By: Steve Meurett
Should the riding of fat bikes at established cross country ski areas be allowed? Is it opening a can of worms or providing another recreational opportunity for people who love the outdoors? It’s no secret that Wisconsin winters have been pretty lackluster in recent years, making for very short ski seasons or marginal conditions at best. It’s also becoming apparent that fat-biking is booming and many more cyclists are enjoying riding all year-myself included.
This winter riding surge is not without some controversy. Many of the best XC ski areas in the state are also home to established mountain bike, hiking and snowshoe trails. Often, these “singletrack” trails are designed and hand built by volunteer riders and other trail users themselves, so it’s understandable why they would like to expand their riding prospects to those trails. Some popular destinations, like Levis Mound near Neillsville and Lowes Creek in Eau Claire, have embraced the new sport and worked hard to provide separate riding opportunities within their trail system. These two trails are also county owned and with the influx of fat bikes, revenue has also increased. In fact, a week or so ago, cyclists outnumbered skiers at the Levis Mound Trail.
These two examples work because dedicated enthusiasts have worked hard to prepare trails-packing snow by snowmobile and snowshoe, clearing brush as needed and being respectful of the adjacent groomed ski trails. In the right conditions, fat bikes can damage the skiing surface, so using existing singletrack has been the perfect solution. As an official in the Clark County Forestry and Park department commented “these bikers spend a lot of money on their bikes and tend to be very respectful of the other users, unlike some other county forest users.” That sentiment has echoed among skiers, bikers and snow shoers alike from my experience-everyone has been super friendly while meeting on trail. Of course there is also a lot of curiosity upon seeing the new fat tire bikes.
Some cross country ski areas do not allow fat bikes, like the popular Nine Mile Forest in central Wisconsin. It is one of the premiere ski trails in the state and is also home to a vast network of singletrack. There are plenty of fat bikers in the Wausau area and a newly formed mountain bike club (CWOCC-Central Wisconsin Offroad Cycling Coalition) is more than excited with the thought of riding those trails in winter. Since currently the trail is closed to winter biking (on any type trail), the club has started work on at the Big Eau Paine County Park near Halder. While any discussion on allowing fat bikes at 9 Mile has not looked promising, it’s possible with the success at other ski areas in other counties, perhaps the ban could be revisited.
Pre-Dawn Ski Grooming at Levis-Trow – photo by Steve Meurett
Not allowing fat bikes on groomed ski trails (like foot travel) is the norm at most trail systems, and it seems to work. Could there be a fear of conflict between snow shoers, hikers and bikers? Maybe….but at a system like Nine Mile, the astounding number of trails away from the chalet could insure few problem encounters-if indeed any existed-like I mentioned, everyone seems to get along pretty well. Is it that land managers fear bikers trashing ski trails? Conceivably. Personally, as a ski trail groomer myself, I want perfect conditions if at all possible, but having other trails dedicated to fat bikes (and snowshoeing) has worked and we have zero problems. It could also be single user groups want a trail to themselves-and that is somewhat understandable. Long time clubs who have worked hard to develop a trail may be very protective and less than enthused about sharing a public facility. I think that can be unfortunate, for multiple users can co-exist, as has been demonstrated in many locations.
Then why not play together? I don’t think more people recreating outdoors is a bad thing-but then I am biased. Maybe this is a growing pain of a new sport, much like when skate and classic skiers bumped heads 25 years ago, but now get along just fine. I hope it can work, for I’m finding it isn’t a bad problem to have to choose between a bike, a pair of skis or snowshoes when I head the door, as long as there are plenty of places to use them.
Editor’s Note – Our Amigo Steve Meurett is a trail builder and groomer, as well as being an avid skier and fat-biker. Steve lives up near Black River Falls in West Central Wisconsin. For the last 20+ years, Steve has played a key role, in designing and building, a little slice of heaven called Levis-Trow Mountain Bike Trails. IMBA named Levis an IMBA Epic Trail back in 2002 and things have only gotten better since then. Steve also does the grooming of the xc-ski trails, at Levis, and he now is grooming a loop for fat-bikes. Steve is on the front lines of Fat-Bike Trail Advocacy.
Singletrack Grooming at Levis for Fat-Bikes
Tell us what you think – and remember, we’re all in this, together!