestville Trailhead, and that was almost an hour after the skijoring competitors had departed for the Superior Dome. Snow biking seems to have that effect on people.
"You're kind of like 10 years old again, and I'm way older than that," Janet Koistenen, 60, said while prepping her fat bike for the race.
She quickly found, as did the rest of the riders, that nothing could prepare them for the challenge ahead. Six to seven inches of fresh snow piled on the course overnight, and the first five miles were a slog that took even the leaders nearly an hour.
"You couldn't even really walk it, let alone ride it," Koistenen said after the race.
Even though she had to drop out, the first DNF for an ultra marathon veteran, Koistenen declared herself drawn to the newest variation of biking.
"Grueling is to be expected," she said. "We felt some defeat, but still, we were out there challenging ourselves in ways we had never done before."
It was the prevailing attitude among the bikers, who called the race brutal and awesome, in alternating gasps.
Fortunate to have groomed snow for the entire 12K of their course, the skijorers had a less challenging time of it, but an equal sense of exhilaration.
Sharon Hughes, from Verona, Wisconsin, won the one-dog division behind Spaten, an eight-year-old German Wire Hair Pointer who loves to run.
"On the downhills or flats, he just flies," Hughes said. "It's borderline between extremely fun and 'holy crap.'"
Hughes and Spaten covered the 12K in 36 minutes, eight seconds, a day after she raced the 50K skate marathon. On Sunday, Spaten had the fresher legs and pulled Hughes on a wild ride.
Dogs have been pulling skiers for centuries, but bikers pedaling over snow-covered trails on two-wheeled versions of monster trucks is a sport in its early stages.
The fat bikes, with tires nearly four inches wide, grew popular in Alaska and migrated to the snowy parts of the Midwest.
Danny Hill, who has finished the Ride the Divide and the Arrowhead 135, is part of a growing group of wide riders in and around Marquette. For several years, the 52-year-old followed the skiers down the Noquemanon trail, and he helped convince Mommaerts to add the race and a day to the Noque events.
Pairing the snow bike and skijoring races provided "the critical mass to make it worth having a second day," Mommaerts said.
Acceptance to come
Some Nordic skiers objected to the move.
Several complaints that the fat bikes would ruin the ski trails were overheard at the pasta dinner Friday night.
Mommaerts likened the looming conflict to the early days of skate skiing, when classic striders felt their territory and their tracks were being ruined.
It may take two to three years of educating bikers and skiers, Mommaerts said, but eventually everyone will accept the benefits of opening the trails to more users.
Snow bikers are advised to ride the ski trails only when grooming or cold temperatures make the snow firm. Then the low-pressure tires leave little imprint.
Gauthier won with a tire pressure of about eight pounds per square inch, a fraction of the 120 psi familiar to road bikers. His heart rate of 174 to 175 more closely matched the race experience of the pro mountain biker from Ishpeming. He covered the 25K in 1 hour, 13 minutes, well ahead of Evan Simula, and Tyler Jenema, both of Marquette.
Danille Musto, of Grand Rapids, won the women's division in 1:39:56, adding the world championship to the national 24-hour title she won on a singlespeed bike in October. Like others, she found wide-tired riding to be a fun alternative for winter training.
Kyia Anderson, a former Chequamegon Fat Tire Champion, also embraced the new venture in cycling. "It's like the grassroots thing," she said. "Gotta support it."
Jenema predicted the snow bike race was "going to be astronomically huge in five years." It has the draw of other endurance sports, a combination of physical pain with the joy of being out there and testing yourself, she said.
Tom Held maintains "Off The Couch," a silent sports-oriented blog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com.