Fat tires, fun times

CALUMET – The Keweenaw Peninsula is known as a place to come for outdoor winter activities, and one of the newer activities developing a following is snow biking.

Pat Szubielak, who is race director for the Great Bear Chase Snow Bike Race, which will take place March 10 at Swedetown Trails, said the sport originated in an area with probably even more snow than the Keweenaw.

“It started in Alaska,” he said.

To be officially called a fat-tire bicycle, Szubielak said tires must be 3.7 to 4.9 inches wide.

Szubielak said fat-tire bikes were created using mountain bike components and frames, but some adjustments had to be made to the forks and frame to allow for the use of the wider tires. Also, the bikes had to be bought in pieces and constructed by the owner.

“Up until two years ago, you couldn’t by a complete bike,” he said.

Now, local retailers Cross Country Sports in Calumet, Downwind Sports in Houghton and the Bike Shop in Houghton, all sell complete fat-tire bikes. Prices range from $1,400 to $5,000, depending on materials and components. Materials include titanium and carbon fiber.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “In the last couple years, it’s just exploded.”

Locally, Szubielak said so far, snow biking is more popular to the west of the Keweenaw.

“In Marquette, it’s grown a lot faster,” he said.

That area has more than 200 participants in the sport, Szubielak said. Locally, there are about 12 riders, including himself.

“It’s growing slowly, here,” he said.

There are no plans to create a formal snow biking group locally because there are still so few participants, Szubielak said. That could change if the number of participants grows, however.

As for places to ride, Szubielak said Swedetown Trails and the Michigan Technological University Nordic Ski Trails and Recreational Forest allow riding on certain trails.

“(At Tech) any place you can walk your dog, you can ride a snow bike,” he said.

At Swedetown, Szubielak said snow bikes are allowed on the trails after 6 p.m. on “Fat Tuesdays.” However, at Swedetown only bikes with tires at least 3.7 inches wide are allowed on the trails. Narrower tires will cause damage to the snow pack on the groomed trails.

Tire pressure in fat-tire bikes are a squishy 6 to 8 pounds, Szubielak said, compared to 70 or more pounds of pressure for bicycles ridden on roads.

“They float right along,” he said.

Although it may seem intuitive that the fatter tires will be more difficult to control, Szubielak said, because they’re usually ridden at speeds of slower than 10 mph, control isn’t a problem.

“You’re steering a little bit slower mass of tire,” he said. “At higher speeds, you’ll feel that inertial weight.”

As for riding in snow, Szubielak said there is a limit to the depth that can be comfortably ridden in.

“You can ride up to a foot as long as there’s a hard base below it,” he said.

For those interested in getting started in the fat bike sport, Szubielak said talking with the people at the local stores which sell them can be helpful. There are often special presentations about the sport, also.

“The best thing is to go to a (demonstration),” he said.

On Feb. 9, Szubielak said there will be a demonstration of the sport at the Tech Winter Rondevous (sic) Snow Bike Race at the Tech trails. There may be a demonstration during the Great Bear Chase Snow Bike Race on March 10, also.

Besides riding in snow, Szubielak said some riders keep their bikes going year round by riding on beaches and other sandy ares during the warm weather months. Because of that, there’s an effort to give the sport a more general name.

“They’re starting to call them fat bikes,” he said.

For more information about fat-tire bicycles, go online to fat-bike.com.