Fat tires keep cyclists in thick of it — even in winter

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

On any given Tuesday evening in the winter, with or without snow on the ground, Steve Vigneau arrives at River Bends Park, layered in cold-weather attire and donning a headlamp, ready to tackle the network of winding mountain bike trails at the Shelby Township recreation spot.

Vigneau is an outdoor enthusiast, for sure, but he’s no madman. He’s not pedaling groomed, snow-packed trails on a traditional bike (many mountain bikers eschew riding in the winter). He rides a fat tire bike — akin to a mountain bike but with big, noticeable tires. The fatter tires provide more contact with the ground, improving traction on slick and loose surfaces like snow and sand.

Mark Olin, 61, of Rochester, turns a corner at River Bends Park in Shelby Township on Feb. 3. His fat tire bike provides better traction on slick and loose surfaces like snow and sand.

“Here in southeast Michigan, the snow is so spotty that any snow-focused sport seems to be hit or miss, but fat biking has a much broader range of usable conditions than many other silent winter sports, so it works out well,” said Vigneau, 39, a long-time mountain biker who gravitated to fat bikes a few years ago. “The appeal is to be outdoors in the winter. If you want to get out in the woods and do stuff, it’s another option besides cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.”

Fat tire bikes have been around while but only began growing in popularity in the last decade, especially in the wintry north, where they have been embraced by cyclists who want to ride all year along. They’re also fun to ride, stable and easy to maneuver, and a great way to stay fit in the winter, enthusiasts contend.

“People think right away I’m not going to ride a bike on ice. It seems dangerous,” said Chad Jordan, an avid cyclist who lives in Suttons Bay and has been fat biking a few years. “But it’s approachable to anyone. Most people have ridden a bike. It’s easy to learn because you’re on snow. It’s another way to get out in the winter, another avenue to practice a healthy lifestyle.”

Michigan tourism officials say fat tire biking has been growing in popularity as a winter recreation activity in the state, with more resorts and destinations adding fat tire bike rentals and experiences for visitors. Aware of the growing interest, the Pure Michigan marketing campaign this year features fat tire biking in its winter marketing campaign, including digital banner ads.

The number of groomed trails is expanding on both peninsulas, from Metro Detroit to Grand Rapids to Marquette. Ski areas, municipalities and mountain bike groups are developing and maintaining trails to meet growing interest.

“We’re watching the numbers grow,” said Gary Hopp, park operations manager at Stony Creek Metropark, the only park in the Huron-Clinton Metroparks with trails groomed for fat tire biking. “If you look online, you’ll see a lot of fat tire bike events and races. It’s an activity that has really taken off. Three or four years ago, you could have counted the fat tire bikers here on one hand. This year on a typical weekend, we’re seeing dozens of men and women riding in the park.”

While gaining traction in places such as Michigan, fat bike sales across the country have slowed a bit. Last year, sales dropped 4 percent to $66.6 million, from 2016, according to NDP Group, which tracks retail sales.

At independent bike shops, however, sales in 2017 grew by 10 percent to $39.3 million, accounting for more than half of overall sales, according to NPD Group. Fat tire bikes range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the manufacturer and customization. They’re also available for children.

Similar in appearance and style to mountain bikes, fat tire bikes have wider forks, wider rims and 3.8-inch or larger tires. Standard bike tires range in width from 1.95 to 2.5 inches. Because the tires are wider, they can run on lower pressure, enabling riders to nearly float over soft surfaces, such as snow, sand, mud and wet rocks and terrain that might otherwise be impassable. As the industry has evolved, the bikes have become more maneuverable, easier to steer and lighter.

In the Upper Peninsula, Marquette has become a fat-tire biking mecca, boasting some 75 miles of groomed trails, accessible from the downtown, that traverse rolling to rugged terrain through woods. The region was one of the earliest adopters of fat bikes and has been a leader in grooming trails, drawing riders from all over the country.

“People are coming to see what is happening here,” said Lori Hauswirth, executive director of the Noquemanon Trail Network, noting the first groomed trail in the region opened in 2011. “We were a bit ahead of the game. I think it’s done a great job of getting more people outside. It’s taken hold with people who aren’t skiers or find snowshoeing thrilling. It’s really something you’ve got to go out and experience and give it a go.”

Enthusiasm abounds. The group recently created a partnership with Northern Michigan University that allows students free access to the Noquemanon Trail and fat bikes — racked on campus and the main trail entrance. Men’s Health magazine called the trail “among the best and most developed fat-bike systems in the country.”

In the lower peninsula, Traverse City and northwest Michigan have also emerged as a mecca for fat biking, with groomed trails from the Northport to Cadillac and Grayling. One of the most popular trails is the VASA Pathway in Traverse City. This winter also marks the first for a groomed fat bike trail at Leelanau State Park at the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula.

“Traverse City has embraced fat tire biking as one of its core winter sports,” said Nick Wierzba, who rents fat tires at his Suttons Bay Bikes shop and is also an avid cyclist. “We don’t have big ski resorts. The more fun places we have to ride, the more riders we’re seeing. People who have them are having fun in the winter.”

Among the advocates in northwestern Michigan is the Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association, which builds trails and grooms more than 30 miles of fat bike trails each winter in the region.

“People who fat tire also snowshoe, ski and winter run — they are just outdoor enthusiasts,” said Jordan, who is president of the organization and a personal trainer and organic farmer. “It’s another avenue to practice a healthy lifestyle.”

River Bends Park began grooming its seven miles of mountain bike trails a few years ago at the urging of the Clinton River Area Mountain Bike Association.

“When they came to me a few years back and told me about fat tire bikes, it was new to me,” said Joe Youngblood, director of parks and recreation maintenance for Shelby Township. “How can you ride a bike in the snow?”

A biking event at the park last weekend drew a couple hundred cyclists, including fat tire bikers. The biking group presented Stony Creek Metropark with a $3,000 check to redevelop mountain bike trails, which will include increased access to fat tire trails.

The impact of fat biking is not lost on Youngblood.

“This has kind of rejuvenated River Bends Park in the winter,” he said. “There aren’t too many family picnics going on in January and February.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer.

Fat tire biking

For information on local trails or events, check out the following organizations:

■Motor City Mountain Biking Association or MCMBA, Metro Detroit: site.mcmba.org

■Potawatomi Mountain Biking Association, Ann Arbor area: potomba.org

■Clinton River Area Mountain Bike Association or CRAMBA: cramba.org

■Northern Michigan Mountain Bike Association, Traverse City and northwest Michigan: nmmba.net

■Western Michigan Mountain Bike Alliance, Grand Rapids and West Michigan: mmbga.org

■Noquemanon Trail Network, Marquette: noquetrails.org