Balloon-tired fat bikes are breaking trail into new Inland Northwest terrain this winter, including nordic skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling routes.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort, which has opened its nordic trails on a limited basis to snow biking, offers fat bike rentals and even staged its first race for over-snow cyclists in January. About eight riders participated.
Mount Spokane State Park is allowing bikes on groomed snowmobile trails this season.
Fat bikes have been making tracks in Palisades City Park and Riverside State Park this winter in conditions that previously thwarted two-wheel traffic.
“We certainly turned a few heads,” said Dan DeRuyter of Spokane, describing his first ride past alpine skiers at Schweitzer.
“Cross-country skiers are getting more comfortable with us,” said Dave Nelson, a local fat-biking pioneer who assembled his first bike with 4.5-inch-wide tires in 2006.
“We’re not the downhillers going 60 mph; we’re cross-country types ourselves, only on wheels.”
The cyclists convinced the Schweitzer ski trail groomer to move the track setter to the left side of the machine so fat bikers could follow their rule of staying to the right on ski trails without obliterating the grooves for classic skiing.
“It’s going quite well,” said Schweitzer spokesman Sean Briggs, noting the resort has been conservative with introducing snow biking to the area. Cyclists can use the nordic trails during specified afternoon hours and on days of firm trail conditions. Snow biking updates have been added to the resort’s daily online snow report.
About two-dozen riders are pedaling fat bikes in the Spokane area, Nelson estimates. The number will grow when more riders learn the variety of terrain they can handle.
Nelson also knows that some riders may be tempted to abuse the fat bike’s ability to ride in swampy areas and such where they can cause damage to vegetation.
Riders who know the potential of the sport are preaching restraint. The International Mountain Bicycling Association has posted on its website a list of ethical considerations.
“On the other hand,” DeRuyter commented, “I’ve ridden muddy trails and left barely a mark where a regular mountain bike would leave a rut.”
“We’re such a niche group, riding responsibly is important,” Nelson said. “A fool could wreck it for everyone.”
Local riders who own fat bikes fall into the category of cycling enthusiasts if not zealots. Fat bikes are just another vehicle in their fleets.
DeRuyter said he’s made only two major impulsive purchases in his life: first was a puppy; second was the fat bike he bought last year on a skiing vacation to Jackson Hole.
Seeking warmth in a lodge with temperatures too cold for pleasant skiing, he saw a flyer for a nearby snow bike festival. He said he bought a bike at the first booth he visited from ultra-endurance mountain biking guru Jay Petervary. “I was sold,” he said, in more ways than one.
Next thing he knew, DeRuyter was entered in the event’s pro-division race, only because the citizen division was full. “And I wasn’t last,” he recalled. “I beat the two guys who made a wrong turn.”
DeRuyter, who owns a range of bicycles, found the fat bike was getting the nod for most of his rides last summer. Rocks that had been daunting even on a full-suspension mountain bike in Riverside State Park were tamed by the low pressure tires, even though his fat bike has no shocks.
He rides about 15 pounds of tire pressure in summer, around 8 on snow and as low as about 2 pounds on sand dunes along the Washington Coast. “The Northwest Fat Bike Festival at Ocean Shores in September was a blast,” he said.
The downside of the fat bike:
“It doesn’t climb worth a damn,” he said. “It’s about 40 pounds compared with 23 for my mountain bike.”
He carries a patch kit instead of an extra tube because the tube folded up is the size of a bowling ball.
Snow biking has the virtue of being virtually flatless, he said.
“Groomed winter trails are the primo ride because despite the flotation of the fat tires, a base is needed,” he said. “Sink too much and the fun is gone.”
He said a snow biker gets better flotation by wearing cleats and spinning the pedals rather than pushing on flat pedals, a motion that forces the tires into the snow.
Nelson and DeRuyter say they hope fat bikes will follow the way of snowboarding, which was berated in the 1980s before being embraced by the winter sports industry.
DeRuyter said he’s comfortable with Schweitzer restricting bikes to the afternoons and to certain trails, “but at some point, a biker is going to want more than the same 3.5 mile loop.”
Local riders hope to gain access to some of the growing nordic trails system at Mount Spokane.
Pat Sprute, a Spokane rider with a following for his 26 Inch Slicks cycling blog, said he plans to explore the snow biking potential in other areas, including at Priest Lake.
“I checked out the ski and snowmobile routes at Fourth of July Pass, but most of them have signs prohibiting wheeled vehicles, and I guess that includes me,” he said.
Sprute said his fat bike already has expanded his cycling horizons year around – across the state. Last summer, he pedaled the Iron Horse and John Wayne trails across Washington on a path that ranged from pavement and trestles to bogs and rubble.
“That route is probably the best application going for fat bikes right now,” he said, noting the trip is detailed on his blog. “It would be a drag on anything but a fat bike.”