Fat Biking: Wide tires on winter trails
WRITTEN BY KATE PERKINS | PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHRIS GIBBS
“When I went to a fatter (tire) bike I had a lot more confidence, the adventuring came out and I felt like I could go anywhere.”
WITHIN THE LAST SEVEN YEARS OR SO, a new sport has gained popularity across the state, and one of the best places to do it is in the heart of Lake Country. Fat biking has taken the stage during the winter months at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area (CCSRA) near Crosby. There, miles upon miles of trails are groomed specifically for winter fat biking.
First the mountain biking trails took off at Cuyuna, and then, it seems, those who loved summer biking wanted to continue the sport year round. The Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew (often called the Crew), a volunteer organization, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at CCSRA teamed up to find a way to groom trails and make way for a new winter pastime in Minnesota.
John Schaubach started on a mountain bike before joining in the winter fat biking fun. Now he rides fat bikes exclusively, year round.
“There’s a stability to them that makes going out on single-track and terrain a little more comfortable,” Schaubach said. “When I went to a fatter (tire) bike I had a lot more confidence, the adventuring came out and I felt like I could go anywhere.”
Schaubach sees Cuyuna as the “creative catalyst” that has allowed biking to focus on winter. He’s a member of the Crew and helped with some of the early trail grooming efforts at the recreation area.
“One of the leaders in the country for winter fat biking is Cuyuna,” Schaubach said, adding that while many western states also have fat biking, it usually revolves around downhill biking. “This is where the sport is being reinvented.”
He said that it’s all about finding the right surface. After a fresh four-inch snowfall, the fat bike isn’t going to float over the snow and it’s going to be difficult biking. Schaubach recommends that new bikers start by renting a fat bike and taking it out on a groomed trail, preferably on a day when the temps are below freezing and, ideally, in the 20s. He likes to wear the same thing biking that he would for a day of skiing.
Since surface is so important, the Crew set out to find a way to create ideal conditions on the narrow, hilly trails at CCSRA. Aaron Hautala, president of the Crew and avid winter fat biker, said the quest to find the perfect groomer for single-track bike trails has been – and continues to be – a journey.
“We’re inventing grooming equipment that doesn’t exist. There was no tool to groom when we started,” Hautala said. “It would have been a lot easier to say ‘Don’t even try,’ but we are at the forefront saying, ‘Let’s kick the snot out of this.’”
Even before groomers came into the picture, local snowshoers were enlisted. Local groups went out and hiked the trails, which packed down the snow and created a better surface for fat biking.
Then the first grooming tool came along, a modified track sled. A track sled is essentially a snowmobile track with an engine over the top, and the operator stands on the drag that does the grooming. Over a couple years the device has been modified for the purpose, but it still struggles against gravity when grooming over some of the steeper hills. Snowmobiles pulling grooming units have also been used, but those are wider and can’t get into some of the narrower trails.
All the single-track trails are groomed by volunteers, and Hautala stressed the significance of the work of volunteers, without whom Hautala said there wouldn’t be a winter fat biking program. The DNR also grooms its fair share of trails, but new volunteers are welcome and appreciated.