A few weeks ago Bill Martin and Mo Mislivets rode their fat bikes into the Buck Ridge area in the Gallatin National Forest outside Bozeman, Montana. They were breaking the law. Never mind that the spirit of the law they broke seems intended to ban wheeled vehicles with motors. Or that the ranger who ticketed them didn’t seem to know why what they were doing was unlawful. Or that no signs expressly prohibited cycling.
In the end, Martin was fined $175, but he and Mislivets weren’t thrown in jail and their bikes weren’t confiscated, as can happen if you poach trails with a fat bike in other parts of the country.
Welcome to fat biking circa 2014.
Fat biking is in the midst of exponential growth – it’s the fastest-accelerating portion of mountain biking by far – with sales more than doubling over last winter. But land managers, many of whom struggled (and continue to struggle) to accommodate mountain bikes on dirt, are wrestling with bikes on snow.
The problem is that fat bikes, despite their promise, don’t play well in ungroomed snow. They ride best (easiest) on trails that have been groomed for nordic skiing or compacted by snowmobiles. This, of course, brings fat bike riders into potential conflict with other users, as well as running headlong into laws that were written before fat bikes had even begun to take off.
Fat bikes are so new that in much of the nation “wheeled-vehicle” prohibitions work as blanket bans on bikes, too, even as the laws were created to prevent ATVs and four-wheelers from chewing through the snow. Whatever the intention of the law, it is what it is, and rangers have no choice but to enforce it.
That’s the case in the Gallatin. After Martin and Mislivets were busted, Tim Hawke, who heads the local Bozeman mountain bike advocacy group, the Dirt Concern, helped arrange a meeting with the local USFS office to discuss the agency’s “Travel Plan” restrictions. Shortly after that, the USFS Gallatin office issued what reads like a decent effort at guidance in the face of a law that they acknowledge doesn’t account for the new form of winter biking.
Gary Sjoquist, who works as advocacy director for Quality Bicycle Products, one of the world’s largest distributor of bike parts, admits that fat bike growth is running headlong into management challenges, but says they aren’t insurmountable. If anything, the dollars flowing into fat bikes, combined with climate change, is making people pay attention.
Sjoquist says year-over-year sales are skyrocketing, up 130 percent again so far this winter, and bike sales will hit 40,000 by next winter, with average complete-bike prices running in excess of $3,000. Numbers like that inspired enthusiasm at the Global Fat Bike Summit, held recently in Ogden, Utah, where retailers, advocacy groups, and national as well as regional land managers all seemed to rally behind fat biking.
Successes like Washington State’s Methow Valley, which has hundreds of miles of trails for nordic, snowmobiling, and fat biking – point to a rosy future for those who can adapt and embrace the new sport. In lean snow years like this one, only the fat biking is drawing tourist dollars.
Nationwide, in fact, fat biking is growing precisely at a time when nordic skiing is falling off. And that’s not just about snow, or the lack of it. If you can ride a bike, you can ride a fat bike – it’s a lot easier than skate skiing, and no Lycra bodysuits are required. And who doesn’t love the look of the moon lander tires? It’s no surprise that fat bike growth is largest among 30- to 50-something males, who probably still miss their Big Wheels.
Sjoquist says the tide vs. antiquated land-use policies is already turning, and it’s even working on designated snow machine paths in Wyoming and Idaho, not to mention on nordic ski trails in the Midwest and Northeast. If anything advocacy groups are quietly crossing their fingers – and chiding users not to screw up by picking fights with land managers while public opinion is clearly in favor of fat biking.
Photo by Jennoit/Flickr